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Bringing Back the Bard

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When The Public Theater determined that its production of "Two Noble Kinsmen" would need, for financial reasons, to be pushed back until next season, Erica Schmidt's phone rang. The "Debbie Does Dallas" director first came to the attention of John Dias, the Public's former literary manager and now its associate producer, two years ago when Schmidt's version of "As You Like It" was playing at Chashama, a performance space in Midtown, following a successful run in a Lower East Side parking lot. Dias wanted to know if Schmidt could reassemble her version of "As You Like It" in less than a month. Normally that would be a challenge, but "As You Like It" is no mere mounting of the Bard. The production requires six actors to play 15 characters and execute high-velocity quick-changes at dazzling speeds.

For a director moving a show, Schmidt says the main concerns are conceptual—how to adjust a show to a new space, especially one whose first staging occurred "in the tiniest little corner of a parking lot," followed by a "thrust configuration where the seats were opposite each other so it was like a very, very narrow runway." Organization is equally key, she says, especially since she very much wanted to keep her well-trained cast together.

And it was, after all, her cast that had played such a vital role in getting "As You Like It" to a full production at The Public Theater. Almost all the actors in the current show have been with the piece from the parking lot days; much of the troupe consists of members of the Liars' Club, a company Schmidt co-founded after college. One Liars' Club cohort, actress Molly Ward—the original Phebe—had "done some productions for Anita Durst, who runs Chashama, and we were told that she'd be willing to let us do 'As You Like It' there for free, in exchange for a percentage of the box office, after the run in the parking lot." Seizing the opportunity, Schmidt mounted the show on a dime—or at least "on a credit card for about $1,000"—and soon "we were all standing outside Chashama, begging people to come in off the street to see us, and playing to three, four, or eight people."

Then, through a combination of persistence and sheer luck, a positive review of the production came out in the Oct. 24, 2000 edition of The New York Times. Soon, the troupe was invited to present the work yet one more time at Chashama, now for three nights for the industry. Representatives of The Araca Group—which later hired Schmidt to direct "Debbie Does Dallas"—attended, as did John Dias of the aforementioned Public Theater. To Schmidt's amazement, "As You Like It" was then slotted in as part of the Public's "New Works Now" festival in May of 2001, and after that, Schmidt received "a very loose letter" expressing the institution's interest in pursuing a full production. And that was it for nearly two years.

"To be honest, we assumed a full production at the Public would never happen," Schmidt says. "But when 'Two Noble Kinsmen' got put off until next season, things started happening. John Dias really had been incredibly supportive of the show all along—he's really the reason we were ever at the Public at all. In the first call, he said, 'I think a production might be possible, get your actors together and ready.' Then he said, 'I think a production might be more possible." Then he called again and said a production might be 'more possibly possible.' It was crazy. And then he called again and said, 'we're good to go.' But even then we weren't too sure—the banner in front of the Public still said 'Two Noble Kinsmen' for two weeks."

With no time to spare, Schmidt quickly began reimagining how her high-energy "As You Like It" would look, play, and feel in the Public's spacious, well-adorned Martinson Hall. At the same time, calls were made to the actors, and all but two—Molly Ward, whose participation had been so essential to the process of getting the show moved, and Angela Goethals—were available. Contracts were signed, and after moving from nonprofit situation to nonprofit situation to nonprofit situation, rehearsals began.

At the Martinson, Schmidt says "As You Like It" has now returned to the "thrust concept" that she employed for her Chashama stint, but she adds that moving the show into the space nevertheless required her to sharply examine her concept for the play anyway. "The biggest thing about the show at the Public, at least from a director's point of view, is that the Martinson Hall feels like a much more formalized setting. The production used to be minimal and raw—you'd see actors on stage changing clothes, standing in the space and just being present, watching things transpire in a very nontraditional environment. When I walked into the Public, the space was beautiful, but it felt so institutional—like there's more expectation when the audience walks in. I didn't want to lose the rawness of what we started out with."

Ultimately, Schmidt moved her show into the space by using what she found—a lush red curtain marking certain key entrances and exits, and a floor-to-ceiling beam serving as a tree in the Forest of Arden. On the floor, she implanted coffee-can lights to further define the playing area—much like the "tiny corner" of the parking lot where the show began.

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