Monday, November 21, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Emily Young on The Servant of Two Masters

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.

As a member of the Fiasco Theater, Emily Young has helped to revitalize Shakespearean staging in NYC. This month, Ms. Young returns to Theater for a New Audience without her colleagues, collaborating instead with Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp. These two illustrious comedians ground their work in the tradition of commedia dell'arte, a semi-improvisational approach that influenced Shakespeare, Moli√©re, and all Europe for centuries. Carlo Goldoni, an 18th-century Italian, supplies the scenario for their production. Ms. Young emailed with me to discuss her work in commedia and Shakespeare.

Let’s start with Goldoni and The Servant of Two Masters. Can you tell me a little about what you love in the play?

I love this family of artists. This is one of the most alive, fun-loving, silly, caring group of artists I have come across. Especially this week I have felt so lucky to be a part of this group of comedy experts with unflappable spirits.

I can’t imagine going through what we went through culturally last week without the true gift of coming to work and being given permission to laugh and trying to offer permission to the audience to do the same. I will never forget trying to listen to the audience’s needs the day after the election. It felt like real purpose to be in a comedy. The fact that it’s a comedy that dates back to 1748, with origins as far back as Rome and that it can speak to an audience today is astonishing.

That’s one of the reasons I love to do Shakespeare as well. I live for the moment an audience laughs at something so immediately in a play written hundreds of years ago. In that moment we’re not only connected to each other in the room but across time as well. And it is a salve.

In what way?

I will echo what our director told us the day after the election. When many hearts were feeling broken and spirits were dashed, he told us that our jobs had changed overnight, Our role as artists has changed today” he said, We are no longer provocateurs, but healers; and that is a beautiful responsibility.”

Goldoni’s dramaturgy grew out of the improvisation and stock characters of commedia dell’arte. How do you bring to life a stock character like Smeraldina?

Young with Steven Epp
in The Servant of Two Masters
It’s a 'healthy' challenge! By which I mean it’s an enormous challenge. I feel a type of exposure in this process that I haven’t felt in a while. We jumped right into rehearsing on our feet which meant that I had to dive in to the deep end of discovering Smeraldina physically.

It’s super-challenging to try to keep up with the tradition of the form of the stock characters — the behavior, rhythm, physicality and sound, and figure out how to bring yourself to it authentically. I’m not so concerned with putting a signature stamp on it or anything — only that, if you just do the form there’s no truth in it and if all you do is your own truth it’s not the character, or the tradition. It’s a practice that can't be rushed.

One of the biggest gifts of the process has been to reconnect with the pursuit of the actor’s pleasure onstage and for an audience. That simple objective can be lost in the shuffle and it’s of utmost importance now. Chris reminded me to play at the speed of fun which I couldn’t believe I had forgotten.

Could you tell me about Christopher Bayes' approach to clowning? How has your training with him prepared you for a role like Smeraldina?

I studied with Chris at Brown/Trinity Rep (known as the Brown/Trinity Consortium then). He was one of the main reasons I went back to my alma mater for my MFA. He had just become the head of the movement program at B/T. I had heard so much about him. When I studied with him second year it really changed everything. My general approach to acting changed: what it means to stand in front of an audience, what it means to be in the room, now. He introduced me to the “speed of fun,” “being faster than your worry,” “louder than your critic.” These are incredibly profound proposals for an actor. He had us living on the edge of our own presence — and I found when I brought that to written material, it changed the whole ballgame. Sometimes I go into the next room and meow and moo in cat/cow positions (a warmup he gave us) to get out of my head and back in the mood (no pun intended).

Young with director Christopher Bayes
in rehearsals for The Servant of Two Masters
[Chris] keeps reminding us of the wonderful responsibility to bring joy, pleasure, and fun to an audience and that can only happen if we goof around and delight in each other. And then my friend and colleague Andy Grotelueschen, (who plays Dottore) says, “We can only get off if they get off.” It’s thrilling and delightful to try to get them off… er, you know what I mean. So there really is a symbiotic relationship with everyone in the room.

What tricks of the trade have you picked up from Steven Epp?

Steven is a marvel. I can breathe when I’m acting with him. He has such ease and yet his mind works with such alacrity at the same time. There’s something peaceful and yet highly provocative at the same time. He always seems to be working on the play — thinking about new jokes that might tickle an audience, new references to current events which might provoke thought or add some amount of catharsis to an audience. He is rigorous in his fun. And then he lets go and surprises himself as well, I think. I don’t know how he does it. But I’m certainly taking notes.

What links have you found between Goldoni and Shakespeare?

Everything is everything. It’s all one, man. They are both so rich. So fun. So much scope. So physical.

