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Entertainment and Inspiration

By Justine Mackey, Bianca/Musician/Gentleman/Soldier in Othello

Growing up in New York, I experienced my fair share of the arts, from local community theatres, to summer stock, to theatre in the park, and of course the wonders of Broadway.  Discovering what theatre can do for a community and, more importantly, what the arts can do for a generation has certainly become a passion of mine. One of the reasons I fell in love with the works of William Shakespeare is that I was blown away by the fact that a playwright who lived and wrote over 400 years ago could capture the essence of life and people so perfectly. It spoke to me, a young girl living in a generation centuries beyond the Bard’s moments of greatness.

For this same reason, I have fallen in love with the heart of Sweet Tea Shakespeare.

Within my first week of rehearsing, I learned how special the resident company members of STS are and quickly witnessed how welcoming and generous this group is.  Their commitment to growth and bringing in more and more guest artists each year is inspiring to say the least, and I am humbled to be a part of this season.  In the six weeks I have been here, I feel as though I have become part of a family that I will have for a lifetime.  The arts matter, and watching STS strive to connect with its community, creating an atmosphere that supports the arts in a time when it matters the most and in a military town where at times families must endure separation is inspiring to anyone with a dream and a passion for humanity.

I heard about STS from our alumni page for Mary Baldwin University’s Shakespeare and Performance program.  I was intrigued by the success of a fellow graduate and fascinated by the thought of summer theatre under the stars, which made me nostalgic for performing as a young adult, outdoors in upstate New York. This summer, I am honored to be performing under the stars once again, playing Bianca, a musician, a Gentleman, and a Soldier as a guest artist with STS’s production of Othello.

Othello is unique in that it captures the essence of human traits, especially in challenging moments, or when fake stories begins to spread like wildfire.  Deception, lies, death, and discrimination are all reasons why this play is so relevant to the here and now and why I feel honored to be a part of a story so powerful and beautiful.  I assure you, you do not want to miss this closing weekend of Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s Othello.

Theatre Connects

By Evie King,  Duke/Soldier/Lodovico in Othello

I move around. A lot.

I love it, but that means every time I move somewhere, I have to decide how and where I want to get involved. When we moved to Fayetteville, I found a vibrant theater community, and I knew right away that I wanted to start auditioning. Right now Facebook has a banner that says “Theatre Inspires,” and while that is true, a more relevant banner for me would say “Theatre Connects.”

What I love about working with Sweet Tea Shakespeare is the interesting tapestry of people who weave together a performance. During Othello, I work beside educators, students, business professionals, volunteers, and many other leaders connected to the Fayetteville community in a different way. Some have lived here their entire lives, others are transient, and many chose to move here and make Fayetteville their home. During the day, we’re all doing something completely different, but at night our passion for putting on a performance brings us together. We are actors, musicians, stage managers, directors, painters, builders, and much more. From the moment I first walked into a STS workshop, I felt welcomed and my talents put to good use.

Audience interaction at Sweet Tea shows also connects me with the local community. Before the performance I ask audience members if they want a photo with the the Golden Frame of Happiness. I love learning about where they’re from, how they heard about STS, or if they have seen a Shakespeare show before. We might not have much in common, but for those brief moments, theater connects us. With each interaction, I discover more about this city and it becomes less like a temporary living space and more like a home.

If you want to get to know your community and connect with different people, come to the theatre! You might come as a guest, but you’ll leave as a friend, all while watching a quality show.

 

“Divine Desdemona”

 

When you find out that the dazzling, multi-talented Ruth Nelson will be playing Desdemona, there are just some things you want to know. Fortunately, Ruth was kind enough to answer some questions about the role and how she’s preparing for it.

What drew you to the role of Desdemona?

