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Richard III: Behind-the-scenes by ARTalk

[by Grace Kane '11, Guest Blogger] What does it take to put on Shakespeare at MIT?

[by Grace Kane ’11, Guest Blogger]

Yes, everyone; shocking as it may seem, MIT has a thriving student theater scene. Though MIT theater is not as large-scale or well-known as that of its nearby Ivy-league counterpart, there is still a contingent of incredibly talented, committed people who manage to struggle through their exams and psets and still put on a series of fantastic shows each term. This term I’ve been incredibly lucky to be a part of a production of Richard III by the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble, one of our four main student theater groups (Musical Theater Guild, Gilbert & Sullivan Players, and Dramashop being the other three). The cast and crew (of which many of us are both) are now almost finished with a month of very hard work, excitement, creativity, superhumanly fast costume changes and late-night power-tool construction and are incredibly proud of what we’ve created. Here’s a short behind-the-scenes look at the process of bringing our collective baby, Richard III to the stage.

Grace Kane ’11 and Chris Smith ’12 as Lady Anne and Richard.

When most people think of Shakespeare they imagine old English men in ruffs reciting iambic pentameter at arm’s length to a skull. Nothing could be further from our production, which sets Shakespeare’s play—written about a fifteenth-century civil war—in an alternate version of modern-day America. Director Susanna Harris Noon says that when reading the play she began to see parallels between the ambitious King Richard III’s murderous rise to the throne and the power-hungry politicians of today. This created some interesting challenges for both directors, designers, and actors. And, I’ll admit, rather appropriate for a theater group that primarily uses its fake Yoric-from-Hamlet skull as a cookie bowl. I asked each of the prod staff how they approached bringing Richard III to life.

Starting Out: Envisioning the Play (Susanna Harris Noon, Director)

“When I first sat down with the script, I was honestly mostly worried about the length. It took me a month to cut down what turns out to be Shakespeare’s second longest play (next to Hamlet), to a running time of about 2 hours. I started out thinking of all the fun ways to play with setting it in a modern context. A scene in a bar. A press conference. Business meetings. However, some things didn’t change (for instance, Richard and his cohorts all wear ceremonial daggers). I love that we changed many of the genders of the characters; having women involved in the politics makes it much more relevant to today. My goal is to direct a show that gives both the actors and the audience something to explore. Performing Shakespeare is absolutely one of the more rewarding experiences an actor can have—the deeper you go into these characters and the text, the more he gives you.”

Elise Kuo ’11 curses the rest of the cast as Mad Margaret.

Designing the Show

One of the most fun parts of working on a show is being on the design team. The light, set, costume, props, hair & make-up, and effects designers all have to work together to bring the director’s vision to life, adding quite a bit of their own vision along the way. Some of our team were taught their skills in one of MIT’s many fantastic theater classes, while others simply joined a theater group and learned by doing. I asked some of them to talk about how they rose to the challenge of designing the show.

Lights (Dan Perez ’10)

“As a starting point for the lighting design, I was inspired by the artwork of Shepard Fairey and Frank Miller, among others. Their almost sculptural portraits and use of a restricted color palette seemed like a great foundation for the aesthetic of the alternate United States we were trying to create for Richard III. The elements of both artists’ work complemented the monochromatic scenic design and the contained use of color in the costume design. By choosing some specific images and collaborating with the director and other designers, the lighting design was driven in a direction much more exciting and compelling than if I would’ve approached the show without any research. It is composed of severly angled lights and shadows that are filled in with saturated colors and graphic textures. Once I had a good sense of what the show should look like and had seen a couple of rehearsals, I created a light plot (a map of the theater detailing where lights should be placed) and chose color filters that would achieve the looks of each individual scene.”

An example of one of the lighting effects used.

Scenic Design (Kellas Cameron ’10, Set Designer, and Grace Kane ’11, Scenic Painter)

“Scenic desing involves two main challenges: building a set that fulfills the practical needs of the play and also capturing the play’s themes and ideas. Because of Richard III‘s modern setting, we were wary of trying to make the set too “real” for fear of anchoring it to a particular modern-day place or person. The set is stark and clean, providing a perfect backdrop for lights, costumes, and actors to be displayed against. All the set features are there for a purpose—in some cases several. The tower, for example, doubles as Richard’s presidential balcony and as the prison where he has his young nephew murdered. Despite the modern setting, we went back to medieval England for symbolic inspiration—the designs on the presidential banners of Richard and his predecessor Edward IV are taken from the original Plantagenet coats of arms.”

The original hand-sketch of the set layout.

Final set.

Costume Design (Emily King ’09 and Naomi Hinchen ’11)

“One of the biggest challenges in costuming Richard III was dealing with the doubled (and tripled, and quadrupled…) roles. Together, the thirteen actors in the cast played twenty-nine distinct parts—some of which changed costumes over the course of the play. Add in the modern, White House setting, and it’s a real challenge to distinguish between two dozen characters running around in suits.

