SF Shakes Chats With Pericles Himself, Ron Chapman

Ron Chapman* as a storm-drenched Pericles in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Free Shakespeare in the Park 2021 (*denotes member AEA)

Ron Chapman plays the titular role of Pericles in Free Shakespeare at Home and in the Park, 2021. Last year, he played Edmund in SF Shakes’ virtual production of King Lear, his first ever Shakespeare play. We Zoomed with Ron to talk about his return to the virtual stage, which happens to be the only stage on which he’s ever performed Shakespeare … so far. SF Shakes returns to in-person park performances soon, so we asked Ron to discuss how he feels about the imminent transition from virtual to in-person performance.

Interview by Aline Mata Vazquez, SF Shakes literary intern 2021. Aline has a BA in Theatre, Film, and Digital Production with a concentration in Writing for the Performing Arts from UC Riverside. Along with playwriting she has experience in dramaturgy and directing. 

SF Shakes: I know you also like to write. What kind of things do you write?

Ron Chapman: Well, more recently I’ve been writing short stories. I was taking a short story class at City College San Francisco and was actually published for the first time this year in the city college literary magazine (Forum Magazine). It’s the first piece of writing I’ve ever had published and I was really, really happy about that. I have some stuff that’s somewhat autobiographical fiction, and then somewhat science fiction. That is how I would describe my writing.

(L to R) Alan Coyne and Amy Lizardo* as Fisherfolk; Ron Chapman* as Pericles
in Episode 2 of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s 2021
Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
(*Member Actors’ Equity Association)

SF Shakes: Do you find that your experiences as an actor helps with your storytelling as a writer?

Ron Chapman: I think they influence each other because in both those ways; you have to think about character and you always have to think about what is motivating that character. And something that I love doing is just playing that game of What is this character saying? Why are they saying it? What are they attempting to accomplish by saying it? And that is true, whether you’re acting it or whether you’re writing it as a piece of dialogue in a short story. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. And you always have to think about the effect that these words are having on the other characters and why that character is saying that thing in that moment, what is it all for?

SF Shakes: How does Shakespeare’s language appeal to you as a writer? How does it influence you?

Ron Chapman: I like it, but honestly– I mentioned this before with my previous work for SF Shakes– I’m not really that familiar with Shakespeare. I kind of remember reading Romeo and Juliet in high school. I’ve seen a couple of his plays, but this is only my second Shakespeare production. So what’s more effective to me about Shakespeare is just the characters, the motivations.

And maybe this is because we are always interpreting and reinterpreting his work He seems to have this knack for getting at the human drama and the human struggle or human joy, pain– whatever it is, there’s this way he has of like, yeah, this is how things play out. This is how people operate.

And the other thing is that I always feel whenever I read Shakespeare everything is incredibly clear. Even if you don’t understand at first. I feel like the characters, their motivations, their intentions, what they’re doing here are always very clear and full out. No one half steps in Shakespeare. Nobody does anything like, “Maybe I’ll dabble.” No, they’re going to be evil. It’s there; they’re going to hatch a plan and it’s going to work and they’re full out into it, or they’re going to be a good person and they just stick to it.

And then there’s this way in which the language seems so exalted and high and there’s all the rhyming and that’s really nice because it makes it really, really easy to memorize. And I like to kind of sing the lyrics before I have to speak them. Usually before the show, I will sing the lyrics or rap the lyrics so that I really understand the flow of them and really make them my own. And the language seems so, oh, but every one of those words has concrete, right here, right now, meaning and real thrust to them and real power.

“Episode 4 will be the first time I’ve actually ever done Shakespeare on stage… I’ve never known a world in which Shakespeare is done in any other way except virtual.”

RON chapman

SF Shakes: I was going to ask you about what your process is for approaching something like this. It’s really interesting that you sing or rap your lines.

Ron Chapman:I grew up in the nineties, with hip hop, it was my first memorization stuff. That was the first thing I did. You could ask me to sing a song from the radio and boom, I would have it for you. So that’s where that all came from for me. But the important thing there too is that rapping and rhyming and rhyme schemes are incredibly important to Shakespeare. So stressing the right syllable for the right intention, but then also having enough breath or leaving enough breath to come back and get that next syllable so that it all makes sense together, and understanding where that line ends is all about breath control. It’s all about word play. It’s all about speaking your intentions. These are all things that you do automatically when you’re rapping. That’s my first school of that.

SF Shakes: You said something really surprising: this is only your second production of Shakespeare. What made you want to dive into it?

Ron Chapman: I was looking for work. I was coming out of a pretty good year, honestly, for me, as an actor and especially as someone who’s really so early in his acting career– I’ve only been doing this for about four years– and I saw this opportunity and I was like, Okay, let me see if I can do that. And I didn’t know necessarily if I could, because of the way that people always talk about Shakespeare and about being a Shakespearean actor. I thought You can’t just do Shakespeare. Nobody can just do Shakespeare. You have to study it for “umpteen” years first or something. And so I believed in myself, but I also thought what if this is an impossible task? What if I really don’t know enough? And so I just did the thing that I always do, which is that I just worked hard at it. 

Especially in King Lear, I was playing Edmund and I was looking at his language and I was like, thank God that seems pretty clear what he’s saying and what’s going on and what motivates him. And then I just kind of did what you do as a dramaturg. I have to play that role for myself. I have to look up all these words and look up all these speeches. And then I watched a bunch of YouTube videos about people explaining Shakespeare and how to act Shakespeare, what it means and how to keep it real and how to keep it grounded and how to make sure it stays fresh, which was the most important thing to me.

So it was just about how to make it exciting, how to keep it fresh and how to keep people engaged, and hanging off of these words. To speak them in a way so that there was some action or emotion or something behind every line … so that the words were almost translated by speaking them and by the way that the character just behaved … and it turned out to be something that I could do and I was happy to do it– but, oh my God, the time that I spent every day, just going over those words and I mean, just running and running that script. I really got wrapped up in it.

SF Shakes: So you do your first Shakespeare play, it’s online, virtual, and then you come back to it a year later and it’s still virtual. How has the process changed coming back the second time?

Ron Chapman: I would say the thing that I think has changed the most is that I’m just used to it now. I’m used to the process, but it can still be difficult and almost frustrating. And there’s such a small play space to act in. And now what’s funny is, Episode 4 will be the first time I’ve actually ever done Shakespeare on stage, if you could imagine. I’ve never known a world in which Shakespeare is done in any other way except virtual (A Peek Behind the (Virtual) Curtain of King Lear).

Virtual performance demands really precise physical movements that we have to make in order for everything to look the way it should. It has to look like we’re looking at each other. And if it’s just not-even-an-inch one way or the other or up or down, I’m looking somebody in the nose or in the ear instead of their eyes. There are all these things that we just really have to do. And all of that has to be attacked and perfected first, so that we pull off this illusion, because then all the acting can come in on top of all of this super duper technical stuff, and the performance can be complete. But if you don’t get that super duper technical stuff correct first, then the illusion kind of falls apart a little bit. And then it doesn’t matter about the acting that you’re doing and the performance that you’re giving in a way, because it’ll fall apart and then people will be looking at you looking in the wrong place rather than just taking in the story.

