The reputation of the Texas Shakespeare Festival at Kilgore College precedes itself.
This year’s festival features two directors who are new to the City of Stars’ celebration of the Bard: Donald Carrier and Leda Hoffman. This is also musical director Paul Marszalkowski’s first season.
Each was happy to spend two months in Kilgore because they had heard “great things” about the festival, as Hoffman put it.
Calling his experience with the festival “wonderful,” Marszalkowski said TSF knows how to hire “people who are talented, but also who know how to work with other people.”
Carrier’s student, TSF alumnus Peter Hargrave, recommended it.
“He spoke so highly of it: the organization, the quality of the work, the care the theater had of the plays. … I had a really positive feeling about it,” Carrier said.
Carrier directs this season’s “Othello.” He wasn’t familiar with it, having only seen one stage production and the 1995 film version with Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Fishburne.
“I came to it pretty open, I would say, to interpretation. And I think that’s a good thing,” Carrier said. If a director is too familiar with a play, it’s harder “to come to it with fresh eyes.”
Two major themes in “Othello” are the effects of jealousy and how deception and jealousy can be used to manipulate people.
The play was written in 1603 and takes place in Venice, Italy. Othello is described as a “Moor,” which then meant a North African. Othello has been played as an Arab, but since the 20th century, he’s traditionally been played by a black man.
“Othello is an outsider. He’s someone who has achieved a great deal of power, but he will always be an outsider,” Carrier said.
Othello is subjected to racism and profiling.
“It’s not constant … but at key moments it’s made clear, ‘You are an outsider,’ ” Carrier said.
At the same time, Othello is “a general of the army. He’s someone who they desperately need to lead their army into battle,” he added.
Set against Othello is Iago, whom Carrier called Othello’s “frenemy.” Iago has the most lines in the play and frequently speaks to the audience.
He is furious with Othello and wants revenge. A generally accepted theory is that he is angry because he wasn’t appointed the army’s second-in-command.
“The play is exciting. The plot is forever interesting, it has all these twists in it. … It’s almost like a thriller, in a way,” he said. “There are moments of contrast, so it’s not all gloom and doom. There are moments of love, of hope,” Carrier said.
Carrier has a wealth of directing and acting experience, having performed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre, D.C. and the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival.
He spent nine seasons at the world-famous Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, where he played leading roles and was assistant director on “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Carrier currently is the interim director for the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master’s of Fine Arts Acting Program and a 2016 Lunt-Fontanne Fellow.
Hoffman directs “Born Yesterday” by Garson Kanin; she enjoys working with a large group of people to make the comedy come to life on stage.
Set in “the nicest hotel room in Washington, D.C., in 1946,” the play concerns a woman who lives a simple life, who has what she wants on a day-to-day basis, Hoffman said.
Then something happens to make her want to know more about the world. She reads books and goes to museums.
“By expanding her mind, her world opens up,” Hoffman said.
“I hope (the audience is) really excited by this story … that people can change. When you open up your mind and think about the world around you, you can really make a difference,” she said.
Hoffman fell in love with theater and directing as a student at Grinnell College in Iowa.
“As a director, I get to be involved at the very beginning — creating the sets, costumes, lighting, etc. Everything that makes up the play,” she said.
“I like to work with actors who come to rehearsal with ideas about who their characters are,” Hoffman said.
“Give them a glass sitting on a table. You don’t have to tell them to pick up the glass. They will pick it up, in interacting with another character, when it is most natural for them,” she said.
Hoffman’s directing credits include “A Christmas Carol” and “Lady Day” at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, part of the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, Ohio; “Hamlet” at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival; and “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Tempest,” and “Romeo and Juliet” at Door Shakespeare in Bailey’s Harbor, Wisconsin.
Marszalkowski is music director for the festival’s production of “Into the Woods,” by Stephen Sondheim.
“A music director is the conduit between the orchestra – the musicians – the director and the actors on stage,” he said.
During productions, Marszalkowski stands below the front of the stage, just high enough that both the musicians and actors can see him. The audience sits behind him.
This is his fourth time as music director for “Into the Woods.”
“It is a very text-heavy show. ‘Into the Words,’ people call it,” Marszalkowski said, laughing.
“The fact that I’m doing it with Shakespearean actors … who are used to working with so many words, is an absolute blast. It’s the best,” he said.
Marszalkowski likes the relationship between parents and children in the show, how parents pass stories along to their children.
The first act is a retelling of several traditional fairy tales. Act Two is what happens after “happily ever after,” he said.
“I hope they’re moved by what the show tells us about family, how families deal with loss, with complications. I hope they come out of it with a feeling of warmth,” Marszalkowski added.
He became involved in theater when he was a teenager at an all-boys Catholic high school in Buffalo, New York.
“It was basically a social thing for me. … I fell in love with the idea of making up stories on stage. ... With musical theater, you get all of the emotional aspects that music can bring to the story,” Marszalkowski said.
He is an assistant professor of musical theatre at the University of Mississippi, and he has worked as a music director with Pacific Conservatory Theatre in California and Weathervane Theatre in New Hampshire.
Marszalkowski is a graduate of the State University of New York at Fredonia and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, a music school in Glasgow.