Power, Freedom, and Community: Thoughts on The Tempest from Marketing Assistant Andrew L. Ricci

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Several productions of The Tempest are set to open this summer, including our own production in Carroll Park. So what makes this Shakespeare play so relevant to 2016 audiences? The play deals with countless themes, but I want to focus on the relationship between power and freedom. Too frequently in this play, characters feel a sense of powerlessness towards things they cannot explain. As the audience though, we realize that all of these seemingly-inexplicable events stem from the hidden workings of Prospero’s magic.

If art reflects the current socio-political climate, then The Tempest is a perfect fit for what our community is dealing with. We have faced senseless acts of tragedy in recent times, and our power as individuals in times of crisis seems both fleeting and polarizing; there is no tangible middle ground. Thus we turn to art, to our community in order to set a precedent. We start small and hope that our changes will one day be reflected on a larger scale.

The current influx of gender-bent Shakespeare productions has been received with acceptance and encouragement. Not a week ago I found myself in line at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park and began talking to a couple in front of me about Smith Street Stage’s production of The Tempest. I told the couple that our Prospero is played by the incredibly talented Kate Ross as a strong-willed, powerful woman. We began talking about how appropriate it is to have Prospero be played by a woman, particularly if we take Prospero as a physical extension of mother nature. A female Prospero serves to acknowledge that women have just as much power as men. When she affirms her identity as the most powerful figure in the play, within the hermetic environment of the island, she uses her power to reprimand those who have done her wrong. However, like anyone with power, her individual ambitions push aside those of the community. Thus when Prospero relinquishes power over the island-dwellers, she allows change to occur by allowing many voices to be heard, by giving others power, and by choosing selflessness amidst a series of reaffirmations of selfhood.

I spoke with our director, Beth Ann Hopkins, about her choice to cast Prospero as a woman, and the challenges inherent to cross-gender casting.  “You never really know what kind of challenges changing gender will do until you are in the weeds with the words and actors cast,” she explained. “Once you are there and the crew is assembled, it’s more a question of, ‘What do we change the word ‘Sir’ to? Is ‘Mom’ or ‘Mother’ too intimate? Can we still call her ‘Lord’ or ‘King’? In our production, I very much wanted to create a world where gender doesn’t affect rank.  A woman servant can be a butler, and also strive to be a King.  Prospero can be a Duke, even though she’s a woman. New world rules, old world costumes. Once we established how to play the game of this new world, things started to fall into place and really empower the women we cast, which can only be topped by watching other females, especially the younger generation, watch our Tempest. I’m trying to create a new narrative for women in these classic stories, one where women aren’t always the victim, or the lover. Sometimes we get drunk, sometimes we get greedy with power and try to kill our brother, and sometimes, we have magic and can bend the entire storyline to our will.”

We are not the only company this summer who have explored the possibilities engendered in the cross-gender casting of The Tempest.  Recently, a production of The Tempest ran in Central Park, which gained notoriety for its all-female cast and heavy use of nudity. In conversation with directors Alice Mottola and Pitr Strait, I asked why The Tempest is an appropriate choice for modern audiences.

“The spine we chose for our production was ‘to gain the freedom to be myself,’ and we were amazed to discover that this became the journey not only of the characters, but some of our actors as well.” Mottola said.

This “spine” is something that countless communities are struggling to fully realize or feel safe doing.  My hope is that when people see these productions of The Tempest, a play that deals with the relationship between power and freedom, between the individual and community, they leave inspired, ready to be that person they so desire, all the while not putting their self-interest above that of the community.

By Andrew L. Ricci

Acknowledgements to Beth Ann Hopkins, Alice Mottola, Pitr Strait and Dylan Arredondo for thought-provoking conversations.

 

Theatre and Humanity: A note from Executive Director Jonathan Hopkins

SSS Henry IV - Part 2 - 9686It seems every generation faces a version of the same story: a conflict in which the marginalized are emboldened to address injustice and, to put it simply, have their humanity acknowledged. This movement provokes an inevitable backlash as people rush to defend the status quo, often with vigor and even vitriol. In all its social and political complexities, the struggle to me centers on a fundamental question: who deserves our regard and sympathy?

Against the temptations of selfishness and apathy, we are forced to examine how to bestow greater respect for the humanity of others, and how to contribute meaningfully to that progress. I believe, firmly, in the power of theater to help, and I believe it happens in several ways.

