Thursday, May 26, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Anwen Darcy as Beatrice & Mercutio

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #11 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

Nearly out on the streets a few years ago, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot has instead expanded to a 'second stage' in midtown, with Bryant Park Presents. The company has recast Anwen Darcy as Beatrice in its Much Ado About Nothing, after her acclaimed turn as Mercutio last summer. I emailed with Anwen about these two essentially Shakespearean characters.

Let’s start with your role in Much Ado. What makes Beatrice such a fully-realized character onstage?

Beatrice is one of Shakespeare's great women due to the fact that she's flawed. It's what makes her impossibly complicated and wonderful to play. She is, of course, witty and rambunctious and full of life. But she also has this corrosive edge to her, particularly in regards to Benedick. Add to that some of the best dialogue Shakespeare has ever written, and you have a woman who is more modern than most female parts written in the last 20 years.

Corrosive how?

You look at their first scene together, when he arrives back from the war, and she absolutely cannot sit on her disdain and pain at seeing him again. Of course, she also can't not talk to him, partly because she wants to humiliate him and partly because she wants his attention. That push and pull is fascinating, and it lends itself to be played thousands of different ways. You add in that she is hiding (very poorly, as the play lets you discover) a broken heart that still can't shake the breaker, and it all adds up to a fascinating starting place. Beatrice starts the show quite frosty, and I've found more you lean into how hard she is in the beginning, the more payoff you get at the end of the show.

I cannot tell you how satisfying that is, to just be allowed to be pissed off onstage without trying to qualify it. So often people try to soften women's anger onstage, to try and make sure you stay pretty and soft, and Beatrice is none of those things in the beginning of the show. She's just fine alone, but she knows she deserves more, and deserves to be loved for who she is without being changed. She's also had her heart stomped on (whether intentionally or not) by the only person she's ever deigned to show interest in, and Shakespeare lets her carry that. It doesn't go away once Benedick tells her he loves her—she distrusts him up until their final scene alone, when he tells her that he did challenge Claudio, and that he is actively choosing her over anyone else.

You've worked with your Benedick, McKey Carpenter, before. How does that help the onstage chemistry?

I'm exceptionally lucky in that not only have I worked with my Benedick before (this is our fifth show together) but I've also tackled Shakespearean barbs with him. McKey was the Tybalt to my Mercutio, so we have lots of practice hissing and spitting at each other. The difference is that this time we can let our affection and history with each other shine through.

I also think trust is a huge part of the wordplay of this show—because you have just have to unleash these torrents of dialogue at each other, you have to know that the other person is going to be there for you, both in scenes where you hate each other and the scenes where you love each other. The end of the wedding scene is a great example of this—Beatrice is finally fully unleashed, and she just has this righteous furious scream of mourning dialogue for Hero, for the death of men, for her inability to be of any help. Benedick has maybe five interjections in two pages, but he has to be there, in the scene, as fully committed as if the dialogue was bouncing back and forth. McKey's always there. You can't do one half of this show without the other.

McKay Carpenter & Anwen Darcy
as Benedick & Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
What strategies do you have for the wordplay?

One of the tactics we have in our arsenal for the warm up is a speed-through of all our scenes together. A lot of what makes Benedick and Beatrice so delightful is the speed at which they think up these terrible and hilarious insults. So we make sure that we are sharp on our cues and know precisely when to come in, where to cut a glance to the audience, when to move. We've also been known to run lines jumping up and down or mock punching each other, but that's mostly just because we both enjoy hitting things.

I can tell you that the best way to nail the wordplay is a vocal warm-up (which is important) or bouncing a tennis ball back and forth while we run lines to keep up a pace (very much not important or particularly helpful). But at the end of the day you need just need the right partner, otherwise you can never let go and just let the words guide you. 

Let’s talk about Beatrice & Hero. What have you discovered about their relationship?

Beatrice and Hero's relationship is the engine of the play. To me, Hero is Beatrice's heart—there is nothing in the world she wants more than Hero's happiness. You see it when Claudio and Hero get engaged—Beatrice is so excited she is answering for them, because she fully believes that her beloved cousin got her happy ending, and that's enough for her. She says "Good Lord for alliance! Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry, 'Heigh-ho for a husband!'" which on its surface, seems a little bit like Beatrice is trying to steer the conversation back to herself. To me, this highlights not just how at ease Beatrice is with her lack of a husband, but how she views Hero. Hero is everyone in the world to her, and now that her world is safely in the hands of her beloved, thus can Beatrice return to her happy corner of the world, unworried by men or love.

It's one of the few female relationships in Shakespeare unfettered by any sort of jealousy. Hero genuinely wants Beatrice to get together with Benedick, Beatrice genuinely wants Hero to marry Claudio, and both women want that because that is what they know lies in the heart of the other woman. They are both driven by love, and that's fascinatingly rare—there are no ugly ulterior motives in the relationship.

Did you draw (or reject) from other Beatrices you've seen?

Carpenter & Darcy in Much Ado
I tried to watch as many versions of the show as possible once I knew I was cast and had strong ideas of my own but well before we started rehearsal. So my Christmas was spent watching other Beatrices and seeing what I thought worked, what I thought didn't, what cuts I thought were completely egregious. What struck me most was how a lot of versions I watched couldn't decide on what the show was, exactly. I think a lot of people have an abstract idea that "Oh, Beatrice is the funny one and everything should be played for a laugh." I know I made a very conscious decision not to try to be funny—which sounds ridiculous! It's a comedy! But this is a show where the comedy needs to be weightless and top itself, and the more comedic business you add on each line, the more stakes you add to that line, until suddenly you are watching all these Beatrices' trying to hit a home-run belly-laugh on every single line. And it is not only exhausting, but when you are fighting for a laugh, it obscures a fair amount of the beautiful language.