“We were very concerned about distinguishing between the different characters played by the same actor and so tried to make each costume distinct. For instance, Catesby, Lady Anne, and 2nd Murderer are all played by the same actress. Of these, Catesby wears the closest thing to a suit (though, unlike in the orignal, our Catesby is female). Anne is the only character in a dress, which makes her stand out as a very different personality from all the other suit-wearing characters. And the murderer gives an opportunity to break out of the realm of suits completely.

Grace Kane ’11 transforms from the aristocratic Lady Anne to ambitious politician Catesby, via a 15-year-old hired murderer.

“Another challenge was to give visual cues to tie together certain groups of people. The indication of rank we chose to makr the King is a royal purple sash, which allowed us to use color to connect the members of the royal family. Until King Edward’s death, Queen Elizabeth wears a shirt of the same color as the sash, and Rivers and Dorset, Elizabeth’s brother and son, have purple ties. This marks them as members of the same group, and the subsequent loss of the purple garments shows their loss of power following Edward’s death. At Richard’s coronation, he gains the purple sash along with the kingship and the power he’s been seeking.”

Projection Effects (Megan Nimura, MIT Staff: Energy Initiative)

One of the greatest challenges of Richard III was the “ghost scene”—a dream sequence where Richard is tormented by the ghosts of his dead victims. Though often cut from productions because of its logistical difficulty, our team decided to take on the challenge. Megan Nimura, who designed and edited the video, explains how it was made.

“When approaching a scene like the ghost scene in Richard III, a director can choose to play it in many different ways. Because our director, Susanna, wanted to modernize our production, it gave us more creative license with this scene. Susanna decided to attempt a video that would be projected onto the set. We shot all of the actors playing ghosts on one day using only two lights to create more contrast on the faces. We added some make-up to create even more contrast and then made all the decisions about effects in post-production. After choosing the best clips and then splicing them together, we were able to add some very fun visual and audio effects. I worked in collaboration with Susanna to create a cohesive final project with my vision—skeletal, vampire-like faces—and hers—color-washed and other-worldly floating heads. After adding some of my effects with the color of her vision, we played with audio reverberation and echo effects as well as adding additional audio tracks to emphasize certain action words. We then worked with the sound designer in creating a backtrack and intro music.”

“Murdered princes” Brianna Conrad ’11 and Anna Brunner ’12 don ghostly make-up in preparation for the photoshoot.

The murdered princes as projected in the final effect.

Rehearsal in Progress

The rehearsal period for our spring shows is very short, only around four weeks. It’s crucial for all the actors to be on the ball for every rehearsal. Particularly important are the fight scenes, which have to be carefully choreographed (here by our fight director, Noel Morales ’12) and practiced continually to ensure no one gets hurt.

Hired murderer James Tyrrel (Jacob Austin-Brenemann ’13) rehearses killing the young Prince of York (Anna Brunner ’12).

Tech Week: Bringing It All Together

Tech week, which for us is now drawing to a close, is the most crazy, hectic part of the whole crazy, hectic process. From Saturday to Wednesday, lights have to be hung, the set has to be built, costumes finished and cues programmed, and the cast has to get used to acting in their peformance space for the first time. This is the part of the process where the whole cast and crew really have to come together and put in all the effort they can to make the show the best it can be. It’s tough, but also a whole lot of fun. Part of that might be due to having people you can construct a stage with until 3am, then pset with til 5am while still having a great time…

Producer Elaina Present ’12 having fun with power tools.

Technical Director Brianna Conrad ’11 and Master Carpenter Paul Romer ’12 take a break from construction to survey their set.

Hair & Make-up Designer Sarah Laderman ’12 creating a scar for King Richard (Chris Smith ’12) before a dress rehearsal.

…which, in the end, is what it’s all about. What really makes the show are the wonderful people that we get to hang out with all through the process and with whom we manage to create something we can all be proud of.

RICHARD III opens today and runs Thursday to Saturday March 11–13 and 18–20. For more information about the show and about the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble in general, visit our website at

9 responses to “Richard III: Behind-the-scenes”

  1. tree says:

    wow my second first!!!
    and terrific pictures!

  2. Amazing pictures!!!!

  3. anonymous says:

    Interesting! Ive seen a similar play, and they did a “modern” Shakespeare play but talked how it was written(Old English?). In this one, are they going to keep the dialog how it was written?

  4. Anonymous says:

    @anonymous: We’re a ‘text based’ Shakespeare group, which means it’s always our policy to perform the original text. Shakespeare was an amazing writer, so it’s far better that way anyway. smile

  5. Avishek says:

    Wowowo Shakespeare, lovely!!
    “…Friends, Romans, Countrymen…”

    Well a great post and should be a great show.
    Hope to see some videos of the play posted as well.
    Good lucks.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Break a leg guys!

  7. Anirban says:

    the two gals dressed like ghost freked me out!!!!! :-DDD

  8. Ruslan says:

    Nice work!!!

  9. Cathy '13 says:

    Grace — I am totally coming to watch you guys perform next Friday/Saturday!! Break legs!!