Actors are trained to approach characters without judgment, to explore them with sensitivity and sympathy. The very act of making theater begins by bridging differences with curiosity and openness. In building a play, the actor constantly reinforces that those who may be different, even vastly different, are nevertheless relatable and deserving of our care.

If the artists are earnest and diligent in their work, the production will present a world with complexity and nuance in which easy answers are scarce. Characters are confronted with impossible choices and pushed beyond their ken. As we, the audience, witness the story, we imagine how we ourselves might act in the face of such circumstances. In doing so, our empathy stretches, our sense of the possible heightens, and our capacity for compassion strengthens. The distance narrows between us and the other.

Lastly, theater is inescapably communal. We watch, aware that as we sit among a diverse group of strangers with manifold differences, we share an experience. The theater literally brings people together. More so, it confronts us with the riddles of human struggle. Our answers, with our sympathies, may differ, but we are nevertheless aware that we have all been posed the same questions. The very relevance of those questions to us all testifies to our inherent companionship in the shared human experience and, I believe, a recognition in the humanity and value of everyone.

It is in this spirit that Smith Street Stage endeavors to create the best quality and most impactful art we are capable of.

Jonathan Hopkins
Executive Director – Smith Street Stage

“Theatrical Cross Fit” – An interview with cast member Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy

Shaun B Fauntleroy Headshot

With rehearsals underway for The Tempest, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.

Our next interview is with Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy, making her Smith Street Stage debut in the role of Sebastian.


How did you get into theatre, and acting in particular?
My mother worked nights and I was an only child so I’d often have hours alone to entertain myself. One night when I was around six or seven years old, I was pretending to be a peasant girl who had caught the eye of a wicked king. I refused to marry him because I was in love with a peasant boy, so the king had me imprisoned. The “prison cell” was the dryer and I crawled into, then would distract the guards somehow and crawl out. I rehearsed it over and over and one time the guard was a bit too enthusiastic and I found myself accidentally locked in the dryer for about three hours. I eventually managed to break out and went humbly to bed, but an actor had been born. I entered regional drama competitions in school (I won in comedy) and later transferred to our town’s performing arts high school. After graduation I moved to New York to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and the rest is, as they say, history.
Most of your acting history has been in contemporary theatre.  Are you excited to be changing things up with a switch to classical theatre? Is there anything that appeals to you about Shakespeare in particular?
I’m thrilled to be making a switch to classical theatre and am honored to be in this production! I haven’t done Shakespeare in a long while, so this is exactly where I want to be. What I love most about his words are that they go straight to your heart, and if you say them as they’re written they carry you along on this beautiful, emotional journey. I’m also grateful for the tremendous focus and stamina that this type of work requires. It’s a bit like theatrical Cross Fit.
This is your first show with Smith Street Stage. How did you get involved with the company and this production?  Is this your first experience doing theatre outside, and what do you think the challenges or advantages of performing in an outdoor venue will be?
Several years ago, director Beth Ann Hopkins and I were cast as a couple of biker chicks who were trying to make sense of love. We’ve kept in touch over the years and when she invited me to audition for The Tempest I jumped at the chance. I’m so glad I did because she’s a dream to work with. She’s so sharp, endlessly prepared, and has such great respect for actors and the work of bringing a play to life. As far as working outdoors, about five or six years ago I was in Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’s production of Measure for Measure where we performed in a parking lot in the Lower East Side. What I love about doing Shakespeare outdoors is the close proximity of the audience. They’re right there with you and you’re able to go up to them or interact with them. I love that. It really feels like we’re all in it together.
How are you approaching the role of Sebastian in this production of The Tempest? Are you approaching the role at all differently because the character is traditionally male?
It’s interesting…we’re presenting Sebastian as female, though very much of her persona is male. She’s a bit like Yara/Asha Greyjoy [from “Game of Thrones”] in that respect. Our Sebastian is allowed to ignore traditional gender roles (perhaps my father wanted a boy) and I’ve approached her with that in mind. Also, any time I get to handle a sword is gravy on gravy.
Are there any other non-traditional roles, Shakespearean or otherwise, that you would like to play?
Hotspur. Definitely. I’d also love to get my hands on Richard III.
Are there any actors, directors, or other artists who have been a particular influence on you or whose work you admire?
12 years ago I saw Ritchie Coster in Gary Mitchell’s play Trust at Theatre Row, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him for the entire play. It was like watching a live, wild animal on stage. I stole things from his performance that I still use when I play someone that inspires fear or respect in others. Kevin T. Carroll in Seven Guitars taught me that sometimes a person/character is at their strongest when they’re simply letting their heart be seen and embracing the pain and uncertainty of love. Good Lord that was beautiful. Mark Rylance in Jerusalem (I saw it three times) demonstrated how an artist’s specificity and open humanity can steal an audience’s breath away. Each time I saw it, it was the same man on a very different day, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like to work with him in that show (#envious). Kathleen Chalfant in Red Dog Howls (I saw that twice) demonstrated fearlessness and truth in ways that still stop my heart when I think of it. She’s such an incredibly confident actor — she just shows up and does the work. There are many more, but these four people have all illuminated the craft in ways that changed me profoundly as a person and have raised my bar as an artist. Still trying to reach it.