SF Shakes: So when you heard that SF Shakes was doing Pericles this season what was your reaction to that? Were you familiar with the play?

Ron Chapman: I in no way was familiar with the story. And again, I’m not that familiar with Shakespeare outside of popular culture. When I saw Pericles I thought, let me read this whole thing and just see what it’s like. And I read it through and like all good writing, it brought me to tears. I love this story, and I wanted to be Pericles. I think this is such an amazing gift of a role. And, it’d be kind of an honor. And I just thought that it was just such a great story, that I immediately was like, I want to do this. I need to do it. Once I read the story, I was just really happy and I just wanted to go into that audition and just give it my all and just show them that, okay, look, I’m your guy. I can do this. And hope that they believed that.

SF Shakes: And now that you have two episodes under your belt, how do you feel after being almost halfway through this process?

Ron Chapman: Oh my gosh, I feel amazing. I feel amazing about it. I think it is again, still just such a wonderful kind of gift of a process as well as a gift of a role. Everyone involved is so very good at what they do. And I mean that across the spectrum from the design team to the directors, to all of the other actors. I really feel like sometimes with being so early in my career, I feel like I just need to hold my own. I just want to make sure that I’m doing my part to not mess up this beautiful story that Elizabeth [Carter] and Rebecca [Ennals] and Carla [Pantoja] and the whole design team and all the other actors are crafting. I just hope that I am getting in where I fit in, and doing what I need to do for that role to do its job, for this character to be the vehicle that I feel that he is for this story. Also, I was having this thought the other day: this is the closest I think I’ve ever come to working in a television format or like a miniseries or limited series drama or something like that because it’s episodic. There are only four episodes and we have three different directors, although there’s a showrunner almost, in terms of Carla being the director of vision. And so it’s really cool cause you get all these folks working together to make this thing the best that it can be. And going towards one particular vision, but you also get to see what each director really focuses on.

SF Shakes: Shifting gears a little bit, what do you feel you’ve learned from Pericles so far?

Ron Chapman: I think it’s learning stuff that I already knew, in a way. I’m not unaccustomed to grief. It’s something I’ve known in my life and hard times– not literal shipwrecks, but definitely metaphorical shipwrecks. And so I’ve known times when I just don’t feel like I could get up and keep going again. And I just had to sort of, as Pericles does towards the end of episode 3 and in the early parts of episode 4, just completely shut down and literally let my hair grow until I can come back to the world ready to be engaged. Or times when I’ve just had to get on my knees and pray, and hope that god would answer me. I’ve known that. But I’ve also known times of being incredibly resilient and bearing things that the next person maybe couldn’t bear. Or just acting in a moment when it seems like things are lost, but we just have to act now. We just have to put one foot in front of the other, like this is time for triage. This is just about walking forward and not losing hope and having faith in something. Knowing that, or hoping that keeping faith and keeping hope that there will be a good end to it. 

SF Shakes: What do you hope people take away from this production of Pericles?

Ron Chapman: I really don’t know. But I do hope that it affects them in the same way that all good or great art affects me, which is that, I hope that it is life affirming. And that it says, Hey, look at yourself. Here’s another way to understand yourself or your own pain or what you’re going through. And that it gives them some strength, something positive to take away from it. Exactly what that is? I will leave that in that magical realm where the art interacts with the viewer. The observer kind of gets into the art and the art kind of gets into the observer because it’s not for me to say.

SF Shakes: As a closing question I want to ask you how you feel knowing that you’ll be back to in-person stages soon?

Ron Chapman: So I haven’t done in-person theater in two years. At that point I think it’ll definitely have been two years. I feel kind of nervous about it because there’s the twofold thing. One is, as much as we all want it to be, the pandemic is not over. So for one, I’m honestly nervous about that. I want every single person that’s involved with these live performances to be safe and be protected. And I’m very glad that we’re doing this out of doors, that we’re doing this in parks. I think that that helps you feel more secure about it and safer about it. 

But then also I’m kind of nervous because I haven’t been on stage in space with other bodies, with people in a long time. And I don’t know how that’s gonna go. I don’t know if that’s somehow going to now be harder than virtual space.I don’t know if when my footing doesn’t have to be as precise, it’ll be as good, I don’t know what that’s going to be like. 

So, I’m a little nervous about it, but I’m also incredibly excited about it and looking forward to it. I think for me, it’s like a nice way to sort of ease back into doing onstage performance. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens because, we have all these brilliant people, all these brilliant designers working on all this stuff and I can’t wait cause I’ve never known a time when I wasn’t working with SF Shakes that we weren’t doing virtual theatre. And I’ve never attended one of their productions before. So, I can’t wait to see what all these brilliant designers get up to when they’re finally unleashed on the world again.


Free Shakespeare in the Park 2021: Pericles, Prince of Tyre returns to in-park performances on September 4. Visit our website for the full performance and touring schedule. Before visiting the parks, you can catch up on Episodes 1 through 3 on the SF Shakes YouTube Channel starting August 13. The recordings of our live virtual performances will be available for a limited time.

SF Shakes Chats with Carla Pantoja, Director of Vision for Free Shakespeare in the Park: Pericles Prince of Tyre, Summer 2021

This summer, SF Shakes will perform Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Last summer’s production was broadcast live and online due to the pandemic. This year’s selection, however, will be an experiment in hybridity and structure as the Bay Area gradually enters a post-pandemic era. The play will be performed live in 4 episodes released serially over the duration of the summer. Episodes 1 through 3 will adopt the same online format as last year’s virtual King Lear, but the final episode will usher SF Shake’s return to in-person park performances. [Visit our Pericles page for details and program information.]

In addition to the episodic performance structure, another new element will be collaborative shared leadership among multiple directors. Festival Artistic Director Rebecca J. Ennals will helm Episode 1. Veteran virtual director Elizabeth Carter will drive Episode 3, and Carla Pantoja will direct Episodes 2 and 4. Carolina Morones will serve as pre-show director responsible for stringing the episodes together with engaging connective tissue and synopses so that playgoers can follow the story from episode to episode.

The co-directors of Pericles, Prince of Tyre (L-R): Elizabeth Carter, Carla Pantoja, Carolina Morones, Rebecca J. Ennals.

As Director of Vision, Pantoja acts in a showrunner capacity, providing the creative foundations for the production, ensuring artistic consistency across the span of all episodes, and making sure that the story that Pantoja wants to communicate with and through Pericles is conveyed to audiences. Before we go any further, it’s worth summarizing the play briefly since it’s not as familiar to some as say Macbeth or Hamlet.

“This Pericles will be a love letter to the geography, people, and culture of the Bay Area.”

