BARD OR BUST: Emily Gray and her husband Matthew do it old school—even if it doesn’t always pay the rent.
Emily and Matthew Gray knew when they started Classical Acting Company that professional theater was a risky business. But their first two seasons hammered the point home.
In 2003 they debuted with Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and went on to produce Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and George Feydeau’s farce A Flea in Her Ear. They won kudos from every critic in the area. Buoyed by the success of that first season, they wanted to open the 2004-2005 season with something spectacular, so they launched a full-scale production of Romeo and Juliet. At the end, they were saying, “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” It was a disaster.
“Really, it was our own fault,” Matthew says. “We produced very wildly at the beginning of the year. We were being artists, not bookkeepers.” Matthew is a Richardson native who studied theater in Chicago and London before acting in New York. He has a round, open face and an enthusiasm seasoned with irony. He speaks using his hands, swiveling in his chair behind his desk.
For Romeo and Juliet, they hired a large cast, flew Matthew’s mentor Chris Pickles over from London to direct it, and rented the big stage at Richland College. Matthew played Juliet’s Nurse hilariously, but otherwise the production had big problems, including a miscast Mercutio and an interpretation of the Montagues (sexually ambiguous, decadent) and Capulets (fascist) that didn’t go over well.
They don’t want to give the exact figures, but the payroll alone for their actors, designers, and crew was more than the entire show budget for Much Ado a year earlier. Part of the expense was due to their commitment to pay all staff an amount commensurate with more established theaters like WaterTower or Plano Repertory. They consider adequate pay to be crucial in establishing a professional environment. But, as a result, they found themselves considerably in the hole.
The remainder of that second season forced the Grays to take a hard look at their young company. The success of The Gift of the Magi during the Christmas holidays helped their books recover, but The Cherry Orchard proved to be a difficult draw in the early spring. An 11-year-old niece of the Grays guessed why.
“She came up to us afterward and said, ’I didn’t like this play,’” says Emily, a natural blonde with an English accent that makes you want to offer the colonies back. “And I said, ’Oh? What didn’t you like about it?’ And she said, ’Well, at the end, nobody gets married, nothing good happens, and everybody hates everybody else.’”
They went on to have a 20-minute conversation about what makes a good play. But audiences tended to sympathize with the niece’s unenlightened point of view. It was hard to fill the seats.
But then their last show of the season, Molière’s The Hypochondriac, starring the hilarious Chamblee Ferguson, surprised them by doing very well. Who knew that the 17th-century Frenchman had such a Dallas fan base? Matthew says, “It’s the most bizarre thing, the number of people who would come up to me in the lobby and say, ’We’re so glad you’re doing this play! We’re such Molière fans!’”
They repeatedly sold out the theater, which put the company in a better position than it had been in since even before the debut production of Much Ado. But the low points of that second season left the Grays wary.
“We were concerned about the first show of the next season,” Matthew says. His mother asked why they didn’t do a one-man show to save money. “And we said, ’We’re a classical theater. There are no one-man shows!’”
“We both sort of turned on her and said, ’You find us a one-man show and we’ll be sure to produce it,’” Emily says, laughing.
But the more they thought about it, the better the idea got. They remembered British actor Steven Berkoff’s popular one-man show called Shakespeare’s Villains, which uses soliloquies from Iago and other Shakespearean reprobates. When Matthew talked to his mentor, Pickles, everything came together.
“Back in the day,” Matthew says, “when the old Globe was still up and going, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—Shakespeare’s company—would inevitably have a few people that were kind of housekeepers. There was one called the bookkeeper, but not in the way we think of a bookkeeper as an accountant.
“This guy literally kept the books. He would keep all of the scripts. There was no printing press, so they would get apprentices to write individual roles. There would be a guy who basically sat in a room with all these roles, and they would say, ’We’re doing Henry V this weekend,’ so he would dig through all the roles and get everything ready. He would also be the prompter, because he had such knowledge of the script. He was basically your all-purpose techie.
“So Pickles said, ’I’ve got this idea of a bookkeeper who was a wannabe actor, who came on as a young boy and who has grown up seeing all these plays of Shakespeare and has always desperately desired to do these roles and has never been able to.’”
And thus was born Shakespeare’s Keeper, the one-man play starring Matthew that this month opens Classical Acting Company’s third season. As the Grays, both in their 30s, talk about the play, I get the sense that the space they occupy emotionally is somewhere in Bankside, circa 1610, not their new office a few blocks off Arapaho Road. They will set Shakespeare’s Keeper on the old Globe Theater’s final night of existence, when a special effects cannon set the thatch roof on fire during one of the first few performances of Henry VIII.
