Thursday, May 29, 2014

Interview: Ismene Mendes as Hero

For some people, summer only begins when the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park starts its run. That's definitely the case for Ismenia Mendes, who makes her Delacorte debut on Tuesday as the innocent Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. This recent Juilliard grad has already worked Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, the Flea, and Clubbed Thumb. NYTR editor Aaron Grunfeld spoke with Ismenia about her views on Shakespeare, acting, and her rehearsal process.

Ismene Mendes (r) with Jack Cuttmore-Scott
rehearsing Much Ado About Nothing

Have you seen or performed in Much Ado before?

Much Ado was actually the first Shakespeare play I ever performed in—I played one of the watchmen when I was in high school! I recall having given the character a horrendous cold.

Could you tell us something about Hero? What’s the most difficult facet of the role? How do you handle your character’s reconciliation with her fiancĂ©?

The trickiest thing about playing Hero is actually understanding her and loving her. As a contemporary woman in New York City, it's hard to empathize with a girl who is as compliant, dainty and well-behaved as Hero. I've had this issue when watching other actors perform her as well—here you a have a modern woman, Beatrice, essentially behaving as a man in a man's world—and there's Hero next to her: she's quiet, obedient, and for most women today, absolutely infuriating. I'm finding that the trick is not to fight against what Shakespeare has written but to really inhabit it. I can't be concerned with an audience's (or my own) prejudices toward her.

As to how I handle the reconciliation with Claudio at the end—I don't know yet. I'm starting to think Hero doesn't know either.

What’s your background in Shakespearean acting? Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare? Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform?

I was recently a student at Juilliard and was fortunate enough to receive a pretty spectacular education—but no, I don't think formal training is "necessary" to perform Shakespeare. That being said, however you acquire it, I do believe that knowledge of the text, verse, pentameter, etc is paramount—Shakespeare pretty much gives you a map, if you know how to read it.

Are there any particular roles in Shakespeare you’d love to do?

I would love to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Perdita in The Winter's Tale. Those are definitely at the top of my "in the next 5 years" list.

You’re working with Jack O’Brien, who has a long and successful record with Shakespeare. Did his approach to Much Ado introduce you to new methods of performing the work?

Yes! Jack is incredibly curious—he's not interested in preconceived notions, planned work or character choices made in the first week. I walked in the first day thinking I knew exactly who Hero was, but as of right now she is unrecognizable from who I first thought her to be. It can be really quite intimidating (and frustrating) to keep yourself in a state of 'not knowing'—but ultimately, it makes for a far more specific and truthful character.

Much Ado offers roles for a remarkable range of ages, with Hero being one of the youngest. What tips have you picked up from actors like Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, or from John Glover and Brian Stokes Mitchell, with their varying degrees of experience?

I'm pretty shy—and I find that I learn the most when I sit quietly and watch them at work. It's hard to put into words actually… It's pretty overwhelming, in a deep and humbling way. One thing that immediately struck me in the first week is how individual and unique they each are in their process. There really is no one, "best" way of getting to the heart of a character and play—each of them is so extremely different and brilliant in their own process.

Let’s talk a little about Shakespeare in the Park. What shows have you seen at the Delacorte over the years?

I've been coming to The Public’s Delacorte Theater since high school, but some of my recent favorites were The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. People line up all night for a reason—I've seen some incredibly inspiring work up on that stage. Working here for the first time is a dream come true.

Have you done any outdoor theater before? What are you looking forward to or apprehensive about?

I haven't, and I think I'm most terrified of dancing in a corset in 90 degree weather while mosquitoes attack me.

Along the same lines, the Delacorte is a huge house. How do you prepare for such a large audience? How do you expect the size to alter your approach to performance?

Well, there's the size—but there's also the thrust stage. It forces you to be a smarter, more aware actor…. Warming up helps too.

Ismene Mendes (l) with Jack Cuttmore-Scott
rehearsing Much Ado About Nothing
Off-Broadway, Ismenia Mendes has played Bernie in Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra at Playwrights Horizons and Peggy in A.R. Gurney's Family Furniture Miracle with Clubbed Thumb at the Flea. Since training at Juilliard, she has also played Katharine and Boy in Henry V at Two River Theater.
The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing will run June 3 through July 6 with an opening on Monday, June 16.
This interview originally ran on New York Theatre Review
photos  Tammy Shell