For Phillips, theater is thoroughly organic: "Even at East, I was more interested in the architectural spaces backstage than in actually being in the musical," he notes. "Most theater design is built for the first day of rehearsal. Instead, I'll start by doing an improvisation with the design and text. It's more of an act of discovery, like a playground or a toy that integrates staging and editing and directing. That's maybe what gives it a Renaissance feel."
That kind of personal investment, beyond playing a role, is what Phillips seeks. The result is something he describes as "very visual, very cinematic, very contemporary." In the process, he says he's creating something that appeals to both seasoned and unseasoned audiences: While his takes on Shakespeare try to remain true to the playwright's original intent, they're also a postmodern attempt at referencing the world from an in-the-moment point of view: "Lear divides his kingdom at a press conference and then goes golfing. The TV's on showing this press conference, and Lear's already packing to go to Miami."
But other themes in the dual presentation have taken on fresh significance over the last month. "I was doing it in Philadelphia when September 11 happened," Phillips says. And since then, the contrast between Lear's old-guard approach to ruling and Prospero's reinvention of a world has sharpened. In the Buntport staging, audiences will hear the water filling Prospero's pool as Lear falls on the opposite side of the stage and Prospero's boots rise out of Lear's grave. "As Lear's world falls down," Phillips explains, "Prospero's offers a chance to put things back together."