Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Women on Shakespeare: Lee Sunday Evans on directing The Winter's Tale

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 each season, the Public Theater's Mobile Unit tours NYC neighborhoods with stagings of classic plays. This fall, the company is concluding its all-boro tour of The Winter's Tale with a brief run at its home on Lafayette Street. Lee Sunday Evans has directed the staging, her first work for the Mobile Unit. She spoke with me by phone to discuss the play and her production.
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Had you read or seen Winter’s Tale before you started work on this production?

You know, I don’t think I’d seen a production before. I went to watch Declan Donnellan’s recent production from a few years ago [Cheek by Jowl at BAM, 2016]. It was very helpful and inspiring what he did the production.

But I had always been attracted to the play because of the family story. I felt a personal connection to what happened to Leontes, Hermione, and Perdita. I also was drawn to the question of forgiveness and redemption, and had a complicated relationship with the idea that these two women do come back to forgive the patriarch. I also find it enormously powerful and I tend to be attracted to projects that unnerve me. The ending of this play definitely has that.

Can you articulate what that challenge was and how you solved it?

The challenge is, do you take the audience on a journey where they think that Leontes deserves forgiveness and redemption? We did a performance on the road at the Mobile Unit. When Hermione comes back from being a statue, somebody said, "Slap him!" I think there’s truth to that [response]. I think the play doesn’t necessarily doesn’t give enough voice to the harm he’s caused Hermione and Perdita. Winter's Tale draws on some deep need that we all have to believe that forgiveness and redemption is possible, but we don’t see the nuts and bolts of how reconciliation happens. So one thing that became important to us was that there’s this one moment where the statue has just come alive, and Paulina says to Leontes, "Nay, present her your hand." It’s this amazing textual clue, because it means both of them are standing there frozen.

They’re both statues!

Yeah! Paulina has to encourage him to reach out to her. Then there’s this beautiful non-verbal moment where you do watch Leontes take his hand and reach out to Hermione. There’s a moment of great suspense about when and how and in what way she reaches out to take his hand in return. So I thought the actors did an incredible job of being sensitive to that first moment of them looking at each other once the statue has come to life.

That silent moment contrasts with Hermione’s speech at the trial. How did you approach that scene, her other big opportunity to command the stage?

I cast Stacey [Yen] because I knew she had a particular ferocity and a depth of heart and feeling that she could bring to that moment. I knew it was important that Hermione be able to feel love for the Leontes at the trial. But I also wanted to push against the idea that Hermione is saint-like. There’s an idea in that trial that she speaks formally, with a sense that a higher morality distances her from the heat of the trial. I didn’t want that to be in our production.

[Instead] the trial scene in our Mobile Unit production is essentially a battle between the personal and the public. They’re at an extremely powerful, public court, and they devolve into essentially a marital argument in front of that body. So we looked in the scenework at how they were both unable to maintain the formality that’s associated with the court and high status. And we talked about how she’s not on trial for adultery, she’s on trial for treason. 

We also made it a clear moment that Hermione did not yet know that her baby had been sent to Bohemia to be abandoned. So we wanted the moment in the trial when Leontes says, 'As your brat has been cast out, without a father owning it.' That was Hermione learning it, for the first time, in the midst of the trial. It was an incredible discovery that informed the escalation of the trial.

The play has a lot of misogyny in it, or at least the character of Leontes does. But if it’s a play about forgiveness, it’s a play about forgiving Leontes. How did you and the actors wrestle with that?

We chose the idea that Leontes is a charming leader, beloved by the Sicilia. He’s had a powerful marriage with Hermione, and they have a more modern marriage of equals, the way we think of contemporary political couples. So as he descends into jealousy, this underbelly of sexism and misogyny was coming out of him. It had always been in him but it had been latent, it was emerging out of this crisis of faith in his wife. So we were talking at scenework about Leontes’ emotional journey, about how the experience of jealousy unlocked that hatred of women, or unleashed it.

Zooming out to look at the play on an allegorical level, paternal anxiety is a sexist structure that our society is built on. So the play is wrestling with how paternity anxiety can send you down a rabbit hole. I don’t know that the play would happen if Hermione wasn’t nine months pregnant, and about to have their next child. I think it really is about paternity anxiety. When you think about the hierarchy of a kingdom, of passing the family line down through the son, it had much greater stake in Leontes’ family that we relate to in our contemporary world. But the question of sexism is in the play in a more structural way than just what's legible on the surface.

Let's shift to your staging. How did the stripped-down, touring nature of the Mobile Unit shape your approach to Winter's tale?

I love working in a stripped-down way, and I love having to get to the essential elements that you need to communicate the story. So I love working with the limitations that come with touring [this show] to venues that aren't built to house performances. So the music was important, and I knew Heather Christian would be able to [compose] music that would ‘lift’ the space, no matter where we were. I also decided to use puppets in the production because they allowed us to bring a bit of theatrical magic without lights and sound and the more elaborate scenic design that you'd associate with theater.

