Special/Signature Issues » The Arts 25

The Gift That Keeps on Giving



For Grant Mudge, compelling theater -- whether a classic play or an interpretation of a literary work — doesn't require lavish productions.

When Mudge was a struggling young actor and director he worried about how he could afford Christmas presents. He had an idea: "People make things for gifts, don't they? I'll write and perform a play." Mudge adapted "A Christmas Carol" and during succeeding holidays regaled an ever-growing audience of kinfolk and friends.

Now he's the artistic director of Richmond Shakespeare, and an outgrowth of that play, "A Christmas Carol for Two Actors" — which he co-adapted with Cynde Liffick, the company's director of education — is one of its annual staples.

Like the rest of Richmond Shakespeare's upcoming season — "Richard II," "Measure for Measure" and "As You Like It" — "Christmas Carol" is performed with an emphasis on the word, not necessarily on elaborate sets and costumes.

"Shakespeare's works are challenging to produce and perform, but audiences immediately know that there's something timeless and inexhaustible about Shakespeare," he says. "The plays don't change, but you do."

Richmond Shakespeare is in its 23rd year, but since Mudge joined in 1996 it's added a touring program and a summer season, The Richmond Shakespeare Festival. Initially, the company's fortunes were shaky because of constantly changing performance venues. Now the company is ensconced in the Gothic revival chapel of Second Presbyterian Church, and presents its summer season at Agecroft, the Tudor-era mansion that was transplanted to Windsor Farms from England in the 1920s.

With plays cast from local talent and auditions held in Washington, D.C., and New York City, the company tours extensively. Under Mudge's leadership, Richmond Shakespeare has reached 120,000 people in 23 states.

What is Shakespeare's staying power? "Anyone can walk in and know what is going on. There is absolute clarity of text," Mudge says. It's this reliance on the primacy of the text that frees Richmond Shakespeare plays from being heavily designed.

"There is a sense of the original [Shakespearean] theatrical practices in our productions," Mudge says. "We use universal lighting where the audience and the players can see each other. This was standard before the advent of turning lights off in the audience." He admits, however, that the outdoor summer productions tend to be less "universal." More lighting attracts more insects.

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