Shrew in the Bayou: An Interview with Gerrad Taylor and Shannon Listol Wilson

This last weekend, we sat down with Pallas Theatre Collective’s ‘Shrew in the Bayou’ leads, Shannon Listol Wilson and Gerrad Taylor.  Here’s what they had to say about playing Kate & Petruchio:

What are your personal feelings on Kate and Petruchio?  Have you ever played them before?  Has your impression of them changed now that you have gone through the rehearsal process?

Shannon: “Kate is a role that has been at the top of my bucket list since playing her (in the scene where Kate and Petruchio meet) in an Acting Class in college. She is the role I most identify with in all of Shakespeare. She’s feisty, she’s witty, she’s loud, she’s unapologetically herself. She is a force of nature. But she is also broken. She’s hurt and angry. Then she meets this guy that turns her world upside down. He gets her. They’re argumentative and passionate, bold and unassuming. Shrew is ultimately a love story. I think that is the only way it can really work. This is my first time playing Kate in a full production. And I am excited and grateful.”

Gerrad: “I have never played Petruchio before but was very familiar with the character and this play. Taming of the Shrew was one of the first Shakespearean plays I ever read back in middle school and growing up in a household full of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor fans made the infamy of the movie too well known to me. I was very excited when Ty asked me to play Petruchio. It’s one of those roles that I really never thought I’d play. Petruchio is described in the play as a “mad” man that has heard “lions roar” and “trumpets clang”. I don’t think this exaggerated image is necessarily the first thing that pops to mind when I walk into an audition room but I’m thankful to Ty for trusting me to take on something I initially thought was way out of my range. Petruchio is a physically imposing man with an even bigger personality. I’m 5’8” and 160 lbs soaking wet. How could I possibly embody all that this character needed to be? What’s more however, and this is a fact that I wasn’t necessarily aware of until talking with Ty, is that Petruchio is a broken man. Underneath all of that personality is a lonely soul that is really looking for an equal to love, and that’s something I could definitely relate to. This process has changed my ideas about this character because it has revealed to me what’s underneath that big personality. I’ve slowly began to discover that Ty’s casting was ideal. Although I’m not a big man in stature, the big heart that Petruchio has is something I can definitely relate to and have tried to embody to the best of my ability throughout this process.”

The director, Ty Hallmark, has set this Shrew in early 20th century South Louisiana.  How has this setting influenced the story and your character?

Shannon: “Setting this play in 20th century South Louisiana has been a long love affair for Ty. Afterall, she is a Louisiana native. She has nurtured this very real sense of place with this production for some time, and when she approached me about it and told me her vision, I knew I wanted in on it.  Ty is also a dear friend, and working on this show has taught me a great deal about her sense of home. It’s a place you can really settle into and relax and have fun for awhile. It’s a place where time stands still. It’s a rocking chair or a porch swing with a stiff drink and a glorious sunset. It’s a table full of food to share. It’s loyal and proud. It’s a place that sets itself apart from the rest. It doesn’t ask for permission. It follows its own rules. Jokes are many, and music is always playing. Times are simpler. No Facebook or email to check. Nowhere else to be. It feels smooth, like honey. And it creeps up on you, as if you are actually there. It’s beautiful, really. And it works well for this play.”

Gerrad: “The setting has definitely influenced the style of this production. The drinking, tom-foolery, and general frivolity of the period ushered in a strong sense of play into the rehearsal room, which I think is exactly what this play needs. This plays tackles some serious issues that can almost be seen as tragic; the power struggle between men and women, the flaws in an arranged marriage system, etc. Shakespeare, however, wrote a comedy and it should be a primary duty of the ensemble of actors in this play to not let the heaviness of these issues weigh down the lightness that the play should have. The play just doesn’t work if it’s not funny. I personally think Shakespeare’s message and intent gets lost and/or misconstrued in versions of this play that take themselves to seriously. The setting of the turn of the century Louisiana bayou definitely helped the cast keep a light and comical spirit throughout, which I believe helped in the end.”

What was the most challenging aspect of finding your characters?

Shannon: “My biggest challenge was incorporating this very fast, clipped, front of the mouth Cajun drawl while articulating Shakespeare’s heightened text.”

Gerrad: “I think the most challenging thing about playing Petruchio, and this can probably be said about just about any complex character in the history of theatre, is finding the empathy within him. There are plenty of things to not like about Petruchio. In the end however, the audience has to be rooting for this relationship to work. Discovering what’s likeable about Petruchio and this relationship was and is probably the biggest challenge for me. I think we’ve made some headway though.”

