Poised to take over leadership of the New Haven-based Elm Shakespeare Company as its new Producing Director is Rebecca Goodheart. The founder of the Maryland Shakespeare Festival is both prepared for the challenge and eager to begin her new role this October.
It is no wonder that Elm Shakespeare, a company dedicated to offering accessible and innovative theatre to a diverse audience, offered Goodheart the role of Producing Director. Not only does her resume boast a host of enriching community outreach and educational programmes, but she can claim membership in regional and international theatre companies serving locations from San Francisco to Brazil and call herself the pioneer of her own theatrical techniques.
Believing that Shakespeare would not have employed such artistic literary devices unless they also had a dramatic function, Goodheart strives to actively play the Bard’s rhetoric on stage and help her actors to engage with their characters physically and psychically through the Bard’s rhetorical figures.
After describing the theatre as ‘one of the last bastions of empathy and community-wide reflection and connection’, before advising that ‘we must breathe and embrace our own humanity, and then give it away generously’, it is clear that no one is better suited to direct such a civically inclined theatre company, intent of encompassing the whole community in its projects.
As inspiring to speak with as she is creative with her projects, Goodheart took some time out of her move from San Francisco to Connecticut to answer my questions on her experiences so far, King John and Juliet, and her visions for Elm Shakespeare Company.
L.B: One of the questions I always kick off with is what is your favourite Shakespearean play and character, and why?
R.G: At first glance, the easiest answer is that my favorite play is that which I am working on at the moment. It also happens to be the most truthful answer. One of the things about directing and producing theater that I love most is how each time, I fall into a play and it becomes my world. All of my creative thoughts revolve around that story and its characters, language, and imagery. I see it and feel its resonances everywhere I go; it lives with me and I grow into it. If I don’t love it to start with, I soon fall in love and relish its challenges and idiosyncrasies as much as the facets which drew me to it in the first place. Each time it consumes me without fail.
L.B: Are there any plays that you are itching to stage? Would you be able to give us a sneak peak of any new visionary ideas you have for these productions?
R.G: I have long loved the play King John. The language of the play swings from lyric poetry to sparse inferential exchanges, highly condensed political rhetoric to startlingly simple yet gut-wrenching imagery. The action is passionate, the characters charismatic. It is a play few people know, and has the potential to both engage and surprise. The story, in which ambition and intrigue are played out through public spectacle and ‘spinning’ of perspectives and in which we experience the huge costs of violence, miscommunication and purposed misunderstanding, hold disturbing relevance for today’s world. Last year in Prague, I had the incredible opportunity to co-teach an exploratory workshop in gender with Tina Packer and the Prague Shakespeare Company, in which we looked at the play King John through the lens of cross-gender casting. What began to emerge was an examination of power and the language of power, both linguistic and physical. I would love to take this exploration to a full cross-gendered production, not in which gender roles become reductive masks, commentary in themselves, or simply ignored. Rather I envision a production where the inherent struggle and complexity of an actor playing the opposite sex contributes to our understanding of not only the power, ambition, love, and fear in every person but also our individual conformity or rebellion to societal power structures.
L.B: Another question I always ask is what is your favorite quote? However, this question seems insufficient after reading about your work on rhetorical figures in action. This technique must have really changed the way you read Shakespeare. Bearing in mind your focus on the rhetorical patterns in Shakespeare’s work, is there a passage/quote/ scene that you find particularly poignant or interesting?
R.G: Just one?!? A tall order!
Yes, my obsession with rhetorical patterning and how it affects the actor onstage has changed how I read everything including Shakespeare. I don’t just hear thoughts and sounds, but feel argument and the structure of thought in my body and in space… picturing each element as a thing outside of myself to be touched or moved through. However, the rhetorical staging techniques are a tool that opens an actor’s choices and psychological connection to whatever text they are working on. So while, I have many opinions and interesting stories of how the rhetorical structure of a text deepened a particular performance, I think I will avoid the indulgence of a rhetorically oriented response and share a more personal passage to me. Much of my life has been sourced from Juliet’s declaration:
And yet,I wish but for the thing I have.
My bounty is boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have for both are infinite. (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.132-135)
As a child, I was often ‘too much’: too loud, too dramatic, too intense, too active … too much to fit comfortably in this world. When I found these words and spoke them for the first time in my bedroom at age 13, I was suddenly and quite viscerally not too big; I had to stretch in mind and soul to fill these words. These words gave me room to breathe, to be who I was fully. Now as an adult, the idea of bounty and generosity and having all you need already in every moment, sourced from that act of giving, still inspires me. I still must stretch and grow to fill what Shakespeare’s 14-year-old girl knew effortlessly.
L.B: You have both directed and produced plays as well as coached companies on the texts for various productions and projects across the globe. Have working with all these different companies and cultures changed the way you approach Shakespeare and your own projects?
R.G: I have been incredibly lucky to work in some of our industry’s most inspiring artistic communities led by its most visionary leaders. Each has shaped who I am as an artist and leader, both strengthening my convictions and leading me on. I began my career as an actor in New York, building a foundation in Stanlislavski’s methods while at NYU, studying directly with Stella Adler before her death. While Shakespeare eventually emerged as my primary focus, this early training instilled a strong grounding in classic American theater and styles, which I still use today. However, I soon became dissatisfied with the overly intellectual approaches of traditional psychological realism, and especially with the fourth wall. I knew that theatrical experiences happened in real time and space, and that there was a power in the ambiguity between character/storyteller and their relationship with the audience. I spent two years (after a powerful introduction to Grotowski’s work through his protégé, Riszard Cyslak) touring with the experimental troupe, Theatre Du Jour and training with B Stanley, a disciple of Eugenio Barba. The rigor in that training, as well as the objective exploration of physicality, which leads to and reveals psychology, has become an important element in my current research.