What about the movies?

I was, for many many years, entirely obsessed with Emma Thompson's Beatrice, and Emma Thompson herself. I am sure I have probably stolen more than I realize from her, but quite honestly, if you are going to accidentally be a poor copy of someone, at least be Emma Thompson.

I know many many people loved Joss Whedon's version, but I have yet to sit through it without screaming—it epitomized (to me) what happens when you remove the musicality and formality of the show, and it seemed to rob anyone (but particularly Beatrice, unconstrained by society or outside judgement) of specific stakes. I'm currently trying to find a video of the Janet McTeer/Mark Rylance Much Ado [London, 1993] as a closing night present to myself. I want to weep at their utter perfection when I no longer have to attempt to even use the same yardstick as them.

I’m interested in gender-bent casting, so I’d love to hear more about your Mercutio last summer. How did you address the gender swap onstage or in rehearsal?

Mercutio is a part that pretty much does all of your work for you, if you let it. He has surprisingly few scenes—I think there are maybe three major ones (four if you break the beginning of Act Three into two scenes), plus a cameo appearance at the ball. But I have never had people react to a character just walking onstage they way people do when Merc comes on. The audience is ready. They want you to be outrageous, they want to laugh.

How did you approach the role?

Anwen Darcy as Mercutio
in Romeo & Juliet (2015)
I remember when I got the offer to do Mercutio, the brief was just "Tank Girl in Verona". So I built on that, and very gradually it became apparent to me that Mercutio was male, regardless of what my sex was. Merc is a boy. So Romeo and Benvolio treated me like a man—I don't think we even wound up swapping pronouns in their lines because I was absolutely 100 percent male to them. So to us, it was still three boys against the world. It wound up affecting Tybalt more, I think—he was the only one who ever referred to me as female onstage, and it was only during the fight, so he was using it as weapon of sorts. So to the actors, we had a very specific roadmap of negotiating the sex change.

You know Sebastian Stan in the Captain America movies? Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier was the endgame, physically, for Mercutio. We just wanted there to be so much going on—hair, eye makeup, sais hanging off my hips, scuffed-up combat boots and jacket—that it hid any kind of distinct femininity and just switched into an aggressive sexuality. 

Did your gender alter the dynamic with your Romeo?

Romeo and Juliet has a very pronounced and vocal community of Romeo/Mercutio/Benvolio shippers (people who think that those characters are romantically involved, and in any and all ways that triangle would allow it to happen) so it was interesting to see how that affected people's perception. I certainly wasn't playing any romantic interest in Romeo, but lots of people commented on how they saw the romantic longing there in our scenes together. Whether or not that was because I was female or whether it's just because it's a very popular subtext in Romeo and Juliet commentary right now, I don't know.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

I think one of Shakespeare's great strengths in writing women is that he lets them be flawed, he lets them be whole messy people with internal engines and agendas. I think the problem you run into is that then he doesn't know how to reconcile that with the endings of his shows, a lot of times.

What do you mean?

Anwen Darcy as Beatrice
Look at Much Ado. Beatrice pretty much talks her way through every single scene she is in, regardless of the sex of the other people on stage with her. Then you hit the wedding. Beatrice has five lines in the wedding, three of which are some variation on "Hero, why are you falling down? Hero??" She briefly defends her cousin's honor, but it's one of the few times you see her immediately back down when confronted. Why isn't she talking? We know she has a lot of opinions and feelings about the situation—her explosion at Benedict in the next scene confirms that. But after the wedding, after the humiliation of Hero, Beatrice stops talking out of turn. She stops driving scenes. She surrenders the narrative entirely to Benedick, issuing him an ultimatum and then leaving. It's horrible! It's infuriating, because Beatrice is more than capable of cutting Claudio and Don Pedro down to size. But she doesn't—she defers to Benedick. So as a modern woman, that's infuriating. Beatrice has so much going for her, and it's dropped at the end of the show because she's in love and no longer needs to be complicated.

I see!

And that, to me, is the biggest flaws of Shakespeare's shows—once an intelligent and complicated woman has served her purpose, she stops talking. In Lady Macbeth's case, she dies offstage. OFFSTAGE!! She gets a couple of lines explaining her death, and that's it. So it's a challenge to motivate the sudden drop in your lines—why is Beatrice, a woman who talks so much that she is compared to a parrot—suddenly silent? I'm still a little mad at Will at that one. I don't think any of his plays are beyond salvaging, but I do think being mindful of the way women-of-agency are treated is very important.

Are there any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to play?

Of course I have a Shakespeare bucket list. I've been very, very lucky because I've knocked a couple of dream roles—Hermia, Princess of France, Mercutio and now Beatrice—off very early in my career. I'd love to come back to Beatrice, maybe in ten years, just to see how differently I see her then. Cleopatra is next on my list—it's such a complicated play, and Shakespeare's Cleo is such a weird mix of romantic and deeply pragmatic that I really want to tackle it and just drive myself crazy. Titus is another one—I've wanted to play Lavinia for ages, because she's so important to the show and yet is completely silent for most of her stage time. As someone who is normally given pages upon pages of dialogue, I would really love the challenge of playing someone who is primarily onstage to project her internal life, and who can only communicate in limited physical movement. And I think Kate in Shrew has got to be on anyone's list. Just a chance to tackle that final monologue, to try and wrangle that beast into submission, is a challenge I think pretty much all classical actors have spent time thinking about.

