Supporting creative work by women
New Yorkers are in for a treat. Tina Packer’s Women of Will, a dynamic and thoroughly entertaining look at the women in William Shakespeare’s canon, is on stage at the Gym at The Judson Memorial Church through the beginning of June. Women of Will offers an overview of Shakespeare’s changing relationship to the women — Lady Macbeth, Marina, Juliet, Joan of Arc and more — in his plays. Tina performs alongside Nigel Gore in the overview as well as five more deeply explored pieces in the Women of Will cycle. If you want to see Shakespeare, his world and the women in it in a new light, run to see this extraordinary theater piece.
Tina, founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, spoke with Works by Women about developing a piece over many years, how to first access Shakespeare and why every community needs theatre.
WORKS BY WOMEN: I love the idea of investigating and developing a work over decades. It is done somewhat in NYC, but I find its practice more prevalent in other parts of the world. Is there anything that particularly strikes right now about Women of Will that you saw differently when you first conceived of the piece?
TINA PACKER: Well, one of the things about working on something over a period of time is that you’re working on the piece and influencing the piece, but what starts happening is that the piece starts influencing you. So as you get more and more deeply into it and what it is you’re writing, the ideas start generating other ideas. And of course what’s happening in the world really comes forward. For example, most people think the battles over in America as far as women’s rights are concerned. But somebody just recently told me that in the New Mexico legislature, they have a law being brought up by a woman that would mean that if you’re raped and have an abortion, you can be convicted for destroying evidence. Or honor killings, or the Ugandan anti-homosexual laws. Suddenly, in a way, the whole world starts coming into focus. And I would say in the last fifteen years that’s one of the things that has changed a lot – we know everything that’s going on the world. So I see more things that are relevant to Women of Will. And in fact, the person I’m meeting this afternoon is a woman who works on how to stop wars. We have an enormous amount of information on why wars are started, but she’s been working for a long time on how to stop them. She’s interested in Part 4 of Women of Will, Chaos is Come Again, which is about what happens when the feminine is not counteracting the masculine.
WBW: Which female character are you most excited to revisit in performance?
TINA: I love them all, but I keep finding more and more reasons for Lady Macbeth for doing what she does, just by doing the text over and over again. I suddenly get perceptions about what parts of her psyche her words come out of. So I find myself fascinated by that. Or, for instance, roles like Marina in Pericles, a fifteen-year-old girl who is very different from Juliet. She’s much more healing. Juliet is much more like me: very adventurous, always wondering “what’s that about?”. Whereas Marina has a real sense of what life’s about and seems to be able to moderate her behavior out of her deep sense of how to heal people. I find that interesting because it’s quite difficult for me to do: a fifteen-year-old healer. You do feel a bit as if you’re coming full circle, because I start with Joan of Arc, who’s had visions from God and then turns into a witch who’s juggling spirits. There, Shakespeare’s coming from a very direct, immediate, almost comic book style. And then I do Marina at the end of the cycle, and she’s someone who has quiet authority, who holds her ground but never yells at anybody. She’s a full woman at fifteen.
WBW: How has studying the Bard’s female characters deepened your understanding of his work?
TINA: Well, when I first began, I would grumble, because there were only two or three women’s parts to ten or twenty men’s parts, and so many more men at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. So the first way Shakespeare’s women impacted me is that there was a real competition for the very few parts. And as an actor, you’re more wrapped up with that. Then, of course, you want to play these women characters, but you’re usually subservient to the action, unless you’re playing Cleopatra. But in most parts, the action is going on around the men and the women are fitting in. That’s exactly like it was when I started on television. I think the first television I ever did was a mystery crime series called “No Hiding Place”, and I was literally called “The Wife” in the script. I didn’t even have a name.
But then I started realizing that Shakespeare was using the women to stand up for what is true in the world, whether it’s about the love between a man and a woman, or somebody like Ophelia, who runs mad to tell the truth. She doesn’t have the courage to tell the truth in her own living life, but once she’s mad, she’ll run around and tell it in riddles and signs and signals, which is one of the reasons why she has to die. Or Elizabeth in the Wars of the Roses, who says the wars are madness and starts negotiating to bring the houses together. She probably couldn’t have brought the houses together if the Earl of Richmond hadn’t beaten Richard III. But if he had beaten Richard III and Elizabeth hadn’t brought the houses together, the followers of Richard III would have continued the war against the Earl of Richmond. So by her bringing the houses together and making it one house, she really created the House of Tudor. And of course, it was the Tudors who said that women could be rulers and so we got Elizabeth I, who’s probably still to this day the greatest ruler England has ever had. A very complicated woman, with a very poor country in comparison to France and Spain, but she really held off the Spanish forces and did damage to them without ever declaring outright war on them. She wasn’t frightened of fighting, but she hated her people getting killed. And that’s one of the last things we say in Women of Will, about the baby Elizabeth, “Men will claim their honor by her ways, not by blood.” And so I feel as if Shakespeare himself started identifying more with the women and less with the soldiers who were going to do “honorable deeds” and fix the problem just by beating somebody else. You can notice as the plays go on, there are fewer and fewer outright fights after Henry V and the women become real players whether to undo the fights or just to have their say.
