Middletonian Jason Compton, a producer and performer for Madison Shakespeare Company, talks about the very modern implications of ‘Richard II’

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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger
Richard II as played by Tia Tanzer in Madison Shakespeare Company’s upcoming production at the Broom Street Theater. The production runs February 17 through March 11.
Middleton Times-Tribune: For starters, tell us about yourself:
Jason Compton: I’m a 13-year resident of Middleton, and a producer for Madison Shakespeare Company.
MTT: Can you tell us a bit about the founding of Madison Shakespeare Company? Has the experience matched expectations so far?
Compton: Madison Shakespeare Company was started in 2011 by John Varda, Warren Hansen, and Steve Cover to present affordable, high-quality theater classics in Dane County. MSC staged Julius Caesar in 2012 and Antony and Cleopatra in 2013, but then went dormant. Our initial performing space, Breese Stevens Field, was an interesting venue and a lot of fun to play, but very expensive. And not very intimate. During this time I appeared in supporting roles in both productions.
MSC went dormant as a producing organization after Antony and Cleopatra. There were a couple of attempts to stage Romeo and Juliet, which eventually led to a collaboration with Madison College, where the MATC theater department produced a script adapted by John Varda. But it didn’t look like MSC was actually going to put on any full stage productions any time soon. That all changed practically overnight.
In summer 2015, I was supposed to be a cast member and assistant director in a production of a contemporary political play, Scenes From an Execution. It was going to be directed by Christopher William Wolter, who I had just served as assistant director for in the production of Death of a Salesman for Strollers. 
There was just one problem with Scenes From an Execution—we couldn’t find a suitable lead actress for the play. After searching for weeks, Christopher decided to pull the plug and cancel the production. I was seriously disappointed, because I really wanted to work with the cast and crew we had assembled, and I wanted to have a summer theater project. Summer is a relatively quiet time for straight theater (that is, “not musicals”) around here, and what little was going on had already selected casts.
I missed doing Shakespeare in the summer, having done Julius Caesar and A&C with Madison Shakespeare, then Troilus and Cressida in 2014 with Fermat’s Last Theater. So I said, “Well, it sucks that Scenes From an Execution was canceled, but the hell with it, I’m definitely going to do some Shakespeare this summer!” That would only happen if I put the show together, so I did. I started reaching out to people, including former castmates and people who were also planning to be in Scenes From an Execution, and we assembled an eight-person group of actor/directors with the idea of putting together a collection of short scenes from Shakespeare.
That show was the first An Evening’s Affair, and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in theater. Considering that I was asking people to join me to stage Shakespearean scenes I hadn’t selected yet, for a show that didn’t have a name, and didn’t have a theater company behind it at first, it was amazing how quickly the other seven people said “yes” to me. We had just 31 days between the first table read with the actor/directors and opening night, and we got seven scenes up and running and looking really good.
Once we started working on it, it became clear that it would be the perfect project to restart Madison Shakespeare Company as an active organization, so we got permission to use the name. And so MSC was up and running again.
Since that first feverish rush to put An Evening’s Affair together, we’ve produced a second Affair show with even more scenes, plus The Tragedy of Macbeth, plus special performances including at the Chazen Museum of Art to support the visit of the Shakespeare First Folio, and at the Madison Children’s Museum and American Players Theatre to help commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Now we’re putting on our first full-length winter production. For a theater company that started with the idea of doing one outdoor summer show per year, we’re doing a lot more besides. So it was a long and winding road to get here… 
MTT: I find it almost eerie how modern so many of the great plays are. Not in a superficial way, but in expressing the universality of our problems (and sometimes even our ability to endure them). King Lear is like that. I read Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” earlier this week, and I thought it easily could have been written in 2017. And of course, Richard II: Can you tell us how this play speaks to us, today?
Compton:  Richard the Second obviously isn’t about elections and popular votes and electoral colleges because those things didn’t exist the way we think of them today. But it is about questions like:
Just how subject to their own laws are our leaders? When Richard runs short of money to pay for war and doesn’t feel he has enough political cover to raise taxes and fees any higher, he decides to cover the gap by seizing the estate of John of Gaunt, one of England’s wealthiest men. Gaunt’s heir, Henry Bolingbroke, was conveniently exiled by Richard before Gaunt died, so Henry isn’t even around to challenge Richard in court. It’s a case of some seriously shady executive orders, one might say.
What happens to leaders and political aspirants after they lose, or are forced to leave office, whether it’s because of term limits or some other external pressure? Sometimes they hang around and make documentaries or build houses or start PACs, but they often fade into the background because they don’t really have a place anymore. It’s hard to know what to do around someone who *used* to be venerated but now has no real status. Richard resigns the crown and in theory that’s enough, but nobody really knows what to do with him after that. So he gets bounced around in a weird exile/prison situation. Alive, he’s an embarrassment and an awkward reminder of how things went wrong. Dead, he’s still an awkward embarrassment because *that was a king that just got killed, man*. (Remember how weird it was when Nixon was still alive? Remember how weird it was when he died?)
How much do regular people really benefit when you “throw the bums out”? Bolingbroke’s political cover for invading England and forcing Richard to resign is that he was getting rid of a king who broke fundamental laws and lost the trust of the people. But it turns out that Bolingbroke hangs on to power by… breaking a bunch of fundamental laws and murdering people. Oops!
