Anyone who thinks Shakespeare is musty, old and boring hasn't seen a Jan Powell staging of his work. The director arrived in Richmond in 2011 with a bang: Her production of "Macbeth" was sleek, visceral and combative and led to her recognition as best director of a play by the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle.
After a year as the interim artistic director for Richmond Shakespeare, she officially takes the reins today as artistic director of a company in transition, Henley Street Theatre Company — which has taken over management of Richmond Shakespeare on the road toward a merger (see Street Talk, page 5).
Powell grew up in Portland, Ore., where she started her own theater company in 1998. She named it Tygres Heart after a line in "Henry VI Part 3" — "O, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide." Style Weekly spoke with the maverick director about bringing her West Coast sensibilities to Richmond.
Style: How did you come to love Shakespeare so much?
Powell: I was lucky to be born to an area that was already a Shakespeare-loving area. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival [in Ashland, Ore.] is one of the biggest in the world. Also, Portland is a city where people still sit inside and read a lot. So I never had a fear of Shakespeare. ... I have always been an Anglophile so I loved the idea of studying in London. Shakespeare was not the reason I went. But when I was there, that's when I cracked the code of Shakespeare for an actor. I went to one of my teachers — David Perry, a great mentor of mine — and said, "As an American, I feel shy about doing this incredible language." And he told me that the English may have a verbal facility for Shakespeare but Americans have a youth and energy that they bring to it that is more in line with the Elizabethan sensibility than the British. Ever since, I've wanted to do Shakespeare with an American aesthetic and physicality — intelligent, but as accessible as possible.
Are you at all concerned that your artistic perspective might not work in Richmond?
No more concerned than I would be anywhere else. I'm always working in the interest of the community. My work is a conversation with my audience. If I think it's great but if no one else does, I've failed. I'm not a longtime Richmonder, and it's not for me to come in and say, "Look at me, I'm the latest, greatest thing." I respond to the community with my own artistic interpretation. What I bring might feel new, but it should also feel local, responsive and present. I'm not at all concerned that I'm going to be restricted by the standards of Richmond. I can take my aesthetic and meld it with what Richmond wants and create something new.
Richmond audiences are fascinating. I am surprised by the things that Richmond likes. People here like challenging work but they want it to be done well. I think people demanding quality work reflects the pride people have in the city. So now that's a responsibility I feel.
What differences have you noticed between working in Oregon and in Richmond?
There are a lot! On the left coast, everything still feels brand new. In Oregon, everyone thinks they've invented something for the first time. Richmond is so very rich in history and there are many traditions that are held dear. Portland in particular is a larger city and I think there is a feeling of, "What the hell, I'll go see anything." Richmond audiences are very concerned about the quality of what they see. Not only does the play have to be good but the environment of the play has to be good. The sound has to be good, the set has to be thoughtfully done. The theater has to be a place they want to go and see their friends.
Here, the community also learns who you are. So trust is really important. Richmonders have a much longer memory. It's a context that causes me to think of things in a new way. I love that challenge.
What do you bring from your experience with Tygres Heart that might benefit you here?
I founded that theater because of my passion for a kind of Shakespeare that I really wanted to do but was not seeing elsewhere. Back then, pretty much all the Shakespeare you'd see was done in a large theater, and was focused on spectacle. But I'd had a few experiences of seeing brilliant Shakespeare in a smaller venue, where the language and characters leapt to life in what felt like a more intimate, visceral way — and I wanted to combine that language work with a really strong American physicality and sensibility. It was exciting to take those ideas and bring them to reality.
From an administrative standpoint, I think the biggest lesson I learned from Tygres Heart is the importance of communication. What I love most on stage is resonant and eloquent language, and I think that's what is most important in running a theater, too. It's critical to pay close attention to communication: accurate, eloquent, sincere communication, with all the people involved, about what we're doing, where we're going and why we're doing it and going there. It's extremely time-consuming, and — outside of the rehearsal room — the most important thing I do. S