Carla Pantoja

Pericles is a Jacobean romance set in the Eastern Mediterranean of the classical past. The literary emblem of romance is the wandering boat as the vehicle for separation and reunion. Romances commonly stage a tragic de-composition of the family—often the fault of shipwreck—that is eventually reversed by a joyful re-composition of the family by play’s end. In between these scenes of separation and reunion are travel, conflict, and confusion. The play ricochets all around the ancient Mediterranean starting in Antioch (Turkey) and visiting Tyre (Lebanon), Tarsus (Turkey), Pentapolis (Libya), Mytilene (Greece), and Ephesus (Turkey). Family separation begins on a boat at sea when Pericles loses his wife Thaisa to death in childbirth in the midst of a great storm. Bereaved, Pericles entrusts the rearing of his newborn daughter Marina to the care of his allies, the rulers of Tarsus. Fourteen years pass and Marina’s foster mother seeks to have Marina murdered, but not before the young woman is suddenly kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel in Mytilene. When Pericles arrives in Tarsus to retrieve his daughter, he is told that she is dead and he returns to the sea to drift despondently. In Mytilene meanwhile, Marina’s grace, learning, and virtue utterly disrupt the business of the bawdy house and she is removed to an honorable house on the island to earn her living as a teacher. When Pericles, despondent, arrives in Mytilene, Marina is called to the scene to provide consolation. This chance meeting redeems the history of Pericles’s loss and triggers an astonishing series of recognitions that ends with the joyful reconstitution of Pericles’s family.

Meet Carla Pantoja

Chances are you have already encountered Pantoja if you follow theatre in Northern California. Her roots run deep in the Bay Area where she was born and raised. She has a long history with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. She played Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew (2014), Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (2015), and Paulina in The Winter’s Tale (2016) for Free Shakespeare in the Park. She directed Romeo and Juliet and Comedy of Errors for the Festival’s Shakespeare on Tour Program, and she has taught in Bay Area Shakespeare Camp. As an actor, director, intimacy director, and certified fight director she has worked widely throughout the Bay Area with groups like Cal Shakes, Playground, Magic Theatre, SF Mime Troupe, Shotgun Players, and Woman’s Will (the last was an all-female Shakespeare company.) She is also the secretary for the Dueling Arts International governing body.

In 2020, Pantoja moved north to become an Acting Company Member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a performer’s paradise Pantoja calls “Actor Hogwarts.” But, she was part of the “Lost Season” at OSF. She performed in The Copper Children but the season was shut down by Covid-19 almost as soon as it opened. She returned to the Bay Area and became a Resident Artist for SF Shakes once again, which is how she ended up as the Director of Vision for this year’s summer play. Incidentally – yet importantly—she is the first Latina ever to direct in Free Shakespeare in the Park (a distinction she shares this year with Pre-Show Director Carolina Morones) and the first Latinx artist to direct Free Shakes since 2000.

SF Shakes: Why Pericles? Why now?

Pantoja: The question we kept returning to in the season planning committee was: what story do we want to share with the community, especially after a year of pandemic lockdown? Last year the Festival performed Lear, which is a tragedy, but this year we wanted to remind ourselves of the things we’ve been missing. The pandemic resulted in prolonged isolation that we wanted to remind ourselves of the fact that we live in community, that we seek togetherness. We didn’t want tragedy again this year, we wanted something lighter. We considered The Comedy of Errors, but we kept coming back to Pericles because his journey really resonated with all of us and where we are right now slowly emerging from a difficult time shared by all. Throughout the play, Pericles gets hit with loss after loss and he encounters communities in crisis and yet he remains resilient. We felt so much connection to that and to the resiliency and persistence of these characters as they suffer a journey of loss and a quest for community. The reunification of the family at the end this play is what we have all been reaching for. And that’s why we went with Pericles. It’s a step in the direction of healing.

SF Shakes: In fact, the season planning committee decided on a translation of Pericles by playwright Ellen McLaughlin. Can you explain what this means? How does it differ from Shakespeare’s play text?

Pantoja: Yes, it can be misleading. When folks hear “translation” they think movement from one language to another or they may think the language of the play is recast in modern vernacular. Neither of these is the case with Ellen McLaughlin’s treatment of the text. McLaughlin’s modern-verse rendition makes some of the original text’s language clearer. If someone saw the play and did not know that it was a translation, they would likely think they were watching a Shakespeare play. What we really appreciated in this translation, though, was McLaughlin’s talent for making the story easier to follow. The role of Gower—the play’s chorus—is more prominent. And we felt that having a strong dramatic guide in Gower was essential to our episodic structure. Who best to sum up for audiences the action of the last episode and guide us into the next? Gower essentially escorts the audience through the stages of the hero’s journey. [Learn more about Ellen McLaughlin’s translation of Pericles.]

SF Shakes: Speaking of stages, can you talk a little about why the planning committee decided on an episodic performance structure?

Pantoja: It just made sense. The play itself is episodic in nature going from one place to the next to the next. And the play is punctuated with cliffhangers like storms, deaths, and pirates. But also, the play covers a huge span of time: we see Pericles at very different stages of his life that it made sense to break it up and to do something different from last year’s virtual Lear, which was performed live all summer in its entirety. Episodes will push the story along and keep playgoers coming back for each new chapter. It’s really a way to challenge the medium of virtual theater and go beyond what we did last year.

SF Shakes: Can you talk about Episode 4, which will be performed in front of audiences in parks just as in the “before times”?

Pantoja:I don’t want to speak for everyone when I say this—but I think I might be—I’m looking forward to coming together again, gathering again, sharing a story side by side, shoulders touching. This is everyone’s greatest hope. I know actors are looking forward to being in front of an audience again and I think audiences are looking to connect with stories on stage again too. After the trying year we’ve all had, a year in which so many have felt physically isolated from their friends and loved ones, I really want SF Shakes’ return to parks to feel like an open hand extended in welcome. I want this play to touch audiences. 

 SF Shakes: The Mediterranean setting of this play is so prominent, almost a character in itself. Can you talk about how the Eastern Mediterranean will be mapped in your creative vision?

Pantoja: Essentially, we have moved the Eastern Mediterranean to the Bay Area. The names of those ancient cities—Ephesus, Tarsus, and so on—will remain the same, but we’ll be doing something of a mashup of the Bay Area and the Mediterranean, what Elizabeth Carter calls a “mirrorverse” that allows the Bay Area to be celebrated. Some of our local clothing styles and Bay Area vibes will play a large part in the look of the play. On top of that, we’ll be doing some in-person filming on location around the Bay Area. If folks are paying attention they will recognize some spots where SF Shakes has performed in the past along with some other local sites. This Pericles will be a love letter to the geography, people, and culture of the Bay Area.

“A room full of instruments”

SF Shakes: You’re a fight director and intimacy director. You seem to be a very physical artist grounded in the body. How will this basis in physicality translate to virtual theatre for the first 3 episodes? (Watch the short video below for Pantoja’s moving reply)

The Beat Goes On: Shakespeare’s Heartbeat Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum Finds a Home at Francisco Middle School

SF Shakes talks with Natalia Ceniseroz, AKA “Ms. C.” about the impact of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat in her Francisco Middle School classroom

Last year San Francisco Shakespeare Festival embraced the Hunter Heartbeat Method by piloting Shakespeare’s Heartbeat, a classroom curriculum for students on the autism spectrum. This experiment in theater education for neurodiverse kids was overseen by Joe Schmitz, the founder of Eureka Street Learning, and taught by Lauren Kivowitz, the founder of Inclusive Arts. You can learn more about this program by reading our interview with Lauren from March 2020. Essentially, Shakespeare’s Heartbeat uses games and riffs derived from Shakespeare’s characters to help autistic kids engage with the world around them. It fosters emotional and physical awareness as well as self-expression.

