The language might be a bit of a challenge, but at their core, Shakespeare’s plays are really good stories, really well told, says faculty member Rebecca Guy, who is directing the third-year repertory production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale this spring. Recently she and fellow faculty member Jenny Lord, who’s directing Measure for Measure, sat down with third-year actor Sarah Tolan-Mee to talk about their approach to Shakespeare in general, and these plays in particular. The two plays make up the annual third-year Shakespeare repertory cycle.
How is a Shakespeare play different from other plays?
Jenny Lord You hope it’s more like any other play than it is different, but on the other hand, like any other play written 400 years ago, not just Shakespeare, it contains a different world view, a different set of assumptions about life and people. And Shakespeare, like any playwright, has his own subjects that interest him that tend to recur in his work. And on top of that, of course, the plays are a mix of verse and prose.
Rebecca Guy If you’re talking about it from the perspective of an audience, it’s a really great story that’s really well told, hopefully. And I think what you’re talking about is the same for a lot of audience members if they go see Shaw, or even O’Neill.
Guy And for some people Tennessee Williams. That there are these different worlds, different times, different ways of using language.…
Lord Or Restoration comedies, or something from any period that’s not our own. Even working on Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with the first-years made me realize how distant that was for them—the late 1940s might as well be Elizabethan in some ways. There are just varying degrees of distant.
Guy And the things that make all those plays work are the things that aren’t distant. What’s the human experience? What’s the story? That’s why Shakespeare travels so well. People do him everywhere, in all different places and time periods.
What are some of the central themes in Winter’s Tale?
Guy The irrational nature of the human experience. What is jealousy? What is forgiveness? What is grace? Why does time heal? What is that about?
And what about in Measure for Measure?
Lord Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure aren't usually put in the same basket. Winter’s Tale has more overtly fantastical elements than Measure for Measure, which is quite earthbound in some respects. But one thing that they’re both about is the nature of forgiveness. And Measure for Measure is quite concerned with justice, punishment, mercy, and the question of good governance, with the death penalty hanging very heavily over the whole play.
Guy You can hear in that description how contemporary those themes are. There are words and phrases and usages that are unfamiliar to us, but so much is much more familiar than we think it is. You understand what’s happening, you’re not tripped up by the meaning of one particular word. Story is about response. Story happens in the space between you and me.
Jenny, can you talk about the three different settings in which a Shakespeare performance always takes place?
Lord This is something we talked about on the first day of rehearsal. In my opinion all Shakespeare productions are set in at least three times and places. One of them being Elizabethan England, because the world he lived in suffuses the plays. The second is wherever the play is being rehearsed and performed, which is in the production in some way. So whether that’s the city, or the school, or the people, that’s a time and place for the play, “now.” The night that it’s happening is part of the play. The third place is wherever Shakespeare set it, which is often a fictional place, sometimes a historical place, very seldom Elizabethan England—only once, I think. And then there can be a fourth place, which is what the director and/or designers add to that mix. Those three times and places are always present in any production of the play, though a director and company of actors can decide to make any one more or less important. But I think that you can’t pretend that those other [settings] aren’t always present in the play, and you get to decide how to contend with them. So when people say “When is it set? Is it set now or then?” I say, “Yes.”
Is there anything you would like the audience to consider before coming to these productions?
Lord Come see what you make of it—I don’t want you to know what I make of it, ’cause I know what I make of it.
Guy That was a very big lesson for me. You offer what you make of it and let the audience do with that what they will. And that’s the wonderfulness of it. You go out after a play and you’ve got five people sitting around pizza and a pitcher of beer with their different experiences, all really excited about them. That’s what you want.
Lord I always feel like theatrical productions shouldn’t require explanation, shouldn’t require research and dramaturgy in advance, necessarily. People who want to are welcome to read the plays if they wish, but I think that anybody should be able to come and experience it in the moment without feeling like some kind of seminar is required in advance. Because I think the plays speak for themselves, and the language has to speak for itself.
Guy I’d say exactly the same. Come see the play.