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Julia Coffey and Liz Wisan on Performing Shakespeare in 2018

Originally published on June 19, 2018 by Sarah Rebell, with photography by Jessica Nash, The Interval

[HVSF Actors] Julia Coffey and Liz Wisan are no strangers to Shakespeare. Combined, their credits include As You Like It, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, Pericles, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Twelfth Night and Winter’s Tale. But they have never before performed in a season like the one this summer at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, where Julia will be playing the title role in a gender-bending production of Richard II, and Liz will be playing the lead role of Katherine in a production of The Taming of the Shrew that seeks to highlight themes of negotiation and companionship instead of inequity or abuse. I recently spoke to Julia and Liz about what it’s like to perform Shakespeare in the context of the #MeToo movement, why they think Queen Elizabeth I may have influenced Shakespeare’s proto-feminism, and how much (or how little) has changed for women in the past four hundred years.

Neither of you are strangers to the Shakespeare canon, but it’s your first time playing these particular roles. Was there any methodology or research tools that you found yourself exploring for the first time, in terms of your approach to playing Richard and Kate, respectively?

Julia: I’m always kind of a research nerd, and I had a lot of time before we started rehearsal, so I did my sort of formal dive into research. Because [Richard II] was a real person. So, that’s always nice to have so much written about them, and also about the play in general. This is the first time that I’ve gotten to meet with the director several times before rehearsal started, because Davis [McCallum] and I are friends and we’ve worked together before, and we had so much time ahead of us. The month before we started rehearsals, he and I would just get coffee. I told him after the first time we did it, “Thank you so much for just letting me vomit my enthusiasm all over you.” I had done so much research on my own, and I had all these ideas pinging around in my brain, and he had all these ideas pinging around in his brain. So that’s been really fun, to already feel, early on, a collaborative, joint brain birthing this play, before rehearsal even started. And we’re both still reading, still researching, and still talking to each other. It’s just been a really lovely relationship that’s carried into the rehearsal room.

Liz: For Shrew, I had never done the play before, but my understanding of it is that usually the shrew is the woman, and the woman is the person who doesn’t act appropriately and needs to be tamped down and conformed into what a woman is. We are not doing that version. In the #MeToo moment, we are doing the version of the woman who is being told how to perform womanhood. We see it through a different lens now, because it’s now okay for women to speak up and be their own people and have their own voices and their own opinions. I’m still learning that. I think we’re all still making our way through that. There’s so much that infuriates me in the world that can be put into this play. It’s the first time, with Shakespeare for sure, that it feels really present and of the moment in a way that people might not expect it to be.

Julia, have you encountered any unexpected reactions when you tell people that you’re actually playing Richard II?

Julia: A lot of male actor friends of mine are like, “Fuck you, I’m so jealous. I want to play that part.” I think somebody on the [HVSF] Board the first day was like, “Oh, a friend of mine is already talking about how she doesn’t want to come see it because she doesn’t want to see a woman in the part.” And I’m like, “That’s her problem.”

Setting aside the obvious challenge of being a woman playing a man, you’re starring in one of the few Shakespeare plays that is totally in verse. Has that been tricky to navigate?

Julia: What’s cool about it is it’s not just in verse; there are a lot of rhyming couplets. Normally rhyming couplets are just the buttons on the scene, but in this script, they’re all over the place. It infuses those sections with even more ceremony, which is a big theme of the play, and one of Richard’s favorite things to do, which is lift things higher up to God and ceremonialize it, and give it some majesty. It’s been fun, too, because it’s also a way to connect with the people who then throw a rhyming couplet back at him. I never realized rhyming couplets could be utilized that way, and this play has taught me to have more fun with them.

Julia Coffey

Liz, what is your take on Kate’s infamous “I am ashamed that women are so simple” speech?

