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.

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!


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


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

1 comment:

Humaun Kabir said...

Thanks for the great post on your blog, it really gives me an insight on this topic.

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