Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 182
It might surprise you to learn that just about every production of a Shakespeare play that you’ve ever seen onstage has been cut, from student shows to Broadway revivals. Cutting Plays for Performance: A Practical and Accessible Guide, a new book by Aili Huber and Dr. Toby Malone, lays out some of the reasons that theater-makers cut Shakespeare’s plays, and suggests some handy questions directors and dramaturgs should ask themselves as they take a pen to the plays. Barbara Bogaev interviews Huber about the argument that brought Huber and her co-author together, strategies for cutting plays, and how a good cut can reveal a new and exciting story.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you find your podcasts.
Aili Huber has been a theater director for over 20 years. She holds an MFA in directing from Mary Baldwin University and the American Shakespeare Center. Cutting Plays for Performance: A Practical and Accessible Guide was co-written with Dr. Toby Malone, Assistant Professor of Dramaturgy at the State University of New York at Oswego. It was published by Routledge in December 2021.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published January 18, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Your Way Is Shorter,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Mikael Glago at Midnight Spaghetti Productions in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Shakespeare Unlimited: Editing Shakespeare
Paul Werstine and Suzanne Gossett explain what it means to edit Shakespeare's plays and tell us how they approach the task.
Read the play online for free with The Folger Shakespeare.
Prompt Books from the Folger Shakespeare Library
Examine three hundred years of theater-makers' cuts, annotations, and blocking with a subscription to the Shakespeare in Performance resource from Adam Matthew Digital.
MICHAEL WITMORE: It's not an insult to Shakespeare to say that a lot of his plays are long. But you know what? That doesn't mean they have to be.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
Every season theater artists working on Shakespeare, the Greeks. and other classical plays face the same decisions: “The best-known version of this play is four hours long! What can we cut? The jokes in here are ancient! Nobody’s going to get them! There are at least five characters in here who I think contribute absolutely nothing to the action. Do they have to be in the play?”
As a theatergoer, it’s likely you know nothing about these kinds of wrenching decisions. But theater artists face them all the time. Now, though, there’s a book designed to help answer all of these questions and smooth the path to classical theater that everyone can enjoy. The book is called Cutting Plays for Performance: A Practical and Accessible Guide. It’s co-written by dramaturg and director Aili Huber and Dr. Toby Malone, an Assistant Professor of Dramaturgy at the State University of New York at Oswego.
In the book, they offer their personal experiences, give us the back story into some of their biggest disagreements, and also provide the wisdom of theater scholars, actors, and directors like Tina Packer, Anne Bogart, Jim Shapiro, Lue Douthit, and Antoni Cimolino.
Aili Huber came into a studio near James Madison University recently to talk about cutting Shakespeare and feeling good about it for this podcast that we call “Your Way Is Shorter.” Aili Huber is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: I’m sure that anyone listening with a theater background has probably dealt with issues of editing lines, it seems, out of Shakespeare. But for non-theater folks, I guess, I think it might be a bit of a surprise that you could write a whole book about this. For their benefit, why don’t you tell us just how heated and complicated this whole subject of cutting can get when you’re staging Shakespeare.
AILI HUBER: It’s interesting you say that. Actually, even theater people have said things to me like, “Surely you just mean it’s a chapter in a bigger book?” And I’ve said, “No, no, it’s a whole book about cutting plays.”
It’s one of those things that on the surface it feels so simple. “Oh, just take out the parts you don’t like.” But, as anybody who’s actually done it can tell you, there's always this moment when you sit down with actors and all of a sudden you go, “Oh wait, I took out that half-mention of the random extra brother at the beginning of As You Like It, and here we are in act five and suddenly it matters.”
Yeah, plays are intricate knots, and you can't just slash them without some kind of plan or thoughtfulness. But it is one of those things that almost everyone just learns by making mistakes. So the goal with the book was to try to make it a little easier. We're not doctrinaire about like, “Oh you should cut this” or “You shouldn’t cut that.”
