Thursday, September 15, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Patricia McGregor on directing Hamlet

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

Twice every season, the Public Theater's Mobile Unit tours NYC neighborhoods with stagings of classic plays. The company is about to conclude its all-boro tour of Hamlet with a brief run at its home on Lafayette Street. Half of the sixteen artists credited are women, including three actors, the fight choreographer, and the director, Patricia McGregor. Earlier this week, I emailed with the show's Ophelia, and now I'm thrilled to listen to Ms. McGregor.


Let’s put gender aside for a moment, and just talk Hamlet. What have you found most fascinating about the play?

What I found most fascinating was tracking how the revelation of injustice, in this case the murder of Hamlet's father, is the inciting incident that transforms a grieving young man who would rather shun public life into a man who sees the corrupt cracks in a whole system and is hell-bent on revenge. I find the soliloquies where Hamlet lets the audience into a very intimate debate on what to do next and reveals his rage, vulnerability, and confusion to be very moving and timely. This is especially true in many of the places the Mobile tour travels where folks in the audience are often wrestling with how to seek justice in an unjust world.

What knots did the playwright leave for you and your company to untangle?

Shakespeare left us to untangle the steps in [Hamlet's] transformation and the moments when he, intentionally or not, inflicts his own violence in the name of avenging a murder. There is also a style and technical challenge to untangle which is how to honor both the comedy and the tragedy in the play. We wanted to have the extremes of both be truthfully alive in the production. I was interested in how this production could be an examination, a warning and a call to action. How could we marry what is fundamental to the play with what seems urgent in our times so that the production can sit on a nerve.

Chukwudi Iwuji as Hamlet

Did you have preconceptions about Hamlet that got overturned in the rehearsal process?

Oskar Eustis recently came to a performance and told the actors that this production felt like a thriller. The rehearsal process overturned a preconception of just how fast and forward-footed we could make this piece while still honoring the moments of Hamlet's indecision and hesitation. The process revealed what a man of complex contradictions Hamlet is, eloquent and flawed, wise and damaged, enraged and in pain. An actor of Chukwudi Iwuji's excellence allowed us to mine the range and contemporary resonance of the journey. He was a gift. Each of the actors in the company made the work their own and made it sing in a fresh way.

What about the women you worked with?

[…] I loved working with Kristolyn Lloyd and Orlagh Cassidy on Ophelia and Gertrude. These roles can sometimes come off as thin or inauthentic. With Kristolyn we were able to create an Ophelia who has real spark, intelligence and soulfulness who also wrestles with the undertow of mental illness. She is caught as a woman wanting to express her individualism and personal power in a world where patriarchy still rules. By having her sing at the top of the show during our funeral prologue, we not only get to see a range of her emotions, but also the real connection between her and Hamlet before things go wrong. We get to see in her personal character and in their relationship a more modern and dimensional woman than I feel I often see with Ophelia.

And Orlagh Cassidy's Gertrude?

With Orlagh, we were able to mine the dangerous territory of a woman who allows the desire for comforts to turn a blind eye to things that her gut tells her are amiss. As a mother of a young son, it was important to me that there felt like a true love between Gertrude and Hamlet, but that we examine a woman who has chosen the privilege of blindness over truth seeking in a moment of crisis.

Kristolyn Lloyd & Jeffrey Omura
in Hamlet
Kristolyn told me about the challenges of Ophelia's mad scenes. How did you and she approach those mad scenes in rehearsal?

Working with our wonderful composer Imani Uzuri on Ophelia's vocal expression of grief and madness was key to unlocking something that felt very harrowing and real. The "mad scenes" often feel played at, but in rehearsal we created a wail that hits you in the gut. Creating her vocal compositions were important for her character revelation and for switching the tone of the piece. Her guttural singing and fall into madness remind us of the collateral damage stemming from the domino effect of the initial murder.

The smaller cast gives this Hamlet more gender parity than most. How do your role as the director affect the production’s depictions of women?

It was important to me that we pushed for more than just two women in the production. Casting the excellent Natalie Woolams-Torres allowed us to see other representations of women in the world. We get to witness Natalie inhabit the positions of strong secret service protector, charismatic childhood buddy, efficient messenger, and more. We could have easily cast that track as a male, but I'm so glad we did not. We actually auditioned women in three roles in addition to Ophelia and Gertrude. I am always looking for places where women and people of color not traditionally cast can make sense in my productions.

That's one more good reason to hire women to direct Shakespeare. I don't find many directors to interview for this series.