This year, despite the challenges posed by remote learning, Shakespeare’s Heartbeat found a home in the San Francisco Unified School District in the classroom of Natalia Ceniseroz (affectionately known as “Miss. C”), a Special Ed. teacher at Francisco Middle School. Once a week, Joe Schmitz and SF Shakes Teaching Artist Evan Held lead a session of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat for Ms. C.’s class. Here’s a short video featuring Joe and Evan explaining the program at our annual gala. When they mention “doinggg” eyes, you must imagine with your inner eyes and ears the exaggerated cartoon effect of eyes popping out of their sockets.

Joe Schmitz and Evan Held demonstrate a Shakespeare’s Heartbeat game

Meet Ms. C.

Ms. C. has an infectious smile and in the course of our Zoom chat we laughed a lot. She is exactly the kind of professional you want in the classroom: kind, articulate, and smart. SF Shakes asked her about how she came to this vocation and her answer may surprise you: Ms. C. became a teacher not because school was a breeze, but because school was a struggle. Growing up with a twin brother gave Ms. C. a unique point of comparison from which to understand her own school experience. In this introductory excerpt Ms. C. explains how her early challenges with school inspired her to change the narrative about academic success.

Ms. C. Describes Her Class

In the next clip, Ms. C. provides us a general description of the students in her class. Her classroom represents a broad range of student needs and communication preferences; some students are very vocal while others are nonverbal; still others require physical support. Ms. C. smiles a lot when she thinks about her students and is quick to point out that they all have unique talents as well as diverse interests. It’s clear that Ms. C. understands the individuals in her class in this holistic way. She also relates what it means for Joe Schmitz and Evan Held to visit once a week and how the work of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat helps achieve the learning goals of Ms. C.’s classroom in part by giving a voice to her students.

Observations

SF Shakes was eager to hear about any changes or growth that Ms. C. may have observed among her students since the start of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat. In this clip, Ms. C. describes the signs of enthusiasm and engagement she has tracked among her students in anticipation of Heartbeat day. Ms. C. also answers a challenging question about the power of theater arts education. We asked her how she would describe her students’ participation in this accommodated theater program especially when some of her students are nonverbal. Her response to this is amazing. Watch the clip.

Team Heartbeat

Even superhero educators like Ms. C. need a little help. In this clip, Ms. C. acknowledges the paraeducators at Francisco Middle School who help facilitate—and participate in—Shakespeare’s Heartbeat sessions. Finally, Ms. C. offers advice to teachers of neurodiverse students who might be considering collaborating with SF Shakes on integrating Shakespeare’s Heartbeat into their classrooms. More information about Shakespeare’s Heartbeat is available on our website.

Too Cool for Zoom? Why your kids might love SF Shakes’ virtual Shakespeare programs. In conversation with Teaching Artist Amy Lizardo.

When the pandemic hit a year ago, SF Shakes pivoted rapidly to online platforms for the safety of audiences, artists, and staff. Not only did Free Shakespeare in the Park become a trailblazing live virtual experience, but education programs also shifted to the virtual sphere. Our initial pivot is chronicled in this blog; you can read about our mainstage transition to YouTube and about how our Saturday program for teens switched to Zoom mid-course in response to public health mandates.

One year later, SF Shakes continues to offer Zoom-based performance programs for kids and teens … and we’ve decided to retain them even as the case numbers of Covid in the Bay Area are beginning to dip and something resembling normalcy is visible on the horizon. The Atlantic reports that cautious public health experts “generally agreed that at some point between June and September, the combination of widespread vaccinations and warmer weather would likely make many activities much safer, including having friends and family over indoors, taking public transit, being in a workplace, dining inside restaurants, and traveling domestically” (The Most Likely Timeline for a Return to Normal, Feb 22, 2021).

In the here and now, however, parents across the country– and especially in California where schools have been slow to reopen– worry over the effects that prolonged Zoom school may have on their children’s development. An October report by the Pew Research Center identifies five areas of concern for parents of children learning via Zoom:

Screen time

Social connections

Emotional well-being

Extracurricular activities

Exercise

Even as normalcy shines visible in the distance and many parents pine for their kids’ return to in-person school, SF Shakes will continue to develop cutting-edge online programs that build on the successes we’ve enjoyed since March last year. We talked to veteran teaching artist Amy Lizardo to discuss her experiences teaching virtually for SF Shakes. In the course of this conversation, Amy addresses the concerns many parents have about increased screen time. One takeaway from this chat to note is that virtual Shakespeare education at SF Shakes may resemble Zoom school, but it is NOT Zoom school. In fact, it may be just the thing for your kid.

Meet Amy Lizardo

Introducing SF Shakes Teaching Artist Amy Lizardo

Any parent wondering if a virtual Shakespeare program is right for their child should hear Amy discuss student engagement, socialization, body movement, and screen time. In the course of this interview, you’ll learn that while a virtual Shakespeare program entails more structured Zoom time for kids, the nature of the work and play undoes some of the negative aspects associated with Zoom schooling.

Amy Lizardo discusses concerns such as screen time, exercise, and emotional well being.

At this point in the pandemic it’s really easy to adopt a negative attitude towards Zoom since it mediates the thing most of us miss the most, direct human contact. At the same time, however, for many theatre companies like SF Shakes, Zoom has become an essential stage and teaching tool. Indeed, SF Shakes is currently offering a webinar to other theatre makers around the globe on the elements of making virtual theatre with Zoom at the center of the curriculum. Engagement techniques developed by SF Shakes over the past year turns Zoom into an innovative tool for communication. Teaching Artists at SF Shakes have been developing and assigning performance-based exercises that take advantage of its unique features. In this segment, Amy talks about some of the ways she has adapted to teaching performance on Zoom.

Amy Lizardo discusses the advantages of teaching via Zoom.

As a theatre company that believes in the power of live performance to build community, SF Shakes eagerly looks forward to the day we can gather in person to watch a show shoulder to shoulder, to take to the stage to kiss, fight, and save the day. But until that time, we will continue to provide public art and performance instruction in the safest way possible. For now that means a socially-distanced Shakespeare.

Amy Lizardo is an actor, singer, and teacher. She is also an acting company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has worked with Bay-Area theaters like Marin Shakespeare Theatre, California Shakespeare Theatre, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Amy teaches in all SF Shakes education programs including after-school enrichment programs and Bay Area Shakespeare Camps.