Pallas is currently running a fundraising campaign to bring Shakespeare to Anacostia for neighborhood students and their families. How do you make Shakespeare accessible for audiences who might have their first exposure to it with this production?

Shannon: “Shakespeare in performance can be very accessible. We, as actors, make sure we know what we are saying, make clear choices, articulate well, and stay true to the story. Shakespeare is fun! And they get it. They really do. I love performing Shakespeare for schools, teaching residencies, and leading camps. Every time I do, I learn something new. It’s wonderful.”

Gerrad: “I have always felt that Shakespeare is easy to understand if the language and through-line of action is clear. Shakespeare is written in English so there’s no reason why any native English speaker shouldn’t be able to understand it. What’s more, he writes in a meter that is inherently easy to understand to humans because of the relationship between its cadence and a pre-conscious relationship we all have with the human heart beat. Thus, if we as actors can embrace the meter of the text and commit fully to what we are trying to accomplish in each scene, the meaning should be clear. These are things I strive for in the performance of Shakespeare and I think it is the best way to ensure that no matter if it’s an audience member’s first or one-hundred and first production of Shakespeare, they’ll be able to understand what’s going on.”

What’s up next for you?

Shannon:  “Time with my family.”

Gerrad: “Next, I’ll be playing Young Scrooge in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Center’s production of A Christmas Carol in the inaugural season of their new theatre at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.”

Pallas’s ‘Shrew in the Bayou’ plays through October 26, 2014.

Thoughts on ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ — From Director AnnMarie T. Saunders

shestoopspublicity3Opposites and obstacles – for me, this is what She Stoops to Conquer is all about. Simple country life versus the lavish, fashionable city. Upper class versus lower class, and how people treat those in both. The old versus the new.  These oppositions create barriers to the characters’ quests for the lives they believe they deserve. Young Marlow’s inability to speak to “proper” women (and his boldness with those of a different caste) is an obstacle both to his and Kate’s happiness. Mrs. Hardcastle places her son Tony in the way of Constance and Hastings’ future, hoping a Tony/Constance union will allow her to keep her niece’s beloved jewels. The patriarch Mr. Hardcastle yearns for the good ol’ days to return, even as his insightful and enlightened daughter epitomizes the future. Throw in some tomfoolery and some elaborate practical jokes and you have a comedy that translates across time and geography.

She Stoops was particularly popular in America in the early nineteenth century, produced countless times by the touring companies that made up professional theatre in those days. In Washington, the play was produced almost every year throughout the 1810s and 1820s. I was intrigued. What made this play so resonant with capital audiences? What could Washington of today learn from Washington of yesteryear? (there’s that “old vs new” again)

Think Washington is crazy now? This is nothing new. This town has been a pile of contradictions since it became the capital in 1800. It took decades for Washington to look like a town at all, let alone the majestic national testament to democracy and freedom it was designed to be. The Capitol and President’s House – the first two buildings begun – weren’t even finished when the British burned them in 1814. The traffic circles we love to hate would have seemed like a dream in a landscape where only a few streets were carved out, and even fewer sidewalks. Cows wandered through town. No joke. Into this rural landscape came presidents, diplomats, congressmen, and their wives and families; they imposed their balls and dinner parties, their wealth and influence on their rustic environment in much the same way that Marlow and Hastings, Kate and Constance do in the Hardcastle house.

Washington today is full of it’s own contradictions. And plenty of obstacles. But again – this is nothing new. Today’s Red State/Blue State gridlock looks like childish bickering when compared to the election of 1828, which hurled personal attacks so vicious – murder, adulterer, even pimp among the insults – that Andrew Jackson’s wife died because of it (at least that’s what he believed). Sometimes a little perspective is good for us. And laughter is always good for the soul. I hope you enjoy our production!

What Goes Into a Pallas Directorial/Production Design?

The following is an excerpt from the email I sent to our “Comedy of Mirrors” cast as we began our 12 rehearsals (Yes, they put this show up in only 12 rehearsals – it was supposed to be 13, but, alas, a Derecho killed one of our rehearsals). When you don’t have a lot of time to put a show on its feet, to create a production organically with the actors, I’ve found that it’s often wise to tell the actors exactly what you are getting at, instead of making it a learning process that they will discover along the way. Thus, the email below set out to explain the basics of the Production Design as we began. I was hoping to show the actors not only that I was thinking about how Shakespeare had conceived their characters, but also about the audience that would be coming to see the show! For me, this is my first task as a director – who is my audience?