I'd note as you are focusing on women and Shakespeare that I have had so many examples of women directing Shakespeare that oddly men directing it used to seem strange to me. My first middle school theater teacher, as well as my high school program director, as well as the head of the department, dean and chair of my undergrad program, as well as the head of my grad program were all women. I had seen them all tango with the Bard. Early in my career I worked with Deborah Warner on Medea and got to watch her process and speak to her about directing Shakespeare. Also my mom is British and grew up making sets for these plays in school, so she is well-versed on the canon. I bring this up to say that for me there have not been the same barriers of not having seen women approach the work as some people have endured. There are women in my life who set a great example of standing toe to toe with the work and making it your own. I hope to be a women who can be this kind of example to those who come after me.

Chukwudi Iwuji as Hamlet
How does your identity as an African-American woman inform your vision?

In a time where violence targeting color and women are all-too-regular front-page topics, a play that looks at the murder of a king and the subsequence ripple effect leading to the collapse of a whole court sits on a nerve for me. It feels like it sits on a nerve for this country. The task of cutting the play down to Mobile Unit parameters seemed worthwhile for all the resonance I felt the play has with the crisis we are facing today.

Have the Mobile Unit’s audiences been enjoying the production?

I've only had the chance to see two Mobile Unit stops as I flew out to begin rehearsal for a play at the Guthrie just after the tour began. The audiences I witnessed were extremely engaged in both performances I was able to attend. I cannot wait to come back and see how the work has deepened.

How did you cut and revise the play to fit the Mobile Unit’s constraints?

The cut was done with the massive help from Jim Shapiro. I spoke with him and let him know what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to let go of. I was also in conversations with Chuk early on about Hamlet’s journey, so we talked to Jim about suggestions. Then during rehearsal we made several additional cuts and one key restore of text. Jim and the whole cast were great collaborators on all these cuts and shifts and we all had the same goal of the most engaging, moving, and provocative show possible in under two hours.

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

Shakespeare wrote some brilliant and inspiring women and also wrote some very problematic roles for and language about women. You can feel the male gaze at play in many of his pieces. Then again you have amazing representations of women like Paulina and Hermione in Winter's Tale. Paulina is fearless and braver than any of the men in the play, in speaking truth to power and standing up to injustice. Hermione is extraordinary in her grace and capacity for forgiveness. I feel these two women together represent an amazing aria of spectrum of womanhood. We can be strong as an ox, and as healing as any medicine in the world. I think Shakespeare's strength in depicting women is when he gives them language to speak their minds and they do it with intelligence, fire, and poetry.

What about his weaknesses?

His weakness is when he uses them as objects or objectives them. The thing I would have to really think about is any of the pieces that call for rape or major physical violence against women. I think there are ways in which those acts can be strangely glorified onstage. This troubles me. I'd have to do some hard thinking if I were to approach a Shakespeare play involving these pieces.

McGregor's production of The Winter's Tale
at California Shakespeare Theater
I read online that you directed The Winter's Tale. Have you done any other Shakespearean plays?

I'm directing Measure for Measure at the Old Globe this fall. I've directed Romeo and Juliet and acted in several other Shakespeare plays. I got into theater in 8th grade when I got asthma and happened to take a theater class where we read Midsummer's Night Dream. I loved it from the very beginning. It just made sense to me and I love the athleticism of the language and the wild range of characters in each piece.

Any dream-productions brewing in your head? What would be your first choice of his plays to direct?

I'd love another chance to look at Winter's Tale. I've also got a Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Midsummer's rolling around. Lear used to scare me as a play. I thought, what do I really understand about this journey? Then my elderly father came to live with me and I began to understand something about Lear. Shakespeare is so rich because it will grow and change with you as you grow and change. In that way, the text is always new and alive.


The Public's Mobile Unit stages Hamlet from Sept 19 to Oct 9 at the Public Theater in the Village. Tickets are $20.


headshot  Erik Pearson
photos #2 & 3  Joan Marcus
photo #4

Monday, September 12, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Kristolyn Lloyd on Ophelia

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

Twice every season, the Public Theater's Mobile Unit tours NYC neighborhoods with stagings of classic plays. The company is about to conclude its all-boro tour of Hamlet with a brief run at its home on Lafayette St. Kristolyn Lloyd plays the fair Ophelia, under the direction of Patricia MacGregor. I hope to email Ms. MacG later this week, but it's a pleasure to speak first with Ms. Lloyd, soon to make her Broadway debut in Dear Evan Hansen.


Let’s start with Ophelia. What's the biggest challenge of the role? What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

Ophelia was a challenge from the first scene to the last. Her inner life feels so much more mysterious compared to Hamlet because she reveals so much less than he does. Her turmoil appears to occur after Hamlet tells her to go to a nunnery, breaking her heart. I had to approach that loss for her as a complete shock. Him rejecting her was not how she had hoped the scene would end. We don't know much of her past and therefore the audience has got to connect with her from the moment she's on stage. I think Patricia did a lovely job creating a specific world for the audience. From the moment the show starts, we get a sense of who this woman is to this world and who she is to Hamlet.

