Blood and Revenge: 11 Questions with John Bryan, Director of Titus Andronicus
Q: What drew you to directing this play?
JB: It’s one of those “Once in a Lifetime” shows that doesn’t get produced often, and yet has some amazing characters, some brilliant lines, and some moments that lend themselves well to striking imagery.
Q: As an experienced Shakespearean actor, what lessons from performing Shakespeare’s works do you bring to directing one of them?
JB: The Master is kind to his directors. He very often codes stage directions and character notes into the dialogue. The meter and prosody of the lines highlights and emphasizes certain words and phrases that hint at ways to develop the action. It’s mostly a matter of just working through the words.
Q: As one of Shakespeare’s first tragedies, and his first major hit, Titus could be considered a major work, yet it’s rarely performed. What do you think the biggest reason for this is?
JB: I think it’s the same reason that Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew rarely get produced. A great deal of the subject matter is uncomfortable to deal with, but that is exactly why we need these plays. We need to remember that racism, antisemitism, jingoism, religious extremism, sexism, these are all very real and very present issues. We can’t get into the mindset of “those are just other people’s problems.” If they are anyone’s problems, they are all of our problems.
Q: Titus is not a play for the faint of heart. How much consideration has gone into figuring out how to best portray some of the material depicted in this piece?
JB: I worked through several scenarios on how to portray certain moments. I am not going to shy away from portraying violence. If it’s a violent show, it’s a violent show. To sand off the sharp corners would not do justice to the show. Taking the teeth out of the tiger just leaves you with his stripes, and at that point he may as well be a damn zebra. However, I do not feel the need to push the graphic nature of the subject matter to gratuitousness. There is a fine line between edgy and obscene.
Q: Some Shakespeare historians have suggested that Titus is actually a (very, very) dark comedy, parodying other revenge tragedies of the day like The Revenger’s Tragedy, or the works of Ben Jonson. Do you think there’s any merit to this?
Q: It’s also been suggested that Titus wasn’t really much more violent than the other plays of its kind at the time, and has only gotten this reputation for ultra violence after more modern sensibilities took hold. Do you believe this?
JB: This is quite true. In John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore (which I also want to direct) one of the main characters, who has been having an incestuous affair with his sister, stabs her through the heart and then goes to a banquet, still holding the dagger with her heart on it. This is a time when the competition for entertainment was jousting and bear-baiting. The plays had to edge that out, so there was a great deal of inherent violence. I mean, even Romeo kills two people and then himself.
Q: There are some unorthodox casting decisions in your version of the play: Bassianus, Lavinia’s suitor, is played by Dorothy Smith; Marcus Andronicus is also played by a woman, and so is Chiron, one of Lavinia’s attackers. Was this a conscious decision on your part? If so, what are you hoping to get across with these choices?
JB: I cast good actors. They do a good job when I do.
Q: This is quite the shift from your last time directing Shakespeare-adjacent material; you directed The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) for Underground last winter. What’s the major thing to keep in mind as far as differences between directing a comedy and a tragedy go, especially when they cover the same material?
JB: A comedy should be mostly funny, but occasionally dark and heavy. A tragedy should be the opposite. If it turns out that your tragedy is mostly funny, you’re doing it wrong.
Q: From sitting in on a rehearsal earlier, I was struck by how you’re staging the play physically. Could you talk about your thought process for that?
JB: Originally, we were supposed to be in the main theater, so I had everything planned out for a much larger space. However, due to some repairs and renovations that needed to be done, we got moved to the Studio. I had to rethink the entire structure. So, I just took the action as I had it and started pushing it out as a thrust… then it just kinda took over the entire studio.
Q: What does Titus Andronicus have to say to the theatergoer of 2019?
JB: Titus is a cautionary tale about the corrosive nature of vengeance. We are the only animals who participate in vengeance and it always cost more than the initial debt. Vengeance is a hungry god, consuming everything your throw on the altar and still demands more.
Q: Give me your best pitch: why should people come see Titus Andronicus when it opens this week?
JB: This is a hell of show: there are some brilliant performances, some visually striking images, and, if we’re being honest here, when else are you going to get to see this show? This is a fantastic cast, one of Shakespeare’s most underrated shows, you owe it to yourself to see this production.
Titus Andronicus runs this weekend in the Studio. Tickets are available online or at the door for $15.