At the end of June, I caught a performance of Richard III by Smith Street Stage, held outdoors in Carroll Park in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The production was fabulous – the actors, especially Michael Hanson who played Richard, were great – despite the occasional horn or siren or screaming kids. I later spoke with Jonathan Hopkins, who not only directed that particular production, but is also the Executive Director of Smith Street Stage. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Liz: Tell me a bit about your background. I see you came to New York to study acting at NYU. How did you discover theatre? Shakespeare?
Jonathan: I like Shakespeare because in my senior year of high school we read Hamlet, and it had a really big impact on me. It’s one of those experiences that people have with the arts and with literature, where you feel that something speaks to you or makes you think about something in a different way. And for me that was reading Hamlet in Ms. Hobeika’s senior English class, in Blacksburg, Virginia.
I came to New York as a freshman at NYU. I had done theatre and speech debate in high school, so I was already into performing, and I wanted to pursue it professionally.
In the NYU training program, you’re placed in one of several conservatories; I was placed into the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting …. a studio that puts a lot of focus on the classics, particularly Shakespeare, so that cultivated the curiosity I had coming into school.
Liz: In addition to acting – on stage and film – you’ve also directed, you run the Smith Street Stage, and you teach at the Stella Adler school. How is it moving among these different roles? Is there one you might like to do more of?
Jonathan: I think all of them have skills and insights that help with all of the others, but you have to pick and choose what skills and insights are most appropriate, especially going from acting to directing. Acting is a subjective experience; it’s about something that directly connects you to your character or performance of that character – an experience inside something. Directing is the opposite. Having the vocabulary is helpful, having the experience is helpful. You do, I think, have to adjust your viewpoint a bit as you go from one to another.
Liz: You’ve acted both on stage and in film; is there one you prefer?
Jonathan: I like both of them. I’ve done so much more stage, so I have more experience and more of a sense of whether something will work or won’t work. I don’t have nearly as much experience in film so I just have to try my best and hope that it’s ok.
Liz: And what about teaching – you teach at Stella Adler.
Jonathan: The last six or so years I’ve been teaching at Stella Adler, and I really love the opportunity to work with young actors. These are not Shakespeare classes, they’re voice classes – training actors to use their instruments in a healthy, effective and compelling way. I love trying to help actors understand how to approach the material, how to rehearse the material, how to use their breath and their voices and the sounds of the language to help make acting material easier. In Richard, a lot of the actors were students I had had. That’s fun too, you can see the students develop and then work their way up to a professional stage.
Liz: While we’re on the subject of Richard, what led to the founding of Smith Street Stage in 2010?
Jonathan: It wasn’t me at all, I never would have done it. It was my girlfriend at the time – she’s now my wife – Beth Ann Hopkins. We had worked for a Shakespeare theatre in New Jersey, and developed a small cast Romeo & Juliet that we did there in a workshop format. We wanted to do it there for a full production, [but] we couldn’t and that was very disappointing. At the time Beth Ann was living in Carroll Gardens and had the idea that we could do the show in that park. That was the beginning of it. She wanted to start a theatre company and I didn’t. So we did a 5-actor Romeo & Juliet [in the park]. It was our first production, and the response was very positive. Beth Ann said, “We’re starting the company.” I don’t think I would have had the courage to do something that difficult, so it was Beth Ann who started the company.
Liz: It seems like you’ve grown the company very well – you’ve got around 20 actors.
Jonathan: Yes, 20 actors plus musicians, designers, production help, someone working on marketing/publicity and someone working on our graphic design. The number of actors we have is contingent on the needs of the show. But we are able to increase our audience, increase our production support, staff support, and we try every year in someway to increase the quality of the production we present in the park.
Liz: What are the challenges of running a theatre company in New York? I think first of all you’ve got the challenge of growing the company, and then there’s the second challenge, separate from that, of doing a production in a public space like the park where you have many limited facilities ….
Jonathan: The second part of your question is easier. The challenges of the space – noise. Ambulances, helicopters, kids. But I’m of the mind that in many ways those challenges are a benefit, in that it makes our audiences more appreciative of our efforts to present something in that space. The idea is that the show we’re making should serve an audience, provoke thought in an audience, entertain an audience, and make an audience think about human conflict and things like that. I think that there’s an element of those challenges that makes our audiences more appreciative of our efforts to produce something in a space that’s public and easy to access, and free.