In terms of actors’ performances, we talked a lot in rehearsal about being able to include the audience, even when you’re in a scene with another character. And I watched the actors, over the course of the touring performances, learn how to speak to the audience directly. It’s enormously satisfying, dynamic, and rich, and it makes so much sense of the text. It makes you feel connected to the way that the plays were originally done, imagining the original actors talking back to the audience. It also creates a sense of immediacy, in those rooms when we’re on the road, that is incredibly fun and compelling.

You mentioned the ‘slap him’ line; were there any other vocal responses that surprised you and the performers?

One thing I thought was incredible was how people responded to the derogatory language that Leontes uses. When he calls Hermione a ‘flax wench’, he calls her a ‘bed-swerver’, he calls her an "adulteress"—people would respond with shock and disbelief that he’d use those words. It was amazing to hear that language get the kind of reactions you’d think that language should get! It’s incredibly violent language, damning things to say about his wife. But often when you sit in the theater and the lights are down, and you’re in more practiced audience, people may have may have that reaction internally, but they don’t share that reaction, it doesn’t become a communal experience.

So the experience of being on the road was people responding vocally to Leontes and the horror of what happens. That happened with both men and women. I was at a performance at a homeless shelter for women. During what we call the sleepless night scene, where Paulina brings the baby in and lays it down before Leontes and says, 'this is your baby.' People who were watching were echoing what Paulina was saying—“It’s your baby!” People responded to the stakes in a way that was invigorating and inspiring to the actors.

I know you didn’t program this yourself, but I’m curious to hear why you feel The Winter’s Tale is it the right play to revive this fall.

I think it’s an incredible play, probably resonant at many different times. Right now it’s relevant to be talking about leaders who don’t have the ability to separate their personal feelings, their fits of rage, from their leadership role. The way this play is about a nuclear family, but that nuclear family is also the state, the political apparatus. That’s very relevant.

Then as we were doing the production, the wave of women coming out and talking about sexual abuse that’s happening—without us altering anything or doing anything directly related to that social moment, I think the question of “can this man be redeemed?” has a different meaning. On a macro level, we’re wrestling with this question, “What does it mean to have the truth come out?” and then what does it mean to have any concept of forgiveness or reconciliation? I don’t know that we’re there yet with sexual abuse and harassment and rape. But I think the play is interested in an indirect dialogue with that question of forgiveness and redemption.

Could we hear a little about your experience with Shakespeare prior to The Winter’s Tale.

Prior to The Winter’s Tale I did a production of Macbeth. It was an adaptation I did with three women playing the entire play. The idea was that the three witches were telling this ancient story about how the societal structure of power could corrupt an individual. I looked at that play as an origin story about the corrupting force of power. So that was my first professional Shakespeare production.

That was at Hudson Valley Shakespeare?

Yes. That piece also had me work with Heather Christian, and it was also very stripped down. It was done on a lighting installation, with no set and no props.

And before that?

I got exposed to textwork through Paula Langton. She's a professor at Boston University who's affiliated with Shakespeare and Company, with Tina Packer. And working with Paula on the text was the thing that really gripped me about working on Shakespeare.

Then there was a company that grew out of Shakespeare and Company, it popped up in Boston while I was there, called the Actors Shakespeare Project. They did a production of Lear that was absolutely riveting. Alvin Epstein played Lear, I think he might’ve been 80 years old. It was absolutely incredible, and that production really whetted my appetite to do Shakespeare.

Another Shakespeare production that had a big impact on me was [when] Declan Donnellan brought a production of Twelfth Night with a company from Moscow. They did it in Russian at BAM [in 2006]. I absolutely loved that production. It was an incredible experience because you were reading the text as you were experiencing the performance. It was powerful to have access to the text, and at the same time the performances were so incredibly dynamic and clear they also transcended the language. It was really incredible.

Do you have any Shakespeare plays you’d love to tackle? Any conceptual adaptations or radical versions in mind, like your three-woman Macbeth?

I would love to do King Lear, and I would love to do Measure for Measure. Those two are high on my list. I don’t have a conceptual approach to those plays or another play. But I had an amazing experience doing Macbeth that way, we’ll see if there’s another adventure of that nature down the road.

What is it about Measure for Measure that entices you?

Some of the same questions as Winter’s Tale. The questions of sex and power and justice, of how the system affects these individuals, and how these individuals interact with each other, because of and in reaction to this system of their society. I love the way the personal and political work in that play as well.

I hope you’ll get the opportunity to do your Measure for Measure so we can talk about it more. One last thing: do you have anything coming up that we should know about?

I’m doing a production of [Porto] by Kate Benson at the Women’s Project. That runs from the end of January through the beginning of March. Then I’m doing a production of Dance Nation by Clare Barron at Playwrights Horizons later in the spring.

Thank you!
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The Public's Mobile Unit stages The Winter's Tale from Nov 26 to Dec 17 at the Public Theater in the Village. Tickets are free!

