Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s Assistant Artistic Director, Claire F. Martin, interviews actor/writer Kelsie Blocker about navigating the racism and sexism embedded both in Shakespeare’s plays and in the field of classical theater.
More about our Lunch Hours guest: Kelsie is an actor, writer, and comedian based in Virginia. She is a Shakespeare and Performance student at Mary Baldwin and has a Bachelor’s in English from the University of South Carolina.
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The show is produced by Claire Martin and Jeremy Fiebig.
Our Director of Engagement is Ashanti Bennett. Jen Pommerenke and Julie Schaefer also assisted with this episode.
This project is supported by the Arts Council in part by contributions from businesses and individuals, and through grants from the City of Fayetteville, Cumberland County and the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural & Cultural Resources.
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Hello out there. I’m Claire Martin it’s lunchtime. Hear at Sweet Tea Shakespeare grab a bite to eat and settle in for the Sweet Tea Shakespeare Lunch Hours enjoy.
Hey, Kelsie hello? I’m good. How about you?
I’m swell. I’m drinking coffee because its only 10 in the morning on the West coast. Oh wow. Wow. Later than that. Thanks so much for being here today. It’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure. Anyone who’s out there listening. Thank you so much for joining us. My name is Claire Martin I’m the assistant artistic director of Sweet Tea Shakespeare and I’m thrilled and honored to be yes, shoulders. I’m thrilled and honored to be doing today by my dear friend and colleague Kelsie Blocker Kelsie is an actor and a writer and stand up comedian.
She specializes in Shakespeare in the classical cannon. I got to know her when I was living in Stanton, Virginia home of Mary Baldwin University and the American Shakespeare center in with, at the end of 2019. Was it, was it literally just this past winter, whatever time has meaning was it feels like it was 10 years ago, but yes, this past winter I was in Stanton playing Isabella in a fringe production to measure for measure. And I was working at the ASC and I got to know Kelsie who is a student at Mary Baldwin at the time.
And we, we became friends and she just totally dazzled me with her brilliance on and off stage. And since then I’ve just been so kind of blessed to have an ongoing Artistic relationship. Her in April of this year, she read for Sonya in, were in peace at a two part stage adaptation of Leo Tolstoy, a novel that I did during quarantined the first week support and team I’m.
And then in June, when I directed an audio drama, like a radio play of dr. <inaudible>, she was my Mephistopheles, which was fantastic. A and then a This this last month, again, time is meeting this week,
She played the lead. She played Proteus in our all women and nonbinary actor, two gentlemen of Verona, which we called it, no jets, two gents I’m. And she actually reunited with Amanda Fallon Smith who had played Natasha with her in war and peace. So it was fun to see those two together. Again, she also played many in a, a, a one act called the 19th by Hannah Benitez. That was part of the burning coals sort of celebration of the hundred year anniversary of passing the 19th amendment and upcoming.
She is about to play Lucetta in Africa, Banes, the Rover, which we begin rehearsals for in, Oh my God, like a week,
I’m very excited to work with her again. So as you can probably tell from that litany, I can’t get enough of her and it’s just really great to have her on the show. So yeah. Kelsie like, thanks for being here. Great to be here. Great to be here. Love it, love it. All right. So let’s go back to that. Let’s go back to the beginning cause that’s a good place to start. Did we, I didn’t meet you the first time I came to Stanton, did I, when I was a prospective student, I don’t think you were there yet.
No, I couldn’t have been there yet. Okay.
Well, cause my first like real, my first real vivid memory of you is I had hosted through Mary Baldwin a day long workshop on the Henry add Richard the second Henri four parts, one in two in Henry five, which are my favorite plays in, in Shakespeare. I had sort of devised a, an all women and non-binary repertory a production for those for plays. And I had done cuttings of the plays and I led a workshop on like basically what happens when no CIS male actors are in the room, working on Shakespeare is history play’s, which are totally male dominated.
Like even for Shakespeare they’re a male dominated in Kelsie came in and read for some characters, which was marvelous. And at some point on that day, that workshop day, we had like just a discussion, I think about like roles Shakespeare roles and Shakespeare types. And it was a really great, it was a really great discussion and it was how I got to know you and Tim and a few others kind of in the program. And I just remember brought up several points about sort of, about being a, a black woman sort of navigating the field of classical theater and your a roller coaster experience.
I don’t want to say eye opening because nothing you said really shocked me, but you were so articulate and you had such insight into the field and a way that I just didn’t. And as a Director I’m always trying to think about casting and think about type in a way that is progressive, but, but there’s always, there’s so much, there’s always so much work to be done and there’s so much sort of white privilege and, and sort of white, a systemic stuff that is blinding me. So it was really good to get, like, to get your perspective on, on navigating the field.
And then after that, I don’t know. I just, like, I just remember us just kinda being friends. It didn’t, they didn’t feel like it was, felt like it, we sort of slipped into that very easily. And then, and then when I left Stanton in December, like we just sort of kept in touch digitally and then re reconnected for Warren peace in April. So like, I would just love to start kinda with your, I don’t know, maybe your experiences early experiences with Shakespeare the Bard, like how you got into Shakespeare, like where you, where you find yourself in the, ah, in the Canon, like what speaks to you?
What excites you about his plays? Yeah, just, let’s just, let’s just start there.
So the first Shakespeare play I read or saw of course was Romeo and Juliet and I saw Juliet and I was like, I be having problems with my family. And so it was initially kind of glommed on to Shakespeare is on the news weirdly enough and seeing myself in them. Yeah. And so subsequent experiences were where, and I was exposed to people who often have to play on the news and have to inhabit sort of that limiting confines of that particular archetype.
It was a complicated experience, right. Because I saw myself as this fun, you know, bubbly, youthful, like whatever, the type of personality, right. And fence, I’d say maybe 11th grade I’ve been cast as, you know, tough either macho, macho, a woman, or depending on the life of my hair. So it has been, that’s been something that I worked through there is also historically, you know, The, I often talk about acting like I have like material out where people will know what I often talk about, but, but there’s the whole thing about historically, you know, the masculinization of black women, whereas historically we were viewed as unwomen and like more of like the conduit for the workforce, our wings on those like a factory that is a breath test image.
