Supporting creative work by women
Shrunken Shakespeare Company‘s Producing Artistic Directors Yvonne Cone (right) and Jennifer Martina (left) are a powerhouse team, who have produced in unconventional ways: Two Gentleman of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lear (adapted and directed by Paul Sorvino) and Kill Shakespeare. This December, they bring their latest compelling piece to the New York stage–What We Know: An American Retelling of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Yvonne and Jennifer spoke to Works by Women about the development process for What We Know, how each first became interested in theater and what’s next for the company.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Tell me about the process for What We Know.
YVONNE CONE: What We Know began as a collaboration between Shrunken Shakespeare Company and the head of improv at The Barrow Group (TBG), Mark Grenier. We wanted to take a classical play (or classic contemporary play, i.e. Three Sisters), and build a new script based off of work that he had done with our teacher Seth Barrish at TBG.
Mark, Jen (Martina) and myself read over scripts and plays and all found a love for Chekhov in common and chose this play. We had our first ever round of auditions and cast the piece after a pretty arduous callback session.
JENNIFER MARTINA: We auditioned over 70 actors for the production and invited them to create improvised scenes based on moments from Three Sisters. We then chose six actors (plus Yvonne, myself and Matt MacNelly) who we felt best embodied the spirit of each character and were most comfortable with the devised/improvisational process.
YC: Sadly however, Mark had to back out of this particular project for personal reasons, and I thought our current leader, Matt MacNelly would be an amazing devisor and leader based off of his work at UCSD and La Jolla Playhouse, and boy was it an amazing decision.
We spent six months in writing meetings figuring out how each of us personally relates to our characters as human beings. What is similar and different in how we act and how Chekhov wrote them to act. We agreed and disagreed on contemporary and natural language and scenes, we fought passionately for certain things to stay the same, and fought even harder to re-imagine or delete things we found unnecessary.
We took an amazing long weekend retreat outside of NYC just across the Hudson from Sleepy Hollow, and after months of sitting at a table working, threw away all of the work and the scripts and spent and an entire weekend improvising and creating as an ensemble. We did the entire play that weekend in the woods and none of us are the same since.
Now in rehearsals, we have our fully realized script (partially from public domain source material, personal history/stories from our own lives, and just plain old creative writing).
WBW: What major discoveries did you find in Chekhov in developing this new work?
JM: What’s been fascinating to all of us through this process is how little has actually changed in a hundred years. Which I believe was Chekhov’s point. This is certainly an idea we’ve gotten to sink our teeth into through this process. People always think things will be better in the future, but we still have the same petty squabbles, we have wars, poverty, murder, corruption. We get stuck in broken marriages and dead end jobs. We give up on our dreams before we pursue them. People are still afraid to step outside their comfort zone, to make any real change in their lives. So often they settle for mediocrity, they become ‘comfortably numb’. Perhaps this is the trap of civilized life. With no struggle for survival, humans sink into boredom and generate self-inflicted trials and tribulations.
YC: I always knew Chekhov was funny, and that is was often done and done poorly because directors and actors forget that his plays are tragiCOMEDIES. But what I found even more is how when I read a play I can’t read “vulnerability,” and what I’ve learned is that somehow Chekhov wrote completely vulnerable characters, who most of the time never speak their truths outside of their own subtext.
For me, the discovery of physical and emotional truth telling while words may lie or omit has been eye opening in so many ways, and makes me want to take six months to read and research every play. Our process has made me care about and love every single character in this play because they are all so desperately human.
WBW: What inspired you to get involved in theater in the first place?
YC: Oh gosh, well, I started as a ballet dancer at six years old, went to a performing arts high school in Southern California and was a dance major. I was sure I going going to major in Contemporary Dance in college, and I did…for about a week. My senior year of high school I was lucky enough to be cast in the first high school production of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, which is a bitch of show if you know it, and really intense for high school students to be doing. But, I had a lovely role where for some reason, every night I was on stage, I was weeping, living in the moment, at that trial, at those funerals, everything was real. And then I won an award for my performance. What I realized then, was that I was connecting with truth, and was living in “my given circumstances” in the play. I immediately auditioned for both the Dance program and Theatre program at Chapman University in SoCal, got into both programs, and they made me make a choice on my first day as to which one would be my major, as at the time you couldn’t do both. For some reason, I kept thinking about Parade in my advisor’s office and before I knew it the words “I’m gonna be a theatre major and dance minor” came out of my mouth.
JM: I’ve been involved in theater since I was a small child. My mother showed me classic movie musicals like Gypsy, Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz. I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. I wanted to be Judy Garland. My parents had to hide the VHS tapes from me or I’d make them watch the movie four times a day. When I started school I was in choir and all the school plays, then moved on to private singing lessons and community theater. I went to college for Musical Theater at the University of Tampa, and studied at Circle in the Square in New York the summer before my senior year of college. That conservatory environment really opened my eyes to what acting and theater could be outside the university system. Moving to New York and working with a wide range of artists who challenge the safe, predictable theater mentality expanded it even further. I studied Shakespeare and classical theater intensively with Broadway and RSC veteran Sybil Lines. She has been my major acting mentor the last few years, and helped inspire my exploration of classical plays and starting this theater company.
WBW: What type of work gets your creative juices flowing?
JM: I’ve met amazing artists, writers, directors and musicians who have challenged the way I think about theater and how I measure “success”. I used to think success was starring in a Broadway musical, now I just think its making good art that challenges and inspires your audience and yourself. And that’s something you can do anywhere! Being around smart, creative, giving people like we have working on What We Know gives me endless creative inspiration. We never stop coming up with ideas! That can be a double edged sword, but its also given us a bounty of amazing material to shape this piece from.