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headshot  Andrew Kluger
photos  Carol Rosegg

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Jenny König on Lady Anne

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 third season of my interview series, Women in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

For New Yorkers, Thomas Ostermeier's regular visits to BAM showcase an especially radical approach to classic drama. His Doll's House in '04 had Nora shoot Torvald down like a horror-movie heroine! At the Berlin Schaubühne, Jenny König has worked on Shakespeare with Ostermeier several times, as Gertrude/Ophelia in Hamlet and Isabelle in Measure for Measure. Now she's visiting NYC in his Richard III, playing Lady Anne. She emailed with me about playing one of Shak's most challenging small roles.

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Let’s start with Lady Anne. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating? What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

Fascinating for me is especially that this woman keeps going. She lost everything. She has no real opportunity for social acceptance or security and yet she talks to this man, the murderer of her husband, her father and her father-in-law, so in short the lone reason for her misery. And in the end she even gets engaged [to] him.

That conflict is exciting, but of course it is also a conflict that I also have to manage, playing this scene.

And then again it’s quite reasonable. Lady Anne is a woman living in times of great uncertainty, so the most important thing was to stay in a position of power. I think any man in her position wouldn’t have had the same difficulties, or at least not to this degree, because a man living in this times would always have had the possibility to live alone, start over or to switch sides. None of those things, a woman could have done by herself. Of course there are exceptions, like Queen Elizabeth, but they remain exceptions.

In addition to all this political reasoning there is an animalistic quality to the whole scene, even though Richard and Lady Anne are two very aristocratic persons. That’s a very exciting contrast as well.

That scene is a classic and a challenging one. How do you make Anne's about-face plausible to the audience?

In my opinion her main motivation is not love, but political reasoning. For me, the engagement with Richard is above anything else an opportunity. It’s easy to forget what it meant for a woman to loose every man of her house, when all the words you have are those of a mourning widow calling upon the ghost of her ancestors, begging for revenge.

But it is very important to remember, that at the beginning of this scene Lady Anne has no security whatsoever. And even worse, her family fought at the losing side of the war. And now there is this man, how[ever] ugly he might be and how[ever] terrible the crimes he has committed may be, who is part of the winning family. And he comes to Lady Anne and surrenders himself completely to her. Not only emotionally, by saying he loves her and she is the purest most beautiful woman he knows, but also very literally by handing her a sword.

What does Anne find appealing about Richard?

He gives her the thing she misses the most right now: power. That, at least for me is the reason she falls for his lies. And of course he is the forbidden fruit. That helps as well 😀

What challenges have you found working on Shakespeare in translation?

To play a Shakespearean play in any language other than English naturally means to lose parts of the beauty of his writing and structure. But I think Marius von Mayenburg made a wise decision to mostly free himself from the verse-like structure of the language. He sometimes sacrifices the beauty of a well-written poem for the impact of the meaning of Shakespeare’s words.

I sometimes wish we had a translation of a Friedrich Schiller play. Because if the language of a play is so sophisticated and well placed there is always the danger of getting stuck in this golden cage of structured words.

Turning to the play, what elements of Richard III feel urgent and contemporary?

Reading Richard III, you inevitably think about persons of today’s politics. Power and the people who possess power always seem to follow the same basic rules, same now as 400 years ago.

The loudest and most ruthless man claims to be the greatest victim and gets to be king.

Maybe that is why Shakespeare always seems to work.

Thomas Ostermeier’s direction of classics, at least the ones we’ve seen in New York, strikes many audiences as iconoclastic. How does the approach and aesthetic of Richard III fit with other work you've done with him?

One thing that every Ostermeier-production of a Shakespeare-play I know has in common, is that we are very aware of the fact we are playing a theatrical piece, but at the same time, every situation in that theater piece is real. So for instance, the transition from one scene to another is very theatrical, one actor can play more than one part, and the audience gets addressed by the actors. It’s all a play. We know that and the audience is allowed to see it. But the situations these people are living are very real. We always try to make the audience recognize themselves in those situations.

So during the rehearsals for Richard III, we talked a lot about lying and manipulating we have experienced in our own lives, in order to get a better understanding of the scenes and the reasons these people make decisions. And we noticed that our private experiences are still quite close to what Shakespeare has written 400 years ago.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women? Where are his strengths and his weaknesses?

One thing you can never change is that Shakespeare lived 400 years ago. So all the latest developments like feminism, emancipation, sexual revolution and the fight against the common reception of what it means to be beautiful, all this he never experienced. And so neither can the women that he wrote experience those things. But of course you try to tell the story of a “strong, modern woman”, a story that, sadly, is not written down in the play. How am I supposed to show Ophelia as a strong and independent woman, when she keeps repeating the words “I shall obey”? It sometimes feels like the more I try to think of her as a modern woman, the more I fight against the play and by doing so, I can’t really work as an actress.

