Stacy talks about his experiences with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and audio recordings of Shakespeare
Most of the public knows Stacy Keach from his many appearances in film and his work on television as both a series regular and a guest star. Shakespeareans know him for a series of strong and sometimes controversial Shakespeare performances. While a student in Berkeley in 1962, Keach began acting at a semi-professional theatre, as it was then, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), with small parts in Henry IV, part 2, Coriolanus, and as Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors. He played only featured roles and leads in 1963 with Mercutio, Berowne, and Henry V. According to Mary Z. Maher (80), Keach went on to perform more than twenty of Shakespeare’s characters essaying Hamlet three times, Lear twice, and Falstaff once with a second Falstaff soon to open at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D. C. Keach’s Shakespearean stage career is well documented in Maher and John W. Mahon, but his acting in Shakespeare on the radio and other audio performances has been overlooked, and those are the subject of this interview.
I consulted with OSF’s archive on a proposal for a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize the hundreds of audio recordings of the Festival’s full length plays, radio programs, and other audio and video made through 1983 when OSF signed its first contract with actor’s equity. That grant will also put about two-thirds of these recordings on the web where they may be heard free of charge beginning around the middle of 2016. Some shows, such as copyright protected plays and broadcasts heard on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) must be held back for rights reasons. Mr. Keach’s work for OSF was professionally recorded by long-time radio producer Andrew C. Love.
I mention the grant because Mr. Keach was kind enough to contact me after I helped the Festival publicize it, asking what he could do to help. One way was consenting to be interviewed about his Shakespeare audio work, not just for OSF, but more recent work as well.
MPJ: Your father was not just an actor, but performed in and directed radio programs.
SK: Dad created a radio show called, “Tales of the Texas Rangers,” and it aired Sunday nights on NBC. This was in the early 1950’s and I was about twelve and Dad would take me down to the studio to watch the show being created with live actors and Foley sound effects. It was thrilling. I loved watching the actors create their characters with only their voices. It was the beginning of my deep-seated desire to become an actor.
MPJ: For those curious, the program ran from 1950 – 1952 and starred Joel McCray. Did you learn much about putting together a radio show, mic technique, and that sort of thing from your father?
SK: Yes, but we also had a radio speech class at Van Nuys High School, where we would write our own radio dramas and perform them live in front of an audience, adding our own sound effects and music. I had a partner, a fellow student by the name of Joel Tator, and together we formed Tator-Keach Productions. We wrote and shot film sequences as well and presented them as entertainment to the student body. Our radio speech teacher, Ray Kessler, also happened to be college friend of my parents (they all went to Northwestern together), so we managed to get some “special favors” in our radio presentations as Mr. Kessler enhanced the budget to include professional sound effects devices, such as door modules, gravel pits, sirens, whistles, crowd noises, thunder and rain. I remember one show entitled “Dial M for Murgatroid,” which was a comic spinoff of Dial M for Murder.
MPJ: How fun. The Radio Gold Index conflates your radio work and your father’s, so I can’t tell if you had any microphone experience before coming to OSF.
SK: Yes, in both the aforementioned radio speech class, and also giving speeches as a student body officer, which put me in front of an audience.
MPJ: Were you aware of either OSF radio series, on NBC or in syndication, before coming to the Festival?
MPJ: So it was a matter is being told, “Welcome to the company, here are your roles, and the rehearsals for the broadcasts begin Thursday.” I’m exaggerating for, I hope, comic effect. I imaging you got the stage show on its feet, then began the radio work?
SK: Yes, as I recall, most of the recordings were done after the shows were mounted and open to the public.
MPJ: Andrew C. Love did all the recording for OSF from 1951 until the late seventies. He was a long time NBC radio producer/director with experience doing pretty much every type of dramatic and comedic program, so the quality of the recordings was fully professional. He took the work of other directors and redirected the voices for the microphone. After suiting your voice and actions for a 1200 seat theatre, you had to suit your voice to an intimate microphone without the actions. What this a difficult transition? Did Andy Love help with this?
SK: My Dad and Andy Love knew one another from their days at NBC together, so this was personal serendipity for me. Andy was a wonderful director. It made the transition from performing in a 1200 seat theater to an intimate microphone painless and seamless.
MPJ: Do you remember any of the suggestions he made the actors to help make that transition so painless and seamless?
SK: One of Andy’s great virtues as a director was his ability to make the actors feel comfortable during the recordings. He emphasized having fun and being “natural.”