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

In terms of gender bending—I am deeply jealous of any man who has ever gotten to be Henry V. I love that show, I love Henry, I love the whole leadup to his journey in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. I would probably do a lot of terrible, terrible things if you promised me that I could be Prince Hal.


Bryant Park Presents and The Drilling Company's Much Ado About Nothing runs from May 19 to June 4 in Bryant Park. Tickets are free.


headshot  Laura Rose
photos #2,3, & 5  Remy
photo #4  Josef Pinlac

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Maria-Christina Oliveras on Romeo & Juliet

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #10 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

Twice every season, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit tours city neighborhoods with limited access to the arts. The company is about to conclude its all-boro tour of Romeo & Juliet with a brief run at the Public. It's on topic to note that this R&J is directed by one of NYC's top Women in Shakespeare, Lear deBessonet. I e-mailed with the company's Nurse, Maria Christina Oliveras, about the play, the Unit's audience, and representation in Shakespeare and theater.

Let’s start with the Mobile Unit’s production of Romeo & Juliet. You play the Nurse, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved minor characters. What have you discovered about the role?

I fall in love with every role I play, but the Nurse has been particularly joyous. She has a huge appetite for life, and is a fearless force of nature. She literally bursts with energy and emotion and love in every moment, and Juliet is her heart and soul.

To me, the crux of the character lies in, “I am the drudge and toil in your delight.” Everything she does is for Juliet’s happiness because it is her own. My cousin once told me that when his first born came into the world, he felt like he no longer mattered—not in a bad way, but his child’s joy was now his joy. Another friend said that having a child is like having your heart out in the world in another being. That’s how the Nurse feels about Juliet. Her own daughter and husband have died, and she has devoted her life to her Lady—and when she does something, she does it all out. She loves on levels above and beyond, and this motivates every decision she makes. When Juliet dies (or she thinks she dies), she dies too. Textually, she literally disappears.

What makes the Nurse so popular with audiences?

I think her ferocity, her willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve, her deep belief in love and faith in God, her lack of pretense, her amazing down and dirty sense of humor and her lack of any filters, have made her a favorite among audiences. Also, she is the friend everyone wants: fiercely committed and loyal—deeply loving and nurturing and maternal, but she will cut and take down anyone who crosses her, or more importantly, someone she loves.

Directors tend to cast white men in Shakespeare, partly out of habit. What do you bring to Shakespeare, as a woman and a Hispanic New Yorker, that traditional casting can’t?

Unfortunately, directors tend to cast white, whether in Shakespeare or not. I actually think Shakespeare supports more integrated casting, and it’s actually now an anomaly (especially at great theaters such as the Public and TFANA) for a classic work to be all white. In fact, I think, unlike other areas of the industry, it is looked down upon, so it is heartening that there are indeed more opportunities in Shakespeare for people of color.

My Nurse is based on three very specific women I know who happen to be Latina. To that end, I do tap into my own heritage as a FiliRican New Yorker (specifically the Puerto Rican side) and Catholic upbringing to bring her to life. I hope my take is very identifiable and relatable, particularly in NYC. There are so many amazing caretakers who migrated to this country and provide the backbone and support to wealthy families, and I strive to honor them with my portrayal.

Lear deBessonet and the Mobile Unit have a strong streak of populism in them. What did you know about her work beforehand?

I have been a huge fan of Lear since seeing her Good Person of Szechwan and the Public Works’ production of The Tempest. To this day, they are two of the best theatrical experiences I have ever had. I remember fan-girling over her in my socially awkward, overly effusive way when we first met. To say the least, I was thrilled to be working with her and her “strong streak of populism,” particularly on the Mobile Unit.

How have your views affected the production's approach to R&J?

I know there’s all kinds of theater out there, and there’s room for all of it, but my heart and soul lies in theater that is innately populist. Everyone should be able to enjoy it, learn from it, have access to it—how beautiful if a piece can bring people together from all walks of life, if only for one night to breathe in the same room and be transported by a story that they can all relate to with their differing perspectives.

I am so over theater being for and catering to an exclusive, homogenous crowd—theater should not be exclusive, and should be relevant and accessible for the elite and the masses alike. Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings and royalty all at once… and he writes of deeply felt passions and struggles and desires and needs that are universal and that absolutely everyone can relate to if they are a human being. 

That said, we have to acknowledge that during Shakespeare’s time, their relationship to language and their vernacular were different. In a world where texting and bitmoji’s and e-mails have become the predominant way to communicate, we seem to be getting farther way from live verbal exchanges. And so, as with any piece, we have to know our audience and celebrate and embrace the fact that we are telling this story in New York City in 2016.

How do deBessonet and her designers bring 2016 NYC into Shakespeare's Verona?
We also have an amazing musician, Marques Toliver, who plays live and whose music is an eclectic fusion of soul, classical, R&B, which audiences love. Our choreographer, Benoit Swan, also offered up a fusion of contemporary and classical styles. Both elements minimize the distancing that people often associate with Shakespeare, making it more accessible for everyone.

What other factors did you have to take into account?

We also had to consider time constraints. To that end, we have streamlined the text, while maintaining the integrity of the story. What text is absolutely necessary? What is, at this point, too esoteric? And, as every rehearsal process should, we have been hyper-tuned to understanding the nuance of everything we say, so that we communicate the story clearly and enter into it with a deep sense of empathy and understanding. We emphasized using the language as action and as a very physical act, rooted in epic primal desires. These audiences have amazing B.S. meters, so they keep us honest in emotional truth and authenticity.