A friend of mine, a male actor, once had to play a woman in a Shakespearean play. He came to me with the words “Holy shit, I never had to listen to directing instructions like this! How do you manage to play stuff like this?”
in Measure for Measure
But I think there also can be a strength in showing women the way Shakespeare saw them, because you sometimes get incredible reactions to this depicting of weakness. For instance, we played in Iran once, and after the show many women came to me asking why we had shown Ophelia as such a weak woman. "Why didn’t you show her the way we want to see her?" To which I could only reply: “Read the play, we only did what Shakespeare wrote down.” And like this we started to talk about women and the issues we face today. And that is, what for me theater is about: communication.

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

Joan la Pucelle from Henry VI is one special character I‘m longing to play. Shakespeare has written her as witch, not as a fantastical, beautiful, evil woman. In his writing you can see his political issues with her. It’s not about her being female [as much as] which side she belongs to.

And of course every male main character is fascinating, but if I had to choose one of them I would go for King Lear. His philosophical thought, about mankind being “only” animals, I could imagine this is fun to play.

Thanks!

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Richard III plays from Oct 12 to Oct 14 at BAM Harvey Theater in Fort Greene. Tickets are $35-115!
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headshot  Franzisca Sinn
photos  Arno Declair

Monday, October 9, 2017

Women on Shakespeare: Helen Cespedes on Rosalind

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 third season of my interview series, Women in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

This autumn, director Jessica Bauman explores what As You Like It says about exile and refugees, in her retitled Arden/EverywhereI'll have an interview with her next week, but meanwhile, I emailed with the production's Rosalind, Helen Cespedes. Ms. Cespedes, a recent Juilliard grad, played a delightful Lady Teazle in Red Bull's School for Scandal last season, holding her own opposite veterans Dana Ivey and Frances Barber.

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Let’s start with Rosalind. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?


I should start by saying that I somehow managed to go through drama school and my professional career so far never seeing or really reading As You Like It. I know! Crazy! But kind of an amazing treat to approach such an iconic role/play without the baggage of other performances and productions in my head. So, as I began reading and investigating the role and the story, I was struck by Rosalind’s aggressiveness. She goes from the heartbreak and paralysis of her father’s banishment and then her own to becoming really activated, once in man’s clothing.

Then I wondered: why does she do what she does? Why doesn’t she go find her father as soon as she gets to Arden? Why does she manipulate Orlando for three quarters of the play? And, when she does find her father (she mentions “I met with the Duke yesterday and had much question with him”) why does she not reveal herself to both him and Orlando? These are questions I imagine every production of this play has wrestled with.

How did you and Jessica answer those questions?

In some ways, our lens into the play (imagining Arden as the land of displaced people where exiles and refugees find shelter) helps. The stakes of banishment are real. She truly does think she will be safer disguised as a man. There are actual accounts of refugee women disguising themselves as men in order to be safer from sexual assault. Furthermore, her father left her behind. Perhaps she has conflicted feelings about him. Perhaps she feels abandoned by him, or that he put his cause before his family. This would complicate an easy reunion. It can also explain the need to hide behind her disguise with Orlando and put his devotion to the test. She is looking for someone she can rely on. Of course, the one person she can truly rely on has been there the whole time: Celia, her cousin and best friend through it all.

How does she view and deal with the world that Shakespeare imagines her into?

When she decides to disguise herself as a man, Rosalind says,


“…and in my heart,
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will,
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside.”
I see this as a sort of hardening of her character. She is going to cover up what is vulnerable in herself in order to survive. But with this comes empowerment. As a man in this society, she gets to hold forth a lot more and act as an authority on other people’s business.

The stress of Rosalind’s situation also leads her to be quite prickly and hypocritical. I love this about her. It feels very human that she is flawed and lashes out and tests the boundaries of how insufferable she can be before people won’t put up with it anymore. For example, she berates Phoebe for not immediately accepting Silvius’ love, but then uses some of Phoebe’s own tactics/arguments on Orlando, testing the boundaries of his affection.


Rosalind is one of a type—Shakespeare’s adventurous, crossdressing ingénues. What sets her apart from her sisters in Shakespeare?

As I said, I wasn’t that familiar with this play until working on this production—maybe because I’m not tall (we’ve cut Rosalind’s “I am more than uncommon tall”) I didn’t think I’d play the role and didn’t look at it that closely — but, I have played Viola, another great “pants” role. These two women undergo similar trials — geographical displacement that leads them to dress as men to protect themselves — but they handle this transformation very differently. Viola moves through Illyria like a raw nerve; she is in love with Orsino and Olivia is in love with her, and Viola in turn is wholly reactive to these eccentric outside forces.

Meanwhile, Rosalind seems to me to be totally activated by her transformation. As Ganymede, she starts to call all the shots: purchasing food and shelter for herself, Celia, and Touchstone in Arden, manipulating Orlando, micromanaging Phebe and Silvius.… She is acting on the forces around her rather than reacting to them.

What does she share with roles like Portia, Viola, and Imogen?