But anyway, that, so all of that kind of swims around in my, in my head, you know, as I think about the way that I’m casts the type of roles that I want to play and all of these sorts of things, it’s a lot to kind of navigate it is I think important for more actors to be able to see book the commonalities between them in the character that they are playing, but also where they differ. And that’s definitely been something that I have had a hard time navigating because I sometimes give and I, and I think that this is probably common, have a lot of performers is that we sometimes give others the ability to tell us who we are or how we’re perceived or these sorts of things.
Right. Maybe they’re seeing something that I can’t necessarily see about myself. And that is something that I think is integral to the, to the idea of typing is that you may view yourself as this brooding Artistic pool guy and everybody else sees dimples and a button nose, you know? So there’s, I think that this is something kind of the, everybody has to navigate, but I think the complex relationship between classical texts and people who look like me specifically really kind of exacerbates it from me specifically.
So The, now that I’m done with that, I don’t remember what your second,
They ask one at a time and that’s my own fault.
I can only hold one idea in my head. I totally understand that.
So I love, I mean, Juliette is like such a gateway drug. If you’re, if you’re a woman and you’re falling in love with Shakespeare because she’s just so she’s so great. I mean, she’s incandescent and she’s such a badass and her text is just beautiful and she just, she just goes on such a personal journey. You really, you really see her come into her own and develop some steel and its just really, it’s just always kind of a joy to watch.
So what are other, what are other plays and or roles that specifically speak to you now or have maybe become more important to you recently? I’m like what in the Canon really kind of jumps out at you?
Well, I was really interested for a long time in playing Cleopatra, but that was more of like, I also have a weird thing about the intersection between like blaxploitation characters and like characters weirdly enough. It really comes up with me for Aaron. The More because he’s like very hyper-masculine and like we’re not really sure about his motivations for things, but he’s got the spirit, you know, like he was ready to really fight anybody.
And so I guess coming up with those images of, you know, like Pam Greer and Mike The the Afrocentric idea of Cleopatra. I thought that that might be a fun thing for me, particular, the, to bring to that text, but that’s more in like a style sort of realm, some roles that have become really important to me now are roles like puck and Mercutio, some of these breaches parts kind of directly fit on what I’m talking about, about my experiences as a classical actor about that gender weirdness, the weird,
They cannot be our new designation. I’m gender weird.
I don’t know. You figure it out. Like I don’t know what it is, but yeah. So those have been really important to me, certain characters, like I like to study more from like a like Lavenia is really interesting to me, but I don’t know that I’d necessarily want to play her lady. Macbeth is really interesting to me and I would, I mean, I feel like I would be struck by lightening if I was like, yeah. If somebody wanted me to play lady Macbeth, I don’t think I would do it.
Like I think that that sacrilege,
I would love to see your lady.
Yeah. Oh, I’m agreeing that you would love. But anyway. Yeah. So I think that their, I guess there are, there are certain, there are certain things that are more like academically interesting to me in there are other ones that I’m like, I want to rip that apart in inhabited to get in there. So
What’s fun to me about working a murky show in POC. If I’m thinking about those characters on any kind of Venn diagram, is that a, I mean, they’re both, you need, you need the clown, you need to be able to crack the jokes and absolutely like, like live it up. But also there’s this like there’s this darkness at the edge of both of them. And a lot of times that’s what makes the humor so potent because there is this like streak of be it like malice or disillusionment or cynicism or like there’s something, there is something that is shading the comedy and it’s, I think it’s different for each of them.
I don’t think that what troubles Mercutio is what troubles puck. But I do think that they have this there’s, I don’t know there’s this like shadow at the edge kind of like vibrant Technicolor furnace. Umm, which is what a part of what makes this character so fascinating. Cause they just feels like there’s it feels like there there’s so many layers to, to peel back. You just can never get to the center of them. And I suppose you can say that about, about lady and to a certain extent, but her, while I do contend that Macker’s is the funniest place Shakespeare ever wrote.
I don’t think she’s intended to be like fully I do. I stand by it. I don’t believe she’s intended to be like a, like an actual like comedian on stage, like to sort of deliver the laughs the way.
I don’t think that’s her job. I think in that play, I think it’s Malcolm’s job, which is why Malcolm is my favorite character full-stop but, but I do like, I mean, yeah, I love, I think, I think puck and Rakisha are a really wonderful examples of like boundary, boundary, blurring type blurring. Like they just occupy this really liminal space. You can play them so many different ways and anyone can play them and you’ll get a totally different story based on who inhabits the role.
And so that’s yeah, there both, those are really exciting characters. Mmm. How do you, how do you feel about Troilus and Cressida? Cause we’ve talked about cross it up before. Is that a role where you’re like, I want to get inside that are you’re like, that is a role I want to study. That’s a play that I want to look at academically.
Well, I definitely want to like, I, I frequently like throw the gauntlet down with Shakespeare like from beyond the grade, I’m like, Hey, well it’s time to throw it away at it. But definitely from I think a feminist perspective that I think could probably they’re a bear its way out through how that role has embodied. Right. Is I think that We that a lot.
I don’t want to say We I think that’s some people have a tendency and I’ve done this in this conversation to be overly simplistic about female ARCA archetypes. And so if there, I think that if Crescent is played as someone with agency, historically, a lot of the idea has been that she’s the unfaithful lover or she’s all these sorts of things.
But if you get in there and you pay attention to some of these parades that happen on Cressida, right? Like a parade of kisses, a parade of men were in another man is telling her how she should feel about the men. Like it’s like, where does she get to stretch her legs? And actually kind of just like they’re is that, you know, glorious, hard to see from one speech. Right. But I definitely, I definitely feel like as someone who gives a lot to like physical embodiment of characters, it may be something useful now that you are asking to actually embody that, especially in an environment where you can have like a relationship maybe with the audience disorder, like the also, you know, and there’s also, I mean, there’s the context of a war going on.
So there’s a, I don’t know. And now I have to write a medium article about this, that one and a half people will read.
One person is like dozing in bed
Or they’re the there’s, there’s one person. And they’re like halfway telling someone who loves them a lot, but doesn’t quite, but yeah, I think both, I think it might be cool to be Crescent and also to wax poetic about precedence, you know, write her a love ballot. She’s been through it, you know,
Like, like something that’s like Send Cresta to the spa for God’s sake. I just let her have a spot a at like an all women’s spot, just let her get away for awhile.
