Bedlam Theatre Company of New York City once again returns to DC, bringing their acclaimed, stripped-down production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at Folger Theatre. Audiences might remember when they brought their repertory productions of Hamlet and Saint Joan to Olney Theatre Center in 2013, and Bedlam Artistic Director Eric Tucker, directed his adaptation of Sense and Sensibility at the Folger in 2016. Since the run at Olney, their Saint Joan has gone on to play off-Broadway, McCarter Theatre in Princeton, and most recently, a national tour featuring an all new cast.
Two members of the touring cast, Aundria Brown and Sam Massaro, join two of the original cast members, Edmund Lewis and director Eric Tucker, in this production.
Sarah Scafidi spoke with Aundria “Dria” Brown about her experience playing Joan:
So, you were part of the tour of Hamlet/Saint Joan before this production?
Dria: I am the newest member with Bedlam. I auditioned for Saint Joan and Hamlet, the national tour back in November. We started rehearsals at the top of the New Year in January, and we had about three weeks to rehearse Saint Joan and Hamlet together. So, that’s about a week and a half each to rehearse the plays, which meant that we had to be off-book when we arrived the first day of rehearsal for two major plays smack dab in the middle of all the important holidays. November, December, and January were jam-packed. The tour was from February to late-May, and we traveled to some major cities and some really cool colleges. And then [this production at the Folger] is separate – not a part of the tour.
The tour cast was four totally new people to Hamlet/Joan?
Yes. It was Aubie Merrylees, Kahlil Garcia, Sam Massaro, who is also in the Folger’s production, and myself. Sam and I are in this new production with some of the original cast members for this Joan.
Right – with Eric Tucker and Edmund Lewis of the original cast.
What is it like having Eric as the director and a co-actor in a piece that you’ve already done?
It’s been amazing. I mean, Eric is a fantastic actor and an even more amazing director. He’s able to put on both hats at the same time, and then sometimes, he’ll step away from directing and just come full force into acting. He appreciates simple storytelling, and he appreciates keeping the stage and the costumes stripped down and bare. So, it’s just about the words, and there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s just been really pleasant to work with him and to have a new voice as Dunois and have a new voice as Robert de Baudricourt and to hear some things for the first time.
[At opening night,] a lot of people were telling me that I looked so much smaller on stage, and that’s the point of the show: the men are imposing their beliefs, and they just look like bigger men. The guy on the touring cast was not towering over me. So, that’s a different story.
closes June 10, 2018
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Eric just brings such a rawness and such fun to the rehearsal room and to the stage. He’s an amazing partner. He’s an amazing listener. I don’t see him as a director when I’m acting with him. I just see him. That was a big fear for me when taking the job: how am I going to be able to just relax and do my thing without feeling like a director’s eye is on me? But when we get onstage, and the words are there, I don’t look at him as a director. I just look at him as a friend, as a colleague, and as a partner in the scene, and he makes it really easy. So, it was not difficult from day one, which was surprising and also so, so pleasant. All of my anxiety just went away the first day.
When I saw the production at Access Theatre in New York, it was very stripped down and bare. Have they kept that same aesthetic or has it grown with a larger venue?
Same thing. It’s just as stripped down as it is everywhere else: regular plain clothes, no actual set pieces, just things kind of splayed around as if something’s in progress on the set that kind of looks like something is about to be built or something is coming down. So that’s the same.
Why do you think this play or this production of this play has had such success and such a long trajectory?
I think it’s just an inspiring piece of work, and it’s really timely. I think it’s a piece that will never die because of its timelessness. Everything that Joan is facing is very similar to the things that women are facing today. She refuses to conform to the gender roles and prejudices of her time, and we are alive and well in that time today. She’s a testament to faith and overcoming battles when all seems hopeless. It’s a testament also to the matriarchy being on the rise again. Each year, something develops in the progress of the woman. We’ve been so privy to really amazing women on the forefront of things even more so now.
I think there’s just something so powerful about someone who’s so fearless and someone who’s so steadfast in her beliefs and someone who’s consistently fighting against the patriarchy. The story is about faith and miracles and politics and all of these things that we can identify and resonate with now, particularly in our current political climate and our current climate on gender and the role that gender plays. There’s no denying it.
The way Eric does it, by making us look so plain and not making it a period piece (which I think allows the audience to sit back and enjoy it as a spectacle), but because everything’s so bare, the audience is forced to be just as much a part of the play as the actors are. And the point of view could be anybody’s. That’s the whole point: to really check the way that you view the world and to always question that and to always be curious about that. I think Saint Joan really leaves you feeling all of those things and wanting to examine all of them. I think that’s why it just keeps coming back. It’s on Broadway right now. There is a French film being made about it. This isn’t the first time that the Folger has produced Saint Joan. As mentioned, we just came off of a tour that was wildly requested. People just wanted to see it. It’s such a powerful message, and it’s a clear message. There’s nothing hidden. You don’t have to figure it out or do any work but listen, and it’s there.