I think, in both Viola and Rosalind (and probably in Portia too, not so much in Imogen), presenting themselves to the world as a man allows them special access to society. Suddenly, people listen to them more and care what they have to say. In Rosalind’s case, she is all too happy to impart her wit and wisdom.

Especially in the comedies, an actor gets to play with Elizabethan wit, love poetry and even clowning. How do you handle that range of styles onstage?

Yes, Rosalind does get to show all of these colors and it is glorious… actually, it’s just human and how human beings behave (perhaps not quite as articulately). Often, roles for women can be reduced to archetypes: the virgin and the funny one (or some variation on that). But human beings are clowns, lovers, intellectuals, heros, and villains all at once. I feel like Shakespeare has realized this scope and breadth more in Rosalind than any of his other female characters.

As an actor, I am a kid in a candy store (to use an archetype). Scripts that require all of my brain and all of my heart are exactly what I trained for. Shakespeare’s characters use wit as their currency. It is how they challenge each other, seduce each other, fall in love with each other etc. I had one teacher at Juilliard describe a battle of wits as a card game: if your scene partner uses one word, they have played that card, now you match that card and play another, and so on and so on as you top each other and see who wins. It’s a lot of fun. If only I could be half as clever as any of Shakespeare’s characters in my own life!

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

Overall, I think Shakespeare wrote women better than most contemporary plays do. We don’t allow female characters to be as contradictory as we used to. Even the screwball comedies of the '30s allowed women to turn from tragedy to comedy on a dime. That said, Shakespeare’s women are operating in societies where the constraints on women are much more obvious and visible. But Shakespeare has them pushing up against these boundaries.

There is strength and intellect in many of the female Shakespeare characters who are often depicted as wilting flowers. For example, I recently auditioned to play Ophelia. I had never really investigated that role before, and at first I thought, “ugh what a thankless role: you cry, you sing sad songs while vaguely twitching with madness, and then you die.”

But then I dug into the text… no, no, she is brilliant and activated. She is constrained by the rules of society and the men who get to make choices in her life, but she navigates that with great vitality. I think many directors/actors read the “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown speech” and just play the “woe is me” part, as opposed to investing in the comparison she is making between Hamlet before and Hamlet now. Her best friend and boyfriend has transformed from a poised, brilliant young prince into a rambling, self-destructive, recluse. I didn’t get the part, but I’d love to play it one day!

Overall, I would say that Shakespeare usually gives his female characters the moral high ground, which, one could argue, is a form of misogyny. Don’t make us saints, make us human beings! I suppose that’s one of the reasons I like Rosalind so much. She is not a saint.

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

I’d love to play Henry V, and go one that journey from frat boy to leader. To add the list of morally flawed women: I’d love to play Queen Margaret and/or Lady M. I played the Nurse in Drama School, but I’d love to play Juliet (if it’s not too late!). Gosh, all of them. There is so much to be mined in all of them.

Any Shakespeare coming up?

I’m going to play Viola again this spring in a production at Theater For a New Audience directed by Maria Aitken. It will be a wonderful to play both cross-dressing heroines in the matter of a few months.


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Arden/Everywhere plays from Oct 8 to Oct 28 at Baruch College in Gramercy Park. Student tickets are $16, general admission $36!
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headshot  Ted Ely
photos  Russ Rowland

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Women on Shakespeare: Megan Bones on Lady Macbeth

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! We're wrapping up the second season of my interview series, Women in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

Megan Bones is one of three actors in Dzieci Theatre's Makbet. This radical staging invites the audience into a shipping container, where gypsies (or more properly, Romani) mount a wild, ritualistic version of Shakespeare's tragedy. Incidentally, the venue is managed by Sure We Can, a recycling center in Bushwick that provides a safe space for plastic & metal collectors to redeem their salvage, and encourage the arts and sustainable urban culture.

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Let’s start with your 3-actor Macbeth. What have been the practical challenges in staging this epic drama with such a small cast?

For Dzieci Theatre’s production of Makbet. I really have to be on my toes the whole time. Knowing all of the lines and being able to jump from character to character requires a specific demand, but that is the easy part. The true challenge for all of us is to be present to the moment at all times.

How has the play been reshaped to accommodate three actors?

In order to accommodate three actors, we altered the text quite a bit. For example, some of the minor characters and plot points have been cut from the play, a few minor characters have been blended together into one character, and some significant plot-related lines have been redistributed to a character who doesn’t normally say the line. We also cut huge portions of the dialogue to reveal the “essence” of each scene.

What roles do you play?

The actors in our Makbet have learned the entire text and we switch from character to character throughout the evening. We use specific props to signify each character. It is highly improvisational, so I never know at the top of the show when I will be a certain character. [But] each night I play every major character at least once (Makbet, Lady Makbet, a weird sister, and Macduff). I often play many of the supporting roles as well (King Duncan, Malcom, Lady Macduff, and a handful of messengers).

What challenges stem from this approach to performing?


