That would be a good title of the conversation: Quite a Year. Yes, I came from the National Theatre, and we did a few months, including “Peter Pan and Wendy,” and, of course, “The Amen Corner,” a James Baldwin play, which was on when we closed. And “Timon of Athens,” which was on in our smaller theater when the shutdown happened and it all stopped.
Could you have imagined then that you would be without audiences for over a year? I know you’ve talked about the importance of hearing stories together, in person.
It’s unimaginable, isn’t it? Shakespeare would have done his plays in the outdoors where there was an engaged, loud, vocal, animated, dynamic relationship between those in the audience and those on the stage. And it’s that energy, I think, that really lifts Shakespeare to the heights. He wrote very much with his audience constantly in mind, so it’s been a huge learning curve for me as an artistic director, as a leader. And I do hugely miss having a live audience to tell stories to and can’t wait to throw open the doors and actually feel the energy of each other again.
What is your sense of the energy when the actors do things over Zoom?
Well, yes, it’s interesting. So we’ve been doing a show, “Shakespeare Hour Live,” every week since we closed down. I think we’re on Episode 40 now. And look, the plus side is that I’ve been able to meet Sam Waterston and Liev Schreiber and Julie Taymor and academics and actors and scholars and directors that I never would have met just being in Washington, right? It’s been a great introduction to the American classical scene. And it’s been great that people have been able to tune in and ask questions of those people and have kind of live dialogue. So I think the obstacle is the way we’ve all had to realize: In this situation, if you can’t meet in person, what can you do? And, yes, a lot of these activities have been compensatory in some way. And yet, within them, it’s been a little bit of a new appreciation of listening, of learning, of understanding.
Stepping way back, why Shakespeare? What first drew you to his work?
Well, I played Hamlet in my school play when I was 17, so I caught the bug then. It was an incredible experience, just meeting Shakespeare as a student and a performer, and playing that incredible part. You know, I feel great tenderness towards it because I recall the summer that I spent learning it by heart as being like a romance, to be honest. Like one of those summer loves, where you discover such intensity in this material, in this language, in this writing. The feeling of memorizing it turned out to be an enormous gift because there are passages that I can still remember today. And so it really was like somebody I met that summer that’s been walking alongside me ever since.
You’ve done productions where you’ve re-envisioned Shakespeare — women playing classically male characters. Do you think it’s sort of endlessly malleable or interpretable?
I do, actually. I think Shakespeare’s a bit like a puppy that really loves being engaged and played with. Because he, himself, was such an interesting, subversive, unpredictable force. And it’s a tribute to his genius that his plays have a strange kind of almost incomplete quality to them. Which means that they’re always waiting to be completed by the community and the moment in history that they’re being performed in. So I think we show Shakespeare best by being brave and inclusive and radical. And when we treat him as a kind of sealed, fixed, historical object, we almost do him a disservice.
Do you see yourself ever feeling like you’ve done enough with Shakespeare, like, “Okay, I’ve sort of hit every interpretation or pulled everything out of it I can”?
Well, it’s funny. Whenever I finish working on a Shakespeare play, I’m actually left at the end thinking, Oh, there’s so much more I could have done. It’s as if he is inexhaustible. I would say that he’s a little bit like the Bible or something almost that’s concrete and yet endlessly available for reinterpretation.
When you talk with people who are not familiar with Shakespeare, how do you describe Shakespeare and why his work is so meaningful to you — and potentially to them?
There’s something very cinematic about Shakespeare in that he creates remarkable images that say so much, so simply. Hamlet, holding the skull of his dead friend and speculating on what life and death means. Or two lovers divided by a balcony. She’s up here. He’s down below. They can’t reach each other. They’re amazingly vibrant, open symbols of big, big questions. Like the peak of what the human being can feel and go through. We all know what it is to have big feelings and big events happen. And Shakespeare really knows that and understands that; he’s always going to give justice to an experience.
And does it help us find that in ourselves, or at least ways to understand it?
I think so. As soon as you understand that somebody, even 400 years ago, has been through something very similar to what you’ve been through, it really makes you feel seen. And when we feel seen and when we feel heard, we feel stronger.
What has the experience of the last year reinforced for you about live theater?
There’s something about acknowledgment and affirmation. That when you’re with a group of people and you all see something together that is true for all of you, then that simultaneously affirms what we all have in common. I feel that in so many ways, including politically, moments of consensus, moments of shared joy, shared discovery, are just incredibly good for the community. The community has been through so much pain, and I hope that culture can play a role in bringing together a new period of healing.
Okay, last question: Advice to live by?
A phrase that I use a lot in rehearsals that was shared with me by the great Shakespearean director Peter Brook, is, “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.” And in this year of such change and upheavals about where we live, about who we live with, about where we work, about why we work, I’ve really come back to that phrase. Defend what you have, but then, when that moment appears where it just doesn’t work anymore, and you have to change, let it go with grace.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview
has been edited and condensed.