Queer Voices from the Balcony: a new diverse and inclusive resource for teachers of Romeo and Juliet

It is very easy to forget that a boy actor played Juliet on Shakespeare’s stage in large part because the modern film history of Romeo and Juliet has been relentlessly heterosexual. Moreover, these film versions are often instrumental in the teaching of this popular tragedy in middle and high school. Gen Xers may recall the abundance of cod pieces and flashes of nudity in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet– a scandal in English class! Zefferelli’s 1968 work set the tone for the rest of the century by thoroughly eroticizing the young couple. Zefferelli’s film dominated Shakespeare class until …

Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes does little to acknowledge the queerness of the Elizabethan stage despite Harold Perrineau’s flamboyant Mercutio, one of the high points of this film. Perrineau’s drag-inspired Queen Mab speech only serves to cordon off the young lovers in a safe straight space, free from the wild queerness and blackness of Mercutio who (spoiler alert) must die.

Even John Madden’s delightful realization of Stoppard and Norman’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) shies away from the question of queerness. While this fictional biopic does an excellent job of showing the practice of employing boys to represent women on the Renaissance stage, the film’s quest for “true love” demands that the boy actor who plays Juliet cede his role to Gwyneth Paltrow so that she and Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare/Romeo can perform heteronormative true love for the audience at the Rose Theatre. Judy Dench’s Queen Elizabeth declares the love on stage to be true, thereby reinforcing the notion that the best boy for the role of Juliet is a woman.

“Judy Dench’s Queen Elizabeth declares the love on stage to be true, thereby reinforcing the notion that the best boy for the role of Juliet is a woman.”

Raise your hand if you had to watch one of those films in middle or high school, or even college. You’re forgiven, then, if you forget that there was a boy actor beneath the character of Juliet because the modern cinematic performance history of this play is, by and large, straight (and white– let’s not get started on Natalie Wood as Maria in Westside Story (1961) or Claire Danes’ ambiguous Latinx identity in Romeo + Juliet).

While there exists many ways in which live stage productions have challenged and continue to challenge the dominant heteronormative through line of Romeo and Juliet in popular culture, there are few ways to bring the important artistic work of those productions into the classroom, especially when it’s so much easier for an English teacher to pop in a DVD of Romeo + Juliet, for example.

Learn how to get Takes on Shakes for your classroom!
http://www.sfshakes.org/eucation/takes-on-shakes

Meet the Director and Artists of Takes on Shakes: Romeo and Juliet

Enter: Takes on Shakes, a brand new on-demand video teaching tool that challenges the assumptions we inherit from mass market media and received wisdom. Each episode of the program consists of an interactive video designed for a diverse array of students and a written curriculum for teachers. The program is well suited for distance learning since it can be deployed in a virtual classroom as easily as in an in-person one. Read more about Takes on Shakes here. One of the goals of the program is to make Shakespeare more inclusive by wrestling with Shakespeare and his legacy. Available now, the first installment of Takes on Shakes offers three “takes” on the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet using diverse artists and settings for each iteration– that is, three different Juliets, three different Romeos, and three different settings.

“What’s it like to look at the play with trans people, with queer people, with no expectations of what the gender of the character is supposed to be, and ask, does the play hold up?”

Takes on Shakes: Romeo and Juliet is directed by Bay-Area gender queer drag artist, Chris Steele. Director Steele approaches the balcony scene with a kind of giddy freedom by asking, “What’s it like to look at the play with trans people, with queer people, with no expectations of what the gender of the character is supposed to be, and ask, does the play hold up?” In Steele’s’ directorial vision, the answer is yes. Steele carefully crafted takes of the balcony scene that challenge heteronormative assumptions about the work and to let students know that queer identity has always been a part of the arts and of Shakespeare. Crucial for the students who may experience this episode of Takes on Shakes is Steele’s belief that the young people at the center of Romeo and Juliet are not the problem; the problem is the world around them. Watch an interview with Steele below to learn more about their vision for an inclusive Romeo and Juliet.

Chris Steele, Director of Takes on Shakes: Romeo and Juliet.

“…young people at the center of Romeo and Juliet are not the problem; the problem is the world around them.”

Take One: Renaissance Contexts

After an introductory scene of a somewhat exaggerated staging of what you may typically expect the balcony scene to look like, Director Steele casts Ron Chapman as Romeo and Charlie Lavaroni as Juliet. In casting Charlie as Juliet, Steele aligns this take with the historical practice of casting boys as women on Shakespeare’s stage.

Ron Chapman (Romeo): “Shakespeare is for everyone.”
Charlie Lavaroni (Juliet) on what makes Shakespeare authentic.

Take Two: Women in Men’s Clothing

Take Two draws inspiration from the nineteenth century, a time when famous female actors took to the stage to play male roles from Shakespeare in what feels like both a reflection and a reversal of the historical practices of Shakespeare’s stage. This take features Bidalia Albanese as Romeo and Carolina Morones as Juliet.

Bidalia Albanese (Romeo) on developing a male character.
Carolina Morones (Juliet) on breaking the rules.

Take 3: Modern Contexts

In Take Three, the balcony is replaced by the smartphone, which mediates a nighttime encounter at a distance. Romeo is played by non-binary artist Akaina Ghosh, who also happens to be the director of the next episode of Takes on Shakes exploring A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Juliet is played by Danielle Ferrer.

Akaina Ghosh (Romeo) on wrestling with the Bard.
Danielle Ferrer (Juliet) on universal inclusion.

Also Featuring…

Joshua Waterstone plays a baseline version of Romeo … and the Nurse.

Joshua Waterstone (Romeo) on the additive power of and, and, and…

Visit the Takes on Shakes page of our website to learn more about this program. Episode 2: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is already available. We are working hard to cover school curriculum favorites. If you would like to request a play for the next episode, please leave a comment.

Bayview Eateries

SF Shakes Office HQ is located in the Bayview Neighborhood of San Francisco. We’re shining a light on our independent neighborhood eateries during the San Francisco run of Free Shakespeare at Home: King Lear. If you live in the City, please consider supporting these small businesses so they can be around long after this pandemic is over. Thank you!

