Richard II, coronavirus and creativity – in conversation with Dorothy McDowell

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It seems like there’s enough drama happening in the real world to justify dark theatres and empty stages. The Edinburgh Fringe has been cancelled, Broadway is in its longest-ever closure, and there won’t even be any experimental student theatre in the Burton-Taylor Studio next term. While many major theatres are releasing recordings of their shows, this isn’t an option for typical student productions – especially for those which were due to perform in Trinity. Instead, there’s been a slew of cancellations and postponements.

But, as I was scrolling sluggishly through my Facebook feed, I saw something shocking – auditions being advertised! Highly complex investigate journalism showed that these auditions were for a virtual production of Richard II, produced by Not the Way Forward Productions. I was curious to know more, so (virtually) sat down with the director, Dorothy McDowell, to (virtually) discuss creativity in a time of crisis, the appeal of Shakespeare and the joy of quizzes!

Dorothy McDowell is a second-year English student at Keble. Previously, she’s directed Measure for Measure and she’s the current President of the Keble O’Reilly.  At the moment, she’s directing Richard II, which will be available for free as a virtual show from 5-8 May. More information can be found here.

What gave you the idea of doing a virtual production?

I mentioned it as a joke to Juliet (the show’s producer) when we began to realize that our Trinity show probably wasn’t going to happen, and the more I thought about it the more I liked it – it’s nice to be able to make something that’s genuinely responsive to the situation you are living in. We had to move pretty quickly to make sure we were ready to rehearse when lockdown started. We were keen to do the majority of the work when the tightest restrictions were in place so we could give everyone involved something fun to do.

Was there a significant difference between looking at filmed auditions and the in-person ones which are more typical for Oxford productions?

It was a bit odd, but only in that it wasn’t something I’d done before. In fact, I hope it might have made the audition process a bit easier for the actors because they didn’t have to worry about getting their performance right first time (or having two strange women staring at them for 10 minutes).

Why did you choose Shakespeare (and specifically Richard II)? Why is Shakespeare appealing to creatives so much now?

I think the answer to why so many people are reaching for Shakespeare right now is, in part, a very boring one: he’s one of the few playwrights that basically every theatre-minded person has a good working knowledge of. A bit more poetically, there is also something very reassuring about plays that are 400 years old. They are so far removed from the situation you find yourself in that they act as a welcome distraction; and they come with a sense of ‘well, these things have survived several plagues and a couple of world wars; I suppose I can make it through this’.

As to why I chose Richard II: I’ve loved it for years – it’s always been in the back of my mind as something I’d like to direct, but I’d never come up with an interpretation strong enough to justify it. I stumbled upon it when I was trying to think of a show to do in an online format. I’d decided I wanted to make a show about ‘choice’, because I think the thing that makes the situation we’re all in at the moment scary is the fact that we don’t have anychoice about what happens next. Besides, I’d just been put in a position of not having any choice over the kind of show I was going to make (it had to be online), so I felt I had to acknowledge that in the show itself. Richard popped into my head and I realized that it’s all about choice – it’s about people being forced to pick a side in a civil war; and about other people causing that civil war by stealing money and raising armies and then claiming that they didn’t have any choice in the matter. The irony of Henry Bolingbroke standing outside Flint Castle with 3000 French soldiers explaining that ‘well, I didn’t actually want to invade, but, honestly, what other logical choice was there?’ is oddly fitting. As I’ve been rather irritatingly repeating in all of my marketing copy: this isn’t the way I’d choose to tell this story; but it isn’t the story that any of the characters would choose to have told about them either.

From looking at your auditions event, the genders of characters have clearly been switched even before casting. Why is this and what effect do you think it’ll have on your production?

I always do majority-female shows, for all kinds of reasons. A lot of student directors will tell you that the number of female-identifying actors auditioning for shows significantly outnumbers the number of male-identifying ones, but any play written before 2000 is almost guaranteed to have far more parts for men, which is unfair. Having a majority female cast also makes it easier to convince the audience that they are listening to a story that they haven’t heard before. One of the most famous speeches in Richard II is ‘let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings’; it’s a page of meditation on what it means to be a king, and probably one of the most quoted bits of Shakespeare. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a page on what it means to be a Queen. We’re rehearsing that scene in a few days: I’ll have heard it then. I also just love putting powerful women onstage – Richard II is full of Queens, usurpers and political fixers; people who hold everyone else’s future in their hands. Women that other people are scared of are such a rarity onstage and I think they’re great: so much fun to play, and so much fun to watch. I understand why the question has to be asked, but I find it a strange one to answer: ‘why are you putting on a show where all of the interesting characters are men?’ is really the one that needs asking.

Marketing will have to be innovative – you can’t put posters up in the JCR anymore! Is there anything we should be looking out for?

Quizzes. Soooo many quizzes. If our play is about choice, we want to give our audience as much choice as possible. Get a warring noble to align yourself with or roast your mates on a tag yourself – we’ve got loads of option-based marketing lined up for you! (I have remembered to say: follow us on Facebook @notthewayforward so my marketing manager doesn’t kill me).

Lots of directors have had their Trinity projects cancelled or delayed – do you have any advice for how they can remain encouraged or even attempt to transfer their work to the digital realm?

I wish I was wise enough to be able to give other people advice. I have a theory that it’s almost easier to be creative within sets of restrictions, because when you have to work out how to get round something you come up with things you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise – I don’t know if that’s exactly helpful, but maybe it’s encouraging?