While it is challenging to shift from character at the drop of a hat (literally), that is what makes it so fresh. The ever-changing nature of this production allows for different aspects of the characters, the play itself, my fellow actors, and myself to be highlighted and to unfold on an ongoing basis. It is transformative and thrilling and the play just gets richer and richer. I love how surprising it is every night. I love it when the cast is so attuned to one another and the whole thing just “clicks”. While it can be a wild ride at times, the simple, quite, honest moments, stand out the most, especially when the choice made by the actors is contrary to how one would stereotypically play that scene. A hushed battle scene can be so remarkable! But these favorite moments stem from an effort by the entire cast to approach each moment with honesty and to not fall into our habitual responses, or to forcefully try to repeat something that worked so well the last time. This work is the most challenging aspect of this production.

You get to play Macbeth! What insights have you gained about the character?


Makbet gets caught up in forces that seem beyond his control. He doesn’t realize until “what’s done is done”, that he had ever had the power of choice. But, haven’t we all been swept away or manipulated by something or someone that led us to take actions contrary to our perceived nature? Given the right circumstance, we are all capable of his deeds. The qualities these characters posses are in our DNA as humans. We are all Makbet. We are all Lady Makbet. I, too, could be swayed by the desire for power for wealth. I, too, could be capable of murder. So could you. So could any of us. That’s super interesting to me.

How has your social identity as a woman affected your approach to the role?

The fact that I am a women cannot be ignored and it is going to color everything that I do in Makbet. However, in approaching the role of Makbet, or in any role, my focus is less on my identity as a women, and more on what makes these characters universal. In this, I am not attempting to play “myself”, but I am using myself as a resource. If I try to “act like a man”, or if I am worried about being a women while playing a man, it feels and reads false. Any stereotypical behavior divides us from a deeper involvement to the mystery of human behavior. Instead, I focus on the actions of the character and his/her relationship with other characters. That’s something I can truthfully perform.

You’ve worked as a core member of the Dzieci ensemble for almost a decade now. What sets this company’s approach apart from more conventional Macbeths?

In every piece we do, we try to create a community. Makbet is no exception. When you arrive on the scene, you are immediately greeted as if you were a family member. We give you vodka, we give you kielbasa, we sing to you as we hang out by the fire.

But there are a few subtle things going on that also aid in creating this community. In each of our pieces have a “character/archetype” that is actually intended to provide a gulf between the audience and the performer. The characters we portray are outsiders. In the pre-show, the cast, already in this character, essentially says, “Here I am!” It is the job of the audience member to meet us, accept us and bridge that gap.

Who are those outsider characters?

In Makbet, we are a clan from the “Old Country” This clan is a performing a ritual. We take on the characters in Makbet and carry out the violence, revenge, betrayal, etc in order to purge these aspects from our community. The way the ritual is performed — three actors, switching roles, led by a chorus inside a shipping container — lends itself to the most unique Makbet you will ever see!

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women? Where are his strengths in depicting them and where are his weaknesses? Is there anything in his plays that’s beyond salvaging?

With regard to women in Shakespeare, I think all of his plays are worth investigating. Sure, some may say that his women are not portrayed in the most positive light, but he was writing at such a different time. I don’t fault him for that. These characters are still deeply compelling. Shakespeare is such a master at writing to the human experience. If you take away the character name, and just read the lines… we have all experienced and felt what he writes about. It is what makes us the same, rather than what makes us different, that is appealing to me.

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

Hamlet!

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Dzieci Theatre's Makbet plays from Sept 6 to Oct 8 at Sure We Can in Bushwick. Tickets are $20!
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headshot  
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Monday, August 7, 2017

Women on Shakespeare: Jenny Strassburg on Lady Macbeth

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! We're wrapping up the second season of my interview series, Women in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

Firmly rooted by two decades of producing outdoor Shakespeare, the NY Classical Theatre stands out for its theatrically environmental stagings, which keep audiences on the move in Manhattan parks. In her debut with the company, Jenny Strassburg takes on Lady Macbeth. She emailed with me about the role, and about Shakespeare generally.
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Let’s start with Lady Macbeth. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?

I love that Lady M will change on a dime to get what she wants — the crown that she feels her husband deserves. For me, the most challenging scene is probably the incantation. It’s taken me a while to feel my way through that one, i.e. trying to find the truth of it. But after doing some research, I realized that this moment, and all of the supernatural moments in Macbeth, are akin to our modern-day special effects and therefore have a heightened theatricality. And really, Lady M herself has a heightened theatricality as well. She’s dynamic and dramatic. Once you can embrace that, it’s really fun to do as an actor.

What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

There are lots of knots in Macbeth — the one I find most fascinating is the idea to murder Duncan. It’s not explicit in the script. In rehearsal, we were trying to figure out whose idea it was — Lady M’s or Macbeth’s. You literally have to read between the lines, and what we discovered is that it is an idea that they hatch together, almost without words. The Macbeth’s are so in tune with one another that they have the same thoughts at the same time, finishing each other’s sentences. They are the original power couple.