According to your bio, you grew up in the Bronx. How’s it been to tour your home borough with the Mobile Unit?

I am indeed Bronx born and bred. We were just up at Williamsbridge Oval Recreation Center, 15 minutes from my childhood home. It was great to be back, but more importantly, through this whole tour, it has been wonderful to see so many people of color, young and old, from all walks of life, eager to consume Shakespeare and devour stories. To perform for audiences and alongside a cast that truly reflects our world, specifically NYC in all its rich, beautiful diversity, has been such a gift. I say this particularly in light of the theatrical landscape, both onstage and off, which unfortunately, more often than not, tends to be rather limited in its representation.

How have the local audiences been enjoying your production?

Every venue on this tour is so different, and as with any audience, each has its own distinct personality. Each performance is a dance between us and them, and it’s so exciting to get to know your partner. Is it going to be a fox trot? Tango? Waltz? Hip-hop? Every audience gravitates toward something different in the play, and I learn so much from what they hear and respond to. At one of the men’s correctional facilities, when I tell Juliet that Romeo is banished for killing Tybalt, one of the gentleman says to me, “Tell her there are conjugal visits in NY.” Truth—and on some level, that’s exactly what I facilitate when I go to find Romeo so they can consummate their marriage.

Any other surprises?

When we were up at Casita Maria in the Bronx, a young high school gentleman reacted very strongly when Tybalt calls Romeo a slave—this young man heard “slave” and our Romeo happens to be black, and his reaction was, “Yo, he’s racist.” Up at Williamsbridge Rec Center, we had a middle school there who is putting up a production of R&J—the young lady playing the Nurse and I had a wonderful post-show discussion where we exchanged some thoughts on the character. There are so many amazing anecdotes, and truly, I have been humbled to learn so much about the play and its relevance through the eyes and ears of our audiences.

Aside from seeing you in Machinal, I think of you mainly as an actor of new musicals.

I am so grateful to float between genres. I think part of the reason I am an actor is I have intense wanderlust, and constantly need new stimuli and new challenges. Going from a contemporary play, to a new musical, to a Shakespeare, my muscles and skills set are constantly being re-built and tapped in new ways, and I never feel stagnant in my growth and learning.

Could you compare musical theater to Shakespeare? What skills do you draw on from musicals to perform Shak’s play?

In both musicals and Shakespeare, the needs and stakes of all the characters are huge—so huge that heightened language or a song are inevitable. The only way to express what you are feeling is through this lofted language. Also, Shakespeare’s plays are like great pieces of music, and once you know the structure and the map, i.e. all the notes and rhythms and keys, and it is in your bones, you get to scat and play, and lose yourself in the work, tossing a riff in here and there, extending a note where the impulse and need arise. This virtuosic play can only come once you know the map and rules. As with musicals, you must know your music and every step, before you can truly let it all go. To that end, the technical demands are similar. Both are athletic events, so you really have to keep your instrument on point, physically and vocally because you have to have full range of expression in order to inhabit these deep needs and desires.

Have you acted in Shakespeare or other classics before this?

I did the Shakespeare Lab at the Public in 2004 right before I went back to grad school. It was a full-on immersion for 3 months, so it’s bittersweet and lovely to be at the Public doing Shakespeare again. My senior project at Yale was Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, and in grad school, I got to explore a one-person show I wrote of Lady M. in the private moments in her hotel room after the coronation. I also did Lady Capulet, so it’s been great to explore R&J from the Nurse’s perspective. This summer, I’m thrilled to be doing Macbeth in Macbeth, and Jaques in As You Like It at Hudson Valley Shakespeare, so will continue in the classics for a bit.

Do you think training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

I don’t think you need years of formal training to understand or be able to perform Shakespeare, but it is highly demanding technically, and to that end, I do think some form of training or really great directors or coaches who can guide are key. Not because you need to make it sound a specific way, or act it a specific way, but it is athletic, and like going to the gym, you only get better with each session, and are able to build and learn and go farther in the game. Plus, I think any artist only gets better with time and experience whether it’s out in the trenches or in classroom settings.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

Iago really interests me at this point. I’m thrilled to do Macbeth and Jaques, both of which were bucket list roles for me. At some point, I would like to explore Lady M. and Paulina—I will never forget Mary Lou Rosato’s portrayal of her—when she said, “It is required. You do awake your faith” it was one of the most magical moments of theater I have ever experienced. As an artist, I strive to disturb the air for at least one moment, when time stands still, and she did this for me. It would excite me to explore any Shakespeare with a director who has a clear vision, and I definitely would love another crack at Cleopatra again in a couple of years.


The Public Theater Mobile Unit's Romeo & Juliet runs from April 11 to May 1 at the Public Theater in the East Village.


photos  Joan Marcus

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Rebecca Patterson on Taming of the Shrew

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #9 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

Maybe unique in NYC's theater ecosystem, the Queen's Company mounts English classics with all-female casts. This spring, AD Rebecca Patterson directs the company in Taming of the Shrew, and her approach to casting should throw an interesting light on the combative play. (Coincidentally, this summer in Central Park, Phyllida Lloyd will also mount an all-woman Taming.) Patterson took the time to answer a few questions about Shakespeare's play and the Queen's Company.

Let’s start with Taming of the Shrew, one of Shak’s most contentious plays. What drew you and the company to stage it in Spring 2016?