What we have is, “Make sure you're asking yourself these questions.” And I think a lot of the questions that we put in there are ones that I maybe didn't always think about before I wrote the book.
I had a co-author, Toby Malone. And, there were many things that one of us would write, and the other one would go, “Oh I’m stealing that for the next time I have to cut a play.”
BOGAEV: Yeah, because everybody has an opinion. And in fact, wasn’t your book born out of a debate with your co-author?
HUBER: It was. We had an argument. When I met Toby, we were at a long meeting and he didn't know that I recognized him because I had seen him do a talk before about his PhD thesis—like 10 years earlier.
His thesis was all about cuts of Richard III. As it happened, I was working on a cut of Richard III that needed to get down to about 100 minutes. And there was a lull in this long meeting. I slid over to him and I said, “Hey Toby, I need to cut Richard III a lot. I think I'm just going to take out everything that happens at Pomfret.” And he, very satisfyingly, shrieked at me that like, “No, you absolutely can't. You'll take out all the texture and all the stuff will be missing.” And I said, “No, but my audience, they're all 15, they don't care about Pomfret.” We had one of those debates that’s just extremely satisfying for both of us.
By the time we were done with it, several of our colleagues said, “Oh you should definitely teach a workshop about this.” So we did. And then at the end of the workshop, one of the participants said, “What book can I read to learn more about this?” We looked at each other and we said, “I don't think that there is one.” She said, “Well you should write one, and you should be sure to put plenty of your arguments in there.” That's what we did.
BOGAEV: There you go. You said this, but I want to emphasize it that, in the book, you compare cutting a play to being so complicated that it's like Jenga. You know, if you pull one thing out, the whole thing just falls apart. Maybe you can zip through some examples to give listeners an idea of how complex the whole task is. You mentioned one earlier, but I'm sure they are more.
HUBER: Oh, there are so many. They're, kind of, micro-examples that can be even at the line level. One that I kind of love is in Hamlet, he very famously says, “What do you read, my lord?” “Words, words, words.” And if you take out two of those, it’s kind of different. “What do you read, my lord?” “Words.” That’s a different thing.
So, we have a whole section about rhetoric and how characters talk, and how if you're cutting, you need to make sure that characters still sound like themselves.
Then there are bigger things. Like, sometimes, if you're trying to get a play down to a certain number of actors, you might think, “Well, I’m just going to take out a character.” But then you start to dig in on it and you go, “Oh wait a second, what purpose is this character serving the play?”
Another kind of cut that we talk about a little bit is how some plays, by default, we think of them as star vehicles. Richard III is a great example. But it's equally possible, and in some ways more interesting, to make a cut that minimizes Richard a little bit in favor of an ensemble. You start to see the story of the play being about a society that Richard is tearing up.
BOGAEV: That's really interesting. I mean, there you're getting into this idea of director’s concept.
HUBER: Oh, sure.
BOGAEV: You know, “What is your concept of the show,” and that could definitely, obviously, affect how you’re cutting. Another interesting thing you get into is that physical space can determine cuts.
HUBER: Yes, like, if you're performing something outside, you should leave in any lines about bad weather. Because they are very, very funny if an actor has to deliver them in the middle of a, you know, thunderstorm or something.
There are also some stages that have very long entrances. So, like the Tom Patterson at the Stratford Festival, is one where you could cut the opening patter of a scene, but you’re just going to have a lot of dead air while somebody is moving into a space where they can be seen and heard to get to, like, the meat of the scene, so—
BOGAEV: And it’s not like you can improv while you’re trying to traverse a basketball court space.
HUBER: Completely. Yeah, I mean it depends on the play.
BOGAEV: I mean, the practical cuts, I guess, for anyone in theater, self-evident, they're fascinating for us who are outside of it. But some of the advice that you got from directors was so much more nuanced—and I'm thinking of one who said, “Never cut anything you don't understand. If you want to cut it, you have to get it first.” Which seems important obviously; if you don’t understand it, it might be crucial to the play and you just, like, missed it. But maybe you can give us an example of why that’s so important.
