Playwright Philip J. Hickman brings knights, ladies and adventure to the free outdoor theater Actors’ Theatre series
Photo by Meghan Ralston
Playwright Philip J. Hickman had only written for small theaters — like the stage at Kafe Kerouac — before he penned last summer’s neighborhood blockbuster “Robin Hood” for the outdoor summer theater series in Schiller Park.
Writing the script presented unique challenges. He had to keep things entertaining but PG-13 for the age-diverse audience and keep the story and dialogue rolling with a big cast.
“I think there’s a kind of freedom in that constraint. It forces you to focus on the areas you can work in, and that can be liberating,” Hickman said of writing “Robin Hood” for local troupe Actors’ Theatre. The production “was more successful than I anticipated. My wife said, ‘Do it again.’”
Chivalry isn’t dead; Hickman did as she said and set to work on a script inspired by one of his favorite subjects, the Knights of the Round Table. This week Hickman’s sophomore attempt hits the Actors’ Theatre fauna-curtained stage in the center of German Village’s Schiller Park.
Titled “King Arthur and the Sword of Britain,” the play re-interprets the famous legend of that otherworldly sword in a fantastical land peppered with heroic knights, fair maidens and treacherous sprites.
All things considered, “it’s a fairytale,” Hickman said, a story format with an appeal that has lasted so many centuries because “fairytales are telling the truth that you want to hear.”
Fairytale, however, does not always mean romance. In fact, that’s exactly what Hickman hoped to steer his take on King Arthur’s story away from.
“Once the French got ahold of it, it was all about romance, heartbreak,” Hickman said. “Before that, it was all about the adventure.”
The old Welsh stories of King Arthur slaying giants and leading his warriors through battle guided Hickman’s script.
“A quarter of the way through writing it, I realized it was in a similar tone as ‘Robin Hood,’” Hickman said.
Hoping to not be a knight on a one-trick white horse, Hickman stepped away from the script for a month, he said. Coming back with fresh eyes actually helped him clean out his ears — he started to listen to his play’s characters differently, particularly interested in heightened speech and the drama of reality, even in a magical world.
“I love the intimacy of natural speech,” said Hickman, who pulled from his performance-poetry background to perfect the rhythm of his characters’ dialogue. ”I put the characters in a space and let them start speaking and listen to them for a while. I mold the story as that goes along.”
As attached as he’s grown to that story, Hickman didn’t attend many rehearsals, trusting the “King Arthur and the Sword of Britain” director, C. Austin Hill.
“I have admired his work for years. I like what he brings out of his actors. He brings a lot of buoyancy. He’s got a really engaging vision,” Hickman said of Hill. “There are so many arts that are not collaborative. Theater isn’t one of them. The script is the script, but it’s the director’s vision that can bring it to life.”