Friday, March 31, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Lauren Tothero as Sebastian

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.

This spring in Flushing Meadows, Titan Theatre Company has cast a pair of twins in Twelfth Night. Yesterday I spoke with Sierra Tothero, who plays Viola. Today, I'm talking with her sister Lauren about Viola's twin—a male, so we get to talk about cross-gender casting.

Let’s start with Sebastian. What have you discovered about him?

I love Sebastian’s earnestness, especially within his relationships. He loves simply and without reservation. He falls in love with Olivia at first sight, which is really quite Romeo-esque. That said, my favorite part of Sebastian is his friendship with Antonio. They have true love for each other. Platonic love between two men isn’t represented enough in pop culture, and the friendship between Antonio and Sebastian is such a great example of healthy masculinity.

What role does Sebastian play in the world that Shakespeare creates onstage, and in your understanding of the play?

From a narrative standpoint, Sebastian just comes in and confuses the heck out of people. Except he has no idea that he’s doing it. To me, this gives him an endearing, almost childlike quality. He literally has no idea what is going on: “Why did this beautiful woman just kiss me?” “Why are all these people trying to beat me up?” What I love the most about the “This is the air” monologue is that it’s the first time that he gets to really express this confusion, and he does it with such a childlike wonder.

Sebastian has such an earnest, childlike quality to him which, to me, really sets him apart. He’s not as witty as Viola is, and he takes everything at face value. When Antonio saves Viola during the fight, her first response is “Oh my gosh Sebastian might be alive.” Sebastian isn’t able to put two and two together like that.

I’m interested in cross-gender casting, so I’d love to hear how you approach Sebastian’s gender and sexuality.

I never wanted to be a woman playing a man. I just wanted to be a man. I never wanted it to be a caricature, so I kept the physical adjustments subtle. That said, I wanted there to be a very clear difference between Viola and Sebastian in the final scene, when we’re both on stage for the first time. If you watch a man and a woman walk down the street, there really isn’t a huge difference between the two. I never wanted to be a “crotch-scratching, burping” cartoon of a man. I focused more on how men and women take up space in the world. How men aren’t afraid to square their shoulders. How they tend to take larger, slower steps. It was more of an energetic thing than anything else. I read about different techniques (primarily from Eastern philosophies) to increase masculine energy. I wanted it to start from an internal shift, as opposed to an external “just walk like a dude” one.

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

He did his best considering the time period he was writing in. By having women characters disguised as men, it gave him more rein to give them complex, interesting inner lives. You can see the progression of his female characters from his earlier works to his later works. Obviously, The Taming of the Shrew leaves much to be desired. But it’s encouraging to see the growth of his characters. I mean, Juliet is hugely feminist, and even has sexual agency. Lady Macbeth is allowed to be this power-hungry character. Because of the time he was writing in, the male characters will be more interesting. But there’s really no excuse anymore as to why you only have to cast as written. More, if not all, Shakespeare productions should use gender-blind casting.

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 would love to play Iago one day. He’s by far my favorite Shakespeare villain. He’s just so freaking confusing, which is such a great challenge for an actor. He’s also the complete opposite of who I would be typically cast as, which makes it all the more intriguing to see how I would approach the role.

I’d also like to take a swing at Viola one of these days. ;)


Titan Theatre Company's Twelfth Night runs from March 24 to April 9 at the Queens Theater in Flushing Meadows Park. Tickets are $18.

headshot  David Noles
photos  Michael Pauley

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Sierra Tothero as Viola

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.

Titan Theatre Company makes its home in Queens, at first in nearby Long Island City but now in residence at the Queens Theatre, on the grounds of the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing. They first came onto my radar with a 2013 production of Midsummer. Before each performance, the cast (aside from Puck) drew their roles from a hat. This spring, in another flourish of casting, Titan has cast a pair of twins as Viola and Sebastian. I emailed Sierra Tothero about her roles as Viola, and I'll have Lauren's interview here tomorrow.

Let’s start with Viola. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating? Which scenes are the most challenging?

