Actor Michael Hayden Takes on Shakespeare in the Park

Tyler Coates | June 14th, 2011

Danai Gurira and Michael Hayden in "Measure for Measure."

For New Yorkers, June welcomes the first waves of sweltering heat in the subway and the drips from AC window units dangling precariously over the sidewalks. But the first month of summer also brings with it a cultural tradition that rewards those intrepid souls willing to face Central Park’s morning dew at the break of dawn with free tickets to see the world’s best actors take on some of the greatest plays in the English language. For over half a century, the Public Theater has produced Shakespeare in the Park, possibly one of the world’s greatest free cultural events. This summer, the Public presents two of the Bard’s lesser-known shows at the stunning Delacorte Theater: Measure for Measure, directed by David Esbjornson, and All’s Well That Ends Well, directed by Daniel Sullivan, with a cast that includes Tonya Pinkins, Annie Parisse, Lorenzo Pisoni, Andre Holland, Reg Rogers, and Michael Hayden.

Fourth Wall spoke via telephone with Michael Hayden, who just last year played the leads in Henry V and Richard II in repertory at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Hayden stars as the wicked Angelo in Measure for Measure this summer at Shakespeare in the Park, and has a featured role as the Second Brother Dumaine in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Fourth Wall: This is the first time you’ve performed in Shakespeare in the Park. Have you done anything in an outdoor arena like this before? Is that a new challenge for you?

Michael Hayden: It’s a completely new challenge. I’ve never done anything outside, and I’ve never done Shakespeare in the Park. I’m used to working inside the theater where you project to a house based on the size of the house you’re in. In the park you’re miked, which is necessary because of the way the sound disperses. It’s tricky because if you rely on the mic and speak in such a quiet way that they have to amplify you so much, it’s a very strange experience for an audience. You have to fill the house with your ideas, but you still have to project language and ideas in a way that all the people in the house feel included. That’s a different challenge for me. I’ve always been miked in musicals, and even then in dialogue parts in musicals we were always told, “Work as though you don’t have a mic.” I follow the same rule in the park.

FW: You’re a seasoned Shakespeare performer. Have you done either of these plays before?

MH: It’s ironic — people are now calling me a seasoned Shakespeare performer, but let me clarify that. My first Shakespeare play was Henry IV at Lincoln Center, seven years ago. The next time I did Shakespeare was last year when I did Richard II and Henry V in rep playing the two kings. That was a trial by fire to do those two plays with only one Shakespeare play under my belt. This year, I did Leontes in The Winter’s Tale at the Guthrie, so it’s been a sort of a Shakespeare year. Before this year and a half, I had only done one. I’d be loathe to call myself a seasoned professional, but I’ve done a lot in a short amount of time, and I’ve played neither of these roles before.

FW: All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are considered to be two of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.”

MH: Not at all. [That] is a very popular term put on [the plays] well after Shakespeare died. I’m sure they weren’t seen as problem plays back then. I think they have unique challenges because… these come under the realm of romantic plays, but not romantic in the modern sense but romantic in the sense that they incorporate… some sense of magic, people being brought back from the death. Helena is supposedly dead, and she’s revealed as being alive again [in All's Well That Ends Well]. Claudio in Measure for Measure is supposed to be dead, and he’s revealed as being alive at the end. Both those occurrences have major impacts on the last scenes in the play. In Measure for Measure, it’s difficult to understand why the Duke goes the machinations that he goes through, and why does Helena go through the machinations that she goes through in All’s Well. There’s the “bed trick” in each one of them that sets up the bad guy — Angelo in Measure and Bertram in All’s Well — to be revealed for what they are in the end. They’re brilliant plays. Measure is certainly incredibly topical, given some of the politicians who hold themselves up as moral icons falling and showing themselves naked online. I do not think the audiences will perceive them as problem plays; I think that’s more fodder for dramaturgs and people who need something to write essays about.

FW: Have you had any roles in the past that have prepared you to take such a dive into Shakespeare in the last couple of years?

MH: I don’t know if there’s a previous role that prepared me. When I got Henry IV at Lincoln Center, I was really terrified. I had no idea if I was going to be able to do it justice. I had no idea what my skill with the language would be. But I did know based on my training and what I know of my own instrument that I like theatrical roles with great passion and great scope and great challenge. I learned by the end of Henry IV that I did have the skill and an enormous amount to learn, but I did have the tools to take on these great parts. I hope I get the chance to do more.

All’s Well That Ends Well opens on Saturday, June 25 and Measure for Measure opens on Thursday, June 30. Both shows will run in repertory through July 30. Ticket information and performance schedules are available at www.shakespeareinthepark.org.

Image courtesy of Joan Marcus / The Public Theater.