Liz: It’s a really tricky speech. We’re looking at it as, not that it’s a woman being tamed, but it’s a woman speaking to compromise, and how both partners have to compromise. If you’re an island, you will always be alone. When two incredibly strong personalities come together, they both have to meet each other in the middle. So, we have changed a couple pronouns. In the original text, it’s: “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, such a woman oweth to her husband, when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour and not obedient to his honest will, what is she but a foul contending rebel and graceless traitor to her loving lord?” We flipped that. So, it’s: “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, even such a woman oweth to her husband, and when he is froward, peevish, sullen, sour and not obedient to her honest will, what is he but a foul contending rebel and graceless traitor to his loving lord?” So it feels very much like, instead of a woman giving herself over to a man, it’s a woman negotiating a partnership, really, which I think is right, and which I think is what we’re all kind of trying to do. People have been trying to do that for a long time in partnerships, but I feel like we’re saying people feel like women have been giving more than men have to give, and I think trying to balance the scales a bit. I’m excited about the speech. I hope people listen to the advice. It’s a negotiation.

I like that word, negotiation. There’s been a lot of talk this season about current and upcoming revivals of Golden Age musicals with problematic gender stereotypes, including Kiss Me Kate, which of course is based on Shrew. Do you think negotiation could, perhaps, be a good answer to the question of how we handle those gender relations onstage in this day and age?

Julia: On many levels. On negotiating the texts with new eyes, current perspectives, and then also trying to infuse the relationships within the piece with an element of relationship negotiations that are more equitable to both parties.

Liz: It’ll be interesting to see, besides what autonomy and agency those female roles will be given that maybe they haven’t always been [given before], also [whether] casting will be changed. It is infuriating when you see a cast [breakdown] like “so many men,” or “a couple women,” or “all white people.” Because that’s not the world we live in.

Language is such an important aspect of how Kate expresses herself and how Richard uses his power. Is that something that was discussed in the rehearsal room?

Julia: Language is huge, and I think Davis did it on purpose. I think he’s excited about the language part of it, because he’s a language nerd like we are. There’re so many little treasure chests within all those words that unlock all the work that he’s done.

Liz: Aren’t all plays language plays? But there is such a difference doing Shakespeare. It’s such a gift, because every word, every line has so much meat and juice; there’s so much in Shakespeare’s text that you don’t always get in more contemporary plays. It is also funny because Kate is great with language, but sometimes she gets to this place where she doesn’t have a language for stuff, whereas I think Richard can articulate everything.

Julia: Or do somersaults with his imagination using words. He’s like, “How about this little magic trick I’m going to do with these words here? See how I did that?” That’s where he lives. He lives in this ephemeral, imagined world of ceremony and majesty that doesn’t exist. It’s not until the end that he’s like, “Oh, this is the real world.”

Liz: Kate has periods where she is able to articulate really well, but there are a lot of scenes where she is dead silent. It’s strange, because I feel like you do think of Kate as being able to speak her mind—“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart”—but she can’t always. I do feel that is so of the moment. Even playing this role, where I should feel able to speak totally freely, Kate can’t always, and I can’t always in life. There are still so many instances where I feel like I have to keep my mouth shut, even though I think I’m such a strong feminist, and you should be able to speak your mind and have people listen to you. It’s hard to overcome centuries of conditioning for society. So in those scenes, it is interesting to negotiate that. Why is she silent? Is she silent because she’s literally speechless and she doesn’t know what to say? Is she silent because she’s enraged that she doesn’t know the language? I do feel like this is the first time that I’ve done a play where I have a lot of communication that is not language-based. I feel like I usually play people who speak their mind all the time, but she isn’t always able to.

Shakespeare is known for having written some really incredible roles for women. Obviously Shakespeare lived in a very different era, but do you view Shakespeare as a sort of proto-feminist, helping to empower female characters on stage?

Julia: One hundred percent.

Liz: Yep.

Julia: Because he treated them like human beings, and he showed through his plays that they were human beings and had the full spectrum of emotions and needs and wants and desires that his male characters did, and I think that in and of itself was huge.

Liz: I just did Winter’s Tale, and I think Paulina is one of the most powerful feminist characters. She almost sounds like a man in the sense that she’s brilliant and has a command of this king in a way that you wouldn’t think a woman would have back then.