HUBER: Oh, definitely. So the kind of immediate knee-jerk thing when you're taking a play and you have to take a two hour play down to an hour or something like that. The first thing you want to do in some impulsive way is go through and take out everything that feels like nonsense to you, right? But if you don't have some kind of hypothesis about why the playwright put something in, you may be shooting yourself in the foot.
One example that I really love is at the end of As You Like It, Rosalind has just told everybody, “Okay you're going to marry this person, you're going to marry that person. Peace out. I'll be right back.” Then there's a very extended clown bit that makes no sense. Like, the jokes are not that funny. The impulse is, “I'm just going to cut that.” But if you cut that, you won't figure out until your dress rehearsal that it is there so that Rosalind has time to change her clothes.
BOGAEV: Ah-hah. We've been talking about modern considerations in cutting Shakespeare, but cutting the plays was a big issue back in the Elizabethan period too. For instance, you write about in the book that a company might get an invitation to perform at court. Why would that make them cut a play?
HUBER: Well, sometimes… okay, the first thing is, time is an issue. If you're going to perform at court, you need to get done in a certain chunk of time, or else the court will be late to supper or they won't fit in all of the entertainments that are planned for the evening. So, your time is much tighter than if it’s in a public house that you are operating.
There are also probably some political considerations. We do know that plays in that period were reviewed by a censor, but we also know that some things got by the censor. But you wouldn't want to tell those jokes, perhaps, right in front of the queen.
BOGAEV: Hmm. Another example or scenario you give in the book is that disease shuts down the theaters and the actors take the show on the road and that necessitates completely different cuts. How so?
HUBER: So, a couple of considerations. First of all, if you are touring, you want to have as few actors as you can get away with because the fewer people, the less expensive and complicated it is, right? So you might cut minor characters or cut a B-plot in order to maybe not tour with 17 people, but with 12.
BOGAEV: Right, which is true today too, for sure.
HUBER: Absolutely. Another thing is that certainly there are some jokes that maybe are specific to people who live in London that people maybe out in the countryside wouldn't know about. So those kinds of references could come out.
One very interesting kind of touring is that they would sometimes—you have some evidence that they would go to the continent and tour. Christine Schmidle, who is a brilliant director and dramaturge, has done a lot of work on German texts of Shakespeare.
She told me about a German language version of Hamlet, which I believe is called, The Fratricidal Brothers, is the translation of the title. It’s very short and it’s in very, very simple German. It has no monologues, no soliloquies, nothing really internal. It’s very funny and very, very physical.
BOGAEV: It must be very short very.
BOGAEV: So, it’s funny.
HUBER: It’s about 45 minutes long.
BOGAEV: None of this “To be or not to be,” should-I-shouldn’t-I stuff.
HUBER: No, none of that. But it’s because they were performing across a language barrier.
BOGAEV: I love that. In your chapter about the history of all of this, you make another really important point which is that people shouldn’t be afraid of cutting Shakespeare because Shakespeare cut Shakespeare. I got that right, right?
HUBER: Yeah, absolutely. One thing that we have found, which I find super fascinating, is that audience members tend to be a little scandalized when they find out that you're cutting Shakespeare. Then, they don't believe you when you say, “Other than possibly Comedy of Errors, you probably have never seen a full, complete Shakespeare text.” And, in fact, we kind of don't think that a full complete text exists for a lot of the plays.
It’s fascinating to me that there’s this idea that Shakespeare’s this cultural icon and you know, “You can't mess with Shakespeare.” Although Shakespeare’s going to be fine. It's okay.
BOGAEV: The practical stuff is really wonderful. You talk about how when you first get a script, you sit down with it and you ask these series of questions that you were talking about in the beginning of our conversation. And the questions include: Where did this come from? Who sent it to us from the past? What was lost or gained along the way?
Those are huge questions when it comes to Shakespeare. What is your process for finding the answers? And how are they important when you're preparing to cut?