Cafe Envy
https://www.yelp.com/biz/cafe-envy-san-francisco
 City Lunch Restaurant
https://www.yelp.com/biz/city-lunch-restaurant-san-francisco
 Simply Delish
https://www.simplydelishsf.com/
 JJ Fish and Chicken
http://www.jjfishandchicken.com/
 Craftsmen and Wolves
https://www.craftsman-wolves.com/
 Golden City Chinese Food
https://www.yechengdusf.com/
 Montecristo Mexican Restaurant
https://www.yelp.com/biz/montecristo-restaurant-san-francisco
 Gratta Wines
https://www.grattawines.com/
 Bloomstock
https://www.yelp.com/biz/bloomstock-san-francisco
 El Azteca Taqueria
http://orderelaztecataqueria.com/
 Taco El Primo
https://www.yelp.com/biz/tacos-el-primo-san-francisco-2
 Golden Eagle Deli and Grill
https://www.yelp.com/biz/golden-eagle-deli-and-grill-san-francisco-3
 Las Palmas Super Burrito and Seafood
https://www.yelp.com/biz/las-palmas-super-burrito-and-seafood-san-francisco
 Las Isletas Restaurant
https://www.yelp.com/biz/las-isletas-restaurant-san-francisco
 Marthita’s Restaurant
https://www.yelp.com/biz/marthitas-restaurant-san-francisco
 Soo Fong Restaurant
https://soofongtogo.com/
Two Jacks Restaurant 
https://www.twojacksniksplace.com/
 All Nite Pizza
https://www.allnitepizzamenu.com/
 Pizza Zone
https://www.pizzazonegrill.com/
 Smokin Warehouse
https://www.yelp.com/biz/smokin-warehouse-barbecue-san-francisco-16
 Peking Wok
https://www.yelp.com/biz/peking-wok-restaurant-san-francisco
 Auntie April’s
https://www.yelp.com/biz/auntie-aprils-chicken-n-waffles-san-francisco-2
 Yvonne’s Southern Sweets
http://www.yvonnessouthernsweets.com/
 All Good Pizza
https://www.allgoodpizza.com/
 Fox and Lion
http://foxandlionbread.com/
 Radio Africa
https://www.radioafricakitchen.com/
 Vasquez Coffee
https://www.yelp.com/biz/vasquez-coffee-company-san-francisco
 Cafe Alma
https://www.cafealmasf.com/
 Tato
https://www.tatosf.com/
Old School Cafe
https://www.oldskoolcafe.org/
 Frisco Fried
https://www.yelp.com/biz/frisco-fried-san-francisco
 Word, a Cafe
https://wordacafe.com/
 Sunday Gather
https://www.thesunday.family/
 B&J Burgers
https://www.bandjburger.com/
 La Laguna Mexican Food
https://www.lalagunasf.com/
Tiffany’s Cafe
http://www.tiffanyscafebayviewplaza.com/
 Bayview Bistro
https://www.bayviewbistrosf.com/

A Peek Behind the (Virtual) Curtain of King Lear

Ever since we announced that SF Shakes would move forward with a virtual production of King Lear, there have been quite a few questions about how exactly a live-streamed, virtual production would work. Well, today, your resident nerdy literary interns will endeavor to explain as best we can, starting with a creative dramatization of the process.

A Day In the Life of a Virtual Theater Actor

You tap your fingers against your leg, gauging if your camera is in the same place or if the dog had knocked it askew during the night. You can’t tell, which means you have to dig out your measuring tape again. At this point, you should really just stop putting it away. The large greenscreen on its tripod stands is pushed back against the wall and softboxes and umbrella lights fill the rest of the tiny room. You have managed to place everything with just enough room to make a dramatic exit to the left before you have to crouch down out of view and crawl back to the other side for your next entrance. One familiar thing is the scattering of blue tape on the floor marking your positions, though the additional tape on the walls to mark sightlines is a new experience.

Measurements all once again to specifications, you open your laptop. Mentally running through your tech checklist, you open Zoom, adjusting your audio and camera settings. Soon your screen fills with boxes full of greenscreens and familiar faces, a smile stretches across your face. Time to work. 

Reciting your line, you stare at the empty wall in front of you, adjusting your body movements to hopefully keep them all in the camera angle. “How’s my sightline?”

“Look a bit higher and a smidgen downstage,” Elizabeth, the director, explains. You move slowly. “Perfect.”

Another piece of painter’s tape is added to your wall. Smoothing the tape you feel the hollowness of the empty room around you. You miss the energy of the actors you work with. Regardless, it doesn’t squash your excitement and anticipation of creating something special–even with a pandemic affecting the country. This is something new and exciting, a challenge you are determine to rise up and face. 

Your scene is done, and you are curious to see how the blocking for the next one will go. You aren’t in the next scene at all, so you don’t have to worry about your camera being in the composite layer, so you sink down in front of your computer to watch. Lear, the Fool, and Kent appear on scree; Neal, the Technical Director, layers each of their camera images together. The scene starts and the three actors act all alone in their separate spaces. Technology provides the illusion that they are together, each movement perfectly placed to mimic touch and interaction. It is immensely reassuring to watch and see the scene come to life, to see the illusion being created.

Soon it will all come together, Neal, will create the composite of images, taking the individual camera feeds and layering them together, incorporating backgrounds over the greenscreens and sending them out to be streamed live to YouTube for all the world to see. Together with ingenuity and tech, they would create a 100% remote performance of King Lear. Your parents have never been able to travel to witness one of your performances before and now they would get the chance to watch you from the comfort of their living rooms. You grin with excitement for the challenges and long hours of tedious adjustments to come. Your camera has to be perfectly placed, your audio correct, your lighting just right, your movements perfectly timed; it’s a lot to keep track of. This is going to be fun.

This is a new medium that brings with it many new challenges, but we are nevertheless excited to share this experience with you! Here is a brief explanation of the process of how we bring our actors from their individual locations to be streamed live to you in your homes. 

  • It starts with all thirteen of our actors at home in front of their green screen setups which look something like the diagram below (though several of our actors have to adjust this according to their individual environments).
  • Before hopping on Zoom for rehearsal, they each also have to check their camera, green screen, and lighting and positioned exactly in their specified places (accurate to ½”) in their space. Nearly a dozen video and audio software settings need to be set, and all external light needs to be blocked out (as do children and pets!)
  • Next, we head to Zoom, where a sea of green screens awaits. Here, the actors turn on their cameras in a specific order. This ensures that the image of each actor is in the same location every time.
  • Since none of our actors are in the same space (some are cities away from each other), their interactions are quite different. A large chunk of rehearsal time is dedicated to creating accurate sightlines so it seems as though everyone is looking at their scene partners and making eye-contact while, in reality, everyone is acting in their individual space. This new medium has resulted in the actors having to be highly adaptive, learning to perform a complex dance with their partners in another space, and rely on sound cues for timing. Some scenes, like fights, have music with heavy rhythms to help keep time.
Jessica Powell*, Phil Lowery*, Cassidy Brown*, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong*, Melissa Oritz*, Diana Lauren Jones, Yohana Ansari-Thomas, Ron Chapman, Sharon Huff, David Everett Moore* (* indicates member of AEA)
  • From Zoom, Neal, our Technical Director, uses software to capture the images of each actor (this is why the order is so important) before using a compositing technology to crop and layer the images, creating a virtual space with layers and an illusion of a unified, 3-D space.
Ron Chapman (Edmund) and Phil Lowery* (Gloucester)
  • To do so, we use specialized broadcasting software that allows us to take the combined images of our actors and stream it live on YouTube for you, our lovely audience!

We know that this can be a lot to take in, especially because it is so far and away from what we know as live theatre. So, as I’m sure many of you would like to know, what exactly does this mean for the SF Shakes you know and love?

