Dangereuse: An Interview With Playwright Karin Coonrod on ‘texts and beheadings/ElizabethR’ at The Folger Theatre

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I asked Playwright Karin Coonrod to talk about her play texts and beheadings/ElizabethR, which ends its run this weekend at Folger Theatre.

Sophia Howes.

Sophia Howes.

Sophia: Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us more about your career. How did you get interested in playwriting and directing?

Karin: My first memories are in Noli, Italy—a fishing village mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy. I remember the smell of the fish and the smell of mint when walking with my grandfather. Growing up, I painted, wrote, danced, played piano, flute, sang and eventually found my voice in the theater. I went to Columbia University for Directing and started a company called ‘Arden Party,’ which re-imagined the classics. Then I started doing freelance work and also began a different company with an international stage, Compagnia de’ Colombari. We have been doing work with a great variety of international performers. We are based in New York City, but were born in Orvieto, Italy in 2004.

What is the most fascinating thing about Elizabeth that you learned by writing the play?

That Elizabeth’s sovereignty depended on the love of her subjects.

What did you learn about the play and your script while watching this production, and will there be some additions or changes because of it?

Yes, I am making changes (though minor) daily. I realized we needed a line in Movement 4 which we are adding tonight….and I am thinking on one or two more lines…I like the structure of the play and feel the game structure works…Yet It has been a challenge for the actors to memorize since the play breathes in non sequiturs….as I have mentioned more in kaleidoscope fashion that in straight camera-work…It does not have a narrative bio-drama structure, though there is a logic which has taken its time to be felt.. We needed another week to work on it, but fortunately our audiences have been generous in their engagement.

If you could talk to Elizabeth today, what would you like to discuss?

I would ask her about her earliest memories (Kat Ashley, Anne Boleyn, her dad, Cromwell, etc…) and her final leave-taking, holding the hand of the Archbishop of Canterbury…. The edges of one’s life interest me greatly. I would adore to hear her wit in action on the subject of her bastardy and I would LOVE to talk with her about Shakespeare!

If a little girl said to you, “I want to be just like Elizabeth” how would you respond to her and how would you like her to be like Elizabeth?

Video et  taceo. (I see and I say nothing.) Elizabeth was a remarkable little girl and young woman. She learned to keep her own counsel. In our country we have the “luxury” of a long adolescence…Elizabeth observed/listened carefully and learned fast. Time was concentrated.

Did working with the actresses contribute to your understanding of Elizabeth? In what way?

Karin Coonrod by Ching Gonzalez.

Karin Coonrod by Ching Gonzalez.

The actresses are very different. They bring their deep gifts and talent to the process. I have known all of them from our work before, but this piece draws from them in a different way to be the queen.

It is my feeling that we are all given the possibility of being kings and queens if we simply BE. (Walt Whitman, our poet laureate of the Americas, called us to this possibility in his SONG OF MYSELF). The actresses all read about Elizabeth and began to deepen their understanding of the woman and the time in which she lived. We talked a great deal about context and also made a time-line. Their infinite variety – all queenly at their best—explores different aspects of Elizabeth: languages, youth, prayers, contradictions, mission, sovereignty.

In making this piece we are in part chasing history, but also keeping everything in the present tense as we are here together NOW, thinking upon this together….what can we discover from the considerations of her life…Elizabeth created a Kingdom of Words into which were born the poets who breathed and wrote. Only one of the actresses was accustomed to playing Shakespeare in English, so the others worked very hard to get inside the antithetical muscularity of the language.

If they made this play into a movie, who would you want to play the Elizabeths and who should direct it?

Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Cristina Spina, and a young Rosalind Russell…..

I would have a long conversation with Wim Wenders and go for it.

Does Elizabeth have a message for the women of today?

I think so: I wrote and directed it with all of us in mind…to give voice to her voice rising up despite the contradictions…to find the humanity. It is an amazing thing to be born female, great preparation for being human.

What do you think is the greatest play ever written, and why?

King Lear. Shakespeare writes the ineffable. It is a family drama in which we are all of the characters: Lear asking his outrageous question, the two older daughters vying for attention, the youngest daughter proud and betrayed and later forgiving, the father suffering beyond measure…That there is an extraordinary reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia makes the play transcendent.

From Left: Monique Barbee, Christina Spina, Ayeje Feamster, and Juliana Francis Kelly. Photo by Teresa Wood.

From Left: Monique Barbee, Christina Spina, Ayeje Feamster, and Juliana Francis Kelly. Photo by Teresa Wood.

What is your next project?

I am working on The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto in July 2016 for the convergence of two anniversaries: the 500th of the establishment of the Venice Ghetto and the 400th of Shakespeare’s death.

We began a workshop of it last July at the Fondazione Cini (on Isola San Giorgio): it was an invigorating experience with Venetians and Americans….exploring the commedia dell’arte in Launcelot as well as the five Shylocks embodying the role…in the five scenes. Reg E Cathey plays Antonio.

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Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

Texts&beheadings/ElizabethR plays through October 4, 2015 at The Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library—201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

LINKS
The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘texts&beheadings/ElizabethR’ at The Folger Theatre reviewed by David Siegel.

Dangereuse: ‘Texts and Beheadings/Elizabeth R: The Heart of a Lonely Queen’ by Sophia Howes.

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