Photo courtesy of Bauman Redanty and Shaul
Heather Wood talks about the joys and challenges of performing Shakespeare. [27:31]
Heather Wood: For those of you following your scripts at home, there's a chunk cut out of it that we've taken out. "I who please some try all; both joy and terror, of good and bad that makes and unfolds error now take upon me in the name of time to use my wings imputed that a crime to me or my swift passage that I slide or sixteen years and leave the growth untried of that wide gap. Your patience this allowing, I turn my glass and give my scene such growing as you had slept between. Leontes leaving the effects of his fond jealousy so grieving that he shuts up himself. Imagine me, gentle spectators, that I now may be in fair Bohemia. And remember well I mentioned a son of the king which Florizel I now I now named you and with speed so pace, to speak of Perdita, now grown in grace, equal with wondering. What of her ensues? I list not prophecy, but let time's news be known when ‘tis brought forth. A shepherd's daughter, and what to her adheres that follows after is the argument of time. Of this allow; if ever you have spent time worse ere now; if never, yet that Time herself doth say she wishes earnestly you never may."
Jo Reed: That was actor Heather Wood as the character of Time in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's current production of The Winter's Tale. Welcome to Artworks the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Heather Wood is a bold and eloquent Shakespearean actor. In The Winter's Tale, she plays the characters of Time, Perdita and Perdita's brother Mamillius. Because this production of the play, as directed by Rebecca Taichman, has just nine actors performing 16 characters, it might sound like a gimmick but it works... the doubling of roles is in keeping with the sometime comic sometime tragic play and its theme of transformation. And while Heather Wood makes a convincing little boy and, as we just heard, a wise, and all-knowing spirit of time, her pivotal role is Perdita--the King's daughter who is cast away by her father as an infant and raised by humble folk in another country. Although her lineage is unknown, some sixteen years later, she meets a prince wandering through the forest; they fall in love and eventually both return to her father's court where yet more wondrous things await them. Not surprisingly, The Winter's Tale is characterized as a romance -- that Shakespearean genre where the impossible and the magical hold sway. And because of this, it can be notoriously tough to for actors to play; but then, the Shakespearean canon itself with its extraordinary language, history and pedigree can be daunting to modern actors, and understandably so. So when I spoke to Heather Wood, I asked her why as an actor, she was drawn to Shakespeare.
Heather Wood: When I went to college, I actually went with the idea of well initially going to law school but when I realized I wanted to do theater, I thought I was going to do musical theater and I had done all this music theater in high school and I went to college and I started getting cast in straight plays, contemporary plays, and when I realized I wanted to be an actor I thought, I've never done Shakespeare; I don't have any experience with Shakespeare, I took a scansion class in college which was wonderful but...
Jo Reed: Explain what that means?
Heather Wood: Shakespeare writes in verse and prose but a lot of it is in verse and to speak it, you need to understand how the verse works, so you scan it, which is to go through each line and say, "Does it go, da-dun, da-dun, da-dun, da-dun, da-duh," which would be iambic pentameter and so most of his lines are, "Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou Romeo?" So that would be a perfect scanned iambic pentameter line, but some of his lines the stressed syllable wouldn't fall where it maybe should fall and you would need to go through and figure out, am I hitting the right word, so a lot of how to speak Shakespeare is told you to by the scansion, so learning how to scan a line of text. So I had one class in this, which as you can imagine taught you about a twentieth of what you needed to know as far as speaking Shakespeare and I'd always enjoyed going to see Shakespeare, but I didn't understand a vast majority of it and so I thought, "Well let me figure out if this is something I really like and where would I learn it?" So I went to graduate school and in graduate school we spent our entire second year doing verse; doing a lot of Shakespeare but also Moliere, which is also written in verse; a lot of Shakespeare's contemporaries and it was sort of through that that I developed this really love of verse and of Shakespeare's written word and of his contemporaries, so I think it was through studying him in grad school that I realized how incredibly lovely the written word can be.
Jo Reed: His work can be quite daunting for actors, were you daunted at first?
