At first, the Poor Players seemed somewhat strange. Most were still in college when they formed in 2004. And their mission? To produce new, venturesome versions of the plays of…William Shakespeare? That young? Burning to do the Bard — and not post-apocalypse diatribes about a rotten world? Not deconstructing nihilism, or whatever?
Nope. Shakespeare. And they were “poor.” They mounted over 20 productions on the thinnest dime in town. Most were in an old storefront in Normal Heights, where many in attendance saw live Shakespeare for the first time and came back again and again.
The idea for a company was born on a day of destruction. Richard Baird and Nick Kennedy meet on September 11, 2001 at an audition for Twelfth Night. The first production was Titus Andronicus at the Sunshine Brooks Theatre in Oceanside.
After their final production in 2010, the company began to follow individual careers, many on local stages: Rachael Van Wormer, Max Macke, Nick Kennedy, Neil MacDonald, Justin Lang.
Richard Baird, the founding artistic director of Poor Players, first performed in North Coast Rep’s Arcadia at age 18. He almost missed a rehearsal to attend his graduation ceremony: “After I took the walk, instead of sitting back down with my fellow students, I threw my hat and walked off, so I could be on time for rehearsal, which I was.”
Baird has since acted and directed around the country: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chicago Shakespeare, and the Old Globe.
Baird has returned to San Diego. He, Amanda Schaar (managing director), and Matt Thompson (associate artistic director) formed the New Fortune Theatre Company earlier this year.
Their mission statement: “produce classical works as relevant and new, and new works as modern classics.”
“You could say the company springs from the ashes of the Poor Players,” says Baird, the artistic director. “We won’t be just producing Shakespeare. And when we do we will treat it as a brand new play. Shakespeare’s Henry V wasn’t originally presented in medieval dress from 1415 but in Elizabethan dress. So it wasn’t performed as a period piece but as a modern version of a familiar story.
“When we approach Shakespeare and his contemporaries (Webster, Massinger, Ford: also playwrights we are interested in), we want to make the plays feel as current as possible. When we produce Ibsen, Chekhov, or the Greeks, we’re looking to create new translations, and to find new ways to present modern classics. Recently, for example, the Old Vic staged Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge as a Greek tragedy.”
Another example: Baird has written an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray and Matt Thompson a new work, Cellar Door. Both will be read as part of New Fortune’s reading series, beginning October 27.
The company’s name signals its dual intent: the Fortune was a Jacobean theater. Built in 1600, it could hold 3000 spectators (but had no toilets; people just went outside). The owners, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn (one of the greatest actors in Shakespeare’s time), took the name from the Roman goddess, Fortuna. She “promised riches and abundance for those with joyful intentions.” For those with less than noble intentions, she’d spin her (in)famous wheel.
The New Fortune Theatre’s inaugural production is a modern dress version of Henry V. It’s the final play in Shakespeare’s “Henriad” cycle which, from Richard II to Henry V, illustrates the rides of English kings on Dame Fortuna’s wheel.
The play opens at Ion Theatre’s BLKBX on October 25. That’s 599 years to the day — St. Crispin’s Day — when newly crowned Henry V fought the Battle of Agincourt with a vastly outnumbered army, (and he fought hand-to-hand), against the French, and won.