Every time I perform a Shakespeare role, I dive into the script already excited, but I’m also always surprised by how much I come to love my character. My initial interest was based primarily on knowing that Desdemona is a “juicy” dramatic role: performing characters who are going through intense situations and to whom intense things happen is a treat for me as an actor, so I was interested in telling Desdemona’s incredibly intense story. Throughout the process, though, I have fallen increasingly in love with each new discovery: her depth of strength, purity of purpose, and openness of heart are staggering. Not only is it a pleasure to bring such a character to life, but it is also an honor.

 

What do you enjoy most about playing the role?

Again, the intensity of the circumstances makes this such a fun role to play. The story takes us through every extreme of human emotion, from utter bliss to paralyzing fear to fathomless sorrow. That’s quite a roller coaster ride for an actor! Add that to the variety of character relationships: Desdemona’s deep love for and devotion to Othello, her kinship with Emilia, her camaraderie with Cassio, and even her (woefully misplaced) trust in Iago all weave together to provide a rich, nuanced tapestry of scene dynamics. I’m never bored!

 

Is there any aspect of the role that is difficult?

Once again, I return to the intensity. Dear Desdemona is rather put through the wringer in this story. Sometimes the aforementioned “roller coaster” visits several emotional extremes in just one scene, which requires a great deal of focus and energy. Conveying the TRUTH of each moment—not falling short of the needed intensity, but not wallowing in it either—is a fascinating but tricky tightrope to walk. I LOVE IT.

 

How is Desdemona like you? How is she different?

I can certainly relate to Desdemona’s innocence, her fierce devotion to those she loves, her deep faith, and her driving desires to do the right thing and to see the good in everyone. However, though I do try to live thusly, I’m afraid I fall rather short of Desdemona’s standard in many ways. She is described by another character as “the divine Desdemona,” and I think this is true: she is almost too good to be human. I suppose that would be another difficult aspect of the role, to return to an earlier question: finding Desdemona’s humanity and portraying her as a richly nuanced PERSON, rather than a paragon, is a tricky mission in which I am determined to succeed.

 

What would you choose to be Desdemona’s theme song?

“Stand By Your Man.”

Pretty much sums it up.

 

If you were Desdemona’s best friend, what advice would you give her? 

Throughout rehearsals, I have realized increasingly that Desdemona’s decisions stem from the fact that she is a newlywed trying to figure out how to be a wife. Poor Desdemona is so in love, so thrilled to be married, and so determined to be the perfect wife to Othello that she sometimes misses the bigger picture, to the detriment of her own safety. She is so focused on being truthful that the possibility of deception and betrayal in others doesn’t strike her until too late. Hence, I would probably say: “Relax. No one is perfect, including you. You can be innocent, but you also need to learn to be wise. The world is beautiful, but it has some smelly bits, which you ignore to your peril. Wake up and start sniffing.”

 

Why should people come to see Othello?

This story has it all: love, jealousy, prejudice, betrayal, anger, sorrow, violence, death. Also, it is possibly the most straightforward and tightly constructed Shakespeare play I’ve worked on. There are no subplots; everything revolves around this one central storyline, and the action is fast-paced and non-stop. This is a powerful story, and an important one for our time. I think everyone who attends will see themselves in at least one facet of the mirror this play holds up to society.

 

How is this production different from others you have done? 

The process has suited the dense, frill-free structure of the play: these first few weeks have been solely about text and character and relationships. It has been refreshing to focus on these complexities without having to think about technicalities. Such work serves the story well; furthermore, it will provide us a strong foundation as we start to layer on all those other elements that are necessary to putting on a show, but can be distracting if brought in too early.

 

What is it like to work with our guest artist, director Dennis Henry?

Working with Dennis has been such a treat! I noticed immediately his depth of knowledge about and care for this story, these characters, and the audience, and so I knew from the start that we were in good hands. Furthermore, Desdemona is the victim of some violence in this story, so he’s had to guide me and my fellow actors through those scenes. I have felt completely safe the entire time. Regarding both the story and actor safety, I am grateful to be working with a director whom I can trust.

 

What is your dream role?