Heather Wood: Oh, completely. Winter's Tale is my seventh actually if I including grad school, it's about my seventh Shakespeare and my sixth big role, major role in a Shakespeare play, and I still sit down and I guarantee you I don't understand 60 percent of what I read the first time I read a Shakespeare play; no idea. I mean I have to go get the lexicon which is sort of the Shakespeare bible, the Shakespeare dictionary bible, and I go to my teachers and I go to the Internet and I go to all sorts of sources to sort of figure out what on earth is happening in half of what I'm saying, but I also approach it the same way I would approach any contemporary play; I find O'Neill daunting, I find Oscar Wilde can be daunting; I find a lot of it can be overwhelming because it's so incredibly beautifully written and it can be such a great story that any of it can be too much, so I initially always try and find what are the things that I can identify with and what are the things I do understand and then go from there.
Jo Reed: It's interesting because his work can be equally intimidating for audiences. I think that also presents special challenges for the actors.
Heather Wood: Absolutely. Yeah I think sometimes there's-- something I say, specifically in Winter's Tale, there's a section in Bohemia with flowers, and there's an exchange between Polixenes and Perdita regarding art and nature and it's an exchange that we both know exactly what we're saying to each other but I'm fairly certain about 80 percent of the audience has no idea what we're saying because it's so dense, it's so complex and it took us an hour and a half sitting in a room with books in front of us, going through, parsing it. You know, it took us an hour and a half to get it and these guys have 30 seconds to understand what we're saying and then we're moving on to the next thing so you sort of have to try and make as clear what you're saying be and hope that if you understand it they'll at least kind of go with you on the ride and the major points I think land but you do sort of have to accept the fact that there's, you know, there's a point where you kind of are expecting a laugh because you know a line is really, really funny but it's so dense and so buried inside of this language that is not natural to our ear, that it's just not going to get it; it's not going to hit and maybe one or two people every once in a while will get it and that's great, but I think if you understand what you're saying and you can sort of sell it in a way that they can get on board with you, it's really the best you can do and that's the most important thing is to just try and make it as clear as you possibly can, and I feel like we do a lot of that with our, with your cutting too. If there's a section that the Director realizes is just too dense, it's filled with things that would have meant something to an Elizabethan audience but that simply don't mean anything to a modern day audience, then a lot of times you'll find that will be one of the first things to go, and you realize it's not something that gets missed because it helps you move the story along in a way that the audience can stay with you versus spending the next 15 seconds going wait a minute, what did that word mean, and you've lost them by the time you've moved forward, so you want to keep them with you and making sure that it's as clear for them as it can be is essential.
Jo Reed: Well as you mentioned, you're playing Perdita now in The Winter's Tale at the Shakespeare Theater Company. Can you just talk me through this; give me a little bit of a thumbnail sketch about the play which is a high comedy tragic drama and other worldly all at once.
Heather Wood: Absolutely it was one of Shakespeare's last plays and it has sort of everything and the kitchen sink thrown into one play. So it begins in Sicilia with King Leontes who is married to Hermione. They have a son, Mamillius, who I also play; I play my own brother and sister. And his best friend from childhood, Polixenes who is the king of Bohemia is visiting. Hermione is nine months pregnant and for some reason Leontes has developed this jealousy and this fear that there is something happening between Polixenes and Hermione and ultimately it becomes so great that he accuses his wife of adultery and I don't want to give too much of it away, but the child that she gives birth to, he casts out, he banishes from his kingdom and Hermione then something happens to her, she collapses and is taken away and then Leontes is told she is dead. So then we sort of jump forward 16 years in time which is a character I also play, Time, and we are in Bohemia. So the first act is very stark, the set itself is very kind of black and white, literally black and white; very stark. The action is very stoic and serious and intense and sad and difficult and then you jump to Act Two when we're in Bohemia, which is this sort of countryside; we're at a sheep shearing, there's colors, there's flowers, you have a crazy shepherd and his silly son who is played by wonderful Tom Story. The central story of Act Two is that of Prince Florizel who was Polixenes, the king of Bohemia's son, and Perdita. So Perdita is the child that Leontes cast out and sent away and she has been raised by this shepherd and his son and is a shepherdess, she lives out in the country and she loves flowers and sort of lives this simple life and Polixenes' son Florizel came across Perdita and they have started a forbidden romance, and so the story sort of circles around them and their relationship and then the revelation of their relationship. And then Act Three they go back to Sicilia and everything sort of comes back around full circle.