Who is she, independent of her husband? What drives her to commit murder?

When we first see Lady M, she is reading a letter where Macbeth tells her about his meeting with the witches and what they have forecast for him. If she had never received the letter, I believe that she and her husband would have gone on happily living together, very much in love. But she receives the letter and is then told that Duncan is coming to her house, which seems like Fate to her. And when Macbeth arrives the two of them start to plan.

She seems so incredibly strong and ambitious, the stronger of the two really, and it’s very interesting to me that when she realizes she has lost her husband in the banquet scene, she starts to lose her own grip on reality. So, in the end, being independent of her husband is so painful that she cannot go on living. And that pain is what drives her to suicide — and while she plots the death of Duncan, her own murder is the only one she actually commits.

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

I actually really like getting to play the mad scene. It is a totally different side of Lady M that we haven’t seen up to this point in the play. She is very vulnerable, and even has moments of returning to her childhood. Our director, Stephen Burdman, was incredibly helpful in crafting this scene. He told me that in order to play mad, you have to commit to each moment fully and then change on a dime. Shakespeare has written very clear beats in this scene, so that the actor knows when and where Lady M is in her head from moment to moment. There are actually very clear links to earlier moments in the play — she repeats some of the same lines, or a version of them, so that you know exactly what moments she is revisiting and trying to resolve.

What does Lady M share with similar roles in Shakespeare, like Cleopatra, Lear’s daughters, and Queen Margaret?

Like Cleopatra, she feels she is fated for greatness, and like Cleopatra the pain of living without her love is too much, so to end her suffering she takes her own life. It’s interesting to think about her similarities to Goneril and Regan, who are trying to take the control of the kingdom from their aging father. Duncan is not senile — but his kingdom is in turmoil. There is no doubt in my mind that Lady M thinks Macbeth would be a better king. He is the nation’s best general, and in order to get there he must have inspired great loyalty, love, and respect in his men, making him an excellent and natural leader. Lady M and Lear’s daughters are overthrowing the present rule for something they think will be better — themselves. Queen Margaret is frustrated with her husband for his weakness and his inability to rise to the occasion, and Lady M certainly experiences that frustration with Macbeth’s vacillations and inability to leave the past behind once he is king.

What sets her apart from those women?

Well, she is strong and ambitious in a way that is threatening to society. She is unabashed about what she wants. And it’s amazing to me that the reaction that Shakespeare’s audience had to Lady M is probably going to be the same for many people in a modern audience. Women like this are dangerous — they don’t accept societal norms and refuse to be boxed in. She goes for the jugular in a way that I don’t think any of his other women do, so that it’s easy to see her as a villain — she is referred to as the “fiend-like queen”. But, of course, I do not see her this way. She loves her husband passionately and wants the crown for him. That she gets to be queen is secondary.

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

His roles for women are fantastic. They are interesting, complex, and usually very strong. There are nowhere near as many female roles as men, so the women that are in the plays are going to be very compelling and integral to the story. Even the less assertive female characters have a strength of conviction and nobility. He was writing women that had to be played by men, but the words feel very natural coming out of a woman’s mouth, which I think speaks to Shakespeare’s genius. To date, I haven’t really found any weaknesses. Perhaps only that I wish there more women in the plays :). And to me, there is nothing in Shakespeare that requires salvaging. Even a moment that seem unfinished or disjointed is always there for the a reason — and it is up to the actor to discover why it is there. 

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

I’d love to play Cleopatra or Imogen. I have a child and I’d love to see a woman play King Lear — it would be fascinating to see to how making Lear into a mother would inform the relationship with the daughters. Also, Hotspur, just because he’s awesome.

Thank you for your time, and break a leg!

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NY Classical Theatre's Macbeth plays from Jul 30 to Aug 20 in Battery Park in lower Manhattan, and from Aug 22 to 29 in Brooklyn Bridge Park across the river. Tickets are free!

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headshot  Laura Rose
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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Jane Bradley on directing Twelfth Night

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 in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

In just a few seasons, Jane Bradley has become a high-profile member of the Drilling Company. A strong turn as Othello's Emilia led to her playing Rosalind in the Parking Lot one summer and Portia the next. This season, she takes on the director's role, staging Twelfth Night this weekend only in Bryant Park. Ms. Bradley took time from her work to email me about it.

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Let’s start with Twelfth Night. What were your impressions of the show as you began this project?


I was originally drawn to Twelfth Night because I love its anarchic spirit. The nobility behave like soap opera characters, the court is overrun with fools and clowns, and at the center of it all, this bright, rational young woman from a foreign land is trying to fit in and stay alive. It’s a brilliant take on the classic “fish out of water” story that allows us to see the wacky wonderland of Illyria through Viola’s eyes.

What have you discovered about the play that you find fascinating? 