Yeah, I read a quote from Shaw from his preface to the play:
There are no villains in the piece . . . It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.
When I saw it at Access Theatre, I was really struck by how true that rang and how much Eric let that come through in the production.
Absolutely. And that goes for Joan, too. She’s neither a villain nor a saint. In her eyes, she’s just someone who feels that they’ve been called to do something, and when you have conviction to that level, there’s no stopping your beliefs. Everybody firmly believes in something in this play, and you can identify with that. To believe is just such a human thing – believing so much in something that no one can take that away from you. No one can shake that. And you are seeing a roomful of people constantly debating and constantly checking their beliefs against each other – which is what we do all the time.
As a woman of color playing this role, do you think that brings something different to it? I mean it has to, right?
Yeah. I think it just does. And whatever all these people have been getting from it, has just been really beautiful. I guess the one that resonates with me the most is just representation – just being able to fill a role as a woman of color that has been cast predominantly white. It just feels right. There have been so many people who have come up to me who have been so proud that they are a person of color seeing someone who looks like them on stage. For other people, it’s really hard to see all of these men berating me and demeaning me and ultimately burning me at the stake. It’s tough for them to see a woman of color in that position because it is so potent now.
The [casting] just does what it does. As my dad says, “It just is what it is,” and it resonates I think with the audiences just a little bit more personally. They want to sit forward a little bit more to see where this is going to go. And we don’t point at it. We don’t make it a thing. We haven’t cut any words or cut any phrases. There’s just Shaw’s words and me. And it just works.
I was going to ask if you talked about it at all in rehearsal.
No. I mean, there is a lot of the usage of the word “girl” in the script as a jab and the word choice that Shaw used at the end, saying that Joan comes from “particularly good breeding” and that could read a little different from someone who is a person of color. But we made a point not to change any of those things because when you do, you’re just hiding the fact that you cast a woman of color. You’re making it stick, I think, for audiences, when you choose to just do the words. You tell the story in its entirety, and you let people get what they want from it. I think that’s what theater is: allowing people to feel what they feel based on what you’re putting on the table, showing them a piece of humanity – whatever they get from it, not what I’m forcing you to get from it. The responses have just been mind blowing. It’s been well received. And it feels really good to do it. It just feels right.
What do you love about this role or this production? What is your favorite thing?
I love following Joan’s arc from the beginning of the play. In my interpretation, I feel like she’s just wide-eyed and curious and self-confident and really feels called to do something. And that feels really good and really easy to do because of that self-confidence that Joan has. And then, you see how vulnerable she is when she’s put against the court, and you get a little glimpse of how emotionally available she has to be when she’s burned at the stake. So, it’s an actor’s dream to play Joan because there are so many pieces to her; she’s not a flat character. You can’t play her one as a one-dimensional, one-note character. You have to find out all the nuances. She’s not just strong and steadfast. She is 17.
I just watched Emma Gonzáles who’s leading all of those kids in high school against the NRA – how much of a rebel and how fearless she is, and yet how vulnerable she is, and how emotionally available she is. You see all of those different sides of her. She’s been my inspiration for this Joan. So, I’ve been watching her interviews and her speeches. She’s a force to be reckoned with. And so is Joan.
It’s just been an honor getting to ride the wave of everything that this play throws at you. It is an emotional relay. It’s a physically and spiritually taxing show. There are just so many layers, and it’s fun to be able to attack each one.
The connection to Emma Gonzáles is amazing. I didn’t think of that.
Yeah. I was like, “Wow.” We did it for a student matinee for high schoolers in Santa Monica, and we didn’t think that they were going to like the play because it is so stripped down. There’s nothing to keep their attention, and with kids that age, it has to be sparkly and glittery sometimes if they’re seeing a three hour show. But they were so in it. Shaw is heavy and dense, and it has a lot of words, and they were making connections, and they felt empowered. You could see them nodding their heads. It was quite fun to see.
Is there any other inspiration you’re pulling from? Did you do anything else to prepare for the role?
Joan’s whole life story is so well documented. I think my favorite thing in prepping for the role is probably reading the transcript of the trial. It’s maybe a hundred pages, but it’s straight from the trial, and you get to read all of the examinations and read Joan’s responses and see how witty she was, how she really got the better of her counsel at times. It was really interesting to read, and it was the catapult for the rest of my research, getting to see who this girl was in her own words. Seeing that Shaw didn’t add anything, it’s directly from the trial, was just mind blowing to me. So, I guess that was my favorite part.
I’m not leading anywhere with this question, but has there been any difference in audience reception as you performed throughout the country in the tour?
Every time there was just an amazing response. Which feels really good as an actor: to be in a show that people love and want to see. People genuinely are curious and really want to see this. They’ve heard of amazing things about it from the original cast, and they’re excited to see it being done again. There’s not a negative thing I could say about the response. That’s not the case all the time.
Is there anything else that you want to say about the Folger production or want D.C. audiences to know?
I think just come out and see it. It’s a treat. It’s a show that you don’t want to miss.