Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Women on Shakespeare: Joey Parsons as Titania, Hermia, and others

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), show coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! I'm starting a new interview series on The Fifth Wall, talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work.

For the inaugural entry, I emailed with Joey Parsons. She's a member of the Pearl Theater's acting company, one of the few NYC companies to remount classics like Shak and Shaw. This fall, Ms. Parsons is part of the five-actor ensemble in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a phenomenally inventive production directed by Eric Tucker.

Which roles do you play in this five-actor Midsummer?

I play Hermia, Titania, and Snout, with a smattering of Hippolyta and a few of Demetrius’ lines.

How do you manage all the shifts from role to role?

In terms of actorly techniques, I prepare differently for each production I'm fortunate enough to work in. For this Midsummer, I put a lot of thought into physicality. I was trained in ballet and several other dance techniques, and I find that thinking about how a character moves or stands really helps me. I tried to find one gesture for each character. Nothing too crazy, just a little physical thing to put me in that body. Hermia felt most like me, so her voice is my voice. Snout is a little more innocent and in love with Bottom (the way I’m playing her), so I found her voice to be a bit higher than my normal range. Titania feels of-the-elements to me, so I naturally put a bit more gravitas into her speech.

What sort of approach did Eric Tucker bring to rehearsals?

Eric was enormously collaborative and was always open to suggestions. In fact we had a half-joke amongst the cast to be careful what we would joke about in front of Eric because he would always say “Yes! Try that!” The fantastic way we end our production, with Puck getting smashed by Bottom, was actually a joke that Mark Bedard made during a break that Eric overheard!

Of course only five of us are playing all the characters, but I (and the audience, I hope) started to see how all of these story lines intersect and weave together. I used to see Midsummer as essentially three separate stories, but we’ve woven them all together in a fascinating way.

Did the rehearsals help you discover anything new about Shakespeare in general?

I’m remembering a wonderful interview with Mark Rylance in which he called for more irreverence in Shakespeare. I saw his marvelous Twelfth Night on Broadway, and couldn’t wait to work on some Shakespeare again so that I could try it in a looser, more playful way. The whole rehearsal process for Midsummer was about play. And so is the performing of it. If I’m not having a good time on stage, for whatever reason, it's because I am thinking too much and not playing enough. It’s like a wonderful meditation. I have to work at remaining present and playful.

Have you been in Midsummer before?

I’ve seen many productions of Midsummer, but I’ve never been in one before. It’s always been a bit of a cursed audition for me, because I’ve never been 'enough of', or I’ve been 'too much of', what they were looking for. I’ve always been told I’m too tall for Hermia, not tall enough for Helena, and not old enough for Titania. Years ago, I auditioned for a production where the director had asked me to prepare Helena. He clearly liked what I brought to the audition, but he thought I was too dark and short. So he asked me to take a few minutes and prepare Hermia. I did. He liked that, but declared me just not right for that either. He had me then prepare Titania: also just not quite right. And then after Titania, Puck! I didn’t book anything in that production! That director went on to cast me in several productions, so no hard feelings!

What about Midsummers you've seen? Have they influenced how you think about the play?

Most productions I’ve seen felt stodgy to me, and the three story lines were very, very separate. But I did see one production, years ago at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which was set in space. Yes, space. It was kooky and playful, and was one of the first times I thought that it was actually awesome to not take Shakespeare so damn seriously.

Do you think training is necessary to perform Shakespeare?

We did a lot of Shakespeare work at Yale School of Drama. I did countless hours of text analysis and voice work on any given class assignment or production. I’m grateful for what I learned there, but I do have to say that I got way too in-my-head about it for many years. I convinced myself that there was a 'right' way to do Shakespeare, and that if I wasn’t doing hours and hours of text work, underlining all the antithesis, and pause breaks and breath breaks with all my different-colored pens, I wasn’t doing my job and I wasn’t a good actor.

This is not me criticizing my education or Shakespeare study in general. My experience is part of my inherent personality; I always want to get things right. And it was a good lesson for me in that there is no right. There is only clear communication. Whatever that means for an actor and a director. For years, I was concerned with correct inflection, not illuminated communication. That is my goal now.

How do you prepare now?

I do still like to underline, and I like trying to get the iambic pentameter correct. Although, at one point in this Midsummer production, Eric asked me to not do it 'correctly' on one of my lines because it sounded too stodgy and pulled the audience out of the story, and into the text. I totally got where he was coming from.