I felt the time was ripe to once again wrestle with our cultural legacy of institutionalized sexism — also on a more intimate interpersonal level the play is about selfish people who want things their way, and that gets in the way of love.

Have you directed Taming before?

Yes, I directed the play just over 10 years ago. At that time I was more interested in how the women in the play survive with their selves and humor intact in a world where they are just one step above property. Now I’m more interested in both the men and women and their relationships — how do we transform a history of dominance and submission into a future of egalitarianism and equality?

Some critics and artists view the misogyny of Taming as beyond redemption, but there are many positive interpretations, including feminist ones. How do you read the play’s view of women? What does ‘taming’ mean in your production?

Yes, of course misogyny is beyond redemption! But Taming of the Shrew is about people living and loving in a misogynistic world, Shakespeare himself is very sensitive to the dynamics of power and deeply empathetic to people who are getting the short end of the stick because of gender, class or wealth. In our production ‘taming’ has two meanings, the good one is being ‘gentled’, that is learning how not to be an asshole, and the bad one which is enforced obedience — we could all use a little more gentling and a lot less obedience.

The Queens Company casts only women in its shows. How does that gender dynamic affect the sexual politics of Kate & Petruchio? of Bianca and her suitors?

It doesn’t really effect the gender dynamics because the female actors play the men as men. It does allow the audience to see beyond the gender of the character to their humanity — it becomes about the dance of power between people, not just about men and women.

More generally, as a director, how do you speak with your actors about playing male roles? How do you hope the audience views the women onstage, and the women within the plays?

I talk to my actors about playing people who happen to be either men or women. What I hope is the audience sees the elemental humanity that is within all of us and experiences a world free of the artificial boundaries of gender.

Could you tell me about the Queens Company? What inspired the decision to cast only women in productions? What do you and your collaborators look for in potential scripts? Why produce classics in the 21st century?

I wanted to figure out the best way to direct classical plays for our contemporary world — all-female casting does two things, it opens up opportunities to underserved classically trained female actors and it cracks open the plays in subtle profound ways. We look for plays that play to the current zeitgeist making its way through our cultural memes — it’s often gut instinct that guides our script choices. The classics speak — literally they are language plays — and in our visual world I think we are hungry for the sound of another human voice. That’s why I direct the classics.

Let’s talk a little more about gender-blind casting and gender-exclusive casting. What benefits are there in collaborating solely with women on Shak and other dramas? What surprises have you discovered by casting women in traditionally male roles?

What is startling with a one-gender cast is how gender disappears and it becomes about the elemental humanity of the characters. Another surprise is because Shakespeare’s Renaissance men are quite different from contemporary men — they are both strong and emotionally expressive — contemporary women are actually better equipped to play Shakespeare’s male characters than their contemporary brothers. To understand Hamlet or Macbeth you need to see into the character’s soul — it is a degree of inner transparency that female actors often have an easier time accessing.


The Queens Company's Taming of the Shrew runs from April 16 to May 1 at the Wild Project on the Lower East Side.


photo 1  Ken Walker
photo 2  Bob Pileggi

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Poppy Liu on Double Falsehood

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #8 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

In March, a Brooklyn company revives Double Falsehood. This drama first showed up in 1727, when the first serious Shakespearean editor mounted it in London as a 'rediscovered' play by his hero. The current consensus is that he adapted it from an original play by Shak and John Fletcher. Also known as Cardenio, the plot's lifted from an episode in Don Quixote, of all things! In a Spanish court, a rake betrays his pal, and a rape victim dresses up as a boy.

Poppy Liu plays this last character, Violante, in the current production by Letter of MarqueShe's been working with the socially-conscious company on the play for over a year. I corresponded with Poppy about the show and feminism.

Let’s start with Double Falsehood, a play by Shakespeare — sort of. Could you briefly summarize the play?

Double Falsehood is the story of two sets of "lovers" and the constraints they are subject to. Henriquez is the most privileged — the (second) son of a Duke, enough said. Julio is next in line - he is probably upper middle class, and he is a man so there is that going for him. Leonora comes next — a higher class than Julio but a woman so that knocks her down a billion tiers in terms of privilege and agency. And then Violante, the lowest on the totem pole — a woman and lower class. It is the story of how the social conditions of these people inform the decisions we make. It is the story of how we hurt one another, intentionally and not. It is the story of how families and legacies reinforce power and privilege.

What about your character's arc?

Violante's entire journey through the play is essentially a pursuit of the man who raped her in order to regain the integrity, the honor and the humanity that was taken from her.

As an actor, can you speak to what makes Violante a full-dimensioned woman?

I have a lot of love for Violante. She is smart, outspoken and uncompromising in her sense of justice. She is constantly asking herself "what can I do about this" and, especially in the face of adversity, she is always finding where her agency lives. Violante is a warm-blooded full-spirited woman.

Your director, Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, has said “Violante and Leonora have a depth of wisdom & intelligence about the dreadful double-standards young women face.” How is this play a feminist play?

At its core the word 'feminism' to me means being heard. Violante and Leonora are two women who are bound by their social sphere who are, within the limited amount of agency they are given, fighting to be heard. What they go through is both infuriating and empowering. Their world is one in which the men make the choices and the women have to deal with the consequences. What is remarkable about these two young women is that they do not complacently deal and they show the men to themselves.

What’s your background in Shakespearean acting?

I was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. On top of classical acting and text work we also worked extensively with Elizabethan song and dance, stage combat and clowning.

Can you tell me a little about the work you did with Drunk Shakespeare?

