Master Class with Larry Opitz: Director of "Julius Caesar"
Professor Larry Opitz, director of Janet Kinghorn Bernhard’s (JKB) mainstage play this semester, sits in front of a bookcase cluttered with complete works of William Shakespeare and miscellaneous collectables. Framing his head is a long and silver sword, with an intricate gold handle -- perhaps ready for the final duel in Romeo and Juliet. Look to your left and what is, hopefully, a stage revolver finds its resting spot among even more toys and books. Sat on his desk are three miniature Bards, two of which seem to be bobbleheads. In the upper corner above where Opitz sits is a full moon, stolen off stage to forever shine in this room.
If Skidmore is going to put on a Shakespearean play, no one is better to direct it than Opitz. And with Julius Caesar opening this week, students, faculty, and community members will be able to see for themselves the intricate world and knowledge of detail inherent in any of his productions. Even though he spent most of his life avoiding Shakespeare -- only having one good experience with a play in junior high school -- Opitz has now spent up to twenty years putting on Shakespeare’s plays.
It was not until 1994, when he and Barbara Opitz, who also teaches in the department, decided to try and start a study abroad program in England. Working with the British American Dramatics Academy, they created a Shakespeare program. It is important to note this was not because they cared that much about Shakespeare at that time, but because they thought it’d be a good marketing angle. Nobody else had a program like it.
“During that time, we were going over there two or three times a year, spending at least a total of a month in England being with students or planning programs. Whenever we would go, we would see as many shows as possible -- ten a week, easily, certainly 30 a year,” explained Opitz. “A lot of it Shakespeare. I was meeting the most remarkable Shakespeare scholars, critics, actors, directors. [We were] seeing multiple productions of the same play. And I felt like I needed to catch up a lot. So I started reading -- which is my normal response when I don’t know anything.”
When the year reached 2000, Opitz directed his first ever Shakespeare play. He chose Merchant of Venice, and -- in his own words -- acted in the height of hubris, deciding to cast himself in the role of Shylock.
“I had never trained as a Shakespearean actor and I hadn’t acted in many years. As it turned out, despite trying to figure out how to deal with that, it turned out to be pretty good,” said Opitz. “I have had the fortunate opportunity to talk with and have master classes with Sir Peter Hall, John barton, and our wonderful friend Tina Packer from Shakespeare and Company.”
Like most people, Opitz fell in love with all of the work. Despite years of avoidance, it was Shakespeare’s master of human emotions and existential ideas that brought all of those walls crashing down.
“For the past twenty years, I have been considered a Shakespearean -- certainly from taking over the Saratoga Shakespeare Company and doing a lot of Shakespearean roles over the years. The only regret I have is that I didn’t discover it sooner. Now, it’s most of what I do. In teaching, in running a company, and directing Julius Caesar here.”
When Opitz began directing Shakespeare, he brought along the knowledge he had obtained over the years as a scenic and lighting designer. Most theatre relies heavily on the magic of props, sets, and whimsy. However, Opitz learned to appreciate the minimalist nature inherent in Shakespeare’s writing -- finding influence from the Globe, which continues to put plays on “traditionally”.
“We’re talking stripped down productions -- the naked actor out on stage with nothing to hide behind. I love doing theatre that way -- without cluttering it up. Shakespeare doesn’t require a lot.” Opitz directs honest productions, and does not crowd his productions with allusions. In the upcoming play, he has actors playing multiple roles, a newscaster from the greater Saratoga area that lets audience members know what is going on, and even projects typed titles that describe what happens in a scene.
Julius Caesar was actually not Opitz initial thought for this spring's mainstage. Plays are decided months, even years, ahead of their opening date. Originally, before the 2016 election results came out, he was going to put on an adaptation of Moby Dick. But when he attended a Shakespeare Theatre Association conference in January 2017, he found many directors also reeling from election results, not sure of what to do, what plans to make, nor what shows to put on.
