Richard Palmer compares theater to rowing. When rowing on an eight-man team in college, he found it exhilarating when the team rowed in perfect sync.
"Everything you do is magnified by seven people," said Palmer, 75. "And theater's like that. When it's at its best, everybody's working together, and it has that same sense of amplification."
Since joining William and Mary's theatre department in 1980, Palmer has sparked such exhilaration in students, instructing nearly every course offered by the department and directing over 40 productions, including his award-winning direction of Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind." As of yet, only one other faculty member has served as long.
Recently, I sat down with Rich in his book-lined office, presenting him with the impossible task of summing up a 36-year career.
Editor's note: Answers edited for length.
Q. Before William & Mary, was your background always in teaching?
A. I was an English teacher for 16 years at Washington University [in St. Louis], and Washington University had no theater program when I went there. I proceeded to create a theater department at Washington University and built a theater. So I had, I think, actually seven students in theater when I went there. We had almost 700 when I left.
I do write books, but I also perform and design and direct, and so I'm both a practicing artist and also a scholar. My career has been sort of cycles of emphasis on taking some time off here to write this book, and then focus during this period on these plays and designs -- always teaching has been the sort of through-going line of activity.
Q. What's the most important thing you hope you've instilled in your students here at William & Mary?
A. Students come with a lot of excitement about theater. But for most of them, it's been an extracurricular and recreational activity. It doesn't really occur to them that it's a particularly challenging intellectual process. So I think what I've always viewed my role is to make them think more about what they're doing, why they're doing it, how they're doing it, how it's been done before, how it might be done next time. It's to sort of bring a degree of intellectual engagement to what is essentially a creative process.
Q. What has been your favorite production here and why?
A. That's a really hard question. I've never done the same play twice. Certainly, things pop out - Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," which has always been a favorite. I did "Hamlet" for the Shakespeare Festival. I did "Caucasian Chalk Circle," by Brecht, using my own granddaughter at 4 years old as one of the characters. There are just so many things that make each production special -- it's hard to pull out any one. And, you know, I've been asked the opposite question, and that is: what was the sort of worst possible production? I don't really have any production I've done that I did not enjoy doing.
Q. Tell me about directing Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind" [Palmer received Port Folio's Best Director Award for the production].
A. Shepard is an actor’s playwright. I mean, he really writes plays that are vehicles for actors. So they’re wonderful plays to work on, because he relies so much on what the actor brings to the play. And with Shepard, so much is underneath of the surface too. The script is a kind of...outside skeleton to help you find out what’s on the inside. Shepard’s a wonderful playwright.
The worst thing that can happen to you as a director is to get bored with the play that your’e doing. I always kind of ask myself: can I live with this play for two or three months, which is what you have to do as a director, without it ever becoming uninteresting or stale or repetitive? So I’m always gravitating to the playwrights and the plays that have that kind of depth to them, and that you can stay with them and keep digging and always find something.”
Q. Is there a memory that stands out from your time at William & Mary?
A. I think the short answer is no. There are so many of them, actually. As a director you spend a lot of time watching other people work, and the best times are those times when they carry you somewhere you've never been before. So when I look back, I remember sort of those moments in theater as much as anything – where an actor really transported me in a way which was exciting.
Q. How would you articulate your passion for theater?
A. My mother had been trained as an actor. She used to recite Shakespeare...when she washed the dishes. And I think I had an early, visceral response to that. I just liked the sound of it and the excitement of it.
Theater certainly engages me intellectually. But fundamentally, it's a visceral experience. It's something that is moving and enlightening and exciting. It gives me an opportunity to do a lot of different things in different ways. It's an outlet. And I think it is for students. And I think it is vicariously for our audiences as well. So it’s a trip. That’s not a very intellectual response, I don’t think, but I mean fundamentally that’s the attraction of it for me. That’s why I left the English department. I got tired of talking about texts by themselves. I want to get things on their feet.
Q. So, what's next?
A. I have a child in Africa. I have one that spends a lot of time in China. So we'll certainly continue to travel. And I hope to continue doing some theater in the community. But I also want to read all those books I've got stacked in the corner. See all those movies I haven't seen. Spend more time with my wife and my dog.
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-275-4934.