Julia: But let’s be honest, their sovereign was a woman. That woman was fucking fearless and brilliant. You can’t treat women badly while you’re under the sovereign rule of a really smart woman. Actually, I have to say, I’ve played Rosalind [in As You Like It] several times, and one of the times I did it, I read something about how Queen Elizabeth apparently loved to go be pastoral, like Pastoral Elizabeth. She would wear peasant clothes, and they would cue the sheep, have the peasant come out from behind the tree, and give her some bread and milk. She was thinking she was living in a rustic pastoral. So when I played Rosalind, I’m like Queen Elizabeth out for a romp in the woods, but with the fucking smartest brain in the world, playing with all these peasant peoples and doing tricks with their own language that I’m picking up and they don’t even know.

Both Shrew and Richard II were written in the 1590s, when Queen Elizabeth had just beaten the Spanish Armada and was really on top of her game.

Julia: She was on a good roll, but she was old and had no heir, no successor. She would not put her thumbprint on whether it was going to be James [her nephew and eventual heir] or somebody else. So, I think Richard deals a lot with succession, and this sort of emptiness behind the throne, what’s next, and so there’s a lot of that in this play.

That’s really interesting too, because succession is a way in which women have power. In terms of the genealogy, you can’t just have men creating dynasties.

Julia: You have to have a woman. A woman you were married to. Bastards didn’t count.

And Richard II came from the royal dynasty from which Elizabeth’s ancestors actually took the throne.

Julia: I don’t think [Richard II] was necessarily her favorite play, especially since it was done by the Earl of Essex to threaten her reign, but there is one phrase that’s a shoutout to Queen Elizabeth. She famously wrote something akin to—and this is the line that is in Richard—“Mine eyes are full of tears I cannot see.” She wrote a poem talking about her tears blinding her so that she couldn’t see to be able to ream something from her love. There is a little shoutout to Elizabeth.

Thinking about her use of language now, too, Queen Elizabeth very famously gave a speech where she said something to the effect of, “I may have the weak body of a woman, but I have the heart of a king.”

Julia: I’ve been watching a lot of monarchy documentaries, and Elizabeth would use her femininity. In addition to fighting for the right to be able to speak, she would flirt with [her femininity]. “Well, I know I’m just a woman, but…” Does Kate do that? Does she ever use her femininity?

Liz: There are a couple places where I’m playing with her performing. She’s not good at it. Her sister Bianca is like the perfect feminine specimen, so there are a couple places where I’m playing with her performing the way Bianca would, but she’s not very adept at it.

Julia: In a weird way, what’s cool is that she doesn’t suffer that situation. She has a standard that she won’t denigrate herself from. I think sometimes a lot of the conversation about the #MeToo movement has been how women sometimes use their feminine wiles, but at the same time, we also deserve to have respect and our voices heard.

Liz: The costumes are interesting because both Kate and her sister, Bianca, are in a bodice and a skirt, and it’s a very feminine form. So, we’re really playing with this idea of a woman forced to be in this patriarchal society, and forced to look like a woman, but there’s resentment about that, and there’s hurt and wounds from not being feminine enough, that your worth is determined by how perfect a woman you are. If you’re not a perfect woman, if you don’t perform womanhood perfectly, you’re worth less. The way we’re looking at it is that this is a person who isn’t worthy because she’s not playing this role of woman correctly, or well enough, or consistently enough, but she still looks like it. These women are in a patriarchal world, trying to break out of it as best they can, but there are still the trappings of what it is to be feminine.

Liz Wisan

What do you think we can learn from doing Shakespeare today? We’ve touched on this a bit already, but how does the current cultural and political situation inform our understanding of these plays?

Liz: It’s interesting and sometimes disheartening to know that nothing has changed in four hundred years. I mean, not nothing. I mean, we have the Internet. No, but there are so many themes that were present then that are still present now. I’m also an actor, so there’re a lot of ways in which I feel like it’s not [changing].

Julia: Or you’re a New Yorker, when you see the billboard of half-naked women selling a phone and you’re like, “Who is that for?” Sometimes I feel like they think it’s for the women. They want us to aspire to be that perfect woman. Or is that just the narrative that is being told to us?

