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

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