HUBER: One very lucky thing about Shakespeare is, as everyone’s aware, Shakespeare scholarship is a very well-developed field. It’s trickier if you're trying to cut a play by like, I don’t know, Marston or somebody.
So most well edited editions of Shakespeare have some information about what the various texts were that were sort of options for the editors to work with. Nowadays, often, there's a lot of analysis that says, “We think this piece of the play maybe wasn't written by Shakespeare particularly.”
There’s a lot of very readily available information about what the texts are that we have and what form they're in. I find that extremely useful because sometimes we can look at a text and say, you know, “An editor had a particular framing of how they were going to present the script to us.” But, because the notes are very good, you can say, “Where did the editor make a choice that maybe I would make a different choice?”
There are a lot of famous textual variations. One of my favorites is in Antony and Cleopatra. Enobarbus is describing Cleopatra, and he says, “And she breathless poured breath forth,” or “And breathless power breathed forth.” Knowing, that means that as a director, I can work with an actor and say, “How do we want to frame this? Which thing are we going to pick?” So just knowing that there are choices is really valuable, I think.
BOGAEV: Okay, so you go to the literature, you go to the research. Do you ever call other directors up or other people up and say, “Hey how did you handle this?”
HUBER: Oh, all the time. I was—before the pandemic shut everything down, I was preparing to direct a production of Measure for Measure. There’s a director and scholar, Kate Powers, who had done a production where she took out everything in that play that she believed was Middleton, a contemporary and collaborator of Shakespeare’s.
I met her at a conference and I knew she had done this work. And I said, “Okay tell me, what happens when you take Middleton out of Measure for Measure, and what makes you think that something is Middleton and something isn’t?”
She was great. So she told me all about, first of all, Middleton, like, mostly it’s jokes about syphilis. Like, that's a pretty good flag that you're in a Middletonian section. He was very concerned about syphilis apparently.
BOGAEV: I wonder why
HUBER: I know, right.
BOGAEV: There's a graduate thesis in there.
HUBER: But there are some things… there are a couple of scenes where it seems like a person at the top of the scene receives a piece of surprising information and responds that they're surprised. Then, a hundred lines later, receives the same piece of information from somebody else and again is surprised.
As a director, you're looking at that and you think, “Are they faking being surprised? Do they have a very poor short-term memory? What is this?” And when I talked with Kate, she said, “Oh no, no, the second one is probably Middleton. If you take that out, the scene makes more sense.”
BOGAEV: Hmm. Another interesting approach that you take is to watch other people’s productions. You write that you pay attention to where you feel lost or bored. This seems like a really great rule of thumb, but can you give me an example where that worked for you? How do you know when you do this that you weren’t just hungry or tired or distracted at the moment that you were watching?
HUBER: So yes, my own physical state is always an issue. I think—so one example is when I was getting ready to do Richard III. I went and saw a couple of different productions, and I was mostly trying to think about what parts required me to know a lot about The Wars of the Roses and might be difficult if I didn't know a lot about The Wars of the Roses. A whole lot of that had to do with the extended family of Elizabeth Woodville.
In Richard III, what’s kind of famously happens is that her two younger sons, who are her sons with King Edward, are murdered by Richard's hired man in the tower. But she has these two adult sons from her previous marriage, who show up in the play. They have noble titles. They end up doing some complicated political stuff, trying to take down Richard, and he ends up having them murdered. When I was watching these productions, I kept going, “Okay, which one is Lord Rivers again? Okay.”
BOGAEV: So relieved to hear this.
HUBER: It was really hard to keep track of these sons, of which one was which, of why I cared. So when I went to cut it, with the understanding that I was going to be presenting it for an audience that would include several matinees for high schoolers and then, kind of, plays for the general public, I immediately conflated those guys down to one character. Took out a whole bunch of the stuff where they're talking about Richard or talking about the political situation, and I think it clarified the story of the play a lot.
I try to think sometimes about what it would be like for somebody in, like, New Zealand to see a production of Hamilton in 400 years. Like, what pieces of that would be hard for them and that's—I know that that's how I experience Shakespeare’s history plays. So, sometimes I just make it a little bit simpler.