I see me to break a folk song.
I mean, that is, I would watch a steak. I would watch a whole standup piece about like what we can, what we can do for Cressida to a tone for the like absolute imposition of men that like just are just thrust on her, in that play. So it’s, I love what you said about how it’s very formative for you in, in creating a role to inhabit it physically. And that is something that you and I have talked about a lot because you have experience with like fight choreography and, and you’re just, you’re just extremely sort of at home in your body.
You’re really good at dropping down when you’re in, when you’re acting and for the past eight months, five months, whatever time is meaningless, we’ve been living in a world where we can’t embody characters live in front of other people with other people. You and I have become very adept at figuring out how to get high quality performances in which I’m, the text is very clear in the message is clear through voice alone. And so, you know, with, with dr.
<inaudible> with no Jen to Jen, I would love for you to talk a bit about what it was like for you as a very physical actor and someone who sort of specializes in that coming to Marlowe’s text and Shakespeare his texts without your physical toolkit. Umm, and, and, and what it was like trying to like try to adapt for the radio play format.
So, well you mentioned fight choreography and I think anybody in the program Mary Baldwin wouldn’t know like comment, like Kelsie is good with comedy. Don’t give her a story,
To make sure, like we got to get some extra practice. Okay. But yeah, so what’s been super useful, has actually been watching interviews with people who do a lot of voice acting and they talk about just doing the thing. Anyway, if a character is like lurching into something or there a particular things in effect, the way that the breath moves through the body, it’s very difficult to like fake it. And so something that has been very funny for me has been, we do particular zoom recordings and I’m just tossing my everyone else is sitting there very calmly and professionally, and they’re just limbs just throwing themselves.
I’m on a ride at six flags. So that has been a very, very interesting to navigate. Another thing that’s been super weird has been sort of, how do I say this? Normally when I’m in an actual rehearsal, I can get like a sense of like the energy, right. And what you can, when oftentimes, when actors are about to say their lines, you can almost feel it before they do it.
Totally. And, and the fact that zoom and things don’t allow you to like even talk, I feel like I’m like in the tub, like this is probably an internet sensitive metaphor, but I’m gonna say in any way, nobody can fight me. Like it feels like I’m sort of like in the trench, like waiting, like listening, waiting for its, its its a different sort of, it adds another shade of unpredictability I guess in talking on zoom is that once you get used to the, in normal rehearsals, once you get used to the volleying back and forth, you can kind of, I’m going to say my line now they are going to stay their line and they are going to raise their eyebrow and I’m to be offended by that, like that kind of thing, zoom like their dog might decide that now is the time to go for a walk.
There may be a thunderstorm. They may lose. There’s a, there is something that’s really useful about that though, because it, it gives it a different conversational quality. It makes it more tough to sort of plot out and go in autopilot and do that sort of thing. Yeah. So Xoom is challenging, but I also think it has its benefits.
Yeah. I would agree with that. We did William Coleman. Grieves is the way of the world in July I’m as a radio play. And one of my actors dropped out last minute. So I ended up brewing reading for one of the characters and it was, I mean it was, it ended up being such a transcendent joy because it was one of my dream roles and I didn’t think it in a million years I would ever get to play it or read that text. So it was, it was so like just totally made my life. But what I found was that kind of like what you were saying about six flags.
Like by the time we got to recordings, I was so used to her that I would just, I would just kind of drop down and I would just, just stipulate the way I thought she would. And I kind of would like move around and you know, toss my hair and I would just move, even though I was seated because that’s what made sense. And, and I absolutely did feel that that kind of unpredictability of not knowing exactly when my scene partner was gonna finish his line and trying to be ready for it, but also not knowing like knowing I can’t, I can’t interrupt you.
I have to sit here and take it. Even if what you’re saying is mildly offensive, sir. And it really was like is no way it is no substitute for the real thing, but it is. I am willing to concede that is a different kind of cool thing. Getting to, getting to watch someone through a screen and try to figure out like, how do we conjure chemistry? How do we, how do we create this connection when we cannot do it with these nonverbal cues that we have access to and a rehearsal room.
And, and I actually found so much like glee in and just like experimenting and umm, and in, in getting very good at like trying to read C like my scene partners, a through line through a computer screen, like if you don’t have access to like their, their, their breathing rhythm, if you can’t tell when they’re about to speak, like you watch more carefully, you listen more carefully. And, and I, I did, I do think there was a kind of, there’s the kind of liberation because we all felt like if we didn’t make big bold choices, if we didn’t just fully inhabit the character, however ridiculous we may appear in front of our computers, that there was this, there was this potential for, ’em a different kind of connection.
And it is I now in post production for all of these audio dramas and working with my team. And the thing that is astonishing to me is that you can actually hear in people’s voices that they were looking at each other. Like you can hear it. And it’s a weird kind of synesthesia thing. It’s hard to explain, but I know that a lot of times these, these radio plays in the past when you’re talking about like animated movies, for instance, like these lines are recorded individually actors come in and read, they sometimes hear a recording of someone else reading the lines, but they’re recording by themselves.
And obviously you can get great performances out of that model, especially if you’re working with professional actors. However, umm, it is, it is different when you are listening to audacity files that were recorded while actors were looking at each other and trying to read each other through a screen. And so with, with no Jen to Jen’s for instance like there are the best takes are the ones where I could tell that there was some kind of eye contact happening, even though it was through a screen because you actually feel, you actually can hear that, that visual communication.
It’s just, yeah, it’s a, it’s a brave new world, but there is some, I think there’s some exciting stuff going on.
I’ve been sort of thinking about what characters would be really, really tough to sort of try to embody or to try and act through this particular medium. And that think a lot of the, there there’s so many, there’s a lot of different factors. Cause I know everybody doesn’t come at acting from the same, you know, but I don’t know.
I don’t know where I was really going with that. It was more just me thinking out loud. But yeah. Anyway,
I mean it might be, I don’t know you read for Sonia. I might, it might be harder to play very shy, introverted characters because if you’re, cause if you’re playing someone who’s, who’s a very shy and introverted on stage, you have so many visual tools to use to indicate that they’re not comfortable around people and that you know that there they are present, they are listening. They’re imbibing the information, but they just don’t really want to speak up in front of everyone. But in an audio format, I mean a zoom format, but especially in an audio format, if you don’t hear someone talk for a long stretch of time, you could just forget that they’re there.
