The Villain Protagonist, in Richard III and Beyond

Richard III is one of the most classic examples of a fictional work that features a villain as its main character.  In this guest blog entry, Smith Street Stage assistant Jeremy Harris explains the impact Shakespeare’s writing has had on modern villain protagonists like those in “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad,” and takes a look at how artistic ideas change and grow over time.

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“You can study Shakespeare, and never know everything there is to know.” – An interview with cast member Jane May

With rehearsals underway, 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 Jane May, who hails from Spokane, WA and recently received her Masters Degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She is making her Smith Street Stage debut in the roles of King Henry IV and Hostess Quickly.

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How did you get into theatre and acting?

I’ve been an actor since I was eight years old. I got my degree at Santa Clara University in theatre and dance. I’ve just been doing it forever. I tried a couple times to not do it, but I just kept coming back to it. I love it; it’s just a part of who I am as a person. I was in Seattle after I graduated and I did a lot of professional theatre there and got my chops a little bit, and got used to doing theatre more and more professionally. And at a certain point I just decided that the place to really be is New York. So I ended up here about four years ago.

And how did you get involved with Smith Street Stage? This is your first show with the group, right?

It is. I know Joby, the director, through my husband. They did a cool Three Sisters together. I met Joby and his wife through that, and I had heard about Smith Street Stage, although I’d never seen anything by them. So I decided I’d put my name in the hat.

In this production, you’re playing two characters of different genders. How are you planning to approach that? And what do you think of the decision to do gender-blind casting?

I think it’s great. I love it. I actually received my Master’s Degree in classical acting in 2014 from LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. My thesis was that I worked with two other women, specifically about this stuff, about gender-neutral casting. The three of us came to it from three different places, but we were all playing the same character – Flamineo in John Webster’s The White Devil. One woman really wanted to focus on trying to become very man-like, and wanted her character to be believably male, and what that entailed. The other woman wanted to approach it as if Flamineo was turned into a woman, so the character was actually a woman. And I approached it as, ok, what happens if I take gender out of the equation and I just play a character. Is that even possible? Can you play a character without all of the things pertaining to gender? So the fact that I’m now doing this is wonderful because I’m getting to apply a lot of what I learned in my thesis directly to serious text work. It’s right up my alley.

You picked a classical acting program for your Master’s. Are you particularly drawn to classical theatre, and Shakespeare in particular? And are there any particular things that are exciting or challenging about performing Shakespeare?

I love Shakespeare. I’m very drawn to him; I always have been. I love classical theatre. Shakespeare just wrote humans so well, thorough, complex human beings in such a beautiful way. There’s a reason – I don’t know what it is – but there’s a reason that he’s a four-hundred-year-old playwright that’s still being produced massively, everywhere. I specifically wanted to train for classical theatre, that is definitely what I wanted to do. It’s interesting – I wanted to train that way because I didn’t foresee myself doing too much of it in the future, in a weird way, because I wanted to focus on other aspects of being an actor and I thought, I’m going to give myself the gift of going to school for a year and just doing this. But since I’ve been back, I’ve already been cast in two classical productions so maybe that’s actually what I’m going to be doing, which is fantastic, because I think it’s wonderful and I really take to it. I love that you can study Shakespeare, and you can do tablework and perform it and you can still never know everything there is to know.

Are there any actors or directors who have been a particular influence on you?

Everyone I’ve ever met who’s an artist has had an influence on me. I’m constantly inspired. There’s a lot of bad theatre, but there’s a lot of really good theatre, and it’s always inspiring to want to keep making it. There’s lots of people I’d like to work with and lots of people I have worked with that I’ve admired. I’m really looking forward to working with Joby, frankly, I think he’s really smart. Just the little bit of time I spent in the rehearsal room during callbacks, I was really excited and really jazzed and inspired. The people who have influenced my acting the most recently have certainly been my tutors at LAMDA, and my classmates as well were really brave and inspiring. I think that there are a million wonderful theatre makers in New York City and around the world.