BOGAEV: And thank you. We thank you for that. Here's something that I didn't quite understand. It sounds great though, this bit of advice that you give, which is that, “If you blindly follow the edited page, you may be deprived of insight.” That's a quote from your book. The example that you give is the chorus speech from Romeo and Juliet, the “Two households both alike in dignity.” So, what do you mean by “blindly following the edited page?”
HUBER: So that chorus speech is an interesting one. It doesn't appear in our early quartos of Romeo and Juliet at all. And yet, you would be very hard-pressed to find an edited version of the play that doesn’t start with that speech. But if you didn't know that, you would just think, “Well, this is how Romeo and Juliet starts. It starts with a great big spoiler of everything that’s going to happen, because the editor says so.” So that’s just one example.
BOGAEV: Although people—wouldn’t people get upset if you…
HUBER: Oh my gosh.
BOGAEV: Audience members, really, they would have a riot if they didn't have that.
HUBER: They would mutiny, yes. It’s interesting you mention that. Actually there’s the other, one other thing that we talk about a lot in cutting plays, is that we have to be aware of what people's favorite lines are. What are people going to be listening for? If we cut those things, it’s okay, but you have to be prepared for the response you're going to get.
Toby told me about seeing a production of Hamlet where they moved “To be or not to be” very, very late in the play, and people were getting antsy. It was like, “When is it coming? When is ‘to be or not to be?’” Then when it finally happened, he said the whole audience seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. But it was clear that this was something that was distracting people for most of the play.
We need to be aware when we are removing things that are particularly famous. It’s a choice and people will have a response to choices.
BOGAEV: Well, no kidding. Along those lines, you mention—or you consider—what Hamlet would be like without Hamlet. I mean, what, Ham-less, right?
BOGAEV: Has anyone put on a Hamlet-less Hamlet?
HUBER: So that thought experiment was a real one that a director proposed to Toby. The idea was, it wouldn't be quite like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern [Are Dead] because it would be Shakespeare’s text exclusively. But it would be like, “Oh, Hamlet has just stepped out. Hamlet’s in the next room, we're talking about him, but he isn't here.” So, it turns out that doesn't work very well.
BOGAEV: Surprise, surprise.
HUBER: I think that Tobey did a quick cut of it to look at it and it was no good. But then he started this very interesting thought experiment about what characters can you cut out? What is missing from the play if you remove people from it?
We're not saying never conflate characters or never remove characters, but we are saying, be really aware of what that character is providing. If you take them out or blend them with somebody else, make sure that there is some way that that thing that they bring is still getting taken care of, or know that it’s not going to be there. You know, so, we're very interested in being aware of what might be missing when we removed things.
BOGAEV: Yeah, right.
HUBER: Which is why you don't remove things.
BOGAEV: And you talk about it in terms of, “Sometimes you're gonna leave a hole in the script,” right? And you offer a number of solutions for that hole. One of the solutions is to, apparently, to pull lines from another play by the same playwright. Does that work?
HUBER: It does, yes.
BOGAEV: People don't notice, or they like it, or what?
HUBER: People… people for the most part don't notice. Your average audience member… unless you're playing something very famous from another play, right? Like if Hamlet opens his mouth and says “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Yes, people will notice that.
BOGAEV: Oh yeah, people will stampede.
HUBER: But, if you bring in the occasional smattering of this or that from another play, it works. Oh, I should say, we interviewed about 20 experts, dramaturgs, famous directors, all these amazing people who took the time to talk with us, and every single one of them mentioned that there is invariably going to be somebody in your audience sitting and following along with their, you know, Dover Thrift edition of whatever play it is, getting more and more irate when what’s happening onstage doesn't match what’s in their book.
You just have to ignore that. You can't make those people happy. And they will notice—they will notice if you bring in things from another play.