Whereas the, whereas the person who doesn’t talk much in a play, you would never lose sight of that. They would always just be on stage in a way, you know, I was thinking like, what would, what would my war and peace be like if you just heard it while people would be like, wait, which one is that? Whenever Sonia talked, cause she talks so infrequently and she goes a long SWOTs of time without speaking. And if you’re only listening to the lines, you would be like, wait, there’s someone else. They’re like, I, I wonder if it, if it’s, if the format is a less inviting to characters that are less forthcoming
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I mean, you know, you can get as specific or not specific as you want, but like what are some of the things that you have sort of continually like bumped up against or, or, or run into in terms of like casting personally and like, and I would like to talk about type and I would like to talk about like, who is doing the typing, how they are, how they are doing it.
Just deeply problematic. And, and also like what, what might be best or better practices moving forward so that the people, the bodies and voices in rehearsal rooms are not only diversely representative, but also empowered as, as actors of their own identity in the room. Because I think that sometimes there is a, Hmm, there’s like a neutralization that some directors try to impose on groups of actors, like, and I guess a, a, a pretty, a pretty baseline example of that would be at a Director says, yes, I’m going to have a company that is, you know, more than 50% cisgendered, male actors, but all the women that they cast, they cast as like soldiers, and then they don’t let them change the pronouns.
Right? Like the women are just playing men without names or many lines or real identities and they have to play them as men. So yeah, like that’s a, its a big sort of existential question with lots of moving parts. You can sort of tackle it however you want. But I would just, I, I think we should talk about, I think we should talk about casting.
Well I know for me, casting is a whole great big and then another medium articles. I think that there’s the complication, there are, there’s a bit I’ve had repeated incidents were in, I’ve had to tease out of someone that their wanting me to kinda of ethnic it up as far as how I’m speaking or a doctor in a particular accent that may not necessarily be natural.
To me, that’s complicated. It often comes with characters of lower status, which is also complicated because there are rich people in South Carolina where I’m from. Are there any, any place where you have where we’re one may have the idea that people speak to a particular way, our lack of a certain level of depth or intelligence there are we at all contain multitudes.
Right. And I think that that really is the thing that I try and get at when I talk about this is that you may see, you may see someone who has a particular body type or has particularly type of voice. And I do think that the lines of the body particular tones of voice, they do communicate things right. But I think a big complication about that is that there are people who inherently are viewed as unconventional or weird abnormal in some way.
Right? So going back to the, to the black, there is, there is a big movement right now, as far as a female empowerment being the whole capable, intelligent, tough athletic, that sort of thing. Right. But when it comes to characters that are being played by black women, we’ve seen all of that already.
They’re there are whole, like if you look at things like buying tick tock, any real, a YouTube, a lot of these mediums masculinizing black women or toughening up black women or not allowing us the full breadth of, of, of humanity and femininity has been going on. Right. So I think the, with all of that sort of moving parts and different FCS of influence and understanding and all that sort of stuff, I think empowering actor’s to be like they can comment or on the experience as it’s happening would really save a lot of work I think.
And I think that there’s a lot of people sort of take this hierarchical attitude towards directing, which makes it really tough for actors to say, Hey, this is kind of the worst. So a little bit, can we like maybe read a text and maybe read the roof? And I’m like, these are the sorts of the comic. But I mean, I do think that especially when there is this wide swath of like privilege between, between an actor and their Director, there can be really, really big barriers to feeling like they may not, there can be really big barriers and they can feel like maybe I won’t get to work here again.
Maybe I’ll get, I know in my case, there’s the whole angry black woman thing that follows a lot of us.
If everybody could just talk to each other, I feel like, I feel like it would be a lot easier. And there’s also the issue definitely that you were sort of alluding to with This is not necessarily I, but I’ve, I’ve read a lot of, of, you know, disabled actors talking about having issues is not only in how they are cast, but the way that their roles are written there is I think amongst every marginalized group, there is a huge issue of inequity of people.
Not necessarily have people kind of co-opting story’s that they have not embodied. And then therefore writing in all sorts of stereotypes, there’s the compilation of actual actors feeling like they are a stereotype. It just can get really, really meta and, and, and traumatic in cases. And so I, I think that, And then I also, I have particular qualms as an individual.
I feel like I am just skating all around with my answer to this question, but I, I have particular qualms with letting representation BA be the full breadth of what we sort of pursue, but because you may, I may see a Brown faced on the screen, but in what context, what a, what do, what does is the work? You know, we’ve had repeated issues working with bill where he’ll be like black, bad white guy and we have to make some sort of textual intercessions.
Yeah. And, and I don’t know, sometimes changing The the person who’s saying particular words. I feel like in the case of no, Jen are zero Jen, but the two gentlemen, everything works. Everything is everything. It helped a lot for their, to be no men in that room specifically because there’s the issue of sexual assault and not at all to trivialized male survivors of, you know, that kind of trauma.
But I feel like those, the words that Proteus speaks being spoken by a man, They have a particular effect on women, even at not even thinking about the audience, but the woman actually in the cast, right. There’s an entire societal rape culture and all of these things that you have to try and navigate. What does my male co co worker think about this?
Like, I don’t know. I don’t know. Casting is really, really complicated. And I think that the only way to navigate a lot of these things is by empowering the people who actually have to sit in those words, because like when, when a character does something problematic on some show, right, they are not like, who was the writer that wrote for this character to say that they’re like, why did this actor say this thing?
Right. And so I think that giving people agency, which is something that you personally have been really, really great at, and its been healing, it’s been therapeutic to actually feel like I have a problem this and its not necessarily because of some issue of the world is because me a hole kills like a personal, you know, and feeling like that actually means something is really, really important. And a lot of these spaces. And I don’t know that it’s not really, I understand that it’s not really great for the ego for people to be saying, Hey, I get that.