Liz: I think people are being made aware of it, which is a step in the right direction. I don’t know that it’s going to change completely anytime soon, but I think it’s helpful that more and more men are calling themselves feminists. It’s helpful that certain celebrities are going without makeup sometimes, or not dyeing their hair, letting some of their gray show. If, as a whole, we can appreciate that the woman is not the thing, the object to love, or objectify, or possess, I think it could change. I don’t know that I’m going to, in my lifetime, feel like it’s okay for me all the time to dress however I want, or not put on makeup, but I’m an actor, so I think that’s part of it.

As an actor, what do you think that the theatre community or the entertainment industry at large could do to help make things better for women?

Liz: It’s supply and demand, though, isn’t it? They think that that’s part of why people go to see musicals, to see the bodies in motion onstage.

Julia: I think both men and women get it in our profession. They get the high standard of body beauty in addition to talent, networking, and all of that. Whether women get it more than men…?

Liz: You think women don’t get it more?

Julia: I don’t think the theatre is like, “Well, we’re going to stick it to the women more.”

Liz: I think that there are so many plays in existence right now that have female characters without agency, that need a man to do something, and they keep reviving these plays, and so we keep seeing them. I think a lot of new playwrights, or a lot of new plays, are able to show women not just as sex objects, not just as a thing to be achieved or a thing to be obtained. But it’s a cycle. We have to use our tool of heart to start informing and educating, and it’s a dialogue. We’re both culpable and we’re both responsible for changing each other.

Julia: And I think, on network TV, that’s definitely where they’re going to want the gorgeous models. It’s this idea that sex sells, so to sell your products, to sell ad space, sell commercials for a bigger amount of money, there has to be this commodity of sex, or perfection, or beauty.

Liz: Especially with HD.

Julia: Yes, especially in HD, right? I feel like when there’s a lot of money involved, it’s more important for women to perform.

Liz: You can’t take the risk of hiring a regular person.

Julia: Well, I think they take risks on ugly men.

Liz: Totally true, if they’re a star name, or they’re funny.

Julia: Or if not, but I do feel like it’s much more risky to take risks on women, but maybe if there were more women in positions of power they would make decisions like that. It could change. When Fiona Shaw played Richard II ten years ago, she faced a wall of opposition and criticism, and a backlash of “What the fuck is this.” I don’t think we’re going to have any of that, which at least shows what has changed for the better in ten years. I don’t think people bat an eyelash at seeing a woman in a man’s part these days. That’s a good thing.

Liz: Yeah. We did this photo shoot with the entire Hudson Valley company, and they had the women stand out, because they had each female lead in each of the four plays wear white, and everyone else wore black. So, I thought that was an awesome statement in which they highlighted the women.

Julia:  When I auditioned for Richard, I also auditioned for Bianca. They didn’t know what the doubling was going to be, so at the time, I tried my hand at Bianca. I remember in the room, Shana [Cooper, the director] was like, “Bianca is the shrew.” And I was like, “Yes! Of course.” She’s the one that manipulates men and uses her femininity to get something she wants, that once she gets, she’s not even happy with. She actually is much worse to the men. She has no interest in getting to know them as people. She has no language to get to know them. At the end, when Kate gives that speech, [Bianca] has not changed. She maintains her stubbornness, and in fact turns her own misery onto the men, and wants to put them through their miserable way. I’m like, yeah, she’s the fucking shrew. I thought that was a total head explosion.

2018 Company, photography by Travis Magee

If you could choose any character of any gender from the Shakespeare cano, to play next, which role would you choose?

Julia: Before I started this process, I would’ve said Hamlet, because I’ve always wanted to play a female Hamlet, but Richard is a lot like Hamlet in a lot of ways, so it’s kind of satisfying that desire I had. I’m looking forward to the day when I get to play Queen Margaret. I want to play her all the way through [Henry VI and Richard III]. That’s juicy.

Liz: That would be awesome. In school, I did a condensed version of As You Like It. I played Rosalind. I would love to do the full thing.

Julia:  You’d be great.

Liz: I also love Imogen [in Cymbeline] so much. I don’t know that I’d ever be cast as her.

Julia:  Why not?

Liz: I don’t know. I’m too old.

Julia: No such thing.

Liz: I’d love to play Imogen.

Julia: Done.