I have to say that most of my favorite 'Shakespearean' actors have not done extensive Shakespeare study. They simply try to make the text sound sensical. I auditioned for a lot of Shakespeare out of grad school, and didn’t book any for years. Then one day, I decided to treat my audition as an experiment, and I decided to do the opposite of everything I’d been taught. I booked that job!

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

I’ve been so fortunate to play some lovely ones: Rosalind, Lady Anne, Ariel, and many others. I always wanted a crack at Juliet, but as the late, great Mark Rucker once said to me: “Honey, you’d better get on that soon!” Perhaps someday Eric Tucker will direct a version of Romeo and Juliet, and as he loves non-traditional, gender-swapping, age-ignoring casting, I’d maybe get a crack at it! Lady Macbeth, Constance in King John, Beatrice, Kate in Shrew, Cleopatra, and oddly enough, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII. It’s a play that is hardly ever done, mostly for good reason, but her courtroom speech is astounding, and one that I often did for auditions early on in my career when they “just wanted to see a little Shakespeare.” I think directors who would ask me for a Shakespearean monologue always thought I was about to pull out some Ophelia, but then I’d launch into Queen Katherine. It always slightly shook them!

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I never really thought much about men’s roles! But now that I think of it: Iago.

Shakespeare’s plays have some—let’s say ‘problematic’ roles for modern women. Do you try to reconcile his 16th-century depictions of women with your 21st-century views?

Great question. We spoke in rehearsal about how in Midsummer and in fact in most of Shakespeare’s plays, once a resolution of sorts has occurred, the women are rarely heard from again. In Midsummer, Hermia and Helena are onstage, but not heard from again (except in this production!).

I always found this perplexing. I played Isabella in Measure for Measure years ago, and I just couldn’t get over the fact that she never answers the Duke’s proposal in the end. She’s not heard from at all! A lot of productions have clever ways of solving this problem so that it seems like less of a problem. In the production I did, Juliet went into labor at the moment of the proposal and interrupted Isabella’s answer.

In Midsummer rehearsals, we spoke about how we didn’t think it was an oversight that most of the women are not heard from again, but a clear comment on what was 'expected' from married (and engaged) women in Shakespeare’s day and age.

What about how, in Midsummerhe gets comedic mileage from pairing a queen off with a monster?

In terms of Titania being paired off with a donkey, well, yes, I would find that 'joke' very hard to forgive. But technically, Titania doesn’t know yet that it was Oberon who played this trick on her. She may have an idea. But all she knows is that Oberon has awoken her from what she thought was a bad dream, she is beside a donkey, and a pair of lovers, and she is baffled as to what has actually transpired. The last interaction the audience sees between her and Oberon is this:

Come my lord, and in our flight
Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping here was found
With these mortals on the ground.

The audience does not see the offstage fury that may ensue. I’ve been playing this line as though this is where I’m starting to suspect that Oberon may have had a hand in this. But then the scene ends. I’ve also decided to believe the standpoint that I love Oberon with the fire of a thousand suns, and that my passion and love and desire for him at that moment of forgiveness would trump any anger I had toward him.

Midsummer also has a pair of girls who are deliberately generic (to be fair, so are the boys). As an actor, how do you make these two roles into full-dimensioned women?

I find this so fascinating! I never thought of the girls as generic! Perhaps this is because of my audition experience—that I was always 'too much' or 'not enough' of what directors wanted. Helena wants a love that is not reciprocated. Hermia wants a love that is reciprocated, but is forbidden. The women’s varying physical traits are commented on several times within the play. Helena could be seen as a doormat or a stalker, but I find her determined and active. She is not passive. She knows her love is true, and after all, she was engaged to Demetrius before the play begins.

We joked in rehearsal how in previous viewings and readings of the play, we’ve all always confused the two men! In this production, the wonderful actors playing these parts have done a spectacular job of differentiating them and giving each one a special something. But in most productions, I must admit, I forget who is who, and whom is really in love with whom. Which, now that I think of it, in a really meta way, was perhaps Shakespeare’s intention all along. To create that sort of mild confusion that comes hand in hand with falling in love, before the real confusion even begins.


The Pearl Theater's Midsummer Night's Dream runs from Sep 8 to Nov 1 at 555 W. 42nd Street.

photos: Russ Rowland

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