My favorite example of this though, was that Tina Packer told us that her mentor, John Barton, regularly just invented lines of Shakespeare. And supposedly was never called out for it. So, now, she says, every now and then if she's in a tight spot, she will just invent a line of Shakespeare because she's doing it in John Barton's memory.
BOGAEV: Yeah, okay. Just switching gears though. Considering everything that you have been talking about, how far is too far for audiences when it comes to cutting the plays? You know for instance, for one audience member, cutting battles would be too far, or for another, cutting parts of the play that they're expecting, like famous favorite lines, like, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo,” or, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
HUBER: Yes, so, you can't please all the people all the time. I think that sometimes when we cut those famous lines, we're able to reveal some other things that maybe get overshadowed by them.
There was one example that Kate Mulvany, who is an Australian actor and dramaturg and playwright, told us she had done that I think is so brilliant. Also, an audience member stood up in the middle of her performance and screamed at her about it. She was doing Julius Caesar and she was playing Cassius, but she also was adapting the script and cutting it pretty heavily. One of the core problems with Julius Caesar is that most of the very interesting stuff happens in the first half of the play and then there are a lot of battles, which are fine.
But Kate was not that interested in the battles, and she decided instead to have Portia, who at this point is dead, come onto the stage and recite Plutarch's account of these battles, which I think sounds amazing. Kate was onstage as Cassius during this Portia monologue and an audience member, who understood from the program that she was both an actor and the adaptor, stood up and yelled at her for cutting the battles and for putting this thing that wasn’t Shakespeare into it, even though of course it was Shakespeare’s source. So yeah, not everyone likes every choice.
BOGAEV: Yeah, well, she inspired emotion in an audience member which…
HUBER: I guess she did connect with him.
BOGAEV: Right? Like, there's no bad PR, there's no bad emotion. I know I have seen endless productions of Hamlet, or—I once saw a three-and-a-half-hour King Lear. And I imagine you have too. I'd like to hear what you see as the difference between the experience of seeing a play like that and something that’s been tailored by a whole creative team, considering all of these questions that you outline.
HUBER: I have seen a four-hour Hamlet. It was really great, I had an amazing time. Sam West played Hamlet, it was 2001, I still remember it. It was extraordinary. It was an extraordinary experience, but it felt a little bit like going underground or going through some kind of long, almost like a meditation, experience. When I came out of that experience, I felt like the world was different because I had been through this incredible emotional thing.
I have also seen four-hour Hamlets that made me want to leave after the first 90 minutes. If you're going to take up that much of people's time, it better be incredible, I guess, is one thing.
But I also think that when we are cutting a play, we're able to give people an experience that is more specific to meeting them where they are and inviting them in, as opposed to, sort of, this is what a four-hour Hamlet looks like. You know, this is the script, it has these beats in this order and you just have to go along for the ride. And maybe it's not the right ride for you right now. Maybe it’s not the right ride for the space that we're in, or for the political moment or any other thing.
It can almost feel like a movie… that every time you watch a movie, it is the same. Theater should respond to the moment, it should respond to the people who are creating it and it should respond to the people who are going to participate in it as audience members.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and there are also all these different stories in Hamlet. You can go so many different directions.
BOGAEV: And once you hone down the play… You know, I've seen 90-minute Hamlets that focus on just the madness, or just the family disintegration.
HUBER: Absolutely, there is something about how when you cut a play, you can sometimes reveal something else. One thing that Toby and I talk about a lot is— you know, Richard III, is kind of our play because we came together over it, and he continued to give me nonsense about cutting Pomfret. But then, he saw a recording of my production and he said, “I've worked on this play my whole adult life and I didn't know until I saw your cut that it was a play about mothers.”
That was such an amazing thing to see. Amazing thing for me to hear him say, “I know this play intimately and there is a story here that you were able to reveal by cutting away other parts of it.”
I think a lot of Shakespeare plays are like that; that sometimes when we cut, we're able to say, “Here's another invitation into the world of this play.” So when people sort of say like, “Oh, I hate such and such a play, it’s, you know, boring,” or, “There's nothing in it for me,” sometimes I feel like maybe they haven't seen the right cut of it yet.