  • Well, the most obvious is that due to the pandemic we can no longer participate in some of those awesome Free Shakes traditions; no picnics with friends, no outdoor stage, and setting (though you can get creative and make your own!), and (of course) no actual park. However, never fear! Our engagement team is working hard to try and bring a sense of normalcy and togetherness, through this new virtual medium. We can all still be a community that enjoys theater and talks about Shakespeare, even when so many of us are so far apart.
  • In addition, there’s a new disconnect between the actors and the audience. Normally, the performance feeds off of audience engagement (laughs, gasps of shock, etc.). In this new (virtual) space, however, our actors don’t have this interaction, which could affect the overall energy of the show. More than ever we will need active participation from our audience—you can engage in the live chat showing SF Shakes your support and love. We have the chance to create a great virtual community during our live performances!
  • We also have the rare opportunity to explore technology in ways we have never before been able to. We want to be clear, Lear will still be performed and streamed live, but because we are virtual, we can do some pretty interesting things. For one, we can change “camera views”. This means we can have multiple different composites of different groups of actors, creating the illusion of a different camera angle. This allows specific characters to be the main focus with other actors being off screening. We can easily shift camera to show those actors for their reactions and lines, a bit like you see in movies. This helps with overcrowding in our virtual space. We can also change scenery with a click of a button to a wide range of virtual backgrounds.
  • Suffice to say we are all in a new space with new rules and we are excited to explore it and share what we have created with you!

King Lear: Synopsis

A Kingdom Divided

Upon her retirement, King Lear decides to divide the kingdom among her daughters so that she might “unburdened crawl towards death.” Lear makes her daughters earn their inheritance by performing declarations of flattery. Cunning Goneril and Regan play along, win their portions, and are married off to the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. However, Cordelia, the youngest and most beloved daughter, refuses to speak such false flattery. This enrages Lear resulting in Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France, disinherited and banished from the country. In a moment of bravery, the Earl of Kent, Lear’s trusted and faithful advisor, condemns Lear’s rash decisions and is exiled for his trouble, but returns to court disguised as Caius, a servant loyal to Lear.

Lear declares she will retain her rank in name only and will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, maintaining a retinue of only 100 men; but Lear’s retirement does not go as planned as Goneril and Regan begin to exert power over her in humiliating ways. This forces Lear  to comprehend her diminished state of power and respect. Lear’s court Fool berates her for her foolishness. 

“Sharper than a serpent’s tooth”

In a closely related subplot, more conflict arises from the question of inheritance. The Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund resents his illegitimate status and plots to gain his father’s fortune by framing his virtuous older brother Edgar. Edmund falsifies a letter from his brother, detailing Edgar’s wishes to usurp their father. Faking an attack from Edgar, Edmund forces his older brother into hiding. Gloucester falls for the ploy and proclaims his legitimate son an outlaw and grants his inheritance to cunning Edmund.

At Gloucester’s home, Kent disguised as Caius is placed in the stocks by Regan and Cornwall for a quarrel with Goneril’s servant, Oswald. Upon her arrival at the estate, Lear flies into a rage at this appalling treatment of her servant. Lear expects Regan to side with her against Goneril, but Regan is just as disdainful of her mother’s behavior. Both daughters declare they will not allow Lear to retain more than twenty-five men. Cursing her daughters, Lear rushes out into the storm accompanied by faithful Kent and her wise but mocking Fool. Gloucester denounces the treatment of the King by Goneril and Regan and goes out in search of her to inform her of Cordelia’s imminent arrival with an invading army from France intended to restore Lear’s position.

The play reaches its highpoint in the midst of the storm as Lear suffers a complete breakdown. Having lost all her power and familial relationships, she begins to comprehend her own failures and experience some of her first moments of empathy. 

Familial Dysfunction

Edmund betrays his father, revealing Gloucester’s knowledge of an impending invasion to reinstate Lear. Gloucester is declared a traitor and has his eyes gouged out. A servant reacts to such gruesome torture and attacks Cornwall, giving her a mortal wound. Regan informs Gloucester that he trusted in the wrong son and was betrayed by Edmund. Edgar, who in exile has donned the disguise of Tom o’ Bedlam, eventually finds his blinded father wandering outside. Gloucester begs Tom to lead him to a nearby cliff so he can end his life. Tom simulates leading his father to the cliff, and then, pretending to be someone new, swears his father has miraculously survived the fall.

Albany becomes aware of the family’s ever-increasing corruption and he and Goneril fight. Regan, newly widowed, and Goneril, finding her husband cowardly, both set their lustful sights on the bastard Edmund.

Still recovering from her emotional breakdown in the storm, Lear finds herself in the care of Cordelia, newly arrived from France. Lear begins to regain her senses and begs for forgiveness. The reunion is short-lived as Cordelia and Lear are quickly taken prisoner by the sisters’ armies. Edmund orders the King and Cordelia killed. 

Goneril’s pursuit of Edmund is divulged and Albany charges them both with treason. Regan, who has also declared her intent to marry Edmund, falls ill and is escorted off stage. Edmund demands a trial by combat and fights a disguised Edgar. Edgar deals Edmund a fatal wound before removing his disguise. He reveals the fate of their father who died from joy and grief upon learning of Edgar’s true identity. Regan’s illness and subsequent death is reported to be the result of her sister poisoning her, and Goneril commits suicide. Just before death, Edmund reveals his execution orders for Cordelia and Lear. His warning comes too late, and Lear stumbles on stage carrying the corpse of Cordelia. Lear, overwhelmed by all that has happened and filled with grief, dies. Kent, determined to follow Lear even to the grave, declines the request to lead the country, leaving Edgar alone to offer hope.

All Hail the Queen King: In Conversation with Jessica Powell

Jessica Powell

We still preform Shakespeare’s plays becasue they contiunue to offer incredibnly insight into human behavior. This has allowed artists and directors to adapt his plays to meet their historical needs. Indeed, since it was first written King Lear has undergone numerous adaptations each unique, special and impactful in their own ways while still retaining the heart of Shakespeare. And yet, rarely do these adaptations take the form of casting a woman in the titular role. This summer, SF Shakes is adressing our unique historical moment by casting Jessica Powell as King Lear—not Queen Lear. The question is how will a female Lear address the play’s concerns of age, power, and familial relationships from a female perspective? 

Interview by Arin Roberson, SF Shakes Literary Intern, 2020. Arin recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in English and a Minor in Celtic Studies. She loves nothing more than reading anything she can get her hands on, and playing outdoors with her Australian Shepherd, Tilly. 

SF Shakes: What made you feel ready to take on King Lear?

Jessica Powell: Nothing makes me feel ready to take on King Lear.  I don’t know if anybody ever feels ready to take on King Lear. It’s just a massive, gorgeous, role and the character changes so much over the course of the play. Part of me also says it is time. I don’t know how much more time I have on this earth or when the roles run out. So yes, there is this kind of surge of energy in saying yes, now. Do this now.

SF Shakes: What are the things you feel you bring to this role as a woman that a male Lear does not possess?

Jessica: Well the stakes are so much higher for both Lear as a woman and for Jessica. Everything is heightened—the emotion, the challenges, the expectations. I think having achieved power and keeping it are more challenging for a woman. Then there is the relationship with the daughters, who after all did come out of her body. Lear says “but yet thou art my flesh.” It’s a whole different thing for a man to say that versus a woman saying that. When she says, but you are my child, how…you are my own flesh, you came out of my own body, I carried you for nine months and I am cursing you, I hope you never have a child or if you do that you experience what I am experiencing from you right now it’s just so much stronger.

