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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

30 Years After Founding STL Shakespeare, Donna Northcott Takes a Curtain Call

Posted By on Wed, Aug 27, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Maggie Winninger in the title role of SLS's most recent Hamlet. - KIM CARLSON
  • Kim Carlson
  • Maggie Winninger in the title role of SLS's most recent Hamlet.

Donna Northcott wanted to direct The Liar.

How could she not? David Ives' hysterical adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 1643 farce simply crackles with comedic wit. Written in 2010 The Liar not only offered Northcott an opportunity to direct a fresh new work, but it also afforded her theater company, St. Louis Shakespeare, the chance to produce a play that's all but unknown to local audiences.

Alas, she had to pass on directing The Liar, handing it instead to Suki Peters so she could concentrate on last month's season opener, Hamlet. After all, this season is a big one for Northcott, filled with personal and professional landmarks. Not only does it mark her company's 30th anniversary, but with the March 2015 production of a Sarah Whitney's specially commissioned version of the War of the Roses trilogy (Henry VI), Northcott will have overseen the completion of the entire Shakespeare canon, making it one of only seven troupes in America to have done so.

This season will also be Northcott's last as artistic director. She plans to step down at its end, passing the mantle to Peters, who's planning big changes for the troupe, finding it a new permanent home and re-envisioning the company as less Bard-centric.

Still, like Hamlet says, the play's the thing....

When Northcott founded St. Louis Shakespeare back in 1984, fresh off of her studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and crazy for Shakespeare, she chose not to make her professional directorial debut with one of the Bard's more straightforward plays — Romeo and Juliet, say, or Macbeth. No. Northcott, who at that point had directed and a couple of one-acts in college, founded the company with the troubled Prince of Denmark himself — Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest and arguably most morally complex work.

"It's like bumblebees," Northcott says of her first Hamlet. "They don't know that they're aerodynamically unable to fly, so they just do it."

click to enlarge KIM CARLSON
  • Kim Carlson

This summer's production is only the second time Northcott directed Hamlet after that initial 1984 production — a notable fact for a director who over the years has staged many of the Shakespeare plays numerous times, logging no less than seven productions of A Midsummer's Night Dream, four of those with St. Louis Shakespeare.

But now, thirty years later, she wanted to open her final season as she'd begun her first — wrestling with the suffering Dane.

"I wanted that bookend," Northcott says.

She also wanted to take a very different approach, casting Maggie Winninger in the title role, and having her deliver one of Hamlet's famous soliloquies as a confession to Ophelia. In many ways, Northcott's Hamlet — novel, but not gratuitously so — was a culmination of three decades of work, bringing to bear the lessons she had learned while directing a small Shakespeare company that has served as a proving ground for many of the city's thespian class.

"She's the mastermind behind everything," says Peters (a Riverfront Times MasterMind Award winner last year). "She built this company from the ground up. A lot of actors here first cut their teeth on a St. Louis Shakespeare play."

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