“This year there are a lot of productions of Correlanous, Richard III, and Julius Caesar. I decided Julius Caesar would work best for us; and no matter what happened politically, it was still Julius Caesar and deserved to be done.”
This past summer, the Public Theatre in New York City got into a controversy over casting Caesar very blatantly as President Trump. And while there are rumours going around campus that this production is a slight microcosm for the political unrest felt by most people nowadays, Opitz was quick to shut that down.
“I chose not to focus on the idea of Julius Caesar as Trump -- and I don’t think he’s a very good match, maybe Marc Antony is comparable to Trump in some ways -- but I didn't want to go there. It is a contemporary production, there are various allusions to our current world, but I am more fascinated by how easily the populus is swayed by leaders who use rhetoric, personality, charisma, greed as motives,” explained Opitz. “How fickle the people can be about who they support, or who they don’t support, from time to time.”
For people who may not be familiar with the story of Julius Caesar, or for whom it simply has been too long since high school English class, here is a quick summary of the play: Julius Caesar has come back to Rome after a victorious, and bloody, civil war. Once returning, Caesar is very popular in Rome, partially because he gave the people food. Soon, he is given the name “Dictator for Life,” but there are senators that fear he has become too ambitious. Of course there are ulterior motives -- wanting power and money -- but ultimately they decide the only way to control Ceaser is to assassinate him. And they do that successfully. Ultimately, they decide to do something unlawful to protect the democracy. Of course, it backfires.
Opitz approached this play with the knowledge that it is a very difficult show for college students to perform. Not just with the issues and relationships it deals with, but because of the language.
“Shakespeare doesn’t speak the way we speak, and most of it is -- for lack of a better term -- heightened. It is off-putting. My challenge was to demystify the language, and I love doing that with students. Actually, I find that I used to spend more time on the language than I did this time. We streamlined it -- partly because most of the actors had previous training, some were interns in the Shakespeare Company, some worked at Shakespeare and Company in MA, some have studied in London. So, my job was a little easier.”
While Shakespeare’s language is difficult for people of all levels to master, the sentences themselves actually hold secrets on how to act them. In any play staged or read, “once you learn the rules -- and there are many, and many exceptions -- it all starts to make sense,” explained Opitz. “Shakespeare is giving actors very specific cues: what to do, how to walk, how to speak, when to breathe, when to pause, what words are important, less important. If you can figure out that hidden language, it will work out pretty well.”
Besides language, a director also has to work on which style, of many, they are going to choose when staging. A “traditional” lens typically means casting men in all of the roles, even for female characters. In a similar way, Opitz decided to cast women in a male dominated play. Meaning the cast of 16 divides into eight men, eight women, with each actor playing multiple roles of multiple genders. Opitz simply had to say: “I like it all. I am not a traditionalist.”
Furthering his contemporary nature, Opitz refurts to Bertolt Brecht, a theatre practitioner who was famous for highlighting the constructed nature of theatre through his bare stages and limited staging. Opitz enjoys this form of theatre because it puts all of the emphasis on the actors themselves. Just an open stage, and a few actors vulnerable, noticeable, alone.
“The only furniture in the entire show is one desk with two chairs (as if in a field headquarters in battle), a couple of crates put together with folding chairs, and there is one throne-like chair. That’s the only furniture in the show. The actors stand a lot.”
There is no hiding in this play. On stage is only the actors, their passion, and their character. And when the play ends and the applause fades to quiet, all we can see are 16 actors standing bare on stage with only their voices singing out one last time. The audience watches as they dance on the edge of a volcano, cliff, ledge.
The show may be a risk, but that is what good theatre is.
“To see fellow students, peers, dealing with this very difficult work -- language, issues, relationships -- is celebratory. And, it’s a play that makes us think -- not just about Julius Caesar, but about our world here. Shakespeare was not afraid of political thought, and I think we are doing this play in the spirit of that.”