You have all of these moving parts and trying to direct this show and all this sort of stuff. But I need to, I need to call for time timeout because of my personal. But I think that that’s necessary. I think that is necessary both for actors and for directors and for audiences. But yeah, gosh,
No, I really appreciate you saying all that and sort of getting into it. I mean, I you’re gonna, this isn’t even a story that they probably should be shared, but the story that I felt like is it is going to forever for me be formative, like its going to be something that like shaped the way I like move through the field of theater for the rest of my life because I did, I, I, the night, two nights after I cast you is Proteus. I like woke up in a cold sweat at like 3:00 AM.
Just like, what have I done horrible. Like I had my have to call Kelsie right now and like, and talk to her and apologize and offer her another role. And I was just, I was so, and I almost did call you at 3:00 AM and it was only because I was like, no she’s asleep. Even on, even on the East coast, she’s asleep right now, you cannot do this
Was probably K-pop to the dance.
But like it’s my own in my own blind is my own ignorance. It had never even crossed my mind of, of what it might feel like to you as a, as a black actor to be told by white Director. And I even invited tolled by a white director that you were going to be playing a character who attempts to rape another. Like I, it had not even in my head, I was like, I want a great actor in the lead.
Kelsey is a great actor. I want to work with her again. That was, as far as I went to any, there was no due diligence beyond that. I was just like, this would be great. And then that was it. I sort of left it there and I had this, I really did have this like this literally literally a wake up moment cause I woke up and I was like, I was like, what, why have I like, how dare I, how dare I not talk to her about how dare I not include her in that conversation about it? And like, how dare I not think through the implications of this, like Proteus is a, is a big role with like, this goes on an interesting journey and I wanted to, I wanted you to have that opportunity.
Like it was just so it was so it was so narrow minded on my part and it was so like privileged drenched on my part. And so I take it as like one of the great Grace’s of my life that you like had that phone call with me and that you did talk to me about it. We talked for like two hours because that was, that was undo Labour on your part that I was like asking you to do. And that you, the fact that you stepped up and you did just, just have that discussion with me was so like, it was totally humbling.
I’m and I was so grateful for it because it, it really was a moment when I, I, I think that experience more than any other in my life, like reminded me of like just how much privilege has, has been embedded in, in my world that I have never, I’ve never come up against things like that with casting, like my things with casting PR the water’s edge for me as an actor has primarily been like you, you’re not like you don’t have enough range, which is, I will be the first one to admit that.
So, so like time to begin the Claire stand club.
So for me, I was just, you know, I, I don’t, and I don’t read, I don’t read particularly masculine on stage. Like I’ve played guys before and no one ever buys it. So they’re always like, we should probably gender this female, cause she’s not fooling anyone. But other than that, like I don’t, I don’t really have weird experiences with casting. And, and I say, I say weird as a placeholder for a obliquely and possibly overtly like racist and sexist experiences. And yeah, it really was now and now I’m the one that’s rambling, but I do, I do feel like it’s worth saying, because I did have this moment where I, I was so ashamed of myself and I was so horrified that I had like backed myself into that corner.
And not that I, that I hadn’t taken that I just hadn’t done my due diligence and I hadn’t taken your perspective into it and it hadn’t been a discussion. And so, yeah, like I don’t, I think, I think casting, especially with these classical plays, I think it needs to be more of a conversation than it currently is. I think so often it is didactic and it is instructive and it is, I need you to be here to do this thing. And, and there is that’s I just don’t think that’s sufficient, especially when we’re, when we’re talking about working with, with people from, from marginalized backgrounds.
So yeah, it was, it was, yeah, it was just definitely like a turning turning point for me.
Well, I definitely, I, again, I always I’m the president of the Claire Martin sand club, but I definitely appreciated having that conversation because it The, I think for me personally, I always want to do the work. Like if somebody is going to, you know, get me to play a table, you know, I’ll play on a Nintendo switch, you know, I’ll show, you know, but I do think that is a really valuable precedent that you’ve sent that you’ve set every time that I worked with you is that their, there are open lines of communication.
And there are going to be times like if you are intending to make acting as part of your life, they are you going to have to play some sort of undesirable character. Right. And when it does intersect with your own experience in that way or particular prejudices level that you, because of your ethnicity or whatever, right? The only thing that you really have is to be able to evaluate what, what the experience is doing to you, right.
And to have someone be receptive to that and move accordingly. Right? Like we had that conversation with everyone who was involved in that last scene. Right. And it had that conversation. We were like, Hey, you don’t have to reveal anything about your history are they are not comfortable with revealing. This is a low stakes, this is a low stakes conversation, right. Like nobody’s in trouble, but we just want to make sure that everybody’s comfortable.
And that is something that is immeasurably valuable and very, very rare. So, you know, I guess that’s what I would say. You know, if I’m, if I’m, The the repository of, of, of directing wisdom, is that like talk to your people, like talk to them and like, listen to what they’re saying. And like also I think, and this is something that I’ve noticed distinctly within the world of like sort of classical theater is that when you engage with these plays and then it comes second nature to you, it’s very, very easy to go into them with a set of ideas, to a set of ideas about how they’re supposed to look and how they’re supposed to move.
Right. There’s something that happened in much ado where a bit of a Dick says something about if I don’t love her, I’m a Jew or something pretty early into the text. And, and, and the thing that, the thing that strikes me as someone whose looking at these plays, because a lot of people get into Shakespeare very, very early in 26. So a lot of the players, other than the major one, you know, Hamlet, Macbeth, the sorts of things I’m coming at for the first time pretty recently.
And so I don’t have this idea, okay, this is our lovable main character. I’m like, Oh, I don’t like this guy. If we’re in we’re antisemitic, if we’re saying like weird racist, I don’t, I don’t like you. The playful is the play kind of falls apart. These are the sorts of things that I think can be tough to navigate because the world is Shakespeare is such a white world. And I think in some cases intentionally, so that its important to engage with others, not necessary to not necessarily see Shakespeare as the pinnacle of Artistic theatrical endeavors.
Right. Not, not saying that he wasn’t cool or whatever, right. Like this, but not necessarily viewing him as is untouchable Artistic Paragon. Right. And then in interacting with other forms of media, like, so they develop your palette and you can see things in, We all have our particular personal biases, biases.