This pursuit of fully embodied performance and my life-long love for classical theater merged when I arrived at Shakespeare & Company in 1992 and met my life-long friend and mentor Tina Packer. This was a company dedicated to fully expressing the wide range of human experience through language in profound relationship with its audience and in such a way as to change the world. I was home. I also discovered Kristin Linklater’s path to liberating the authentic voice in ways that enable an actor to fully inhabit the text. These ideals and approaches to performing Shakespeare were to become my own. It was at Shakespeare & Company that I also found the power of creative exchange and collaboration, which led me eventually to found Maryland Shakespeare Festival and form my own creative home for the first time.
My ongoing fascination with the actor-audience relationship and the pursuit of how the text could “play the actor” drove me to The American Shakespeare Center, and the incredible mentorship of Ralph Alan Cohen. There, I not only discovered the world of rhetoric, but also began to create a new training methodology for actors in how to actively play Shakespeare’s rhetoric on stage. It was here that I began to merge my emotional instincts as an actor with my love of scholarship and linguistic structures. The American Shakespeare Center also anchored my belief in the pursuit of original practices as a starting place for today’s theater.
As my performance-based physical approach to language continued to grow in scope and depth, I began to train teaching artists and work with the incredible outreach programs of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. The experience I had through SF Shakespeare’s Midnight Shakespeare, teaching the young men and women in the forgotten zone of violence and despair of West Oakland changed my understanding of how Shakespeare can practically change our world, and cemented my commitment to that work as well. It was during this time, the voice work of Kristin Linklater became more key to unlocking my actors and students. Soon, I realized Linklater was an indispensable part of what I was pursuing and I started the designation process. Five years later, Kristin’s work has profoundly shaped my own.
So every company, every artist and student that I work with teaches me something. Prague Shakespeare and Brazil’s Instituto Gandarela taught me that Shakespeare’s power extends beyond his use of the English language. African American Shakespeare Company taught the joy and breadth available in every play. As artists, we must always be both teaching and learn’ng, it is the very nature of our work.
L.B: You mentioned that you were excited by the “artistically rich and diverse city scape of New Haven”. How do you feel this new location will influence the projects you take on? How do you feel Elm Shakespeare will differ from previous companies you have worked for?
R.G: Every company and every city has its own unique personality that influences an artist’s work. Whether it be the world class institutions like Long Wharf Theater, Woolsey Hall, or Yale University Art Gallery — or incredible events like the International Festival of Art and Ideas or the New Haven Jazz Festival, this is a remarkable city for any artist to live and work – full of potential collaboration and inspiration. Also, the multiple highly respected universities make the city a hub for educated, curious, and intelligent people working in a wide array of fields to interact, enjoy and support the many resident artists. In contrast to all of this bounty, New Haven like many mid-sized cities is working hard to address challenges of generational poverty and cultural disparity. What a fertile ground for a theater dedicated to making the plays of William Shakespeare available to everyone?
Perhaps more than ever, these plays serve our world. They can be hilarious, thought provoking and transcendent; they bring us together, and remind us what it means to be human. And more then ever, our communities need innovative arts organizations like Elm Shakespeare Company to foster dialog, build trust in our shared humanity, and find solace, perhaps even solutions, in the beauty they create.
New Haven is lucky to have Elm Shakespeare as just one of its many institutions like this, and Elm Shakespeare Company is lucky to have a community like New Haven. For all of these reasons, I am excited to soon call both Elm Shakespeare Company and New Haven my home.
L.B: You are highly praised for your innovative ideas which have a huge amount of theatrical and community impact. Can you give us a taste of what kind of projects we can expect from the Elm Shakespeare Company in future?
Elm Shakespeare Company has an amazing history of serving its community. Thousands of people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds come together to see free Shakespeare in the park of the highest quality every August. It has a education program with the Housing Authority of New Haven as well as L.E.A.P. and other great after school programs. After twenty years of service, it has become a beloved community institution held in the highest respect. My first obligation as its leader is to serve and maintain this incredible legacy built by the visionary work of the now retiring founders James and Margaret Andreassi and the great ensemble of artists, teachers and community leaders they have attracted.
There is also, however, great potential for Elm Shakespeare’s future and I’ve been given a mandate from Jim, Margie and the Board of Directors to explore how the company can grow, particularly in the realm of educational programs that inspire, challenge and give voice to young people in our community. With that charge, I will be looking to build on our partnership with Southern Connecticut State University, hopefully creating curriculum-based performances of Shakespeare’s plays targeted for schoolchildren and coupled with in-school residency opportunities and in-depth study guides to supplement their experience. I will be exploring our relationship with the Housing Authority of New Haven and other possible partners to create meaningful, sustainable programs for New Haven’s most vulnerable young people both before they get into trouble and after. I also hope to build on our summer success by expanding our summer camp offerings and serving our audiences, once winter comes, with a new holiday production or event.
These are wide reaching and ambitious goals that will take significant time and planning if they are to be sustainable and successful. However, immediately I can promise two things. First, as 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and legacy, I can promise that Elm Shakespeare will be active in the global celebration taking place, specifically projects sponsored by the Shakespeare Theater Association including the Shakespeare Passport program, We Are Shakespeare Digital Video Festival and Shakespeare in Space (for more information visit www.STAhome.org). Secondly, I can promise that Elm Shakespeare will join the national discussion in gender and racial parity in theater today, promoting equality in our casting and looking for ways to promote diverse voices, especially those of female artists.