As You Like It
Season 09-10 Season

As She Likes It:
Maria Aitken Directs and Then Some

AKIVA FOX, LITERARY MANAGER

Michael Kahn considered many directors to helm William Shakespeare’s witty and
joyful masterpiece As You Like It this holiday season at the Shakespeare
Theatre Company. But one name immediately rose to the top of his list, because
few artists can match Maria Aitken’s resume: director of the longest-running
comedy on Broadway, celebrated actress of London’s West End, teacher at some
of the world’s best drama schools, star of an Academy-Award-winning film.

Who better to bring new life to this classic play?


The Dublin-born Aitken began to pursue theatre as a calling when she arrived
at Oxford University. “I did nothing but act,” she remembers fondly, “to the
point where I had to have an alias because my tutors wouldn’t allow me to do
so many productions.” And she was fortunate enough to be a member of the Oxford
University Dramatic Society in 1966, when Hollywood super-couple Richard Burton
and Elizabeth Taylor chose to join that undergraduate company for Christopher
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Though she played a small part (one of the
Seven Deadly Sins), she remembers the production as “a truly great experience.”


After this brush with stardom, however, Aitken returned to square one when
she decided to become a professional actor. “I went to the bottom of the heap
in repertory,” she says. “I was an assistant stage manager, and swept the stage,
and played small parts.” Gradually, she left behind sweeping and small parts;
by the mid-1970s, Aitken was starring in major productions, from the world
premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties to the London premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s A
Little Night Music
. And throughout her acting career, Aitken has returned
time and again to the works of Noël Coward.


But even as her acting career took off, new avenues in theatre opened for
Aitken, almost accidentally. First, an invitation to train actors at the fledgling
British American Drama Academy (alongside Michael Kahn and Floyd King) introduced
her to teaching. “I discovered that it was an extraordinary pleasure to help
people do things better,” she says. Then, when an unexpected illness forced
her to drop out of a play, her fellow actors convinced her to direct instead.
“It was a baptism by fire,” she recalls, “but they were wonderful to me and
the play ran for nine months on the West End.”


These early successes in teaching and directing led her career in a new direction,
but not before she acted in the role for which she is still best known in the
United States: John Cleese’s wife Wendy in the hit comedy A Fish Called
Wanda
. “People still shout my character’s lines at me in supermarkets,”
she laughs, “‘Do shut up, Portia’ comes ringing across aisle six in CVS.”


Undoubtedly, though, she is best known as a director for her Tony-winning
stage production of Alfred Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps, which has
run for more than two years on Broadway and in London. “It’s the little engine
that could,” she marvels. “My designer gifted me the concept that we were on
an empty stage with only four actors, three trunks, and two ladders. I think
audiences love the fact that four people working their tails off can create
some theatrical magic.” It is that same theatrical magic, the same magic that
has followed her career at every step, that Aitken hopes to bring to the stage
of Sidney Harman Hall in her staging of As You Like It.

10/28/2009

 

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