Stephen Burdman: Making Theatre a Walk in the Park

Stephen Burdman serves as Artistic Director of the New York Classical Theater. Every summer, New York Classical presents several productions of free, minimalist promenade, or roving classical theatre in Central Park, near the 103rd Street / Central Park North entrance. This year's repertoire includes Cymbeline, reviewed this month by offoffonline.

Q: Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's least-often produced plays. Why did you choose it for New York Classical's 2008 production?

Stephen Burdman: Our mission is to present "popular classics and forgotten masterpieces" - and I think that Cymbeline fits very well into the latter part of our mission. I also happen to love the play - I directed it in 2002 at NYU's Tisch School for the Arts. Louis Scheeder, Director/Founder of the Classical Studio and Dean of Faculty at NYU Tisch School for the Arts, is directing the current production. When I approached him to work for us, this was one of the plays that he wanted to do. Our audience has also seen many Shakespeare productions from us - ten, in fact - and I felt that this was an important play to which they should be exposed.

Q: Cymbeline famously occupies an intriguingly ambiguous place in terms of genre. What is it? A comedy? A tragicomedy? A romance? Something else? And does it matter?

Burdman: For me, I really don't think it matters. In fact, much like The Winter's Tale - which one of my board members describes as a "greatest hits" of Shakespeare: Magic, Comedy, Tragedy, et cetera. Since the first great tragic-comedy, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, I feel audiences are open to the mixing of genres. For me, this makes the piece more interesting.

Q: It is certainly a fascinating piece. This year, Lincoln Center Theatre presented Cymbeline, starring Martha Plimpton, Michael Cerveris, and Phylicia Rashad. How does your Cymbeline differ from that one?

Burdman: Well, first of all, it is outside. Second, it is roving - each scene takes place in a different location and the audience follows the play from place to place as the performance moves from scene to scene within twelve acres of Central Park. Third, there is no scenery. And fourth, all of our rehearsals and performances are free and open to the public. I am not able to tell you the differences in the productions, as I never saw the Lincoln Center production, but ours is very interactive and runs two hours, without an intermission.

Q: Your summer 2007 show, George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, is a brilliant comedic classic, but also a disturbing satire of army recruitment for unpopular and unintelligible wars. Contemporary parallels were inescapable. Contrarily, Lincoln Center's Cymbeline has been called an "escapist" play, and even criticized for its supposed lack of modern relevance. How does your Cymbeline speak to contemporary society?

Burdman: Our produciton of Cymbeline is about relationships - father to daughter, father to sons, husbands to wives, brothers to sister, friends to friends and many more. Plays become classics when they are able to reach beyond their contemporary audiences and reveal something essential to the human condition. Cymbeline does this through relationships.

Q: What is up next for you and New York Classical?

Burdman: This summer we are presenting Macbeth throughout Battery Park/Castle Clinton (6/26-7/12) and then George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance - our first Shaw - in Central Park (7/31-8/24). In the summer of 2009, we will be celebrating our 10th Anniversary Season with a production of King Lear in Central Park followed by The Tempest in Battery Park. We will close that season with a Moliere comedy in August 2009 in Central Park. Plans are also underway for 2010, but are not secured yet.

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