Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Gretchen Hall

xApril 25, 2011
Washington, DC

Adrian LaTourelle as Iachimo and Gretchen Hall as Imogen in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Cymbeline, directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Photo by Scott Suchman.

For Gretchen Hall, the question was never “to act or not to act.” A born storyteller, the green-eyed beauty was drawn to acting at an early age, and has performed in films, on television, and on stage. Thanks to a childhood spent reciting Shakespearean monologues, the actress has maintained a particular penchant for the Bard, and has acted in favorites such as The Winter’s Tale, Comedy of Errors, and King Lear. Most recently, she played the role of Imogen in Cymbeline, staged at Washington’s own Shakespeare Theatre Company. While she was in town, we caught up with Ms. Hall to discuss her life as an artist, her love of Shakespeare, and the enduring importance of telling stories.

NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?

GRETCHEN HALL: It’s a really interesting question, especially right now because of the economy. Pursuing what fulfills me as an artist doesn’t always pay my rent. What gives me joy is creating art. I’m a storyteller, so I try and use my skills in order to bring stories to communities. I try and do that every day. It can be hard, because there are times when I’m unemployed. I try to figure out how to be an artist even if I don’t always have a job. I’ve found a way to do that through volunteering with children. I volunteer at the [theater organization] 52nd Street Project, which works with kids in that area.

If I do get in a play, using every piece of me to tell that story is really important to me. Trying to survive day to day, I unfortunately have to take little jobs here and there and go on unemployment. It makes me consider if it’s worth it if I’m not always being productive and using my skills. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something else I should be doing.

NEA: What drew you to theater, and to Shakespeare in particular?

HALL: I had two brothers and a sister, and we spent a lot of time together [as children] and would make up little skits. My mom introduced me and my sister to Shakespeare at a really young age, because they were great stories. She had us memorize monologues from Lady M from Macbeth, and we would wander around the house saying “Out damn spot!” I loved the language of it.

But I was also drawn to different stories. My mom was a social worker, so she would tell me stories about different patients she had. I always thought they were so intriguing. I thought “Oh maybe I want to be a doctor!” but then I realized I wanted to be the patients. I felt it was exciting to play other people, and it just stuck.

With Shakespeare, they’re such classic tales. All the characters are so interesting and complex, and the language is so exciting to speak. In one line of Shakespeare, so much is said with just a few syllables.

NEA: You mentioned that Shakespeare is timeless, and these plays have obviously been staged over and over again. How do you keep the roles fresh?

HALL: The other night at Cymbeline, we had a talkback, and a woman asked a question about the female heroines. They’re so few of them---in each play there are maybe two or three women, more if you’re lucky. What she said is that [the role] is still from a man’s point of view of what an ideal woman is. She thought Imogen was a perfect example of that: every man wants a chaste, virtuous woman. I never saw the role that way. What I was coming from was a personal attachment to Imogen [as a] woman trying to fight for love. I think that that is timeless. The lines are always the same, it’s just your own personal expression of them. And that can only be my take on it. The image of it is up to the director. If they want to have some sort of modern take on it, I have no say over that. I can just come from a true place, and say these lines from an honest place. That’s how I keep it fresh.

NEA: Why is it important to keep Shakespeare alive, and why do you think he’s proven so enduring?

HALL: I think that Shakespeare’s stories are universal. The history plays can be complicated because it’s a history that we as Americans don’t necessarily know as much about. But I think there are personal relationships in Shakespeare that anyone can relate to. In Cymbeline, there’s a war and there are difficulties within a family. This young woman who’s coming from a pure place of love is forced to give up love, and then forced to go into war, and at the end of the play she still maintains her dignity and her courage and her innocence.

What’s important to me is that right now we’re in a war. Yesterday, I went to the WWII Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial. Since the last century, we have been at war. I don’t know when we were ever at peace. Telling this story about war and how you can still maintain an innocence---not a naiveté, but an innocence---is really important. At our opening, we had four Supreme Court justices come. I felt such pride that I was able to tell this story to someone in our government. Whether or not they came away with the story I wanted to tell, I don’t know. But I wrote four letters to each of them, and received letters back from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. It was the most special moment for me to know that these two women saw this story. I felt like they understood what we were trying to say. That’s why Shakespeare works. It applies now, and ever since he wrote them.

NEA: What has been your experience with doing Cymbeline here?

HALL: Each city is different when doing theater. What I’ve been most surprised about [here] are the students. Student matinees can be kind of scary. Children can be really honest, and if they don’t like something, they will let you know. And if they’re bored, they will let you know. For our first student matinee, I thought, “They’re going to hate me. They’re going to throw things at me. When I get on stage with the dead, headless man, they’re going to laugh at me.” But they were one of the best audiences. They were so responsive, and they laughed and they understood things that sometimes the adult audiences didn’t understand. At the talkback afterward, they had amazing questions. I thought that was really impressive.

NEA: As a performer, do you approach a Shakespearean role differently than you would a more modern or less iconic role?

HALL: In terms of iconic roles, I try and steer away from that word. I would rather not look at other performances so that I have my own personal take on [a role]. But approaching Shakespeare in a way is more difficult because you have to do a lot of digging in terms of finding your character in the text. If you look at a soliloquy that one of your characters has, and if you break apart the text, you look at words she uses. [Shakespeare] was very specific in words and sounds that define a character. If there are a lot of open sounds, like “ohs” and “ahs” within the text, it says this about your character. Or if there are a lot of staccato sounds, it defines your character in that way. In a way, it’s kind of like math. You’re sort of figuring out the problem, putting it all together and then, “Oh! There’s the character.” Whereas with modern text, sometimes it’s a little more clear. Sometimes the author even says, “She’s like this, and these are her wants and these are her desires.” But at the end of the day, once you figure out who your character is, it all comes down to who you’re on stage with, forgetting whatever research you did and hoping that it stuck.

NEA: What do you consider to be the artist’s responsibility to the community?

HALL: From my point of view as an artist, I think it’s important to tell other people’s stories. I saw Black Watch at Shakespeare Theatre Company, which tells the story of these young soldiers from Scotland. I didn’t know anything about that. I was so impressed with the story and learning more about the world community. It was really important to me as an audience member. As an artist, I want to be able to tell stories that are a reflection of the world, of the immediate community, and that open people’s eyes to what’s around them---even if it’s as simple as a love story. Romeo and Juliet is still an important story to tell because everyone wants to fall in love, and not everyone gets to. Everyone can relate to that.

That’s why I love doing theater. Doing film and television is harder as an artist because things are out of place. You’re filming the end of the episode or you’re filming your climax and you’re thinking, “Wow, this is my first day on set! I haven’t figured out how to get to that place!” But with theater you get to start from the beginning and go all the way to the end. Each night is different and each night the audience changes the play. We very much react to how the audience is reacting. It’s alive. This audience is seeing this story, and no one else will ever see it like this again. Maybe somebody is feeling something completely unique on stage, and this audience gets to see that one time only. I think it’s very important to have that within a community.

NEA: What do you think the community’s responsibility is to you as an artist?

HALL: Just keep supporting the arts. I hope that we make enough interesting work that encourages the community to keep supporting us. That’s the most important part. If we have their physical support in terms of showing up, and [their] financial support, it helps us continue telling stories that I think are important.

NEA: Any last thoughts?

HALL: During one of the student matinee talkbacks, the students were talking about how hard reading [Shakespeare] is in school. I completely understand that. Shakespeare can be very difficult. But Shakespeare isn’t meant to be read. It was never meant to be read. It’s meant to be performed and meant to be watched. I hope that people are still excited to see these plays come alive.

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