I have a lot of love for the folks of Drunk Shakespeare but I have to say it is definitely 2 parts Shakespeare and 5 parts drunken debauchery… which perhaps one could argue hearkens to the atmosphere of the Bard's original audience. I played Lady M and I drank probably my body weight in whiskey over the course of ten months. On the nights that I was drunk, I would do "out damned spot" in Mandarin Chinese.

Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

I would substitute the word "excavating" for the word "training". Shakespeare is such a master of language and emotional journeys and the human body. His words are laden with clues for the exact journey a body goes through as it experiences a set of circumstances. The most valuable "training" I have had in the realm of Shakespeare is how to allow the words to do the work and how to allow my body to go along for the ride. It takes a tremendous amount of specificity and surrender.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform? Not just the women either — any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I actually get cast as men quite often! Beatrice is my favorite lady-character, duh. Rosalind is also feisty, fun and has the inner spirit of a young boy (perhaps a distant cousin of Violante in some sense). She resonates with the Mongolian Goat Boy side of me. But as for men... I would love to play Richard III. One day!

Speaking more generally, some of Shakespeare’s plays have… let’s say ‘problematic’ views for modern women. What’s your perspective on his female roles?
I think what's "problematic" about Shakespeare's women through a modern lens is that, while they creatively work around the bindings of their social world, none of them succeed in transforming the institutional structures around them. They illuminate the inconsistencies of the social world around them, yes. They expose the problems of patriarchy, true. They speculate about how messed up the world is the way that it is and how few options they seem to have, often. And this is huge! But I feel what we need o n top of this is now how to now transform these old systems that do not serve us. Shakespeare's women are great at seeing how they are limited and now in 2016 the question we are faced with is: knowing this, what are we going to do about it?


Letter of Marque's Double Falsehood runs from March 5 to April 9 at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Laura Hirschberg on Verona Walls

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on the men onstage and behind the scenes. Let's balance that out! This is #6 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

This week, I'm glad to get the chance to talk to a playwright about Shakespeare. Laura Hirschberg has set her play, Verona Walls, just before act one of Romeo and Juliet. By basing her play on Shakespeare's works, she joins a tradition that stretches all the back to his own lifetime, when John Fletcher wrote The Tamer Tamed. Laura took some time to email with me about Shakespearean inspiration and adaptation.

Let’s start with Verona Walls. What's its relationship to Romeo and Juliet?

My shorthand explanation of Verona Walls has always been: “Mercutio in Love.” The plot begins a week before the action of Romeo and Juliet kicks off and focuses on Mercutio — Romeo's best friend, one of Verona's leading wits, a gentleman, a rascal, a lover and a fighter. At the top of the show, Mercutio has had one too many bad dates and failed romances and decides to swear off love. Of course, that's destiny's cue to throw a girl into his path who shakes up his world completely. And as that story unfolds, Mercutio is also ruled by his love and devotion to Verona and the “Montague boys” — a love that proves increasingly dangerous as the events of Shakespeare's play bleed into the onstage action of Verona Walls.

How far did you go in turning Mercutio into your own creation?

I can't deny that at this point, Verona Walls' Mercutio is more mine than Shakespeare's. But at the core he is Shakespeare's [character]. He is the man who rails against love and dreams in his “Queen Mab” speech and then, a handful of scenes later, dies because of events set into motion by love and dreams. He's brave and loyal and foolish and hilarious. And that's all in the Shakespeare. But behind the Shakespeare is my guy, who is all of the things previously mentioned, but he's also a man in love, pulled in opposite directions by people and places and values that just can't manage to coexist.

There’s a long history of rewriting Shakespeare’s plays. How do you approach that legacy?

I'm pretty enthusiastically well-versed in that legacy and I like to think that every adaptation I've encountered, from Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead to West Side Story to Forbidden Planet, has played a part in the unique world I've created for this piece. I describe our setting as “Shakespeare's Verona” because this is a play set outside of specific time and place. This Verona is Zeffirelli's and Bernstein's and Luhrmann's and Shakespeare's and mine. Verona Walls is full of anachronisms — Star Wars references, W.H. Auden poems, Foo Fighters riffs, along with lines from Richard II and Hamlet —because the themes of this play, like the themes of Romeo and Juliet, repeat throughout history and literature and music and will go on repeating. So that's the Verona we're dealing with — every Verona, any Verona.

You invent a romantic partner for Mercutio, an adventurer named Alyssa. What led to her conception?

Mercutio is hard to match. I needed someone up to snuff and I found I had to go outside of Shakespeare's canon. Shakespeare has his strong women — powerful, funny, resourceful — but overwhelmingly, they are tied to their worlds. I think part of what makes Mercutio so appealing is that he doesn't quite fit. So I created Alyssa — a woman with no interest in belonging to any particular place or group. She's a citizen of the world, something he's never seen before and doesn't really know how to deal with.

What did she let you do that couldn’t be done with Shakespeare’s raw materials?

By going outside of Shakespeare, I could let Alyssa be truly free. She is whoever she chooses to be. Her words aren't borrowed and we don't know where she came from or where she might be headed.

Speaking more generally, what’s your relationship with Shakespeare, playwright to playwright?

I'm an unabashed Shakespeare fan-girl. As a writer, director, and human being, I come back to Shakespeare time and time again because his plays strike at the heart. I'm not saying every word of Cymbeline or As You Like It contains some profound truth. Rather, throughout his work, I find these pitch-perfect encapsulations of the human experience. 