WBW: Tell me about working with Nigel Gore and Eric Tucker in creating/refining Women of Will.
TINA: Well, originally I had a series of different actors and different directors. I’d gotten a lot from those people, and then I stopped doing it because I needed to do a lot more work on it myself. Then the Berkshire Women’s Festival asked me if I’d do something. And Nige and I had been working on Hamlet and then on Antony and Cleopatra and I thought, I could put this together with Nige and we did a version of it for the festival. Nige wouldn’t have anything to do with the narration whatsoever; he just kind of sat in a chair on the other side of the room. And I’d sometimes ask him things and he’d say “I don’t know.” But what happened was he ended up getting interested in the story and actually started feeling that it had something to do with him personally.
So then it was Nige’s idea to get Eric. We had him come up and just work on Macbeth for us just a little bit. And I loved him because he asked me things, like “how was that?” and I thought, “I can work with this director; he’s not trying to prove himself to me, just finding his way through it”. Eric then did the Month-Long Intensive workshop at Shakespeare & Company and that’s how we built up our vocabulary and our relationship. What was very useful for me was that they often gave me the male reaction – like Nige’s now-famous reaction to the Duke of York in the show. Eric didn’t contribute to the narrative so much; that really came out of Nige’s reactions to me. But what Eric was terrific at was cutting the scenes and knowing what we should lose and include. He helped much more on the actual scene work and narrowing down the material.
The two of them have really deepened what we’ve done and they’ve always helped make sure it doesn’t turn into a polemic. And Nige in many ways plays the fool to my straight man, which is good because Nige and I understand each other’s sense of humor and the comedy in the narrative works. I’d say that all three of us have been influenced by the message of the play itself. It’s given us insights into our own artistic lives.
WBW: Is there any advice you’d give to a Shakespeare neophyte or a young student just becoming acquainted with his work? A way to read it or frame it? Or a work to first enjoy?
TINA: I would watch Kenneth Branagh’s films, especially Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. There are several other very good films as well. I think Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard is a nice thing to start with, because you really see that Shakespeare’s for everybody. I love going on YouTube and watching snippets of Mark Rylance’s performances. And going to any of Shakespeare & Company’s performances, and our education programs. If you can get into any of our two-week summer camps, which are about doing Shakespeare. And to anybody, I’d say read it once and then see what happens when you act it out. Even if you don’t understand the words, say them as authoritatively as you can and see what they mean because the word will start telling you what it means. You need to remember that they were very new plays when Shakespeare was writing them, so they’ve got lots of energy in them. It’s not something to be worked out, it’s something to be embodied, to say and then see what emotions come up for you as you say it. So it’s really the reverse of the way it’s taught in most schools. Although I was very lucky, I remember when I was in school I had an English teacher who got us to get up and act out the death of Caesar in the classroom with the desks pushed back. It was mayhem! But it’s great to have mayhem in a Shakespeare class. And we train our teachers to learn how to deal with chaos, because that’s where the energy lies with doing Shakespeare. If it’s an intellectual energy, it doesn’t work. It’s got to be a playing energy. You play the plays in the playhouse, so it’s playing.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theatre?
TINA: I think women have got to make their own work. It’s not just that there are as many women as men – although the women drop out at a faster rate because there are so many fewer parts for women, but it’s also that there are more women audience members and there are more women who are interested in thinking about how we can change some of the power structures. But all the structures are still men, like the university structures and economic structures. There are a lot of women artistic directors now, because women – and I’m generalizing here – are very suited to the multitasking you need to do that job. So I think women need to take confidence about this and also really see how they can market to women, because women are their audiences and men have a larger economic base to pay for the tickets. Women have got to take their authority, and they’re very good at writing relational plays, but they’ve got to write political plays as well. Putting the personal story inside the political structure. If you don’t do that, then all you end up with is yet another dysfunctional family. It needs to shift. So my thought for women is to get out there, not to wait tables but to teach or to create plays themselves, and really see what it is that makes them effective and how they can make an impact.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theatre?
TINA: There are a lot of good women playwrights coming up. And one of the problems is that if you’re doing an artistic endeavor like playwriting, you often can’t do anything else, and it does seem to me that women need to be the producers of the work as well. Everyone always asks, what does the market dictate? And one of the things you have to start trying to influence is the market. Women need to think, How can I be at the tipping point? I don’t think you can any longer think of theater just as people getting together and putting on a play. It’s not a case of, If we do it, they will come. It’s just as much about getting the market and fundraising right and framing it properly, because you’re competing in an absolutely mad world. And unless you get it framed right and get it into the publications you need to get it into, it might be brilliant and it will still drown, because the next day there’s another five hundred things that have come along. You have to think of theater as being about all these other things. And that’s even if you’re just in your local town doing it, which is where I think theatre should go. I think everyone should spread across the country and every single town in America should have its own theatre talking about the history of that town, that area, what they struggle with, what the background is and really being a kind of living history project. And then do a Chekhov, do a Shakespeare, do all these other things, because they’ll teach you how to do plays. But in the first instance, telling the story of the community is the most important thing, and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s our job. Most communities don’t have theatre companies, and they should.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murray | Tina Packer and Nigel Gore in Women of Will.