Susan Galbraith speaks with director Aaron Posner and actor Katie deBuys during rehearsals for The Winter’s Tale which opens at Folger Theatre this week.
Susan Galbraith: Aaron, we’re talking about your direction of one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays, The Winter’s Tale. What for you feels like the centrifugal force that could hold the play together?
Aaron Posner: There is so much love in the play, I knew we needed to put that in the center. It’s not that that all the characters love terribly well, but there is a lot of love there.
Katie, what is your response to the question?
Katie deBuys: I respond strongly to Aaron’s posit that the love in the play is at the center of everything. And Aaron brings a lot of love and passion into the room and to the table and asks for no less from us. The lucky thing is that in this cast we have brave and generous people who are willing to fail and be wrong, but to try with full passion even if it isn’t the right thing. And the actors who then are bringing all of their love and passion and sadness to the table is valuable even if it ends up being wrong in this first draft, it gives Aaron what he needs to work with to bring it into the play.
I was thinking about what you were saying as we sat down to talk, Aaron. We acknowledged that it’s a hard time to be a human being. It’s a hard time to love right now.
Aaron: There is a lot of complexity out there, and there’s a lot of complexity in this play. These are people who love not very well. They make big mistakes. It’s nice to feel that even making big mistakes does not condemn you for all time. In a remarkable moment, and it’s not one of the most famous moments in the play, after Leontes has caused the death of his wife and son and when Paulina comes in berating him, suddenly we get from him, “I’m sorry,” she instantly turns around and “Okay then I won’t say anything anymore.” Can you imagine that kind of bigness in our world now? No, we’re seeing a time when everyone jumps on the person and points the finger accusingly saying, “I’ll ruin your life for all time.” That’s opposed to radical forgiveness. In this play there is radical love and radical forgiveness.
It’s a very spiritual play. There is a lot of talk of gods and oracles, and the spirit world is very much a part of their common world. The oracle is part of the court of law. It’s a world where things of the spirit are practical and present in people’s lives. And that adds a whole other layer to our responsibility to explore the way we love and the way we have faith and the way we connect.
It’s a play so rich and complicated that all we can do is offer ourselves up to the play and try to make it available to the audience with as much complexity and richness as you can.
How do you imagine the audience will respond and what do you want them to get from this?
Aaron: I think that people will take the play in many different ways. I imagine people will disagree about how it feels to them and what they walk away with. If you are doing Comedy of Errors, you can really control what you want your audience to get and walk away with. Or As You Like It, or Julius Caesar, or even Hamlet, which is just not that complicated a play. The characters are complicated but the play is not that hard. It’s one clear plot. But Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Measure for Measure, these are really complicated plays.
I’m not trying to tell the audience what to walk away with. I don’t presume to dictate because I can’t.
Yes, Hermione is a particularly difficult role to pull off and hold the audience’s attention. She is cruelly treated by her suspicious husband, then disappears, and everyone believes she’s dead, and we don’t really know what happens to her for those eighteen years. So Katie, how do you connect the dots for her and keep her a living, breathing human being?
Katie: Interesting. I actually find Hermione to be not that complicated. I think she’s a woman of great integrity who knows herself pretty well and values herself in an appropriate way in that she is a queen. She’s a kind, good person who recognizes her importance in and to the world around her. Some really bad thing happen to her, and partially because she is such a strong human being and partially because she lives in a world where magic is possible, she can recover from some of the worst tragedies that can befall a human being.
Say more about the magic. How do you think about its workings in the play?
Katie: In a literal interpretation about what happens in the play, our joke is that Paulina has kept her in the pool house. She has just been hiding out and waiting to make her big debut as the statue.
You mean she has been planning this for a long time as a kind of learning opportunity?
Katie: Hmmmm…In a less literal interpretation, which I think is where we are going – though anybody can read the event the way they want to –is that indeed it has something to do with magic. It’s the same magic as theater, having everyone back in the same room together, breathing the same air, and this somehow allows Hermione to live again and see her daughter.
You’ve got a lot of music in this production. Can you talk about that?
Aaron: Music goes together with the spirit dimension. It’s also a poetic world, and music is a great way at getting to that. There are a fair number of songs written into the play but we’ve certainly added to that. When I sit down with a play like this and I know I am going to engage it, I have to form a personal relationship with the work. I have to feel that I have an actual friendship. Now that could be said of all Shakespeare plays, because he is very good, right, and has a lot to say? But sometimes he says something and I don’t have a lot to say back. Either I’m not interested in this conversation right now or I am not interesting enough to have this conversation. That could be said about all plays. I have to ask myself, “What do I have to offer?”