How do their views of comedy differ?

The main difference is how language functions. The language in Goldoni’s play is flexible and serves the heightened physicality of the piece. When a lazzo comes (an improvised bit), it’s really flexible and alive — there’s danger in the freedom of it. It changes every night. Even when the text is fixed, it’s still serving whatever is happening in the room at that very moment, and the spirit or potential for improv is always there.

In Shakespeare the language is the physicality of the piece. The language is what is happening: it’s rough, poetic, it’s everything. When something gets in the way of that the play sort of stops happening.

Young as Smeraldina
in TFANA's The Servant of Two Masters
But what’s amazing about these immortal writers of theater is in content, they all seem to get what a “mixed up, muddled up, shook up, world” we’re living in (why The Kinks here, now? not sure). Both Shakespeare and Goldoni are diving deep into the mess it is to be human, the stupidity and the idiocy, the beauty, the boldness.

How do you grapple with the ingrained sexism of those pre-modern plays?

One of the reasons this version of Servant is so exciting and provocative is that it's up-to-date. So we have references to the current political climate, the election, pop culture, and public figures. It’s already a delightful surprise and a catharsis to acknowledge the political moment in a classical play, but this week it has also brought a lot of relief to me.

Smeraldina has a monologue in the piece written in the sixteenth century about the injustice of the double standard between the way women are treated and the way men are treated in society regarding infidelity. She goes on to say that it is because, “The law was made made by men, and that whenever a woman does anything the man has the law to punish her,” and that’s unfair. We added some contemporary references in it including Pussy Riot lyrics and a recent battle cry of feminists at the end.

What other ways has the political climate influenced the show?

The night before the election the ladies in the cast cooked up a surprise during that monologue: I hid an “I’m with her,” sign under my apron and Adina and Liz came out with signs for Hilary and Jill Stein. It was such a unique thrill to get to voice real views in the middle of the play with fun and passion and surprise.

It was an experience I’ll never forget, as was the experience I had the day after Hilary lost. That was a hard and disappointing day for Hilary supporters, and here I had the opportunity to speak feminist language in a group of New Yorkers. It was a tangible responsibility and an opportunity. We didn’t have to change a thing about the monologue written in the 16th century for it to be 100% relevant in that room. It taught me about acting: the material is always relevant because history repeats itself and human beings need to talk about it together out of doors.

The fact that a play from the 18th century is affording that opportunity today is affirming, encouraging and mind-blowing.

You’ve got plenty of experience with Shakespearean theater, most notably with the Fiasco Theater. What’s your perspective on female roles before, say, Ibsen?

Young as Sylvia in Fiasco's
Two Gentlemen of Verona(2015)
To offer the other side, often with classical plays, and definitely in Shakespeare, you can feel the playwright’s heartfelt understanding of their female characters’ perspectives and then not being able to follow-through dramaturgically, because of their times. In Fiasco, when we run up against this challenge, we try to do our best to trust that the writer knew what he or she (usually he) was doing, but was constrained. We try to trust Shakespeare through thick and thin, and come up with an interpretation or experience of playing the roles that makes sense to us today.

It gets hard to fully commit to that idea in something like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which we did at TFANA last year, when two men are fighting over one woman. At the dramatic climax of the play, the two men forgive each other but don’t consult the woman about her experience. We wrestled over how to deal with this and I think we did a good job with it. I hope we did justice by wrestling with the problem without changing the language. We did our best to put that process of grappling on stage through our delivery as actors. But audiences of today had really strong reactions to the end of that play and I get it.

What are you working on next, on your own and with Fiasco?

This Spring Fiasco is slated to do The Imaginary Invalid, by Moliere, at The Old Globe in San Diego. I will playing Toinette, the maid. I’m even more intrigued to work on it because of Servant and playing Smeraldina.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to play? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I’d love to play Beatrice from Much Ado one day.

I’ve begun to dream about playing Hal from Henry IV, 1 and 2.

Young (center) as Belaria
in Fiasco's Cymbeline (2012)
And when I was playing Belarius from Cymbeline as a female character, Belaria, I used to daydream about speaking the Duke’s text from As You Like It. There’s something that I can’t get enough of, when a character leaves the court and moves to the woods. The language about nature and what it does to a person gets me. Whenever I feel like running away or escaping I think of these images. Of course the Duke isn’t on vacation. He’s exiled. Which I would prefer not to be. There’s work to be done. But here it is for your brief escape:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference; as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
'This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.'
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
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I would not change it.

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TFANA's The Servant of Two Masters runs from November 6 to December 4 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene. Tickets are $65-$95.

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photos  Gerry Goodstein
Two Gents photo  Theresa Wood
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