MPJ: Natural seems important for broadcasting. The NBC shows usually went out the week after they were recorded. The syndicated shows would circulate for months into different markets. Were you able to hear the broadcasts?
SK: I’m sorry to say that I’ve never heard the broadcasts and would love to do so.
MPJ: I don’t blame you. OSF tells me they are worried about rights and so will not make copies for anyone. Most of your recordings with them will be available online in 2016 and OSF makes the case that everything extant can be heard by visiting the archive, but not everyone visits Southern Oregon or wants to. Access problems remain. The radio shows are greatly abridged, of course. Did you feel that what the stage director tried to say with the play was fundamentally changed when the production was adapted for the ear, or did it come through?
SK: I think it came through. Andy was always very conscious of capturing the essence of both the plays and the productions.
MPJ: The broadcasts gave the Festival a lot of notice.
SK: I think the radio versions of the plays acted as teaser, in many ways, and prompted audiences to buy tickets to the plays.
MPJ: I’ll bear that out. There was always a sales pitch that led and ended the broadcast. During your time, it was “Stay four days; see four plays.” The programs were produced under the auspices of OSF’s one-man publicity machine, Carl Ritchie. The budget for the broadcasts was part of Carl’s publicity budget, so you are exactly right. I understand the recordings were made in the afternoon on the outdoor stage, the only stage OSF had at that time. It can be hot in Ashland that time of year. Was that a problem? What was the radio rehearsing and recording schedule like?
SK: I don’t recall any specifics about the rehearsing and recording, but I vividly remember how hot the stage could get in the summer afternoons. There were times when we had to mop the stage with cold water just to withstand the heat.
MPJ: A little different than the “Tales of the Texas Rangers” studio, I think. Did you have any trouble conveying what you wanted to convey when so much of your character’s arc is cut for time?
SK: Within the context of every speech and scene there is always something that allows the actor to express himself in the same terms as in performance. The cutting simply telescopes the nature of the character into smaller arcs.
MPJ: Oh, that’s interesting. I have heard actors complain that if this or that line could is cut they could not play the part. Is there something interesting to say about the OSF recordings that I lack the wit to ask?
SK: The recordings provided a unique link to the audience, in that they provided the audience with an inside look at what the Shakespeare Festival was all about. They enhanced the audience’s appreciation for what we were doing.
MPJ: It worked. The broadcasts brought thousands. In the third year on the air, the Festival was visited by people from all forty-eight states, two future states, and ten other countries. The next Shakespeare recordings I find by you are with L. A. Theatre Works (LATW), Brutus in Julius Caesar, 1995, directed by the great director of radio Shakespeare Martin Jenkins, and the Ghost in Hamlet, 2011, directed by Martin Jarvis. You have appeared in many other LATW productions, such as Bertol Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. What is L. A. Theatre Works?
SK: LA Theater Works, of which I’m proud to say I was one of the Founding Members, is an organization, run by Susan Lowenberg, that produces both contemporary and classical plays as radio shows in front of a live audience. I love the experience. I love working in front of a microphone and expressing the emotional disposition of my character with sound effects and music included. It is a direct appeal to the imagination of the viewer, and allows the actor to color his voice accordingly.
MPJ: You say, “as radio shows.” As I understand it, shows are produced in that style, actors with scripts in front of microphones, but in front of an audience and shows are not usually broadcast. Is that correct?
SK: Not quite. We presented four or five shows which are recorded in front of an audience. The editor then later sits down with each “take,” chooses the best ones and then put the final version together. As such, it is not a live broadcast, but a compilation of many recorded shows. These programs are syndicated to several radio stations around the country, sometimes overseas, and a few have been played on NPR.
MPJ: Everything is available for download via the LATW website. I caught Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell interlude with a very starry cast when LATW visited Stanford many years ago. I heartily recommend that people attend their productions, if they can. LATW has such a different method of preparation before an opening that I wonder about your process.
SK: I’m usually familiar with the play prior to the first day of rehearsal, will have even memorized my role in some cases, as I did with Willy Loman and Galileo and Bottom. Beyond this, preparation is largely based on how the director decides he or she wants to rehearse, in which case, I tend to concentrate on those scenes being rehearsed on that particular day. Searching for the right “tone” of a specific scene has everything to do with how the other actors pitch their characters, and this, in turn, is largely dependent on the director’s vision. I am just now beginning to approach Vanya, which doesn’t go into rehearsal until October. It is a new translation by David Mamet, but in preparing for the role I intend to look at a number of English translations of the play. The more information I have about the character and the various expressions of each moment all contribute to what hopefully will be a layered and interesting performance.