I’ve only ever read that word. I’m realizing that we all have our stuff. But I think knowing that I harp on this Arjun is bang. Like a lot of the people that I knew coming through school and like all these sorts of things, a lot of these young women ate nails for breakfast. Like they might have a little heart shape, face and big eyes. Like they ate nails for breakfast. Like they were working multiple jobs, they were whipped smart.
They like to sort of, I think that because a lot of classical theater is where in our Western imagination, a lot of these archetypes come to life or where we’re introduced to them. We have an idea of what that body looks like. And when you have an idea of what that person sounds like, and that’s the only thing that we’ll expose ourselves to. I remember looking back in like, cause I’m a weirdo I was looking back sort of in Lupita and young goes history of the characters that she’s playing and looking back and seeing that she had played a doula, it was like, Oh, maybe I can, you know, these sorts of things.
I don’t know. I feel like it’s important to open your mind and expose yourself to like other cultures there. I do think that there is a big thing in, in Shakespeare world of making sure that people know that, you know, the world and no the text and no the environment and these sorts of things. But I think because we are creating art for now for 2020, it’s important know where that fits in that comment.
They have to understand that you are part of a much wider conversation, right? People can go on and watch a YouTube video. They can look at Netflix like all of these sorts of things. Like can’t remember I was reading, I’ll have to let that pass. But sometimes there’ll be characters from like modern shows that will draw immediate parent parallels from me with particular Shakespeare characters.
And if I’m only sitting here and being extremely studious about Shakespeare and only interacting with Shakespeare and I’m not saying not to be passionate about it, but if I’m being very, very single minded about Shakespeare above all else, its very, very severely limiting just because we live in a world now where you know, I can go on Twitter and see, you know, any number of people who wouldn’t be invited to the table to tell stories back in back period, there are incredibly accessible now.
And so I think when we go in into the, into the theatre to, you know, entertain anyone who’s in school now, like any sort of gen Z or younger millennials, that these are the things that kind of weigh on them, right? Is that they can very easily see someone who looks like them doing something fun and engaging. So if we’re going to diversify our audience, we need to do it in a way that makes sense is meaningful and is appropriate to our current times.
And the text doesn’t allow for that. And so we need to empower actors to be able to say, Hey, this mine is uncomfortable. I think this way it would be really cool. If I could say this line, like a Southern Baptist preacher or if I could say it like, you know, someone thirst, trapping, any number of modern understandings of things, I think really, really lend themselves to Shakespeare is texts. But we have to let them do I am just talking about I totally.
I mean, I remember, so I had tried to go through two gents to Jen’s is a very short play for anyone who’s not familiar with it She it was likely one of the earliest plays Shakespeare ever wrote and its short, like its only like 18,000 words, which is like a couple of hours. I mean, it kind of makes sense once you hear her, the plot because there really isn’t a plot.
It’s a yeah, the whole show’s got a pretty flimsy pre-tax it’s like two guys are friends and then one leaves and in the other joins him and then they both felt like they will fall at the same girl. That’s kind of it like that’s so its a its a short play. And the reason I say that is because, Oh, the reason I give that context is because I’ve been cutting all the scripts for these, these radio plays and there just wasn’t much cutting. I needed to do for time with two Jen’s like they’re just like there wasn’t a lot that I needed to trim to get it to a, we wanted a, a, a one hour 50 ish minute length.
Didn’t have to do much cutting to get it down to that. However, I did have to go through the process of like trying to do some emendation. So with the text so that it wasn’t quite so flagrantly racist and, and both Sylvia and Julia, that’s sort of the two ingenue characters in their, they are both, they are constantly compared to each other. Right. Cause they’re both rivals for the love of a character.
So they’re always being sort of physically compared and they’re, you know, they’re both very, very obviously overtly coded as white because of course they were because of when Shakespeare wrote the play and Tanisha Sinclair played a Silvia, a and she’s a black actor from Toronto. And so one of the things I had to do is not only think through how am I going to intercede with the text that specifies Sylvia’s whiteness, because that is not a reality for us, but also all the things comparing the two of them, I had a white actor playing Julia.
So I was like a lot of these things that they’re saying, Oh, they look alike here. Doesn’t really work for us. They have to be a like in other ways, but they cannot be alike. And in this, this, this, and this very superficial sense and I missed a passage.
What was it like dry tech? And we might of gotten all the way to dry tech. And I realized that the speech were Proteus is like describing Sylvia crying or something going on and on about how like white and pale she is that she’s crying. And I just like missed it.
They like the fact that I didn’t notice it until dry deck just is so mortifying for me, but we got to drive my stage manager, Emily. I was texting her and we got to that scene and dry tech and bless your heart. You, you did the speech, you were marvelous, but you got to the end of it. I was like in tears, I was like, Oh my God, I texted Emily. And I was like, okay. So remind me the first thing we do cut off. When we get off this zoom call with the actors’ is you and I have to like fix this passage together.
And she was like, okay, it’s going with the top of my list. I’m and it is like, it does require a, it requires a diligence and it requires a, an alertness to the text and a willingness to change it. Right? Like you have to be willing to break the chains of fidelity to whatever it is we think he wrote in order to, in order to open up the text for, for the actors of today.
And so I think while I a hundred percent agree with you, that is about empowering actors in the room to take ownership of the text and characters and make it their own. However, that whatever that means for them, I think it also means for directors and dramaturgs out there for anyone whose working with the texts before you get the actors in the room, do your homework like, like spend some serious time with the text and think, think about it. Not only through the lens of what is, what do we need for the story to make sense, but you need to be thinking, what is, how is this going to make sense for our story with our people is this is the, these are the bodies.
It’s, these are the voices. How is this story going to work for this group? You have to get specific about it and you have to be, you, you have to filter it through the lived experiences and identities have the people that are going to,
To be in your space as opposed to some antiquated idea of how it may have been done
Before or originally, or whatever you want to say. Do you love the Arts? Do you love Sweet Tea Shakespeare then you should consider being a guest on one of our podcasts for more information, get in touch with email@example.com that’s H O U R firstname.lastname@example.org. One of the things that I was so that I really have appreciated about doing these radio dramas is like its been marvelous too to have the actors engaging with a text.