Viola is incredibly brave, kind, and headstrong, all while maneuvering the world with a wide open heart. She speaks her mind to Orsino and boldly disagrees with him at times, and in my eyes that’s what makes him trust her so quickly. Connecting to her falling so deeply in love with Orsino while he is actively in pursuit of someone else has been fascinating — the act of helping someone you are in love with pursue someone else because you love them so much. She has to be so selfless.

Also connecting to her continuous grief — of her brother, of her home, of any connection to family — all while she is falling in love has been such an enjoyably challenging process. There is this moment Lenny and I worked on a lot where Viola is as honest as she possibly can be with Orsino. She describes her current state of pining and love towards him all under the guise of Cesario telling a story about his sister. It’s this pleading moment where she’s begging Orsino to please hear what I’m actually saying here and it just goes completely over his head. It’s so painful and hopeless and, honestly, who hasn’t been there? The simplicity in that moment was challenging to me — as an actor (and maybe as a young actor in particular) I always want to make something active and bold and loud — when sometimes the truth of the moment is a very quiet and focused please hear me.

What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

There are some moments in the play where Viola lies and it’s not totally clear why. Why does she tell Malvolio that Olivia “took the ring of [her]” instead of saying the truth, that Olivia never gave her the ring? To which Malvolio responds with another lie, that Olivia told him Viola “peevishly threw it to her” even though Olivia said nothing of the sort. Those are the sorts of things you just find your own way into, and I don’t think there’s any wrong or right story you can create for yourself.

Viola is one of Shakespeare’s essential roles. As an actor, can you speak to what makes her such a fully-realized woman onstage? What role does she play in the world that Shak creates onstage, and in your understanding of the play?

Throughout the play, Viola is courageous, resourceful, smitten, befuddled, brazen, desperate, grief-stricken, and joyous. She has many moments where she admits that she has no idea how this is all going to turn out, but she is certainly willing to take a bash at it. She goes through this shipwreck where she loses her twin brother and still has to continue on. She doesn’t get to mourn like Olivia does, and she carries loss with her as she falls in love. It’s very rich to me.

I also appreciate that her love interest isn’t necessarily the most important man in her life (or at least not the only important man in her life). When her brother enters the stage in that final scene, all of her attention goes to him. She completely lets go of her act as Cesario — her connection to Orsino — to reveal herself as Viola to Sebastian. It of course ends up working out in the end with Orsino, but the fact that she gets completely overwhelmed with a different love — the love for her brother — in that final scene is a very true thing to me. We all have many loves in our life, and I appreciate that that is illustrated. It’s gorgeous and true blue.

Viola is one of a type: Shakespeare’s adventurous, crossdressing ingénues. What sets her apart from Portia, Rosalind, and Imogen?

Viola’s necessity for cross-dressing is purely for survival. She has to fend for herself. She is grief-stricken, a stranger in a foreign land, and in danger as a woman traveling alone. She isn’t trying to trick anyone, spy on anyone, or make anyone fall in love with her. She has this pure intention of “I gotta do what I gotta do because no one’s going to take care of me anymore” in the first scene that is both heartbreaking and endearing.

The actor cast as Viola gets to play with Elizabethan wit and perform love poetry. What strategies do you have for the wordplay and the verse? Have you seen any great, influential versions of Twelfth Night that you drew from (or rejected)?

I had the extremely good fortune of studying at the Globe Theatre in London for six months with Tim Carroll as my primary teacher and director. Tim is somewhat of a purist when it comes to the iambic pentameter, and because that six months has been far and away my most intensive classical training, I have become a bit of one as well. We spent weeks reading plays and slapping our knees in the rhythm of the iambic pentameter (duhDUHduhDUHduhDUHduhDUHduhDUH), speaking entire plays in that rhythm without deviation. You would do monologues with the rest of the class tapping the rhythm on their legs and if you got off you would have to sit down and someone else would go. He also put an extreme focus on being word perfect which made me be a bit obsessive about that.

