Eric Tucker has a close relationship with imagination — by instinct and necessity. It’s something he and his innovative theater company will demonstrate when they arrive at McCarter Theater on Friday, January 13.
When his work directing classic plays, regionally as well as in New York and Los Angles, gave him the notion of starting his own theater company, Tucker knew he didn’t want to produce a series of showcases that would pop up sporadically on cultural calendars. He envisioned an ongoing, sustainable theater for which he could build an ongoing audience on a regular, predictable schedule.
Doing this meant gathering enough funders and funding to stage a season of shows rather than raising just enough money for one rental spanning a couple of weekends.
Tucker knew people who admired his work enough to back him. He and actress Andrus Nichols were financed enough to co-found New York-based Bedlam Theatre in the image they desired.
Tucker, who is Bedlam’s artistic director, concentrated on filling the stage and acquiring donors while Nichols dealt with administrative and logistical details. How to use the resources they accrued while presenting engaging theater was the question.
“Economics stimulate the imagination,” Tucker says during one of two telephone sessions from New York.
The solution, at Bedlam’s beginning and for its visit to McCarter from January 13 to February 12, is smaller casts. Tucker imagined two of the more epic plays in the theatrical canon, William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” performed by four actors each — with the same four actors in both.
For McCarter, the same four actors with which Tucker launched Bedlam’s initial staging of “Saint Joan” in 2012 will perform — with Tucker playing Hamlet, Nichols as Joan of Arc, and Tom O’Keefe and Edmund Lewis assaying dozens of other roles, joined when possible by Tucker and Nichols.
“I had experience working on budgets,” Tucker says, “and much of Shakespeare lends itself to double casting. We took matters a step further.”
“Further” means actors will at times be playing more than one character in scenes.
Economy of cast does not mean economy of script. Tucker admires classic text and wants Shakespeare’s and Shaw’s entire stories to be heard. Each production has a three-hour running time that includes two intermissions. Adding extra curiosity and fascination, audience seating is reconfigured at each of the intermissions. Bedlam has shown its adaptability to playing spaces. Once, Tucker says, when a fire alarm went off in the company’s theater, the cast moved the action to the Tribeca street and continued the play there.
“We present large ideas and a large experience on a small palette,” Tucker says. “As I make decisions, I often ask myself. ‘Would I make the same choice if I had $1 million at my disposal?’ Naturally, there would be some differences. Perhaps more lighting, more effects than a house that allows us 10 lighting mounts. Shoestring finances make you consider how important effects really are. We pay more attention to Shaw and Shakespeare, to the words.
“When the players come to Elsinore, Hamlet speaks of hearing a play. The lines, the verse, are critical to him, not effects. The player’s theatricality is verbal and emotional. He speaks lines trippingly and weeps dramatically. Words become more important when all else is reduced. In terms of theater, Joan standing alone and demoralized in a single light can be quite effective.
“‘Hamlet’ and ‘Joan,’ for all that is said and all that happens, work well when reduced to the simple and bare. People listen, pay attention, to what Shaw and Shakespeare are saying, what Hamlet, Joan, and the characters are saying. It’s often a fuller experience than a production that fills time with pageant and music but edits the text. I see the people leaning forward in their chairs taking in all that is said. The shows are paced to heighten the drama, to make all that is going on clear and understood. We may only have four actors, but the play has to be a feast. Small palette or not, we want audiences to experience the full scope of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Saint Joan.’
“In conceiving the idea of how to do the grand in a compact way, I thought of the chorus in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ and how it refers to the bare theater as a ‘wooden O’ and asks the audience to imagine royal courts and giant battlefields being situated there.”
Tucker says he is working with great friends and colleagues and that he invites improvisation. He says he also likes to think of the characters as having conversations and hatching plots to which the audience is privy. “I’m not looking for polish but for conveying complex stories in an intimate, involving way.”
“From the beginning, and this is as teen in Caldwell, I was always more interested in directing than acting. I was born in Roanoke, Virginia, but we moved to Caldwell when I was quite young, and Idaho is where I grew up.” It is also where his parents, Judy, a legal secretary, and Charles, a food processor manager, live.
Except for some acting in high school Tucker did not have a lot of exposure to theater before he left his hometown of Caldwell, Idaho, to major in theater at Rhode Island College in Providence.
“I didn’t know much about theater, but I was drawn to it. I went to Providence thinking I would study at Brown. Once again, smaller was better. For me, anyhow, Rhode Island College had a great theater program. Once again, or maybe for the first time, budget had a place in my decision. I could get a great theater education at Rhode Island for less money than I could at Brown, so that was my choice.”
Tucker jokes he splurged and went into debt to take a graduate course in theater at Providence’s venerable regional company, Trinity Rep.
“For as long as I can remember, I was attracted to actors,” continues Tucker. “I used to collect pictures of them. These were movie actors. There wasn’t a lot of theater in Caldwell, or even Boise, but I was always at the movies. It was chameleons like Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep that caught my attention, how they could be so different from role to role. At the same time, I was fascinated by direction. I was one of those kids who could remember a movie shot by shot and take it apart and analyze what a director was doing. I particularly liked the work of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. They are so smart and so much a part of the story they are telling.
“I pictured myself making decisions on framing and presenting scenes, of setting a lot in motion while keeping true to a story. I didn’t see only new movies. There was an art house in Boise, only a 40-minute drive, where I could see the work of Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut. I can watch ‘8 ½’ and ‘La Dolce Vita’ over and over again. My work in the theater has even been described by critics and others as cinematic.
“Even though movies were my pre-occupation and what attracted me to entertainment, I knew it was in the theater where I’d learn the basics, so that’s what I looked for when I considered what I would do about college. There was a question whether anyone could actually make a living in the theater, but I went to Providence and Rhode Island College anyhow. I could worry about serious things later.”
Tucker now lives in New York, where the subway is his main conveyance between home and theater. He is married to actress Susannah Millonzi, who has worked with Bedlam and with whom Tucker is expecting a child this spring.
Tucker says he managed to make a living by finding directing jobs in regional theaters. “Work begat work, and more work begat a reputation. I was always working. It was one job to the next, but the work was there. Eventually I began working at theaters season after season. I have always been drawn to the classics but have directed a wide range of plays with a wide range of budgets. I was in L.A., which has a lot of showcase theaters when I realized I wanted to have my own company and that New York was the place to go to accomplish that. I knew Andrus, and we began working to establish Bedlam. Our first show was ‘Saint Joan,’ and the first actors who worked with us were Ted and Tom (Lewis and O’Keefe). I continue to do some work away from Bedlam, but it is my prime commitment.”
Hamlet and Saint Joan, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Presented in repertory, Friday, January 13, to Sunday, February 12. $25 to $96.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.