And when was that?
“1613,” says Emily instantly.
“Are you positive about that?” asks Matthew, looking through his notes to check.
“Yes, 1613,” she repeats. “June 29, 1613,” she adds, as if it were their anniversary.
“1613. Yeah, that’s right. So the idea is that the play takes place on that night and that he’s sorting through all his roles and through the process says, ’I wished I’d played this role—’”
“Or I remember Richard Burbage in this role,” interjects Emily.
“Or when Master Kemp played Falstaff,” Matthew says.
They mention these famous players in Shakespeare’s company as familiarly as if they were talking about Kenneth Branagh or Michael Gambon.
“But at the end of the play,” Matthew says, “the building is burning down, and we see all of the plays that were burned.”
“There were at least two or three full plays of Shakespeare’s that were lost,” Emily says. “It makes you want to cry if you think about it.”
But that’s the brilliance of a play called Shakespeare’s Keeper. Classical Acting Company has imagined a way to save their bookkeeping and keep Shakespeare’s books at the same time. And the metaphor is wonderful: a man alone, with all of Shakespeare in his head, acting all the parts while the great Globe itself is burning.
Shakespeare’s Keeper runs from September 15 through October 2 at the Arena Theater at Richland College. 214-505-1655. www.classicalactingcompany.com.
Not To Miss This Month
When Peter Shaffer, author of Equus and Amadeus, published the comedy he had originally written for Maggie Smith, he said that Lettice & Lovage was “obviously a very English piece.” Who better than Theatre Britain to produce this elegantly witty play about two aging women negotiating the terrain between what’s “merely” true and what’s dramatically vivid?
Lettice Douffet begins the play as a tour guide in what she later describes as “the dullest house in England.” Her vivid embellishments of the only two things ever to happen in the place turn out to be enormous crowd-pleasers, but they get her into trouble with stern Lotte Schoen, the representative of the Preservation Trust sent to check up on complaints about her.
But that’s just the beginning. Lotte’s fascination with Lettice’s dramatic background and their mutual contempt for the “mere”—the mediocre, the superficial—ultimately unite them. On the way, everything from history to architecture undergoes Shaffer’s scathing satire. Some of the lines about London originally written in the ’80s have an uncanny prescience: “This entire city is actually crammed with fanatics from all over the globe fighting medieval crusades on our ground.”
Theatre Britain’s production opens September 1 at the Trinity River Arts Center. 972-490-4202. www.theatre-britain.com.
Kitchen Dog Still Crazy
Abandoned by its director, the theater presses on with a “raunchy Benny Hill.”
“There’s no way I could have a family on what I make here,” says Tina Parker, who now shares duties as co-artistic director with Christopher Carlos.
“Dallas is infamous for not paying its artists enough,” Carlos says.
The upcoming season, which opens with Tracy Letts’ Bug on September 9, had been set well before Day left. Both Parker and Carlos say that his departure, though it was a shock, has reenergized the troupe by making them rethink everything. And this season has them fired up.
“This season is like whoooo-hooo. It’s all the crazy plays right out of the chute,” Parker says. “If you can make it through the fall, you are Kitchen Dog. Have you read Bug? It’s a wild one! Debbie Does Dallas is pretty wild, too. It’s like a really raunchy Benny Hill. We’ve got an actual old Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader helping us.”
“She’s not old!” Carlos says. “An ex-Cowboys cheerleader.”
“Yeah, an ex. She’d kick my butt if I called her old. ’Cause she can move. She choreographed a scene for auditions. I was like, Wow,” Parker says. “It’s a really exciting season. It’s really diverse, all sorts of material. There’s something for everyone. I think that this is a season that can bust us through to the next plateau. It’s the Year of the Dog, you know? 2006.”
Photo: Nan Coulter, Dallas Morning News
Save the Dates
Sep 9 through Oct 8
Bug. Playwright Tracy Letts has written what Kitchen Dog Theater co-artistic director Tina Parker calls “a wild one” about high-tech surveillance, identity theft, and government power. The MAC. 214-953-1055. www.kitchendogtheater.org.
Through Oct 1
The Imaginary Invalid. As adapted by Jac Alder, the second production of Molière’s play this year (after Classical Acting Company’s The Hypochondriac) draws directly on Theatre Three’s strengths. 214-871-3300.
Sep 15 through Oct 2
Wonder of the World. Sarah Jessica Parker starred in Manhattan as the wife with a seven-year itch who leaves her husband and sets out on a journey of comic self-realization. By Second Thought Theater. Frank’s Place @ Kalita Humphreys Theater. 214-679-2692.