This was right during the time when his productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III were at the Globe and transferring to the West End. I saw both productions at the Globe and then sat in the house for a week of tech at the West End. Watching such incredible actors (Mark Rylance, Paul Chahidi, Colin Hurley, etc.) speak the text with such skill was a masterclass. Many of Tim’s actors in the company of Twelfth Night and Richard III stayed true to the meter, but you’d also have Mark Rylance riffing off the rhythm to create impactful moments because it would make your ear perk up. Apparently Mark Rylance considers Shakespeare to be like jazz — once you master the form you can take some moments to skillfully depart from it.

I very much believe in the importance of the iambic pentameter. It’s beautiful — it falls in line with the heartbeat, it’s lovely to listen to, it seems to fit perfectly into the human attention span — and I feel like it’s a beautiful thing to respect and take advantage of. It’s a great tool as an actor. I’m also pretty obsessive about knowing exactly what I’m saying and the context of it, because when you’re connected to the meaning you tend to fall on verse pretty effortlessly. It’s almost magic like that.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women? Is there anything in his plays that’s beyond salvaging?

Well, he was certainly a product of his time and there are moments in his plays when that is reflected. We actually removed in the line from the infamous ring monologue that discusses the weak and waxen nature of women ("How easy is it for the proper false in women’s waxen hearts to set their forms! Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we, for such as we are made of, such we be.") and I have no qualms leaving it out. We’ve evolved past that mentality and I would hate for someone in the audience to be turned off from the story because of an outdated sexist moment. I know I have a hard time watching The Taming of the Shrew because of the themes, and I don’t want anyone in the audience to feel that way about Twelfth Night. Viola is a brave, resourceful, and strong-willed, and I think many of the women in his plays reflect those qualities.

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?

Oh lord...this is a can of worms! I did love playing Juliet. I’m such a romantic (I love falling in love onstage haha), and I loved celebrating that naive, unapologetic, young love. Actors I know who have played Hamlet say they wish that part on everyone, and I think that would be quite the feat. The fools have always been my favorite parts of Shakespeare’s plays and I loved playing Speed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I would like to play Launce, the other fool in Two Gents as well. He has this monologue that I think is so hilarious — it was one of the first times in a Shakespeare piece where I was laughing uncontrollably. I loved it so much I memorized the entire thing in one night, and it’s a pretty long piece.

Then Ophelia, Lady Percy, Portia, Romeo, the Witches, Orsino (again...I love being in love onstage)…. I could go on and on! Watching Lauren as Sebastian has gotten me jazzed about that role too (she is so funny as him). Maybe one of these performances we’ll just switch ;) 


Titan Theatre Company's Twelfth Night runs from March 24 to April 9 at the Queens Theater in Flushing Meadows Park. Tickets are $18.

headshot  David Noles
photos  Michael Pauley

Monday, January 30, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Kate T. Billingsley as 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! 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.

Frog & Peach was founded in 1996 by members of the Actors Studio. The company has focused on Shakespeare, supplying Off-Off-Broadway with a semi-annual regimen since 2012. This month, F&P take up residence at the new Sheen Center, just off the Bowery, with Macbeth. Kate T. Billingsley plays the part of Lady Macbeth, and emailed with me about the role's rewards.

Let’s start with Lady Macbeth. What have you discovered about her?

The thing I find most fascinating about Lady M is her tragically glorious arc from beginning to end. The audience never gets to see her before getting the news of her husband’s encounter with the prophesying witches. She starts with the letter, with the news. I’ve often thought about what she was like before getting this letter. What kind of life must she have had to have wanted to attempt to assassinate the king and become a monarch herself? What sort of world was this woman living in? What have her experiences with men been like? In what ways can I relate to her own feelings of ambition and control? She is hungrier for power than her husband and ultimately, the Lady is the one who pulls the strings behind his actions and is left tangled in the knots she has created.

Which scenes are the most challenging?

The most difficult scene for me is the “sleep-walking” scene. I say this because of what it demands of my body and psyche. At the end of each performance, if I am not completely wiped out, I have not done her justice. Another scene I find challenging is the murder scene. The change I have to make in a matter of seconds from before smearing the grooms with blood to after is something I work to go deeper with every night. It changes for her from that moment on and she is never the same again. There is always more to search for. That’s how big these characters and their stories are.