And then like just telling me just straight up telling me when it doesn’t work. Right. When it doesn’t work for them, because that Intel is so, is so useful because a lot, because one person can only see so much and just having actors at the ready be like this doesn’t work for this is racist. Or like I don’t feel comfortable saying this or like, can we talk about this? Cause this is, this is an old paradigm that we may need to interrogate a bit more. Yeah. I just think, I think the communication between actors and directors needs to be open, but I also think that communication between a directors and artists and the text itself like that, that passage needs to be open as well.
It can’t be the text telling us what to do. It has to be S working with the text and occasionally when necessary vetoing the text just straight up vetoing it. Yeah. So that’s, that’s also a thing that’s like this idea of like linguistic purity, its just another, it’s just another way of gatekeeping.
There’s definitely going to be shady. There is, there’s a Shakespeare subreddit that I have, I really argue with regularly. And there was an article where they were discussing, you know, in today’s world. It is important to sometimes like get rid of what bill is saying is right, because he’s on a tear and he has no idea that black people can vote. Like, like let’s just like let’s get over it.
And I think a lot of the aesthetics and ideas, because a while I’ve had people try and encourage me to take certain qualities out of my voice, I’ve also had people really, really pushed the idea of, and this and this to me, I am, I want to be very clear that I’m making the distinct I’m. I am able to distinguish between people saying, Hey, you need to say this so that we can understand what you’re saying.
And people encouraging me to adopt Shakespeare voice. So they’re is kind of their own, we may have a diverse cast in terms of Hugh, but maybe not vocally sometimes and maybe not in presentation. Right? Like the there’s also the issue. Like I, when, when I’m embodying it, like if I’m thinking about, you know, a rakish a young man, right?
Or like somebody who’s very, very charismatic. Right? My concept as someone who, you know, spent significant time in Atlanta, Georgia and in Augusta Georgia and these sorts of places that man has a different posture, that man has a different way of like the, he may be speaking in the exact same way let’s he’s code switching. But the, even the, the posture of his mouth as he talks may be different from what someone else expects.
Right. And so we do, I think need to have specificity. Sure. But also I think that there is this idea that as long as we have various colors on this stage, we are doing the work. And sometimes that means this. And sometimes that sometimes it can be really, really limiting as to how much of an actor’s experience they can bring to it.
And I feel like that’s continuing to talk about the thing that we’re talking about. Yeah. I’m not good at talking Claire but probably not. But yeah. I just really, this is something that I feel like I’m really, really passionate about is that we, we tap actors because they are able to sort of replicate something true. They’re able to observe and then recreate, you know, but there are specifically in, in the classical world and not necessarily in other disciplines, sometimes there is this drive.
When we talk about creating a historically similar environment or these sorts of things, there are a lot of limitations because I can’t even like, I can’t even conceive of myself back in early modern England. Right. Like I probably, I would not have been on stays. Right. There are, there are certain things that we have to make concessions for.
And we, you know, all power to directors, allowing them to make final sales about what they want in a, in shows. Right. But I do think that is 30% of the time. No, no power to directors, No rights for a drag, but yeah, that’s that, that’s that original and you’re like company Director that’s how will did it.
But, but yeah, I do think that we set a lot of limitations on ourselves when we, our life, we need to stick to what the text said. We need to make people look, we need to make people looking exactly like how we think that they should look for whatever ProCare there’s a and I, I don’t want to minimize, because I do think that as I was saying, like, there are certain things that like maybe the lines of your body or a particular aspects of your voice and all these sorts of things do communicate.
Right. But I also think that in a lot of, a lot of people’s approaches to classical acting, they are almost kind of saying, Hey, hit your scansion and stand where I tell you to stay and, and, and s**t. And that is how I got problems with that. Yeah.
Yeah. Something that you’re kind of indirectly speaking too, is this prioritization often a at the hands of directors of like classical aesthetics and to me,
Over genuine storytelling. That’s the part that I, that I cannot for the life of me understand or get on board with it is when hit the scansion stand here, wear a corset, like how do any of those things matter more or, or merit more discussion in the room, then questions of like character motivation and like the community of the world and the, the backstory and objectives.
How, how can these, these classical, like, conceits matter more than the, the S the narrative itself and the bodies in the narrative and what I, F what I have felt before in quote unquote classical rehearsal spaces, not as the director, but as like an actor or assistant director or something, or even just as an observer, I’m not, has just been this kind of bafflement at the things that are prioritized over the things that for me would seem to be paramount in putting on a play.
And that is, that’s just in regards to like making a piece of art. Like I, that doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that the mental health and physical wellbeing of your actors should come before the story, right? Like that’s, I’m not even taking into consideration the huge, the humanistic aspect. I’m literally just talking about the art. Like why, why would we prioritize things that are wrapped up in, in whiteness, in Eurocentrism in a, in a privileged, but that are also just to me, seemingly so superficial compared to the big questions of a play, what are the parts of this thing?
How do they go together? Why is anyone doing what they’re doing? And, and how are we going to invite the audience into this world? And so that’s a, that’s another thing that I personally, that I like, I’m always sort of scratching my head about is, is where directors choose to invest their time, attention and energy in the rehearsal room. Because to me, it often doesn’t make sense where that energy is invested.
Yeah. And sometimes I wonder whether Shakespeare is being used as like a theatrical or artistic endeavor, or whether it’s being used as like a colonizing force, almost like they’re like, let’s impose, let’s get as close to when, when y’all couldn’t do anything. It’s, it’s, it’s disturbing. It can be very, very disturbing, I think, and really, really alienating from the work.
I think a lot of things, it also, I think, can lead you to empathy. Like I was telling you, like before I actually got into Proteus that I had this concept of him as this bumbling earnest baby boy. And he duplicitous, he has moments of being like, just downright ugly, you know, but in talking to particular people who have a particular perspective towards the actions that he takes, it entirely shifted the way that I view his character.
Right. I’ve had arguments with people who, with more degrees and, and experience that I have write about things like now her name is The girl in the Tempest Miranda, Miranda. I don’t know why I was wondering to call her Marina, but yeah. Having arguments about sort of, okay. If my, if I think my dad is killing people, possibly, and he’s being entirely tyrannical, and he’s the only person that I’m interacting with, I’m probably not the healthiest sort of person and might run into the arms that the next man, and I want to get off the Island and people are like, well, she loves her dad.