When I started to build a relationship with The Winter’s Tale, I already had in my mind people who had showed up because of what they could bring to the work. And music felt a part of that. And as this grows, it’s not just the relationship with Liz Filios, our fabulous composer and musical director, but that more than half the cast plays instruments. Kimberly Gilbert has written some of her own things she sings as Autolycus. Eric Hissom has written some of his songs as the storyteller character, and others as well. So it’s very collaborative, and all of them are bringing their own contributions.
Katie: It’s so much fun to watch, and they’re all actors. So, for instance Josh Thomas plays this incredible piece on the cello, then sets the cello down and stands up and walks into a scene where he is hilariously funny. And they all do that. And from within the play, the music is such a uniting force between the two countries of Sicilia and Bohemia and also through all the states of being that we travel through in this play. We’ve talked a lot in this process about integrity and how we would like this production to have a strong sense of integrity, and the music, I’d like to think, is what we rest that on.
Were there any discoveries in the rehearsal that surprised you?
Katie: The first time we fully rehearsed the trial scene. And of course it is a very emotional scene, particularly for Hermione. And we were all in the room together, and Aaron said “Hold” and after we talked about a couple of things he turned to Liz and said ,“Can you come up with something to go with this?” And on the spot she got everyone into these harmonies that cut right through to everyone’s hearts. It was so deeply moving, and everyone was so connected in making this moment come to life. It was a moment where both the genius of Liz’ part shone but then also this incredible collaboration. At the end of it, we didn’t know how it would all fit into the scene exactly but holy-moly, we had found the Oracle. This was the sound of the gods in the world we were creating.
And you trust this man, Aaron, so you don’t have to say “Wait a minute, let me go away and come up with something in the safety of my personal space, and I’ll come back… Right there he was expecting you all to come up with something respectably polished.
Katie: It was probably the greatest moment of collaboration that I’ve ever seen or experienced. Also, it involved so many people. It’s one thing for a director and two actors to have that kind of focused intensity and bond of trust. But this is a cast of twelve plus all the additional people in the room. Everyone contributed something to the experience.
That’s theater magic, wouldn’t you say?
Aaron: I’ve been doing this long enough that I know you can’t collaborate unless you are willing to fail. And I’ve failed so often and so publicly! I don’t walk into the first day of rehearsal with everything planned out in my head. I do know some things, and I come in with something, but I want to create space where the actors can teach me and teach each other. And even if things I try fail, and completely don’t work and are not helpful. Hopefully then other people see that and have permission to try things and toss it out. And so asking Liz to create is part of that and she’s usually game to try. And yes, there was one time where she said, “Could I just have a minute?”
The Winter’s Tale
Produced by Folger Theatre
closes April 22, 2018
Details and tickets
Do you think young people coming to see the play will enter into this play more readily because of the inclusion of music? And then maybe will they get turned onto the language – the poetry — and all the things that excite people who have been doing Shakespeare for years?
(There’s a long pause, then Aaron drawls hesitatingly)
Aaron: No…. Well, there is a lot of richness in this play. I love that a lot of Folger audiences bring their families to the shows. But do I think this play is the gateway drug to Shakespeare?
But there’s magic and romantic love and passions right? People of all ages would respond to that surely?
Aaron: There you are, exactly, and the music will provide accessibility. And it’s the size of the passions that will grab them, because when you’re in high school every love feels like that first love. And if someone betrays you, that person becomes the worst person ever, and you will never forgive them. The enduring part of Shakespeare feels like that kind of high-stakes love that we all went through in Junior High. I’m still fueled by that kind of head pounding — the ‘I can’t speak, I can’t think’ kind of love from my teens. That’s what every Shakespearean love story is. So Leonte’s crazy jealousy is not the typical response of a forty- or fifty-year old man. It’s not reasonable, and he’s not thinking, “I wonder if she betrayed me, I think we need to have a conversation. It’s more like “Aaaaah! I won’t survive this!”
Why do you think this play might particularly speak to our current circumstances?
Aaron: That’s the thing with Shakespeare, there always seem to be those lines that fly off the page and seem to speak to our current situation. The one that comes to mind from rehearsal the other day is Autolycus when he says, “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive.”
And don’t you think audiences in Washington particularly relish these moments when the mask of theater seems to drop, and everyone is aware that the truth has just been spoken? You almost want to weep or yell, “OMG we’re in the middle if it!”
Aaron: Yes, but more than lines, I think this play speaks to our need for hope. A lot of people think this is a world that is not going so well. I feel there is a profound need for hope and redemption in the world and the time to develop greater understanding and forgiveness then the twenty-four hour news cycle.
That is indeed worthwhile. And with that promise of hope, I look forward to the show.