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.
By my count, almost half of NYC's Shakespeare is directed by women in summer '17! The Drilling Company, which stages five plays per summer, has a pair of female directors. This week I've interviewed Karla Hendrick, director of All's Well That Ends Well (I'll be speaking with her Helena on Thursday). A stalwart of the Drilling Company, Ms. Hendrick has previously played Gertrude with the company; this is her directorial debut.
Let’s start with All’s Well. What knots did the playwright leave for you and your cast to untangle?
Great question! And there are plenty of knots with this play! All’s Well That Ends Well is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s three “Problem Plays”, perhaps because of the quick turn of events at the end propagated by an event never seen, perhaps because there is so much exposition, perhaps the quick shifts in tone; for whatever reason, it’s not frequently produced. And to a contemporary audience, it could be seen solely as the story of a smart woman who falls for the bad boy and subsequently makes dumb choices; or even a story about a cocky young man who has the heart of a woman and yet treats her badly.
How do you meet that challenge?
When I examined the play through the lens of a coming of age story, Helena’s journey became clear and distinct and the strongest through-line of the play. Add to that the fact that Bertram, too, undergoes a clear journey, then the story opens up and begins to come together. There’s arguably a real turning point for Bertram too in the play when he becomes a war hero. Granted, the challenge is in making sense of Bertram’s journey (and that difficult final scene!) and creating a Bertram that the audience can both wince at and learn to love — but that’s what makes Shakespeare’s characters so human. Of course, the key to the final scene is setting up that final Bertram moment earlier in the play.
What have you discovered about the play that you find fascinating?
What fascinated me most about this play is the discovery that Helena is not the only character with a clear journey, but, in fact, most every character in the play has one. We uncovered them. Also I was surprised by how strong are the themes of the healing power of the feminine and the power of forgiveness.
I’ve never seen a stage production of All’s Well, and hadn’t read it in a very, very long time. It took some time before I felt comfortable approaching it and delving in, it intimidated me tremendously to begin with! The more we peeled off its layers, the more I absolutely fell in love with it. It also became something of a personal story for me, and now is definitely a great time to produce it — there’s quite a lot in it that resonates with audiences of today!
Why is it the right play to revive this summer in NYC?
We live in a society and a world right now that desperately needs a message of healing, of forgiveness, of persistent belief in “all’s well that ends well”, and how that message can drive one forward in a positive, proactive and undaunted way. We also need desperately to hook into stories of personal change and of the healing power of women and communities of women.
What does it offer audiences that Shakespeare’s more famous plays don’t?
I liked the idea that as the characters live out their lives and journeys, there’s a constant shadow over the story of the impending unknown (we know what’s about to happen to their country, they don’t). One of my favorite lines in the play is: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together”. I think that’s the play in a nutshell. The joy the characters feel is overshadowed by a constant cloud; their despair is followed by joy, their joy is followed by despair. It’s very Chekhovian in that sense, and very much like life. That’s reflected in the tone with which I approached the work — moments of hilarity turn sharply to moments of touching pathos which may turn to moments of deep despair. And back again. Just like life.
Did you set it in contemporary New York, or another place and time?
It is set in France, and there are many references to the war in Italy, so I chose to set it during WWII in France just before Mussolini’s Fascist invasion in 1940, a moment in history when many Italian soldiers turned and fought against Fascism, which meant fighting against their own countrymen. Many Frenchmen then fought beside them. It highlights certain conflicts that may resonate acutely with us as a society today while honoring the original text, but without hitting us over the head with it or forcing any contemporary connections.
How do you feel about the choices Helena makes in the play, and the ones taken out of her hands?
Helena is making bold choices. Unapologetically. But she doesn’t start there, she has a clear journey. She takes risks and with each success, she gathers strength. I see the famous virginity scene with Parolles as an early victory; his apparent intimidation or at least verbal banter with her is unsuccessful in quieting her; her “thousand loves” speech is, in a way a big early success which frees her. She makes a huge discovery from that exchange with Parolles, that “our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.” It’s the first real moment of growing up and standing on her own two feet. Some might ask why she goes after Bertram who has only disdain for her, why does she even love this loser at all? It’s because she sees into his heart, and, having grown up with him, knows his heart and knows his most true, authentic self — who he is away from Parolles, even — a self that’s been lost along the way in the journey he’s on. She may be, in a sense, on a rescue mission; the love she feels for him throughout is powerful and drives her forward continuously; the forgiveness she offers him in the end is world-changing. Her journey is, hopefully, the audience’s journey.
This production is staged in a Lower East Side parking lot. How do you address the challenges of outdoor Shakespeare?
Oh, my, and there are challenges! Time constraints, rain, heat, storage, you name it. It is challenging to do any play in a venue such as this, but the rewards are tremendous. Free Shakespeare isn’t really free; yes, it is something we give the audience without monetary cost, of course, but they do give a lot — not only their time and attention, but their laughter, their tears, their hearts and souls for two hours time which is the greatest exchange in the world. We and the audience create something together in that space that will never happen again in that way and that makes any challenge fade fast.
How has the urban space shaped your vision of the play?
The venue has shaped the vision mostly since opening, in that the energy of the audience has taught us much about the story. As the numbers of audience members have increased, we’ve adjusted the set to accommodate more people, to create an even more accessible, intimate experience for them. And we’ve allowed more breathing space for the audience to come in as the final character.
Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?
No one knew women like Shakespeare did — at least of the writers of his day — because no one knew humanity like he did. I think there is quite a lot in Shakespeare’s plays that artists could focus on more; for example, the Italian women in All’s Well (in our production they are a community of immigrant women living in Italy) could easily be glossed over, theirs are such short scenes and one might say the women are there to facilitate the bed trick plotline only. And yet they are the ones who Helena meets after she hits rock bottom and they reach out to her. It’s a “healing the healer” situation; the Widow takes her in, and we don’t really know how long Helena stays, but we do know that it is there that she hatches her plan and begins to run with it, getting them on board to play all the parts. Her time in their community allows her to pick herself up and move forward. They are her turning point.
What are his strengths or weaknesses in depicting women?
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that his is the strength, and if there’s a weakness, perhaps the weakness belongs to artists who may short-change those characters or their interpretation of them. Perhaps we don’t give his women enough power sometimes — the power they may be written to have. But then again, perhaps Shakespeare’s weakness in depicting women was simply in not writing enough of them! (And of course, in the constraints he was working with regarding their role in society — not his fault — and even within that, he broke through time and time again).
Do you have any experimental takes on Shakespeare—an all-female cast, or a radical adaptation—that you’d love to stage?
In this production we have cast a woman as LaVatch, the fool, traditionally played by a man. She’s playing it as a woman and having a great time with it! Switching LaVatch’s gender opened up a lot for us thematically and with the story line, actually, we were still making discoveries late into the process.
Do you have a short-list of Shakespearean plays to direct?
I’ve always wanted to do Comedy of Errors with two female Dromio’s; I’d love to do Romeo and Juliet with two women (last season the The Drilling Company, who also produces Bryant Park Shakespeare, cast a woman as Mercutio – she’s now playing our Helena).
The Drilling Company's All's Well That Ends Well plays from Jul 6 to Jul 22 at the the Clemente Parking Lot, 114 Norfolk, on the LES. Tickets are free!
photos Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation