“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.