By Darlene Donloe
Gloria Gifford doesn’t consider herself a control freak, she just likes to have her “heavy hand” in every aspect of a production.
“I’m a perfectionist,” she says. “I’m detail oriented.”
For her latest theatrical endeavor, William Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra, Gifford’s credits include director, set designer, and costume designer. The show, which opened at Gray Studios in North Hollywood on Dec. 1, 2017, is presented by Jamaica Moon Prods. and GCC Conservatory – Gifford’s longtime theater company.
@THIS STAGE recently caught up with Gifford to talk about her latest project and her multi-layered career.
@THIS STAGE: Describe Antony & Cleopatra.
GG: People don’t know the play. It’s usually four hours long. Four hours! [Shakespeare] just wrote and wrote. In the middle, he has this huge history lesson about Caesar’s son. You could die from it – it’s so long. This show is rarely done. People know about it from the movie, Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The romance. The intensity of their love and their passion. This is a story about two great rulers. They come together and it’s epic. He’s gotta go back to Rome because he has obligations. She is a tempestuous, wild, demanding person and there is a big conflict there. She doesn’t want him to go. We’re taking out some of the history so people don’t have to sit and hear about something they don’t relate to. We don’t take out the passion, love, or conflict. Alas, all the great love stories end in tragedy. Not everything is The Notebook. We don’t have enough love stories. Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy. It’s in the vein of Romeo and Juliet. This is an adult Romeo and Juliet. That’s what I believe. It’s a love story with music.
@THIS STAGE: The length sounds intimidating. How did you cut it down nearly in half?
GG: We went back to the Royal Shakespeare Company productions and read all the reviews of the last six or seven productions. Some did five hours, some did less. I took their cuts and looked at them. It’s very difficult to keep it in an amount of time for an audience in America is used to. We used the Royal Shakespeare Company’s cut. We followed it and did a little trimming.
@THIS STAGE: Why did you want to direct this show?
GG: I wanted to attempt one of the tragic ones. I love the story of Antony and Cleopatra. I thought Shakespeare – why not? It’s been very rough because it’s a very dramatic story. I’m very lucky to have a good company who go along with my concepts. I want this to go into the world of Egypt and the lushness of it to be sexy. They surrendered to the concept and made it happen. I mix and match the casts. I always have a double cast. So this was a lot to put together. It’s time-consuming to direct that way.
@THIS STAGE: Not only are you the director, you are the set designer and the costume designer. What, no craft service?
GG: Well, yes and no. I am the set and costume designer and I’m not. I have a company called The GGC Players. We’ve been winning awards. We’ve won awards for Best Ensemble: Play or Musical (Comedy of Errors) and director of the musical (Down On Your Knees And Up To The Moon), two years in a row from the Valley Theatre Awards. I want people’s hearts. My productions are always diverse, ever since 2005 when I started. I always mix and match. I don’t care what color someone is or their nationality. It’s based on how good they are. It’s always been that way. I come up with the idea. This is what I want for the costumes. Then the girls and guys buy some things. We come together and I put the final eye on it. It’s a collaboration. It’s not just me saying it.
@THIS STAGE: That’s still a lot. Would you call yourself a control freak?
GG: My hand is heavy on everything. I’m detail oriented. I’m not a control freak. I’m a perfectionist. Everybody agrees with that. I look at everything and I listen to what people say.
@THIS STAGE: Do you approach a Shakespearean show differently from other shows?
GG: Big difference. I’ve acted on Broadway. I worked with a Tony Award-winning director from England. Half the company was British. My approach is to make sure that the audience completely understands what is being said. We break up the sentences so you completely understand what is being said. I pound that into the actors. That’s different from a contemporary play. Making it clear to the audience is my biggest approach to doing Shakespeare.
@THIS STAGE: The press info for the show says: “In one of her signature moves, director Gloria Gifford retains Shakespeare’s text while augmenting the proceedings with a contemporary song score.” Let’s talk about your signature move. What is it?
GG: We were doing Shakespeare and we added music to it. I did Much Ado About Nothing that way and now we’re doing this the same way. The audience understands it that way. It becomes much clearer. The songs let you know what’s going on. The songs help you understand and that’s when you say, “I get it.” It makes a big difference. I’m trimming the play, taking out things like certain speeches that aren’t famous, and I’m putting a song in place of it. It makes a big difference. We’re not doing a translation, we’re doing Shakespeare’s words. When a song comes – you say, “I see it now.” It makes it fun for the audience.
@THIS STAGE: You have a music background. I’m sure that helped.
GG: I’m a singer. At one time I had a Warner Bros. contract. I played classical piano for 13 years. Music is something everybody loves. Music is so universal. People have an emotional response to it.
@THIS STAGE: Describe the music you used in one of your other Shakespeare productions.
GG: In Much Ado About Nothing I used Teddy Pendergrass, Barry White, Tom Jones, and Pit Bull. When you use contemporary music – it brings some of the dialogue to life. People understand what you’re trying to say.
@THIS STAGE: What music can we hear in Antony & Cleopatra?
GG: Oh, that’s a secret. …You’ll have to come to the show.
@THIS STAGE: What do you love about directing?
GG: I don’t love directing. I’m an actress. I love acting. I just got a new manager. In January there is a revamp to get me back on the board. I started directing because I’m teaching. I wanted them to have a play to work out what they are learning. I wanted them to discover how to create a character from beginning to end. I started directing showcases in 1985 and I directed hundreds of showcases. That would be scenes and then moved into productions. I love the fact that acting – we are the storytellers.
