Five Minutes With . . . Richard Garner

A director takes center stage
Richard Garner, producing artistic director of Georgia Shakespeare, spent his summer vacation draining his highlighter on big books. While the theater he cofounded twenty-five years ago in a tent sailed through King Lear, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Shrew: The Musical, he was preparing to guest-direct Theatrical Outfit’s world premiere adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s satirical, Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces. He was also readying his own contemporary spin on Homer’s The Odyssey, scheduled for October 7 to 31 at his Oglethorpe University–based theater. The mild-mannered director has kept a lower profile than local colleagues Kenny Leon and Susan V. Booth. But Garner’s smart visual staging and wry character-acting skills are beefing up his street cred. He will perform in Tracy Letts’s highly anticipated Pulitzer Prize winner August: Osage County at the Alliance next year. And while some Atlanta theaters are cutting programming, his is growing. This spring, Garner will bring Shake at the Lake back to Piedmont Park after a one-year hiatus, and Georgia Shakespeare will close 2010 with A Christmas Story, its first holiday show in years.
How was Dunces (which ended its run in September)? Both challenging and liberating because of the popularity of the novel that inspired the play. I knew rabid fans of the book would be disappointed when their favorite passage was omitted, but at the same time, the book provided rich fuel.

Georgia Shakespeare is starting a new series with The Odyssey: A Journey Home. Can you elaborate? It’s a ten-year project called the Icarus Lab. Every two years we will develop a new piece based on an existing classic. It represents reaching beyond a comfort zone, like the moment [in the myth] where Icarus is closest to the sun, before his wings melt and he falls. Reading The Odyssey, I was struck by how much the story of Odysseus struggling to get home directly related to the challenges modern vets face returning home, with “home” being as much a psychological and emotional place as a physical place.

You found a related item on eBay? In World War II, there were books called the Armed Services Editions, which had over 1,300 titles distributed free to combat soldiers. The books were printed half-sized so they could fit in the shirt pocket of a uniform. No. 925 of these editions is The Odyssey. I found two copies on eBay.

Tell us about August: Osage County? Talk about a surprise phone call. “Hey, Richard, you want to do this?” Well, yeah. That was my audition, answering the phone.

Photograph by Neda Abghari