One question loomed large when Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) leader Michael Kahn announced his retirement in 2018. Who would replace the venerated artistic director who grew STC from a fledgling company into one of the world’s leading producers of classical theater?
To answer this question, STC looked across the pond to esteemed British director Simon Godwin. Known for his innovative direction of Shakespeare plays at renowned institutions including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, the sprightly, Cambridge-educated 42-year-old embodied the characteristics STC was looking for in Kahn’s successor: a recognized mastery of the classics and an eagerness to open the theater to diverse voices.
“Simon has an exciting perspective on what constitutes a classic,” observes STC Associate Artistic Director Alan Paul, who worked closely with Michael Kahn and now with Godwin. “He had a lot of curiosity about the theater’s past successes but was unafraid to make some bold moves early on.”
Godwin has been on the job for six months now. I recently sat down with him at STC’s Sidney Harman Hall to discuss his goals as artistic director. A few things became clear in the course of our conversation. Godwin’s vision includes a notable expansion of what can be defined as a classic and an eagerness to think outside the box in terms of diversity, inclusivity and boundary pushing.
“It’s classics with a twist,” Godwin observes of the seven shows he programmed for STC’s 2019-2020 season.
One look at the season lineup will tell you this is not your grandma’s Shakespearean theater. Only two of the seven shows are Shakespeare plays. Of the other five, two were written by contemporary women known for their feminist roar, Lauren Gunderson and Emma Rice, and two were written by African American literary giants James Baldwin and Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins.
“This is the first time STC has produced work by an African American, which is a very surprising statistic and one that obviously needed to be remedied immediately,” Godwin says. “I was very happy and proud to do that.”
Perhaps the most obvious departure from the traditional classic canon is Godwin’s recently announced partnership with Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s Maria Goyanes – the other artistic director new kid on the block – to produce The Jungle in the fall of 2020. The Jungle – which has enjoyed successful recent runs in the West End and Off-Broadway – tells the very contemporary story of numerous characters waylaid in a migrant camp in Calais, France.
“People may ask why a Shakespearean theater is doing a new play about the migrant crisis,” Godwin muses, “but one of the values that we can take from Shakespeare is his magnitude and the size of his vision.”
Godwin also embraced the opportunity to partner with another DC theater.
“Producing The Jungle with Woolly Mammoth feels very much how I want to work, which is in harmony and active partnership with other theaters and cultural institutions.”
A larger goal for the artistic director is to dispel the notion that theater is only for a certain segment of the population (i.e., wealthy white patrons). He envisions a lobby area that can be used for more than just buying tickets: a place where people of all backgrounds can gather for a cup of coffee, attend audience enrichment programs or observe art displays like the one currently up for James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner.
“We all want to see theater about ourselves and if you want to bring in different people, you have to do plays about them,” he reflects. “But it’s also about making our spaces feel welcoming and connecting the theater to daily life so that it’s a natural environment to spend time in rather than just an expensive trip to the theater.”
One issue on people’s minds prior to Godwin’s hiring was the issue of diversity in theater leadership, with many people rooting for STC to hire a woman or a person of color to fill the vacancy. Godwin was aware of this issue during the hiring process.
“When I got the job and there was debate, I welcomed it because I think that is part of the conversation we all need to have. I am a white man and there is no point pretending that I’m not, but my work can be reflective of all backgrounds even if I in my skin cannot.”
A charming tradition that Godwin brought from England is the annual family holiday show, a project that came to fruition last December with Peter Pan and Wendy, a retelling of the Peter Pan story that Godwin commissioned playwright Lauren Gunderson to write.
“England has great success with family holiday shows,” Godwin says, observing that War Horse and Matilda – which achieved great commercial success – both started as family holiday shows. “It’s really a lovely tradition and a way to bring multiple generations to the theater.”
And Shakespeare lovers need not worry that the Bard will be completely absent from STC’s future programming. Godwin himself is directing Timon of Athens and Much Ado About Nothing, the two Shakespeare plays programmed this season, and he brings a lifetime of experience with the Shakespeare canon.
“They say you don’t read Shakespeare, Shakespeare reads you. And the more you change, he changes with you. It becomes a dialogue over decades, which is very enriching and satisfying.”
In directing Shakespeare, Godwin is constantly exploring ways to connect with current audiences.
“Shakespeare chose stories that he felt would speak urgently to his own Elizabethan present. So, to stage Shakespeare today, we need to stage the plays so they feel like they were written yesterday.”
Godwin looks forward to learning more about his newly adopted city in the coming years.
“To be honest, I’m still such a newbie to America and there is still so much to learn.”
Learn more about Godwin’s upcoming season at www.shakespearetheatre.org. The Amen Corner runs at Sidney Harman Hall through March 15 and Timon of Athens runs at the Michael R. Klein Theatre through March 22.
Michael R. Klein Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC
Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC
Box office: 202-547-1122