“There’s Nothing Quite Like Outdoor Shakespeare” – An interview with cast member Joe Jung

JJ Headshot 2015 pdfWith rehearsals underway for The Tempest, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.

Our next interview is with Joe Jung making his Smith Street Stage debut in the role of Antonio.


 

How did you get into theatre, and acting in particular?

When I was in grade school, I saw my sister in her high school production of Dracula.  I was fascinated by the guy who played Renfield, how he screamed and writhed and lived so completely in this crazy world of his own.  That was an inspiring moment.  I was a shy kid – I loved fantasy movies like Ladyhawke and Enemy Mine – and my brother and I would recite whole movies on car rides – Biloxi Blues was one of our favorites.  Then in high school I started acting in the school plays.  I attended two sessions of Western Michigan University’s summer theater camp and fell in love with the training process, especially the physical aspects of character and energy building.  The constant process of honing the craft, the process of performing, is exhilarating and continuously fascinating to me.

Most of your acting history has been in contemporary theatre.  Are you excited to be changing things up with a switch to classical theatre? Is there anything that appeals to you about Shakespeare in particular?

Actually, a lot of my training was in classical theater.  I spent two years with a company deconstructing Macbeth, finally putting on an environmental production of it in an abandoned bowling alley.  The next summer, I played Mackers in an outdoor production.  I did quite a bit of Shakespeare and attending grad school at the University of Connecticut where the emphasis was on Suzuki Actor Training which tends to be rooted in classical text.  Professionally, I’ve been working a bit more in folk/rock musicals and contemporary shows, but I definitely use my training with classical texts as the root for whatever I happen to be working on.  I’m excited about getting back to my roots.  I love the energy that goes into performing Shakespeare, especially The Tempest, which may be my favorite show of the Bard.  I dig the magical, fantastical world – the power of nature, the quest for redemption and the interconnectedness of life – it’s Shakespeare at his best.

This is your first show with Smith Street Stage. How did you get involved with the company and this production?  Is this your first experience doing theatre outside, and what do you think the challenges or advantages of performing in an outdoor venue will be?

I’ve known [Artistic Director] Beth Ann Hopkins for a decade.  We’ve trained together and speak the same language when it comes to theater.  She and Jonathan [Hopkins, Executive Director] have both acted in shows with my company, Project: Theater and I’m thrilled to finally have the opportunity to act with their company in Carroll Park. I auditioned like everyone else, though not for the part I ended up getting. Antonio was a lovely surprise.  I have done outdoor Shakespeare – there’s nothing quite like it.  Acting outside demands deeper level of focus, vocal power, physical energy, and audience awareness.  You’ve got birds, and kids, and ice cream trucks, and sirens and there is no hiding.  You’re in the park and you get to play.

How are you approaching the role of Antonio?

I start with the text.  What does he say?  What does he do?  What I’m discovering in rehearsal is how alone Antonio is.  He admits that he has no conscience.  He does not personally connect with anyone.  Where his brother finds communion with nature and other people, Antonio withdraws into his own socially unacceptable thoughts and plots.  He’s nearly silent for the last two acts of the play.  While everyone else atones, Antonio is silent.  That’s odd for a Shakespearean character, but silence can say a lot about a person.

Smith Street Stage does a lot of non-traditional casting.  What non-traditional role, Shakespearean or otherwise, would you like to play?