BOGAEV: Wow, and that must have been so gratifying to you too.
HUBER: Oh my goodness, there are not words for how flattered I was.
BOGAEV: I came out from reading your book, with a kind of sideways question, which is, in the end, does it come down to the poetry for you, or the logic of your vision, or the logic of the play? I'm thinking—and what provoked that is a guiding principle that someone gave you, that you quote, which is, “Study, study, study, and study the text again. And after that, study some more. But when the time comes, make the cuts quickly and intuitively, not logically. Lean on the poetry that is available to one's intuition." So, first of all, what does that mean, to lean on your intuition or lean on the poetry?
HUBER: Okay, so, I just want to say you have quoted possibly my favorite part of the book. That was Ann Bogart, who said that to us. I actually have the last sentence that you read as my phone background wallpaper, so I look at it every day. “Lean on the poetry that is available to your own intuition.”
BOGAEV: Oh, that's great. Well, it’s kind of a guideline for life.
HUBER: I love it so much.
BOGAEV: Not just cutting plays, yeah.
BOGAEV: But tell us, tell me what you think it; what it means to you.
HUBER: So much of what we have in the book is very practical and very, just sort of like, “Here is how the rhetoric of this scene probably works. Make sure you understand that.” But especially if you're a director. And you're going to have to live with a particular script for a really long time, there is something to listening to the inner voice that says, you know, “This isn't going to work for me.”
Like, I directed a production of Antony and Cleopatra in 2018, I think. And as I was cutting it, one thing that I found myself doing was, there are some lines that I—the specific actor who was playing Antony, I was like, “I cannot listen to him say these particular things over and over. I have to cut them out.”
I mean, he has some fantastically abusive langue. I left a good bit of it in because that’s an important piece of that character. But I was thinking about my own experience in the rehearsal room, and I was thinking, “I can't listen to this 40 times.”
That was definitely kind of a gut level response to the text. It also, I think, opens some avenues for that actor to—and for me—to be able to think about the character together. Some of the things that he says, I think that an audience would have had a really intense knee-jerk reaction against him. We have to feel kind of sad when he dies, or the play does not work.
HUBER: That was definitely sort of a gut level response for me. And it doesn't make any sense. I mean, there are thousands of other things you could cut in that play, it’s a long play. I'm sure anybody else would’ve cut it differently, and that doesn’t make it wrong.
Another example for me is in Richard, there are a lot of places where women get credit for stuff and it’s almost always cut. As I was doing my first pass, I just intuitively left those things alone. It wasn't until we were deep into rehearsal that I realized, “Oh, you know, I've never heard an actor...”
Kind of late in the play, Lord Grey says, “Now Margaret’s curse has fallen upon our heads.” And I realized I have seen, you know, eight productions of Richard, I have never heard an actor say those words on stage. And they're so important because they tell us that Margaret is the—like, her, the power of her grief and her curses, that’s what drives this whole unspooling. Richard is kind of a pawn.
There are times when I have done something that felt gut level and it wasn't until I was working with the actors that it was like, my intuition came full circle and said, “No, this is why you needed this.”
BOGAEV: Well I'm walking away with, “Lean on the poetry that is available to one's intuition.” I don't know if it's going to be my screensaver. I'm going to put it somewhere I can see it.
HUBER: I can send you the phone wallpaper file if you want.
BOGAEV: Thanks, yeah. Well, thank you so much for that and thank you for this and for the book.
HUBER: Thank you.
WITMORE: Aili Huber has been a theater director for over 20 years. She holds an MFA in directing from Mary Baldwin University and the American Shakespeare Center. Her new book, co-written with Dr. Toby Malone of SUNY-Oswego, is called Cutting Plays for Performance: A Practical and Accessible Guide. It was published by Routledge in December 2021. Aili Huber was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, “Your Way Is Shorter,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Mikael Glago at Midnight Spaghetti Productions in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.