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 ingĂ©nues. 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

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