Richard Baird was under the weather the other week. That's a polite way of saying the frog in his throat had morphed into a baby alligator. It's understandable, then, that he chose to e-mail his responses for this story.
See, this isn't just any ol' Richard Baird outta the phone book. This is the Richard Baird who co-founded San Diego's Poor Players Theatre Company. And in the highest traditions of thespic restraint, he was trying to save his voice for some play readings in Point Loma and Solana Beach. Give a baby alligator any window of opportunity, especially during the flu season, and by golly, she'll slam it on your hand.
This is also the Richard Baird who, on Thursday, Dec. 29, will watch to the rear as San Diego's gangly theater scene fades in the distance. The revered, rock-ribbed Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) awaits its newest recruit at the city of Ashland, where the Bard and his successors have peacefully coexisted with theater's captains of industry since 1935. Pound for pound, theater doesn't get much bigger than OSF anywhere in America. The festival's 11-play seasons (comprising three Shakespeare works) receive steady critical acclaim, and attendance in 2005 outstripped Ashland's population of 20,000 by an astounding 19 to 1. Eighty-eight percent of those patrons traveled more than 125 miles to get to the Southern Oregon town and the festival's three venues.
But OSF's gargantuan yearly budget ($22 million, three times that of the famed La Jolla Playhouse) can't speak to the performance values that got Baird, 24, into this crazy 10-month contract. Local critics (including myself) have likened his stage presence to that of a young Orson Welles, a comparison he reportedly detests. Like Welles, he has precious little postsecondary education in his field (some movement classes under Jerry Hager at Grossmont College for about a year). And also like Welles, he's got an encyclopedist's passion for all that came before.
"I'm actually a real production history nut," he wrote, "like most young guys are with baseball stats. I love talking about that production of Hamlet with David Warner in the title role, with the long red scarf... or how much Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream was influenced by Samuel Beckett."
Ironically, all that introspection fed Baird's take on the major ingredient-the utter simplicity of the stories-that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. As Poor Players' producing artistic director-a title he'll retain as he advises the group from Ashland-Baird has responded accordingly. Its signature camouflage fatigues; its minimalist sets; its downright irreverence for theatrical convention; even its de facto homelessness: Poor Players lives by little else than its wits, which since the 10-member company's founding in September 2001 have become its greatest strength.
"Poor Players is special," Baird explained, "because we are a truly bare-bones troupe. It's all about the acting, the storytelling without the bells and whistles. I have saved hours of rehearsal [as a director] by making it clear that the relevance in any of [Shakespeare's] plays is a given and not a coincidence. When Henry V asks about going to war-"May I with right and conscience make this claim?'-he doesn't need to be in a suit for us to "get it.'"
Baird, who auditioned at Ashland last fall, reports Jan. 3 for company call and the beginning of rehearsals for February's A Winter's Tale. But as OSF gears up for the season, Poor Players faces potential fallout from its own restructure. Co-founder and assistant artistic director Nick Kennedy said that at least one Shakespeare production is planned for the spring or early summer at the Hearth Theatre in San Marcos. He added that the company will present Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in the fall, perhaps at San Diego's Academy of Performing Arts. Jen Meyer, Hilary White, Max Macke, Beth Everhart, co-founder Brandon Walker: These are among the regulars poised to take up the administrative slack.
But the best ensembles rely that much more heavily on a central figure for their foresight. However momentarily, Baird's departure has considerably clouded that vision.
"Richard was the core-no doubt about it," Kennedy said. "It's going to be extremely difficult to put out a product that's as good as it has been. I think a lot of our audience will come back because they've grown to love some of the other people who've come to be part of the ensemble. But Richard is an amazing actor. This means that a lot of people are going to have to step up."
On the other hand, Kennedy said, those who do will fuel the philosophy that's driven the company thus far. This group, after all, thrives on the unknown, not unlike the two love-struck Italian kids Shakespeare immortalized 400 years before Poor Players had its way with them. Last winter's Romeo and Juliet was a sight to behold-and as Friar Laurence, director Baird's oratory raised the bar almost beyond reach.
"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes," the play's opening passage goes, "a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; whole misadventured piteous overthrows do with their death bury their parents' strife."
With that, the fold at Baird's brow left not a single word of text unturned. The bottomless catch of sorrow at his throat absolutely stopped the world.
Those who've never seen Baird perform are missing an object lesson in theater appreciation. He surrendered himself to the process long before Poor Players tore itself from the founders' imaginations; the Ashland experience can only sanction his formidable contribution to San Diego theater. Meanwhile, the cheeky group is all the better for his equally blasphemous directive.
"Let's throw some shit at the wall," he'd say at rehearsals, "and see what sticks."
It does way better than stick. It kind of petrifies into the smelly little calling cards that invariably mark Poor Players' very impressive trail. As Baird heads north, the hope is that it stays put.