Cleopatra, Constance in King John, Cassandra in The Trojan Women, Sonya in Uncle Vanya.  I always wanted to play Romeo, but I’m too old and not nearly good looking enough.

Are there any actors, directors, or other artists who have been a particular influence on you or whose work you admire?

Cate Blanchett is my hero, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Waits, Shel Silverstein. Though the more I act, the more I am inspired by the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with:  Chris Sullivan, Carmen Cusack, KJ Sanchez, Alex Timbers, my wife Jessi Blue, Beth Ann and Jonathan, artists who have spent a long time building their craft, challenging themselves, constantly improving, testing their creativity, helping others get a foot in the door, and staying in the game no matter how challenging it gets.  The theater community is a truly inspiring place.

From Troubled Young Men to Romantic Heroes: An interview with cast member John Hardin

John Hardin Headshot

With rehearsals underway for The Tempest, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.

Our next interview is with John Hardin, making his Smith Street Stage debut in the role of Ferdinand.


How did you get into theatre, and acting in particular? 

The thing I most remember is being in middle school, and my mother was trying to get me into the idea of going to a private high school a couple of miles away instead of public school. So she took me to see West Side Story at this high school. And it was really good. I mean, it helps that I had never seen the show before, and there’s nothing like your first time seeing a really good show. I was just completely floored by these high school kids doing this musical. I remember that as being one of the times I was first really excited about the idea of being in a show.

And I kind of took off from there. In high school, I got really excited about doing Shakespeare. I saw the movie Dead Poets Society and in that, Robert Sean Leonard’s character is playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and so that got me really excited. And then of course my high school did A Midsummer Night’s Dream my freshman year… and I didn’t get cast. So it became this challenge for me, seeing if I could get in. I basically worked my way up, until junior year I got cast in the play. And it just kind of went from there. I wasn’t even going to apply to acting school, but I had a teacher tell me that I should. The whole thing just kind of fell together that way, pretty late.

 You’ve worked on a mix of Shakespeare and contemporary theatre. Is there anything in particular you like about working on Shakespeare? 

The language is always what brings me back. There’s something about the clarity of expression and the beautiful ideas, and saying them in a beautiful way. I’ve always been a good student, and I think the vocabulary, and moments of “Oh, I know what that means!” and the ability to be very knowledgeable always appealed to me about classical work. It’s like a puzzle to figure out, more than contemporary stuff. I like doing contemporary stuff too, but Shakespeare’s always going to be my first love. And then, you know, playing with swords. Who doesn’t like swashbuckling?

This is your first show with Smith Street Stage. How did you get involved with the company and this production?

I was a little bit aware of them because I went to Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and so there are a number of people that I knew through Adler that had worked with them before. Kate Eastman [who is playing Stephano] is a really good friend of mine, and I knew that she was really enthusiastic about working with them. I’m really excited to work with her – although we’re not really sharing any stage time at all in the show. So that was always an endorsement of Smith Street Stage, that there were people I really respected that were involved.Pete McElligott and Joby Earle were two other people who were ahead of me, actors whose work I really respected who were working with the company. So I knew this was a company with chops and credibility. And I just kept auditioning for them, and frankly I think it’s no coincidence that I got cast this year because my work has really taken a nice step forward lately. So it felt like kind of an endorsement, that people I’ve auditioned for several times, that I finally sort of attracted their attention.

How are you approaching the role of Ferdinand in this production of The Tempest? 

I play a lot of villains and a lot of troubled young men, like Hotspur and Hamlet and even Caliban. So this is quite a significant departure for me. I think the biggest thing I’m trying to work on is not trying to get too bland and earnest. It’s really easy with high romantic language and all these big feelings, especially when you’re used to playing more complicated, troubled characters, to start going to this place of, “oh, he’s different, he’s simple, he means everything he says in this really earnest way.” And that just ends up being so boring. So I’m trying to remind myself that Ferdinand is a human being like anyone else, that he’s a goofball, he makes mistakes. He doesn’t have to be this romantic ideal. Because that’s not me. So, just trying to make sure that I stay true to my own sensibility and myself in the role, while still getting at some genuine romantic feeling and hopefully making something really exciting happen on stage with Raquel [Chavez, who plays Miranda].

Smith Street Stage does a lot of non-traditional casting. What non-traditional role, Shakespearean or otherwise, would you like to play?