MPJ: Let’s note that said that at the end of July so you are working well in advance. In what is called “the golden age of radio,” rehearsals were usually done the day of the broadcast, when there were rehearsals at all. This gives LATW actors the opportunity to build full, deep characterizations and the directors to create a layered and compelling world in which to tell the story. I believe your only previous engagement with Julius Caesar was also playing Brutus as a student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1965.
SK: That’s correct. My first encounter with Brutus was at LAMDA, so I was familiar with the character by the time we got to recording JC for LATW.
MPJ: Tell us about working with Martin Jenkins.
SK: Martin Jenkins is one of a kind. His understanding of how radio works in dramatic terms is masterful. He is forever after the actor to add pace and intensity to whatever moment is at hand. “Breathy urgency” is always the watch phrase. Every syllable and consonant are treated like music with Martin, who conducts his orchestra of actors with energy and precision.
MPJ: And then you were King Hamlet’s Ghost for LATW in 2011. Many productions, especially films, but also stage productions, use lighting and special effects to make the Ghost seem spooky, or at least dangerous. Those are not an option when you are recording, is it?
SK: Not really. Martin Jarvis, another master of the radio medium, together with his wife, Ros Ayres, are always seeking truth rather than “effects.” In that regard, we knew that a slight reverb on the Ghost with the possibility of musical underscoring would enhance the “other worldliness” of the Ghost, but that was the technician’s task to embellish. For me, I was primarily concerned with telling the Ghost’s story of what happened as something re-lived.
MPJ: Did seeing the story from the Ghost’s vantage point change how you see the play?
SK: One of the great things about Hamlet as a play is that every character has their own perspective of how events and Hamlet’s behavior is to be interpreted. Polonius has his point of view, as does Ophelia, Osric and the Player King. It is the genius of Shakespeare that allows each character to express himself or herself in their own terms. The Ghost’s perspective on Gertrude has always fascinated me. “Leave her to heaven,” is an admonition to focus his revenge on Claudius, and not his mother. I’ve often wondered if the Ghost has been privy to Hamlet’s opening soliloquy where he excoriates his mother and those “incestuous sheets.” It’s as if the Ghost is aware of Hamlet’s propensity for rage against his mother, and this beautifully and artfully presages the Closet scene.
MPJ: You mentioned Bottom, a character you recently played for LATW, which should be available by the time this is in print. Is this your first A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
SK: Yes, and I had a wonderful time playing him. Many years ago, I had seen Bert Lahr play him in Los Angeles, and it was truly one of the funniest, most memorable performances I had seen up to then.
MPJ: What did your Bottom experience through the arc of his story?
SK: It was decided by Martin (I suspect, at the edict of NPR) to play the characters not as English, but in “mid-Atlantic” speech. At first, this posed something of a difficulty for me as I kept hearing lower English class tones and rhythms as I read the speeches aloud. I found a way around that by setting Bottom’s character in northern United States, with hard “r’s” and flat “a’s and ah’s.” I think it worked, but it was definitely a challenge. The vocalization became easier when Bottom turns into a donkey. I could “he-haw” my way through his speeches as if I were a Wisconsin ass.
MPJ: Are there any more Shakespeare plays coming from LATW, or plays by any of his contemporaries?
SK: Not that I’m aware of at the moment. However, that said, I have no doubts that LATW will continue to plumb the classics.
MPJ: Now, tell me about your recording of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
SK: In 1999 I decided to record a CD of all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It was immensely rewarding, but the research and the execution were often exhausting and frustrating.
I wanted my readings to be personal, reflective, often melancholy, and vulnerable. W. H. Auden wrote, “what is astonishing about the Sonnets, especially when one remembers the age in which they were written, is the impression they make of naked autobiographical confession.”
Since I love to do research, I began by listening to John Gielgud’s tapes (Caedmon, 1961), reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays (James Schiffer, ed., Routledge, 2000) and Helen Vendler’s great book, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Harvard University Press, 1999) which included a CD of her reading about fifty of them. The problem with research, especially when it comes to Shakespeare, is that in this yellow wood there are about fifty roads that diverge from each other. There is little agreement on interpretation of the sonnets themselves, or how the sonnets might clarify events in either Shakespeare’s personal life, or historically, in those of the Elizabethan era.