I was thinking also [laughs] about the whole interruption from Kent in the beginning. He tries to stop Lear from doing what she’s doing and how angrily she blows up at him. The phrase that came to me today was “Do not mansplain!” It’s bad enough this man calls me “thou,” which you know, to use that pronoun is disrespectful, but that he tried to do it to a woman is like that’s just…you don’t do that.

SF Shakes: Has your history as an actor prepared you for this role?

Jessica: No. [laughs] No, no. I played Goneril a long time ago. And that gave me quite a lot of insight into the whole Lear world, the whole Lear family. 

SF Shakes: Do you think having played Goneril adds some new illumination to Lear?

Jessica: Oh yes! Because fortunately in the production that I did, Goneril had good reason to be just totally fed up with Lear. The King and the soldiers were jerks. So, it was really pretty easy to say, “Not only sir, this your all-licensed fool, but other of your insolent retinue, Do hourly carp and quarrel; breaking forth In rank and not-to-be-endured riots. Sir” [sighs heavily in frustration and then breaks character and laughs] It’s just this whole I can’t bear it. But then, of course, you have to deal with the moment where she says oh absolutely, take his eyes out. You go woah, woah, because she definitely gets far harder and more evil as the play goes on, and you have to deal with that. I remember standing next to my pastor at the time and saying, “What makes a person do that.” And we simultaneously said, “abuse.” So that was kind of an interesting insight. Now clearly that’s not going to be the case here, but there is emotional abuse; it doesn’t just have to be sexual abuse, it can be physical, it can be emotional and I do think that Lear does not know her daughters and has not been a good parent. You could look at the relationship with her daughters. She really has no concept of their character and experiences. And how could she? How could she have a concept of who they are and still be surprised when Cordelia says no, I can’t say what you expect me to say.

SF Shakes: You’ve touched I think upon this already, but what are some of the challenges of playing Lear?

Jessica: Well just physically. Physically, vocally, and mentally trying to memorize the lines. Sometimes it’s easy; it seems like when you have the extended speeches that sort of makes sense, but in the small parts where it’s like in the trial scene where just small exchanges, [laughs] You know it’s all these little kind of repetitive things that are hard. Emotionally of course it’s really challenging because on the one hand, you’ve got Lear saying [with authority] “Call my people together get the horses ready.” [whispered] “I’m going mad. I’m going mad” There’s that, well where does the madness start? How does it progress? You don’t want to peak too early. So that’s a challenge and yet you have this scene right in the beginning where she’s furious with Cordelia and then Kent. So, there is that in finding not just the emotional progression of the character, but what exactly is going on in her mind as she’s saying these different things. How much does she reveal and to whom? 

SF Shakes: Do you find Lear to be a character who redeems herself?

Jessica: There certainly is redemption at the end of Lear, where there is this forgiveness. Lear asks for forgiveness and Cordelia forgives Lear. There’s the acknowledgment of suffering and the apology. Some people think that in the last scene Lear is still very selfish when she goes off to prison with Cordelia and says oh now I’ve got you all to myself. I don’t know if that’s an interpretation that I want to play with. I do think there is definitely growth in the acknowledgment when she wakes up in Cordelia’s camp and she says “I am a very foolish, fond, old woman”; I don’t really know how I got here, I think I know you, I’m not sure. I am just really broken. Strangely enough, I do think this play ends on a hopeful note. Things have been resolved, the bad guys are gone, and a lot of people are dead, but most of them are the bad people. And Lear, depending on the interpretation you want to give, Lear dies in hope that Cordelia actually is still alive, and I love that line where she says, thinking that she sees a breath, “if it’s true it makes every fault, every sin, every bad thing in my life, it redeems it.” It’s like the end of Pericles. At the end, Pericles is a broken man in rags, won’t cut his hair, won’t speak, won’t eat, thinks that not only his wife but his daughter are dead. And then it turns out that his daughter is actually there on the ship and she’s speaking with him. And little by little he gets to understand who she is and he keeps saying tell me more, stop, stop, tell me more, stop, stop because the joy is so overwhelming that it is unbearable. And maybe something like that happens to Lear at the end “Oh look, look.” And then she dies. Not everybody interprets it that way, but I think she dies in hope.

SF Shakes: Do you have any personal thoughts on how you interpret Lear’s character?

Jessica: I have been thinking about the concept of nature and natural. Those words are used so much. And I think the very concept of it is challenged and then changes so that Lear has a changing definition of what is natural. I mean at the beginning I think Lear thinks well, it’s natural that I am king and therefore can command and you should all obey me and I get to have a hundred people following me around and then she starts to see different things. She sees Tom and thinks, no this is actually the natural person and I’ve got too much on. She wonders what makes her daughters so evil. About Regan, she says, “Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?”  I think Lear has a different idea from the beginning to the end of what is natural. 

SF Shakes: Are there any particular actors or interpretations of Lear that you find inspiring?

Jessica: I saw just a little snippet of a Lear from the Stratford Festival. I don’t think the entire thing is available, but it looked really enticing. I think what struck me in just the little bit that I saw was how far you can go, how invested you can be in each phrase. The wonderful Patsy Rodenburg, in Speaking Shakespeare, says, “Shakespeare characters speak to survive.” So there’s nothing wasted– everything you say, you’ve got to find what’s behind it.  And I was really moved by Harriet Walter as Prospero in an all-women Tempest that takes place in a prison. The investment that she put into that character is really inspiring.

SF Shakes: Do you have a favorite line and why?

Jessica: [laughs] Oh there’s so many, so many. These days I love “Get thee glass eyes and, like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.” Or I love the line “O, I have ta’en too little care of this” and especially this past week which has just been so bruising. You know I think for any white person the responsibility, the privilege that we did not earn, that has to weigh on us. And so there’s all that. Those really are two of my favorite lines, that and “A dog’s obeyed in office,” because it’s just so [laughs] correct right now.

Jessica Powell is a Bay Area actor, most recently seen as Momo in The Humans for The Stage (San Jose). She played Helicanus, The Bawd, et al. in SF Shakes’ Pericles (2008). Other roles include Volumnia (Coriolanus), Georgia O’Keeffe (A Conversation with Georgia O’Keeffe); Sister Aloysius (Doubt), and Elizabeth I (Mary Stuart), all for Pacific Rep.; Claire (Uncanny Valley), Polly (Other Desert Cities), Hannah, et al. (Angels in America), Aunt Eller(Oklahoma!), Mrs. Roswell (Ice Glen), Kate (All My Sons), Countess of Roussillon (All’s Well That End’s Well), Aemilia (A Comedy of Errors), Mame (Mame), Lee Green (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife), The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz – twice!), Mrs. Higgins (My Fair Lady), Joanne (Company) Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Margrethe (Copenhagen), and Ethel Thayer (On Golden Pond). Jessica co-founded Symmetry Theatre Company and has been an Actors’ Equity member since 1989.