What else have you discovered about Lady M’s inner life?

Cracking open Lady M has been an enormous challenge. She is intimidatingly intelligent and full of energy. It’s as if she has this engine inside of her that is charging from the gate. She is daring enough to call on spirits to help her be bold and uncaring enough to commit murder. She is facile enough to be able to manipulate her husband into following through with the murder.

When it comes to the actual murder itself, she admits she cannot do it because King Duncan resembles her father as he lay sleeping. So instead she waits with bated breath as her husband does the deed. This is ultimately, where I believe the misogyny of the Elizabethan era falls into place. Because even though she evokes these evil spirits to fill her with “direst cruelty” so that she can kill the King, ultimately, she cannot follow through with the deed. She is still too filled with sentimentality to do it. So, instead, Shakespeare makes her an accomplice, but not the murderer. Therein lies the burn.

What drives her to commit murder?

I think what drives her is a burning curiosity to understand the vastness of her own power as a woman and partner in her time. Her husband relies on her and confides in her. How many hours has she spent waiting and tending to their manor while he is off in battle? There must have been a tremendous time of reflection and thought as to how she fits into the picture of climbing success. It seems to me she has battled the patriarchy her whole life and found a partner who understands the pains that came with her journey. The Macbeths both seem to have pasts in which they came together to save one another and truly rely on one another as equals. This seems very modern to me, as does her relentless ambition to dig herself out of the hole she started out in. The first step was marrying Macbeth.

How do you approach her mad scenes, and play them honestly?

I truly feel the mad scenes are subjective and every Lady M is different. I hope mine rings true. When she returns from smearing the blood and placing the daggers, she is forever changed. From that transition on, she is a different person. The night terrors begin and do not end. She is truly battling the fatigue and hauntings throughout the second half of the play, not to mention the crumbling demise of her husband and truest love. I feel she tries her best to save face as much as possible; to try to keep herself together, to keep her husband together. The ultimate failure for her is the loss of her husband’s mind and partnership, and the guilt she did not expect to have.

What links her end to the sane woman earlier in the play?

I feel these mad scenes all link back to the beginning. It’s as if the spirits she cries out to are teaching her a lesson as to why one shouldn’t play with the occult if they aren’t prepared for the consequences. When working with her madness, I focus on loss and I work with the physical effects of insomnia and the imagery of night terrors. Being a member of The Actors Studio, I have a psychological approach to all my characters and work a great deal with the sensory. 

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

I think Shakespeare writes brilliant women. Their strength often lies in their intelligence: emotional and/or intellectual. They are often the whisperer in the protagonists ear, the strength behind the action of their male counterparts. They are often ruthless and sensual, cut-throat and demanding, lyrical and bold. He wrote dynamic women, many of whom are quite modern. I think his language is so perfect that I shudder to point out Shakespeare’s flaws. Sometimes, I do wonder: what if Lady M had committed the murder herself? But then, the story would be completely different.

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 played Goneril when I was younger and would love to play her when I am a little older. I would love to play Kate in Taming of The Shrew or Portia in Julius Caesar. And, now that I am working on Macbeth, I think to play Macbeth himself would be an incredibly fruitful challenge. His arc is just so epic and lush. I love the idea of a Queen Lear, like Glenda Jackson’s, when I am of age and have the life experience to fully understand the breadth of Lear’s deterioration. And of course, I could spend the next twenty years still trying to unpack the puzzle of Lady M herself.


Frog & Peach's Macbeth runs from January 19 to February 12 at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in the East Village. Tickets are $25.

headshot  Laura Rose Photography
photos  Paul Greco

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Jade Anouka as Ariel

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.

Jade Anouka has taken a central role in Phyllida Lloyd's Shakespeare trilogy. She took over as Marc Antony last year after appearing as Calpurnia in Julius Caesar (NY '13), and she stood out as a tender Hotspur in Henry 4.1 (NY '15). In the third production, set as before in a women's prison, Anouka plays Ariel to Harriet Walters' Prospero. Ms. Anouka emailed with me about her roles in the all-female company.