Jo Reed: You ask a lot of the audience in this play. In fact, one of the characters, Paulina, explicitly says, regarding the play's resolution, that faith is necessary.
Heather Wood: Yes, she says it is required, you do awake your faith and that is absolutely something we ask of the audience every night. I feel to some extent it's something you ask of an audience every night at any play, absolutely in this we ask you to awake your faith but then we ask you to use your own belief and imagination. We do ask you to come with us on a slightly incredible journey that's going to take you into crazy places and fun places too.
Jo Reed: Well explain the rehearsal process and what you went through. First of all everybody is playing more than one role with the single exception of the actor who plays Hermione.
Heather Wood: Well Sean and Brent, Polixenes and Camillo actually only play technically play one role, and they do appear in disguise at one point. So everybody else is tackling at least two. We started rehearsals in New Jersey at Princeton, at the McCarter Theatre which is where we were before we came here.
Jo Reed: How long did you have for rehearsals there?
Heather Wood: We rehearsed a month, I want to say? I think four weeks of rehearsal and then a week of tech I think is what we were at there, which is you'd think would be so much time and it goes by so fast.
Jo Reed: How long before they had you on your feet?
Heather Wood: I think we were on our feet about after four days, but sometimes if there was a scene that wasn't-- something wasn't gelling right with it, we would sit back down and we were making cuts constantly; things were constantly getting cut; occasionally put back in but usually cutting throughout the process, and because of how this production is being done with the majority of people on stage at all times, we were pretty much all there all the time. I mean there was occasionally maybe where one or two people weren't called for an hour and they were called in just a little bit later, but for the most part, everybody was in the room at all times, which is good. It's nice, but it can also be intimidating because as much as we are confident in what we do, you know, we also want to be good, and we have some amazing, incredibly brilliant people in those cast and sometimes you're like, "Oh, I hope I do this good! I hope this is the good day that I do the acting." And that's the other thing is there's so much choreography if you will of chairs and movement and the movement of the set that we spent a lot of time on that as well.
Jo Reed: People who come to see Shakespeare typically know the plays; I think that's pretty fair to say. And sometimes know them very well and have a real idea about the way things should go and about certain characters; how they should be presented; I know I do about Cordelia. I mean I have a complete idea about the way Cordelia should be and too bad for you if you don't do it that way. And that's a challenge I think for an actor.
Heather Wood: Mm-hm. It's actually funny about-- what is it about three weeks ago I-- we look out at the audience every once in a while and I saw this person in the front row who was looking down a lot; and I thought, "Why are they looking down so much?" And I saw it, and they were reading the script; they had the script in front of them, and I thought, "Oh... I would just put that down right now if I were you because you're about to not have any clue where we are in this play." Because it was right before a section where Mark improvs basically the entire portion of this section, as he should because what Shakespeare wrote was supposed to be funny to those people and we-- in order to get that same feel, we have to make it funny to our audience, so Mark improvs it in a way that we think Shakespeare would like. But I think the reality is, you can't please everyone and that's always going to be the case; we can only tell our story; I can only tell my Perdita, I can't be the Perdita that everybody-- every single different person wants to see. I can only be what I can be and I can only give you the Mamillius that I can give you and hope that if you do come in with a preconceived notion or an idea of what something should be not that necessarily you'll say, "Oh well this is what it should be now; I'm cha-- my mind is changed, but that you'll say, "Okay well I can-- I can at least get on board with that person and I can go on that ride with you even if maybe that's not exactly what I had in mind, when I did Romeo and Juliet in 2008, it was my first job out of graduate school was Juliet.
Jo Reed: Whoa.