It’s about redemption and forget. And I’m like, well, baby girl has trauma. Probably like The, these sorts of is a real barrier, I think, as an actor, right. To getting into the psychology of a character to say, okay, Oh, we’ll We woman who loves daddy is entirely going to be forgetting like forgiving of anything that he, if she’s real, like yeah.
I think that she would have a different, you know, relationship to it. Totally. And so that’s been, that’s been a real journey, I think with almost all of Shakespeare is female characters that I’ve encountered and Karen about, because I’m not going to act like all of them, I am just, you know, being again to in this way, but it has really been a journey to like actually apply living in the context. Right. And what that would mean for someone, right.
Not an idea of a person or an archetype given text. Right. But like what it would actually be like for a person and what their constraints would be like, thinking of, if we can think of Iago as like this terrible guy who does this awful thing, you can only imagine the sort of things that Emilia has been through. Right. And what type of, what, what friendship means to her then and what, you know, being honest means to her, that like, what is her, you talk about the mask oftentimes, right?
Like how, how much, like, what is the, like where our, her soul moment, like all of these things I think are really, really something to get into. And it can be when you run into people who are really, really devoted to a particular set of aesthetics, it can be really, really, you’re really kind of not even having the same conversation when you talk about a lot of these characters.
Yeah. I think, I think the first character that we had this conversation about was maybe a F. I mean, me and you was, and like some actors about what it’s like to embody a fellow and to have done the work and see the huge tragedy in this, you know, man, who has to have overcome all kinds of obstacles and all these sorts of things to be the Paragon of traditional masculinity. And then to have this, like what happens to him mentally and psychologically that makes him take this man’s word over.
Like, and then for people to, I remember one particular actor telling me that, you know, people cheered when he died, you know, like these, you know, it’s, If you’re actually in their, and not thinking of these characters is like a solely, I almost said a solely literary entity, but I mean, I think about people reading things like a little life, is it the fattest book in the world and sort of those certain characters sort of like actually living with you, right?
Yeah. So I guess it’s not just literary. It is almost like people have particular like head cannons or something. I don’t know. I don’t know. Its kind of it’s baffling. It’s weird like that. Anyway. One of the,
The way of the world that is a play that is propped up on the mother of all backstories, like the backstory for that play is absolutely insane. Like it takes like a week of table work just for the, for the most part, for any group of actors to even understand what is really happening in the play because it is all, everything is subtextual because Congress is experimenting with psychological realism very early on. So they’re not saying what they really want to say. They’re all, they’re all very cagey and they’re all trying to hide their emotions and hide their motivations.
But also its, its one family, but the family is so sort of like a twisty, like however it can is connected. It is so complex that I was like, look, I only have 10 days to get this place ready for recording an audio drama. Like that is, it would take us all of that time just to establish what’s going on. If we were going to do actual table work. And so I created using Katie Mitchell, my mentor from England using her model. I created a, a, a set of, of given circumstances. That was totally, I pulled all my evidence from the text and then where there wasn’t evidence I made, I made rational and logical conjectures based on what I knew about the characters.
And I went all the way back to like the birth of the oldest character in the play. And I was like, this is the boom. This is where everybody Fitz on one time line. And the document was a single space and its like 14 pages long it’s like 20,000 words or something it’s insane. But the reason I made it was because I was like, I don’t have time to get into all of this in the rehearsal room. And so I said, I sent it out to actors, this, this intensely detailed timeline and part of my goal and in making it part of the reason I did it was that I took every character and I tried to authentically represent what it would be like for a human person to have lived their life.
Because I was adamant that my actors not approach the characters as these are, these are buffoons in wigs who are separate from me, write these are, these are idiots entails and petticoats that I am nothing like, because I knew that was going to be the death of the project. The only way it was going to work was if, is with body of Mike group of actors could find themselves in their characters, could drop down into it and believe in these characters, however, ridiculously and ostentatiously, they talked, I needed them to find the humanity and find the realism in these people’s lives.
And so it was such a good, it was such a good dramaturgical exercise for me because it forced me to take characters seriously that I might write off. Otherwise, even though I love the restoration, I still like there were, there are characters that I was like, Oh, I never thought of what it would be to actually live as this person. And in doing that, the process of doing that made me realize like how, how far beyond his contemporaries Congress really was because his play is filled with people, right?
Like they’re not actually architects, he’s taking the restoration archetypes and he’s like, he’s, he’s deepening, he’s excavating. He’s kind of like re reorienting and re reconstructing. And, and he actually does think of them as, as people. And if you, if you create a Tea if like in creating the timeline, I realized that, and I also realized how, how essential it is for directors and for actors to find their way into the lived experience of the characters.
Right. And to, to be able to embody them, not just on a presentational level, but to actually understand and be able to think through what Y the character does, what they does, what they do, even if it seems incomprehensible. And I know that that is something that you, you just do in your work as an actor. You’re so good out thinking your way into a character’s life. Why would they make these choices? Like, why would they speak this way? Why would they value these things?
You’re S you do that work independently. Cause that’s just, you’re just such a sort of good professional actor. But I think that like, it’s a, that work has to happen across the board, right? It can’t just be one actor doing that work with one character in a room. Everyone has to be willing to recognize the humanity and the other characters and, and the director slash person in charge of the room has to be willing to seek it out.
Right. And like, affirm that humanity and its a yeah, its, it’s a different way of thinking about classical theater because these plays are not written to be actual realism. But if you think about finding the psychological realism, then no matter what the characters are saying, as long as it’s coming from a place of psychological truth, it will resonate. It will reach people. And that’s like, yeah. So my that’s why I love the texts.
Right? Cause I think that if you’re working with a really good classical texts, then umm, that the text is just, it’s just the last part of reaching an audience. The work starts so much deeper than that. The work starts in the actor inside of them. And the texts is just the last thing. I’m like the last extension of that, of that emotional work. But there’s yeah, there’s a lot. We could talk about it all day and we have the before.
That’s true. But I, I am, I am out of questions, but I am just so grateful to you for, for taking the time to talk with me today. This has been marvelous, but to anybody who was joining us, thank you so much for listening and I will see you soon.
That’s our show for today. You’ve been listening to the Sweet Tea Shakespeare Lunch Hours catch you next time.