As my personal experiences evolve, different bits of his plays push their way to the forefront. And that's something I aspire to as a writer: Creating something that the reader/viewer can grow up with, something that hits you differently if you're in love or in mourning, twenty years old or sixty, but it still hits you. Also, as a writer, the number of jokes Shakespeare can cram into one speech is enough to make your jaw drop.

What in Shakespeare’s dramaturgy that you find inspiring? In your work on Verona Walls or elsewhere, have you stolen any techniques or devices from him?

Wordplay wordplay wordplay. His precision with language is hugely inspiring, down to the rhythm and emphases within the lines. For this play, I've borrowed a heavy dose of dramatic irony from him, in addition to some double entendre and a few nearly tragic misunderstandings. But I very intentionally dodged a trope of his that I find particularly frustrating in Romeo and Juliet — the intervention of fate or bad luck. In this play, there are certainly some events that are beyond the characters' control, but when it comes down to it, they make their choices and play out their hands.

What’s your perspective on Shakespeare's female roles?

Really, what's unfortunate is how few women there are in his plays. Because when you land on a good female role in Shakespeare, she's really good. She's Lady Macbeth or Margaret or Lady Percy or Joan of Arc. Beatrice and Rosaline and, yes, Juliet and Ophelia—these are all powerful parts. It is unfortunate that often in Shakespeare, women are obstacles or prizes to be won or victims. But these women are real people, with needs and flaws and passions — all of which can dramatically affect the trajectory of the plays they're in.

I struggle with a character like Desdemona because I want her to be smarter, more active.  She might not be able to change the course of events, but I'm desperate for her to investigate. That's why I'm so thankful for the presence of Emilia in Othello. She has even less power in her society than Desdemona, but she makes herself heard and goes down fighting. Shakespeare often gives us that kind of balance—you've got Hero, but right next to her is Beatrice. No one burns hotter than Hotspur… except his wife, Lady Percy.

Is there anything in his plays that's beyond salvaging?

There may be no salvaging for Taming of the Shrew. But otherwise, when we come upon these questions like “How can Hero be okay with marrying Claudio at the end of Much Ado?”, maybe the way to move forward with these “problematic” women is to embrace the problem — let there be a little something undeniably wrong even as everything else gets tied up in a bow.


The Workshop Theater's Verona Walls runs from March 3 to 26 at the Workshop Theater in the Garment District.

photo 1  Laura Hirschberg
photo 2  Rachel Flynn & Ryan McMurdy

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Sandy Foster as Maria & Feste

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #6 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

As part of the 400th anniversary of Shak's death, the Filter Theatre brings their Twelfth Night (originally co-produced by the RSC) to NYC this month. The company has a reputation for stripped stagings and vivid soundscapes, a punk-inspired aesthetic they apply to both classics and new plays. One member of the English company is Sandy Foster, who plays a pair of roles, Maria and Feste. Sandy took a break from the show's American tour to answer a few questions via email.

Let’s start with the role of Maria. As an actor, can you speak to what makes her a full-dimensioned woman?

Maria is a total dream to play because she is a fantastic example of how brilliant Shakespeare's writing was for women. I’m inclined to suggest he was ahead of his time with his treatment of women, compared to his contemporaries, but actually nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to see a woman on TV/film who doesn’t at some point end up in her bra and knickers. I don’t think Shakespeare ever wrote a scene that demanded that, and surely that suggests we’ve just gone backwards rather than he being ahead.

That's true, but his ratio of men to women is tilted heavily.

Yes, there weren’t many [women] comparatively, but those he did write were, in my opinion, strong and independently-minded. Maria is easily the most intelligent of the party of three who are plotting their revenge on Malvolio, and the driving force behind his eventual demise. There’s a beautiful scene in which she lays out her plan for the men to hear, and she clearly has the full measure of Malvolio. She understands his weaknesses, his desires, his ambition, even seemingly his secrets, and she knows with absolute confidence that she can destroy him. Not only is she a woman, but she’s also a servant, and yet she’s able to use her intellect and strength of conviction to defy what might otherwise be perceived as weaknesses. What’s weak about that? She’s utterly fierce and I love playing her.

What about playing Feste? Do you play the fool as male, female, or is gender not addressed?

Strangely, I have always thought about my Feste as a man. We haven’t changed the text so he continues to be referred to as male, and yet, due to the nature of our particular production (no real costume), there is no getting away from the fact that physically, I am a woman. The audience will make their own decision about whether to ignore my physical attributes or to believe Feste is female or indeed androgynous. I’m not sure it really matters.

Do you have any strategies for the Elizabethan wordplay or the ‘clowning’ aspects of the role?

I always love to play the clowns. They’re the characters I most relate to and there’s something so thrilling about playing the one character in the play who sees it all for what it really is. They’re strangely omnipotent. The language can be tricky, and a lot of the humor references old jokes that people would have understand at the time. But you just have to play them with an open heart, and find the paradox between their clowning and truth-telling. It’s a powerful moment when a clown starts to cry. They are always tipping the edge of melancholy and hilarity. They’re Shakespeare's finest characters, in my opinion. 

How so?

For me, the clowns in Shakespeare's plays are the truth-tellers. They are entirely open-hearted and always tell the truth. They hold a mirror up to all the other characters and force them to confront themselves, but in such a way that none of them know it's happening to them until they’ve learnt their own truth. I find it fascinating that the clown in Hamlet, Yorick, is dead. The truth, the openness, the honesty and indeed the humour in that play are absent. Like the clown.

Have you performed in Twelfth Night before?

This is the only production of Twelfth Night I have ever been in. It’s one of his best comedies, I think. A play where everyone wants something or someone that they can’t have. It’s utterly painful.