The sonnets remain an enigma. Where and when were the sonnets composed? Who was he writing to? I wanted these questions to serve as the springboard for my journey, but they led not to answers or even to more questions, but to debate and deadends.
I first recorded the sonnets in May-June of 1999. I listened to the results and was appalled. Each time I would listen to a playback I heard something that bothered me. And I saw an almost infinite variety of ways of trying to solve that particular problem.
To make matters worse, each time I heard myself doing a line differently, I heard yet another way of doing it in my mind’s ear. I found myself caught in a paradox.
This is not something I am used to in the voiceover world, where I work with a director, run through a couple of takes, and move on. “Stacy, this project is just too big, give it up,” I said to myself.
I am, however, stubborn. So I decided to start over, completely rerecording 151 of the 154. As I was my own director on this project, I gave myself the following notes:
“Watch the emotion . . . you’re not John Gielgud . . . get a better sense of pronouns . . . don’t place undue emphasis on single words . . . in a change of mood, subject matter, event, or feeling, don’t return to previous tone or feeling . . . recognize some form of progression.
“Quit singing and intoning . . . don’t try to act the emotions . . . simply read the words clearly, with as much sense as you can muster. Allow the audience to interpret for themselves. Don’t put too much spin on it.”
Meanwhile, I was trying to write a musical score for the CD as well but quickly figured out that there could be no music in the body of the sonnet—it interfered with the poetry. Instead, I discovered that the use of a single musical tone in between the sonnets worked beautifully as a bridge from one sonnet to the next, and kept the lyrical flow without having to pause to wait for the first line of poetry in the subsequent sonnet. I deconstructed the English folk song “Greensleeves” for this. If you play all the tones together, you’ll hear the song.
The tones provide the connective tissue, but they also served to remind me of the need for simplicity, helping find my way from “performer” back to “reader.” I told myself that I should just read as clearly and intimately as possible, placing as much emphasis on making sense of what is being said as on how it is being said.
In the end, I was pleased with the results, yet I know that there are as many ways to interpret the sonnets as there are people to listen to them.
MPJ: That was a fantastic answer. Thank you, and thank you for sending the CDs to me. My mini-review is that Shakespeare lines can be very knotty in these poems, but you make all 154 arguments very clear. Your readings are not always my readings, but I never learn anything from my own readings. I learned these poems better listening to yours. Those who would like to get your recording of the sonnets will find it at Amazon.com under the title Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Poetry of Love. Finally, let’s mention another bit of Shakespeare audio and video I uncovered, Sonnet #1, read at a slam sonnet for Shakespeare’s traditional birthday in 2012. Tell us how this came about.
SK: I was doing an interview with John Andrews, head of the Shakespeare Guild, when I was asked if I would like to participate in “the Slam.” It’s a wonderful event, and I was sorry I couldn’t make it this year as I wasn’t in New York.
MPJ: Readers who want to know more about your interview with John Andrews can read John W. Mahon’s news item. The bibliographical information is in the references, below. I also want to mention your forthcoming autobiography All in All, to be published by Lyons Press in October 2013 and the inevitable audio book. I imagine that you write about your Shakespeare work there?
SK: Yes. It covers my life and career, the ups and downs, and talks about my Shakespearean roles as well as my experiences in movies and television.
MPJ: Can’t wait to read about Fat City. Stacy, thank you so much for consenting to this interview.
I’ll close by telling readers about a Stacy Keach broadcast that is a bit less directly connected to Shakespeare. I did not make this a question because Mr. Keach told me that he do not have strong memories of making “The Bard” on a radio version of The Twilight Zone television program, which began in 2002. The show is hosted by Keach and sometimes features him in one of the roles. Scripts are adapted for the ear from the original teleplays. “The Bard” is one of the lesser known Twilight Zone episodes because it was made during the year that the show was an hour long and has been repeated less often than the half-hour stories. It is about a TV writer who, via a bit of hocus-pocus, gets William Shakespeare to write scripts for him. Those parts were play by Jack Weston and John Williams, respectively. In the radio version, John Ratzenberger is the TV writer and Mr. Keach plays William Shakespeare. A five minute excerpt may be heard at the link below.
Stacy Keach, All in All, (Guilford: CT: Lyons Press, forthcoming).
Mary Z. Maher, Actors Talk about Shakespeare, (New York: Limelight Editions, 2009), pp. 76-100.
