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

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