I’ve actually played Queen Isabel, the queen in Richard II. Which was a really interesting challenge. It was not a role that you could do by doing the traditional man-in-drag joke. I had to do something much closer to an original practice idea, and try and get at the real truth of a man playing a woman. So that was a really fun challenge and I really enjoyed it. I would love to do more of that kind of work, particularly with strong female roles, like Elizabeth in Richard III, for example, or even something like Rosalind in As You Like It. If I were going to take that on again, I would want a little more support in terms of- the men that played women in Shakespeare’s time had a lot of makeup and wigs, but the company I played Isabel for didn’t have any of that stuff. And I think if I were going to try and play a woman again, I would like a little more help to create some kind of illusion, rather than feeling like I’m a man standing up there trying to convince everybody that I’m a woman.

Are there any actors, directors, or other artists who have been a particular influence on you or whose work you admire?

I’m a huge fan of Ian McKellen. I think that Ian McKellen is one of the most incredible Shakespeare actors. I saw him and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot – I saw it twice. It was just so good, so clear, such a powerful instrument. And still playful. It was just wonderful. And as far as American actors, I’m a big fan of Kevin Kline and Kevin Spacey. All the Kevins! Kevin Bacon, even. These guys have worked in a lot of film, but are definitely able to pull out the classical material when the time comes. And even moreso Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, because they’re even closer to what I aspire to; they’re actually classical actors at their heart and they’ve been lucky enough to end up doing film.

Playing the Castaway Servant: An interview with Cast Member Kate Eastman

Kate Eastman Headshot

With rehearsals underway for The Tempest, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.

Our next interview is with Kate Eastman, returning to Smith Street Stage to play Stephano in The Tempest.


How did you get into theatre, and acting in particular?

I think I got into it because I liked the attention and stayed in it because in order to act well you really have to make peace with yourself. It has helped and continues to help me accept myself for who I am.

You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. What is it about classical theatre, and Shakespeare in particular, that attracts you as an artist?

I like how big the stories are in Shakespeare. Everything is life or death. And no cell phones.

You last worked with Smith Street Stage in 2012, playing Olivia in Twelfth Night.  What was that experience like?

It was a difficult year, and a difficult moment in that year. I got fired from my restaurant job when we were in tech, and I remember how kind everyone was about that and in general. I met one of my closest friends. I had a fat crush on one of the other actors, and we would drink beers and eat hot dogs at Gowanus Yacht Club after the shows and I would just stare at him and laugh really loudly at his jokes. There was a pair of little girls – sisters – who lived in Carroll Gardens, and they saw the show FIVE times. After every show they would tell me which part they liked best, and it was always different.

That year wound up being transformative in its difficulty – I broke up with my first serious boyfriend and applied to Juilliard and basically got the ball rolling on the rest of my life. Before I got cast in Twelfth Night I was thinking about quitting. But then I got to play Olivia, and I got to play her using all the things I felt – frustrated, bratty, impatient, headstrong. I got permission to keep going thanks to these lovely, passionate people. I’ll be grateful for that for the rest of my life.

How are you approaching the role of Stephano in this production of The Tempest? Is your approach different because the role is traditionally male?

Stephano is drinking for the entire play. My dream is to just be a female Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I. I’m not really thinking about gender as much as I’m thinking about Stephano’s circumstances. I’ve been a servant my whole life, and then suddenly I am alone on an island with nothing but a barrel of wine. That’s bleak. But then I’m not alone – my friend is here! And this strange dog-faced fish-person! And suddenly, with companionship, the island becomes this place where the rest of our lives never mattered, where I can reorder the hierarchy as I please. I can be king. My ego can finally explode and run the show. Also, I’m drunk!

Are there any other non-traditional roles, Shakespearean or otherwise, that you would like to play?

I would love to play Richard II.

Are there any actors, directors, or other artists who have been a particular influence on you or whose work you admire?

Colleen Dewhurst, Richard Feldman, Vivienne Benesch, Debra Monk.

Playing the Eternal Optimist: An interview with cast member Corey Whelihan

Corey Whelihan Headshot

With rehearsals underway for The Tempest, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.

Our next interview is with Corey Whelihan, who has recently appeared in Smith Street Stage’s Much Ado About Nothing and Christmas Carol: A Radio Play. This summer, he is playing the role of Gonzalo.