Heather Wood: Yeah, that was intimidating; but it was great and I had the most wonderful Director who guided me beautifully through it and I don't read reviews during shows because I just-- I don't find it useful or helpful but after they're done I'll go back and read, and one of the reviewers wrote, "Well, she isn't a brunette but it's okay because you know, in this part of Italy you will find blonds," and I thought, "That was what you were concerned about was the fact that I wasn't a brunette?" Like you know there's just sort of things that you were like I didn't even think that that would be something that anybody would notice let alone comment on but, you know, I'm sure there's people out there who think doing a nine person Winter's Tale is ridiculous-- it's just too confusing, but I mean I feel like it works and the changes work and the story works and you have to just kind of get on board with us and go, give over to it and if you don't like it at the end, well...
Jo Reed: You'll see another play.
Heather Wood: I was going to say, "There'll always be another production of it somewhere."
Jo Reed: We had said earlier that you knew pretty much all of Shakespeare's plays; you've read them--
Heather Wood: Most of them.
Jo Reed: Most of them. But that would mean you would have an idea about the characters too. So what happens when you have a very different idea of Juliet, let's say, than the Director; how do you work that out?
Heather Wood: I think if you have a good Director and you have someone you feel comfortable with, which is a blessing and occasionally not the case, I think then you feel comfortable going and saying, "Okay; I understand what you're thinking, here's kind of what I'm thinking. Maybe we try and figure out together someplace where we can both feel comfortable and feel good about what we're doing and the choices that we're making." I love Directors, I actually really, really like Directors a lot and some actors don't. Some actors would prefer to just be left alone and you know-- They've been doing this for 50 years or what have you and they're like, "I know what I'm doing. Give me my parameters, give me my outline, but let me color it in." And I think that's completely valid; it's absolutely great and maybe one day I'll sort of get to that point, but I'm at a point still where I really like Directors; I appreciate outsider thoughts. I appreciate someone who's on the outside looking in who can say to me, "Okay I know that's what you're trying to get across, it's just not quite reading to me as that." So I really appreciate anything a Director gives me and I try very hard not to go in with a preconceived notion of what I think a character should be or shouldn't be. But if I'm being pushed in a direction that I think is just really the wrong direction, I try to find something in what they're pushing me to go towards that I can latch onto and take that bit and use that bit and what feels right to me, see if what the Director wants could serve the play as well and then find the moments, find the colors, find the different ways to show what both he thought and I thought. But I've been very fortunate, because I think for the most part I've had the fortune of working with Directors who are very smart and who understand that actors are not puppets and not stupid; we know what we're doing and we have an understanding of these characters that should be trusted.
Jo Reed: Among the challenges but also the gifts, I think, that Shakespeare presents is psychologically true portraits of people and gives real insights into the way people think, feel, act, be, but does so in language that's amazingly poetic and sometimes it's hard to strike a balance in a production; one can overshadow the other.
Heather Wood: And I think often times it's the language that takes over, because of the fact that the audience member's thinking, "Wait; what did that word mean?" And you've moved past that, but, again I think it's about using the language, really using it, but one of my greatest pet peeves is people who love the language too much.
Jo Reed: It's using the language, but not highlighting it.
Heather Wood: Not highlighting it.
Jo Reed: Not going over the top with it.
Heather Wood: You can't hear it that long. I mean people who love the language and like bathe in it. I get it; it is beautiful. Nobody will ever write like that again; absolutely, 100 percent, but if you just like bathe in the language your ear can't take all that in. If you make every word important, no word is important. It's really about you're absolutely right, finding the balance between acknowledging the beauty and the poetry but still not losing the character, not losing the story, not losing the depth and the colors and the intricacies of these characters, and that's hard sometimes if you really love Shakespeare and you just want everybody to understand the beauty of every word and the reality is, it's just how they talked; it's just how they talked. He created syntax that was more beautiful than anybody ever spoke back then, but it is at the same time, how they spoke. It's the words they used; it's the phrases, the innuendoes, the idioms, it's what they used; it's how they spoke. So, I think O'Neill is a beautiful writer; I think Tennessee Williams is a beautiful writer and I don't think their writing is necessarily less beautiful than Shakespeare's, it's just our words, so it feels slightly less beautiful because it's not the poetry of 1600, it's the poetry of the 1900s and again, like you wouldn't give a speech from Glass Menagerie and emphasize every single word; you couldn't. The ear would shut down eventually because it's just too much information to try and take in. You pick the ones that are most important and you drive through the text; that's a major thing with Shakespeare; you've got to drive to the end of the line, get to the end of the line; don't drop off at the end of the line. It's really something that when you're first learning to speak Shakespeare I think as a young actor is really, really hard, because you want to just feel every word and eventually you've got to learn that you can't do that, because you're going to lose your audience about three words in and you've still got another 50 until you have a period to take a breath at, so you really have to just drive through it and trust that they're going to stay with you and even though there's going to be a word here and there that they're not going to get, they'll get the overall sentiment, they'll get the overall meaning if you just sort of keep on the road and keep going with it. As you would with speaking normal English, if you will. I coach kids who are applying to go to graduate school and it'll be one of the first things I pick on, which will be- don't swim in the language; I don't want to hear any more of-- how flowering and beautiful it is; just tell me what you're telling me. You've really just got to move through it. It is beautiful and we will know it's beautiful even if you talk at a normal speed.
