STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin Enthralls at Cultural Leadership Breakfast

When, in his 20s, Simon Godwin decided to leave the Royal and Derngate Theatres in Northampton, England, to study clowning, mime and acrobatics at the London International School of Performing Arts, his soon-to-be-former boss declared: “Your career will be over!” 

But that sidetrack into physical theater and improvisation led to a string of major opportunities and successes for the young director. 

“Sometimes being ‘good’ at something is a kind of limitation,” said Godwin — since 2019 artistic director of D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company — at the Nov. 18 relaunch of The Georgetowner’s Cultural Leadership Breakfast Series. That he wasn’t a natural clown or acrobat, in his telling, was a surprise to the group taking in his lively, almost stand-up-like, presentation at the Tabard Inn. 

Godwin has continued to push himself out of his comfort zone while making actors feel safe to leave theirs. His long list of U.K. credits includes productions at the Royal Court Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic (seven world premieres), the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where he directed a “Hamlet” starring Paapa Essiedu, the first Black actor to play the role for RSC. At the National, he directed George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” and Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” with Ralph Fiennes.  

Also for the National, his filmed adaptation of a staged “Romeo and Juliet” with Josh O’Connor of “The Crown” and Irish actor Jessie Buckley, audience-less due to the pandemic, was shown on PBS earlier this year. Godwin described it as “a hybrid of theater and film” in which, for example, an actor holds a stick that becomes a knife and the bare stage morphs into a realistic setting. (His STC contract has a provision permitting him to direct one show a year at the National, possibly bringing it to D.C.) 

At STC, Godwin is following the 30-plus-year tenure of Michael Kahn, who relocated the company from the Folger Shakespeare Library to the 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre on 7th Street NW and in 2007 opened the 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall, nearby on F St. Along with losing a chunk of his first in-person season to Covid, the new artistic director was “confronted with the reality of the business model.” He pointed out that government support for STC amounts to less than $200,000 — versus 21 million pounds at the National Theatre — with private philanthropy a much bigger part of the culture here. 

Further, the subscription model doesn’t exist in England and has been in decline in the U.S. He speculated that STC might consider the replacement of season subscriptions with a Netflix-type monthly fee, promoting a “sense of shared initiative and endeavor.” 

During the pandemic lockdown, STC convened a series of virtual conversations called “Shakespeare Hour LIVE!” with a wide range of guests (the videos are available online). This will continue on a play-by-play basis, he said. Another lockdown project was a one-man show about Shakespeare’s villains by Patrick Page of “Hadestown.” 

Godwin said he has no intention of doing Shakespeare productions in period costume, pointing out that Shakespeare himself mounted history plays in contemporary dress. Beyond the Bard, he aims to seek out “idiosyncratic classical works,” also looking to rebrand STC both in its visual identity and its public spaces, renovating the two venues’ foyers. 

Godwin spoke enthusiastically about “Once Upon a One More Time,” a new musical incorporating hits by Britney Spears (though she will not appear), now in rehearsal and opening Nov. 30. The show, about a book club of fairy tale princesses who read Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” is having strong advance sales. While Broadway revivals will continue to be seen at STC — “Evita” is being discussed — Godwin said the “true dream” was to get a production to try out in Harman Hall and proceed to Broadway, much as Arena Stage has done with “Dear Evan Hansen,” for instance. The Spears musical, co-produced by the Nederlander Organization, is likely to go that route. Nonprofit theaters desperately need commercial successes to fund their other work, he said. 

Responding to a comment by Cultural Tourism DC head Steve Shulman that it was unusual for an artistic director to be so cognizant of financial goals, Godwin replied: “All those things right now feel very exhilarating.” 

Ward 2 Council member Brook Pinto, in attendance, referred to the current debate about the District’s cultural funding formula and asked about STC’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Noting the success of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner,” which had to close early in 2020 and completed its run last September, Godwin said he wanted STC to be “less myopic in our programming,” producing “classics written by a whole swathe of folks.” He alluded to a Lorraine Hansberry festival, to be developed in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Helping to guide these efforts are the director, Whitney White, and dramaturg, Soyica Colbert, of “The Amen Corner,” who have joined STC as associate directors.  

Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto asked Godwin about the challenges of reaching diverse audiences, especially with tight funding. She expressed her commitment to boost theater arts funding in D.C. Photo by Jeff Malet.

The Georgetowner’s next Cultural Leadership Breakfast, sponsored by Long & Foster, Bonhams and Balfour Senior Living, will take place on Thursday, Dec. 16, from 8 to 9:30 a.m. at the Tabard Inn, 1739 N St. NW. The speaker will be National Building Museum Director Aileen Fuchs. Tickets, available on Eventbrite, are $30.






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