How did you get into theatre, and acting in particular?
Both my parents were actors, so I kind of grew up in the theater. I would often come to rehearsals with one or both parents when they couldn’t get a babysitter. My first show was with my dad when I was four years old. I guess my going in to theater was sort of inevitable.
You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. What is it about classical theatre, and Shakespeare in particular, that attracts you as an artist?
I love the language of Shakespeare as well as its adaptability. For being over 400 years old, his works continue to be so relevant and applicable to our modern world. There is always new ground to break with it and there are few other other works that have stood the test of time as well. While everyone is familiar with Shakespeare, you can still see new productions of his plays and be surprised.

Your last production with Smith Street Stage was Much Ado About Nothing in 2014. What brings you back to the group this year?  What did you learn last time about performing outside, and are you excited (or nervous) to do it again?
I am so happy to be back working with Smith Street this year. Every time I get the opportunity to work with them, I know I am also getting an opportunity to collaborate with a dynamic and talented group of artists on one of the greatest plays ever written. Performing outdoors is a real treat as well as a challenge. Vocally it can be difficult, but there is something very organic and special about performing outdoors. The fourth wall is broken in a way that being on a proscenium stage with all the lights out just can’t quite replicate. The audience really becomes a part of the world of the play.

How are you approaching the role of Gonzalo in this production of The Tempest?
I see Gonzalo as the eternal optimist. He is the first of those shipwrecked to recognize that something miraculous is happening and he looks to make the best out of even the most dire situation. He is also I think the moral center of the play. While every other character behaves somewhat questionably at times, Gonzalo’s sense of Right seems constant throughout and is held as the standard by which the other members of the court (and thereby society at large) are held to.
Smith Street Stage does a lot of non-traditional casting.  What non-traditional role, Shakespearean or otherwise, would you like to play?
I would love to play the Witch in Into the Woods.

A Decade of Shakespeare: An interview with cast member Patrick Harvey

PatrickHarveyHeadshot2016.jpgWith rehearsals underway for The Tempest, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.

Our next interview is with Patrick Harvey, who moves from his role behind the scenes (as assistant director of last year’s Henry IV) to the spotlight, in the role of Caliban in The Tempest.


How did you get into theatre, and acting in particular?
When I was in eighth grade, I played the Prince in my grade school’s production of Cinderella, and as clichéd as it sounds, I was hooked. I began acting in plays and musicals in high school, and over the following four years it was really all I was interested in doing. Since moving to New York from my hometown of Seattle, I’ve had the opportunity to work in theatre in different respects (from assistant directing and producing with Smith Street Stage to lighting design and carpentry at NYU), but at the end of the day all I’ve wanted to do is act.
You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and other classical theatre. What is it about classical theatre that attracts you as an artist?
I just realized it’s been ten years since I was in my first Shakespeare play, as a matter of fact. I played Bottom in an outdoor Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school one summer. I think what draws me to performing Shakespearean and other classical plays is how relatable their characters are, and how their language speaks so specifically and  completely to the breadth of the human experience. In colonial America, it’s said, a household was expected to have a copy of the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and I think the compassion Shakespeare expresses for every character he writes speaks to the lesson people the world over can learn from his plays.
This will be your fifth show with Smith Street Stage. How did you first get involved in the company, and why do you keep coming back?
Smith Street Stage was the first theatre company that employed me after I finished training. I was cast as one of the Weird Sisters in their 2011 production of Macbeth, and had such a great time working in Carroll Park doing Shakespeare that I’ve been back in some capacity every year since. Performing in Carroll Park and working with such a talented company is what keeps me coming back, and to be honest, I can’t imagine my summer without it. It’s like Coney Island and Central Park.
Your character, Caliban, is not entirely human (or at least, the script suggests so).  How do you approach a character that is so different in this way?
I began working on Caliban by figuring out his voice. The script tells us that he learned how to speak from Miranda, and that he has recently been reduced to a slave. So, my approach has been to explore themes of innocence of knowledge and betrayal of trust, and to imagine how a being with an elementary grasp of English expresses anger and betrayal. From there, I’ve been working a lot with Beth Ann Hopkins, our director, to form a movement vocabulary that fits in with the production’s overall design. Beth Ann wanted to use the inherent beauty of Carroll Park in our production design, so my costume will be a big part of my character’s body language and movement. I’m very excited to bring what we’ve been rehearsing to Carroll Park next month, and look forward to seeing you there!
Smith Street Stage does a lot of non-traditional casting.  What non-traditional role, Shakespearean or otherwise, would you like to play?
Since I started out in musical theatre, I’d be lying if I didn’t say my dream is to sing Collins in Rent. But if that isn’t to be, I think I’d have some fun as Emilia in Othello or Rosalind in As You Like It.
Are there any actors, directors, or other artists who have been a particular influence on you or whose work you admire?
I’ll see anything Mark Rylance does, ever; I’ve been very fortunate to work with Laura Benanti, who is one of the funniest and most generous performers anywhere; and lastly, if Smith Street could get Ivo Van Hove to direct a tragedy in the park, I’d die to be in that production.

