Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 2004

His great grandma, age 90, gave him a leather-bound copy of Macbeth. He was 7 and he was hooked. Richard Baird, now 23, is founder and artistic director of Poor Players, a small local troupe dedicated to presenting relevant productions of the Bard’s works.

Baird studied theater at UCLA, UCSD, SDSU and the University of Texas-Austin, where he participated in the prestigious Shakespeare at Winedale program, which “forced us to celebrate each play, to find the joy in it. I always wanted to replicate that.”

In 2000, he started a company called Upstart Crow Productions, a reference to one of the world’s most famous literary snarls, the first written reference to Shakespeare, penned by Robert Green in 1592. When Baird met Nick Kennedy, 24, at an audition on 9/11, they decided to form Poor Players, a riff on Shakespeare’s own words, not surprisingly, from Macbeth: ” Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more” (Act V, sc. V).

Despite their company name, they have a rich repertoire, and they don’t shy away from the biggest challenges. They opened with Titus Andronicus and went on to Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1, as well as several of the comedies. All were enthusiastically received by audiences and critics, who applauded the productions’ passion, relevance, edgy tone, clarity of text and precision of speech.

“It’s our goal,” says Baird, a charismatic actor who plays most of the lead roles and often directs, “to present Shakespeare clearly, and have it mean something for a contemporary audience. I believe he created his plays to speak for all time.”

For instance, when Baird tackled the role of Hamlet, he thought, “He’s a college student, dealing with problems with his Mom and Dad and girlfriend. We focused on that, instead of the more traditional Man in Black.”

The intention is to attract younger audiences, while appealing to older ones, and providing a haven for local actors. They now have a core of about a dozen Players, whom they describe as “people who can’t not do Shakespeare.” Ultimately, they want to become a full-fledged repertory company (renamed ‘Shakespeare San Diego’) that presents classical and modern works for general audiences and schools. Meanwhile, they’re steeped in The Bard.

This season’s offerings are diverse and ambitious: Taming of the Shrew in May, followed by Merry Wives of Windsor (June 11-27), Twelfth Night (July 30-August 8), Measure for Measure (August 13-September 5) and Macbeth, opening, of course, on Halloween.

Their Shrew will be set in the Great Gatsby-like ’20s, Measure will take place in “a film-noir red-light district and Macbeth will have “a kind of Bosnia/Kosovo flavor.”

“We really want to grab young people,” Baird says. “There’s a quality we go for, that they like — a sense of in-your-face theater, even a Tarantino edge” [referring to the ferocious filmmaker].

Next up, Merry Wives, Shakespeare’s only play about ordinary middle-class people. The story concerns the gargantuan womanizer, Sir John Falstaff, who’s outwitted by two crafty women. The Poor Players production promises to be “pretty radical, even for us,” says Kennedy, who directs.

“It’s set in Windsor County, Texas — a small town where you have close equivalents to Shakespeare’s characters. We try to make it relevant but don’t stray far from the text. Justice Shallow is the sheriff. The lecherous Falstaff is an Old Virginian type of country gentleman. Ford [played by Baird], is an Outsider, who’s come down South with his trophy wife. Everyone loves her, he doesn’t know the culture, and he’s having a hard time adjusting. The play is wild, fun, over-the-top. Shakespeare wasn’t taking himself very seriously. We’re going to just let it be a comedy.”

It may seem like the Poor Players are young and cavalier, but they take their Shakespeare very seriously.

“Nick and I make a big deal about what edition [of the plays] we use ” Baird says. “We make all our choices for very specific reasons. We’re very particular about the language, and what’s important in any given line.”

So how do they make it happen financially? Baird started the company with his own money. Donations have helped, but the Players still don’t pay actors. Yet they do not consider themselves a community theater. “I don’t think I’ve seen a community theater that puts on the type — I won’t say the quality — of productions that we do,” says Baird. “Classical theater is a different realm…

“Come see our Merry Wives for the esthetic experience. It’s very bold; it will challenge people who know the play and amuse those who don’t.”

Adds Kennedy, “I don’t think Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives to change how people think about their lives. It’s not Hamlet, Macbeth or Lear. It’s there for the sheer joy of watching the play. The characters are so rich. It’s less about pride and jealousy than about love and how you treat love. I think Shakespeare was putting on a riot — and so are we. Just come and enjoy yourself.”

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.