@THIS STAGE: If you don’t consider yourself a director, why are you the best person to direct this show?
GG: Because no one has had more romances than I have. I have a very intensely romantic past and present. My passion is what I put into Antony & Cleopatra. I understand the heartbreak and the desire. I’ve had a lot of very famous lovers and I taught at AFI (American Film Institute) for six years. I also taught at the Beverly Hills Playhouse (Gloria Gifford Conservatory) for years. I also wrote a book called, Where Is The Love? Acting is the study of the human condition. Nothing is more human than lost love.
@THIS STAGE: So, you are an actress and a director. When you’re wearing the director’s hat and an actor’s choices differ from yours – who wins and why?
GG: That’s the best question I’ve ever heard. Who wins, what do you mean? I win. The director wins. If I win, you win. If you win, you lose. I’m older and I’ve lived more. I understand the material in a different way. If you’re coming from, I’m 27. If you give me something exciting, I give up. You can have it. If it’s better, I have to let it go. I can’t hold on to my opinion. My directing is fluid. I don’t want to see interesting – I want to see the passion. I win most of the time. Actors can win as well.
@THIS STAGE: Describe your prep time for directing a show. What exactly goes into it? How far out do you start?
GG: We spend a few months working on it. Because my actors have to work – I’m the one that has to be there. I work around their schedules. I start months in advance. I want them to be able to pay their bills and live while we do this. We look up all the different words so that we know what we’re talking about. We look at Shakespeare plays and movies. There is a lot of prep time before we get into our script. Then we start working on the script and the set. We find the shoes, the headpieces. A lot of work goes into this.
@THIS STAGE: What are some bad habits that you’ve seen actors develop that you’ve had a hard time dealing with?
GG: Coming up with ideas. The worst habit in the world is them coming up with ideas. Trying to be funny. They will say, “You know what’s going to be funny?” That drives me crazy. It’s a very bad habit. An idea is different from an instinct. The job of a director is to be the editor.
@THIS STAGE: What do you want to change about theatre today?
GG: I want to put the passion back into it. I’m tired of non-passionate theater. I don’t like everything that is clever but has no soul – even if it’s comedy. I hate when I go to see something that has no passion.
@THIS STAGE: How have your roots influenced your art?
GG: You can never put aside who you are. I have to research to know more about what I’m doing. That’s another reason why people like to do Shakespeare – you say wow, I really feel that way. It changes your mind a little bit about what you’re willing to fight for.
@THIS STAGE: You have an M.A. in criminology from the New School and graduated with a degree political science from SUNY New Paltz. What were you going to do with the two? Have the two helped you in your career?
GG: I went to an all girls catholic school. It was 90 percent white. I got to college and got the lead in the play – Blood Wedding. I played the bride. The guy who directed the play said to me, “I’m going to Emerson and want to get you a scholarship.” Another one told me I was too sensitive and that I’d get eaten alive if I went into entertainment. I was a political science major when there were no women, no African Americans. I loved it. I was good at it. I specialized in Asian studies. I did work in Vietnam and Japan. I was going to be a lawyer. I met my husband who was white, Anglo Saxon. I had a child, we lived in Queens and I was working as a social worker. Then all of a sudden I got a job at Bloomingdales as an executive. I was the first black executive a Bloomingdales. I was an assistant buyer. They started hiring blacks in the children’s department. I was having a problem with the merchandise manager. He said, “You don’t want to play this game.” I went home and told my husband, “I’m quitting my job.” I went to take an acting class. I had been hiding from my real dream. I won a citywide oratory contest at 13 because I believed what the teacher said to me. At 13, I beat the guys and the girls. Four years later, I was on Broadway. I left my husband and took my son with me. He said I wouldn’t make it without him. I said, you apparently don’t know me.
@THIS STAGE: So what happened?
GG: [The film] California Suite happened. I played Richard Pryor’s wife. So what happened was I had done a show called, The Merchant, directed by John Dexter. He directed Equus on Broadway. The first day of rehearsal Bill Cosby saw my picture in a photo lineup on a newsreel. He called the William Morris Agency and said, “Get that girl.” Long story short, I got a call directly from Bill Cosby and he asked if I was ready now. For California Suite, all he could do was introduce me to the director. Bill Cosby discovered me. He got me to that director.
@THIS STAGE: You teach, act, sing and direct. What do you do to relax?
GG: I used to own a bookstore in Beverly Hills for five years in the 90s. It was called Bibliowha? My favorite books of all time are Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina. I have about 5,000 books in my collection. I read about three to five books a month. Book buying is an obsession with me. I spend more money on books than anything else. I read a lot of crime and mysteries. I go through them like water.
@THIS STAGE: What’s next?
GG: I have the rights to another play. We might move to a bigger theater and do a showcase and then the next production will be a small, contemporary play by the writer, Stephen Adly Guirgis. He writes New York-centric plays.
@THIS STAGE: So, once again, you’ll put your spin on it?
GG: I add the love to everything. And then I throw in some music. What can I tell you!
Antony & Cleopatra is directed/executive produced by Gloria Gifford. Produced by Jade Warner, Lauren Plaxco and Chad Doreck for Jamaica Moon Productions and The GGC Players.
William Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra, Gray Studios, 5250 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91601, opens Saturday, December 2 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, December 3, at 7:30 p.m.; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays through December 30. Dark on December 24; Opening nights $50 (includes reception); regular performances: $30; 310 366-5505, www.tix.com
Read the review in Stage Raw.