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Interview with the Director: William Downes

For the final Winter's Tale blog adventure, I sat down with director (also the company's Artistic Director), Will Downes, to annoy him with all of my difficult questions about the play. Per usual, he had only lovely, enlightening things to say about Shakespeare's characters and language...

The Winter's Tale performs July 20, 21, 27, 28 at 7pm and July 29 at 5pm at the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory. Tickets may be purchased in advance here.

How does The Winter's Tale fit into the broader timeline/chronology of Shakespeare's plays?

The Winter’s Tale is one of the later plays, written in 1610 or 1611, and is presumably the last play he wrote on his own before Tempest (which is definitively considered the last one he wrote on his own). Between Winter’s Tale and Tempest is Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII. While Kinsmen is acknowledged as being partly written by Fletcher, Henry VIII has not been otherwise attributed – and all of Shakespeare’s other histories were written before 1600. So Henry VIII doesn’t really “fit” as a history, and may actually be considered a romance. (Or he wrote it while histories were still in style and brought it back, or he and Fletcher did in fact collaborate on it.)

If Henry VIII is perhaps another genre-crossing play, it makes sense that it teed up The Winter’s Tale. What do you think Shakespeare really got right with that one?

He got a lot right! I think Winter’s Tale is sort of a culmination of his work. He was always was able to intermix comedy and tragedy: Twelfth Night is probably the greatest comedy he ever wrote, but it starts off incredibly sad, with Viola alone in the world…Romeo and Juliet is more or less a comedy until Mercutio dies…even Lear has the Fool and Edmund’s dark sense of humor. In Winter’s Tale he puts everything together. It’s usually thought of first half tragedy/second half comedy – but there are definitely funnier/lighter moments in the first half, and when we get to Bohemia in the second half, it’s tragic what happens when Polixenes really goes after Perdita.

I also think Winter’s Tale contains some of the most sophisticated poetry in the canon. Shakespeare is really able to tap into the feeling of jealousy, and create this character who makes logical arguments while not thinking logically.

What do you think drives Leontes' seemingly irrational rage and jealousy? How have you and the actor playing Leontes, the lovely John Kollmer, chosen to sort through this?

It's definitely irrational, we're not going to argue that it's not! There's no logical explanation for jealousy. In that first scene, Polixenes says he’s going to leave, Leontes tells Hermione to take care of it, and all of a sudden Hermione is making a connection with Polixenes that Leontes didn't have. As people, when we’re in relationships, there’s always going to be a sense of “Oh, I wish we could have this thing that you have with another friend.” It’s irrational – it’s ridiculous – to put the pressure on a relationship to be everything that you need.

Ah. Putting Hermione on a pedestal. HA LITERALLY. Anyway, how have you and the actor playing Leontes, the lovely John Kollmer, chosen to sort through all of this?

What’s great about John, is that he's very good at looking at a piece of text and pulling things out that make sense to nobody but himself...which is kind of what Leontes does. John really likes to think through the text, and Leontes is such an emotional character. So the rest of the cast and I are seeing what choices John makes and basing everything else around making those choices invalid to an audience, so he has to validate it for himself.

Is Leontes’ madness similar to Lear's madness?

I don’t think so – Lear’s madness comes from a somewhat reasonable reaction based on what he sees from his other two daughters. When Cordelia comes out and is simply honest, he can’t accept it, because he wants everyone to love him the same way. Once Lear realizes that he was wrong, and he's left with nothing, that's what sets him off – so yes, it’s coming from a much more rational place.

I get the sense that there's always something a little off with Leontes.

Why is there a bear? This is one of the most famous stage directions of all time - why do we think Shakespeare included it?

No clue!

There is a story about King James having polar bear cubs as pets at the time, and there’s a theory that he wrote this scene, possibly, to put the bears in. Of course, there’s also the symbolism around rebirth, regeneration, and springtime that the bear represents in different cultures.

What’s important, though, is: how do we take any of that and translate it onstage in a way that audiences will care about? I think the bear ripping Antigonus apart is a simple break: there's nothing left of Sicilia in Boheme when Perdita grows up.

There’s also just not enough blood and guts in this show (we get tragedy but not death and dying), so you’ve got to add that in and build the tension.

Totally switching gears: Autolycus is such a fun rogue - what other Shakespeare characters do you think resemble him? What "kind" of fool is he?

I love Autolycus, he's such a fun character. He’s definitely a combination of a lot of different characters we’ve seen before. Sometimes he’s the singing/dancing clown of Feste in Twelfth Night…sometimes he’s the observer clown and mischief-maker, like Puck in Midsummer.

But the more time I spend with him, the more he’s starting to remind me of Falstaff (minus Falstaff’s genuine connection with Prince Hal). If we look at what Falstaff does, especially in Henry IV Pt. 2 and Merry Wives – he’s totally in it for himself and doing nothing but causing trouble, but we absolutely love him. Especially the way he interacts and talks to the audience – you’re like, “I want to go for a drink with this guy!”

Finally, as a Folio enthusiast and advocate, can you speak to a specific moment in this show where the Folio really reveals something in the text that you think may get lost in modern editions?

Folio is the closest thing we have to what Shakespeare actually wrote, and brings us closer to the directing/acting choices that he wrote into the play for us to find 400 years later. Folio text had to be written in such a way that, as an actor, you'd read the part and everything you need for the character is in there – because when they performed, you’d learn your part on your own, memorize it, and have maybe 30-45 minutes to quickly run entrances/exits and fighting. So in Folio, the spellings, punctuation, verse structure, it’s all written specifically to do that. I always say that it’s acting shorthand.

Modern editions are edited to be more grammatically correct, but they lose spaces and punctuation that would have indicated different phrases. Modern editions also will put in stage direction to give a reader a sense of the action (and these are based on the text – if a character says “Oh I am slain,” they’ll input “[character] stabs [character]”). But these assumed stage directions in modern editions can be limiting – what if there’s something better? In II.iii of Winter’s Tale Paulina has a line as she offers the baby to Leontes: “Here ‘tis.” The stage direction in the modern edition is usually “places baby down on the ground,” etc.

Using our Folio technique, on her line, with this long pause, she might actually hand Leontes the baby. Then you have Leontes holding this child throughout the scene, now he has to look at it, react to it…

That's brutal!

It is! And makes the scene much more fascinating, it puts a different emphasis on Paulina saying, "Look at it! It's yours!" It creates such a powerful moment: he’s holding his child while she says it's his, and he still rejects it. Now, other companies may find this possible choice in the text, but using Folio it becomes a faster connection.

Once again, folks - The Winter's Tale performs July 20, 21, 27, 28 at 7pm and July 29 at 5pm at the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory. Tickets may be purchased in advance here.

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