How do you envision her inner life over the arc of the play?

I saw her journey through the show initially through a play list of songs. Music has always been an important investigating tool for me when approaching a character. She seemed like a young woman with a very deep soul. So I started with artists like Fatai, India Arie, and Ledisi. She's deeply in love at the top of the show and these artists sing about that kind of love. As the plot thickens, I imagine that all she's aware of is her own pain, and would be confused by everyone's recent behavior. In the world we've created no one is filling this young woman in on any secret plots or plans. I was also inspired by hip and pop artist like Drake, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Florence & The Machine, and Sia. Her fall has to be enormous and heartbreaking. Music is about emotional extremes and there's always a song that can capture them.

How do you approach her mad scenes, and play them honestly? What links them to the sane woman earlier in the play?

Lloyd (r)
with Jeffrey Omura as Polonius
I found that her mad scenes are born out of isolation. The depth of sorrow over the loss of intimacy with the ones you love and counted on is universal. How is she motherless? When did that happen? I imagine she's got quite a depth and strength to her after losing a mother. Her brother leaves, her best friend and love of her life ignores her, verbally abuses her, and rejects her. She's the most alone she's ever felt and then her father is murdered. She doesn't even get to say goodbye. She's now lost all her life-lines. What would a person, who is trying to make sense of why this happened to her, be like by the time she takes her own life? I, sometimes reluctantly, have to put on that story every show and try to do right by her. It's her story.

This Hamlet has more gender parity than most, especially behind the scenes. How does that play into the production’s depictions of women?

Having such a heavy female presence brings in so much humanity. It's a three- to four-hour play, that's been cut down (quite well thanks to Patricia and Jim Shapiro) to an hour 40, and with a short process. We were very fortunate to have women who can multi-task, who care about the details, and manage the time so well. Patricia McGregor assembled a great group of artists! Our composer, Imani Uzuri, found music for the show that brings a beautiful thread of texture to the tone and atmosphere. We had a female movement coordinator, fight choreographer, vocal assistant, and stage management team. So when Patricia and I first talked about Ophelia we both agreed there was no room for a frail wilting flower. We have to root for her.

How have the local audiences been enjoying the Mobile Unit’s production?

I wanted audiences on the Mobile tour to simply connect with the story. I was so surprised and elated when we went to a women's shelter and they were so vocal. They knew lines, they showed their support for certain characters and disdain for others. They weren't shy and I have to admit it was a bit of a rush! Knowing that they are with you on your journey was comforting. They are generally for Ophelia, not against her, and they always seem so devastated when she loses it.

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

Lloyd (r) with Christian DeMarais as Laertes
I feel a bit limited when it comes to speaking on whether or not William Shakespeare writes well for women. I don't presume to know anything that hasn't already been said. I think he writes well for the central characters. Always. Which in some case are women. When I think of Measure for Measure or Romeo and Juliet, I feel as though he has the highest regard for women who fight for their integrity. But you can't deny the absence of character context with other women in his plays like Desdemona or even Ophelia. I would dare to say there was just as much a double standard in Elizabethan days as is there is in today's writing. Women have always fought to be seen with more dimensions than society has given them permission be; in theatre, film, and television.

Directors tend to cast white men in Shakespeare, partly out of habit. What perspectives and insights do you bring to his plays, as an African-American and a woman?

As actors we are responsible for pushing ourselves to take more risk in our craft and also in life. So much of what makes a performance memorable is what the person playing role brings to it. Whether it's a more humorous outlook on it all, or one of struggle. Both bring color to the tapestry of life they bring out in a character. I found that my experience as a black woman was a Godsend when playing Ophelia. How does a black woman who is young and doing the best she can with what she's been given respond to the turmoil we see her go through? The performer's perspective of these present circumstances is what the character is filtered through and that's what the audience is looking forward to being immersed in.

What other Shakespearean roles have you done?

So far I have played Juliet, Ophelia, and Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet.

I love cross-gender casting! Any other parts of his that you’d love to play?

I would love to do Juliet again or perhaps a comedy! I wouldn't be upset if I was cast as Helena in Midsummer.

I'll look forward to your Ophelia. Break a leg, and thanks for speaking with me!

The Public's Mobile Unit stages Hamlet from Sept 19 to Oct 9 at the Public Theater in the Village. Tickets are $20.


headshot  Cathryn Farnsworth
photos #2 & 3  Joan Marcus