“It’s about time for gender-blind casting.” – An interview with cast member and Artistic Director Beth Ann Hopkins.

With rehearsals underway, 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 Artistic Director Beth Ann Hopkins, who will be playing the roles of Bardolph, Douglas, and Warwick.

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Can you tell me about how you got involved in theatre and acting?

It’s kind of a funny story. My parents are both teachers and part-time magicians, so when I was a little kid they’d put me in their shows. When I got a little older, a little bigger, I was too old to do that kind of thing, so I started to seek out theatre on my own. I always loved singing and being on stage. And then when I graduated high school, I just knew it was what I wanted to pursue. So I went to the University of Connecticut to study there, and came right to New York after that.

You’ve done lots of Shakespeare, but a lot of other plays as well. What is particularly challenging or exciting about working on a Shakespeare play?

It’s poetry; it’s not just two people having a discussion. There’s so much to each conversation. There’s never been a Shakespearean play or a part where I’ve just been like, nah, I guess I’m done with that, I’ve nailed that, now on to the next thing. There’s always more that you can learn about these characters.

You’re one of the founders of Smith Street Stage. Can you tell us about how the company came together?

We started with a four-person production of Romeo and Juliet that we had done out in New Jersey. At the time, I had just moved into an apartment in Carroll Gardens and really fell in love with the neighborhood. I wasn’t done with Romeo and Juliet and I really wanted a place to do it, and I just felt so grateful to this new neighborhood that had just welcomed me with open arms that I wanted to give something back to the community. I wasn’t really sure if we were going to stay; I wasn’t sure if we had the right place or if they were even going to want us. But it was just kind of a little gift, a little thank you for welcoming me to the community. And they did, people came. It was fantastic. It’s funny, we started the company with the idea that it was going to be one show and then we’d see if we wanted to do more. But then Jonathan and I never had to question if we wanted to do one more or not – we just started planning for the next year. We never had the “should we not or should we” conversation; it was obvious that we should. It felt like the right time and the right place.

And one of the things the company is doing this year is the gender-blind casting.

I love it. I’m so excited. I was just like, it’s about time, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while now. We’ve kind of played around with it here and there in other productions. Even in our first production I played a man and Jonathan played a woman, so there was that kind of back-and-forth. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing Shakespeare, he will always be one of my favorites, but man, he wrote a lot of guy parts. And it’s really frustrating to have all these amazing women come in that I can’t use. I want people to come in with an open mind that there is a possibility that women can play these parts just as well. Look at what Sarah [Dacey Charles] did with Julius Caesar [at Smith Street Stage in 2013]. We were taking a big risk, and now I can’t imagine it any other way. And this year both the king and the king’s son will be played by women. I’d say that’s a really exciting idea that will open other people’s minds to the fact that, why don’t more people cast their shows like this.

As one of the actors who has been cast as the opposite gender, do you feel like there’s anything special you need to do to prepare for this particular role?

I’ve done this a couple times before, but never anything like this play. It’s always a challenge, it’s always something completely new, but that’s part of what’s exciting about it. It’s not like I can go back and refer to all the women who have played Bardolph and Douglas before. I get to make it my own. It turns me on, and it scares me too, in a good way. But Joby I think is going to be a great leader with that.

Even though you don’t have previous female Bardolphs or Douglases to refer to, are there other actors or directors who have particularly influenced you?

I just saw a production of The Iceman Cometh and it just kind of, Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane and that whole entire cast just reawakened my joy for theatre in such a great way. I love when that happens. And Mark Rylance is definitely an influence. I’ve seen him a couple of times on stage, including Jerusalem a few years back. He was just so brave, and so ready to fail. And I think that’s something I want to do. I want to be ready to fail, because if you’re not ready to fail, then I don’t think you’re going to be able to really explore deep enough to come up with something that fresh and new. Otherwise, for me, it’s just going to feel like I’m copying someone else’s work. But this comes from me, and that’s what’s going to make it original and beautiful.