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