The hard thing about running Smith Street Stage – it’s hard to give a concise answer because the challenge is everything. When you manage something, you’re more or less responsible for everything, and that’s not a challenge that is particular to theatre, or to our theatre company, but I would say that’s one of the hard things. Because in New York there is a lot of arts programming available, trying to carve out your company’s voice in that space can be a challenge, [as can] trying to maximize the resources you have to present something of top quality.
Liz: Besides the park, what other venues are you using? How is it finding rehearsal space?
Jonathan: Finding rehearsal space can be tricky – we have some luck because when rehearsing the park shows, we can use the park and the park house, which ultimately becomes our dressing room. Because I work at the Stella Adler Studio, that body is very generous to us; when their space is available we can use some. This summer we were lucky, one block down Carroll Street there’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and on multiple occasions when we lost rehearsal space, that parish came through and allowed us to rehearse there. So we’ve been very lucky but it certainly can be a tricky thing, especially for a small to medium sized company like ours.
Liz: How often do you do shows in a year?
Jonathan: We do 3 to 4. We do one main stage production, that’s in Carroll Park, and then the last couple of years we have also done readings and workshops throughout the year. We just did A Winters Tale, directed by Erik Pearson, in April. In August we’re doing an adaptation of An Enemy of the People, which is being directed by our Artistic Director Beth Ann Hopkins. The last couple of years we shifted our model, so to speak, to still be centered around the Summer Shakespeare in Carroll Gardens but also to produce different writers and to include workshops and readings that take place in different venues, that are done with different directors, and can be performed in different styles. It’s all an effort to diversify what we produce.
Liz: You’ve sort of touched on it, but what makes running a theatre company in Brooklyn easy?
Jonathan: The people – that was one of the easier answers. This feeling that you’re building an artistic home for people, the ability to control the way you work and what you value in the work, and being able to nurture a community of talented and smart and conscientious artists is, I think, consistently the most rewarding thing, along with the response from the audience, the feeling from the audience that you’re doing something that has value for them. They look forward to the shows and they come out every summer. I was talking to one audience member who said, “I come every year. Last year you did Tempest, right, and before that you did Henry IV,” and we went down the list – he had seen every show except our first. That’s really rewarding, the idea that you are fostering an appreciation and a respect and a relationship with that literature and the audience members who come to see it.
I guess the question was “What’s the easiest part” and I’m sort of changing it to the most rewarding … but being able to work with those artists and create a home for those artists and learn from them and from how they work is very rewarding.
To answer the actual question, I would say the easiest part is working on the shows, rehearsing the shows, that part doesn’t feel like work … fundraising can feel like work, and getting our park permits in on time can feel like work, but when you’re actually in a room with the actors, acting a scene or directing a scene, or talking about a scene, that doesn’t feel like work.
Liz: Do you know what you’ll be presenting next year? How long is your lead time?
Jonathan: Before we do An Enemy of the People (August 31st & September 1st) we’ll be having preliminary discussions about the Summer Shakespeare shows and the other shows and making our decisions for that in the fall. Then we have an end-of-year fundraiser in November/December, which is usually when we announce what we’ll be doing in the next year. So we’re now in preliminary discussions, brainstorming about what will come next for us. The year after next will be our tenth year in Carroll Park so we’re already talking about that and trying to make it something special.
Liz: What can people expect when they go see Enemy of the People?
Jonathan: This will be an indoor production. From what I’ve heard, this will be a more experimental adaptation of the story. Enemy of the People is a great play, it’s a terribly relevant play. Beth Ann is taking the story that is at the heart of the play and finding a way to express that through movement, through dance, through music, as well as through scenes and monologues that she and her assistant director, Matthew Sciarappa are adapting. One of the reasons we’ve done this workshop series is to give us an opportunity to work in styles of theatre that may be more experimental, or bold, or more strange, or take more risks. So I think that that could be one expectation for people who come, that they will see the story of An Enemy of the People but they will be seeing it through a really new and unique lens. If they saw Richard, they could now expect to see something quite different in its style.
Smith Street Stage will be performing An Enemy of the People on August 31st and September 1st at The Actors Fund, 160 Schermerhorn Street in Downtown Brooklyn.
You can find more information on Smith Street Stage on their website.