How about other productions?

I saw a great production performed by the year above me at my drama school (The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) which captured Olivia’s grief beautifully, but I’ve never seen a production that did a better party scene than the one in this version. I saw this production before I was in it, and I just fell in love with the anarchy. I think Shakespeare would have loved it.

Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

I think training is important full stop. There’s something integral in the daily practice of strengthening your voice, body, and mind that stands you in great stead when you get out there in the real world. Acting is a craft that requires hard work, energy, and discipline, but with current trends in youth, beauty, and a desire to be famous, it’s very easy for that to be forgotten.

What are some of the keys to Shakespearean acting?

The language of Shakespeare is incredibly dense and poetic, and you absolutely have to understand what it is you’re saying if you want the audience to understand. There are so many rules and academic opinions about Shakespeare, which makes it potentially terrifying. But I really approach it in the same way I would approach any script, and my training is what gives me the knowledge, confidence, and technical skills needed to do that. 

What other Shakespeare have you done?

Professionally I’ve only done one other Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, in which I played the clown Dogberry. That particular role is almost always played by older men, so I was over the moon when I was asked to do it. We came across lots of challenges, but it was a role that just kept giving, and I relished every moment. People were very divided about whether a woman should ever be allowed to play such a part. Not everyone thinks women should be funny or unattractive and my Dogberry was both those things. During training I also played the clown Costard in Love's Labour's Lost and Claudius in Hamlet. I’ve played more of Shakespeare's male roles than female which makes me feel extremely lucky. You can learn a great deal from seeing the world through such different eyes.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform?

So, so many. However, the tragedies in particular appeal to me hugely. My favorite Shakespeare play is Titus Andronicus. It’s all death and destruction, a proper Greek tragedy. I’m fascinated by muteness so would love to play Lavinia whilst I’m still the right age. I’m also desperate to play Lady Macbeth because there is another fine example of Shakespeare writing women who could run the world.

What about other male roles?

In terms of male parts, the possibilities are endless. Hamlet would be a great one to have a crack at, as would Lear. We’ve had some great women in the UK play these parts — most recently Maxine Peake played Hamlet and a while back Katherine Hunter was Lear. My dream would be to have played all the clowns eventually. They’re difficult and take a lot of work but when you find them, they are delicious.

The Filter Theatre’s approach to Twelfth Night gets described as ‘radical’ and ‘rock & roll’. What are the advantages to modern, non-traditional approaches to Shakespeare?

I think that traditional costume can hugely alienate an audience subconsciously. It’s a dangerous thing because the language, the content and the mere fact that it is a Shakespeare play can frighten an audience into thinking it’s not for them before the first word of the play is even uttered, and a Shakespearean costume can add a whole extra layer. In terms of everything else that might define this production as radical, i.e. no real set, rock music, audience participation, I genuinely don’t think we’re doing anything that Shakespeare didn’t do. The man was almost certainly a rebel and a rock star.

Have you found any drawbacks?

The only drawbacks I can see is that it’s not for everyone. But then that to me is the definition of real art.

Circling back to Shakespeare's women, do you find anything old-fashioned about his views, or beyond salvaging?

Funnily enough, I think Shakespeare wrote women pretty well. His plays are full of women ready to risk everything for love, kill for ambition and lead armies. They’re usually fiercely intelligent, brave and stronger than their male counterparts. We talk of his plays being difficult or old fashioned, but I think we’d be better off taking a closer look at our contemporaries and ask the same questions. Most plays still revolve around men and feature more male characters whilst the women are reduced to merely mothers, lovers, daughters and servants. Plays that do revolve around women (and there aren’t nearly enough) follow themes like childbirth, marriage and family, despite the fact that we know women today can and do run entire countries. This is the problem. We think we’ve come past all that. We haven’t. We just aren’t forced to wear corsets anymore.

You mentioned depictions of women onstage earlier as well. What about feminism backstage, or outside theater & film?

There’s a real buzz about female equality over in the UK at the moment. I am a member of the Women's Equality Party which is Britain's fastest growing political party, set up in light of that fact that we are so underrepresented in parliament. It’s a battle backed, supported, and led by both women and men, which for me is key. Equality is better for everyone, and so we need everyone to be a part of it. I am also involved in a campaign called 50:50 by 2018 set up by Polly Kemp and Elizabeth Berrington, which promotes more roles for women and equal pay, amongst other issues. The clear fact is that we make up over 50% of the population, and yet less than a third of speaking roles in films are women. How are young girls and women expected to believe they can achieve anything and be anything, if they’re only seeing women in the media almost mute and semi-clad? There are an amazing amount of people (male and female) that think we’ve moved on. But I know of several stories where women are being paid less than men on the same job simply because of their gender. That’s just not right.

What are some of the goals of the campaigns you're working on?

One small thing that we’re starting with is reclaiming the word ‘actress’. It's become unfashionable in the UK because of its historical connotations and so many people call themselves actors, but it’s small things like this that imply that being a woman is just not good enough. We have to take responsibility for making these changes ourselves and being mindful of what we put out there. As women and men, we need to write plays that represent all of us in our complicated, multifaceted roles as human beings. I have just completed writing my first play, which I hope will be a step towards readdressing this imbalance. Things are looking up though — I have recently lost out on a couple of jobs in favour of an older actress. If people are finally seeing the value of older women, I don’t mind missing out on those jobs at all. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be female. And an artist.


The Filter Theatre/RSC's Twelfth Night runs from Feb 16 to 20 at the NYU Skirball Center in Greenwich Village.

photos  Robert Day