Embracing the Imagination of Shakespeare: An interview with cast member Raquel Chavez

Raquel Chavez - Headshot

With rehearsals underway for The Tempest, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.

Our next interview is with Raquel Chavez, making her Smith Street Stage debut in the role of Miranda.


How did you get into theatre, and acting in particular?

When I was little, I was in a children’s theater production of Rumpelstiltskin, as the imp himself. I wore scruffed-up pointy shoes, had an empathy pregnancy belly strapped onto my back as a hump, and became a champion cackler. It was a tumbling introduction to a world that pivoted on an axis of silliness, make-believe, and a collaborative commitment to full-throttle mischief. And people actually applauded at the finish! Every experience after that became a chase for that same endorphin rush. It wasn’t until high school when I learned about technical “acting” concepts that I got a glimmer of how hard all this stuff really is.  As a kid you can approach this kind of storytelling with abandon, free of self-doubt, without any diminution to your child-driven imagination from analysis and critical thought. Now the goal is synching the formal concepts I’ve learned with that original love of just pretending.

You’ve worked a lot in both classical and contemporary theatre. Do you have a preference between the two? Are there any big differences between the two for you as an actor?

The umbrella of contemporary theater is so encompassing that every time you pick up a script you’re offered a new diversified set of challenges. You try to locate yourself to the proper tone and appear truthful and honest within the role. Playing the role of a 23-year-old fumbling college grad is different than the introspection required of playing Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. But with Shakespeare, there’s the age and beauty of the language combined with the intense drama of the narrative. It gifts the actor with a certain sense of safety to explore their own capabilities and range: a range which goes not wider but deeper.  The choices you have to justify can be so profound and unbelievable that it requires you to jump into a place of wonder, mischief, and danger almost immediately.

This is your first show with Smith Street Stage. How did you get involved with the company and this production? Are you excited to be performing outdoors?

I got involved with Smith Street Stage through Maddie Barasch, a director and producer of the company. I was in a contemporary theater piece that she directed a couple years ago set in Bronx in the 1990s. This new project is, of course, a completely different production and a completely different experience, but coincidently both stories have intense parent-daughter relationship dynamics to explore. I’m also super excited to be performing outdoors. In college I had a wonderful experience performing The Tempest outdoors under a night sky in the blue light of the moon. Those conditions served the story terrifically: we actually performed it through a torrential downpour which boded very well for anyone who might have happened to remember bring an umbrella. The outdoor experience taps into a very particular Shakespearean theater magic that can be immersive and entrancing.

Your character, Miranda, has spent her whole life on an isolated island, with no connection to the outside world. How does this affect the way you approach the character?

Discerning what Miranda has really seen in her life, what she might remember about her past in Milan, what she imagines through the stories that Prospero has told her or what she has learned from the limited amount of books from her island existence—all this is tricky to unpack. What guided me was finding Miranda’s essence through her enormous capacity for empathy and compassion, which I believe derives from the tremendous scope of her imagination. She has “suffered” with those she sees suffer in the torments of the shipwreck at the start of the play, and she falls profoundly in love with Ferdinand through her pity for his misfortune and grief. Her imagination and the island itself are some of her only friends. With them she must construct her only reality. She is naive but she is curious and has a very strong sense of self.

Smith Street Stage does a lot of non-traditional casting.  What non-traditional role, Shakespearean or otherwise, would you like to play?

