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.

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

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

photos  Robert Day

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Lilly Englert as Marina

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 #5 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

For her professional debut in 2014, Lilly Englert was cast by Julie Taymor as one of the lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The next season she was Cordelia to Michael Pennington's Lear. This month, she'll pick up a hat trick, playing Marina in Trevor Nunn's Pericles. The three shows, all at Theater for a New Audience, have put the young actor in contact with top Shakespeare talent. Englert shared her views with me over email.

Have you seen or performed in Pericles before?

I actually never felt compelled to read the play before I auditioned for Marina, given the unknown authorship of the first two acts. However, after I have dug into the roll, I have fallen in love with the story and wonder why it isn’t done more often. I think it is a brilliant journey filled with hope. I believe it is that sense of hope that drives the play.

What can you tell us about the role of Marina?



Marina is Pericles and Thaisa’s daughter, who like her father goes on a rich and often terrifying journey. Life keeps throwing challenges Marina’s way but she never gives up. Marina thinks there is a chance her father could be alive, and using her intelligence and creativity, gets herself out of many difficult situations. Marina is driven by hope.

As an actor, how do you make her into a full-dimensioned woman?

I think when you invest time in a character and have a good director they become full- dimensioned people because that is what we are. Marina is often described as being 'pure' and 'good'. She is that, but if she was only pure and good, I think it would be a pretty uninteresting performance. She is also incredibly smart and articulate with a vivid imagination. She is deeply connected to nature and to the Gods. She is a fighter like her father. She can be depressed and snap like every other person in the world. She experiences overwhelming joy and sadness. She has a gift, but that is not being 'angelic and pure', [it's] being able to affect people through language. And she does that in many different ways.

A few seasons ago, NYC audiences saw you play Cordelia, another ‘good’ daughter of a king. What connections have you drawn between that role and Marina?

I never thought of Cordelia as being a "good" daughter of a king. My mentor once told me "Cordelia is a revolutionary and her weapon is love." That has really stuck with me. In the opening scene she is challenging her father with new ideas. Cordelia isn’t driven by emotion; she loves her father deeply but also has a strong sense of herself and her values.

Marina for most of the play is an orphan, living with the hope that her father is maybe alive. She also has a inner strength and strong sense of herself and morality. Both Marina and Cordelia go through a challenging journey to the be reunited with their fathers. They are both very articulate woman with a strong sense of right and wrong.

How about comparing Marina with Hermia — a much earlier, comedic role in Shakespeare’s career?

I think Hermia, like Marina and Cordelia, has a wonderful inner strength. From the first scene she defies her father, publicly saying she wants to marry Lysander. That is a very courageous thing to do. She runs away and throughout the whole play never gives up on being with the man she loves. She is by no means any less complex than Cordelia or Marina.

Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

I don’t know if training is necessary for everyone to play Shakespeare but I know it was for me. I think you need to have an understanding of the rhythm and the 'rules' to then be able to break them.

You’ve now worked with a few top-notch Shakespearean directors. How would you contrast Trevor Nunn’s approach to staging with Julie Taymor’s?

I feel extremely fortunate to have worked with wonderful directors who all have a different approach to Shakespeare. Julie Taymor sees the world in such a creative way and has a very vivid imagination. She was enthusiastic about making Shakespeare sound 'real', which I loved and can really connect to. She didn’t want us to over-act because we were speaking heightened language. Julie spent a lot of time helping us with the way our characters moved and how that influenced the text. Every gesture was so specific and that allowed me to understand much more about Hermia. Julie is an artist who sees the world in magical way, like no one I have ever meet before.

Trevor Nunn’s approach has been to start with a deep understanding of the text and the play and his creativity comes from that. He is so specific with language and I feel very fortunate to be working with him.

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

I have wanted to play Juliet since I was 18 and that is still the top of the list. I work on her in my spare time just because I love the role so much. I would also love to play Ophelia.

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

At the moment I don’t feel drawn to playing roles traditionally played by men because there are so many great female roles I want to play. I am very passionate about Shakespeare and in my career I want to play as many parts as possible.

Shakespeare’s plays have some­ — let’s say ‘problematic’ — roles for modern women. In this show, he gets comedic mileage from pitching a chaste girl into a brothel. Is there any friction between his 16th-century notion of women with your 21st-century views?

I think the fact that a chaste girl gets sold into a brothel is utterly relevant to today's society. In many countries young girls are still being sold to slavery and prostitution and a play like Pericles brings that issue to the surface.

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Theatre for a New Audience's Pericles runs from Feb 14 to Mar 27 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene.

photo 1  Lilly Englert
photo 2  Englert with Michael Pennington in TFANA's King Lear
photo 3  Englert with Zach Appelman & Jake Horowitz in TFANA's Midsummer

credits (2 & 3)  Carol Rosegg