YC: I love immersive theatre. In London in 2007 and I lucky enough to catch Pericles at the RSC, set in Guerrilla War Africa and it was so visceral and alive. And then I saw Punchdrunk (of Sleep No More fame) do their Faust, and my life was forever changed. It was dance, and Shakespeare, my two loves, together, and I felt like I died and went to a punk rock haunted house heaven.I love immediate, necessary, pull you out of your chairs and make you dance sort of theatre. It really gets me going.
However, I also love devised theatre, specifically what we are doing in devising and adapting classical pieces. The word passion is barely enough to describe my feelings towards taking a great character and making it completely my own, in a way no one else ever will. With us, actors have the opportunity not just to play a great role, but to transform that great role into something half themselves, and half something else, that only they can discover.
WBW: What’s next for Shrunken Shakespeare?
YC: After this production closes it is not the end of What We Know. We are going to continue its development and are looking to take it regionally. We want as many different audience perspectives on it as possible.
In May we have our second ever annual Celebrity Staged Reading. It is a screenplay by Chukwudi Iwuji from the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, and is about the life of Ira Aldridge, the first African American Man to grace the London Stage, most especially as the first black Othello in London.
Over the next year we are also going to be developing a new Shakespeare piece that will eventually run in repertory with What We Know. We do have a couple pieces in mind and ideas people are shopping to us, and we are very excited to explore the relationship between the Shakespeare piece and our Chekhov adaptation.
WBW: What are challenges facing women in American theater?
JM: I think women are underrepresented in dramatic writing for sure. There are more types than the Ingenue and the Leading Lady, so much more than the Mother, the Girlfriend and the Wife. There are so many kinds of women, with so many different and amazing stories. And many of them have nothing to do with a man. I long to see more of that on stage. At SSC, we make a deliberate effort to put women in leadership positions, and work with men that are strongly supportive. We also have some amazing role models like Bedlam’s Andrus Nichols and playwright Yasmine Van Wilt lending their wisdom and mentorship. Itsincredibly important to us to foster community among women artists and producers.
YC: There are no roles for us. Really though, Shakespeare is 90% male dominated (which makes sense as the plays were written for all male companies). And in contemporary play breakdowns there are always more male characters than female. And I can’t even BEGIN to get into the debacle that is female playwrights and directors right now. The articles that came out this past year about how few of them there are are astounding.
This town is full of phenomenal female directors, casting directors and producer. However, they are still few and far between, and it is so heart wrenching.
The same goes for auditioning. Men never complain about how many men were waiting to audition, but for women, there are hundreds and hundreds of them for one role. Oh, a company is doing “Coriolanus” and there are TWO female roles, well, that’s not nerve wracking.
I think the conversation must begin with the schools and companies that are training women in theatre. I think the world of auditioning and writing and directing has changed and continues to change. We are no longer in a world where a plain short dress and a pair of black kitten heels while singing your best version of “Brave” is going to cut it.
The women who are making it in theatre are the ones taking major risks…they are creating their own works, commissioning plays, co-producing with other companies, writing a web series just to practice the craft because their day jobs can’t have them sitting at Equity all day. They are walking into auditions in tight black skinny jeans, suede boots and a crop top and belting “Next to Normal” and then shocking casting directors with an incredible Shakespeare speech. They are versatile, and fearless, and they make you want work with them.
Women need to be fierce, unwavering, creative and have several skill sets in order to make their presence known. The challenges are that women in theatre are not being pushed while also being told they are amazing. They are given a class in audition technique and how to dress for it, but are not taught that confidence and being EXACTLY who you are when you walk in a room is 1000 times more interesting than a monologue. Women are interesting by just living their lives as women. And we want to read it in a play, we want to see their hardships on stage, directed and acted with honestly and vibrancy. Half the world over is populated by women, and we want to know their stories.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
YC: The thing that gives me hope for women in American theater is actually, being a women who is involved in American theater. First, as a teaching artist, having taught Shakespeare and worked with thousands of kids over the years, I am more inspired by the children I meet than almost anything else in my life. I learn more about myself as a person and as an artist when I’m teaching a month long workshop and watching a 12 year old girl in a contemporary world, develop her Juliet. She doesn’t know what an arranged marriage is, she can’t imagine bearing children at 14, but she builds a character and relates to the text, and I have seen hundreds of sparks light up in children’s eyes. Their excitement and playfulness and commitment give me hope.
The second thing that gives me hope is the support of my company, community, family and friends in this endeavor. Jen and I have been lucky beyond compare to have incredible people have our backs from day one. People who believe in us, who care about creating a new kind of classical contemporary theatre, and who WANT women to succeed.
No one is trying to rip us asunder, no one is saying we can’t do this or that. In fact the more we do the more we hear people say, “okay, you did that, great, can you now go ten steps further.”
So, for all the hard days, all the rejections, all the no’s and the crappy auditions, there are the days when we sit in a coffee shop and just sit in awe at the support for our own female driven work in this small big city.
JM: The incredible women actors, directors, playwrights and producers demanding a higher quality of theater, a higher level of thinking, and equality in representation of women in the field. These women constantly push the medium forward by challenging and creating the kind of work they want to see on stage, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. I’m proud to say SSC is among these incredible pioneers, and I’m thrilled to see what happens next.
What We Know runs December 4 – 20, 2014 at the Gallery at Access Theater (380 Broadway, NYC).
Production photos by Joe Kramm.