​I’ve been rather ridiculously fortunate, in that I have already played some of my dream roles, Juliet and Viola being among them. If we’re sticking with Shakespeare, I would say . . . Juliet again. Over and over, until I’m too old. Thinking musical theatre, I would say Cathy in The Last Five Years. Or Belle. ‘Cause . . . I mean, it’s Belle.​ Thinking beyond Shakespeare or musical theatre, I might say . . . Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, or Nina in The Seagull. Probably lots more that I can’t think of right now, but you get the general idea. 🙂

 

Othello opens at the 1897 Poe House on June 1 and runs through June 18. 

 

Ten Questions for Dennis Henry

Othello rehearsals have begun, and we’re so excited to have guest artist Dennis Henry on board to direct. Read on to get to know him, and then go ahead and book your tickets for the show.

1. What made you want to work with STS?

I have worked extensively with Rick Blunt, the actor playing Iago. He had worked at Sweet Tea before and said, “I had a great time.” That was all the recommendation I needed. Also, I know that Jeremy Fiebig had come from the Mary Baldwin program and many of the philosophies of Sweet Tea are similar to that of the American Shakespeare Center. I love working on shows that have  lights on the audience and that respect Shakespeare’s text.

2. Why did you want to direct Othello?

I have studied Othello for years, and I often have my Intro to Theatre students read the play, but for some reason I had never worked on it before as an actor or director. The story is brilliant. It is so fast-paced, and the complex psychologies of both Iago and Othello are exciting to delve into.

3. How is this play relevant today?

Dennis: Othello is a play about manipulation. It is a play about one’s public persona vs. one’s actual character. It is about revenge. It is about jealousy. It’s about love. It’s about hate. This is the human condition. What do we really know about our friends, our family, our heroes and our politicians? We only know what we see. We rely heavily on “ocular proof,” as Othello puts it. But what do we really know?

Plus, Shakespeare foretold on-line dating in this play when he had Brabantio say, “Strike on the tinder, ho!” [rimshot]

4. What is your favorite play you’ve directed, and why?

My favorite play I have directed to this point is Silence by Moira Buffini, which I directed at the University of Nebraska. It is about a Viking prince who learns on his wedding night that he is actually a princess. It is also about the apocalypse and has a hallucinogenic mushroom scene. What else do you need in a play?

5. What is the best play you’ve ever seen?

So many to choose from! In 1997 I saw A Doll’s House on Broadway starring Janet McTeer as Nora. Her performance was certainly the best live performance I’ve seen. Also, I was impressed how straightforward the direction was. It was a 100-year-old play that many feel the urge to “update.” This production just “did the play” and it was remarkable.

6. What show do you dream of directing?

This answer always changes based on what mood I’m in, because there is so much awesome stuff out there. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is up near the top of the list these days. It’s a great story and I love the macabre.I would wanna do it around Halloween time.

7. Briefly devise an alternate ending for Othello.

Emilia kills Iago, saves Desdemona with CPR, and they run away together.

8. What would Othello or Iago’s theme song be?

“Ghengis Khan” by Miike Snow works for both. “I get a little bit Ghengis Khan, I don’t want you to get it on, with nobody else but me.”

9. What are you most looking forward to about your time in NC?

Returning to the Fayetteville Waffle House where I was mocked by the waitress for ordering unsweetened tea while at the National HS Speech and Debate tournament in 1998. (“I don’t know how ya’ll can drink it like that.”) Ironically, I am returning to work with Sweet Tea Shakespeare. I don’t think I’ll make that cultural faux pas again.

10. What kind of food do you like (so our fan group, the Sugars, can make local restaurant suggestions)?

Wings, Burgers, Pizza. Anything unhealthy that tastes good with beer.

 

 

Ten Questions for Rick Blunt

Though we’re still a couple of months away from sharing our summer shows with you, preparation is well underway. To help get you ready, we’re going to introduce you to some of the guest artists who’ll be joining us this summer. First up is Rick Blunt, who will play Iago in Othello.