Jo Reed: You know a great case in point, a role that you play, Juliet, when she and Romeo first meet, their first lines, it's a sonnet.
Heather Wood: Mm-hm.
Jo Reed: But you don't necessarily want the actors emphasizing that fact that this is a sonnet.
Heather Wood: Right, a sonnet, yes.
Jo Reed: Because these are two people who have just fell madly in love with one another.
Heather Wood: Absolutely, what you want them to do is be speaking to each other, just talk to each other; say the line. Go. If it's a shared line, Shakespeare wrote that. He wants you to come right in; it tells you in that, Shakespeare is saying, "You come in right on top of their line; don't take a breath; don't take a pause; go." That's his direction. That's-- he's directing you from the grave and saying, "don't take a breath here" and with Romeo and Juliet, with that first meeting, he's giving it to you right there; it says they're going so fast; this is like young love at its heightened and they're just speaking to each other and it's just coming out before they can even think of what they're saying; and it's another one that it's so beautiful but you can't allow yourself to sort of wade in it; it's got to be so on the edge and just ready to like crackle and pop at any second.
Jo Reed: Which role in Shakespeare that you've played do you think helped grow you most as an actor?
Heather Wood: Juliet; 100 percent.
Jo Reed: And why Juliet?
Heather Wood: Well it was my first job out of graduate school-- I did it at the Old Globe in San Diego where there's also a Graduate school program and the Director of the play happened to be the head of the acting program, and it was working with him and it was working on this character; I was actually I think one of the-- I think I might have been the only girl in my graduate school class who did not work on Juliet at all. I had zero interest in working on characters that I would actually play in graduate school. I wanted to work on Margaret from Richard III and Mary Tyrone from, you know, Long Day's Journey; I wanted to work on none of the ingénues that I was probably going to ultimately play. So I'd never worked on it. I went into it really with no idea, no preconceived notions; I really hadn't done any of it, but it was the largest Shakespeare role I'd ever played. And the journey that that character, that Juliet goes on is a roller coaster times 12; to have to go from the highest highs to the lowest lows to strong; I mean she's incredibly strong. The decision she makes about killing herself is so powerful and really having the opportunity to explore it -- and the other thing was, we ran that show for three and a half months, so I had so much time to really play and develop and I had this incredible cast of people, it's actually where I met my husband too; it was just the opportunity to play this role and realize that you can have this idea of like what Juliet is but really she's got so many colors and so many different intricacies and so many different parts to her, I mean I think I probably could play it 15 more times and still not find all of them, and it was where I really learned how to use language.
Jo Reed: And finally, what would you say to somebody who's coming to the theater to see Shakespeare for the first time?
Heather Wood: Don't worry if you don't understand the first ten minutes; I don't understand the first ten minutes 90 percent of the time, unless I really, really know the play and I've worked on it. Study the character list, actually. I think that's very helpful. If you can really get a grasp on who's in it and then just relax and enjoy it and let them take you on the journey with them. You may not get it the first time, you may not get it the second time, but enjoy the beauty of the language, enjoy the performances and just trust that you're understanding it more than you think you are.
Jo Reed: Heather, thank you so much.
Heather Wood: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was actor Heather Wood. She's currently performing in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Winter's Tale.
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