My second task as a director for Pallas was to work with what I had on hand – and this greatly influenced the production design as well. In order to get the marvelous actors we did, we had to streamline the process down to 2 weeks of rehearsals and 2 weeks of performances. Anyone out there had rehearsals every day for 2 weeks? These actors were troopers! Essentially, I had to meet with most of the actors before-hand and make sure that they would be ready with appropriate and workable interpretations of their characters at the start of rehearsals – ones that we could then sculpt to create a unified whole in this cast of characters. Further, I also had to create a design that would work within a $250 budget for sets, costumes, and props, and be sensitive to the time constraints of designers who were not being paid for their efforts. This is no small feat.

As a director, I find that I often face the chasm between what my artistic creativity would like to do with a show, and what reality dictates I can actually do. This is something that all directors face, I’m sure.

The email:“Before we get started, I wanted to give you a heads up about what I asked for as far as set/costume/etc. While I would love to create this process organically – that’s not always completely possible when you only have 2 weeks! Therefore, designs have been pre-set in such a way that they can be modified if necessary.

Our production design has been influenced by two things: 1. our season theme (objects in the mirror are different than they may appear), and 2. by our (small) budget. I stand by what I’ve said in our read-through and our personal meetings, Shakespeare dictates what how we develop characters; however I want everyone to approach their roles with the perspective of “what does this character see in the mirror, and what do others see in their reflection.” To facilitate that, we’ve created a set that is inspired by classical greek architecture, but will have projections/animations that show what certain characters are seeing in the mirror. You will see what I’m talking about at rehearsal, so I’m not going to go on much more here.

In trying to make our costume design fit the theme and budget, we’ve gone with modern designs and stereotypes. Part of what we are trying to do at Pallas is develop a thinking audience. 90% of our audience are not theatre people – they don’t naturally ask: “what theatrical historical forms and conventions is this playwright using? what is the playwright saying about me? about my society? about my culture? about my global world? What is the message?” Therefore, as an artistic director, I am forced sometimes to “lead people along” – to teach them how to engage with a show without making the show feel too didactic. It means that, sometimes, I have to be very blatant. Therefore, setting the “current” costume design amongst the “old” set design will hopefully help our audience see that even Shakespeare is making a point…and it’s something we can and should engage with. My hope is that the audience will understand that every playwright has something to teach us – and that theatre companies choose specific works to commentate on their society. This helps Pallas, and other companies, in the future.

So…the costumes. When we come down to it, this show is about class. It wouldn’t work if it did not operate within a class society. Therefore, the costumer and I have tried to stratify current society as much as we can. It was easiest and clearest to do this via career. Those of a higher class will be dressed upper class, hipster, business, etc. The Duke may look like Michelle Bachman; Adriana, a high ranking career woman; Dr. Pinch, a political campaign preacher; Antipholus of Ephesus, a hipster, Antipholus of Syracuse, Steve Jobs/Bill Gates. Luciana falls in this same category, but she longs for the traditional ways of the past, and dresses accordingly (think 1990s upperclass housewife who’s stuck in the 50s). Merchants and officers will signify the “middle” class – people in careers such as TSA agents, Military, Starbucks baristas, Messengers, Skilled labor, Students. The abbess will be muslim, etc. Characters such as the Messenger, Luce, and the Dromios will represent our “lower” classes: maids, gardeners (perhaps with some Spanish thrown in for good measure), janitors, students working their way through school, etc. The costume design reflects our own society which is becoming increasingly distinguishable as ‘classes.’ As I said…I’m trying to be blatant.

Before there are too many raised eyebrows, I know that this is extremely simple…and borders on the cliché, and I’m sure that I will get spanked in the press for making a simple “political” point (even though I don’t think it’s a political point at all!). However, after last season, I think we all feel that we need to develop and cultivate the audience we are getting (starting with the basics), rather than, perhaps, complaining that we don’t have the audience we long for. As we all know, good audiences don’t appear on their own. When an audience comes to a Pallas production, I want them to know that they will be entertained, but that they are expected to think and engage with the work!”

Pallas longs to develop new works. If we are to do that, then we need to work towards using our resources to develop an audience for these new forms of expression and paradigms. We need an audience that is willing to engage with a work during the performance, and to think and talks about it after they leave! ‘Comedy of Mirrors’ isn’t anything groundbreaking – it is, however, a fun and satisfying night at the theatre that, hopefully, spurs audience members to ask questions about what was on stage. This production is one step forward in our effort to develop an audience for new works.