I think a lot of people approach Twelfth Night with preconceived notions, because it’s a play that’s so well known and loved. I wanted to avoid the trap of passing this sort of judgment on the characters, and instead take the time to discover who they really are. We avoided questions like, “Are the revelers too cruel to Malvolio?” and, “How is it possible for Viola, Olivia and Orsino to fall in love so quickly?” and instead focused on the circumstances of each scene. What we discovered is that, while the stakes in this play are ridiculously high, nobody’s behavior is unrelatable. Maria, Toby and Fabian take a practical joke too far and end up hurting somebody — it happens. Olivia is bored and lonely and falls head-over-heels for a handsome, witty stranger — it happens. When we looked at each of the scenes objectively, we realized that the characters are just doing what people do under extreme circumstances.

Why is it the right play to stage this summer in NYC?

as Rosalind in As You Like It
(Drilling Company '16)
There are lyrics that Feste sings in this play that I keep thinking about, in terms of why it’s so important to stage plays like Twelfth Night right now: “Present mirth hath present laughter; what’s to come is still unsure.” It’s a tumultuous time in the world, and I think we’re all very aware of the fragility and impermanence of everything. Now, perhaps more than ever, people need to laugh. Shakespeare gives us permission to feel good for an hour or two, while acknowledging that everything ahead of us is unknown.

How does that influence your staging of Illyria?

I embraced the escapist nature of the play to create a sort of mini-holiday for the audience. The color palette is bright and festive, the music is tuneful and sweet, and the jokes abound. The setting of the play is “nowhere now,” because I think everybody could use a little break from the here and now, you know?

What’s your perspective on Viola’s disguise in the play?

Viola is one of Shakespeare’s greatest breeches roles. By disguising herself as a gentleman, she gains access to a level of security that she wouldn’t be able to acquire as a young woman in a foreign land. She’s strong, resourceful and clever, and uses her disguise to gain the favor of the Duke. You could interpret her behavior as an expression of her deep love for him, but I think there’s a more practical, self-preserving element to it, too. Orsino tells Viola that if she succeeds in what he asks her to do, “…thou shalt live as freely as thy lord, to call his fortunes thine.” Through taking advantage of her disguise, Viola has opportunity to start a whole new life for herself, following great personal tragedy. I think that would be incentive for anybody.

What about Olivia’s role as a countess, a lover, and an object of desire?

as Portia in Merchant of Venice
(Drilling Company '15)
Olivia, in my opinion, is a very modern character — one of those Shakespearean inventions that makes you wonder whether the playwright might have been an alien/time traveler (I’m not ruling it out). Her life is a dichotomy of power and oppression. She is a countess and the head of her household, but there is immense pressure on her to marry a suitor. She’s been sheltered and coddled all her life, and all she wants is for someone to challenge her. Viola sparks Olivia’s inner passion and rebelliousness, and allows her to achieve her full potential as a proactive, amorous individual. Her transformation in this play is totally delightful.

How do you address the challenges of outdoor Shakespeare — especially one in a busy urban environment?

One of the joys and idiosyncrasies of The Drilling Company is that all of our productions are staged in busy urban environments — rather than resisting, we choose to embrace the chaos of New York City. Like all TDC productions, this Twelfth Night is high-energy, interactive theater that demands the audience’s engagement, rather than politely asking for it.

How has the venue, Bryant Park, shaped your vision of the play?

What’s unique about Bryant Park is the size and grandeur of the stage — a bit of a shift from the parking lot! This is another reason that I chose such a dazzling color palette for our production and welcomed the opportunity for beautiful original music (written and performed by company member Andrew Gombas) — I wanted to ensure that we took advantage of the opportunity to present a real spectacle.

as Emilia in Othello
(Drilling Company '14)
Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

The brilliant theater maker and actress Harriet Walter wrote an open letter to Shakespeare in The Stage last year that answers this question more eloquently than I ever could. I encourage everyone to read it.

Shakespeare has so many wonderful female characters (Viola, Olivia, Rosalind, Beatrice, etc.), but they’re constrained to defining themselves as they relate to the men in their lives. As Dame Walter points out, no scenes with Shakespeare’s women pass the Bechdel Test. Meanwhile, the male protagonists get to wrestle with all of the big stuff: mortality, violence, power. I’m so grateful to Shakespeare for giving us the female characters he did, but I do wish he’d come back and write us some new ones who are a little more woke (just saying: if he is a time traveler or an alien…).

Do you have a short-list of Shakespearean plays you’d love to direct?

I’d love to direct any of the greatest hits, comedy or tragedy: Hamlet, Much Ado, Midsummer, The Scottish Play, to name a few. I enjoy the exercise of approaching plays I think I know well from a directorial standpoint, and having all of my original thoughts turned completely on their heads — keeps me humble. I’m also a sucker for site-specific theater in non-theatrical spaces, so maybe a Tempest at a public pool, or a Comedy of Errors in a dive bar — who knows!



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The Drilling Company's Twelfth Night plays from Jul 28 to 30 in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. Tickets are free!

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headshot  Taylor Hooper
photo 1 & 2  Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation
photo 3  Michael Bernstein