1. What made you want to work with STS?
I was classmates with founder Jeremy Fiebig.  We both graduated with our MFAs from Mary Baldwin University with a degree in Shakespeare in Performance.  I was an Acting Emphasis at MBU; I think Jeremy was a Directing Emphasis.  The graduate work in Shakespeare at Mary Baldwin is unique in that it focuses on the how Shakespeare performed his plays, and specifically how he was able to include his audience in the text of his plays.  Furthermore, I co-directed Twelfth Night and did the fight choreography with Sweet Tea Shakespeare a while back, and in truth, the group of people I met were unforgettable. There is no substitute for passion, and the vibes around these people is second to none.  I describe founder Jeremy Fiebig as a “doer.”  Simply put, the guy gets things done.  When I arrived in Fayetteville and met the people of Sweet Tea, I knew I wanted to work here again.

 

2. Why did you want to act in Othello?
Iago is one of the greatest roles in Shakespeare.  And Jeremy put together a dynamite cast, and with a director that I love.  How could I resist?  Plus, Othello is a beautifully horrible play.  Along with Othello and Iago, I particularly like the character of Desdemona and her journey throughout the play.  And I love the scene between Desdemona and Emilia near the end of this play.  “The world is a huge thing,” says Emilia.  I don’t want to give anything away, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

 

3. How is this play relevant today?
This play is relevant for many reasons:  most importantly, human emotions haven’t changed in 400 years.  Maybe the order we say them in has changed a bit, but nothing about what these characters experience is foreign to a human being today.
For example:  
Jealousy:  Othello is jealous, but so is Iago.  
Anger: There is lots of anger in this play that centers around characters not getting what they want or struggling to get what they want.  
Hurt:  Hurt that your wife cheated on you is one thing, but poor Roderigo is hurt because he loves Desdemona and she does not love him, and her father hates him.
Abuse:  Desdemona is hit in public in this play.  Roderigo is used for his money and then… you’ll see.  
Parental Issues:  Desdemona elopes with a man her father does not approve of.
Otherness:  Othello, along with being a Moor, has no idea about the culture that surrounds him in this play, so along with race, it’s about otherness, which is relevant to the idea of the marginalized persons and communities in our society today.  

 

4. What is your favorite role you’ve played, and why?
My favorite role I’ve played is Falstaff in Henry 4 part 1.  Falstaff reminds me of my father.  Falstaff, like my father, was one of the most entertaining men in the world.  
I also want to give a shout out to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I was born to play Nick Bottom.  And I love that play.  It is a perfect play.  There is no better way to spend your summer than playing any role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

5. What is the best play you’ve ever seen?
This is my answer, though I’m not sure it answers your question.  My friend, Dr. James Keegan, was playing Falstaff in Henry 4 part 2.  That is a play about aging and death.  James’ mother fell ill and was close to death.  In fact, she died the next day, luckily, it was the next day and James was by her side when she passed.  James playing Falstaff in that play, about aging and death, and his knowledge of his mother’s declining health was one of the most miraculous and extraordinary performances that I’ve ever witnessed.  

 

6. What role do you dream of playing?
Rooster in Jerusalem. For me to play that role, I would have to approach a character in a way that I never had to before.  I don’t consider myself a transformative actor; I try to find as much as myself in a role as possible, but to play Rooster, I’d have to change that approach.  

 

7. Briefly devise an alternate ending for Othello.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus dies of a broken heart.  It would be cool to see Othello die of a broken heart at the end of this play.

 

8. What would Iago’s theme song be?
For Iago, “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.”
That’s more of a punchline, because I don’t think Iago wants anyone dead in this play:  he wants them ruined and alive to feel it.  I don’t know a song about that.

 

9. What are you most looking forward to about your time in NC?
Seeing lizards.
And perhaps, this time, I’ll get to do some fishing.
Reuniting with the folks of Sweet Tea, and being in a play again with my friends Jake Daly, Justine Mackey, and my brother Dennis Henry.  

 

10. What kind of food do you like?

BBQ.  All day and all night.