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

Firstly I don’t see Ariel as 'her', he was written male, but I just try and play the scenes, play the intentions of the character and not focus on genderizing Ariel. I found the desperation of Ariel for freedom and liberty is what drives him throughout the play. He is fulfilling these tasks for Prospero happily, but only because if he does it well Propero has promised him his freedom and soon.

Ariel gets my favorite stage direction in all of Shakespeare: [Re-enter Ariel, invisible…]. How do you and Lloyd stage that? More generally, how is the magic of the role (and play) treated, especially given the vivid reality of the jailhouse setting?

Haha yes! As you say the prison setting could restrict us in someways as to plausible theatrical effects... but then again it opens us up to the real magic of theatre... of make-believe... of pretending. I love the youthful idea of how invisibility is realised in our production. When Ariel is invisible nobody looks at him. It's been funny where fellow cast members have forgotten I'm on stage in some scenes because they have invested so much into pretending they can't see me that they start believing it!

By framing the trilogy with the setting of a women’s prison, Ms. Lloyd doesn’t simply ignore her actors’ gender. How does this complex approach to gender and sexuality affect your performance of Ariel?

I honestly don’t think about it. I don’t try and be a boy, I don’t [try] and be feminine, whatever that means, I just play the character of Ariel, use what Shakespeare has wrote and what I find interesting to serve the production. Also we are all playing inmates playing characters, so my prison character, Sade, affects how I play Ariel. Sexuality on the other hand is something entirely different. I don’t think we have had an approach to sexuality with these plays. People may have made judgments about our characters' sexuality but it's not something that affects the work I don’t think.

You’ve appeared in all three plays of Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy. What similarities have you noticed between Marc Antony, Hotspur, and Ariel? How have you approached Ariel differently in rehearsal?

Sade is what links them, they are all played by the same prisoner. All three are very determined characters. All three are charismatic and successful in getting people to follow them. Anthony gets all of Rome to do a 180 and believe in him, Hotspur rallies armies to fight on his side against the odds and Ariel uses magic to get anyone to do, well, anything. In rehearsal there was lots of discussion about how Sade might want to represent magic [as] what feels like freedom to her. The movement/dance/song/rapping came from that idea.

How does the Lloyd’s rehearsal approach and aesthetic of the Shakespeare Trilogy fit with other Shakespeare you’ve worked on?

Phyllida is very inclusive, rehearsals are collaborative and every voice is heard. It's also very playful and very thorough. I have been in quite a few Shakespeare plays and no two rehearsal approaches have been the same. I've done very 'traditional' productions at the Globe, I've done very minimalist arty productions at the RSC, productions with only 'two planks and a passion', with directors who are unashamedly strict with the iambic verse & those less so. What I love about doing Shakespeare is that the plays stand. The stories always hold up. But what I really love about this Trilogy work with Phyllida is that those stories can now include me and people who look like me. It has shown how Shakespeare and Theatre is, can be and must be non exclusive.

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

He has some great parts for women. But there is definitely not enough of them. I have loved playing Ophelia, Juliet, Olivia in the past. But when I got to speak Mark Antony and Hotspur I was like wow this is awesome stuff. The boys have been having all the real fun! I don’t think they know how lucky they are. These roles are meaty, powerful, complicated and big. Shakespeare wrote in a very different time to now, women's roles in society were not what they are now. Assuming his works reflected the world he lived in then we need to bring it up to date. His words are great which is why his plays live on and people keep producing them. But if we do we must move with the times too. The good women's roles run out quickly and so we are taking on the men's now too. What new things can we discover by playing... Surely that’s what theatre is all about....?

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. I played Ophelia at the Globe in London and absolutely loved it. But when I was backstage listening to Hamlet I couldn’t help thinking how great his speeches are and how honest the character's reactions to an awful series of events are. Hamlet is young and going through a hard time there is something we can all relate to in that. Male, female, black, white, gay, straight. It's so human. I wanna give him a go!


The Donmar Warehouse's The Tempest runs from January 13 to February 19 at St. Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO. Tickets are $40-$90.

headshot  Donmar Warehouse
photos  Teddy Wolff