MTT: I think we might have covered this last time, but I want to remind our readers how accessible Shakespeare really is. (I’m an imbecile, for example, and even I can enjoy his work.) Seriously, how much of a barrier is the mentality that it’s going to be “difficult” to understand or follow a show?
Compton: One of the cool things about Richard the Second is that it opens in a very modern fashion. The play opens with Richard and Bolingbroke, the two chief rivals of the story, in a serious situation. Everything that’s happening in the first scene is important, and it’s not couched in puns and wordplay. You’re seeing Richard under the gun, having to maneuver his way through a serious situation with a lot of different pressures. It’s a lot like what you’d get back from a modern screenwriter if you asked them to tell this tale. From the opening gun, we’re focused on the people who do the moving and the shaking.
It’s also worth saying that we do understand that Shakespeare Anxiety affects some people, and that we do take some of the chief causes into account when adapting our scripts and deciding how to present a show. There’s no way to cure everybody’s Shakespeare Anxiety but there are some things we can do to avoid actively confusing even those people who come in totally chill and ready.
For starters: Shakespeare’s plays typically have many, many more characters in them than a modern play. We will often fold characters together to improve clarity, which helps a bit. But even after doing that, often Shakespeare’s writing creates what I call the “Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film” problem (based on a Monty Python joke.) Basically, it involves characters who talk about people, by name, who never actually appear in the play. In many cases, those characters might be people that Shakespeare’s original audience would have known by name, either because they were important figures of the day, or well-known historical figures, or canonical heroes and villains. (Think of saying “If only Tony Stark would come and pick up the dinner check” in some movie Iron Man isn’t actually in. A ton of people now know that Tony Stark is a fictional billionaire, so if you name-drop him, it doesn’t hurt anything.)
But we don’t want our audiences to have to sit there and say, “Wait, who?” while they’re also trying to enjoy the experience of the play. So, whenever possible, Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film is not mentioned.
There’s another special layer when staging a history, which Richard the Second is. For Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, King Richard the Second’s reign happened about 200 years before they were seeing the play. Lots of people in Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, and even a modern British audience, will have heard of at least some of the characters and events, because it was part of their nation’s history. It’s like Hamilton. Lots of people are at least passingly familiar with Hamilton because they’ve looked at a $10 bill. Maybe they remember the milk commercial about the Hamilton/Burr duel. Whatever. It’s part of our cultural heritage and history, of 200 years ago, give or take.
So we want to be aware of facts, innuendos, and character relationships that a British audience, especially circa 1600, would have probably known and understood, but which nobody in Dane County could particularly be expected to know. And if there’s a detail or two which is so super-extra important that being without it might seriously affect your comprehension of the play, we need to close that gap somehow.
In Richard the Second, the hugely important fact is the backstory of the Duke of Gloucester. In history, he was a prominent lord who repeatedly stood in opposition to the king and at times seriously undermined Richard’s power and authority. It’s generally understood that while Gloucester was in prison awaiting trial, Richard had him killed. This upset a lot of people, including but not limited to Gloucester’s relatives, including John of Gaunt and the Duke of York. It’s used against Richard for leverage, and eventually the same exact things happens *to* Richard.
That’s all pretty important stuff, because it gets mentioned a fair amount in the play. But when the play starts, Gloucester is already dead. But it’s also *really important* to understand who he was and why it’s important that he was killed, because it motivates so much of the action.
At Broom Street Theater, where we will perform Richard, it’s customary to address the audience before the play begins. So we’re going to take advantage of that fact and use that time to establish who Gloucester is, and why he’s important, in a way that should fit the flow of the performance. (There’s also some pre-show activity that expresses the Gloucester death, and who’s responsible.) 
MTT: Can you tell us a bit about your dual roles - that of producer and performer?
Compton: Producer is an extremely unsexy role. The best way to describe it is being the person responsible for either finding what needs to be found, or finding someone else to do it. My current task is to find the “Platonic ideal of a cafe chair” to serve as a symbolic throne for Richard—and to do so on a reasonable budget. I have sent dozens of pictures of chairs to Christopher, hoping he will say, “Yes, please buy that chair.” As of this conversation, that hasn’t happened yet.
I work closely with Christopher and his assistant director Dijana Mitrovic on props and costume needs, and try to be available to answer “Yes we can do that / no we can’t” type questions whenever there’s a creative flight of fancy.
Being an actor in the show does mean that I have an additional set of responsibilities for the on-stage presentation as well. I’ve been producing and performing in all of MSC’s shows in this “modern era” so that part of the challenge is familiar enough.
As the producer for Madison Shakespeare, I also work with the artistic director, Francisco Torres, to select future plays. (When I suggested Richard last summer, I had no idea how relevant it was going to become.) 
MTT: Anything else?
Compton: I asked Christopher to direct this play not only because I was eager to work with him again after the Death of a Salesman experience and the aborted Scenes From an Execution attempt, but also because the cancellation of Scenes led to the resuscitation of Madison Shakespeare Company. Christopher is very passionate about politically charged material and I knew it would be a good fit, but I also liked the idea of closing the loop on his inadvertent contribution to getting us back up and running as an organization.
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