Somewhere down the line, I would love to play Richard III. It would be a challenge but unbearably fun to explore the depths of power-hungry, satanic masculinity. Richard has emotional fortressed himself with a Trumpian sense of entitlement coupled with a supreme lack of empathy, love, and fear. For me, experiencing through acting those dimensions of power could be useful in learning to dismantle and understand the issues of colonialist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchy—wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Are there any actors, directors, or other artists who have been a particular influence on you or whose work you admire?

I love Julie Taymor’s work. I admire the vibrancy, inclusiveness and breadth of her imagination. Her film version of The Tempest could have been enormously enhanced if only it had been set on the stage, although I’m sure that the actor chosen to play Ariel would have to have been fearless (with really good health insurance).

The Essential Nature of Classical Theatre: An interview with cast member Peter Molesworth

Peter Molesworth Headshot.jpgWith rehearsals underway for The Tempest, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.

Our next interview is with Peter Molesworth, making his Smith Street Stage debut in the role of Ariel.


How did you get into theatre, and acting in particular?
Well, I come from a Jewish-Italian family, so I have a feeling that was a contributing factor in developing my flair for drama… Around kindergarten, I began my dabbling in various art forms: ballet, violin, guitar, clarinet, piano… I finally settled on acting because it tricked me into thinking it was the art form that took the least amount of practice. I was wrong, of course. I’ve heard actors call acting a vocation– and though I do feel it beckons me back whenever I consider dropping it and doing something else, it is a tough road that requires I wake up every morning and mindfully choose to continue on. I’ve always liked telling stories, so no matter what, I have a feeling I’ll be doing that in some capacity.
You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and other classical theatre. What is it about classical theatre that attracts you as an artist?
Honestly, it’s sort of happenstance that I’ve been involved in mostly classical theatre. I did grow up around it since my Nonna taught Shakespeare and Chaucer, and would tell my brother and I tales from Greek mythology. So I certainly enjoy it, but it was also a large focus of my training with Jim Calder and, of course, my faculty at the Stella Adler Studio. Classical theatre feels very essential to me. Essentially theatrical, essentially human… When we perform it today, it takes advantage of the theatre as a space that the public comes to for a unique experience. It is not film or television that mimics our contemporary times, it is not consumed privately– it demands heightened language and bodies in space with you. I have had very profound experiences as an audience member watching classical material. I love watching and performing in theatre that exploits the actor’s capacities: classical material offers this challenge. If I could be more apart of contemporary theatre, it would be working on plays like Branden Jacob Jenkins’ An Octoroon. Theatre that is undeniably and (sorry to use the word again) essentially theatrical.
This is your first show with Smith Street Stage. How did you get involved with the company and this production?  Is this your first experience doing theatre outside, and what do you think the challenges or advantages of performing in an outdoor venue will be?
I studied with Jonathan Hopkins and was very excited to audition for Smith Street Stage for the first time this summer. I’m thrilled they have invited me to join their company for this show: they are such good people and I feel so fortunate to be working with them.
I’ve worked in outdoor theatre spaces before, but never in New York. Being heard and understood will be the first challenge of many, I expect. Yet I imagine there will be great freedom in all of the open air, and it will require us all to make large and committed proposals.
Smith Street Stage does a lot of non-traditional casting.  What non-traditional role, Shakespearean or otherwise, would you like to play? 
This list could be endless so I’ll stick with Shakespeare: Juliet and Olivia (and maybe Lady Hotspur).
Are there any actors, directors, or other artists who have been a particular influence on you or whose work you admire?
Jim Calder’s work has had a profound influence on me. As for actors, the list is endless: the greats like Ms. Streep and Mr. Rylance, and to name just a few others: André Holland, Florencia Lozano, Pascale Armand, Billy Crudup, Sarah Paulson, Maria Cassi…
Your character, Ariel, is part of the island’s magic.  The character can change form – and sometimes gender – and in some ways is more fairy than human. How does this affect the way you approach the character? 
I’m answering this question amidst this process’ infancy, so at this point, all I can really say is that Ariel’s gender seems unimportant to me. I’m not thinking about it too much right now… I find Ariel’s spirit and magic-nature to be vibrant and youthful, so I’m following that impulse and seeing where it leads. Also, I note that the magic of this island feels different from magic in his other magical plays, like Midsummer— in Tempest, they are referred to as sprites rather than fairies. Both Sprite and Fairy evoke different images, at least to me, so I’m attentive to that feature of the play. And for now, I’ll leave the magic to mystery.