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.

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!
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!

headshot  Andrew Kluger
photos  Carol Rosegg

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