John W. Mahon, “Stacy Keach—Looking Back and Forward,” Shakespeare Newsletter 61:3, pp. 2 and 118.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Some OSF recordings have not yet been digitized and the reel to reel tapes do not indicate length. The running times of these shows will be unknown until they are digitized. This is indicated by “length unknown.” The broadcast date of Coriolanus on NBC is unknown except that the show went out in August of 1962. The recording date has been substituted. Because syndicated shows were broadcast by different stations over a period of several months, the recording date of the Romeo and Juliet program is given.
Comedy of Errors, full show recording in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Archives, 1962, length unknown. Rod Alexander, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, audio dir.
Coriolanus, NBC, (broadcast date unknown) recording date 12 August 1962, 24 minutes. Jack Crough, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, radio dir.
Coriolanus, full show recording in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Archives, 1962, length unknown. Jack Crouch, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, audio dir.
Henry IV, part 2, full show recording in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Archives, 1962, 153 minutes. Edward S. Brubaker, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, audio dir.
Henry V, NBC, 18 August 1963, 24 minutes. Jerry Turner, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, radio dir.
Henry V, full show recording in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Archives, 1963, 151 minutes. Jerry Turner, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, audio dir.
Love Labour’s Lost, full show recording in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Archives, 1963, 141 minutes. Rod Alexander, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, audio dir.
Romeo and Juliet, syndicated, recorded 14 August 1963, 58 minutes. Robert B. Loper, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, radio dir.
Romeo and Juliet, full show recording in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Archives, 1963, 154 minutes. Robert B. Loper, stage dir., Andrew C. Love, audio dir.
L. A. Theatre Works
Programs are syndicated, and so air on different dates in different places. Below are the production year and the range of years that the program aired. Hamlet has not been broadcast, so only the production year is given.
Julius Caesar, co-production with the British Broadcasting Corporation, produced 1995, aired between 1995 and 2006. 120 minutes. Martin Jenkins, dir.
Hamlet, produced 2011, 193 minutes, Martin Jarvis, dir.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced 2013, as of this writing in July 2013, the show has only been aired in July 2013, 118 minutes, Martin Jarvis, dir.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Poetry of Love, 2000, CD one: 68 minutes, CD 2: 69 minutes, Stacy Keach, dir.
Falcon Picture Group, LLC
The Twilight Zone episode “The Bard,” Sirius/XM and syndicated, 6 June 2003, 38 minutes. Carl Amari, dir.
 Of the plays mentioned in the paragraph above, Coriolanus and Henry V were NBC broadcasts and so will not be available on the OSF website, but the full length versions will be along with the full length and syndicated broadcast of Romeo and Juliet. For the story of OSF’s broadcasts, see Michael P. Jensen, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Radio: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Radio Series,” Shakespeare Survey 65 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 121-137.
 http://www.radiogoldindex.com/, accessed 13 June 2013.
 Ibid, pp. 123-4 for an overview of Love’s broadcasting career.
 For an overview of Jenkins as a director of audio Shakespeare and other early modern plays, see Michael P. Jensen, “Lend Me Your Ears: Sampling BBC Radio Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Survey 61, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 176-80.
 L. A. Theatre Works Shakespeare recordings that do not include Mr. Keach are King Henry IV: The Shadow of Succession(dir. Charles Newell, 2008), Pericles, Prince of Tyre (dir. Peggy Shannon, 1991) Macbeth (dir. Martin Jarvis, 2011), and Romeo and Juliet (dir. Martin Jarvis, 2012).
 http://www.latw.org/Audio/index.html, accessed 14 July 2013.
 Mr. Keach’s introduction and the reading of the first sonnet may be seen here, accessed on 14 June 2013: http://gostacykeach.com/theatre/. Googling “Sonnet Slam 2012” will fetch many pages of actors reading sonnets from this event.
 The home page for the program is at the following link, accessed 14 June 2013. Mr. Keach’s introduction may be heard as the page opens. I should also disclose that my wife, Cydne Jensen, works for Blackstone Audio, which produces DVDs of this series and it was Cyd who told me about it. http://www.twilightzoneradio.com/
 My thanks to Trond Knutson of LATW for supplying the dates.
 My thanks to director Carl Amari for supplying the date.
Thank you Stacy for mentioning the Sonnet Slam! It was a pleasure having you there. Looking forward to Sonnet Slam in Central Park, April 2014!
Melinda Hall, Producer