In Part 2 of Fiasco Theater’s ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘Cymbeline’ at Folger Theatre: meet Fiasco Theater Company’s Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder Jessie Austrian.
Joel: When did Folger contact you about bringing Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline to their theatre and why did you accept?
Jessie: We first began talking to Beth [Emelson] and Janet [Griffin] about working together during our run of Cymbeline at Barrow Street in 2011. We arrived at the idea of Two Gents about a year and a half ago. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of the national conversation about Shakespeare at the Folger Library, and to perform in such a beautiful space.
Will you be making any changes to Cymbeline (which I saw in NYC and adored) for the Folger production and who will be in the cast and directing?
We’re not planning any changes though it will be fun to incorporate the Folger Theatre’s architecture. I hope and expect that the acting will have deepened and grown since we last performed the show in 2012.
Have any you performed in DC or at The Folger before, and if yes where, and how would you describe DC area audiences? And if you haven’t, what have you heard about the DC theatre community and DC audiences?
I haven’t – thrilled to make my DC debut!
How did you all meet and why did you choose Fiasco as the title of your theatre company? (Sorry, I had to ask it for obvious reasons!)
We met in graduate school (some of us also went to college together before grad school) at the Brown/Trinity MFA Acting program and formed the company a few years after we graduated.
Legend has it the word “fiasco” was first used to describe commedia dell’arte performances that went horribly (and hilariously) wrong. In those instances the performer would have to fare fiasco or “make a bottle.” In other words “You’re buying!” While we hope to avoid on-stage disasters, we do believe that it is only when artists are brave enough to risk a fiasco that the possibility exists of creating something special. We chose the name Fiasco to remind ourselves to brave the huge leaps in the hopes of reaping huge artistic rewards.
When did Fiasco become a theatre company and why do you think you have been so successful and why do you think audiences love your shows so much?
We began workshopping and teaching together in 2007, and officially became a company in 2009. I think audiences appreciate the joy we take in sharing the play with them. We are a self-assembled group of actors and storytellers; we love what we do. Everything we do on stage is something we came up with in rehearsal because it’s fun to do, so we take true pleasure in sharing it and developing it with the audience.
What did you learn about The Two Gentlemen of Verona that you didn’t know about before you workshopped it, and what will make this production unique and/or special for DC audiences?
It’s a great play. The writing is spectacularly concise and deeply profound. At first glance on the page it can seem like a superficial play, there’s no impending war or dying monarch that drives the plot forward. But that’s because it’s not that kind of play. It’s a play about relationships and ideas, and when the ensemble takes responsibility for these huge ideas about self, love and relationships the writing takes my breath away. I think the simplicity, honesty and concision of the writing make it even more challenging as an actor: you can’t lean on a plot with an impending war for example. You can’t just throw energy at it… you have to honestly stand behind these philosophical ideas and discoveries and then trust that Shakespeare has done all the other work.
Your artwork/poster has a cute dog lying on top of a script or notes. What does it symbolize?
Oh, I love that Folger put Crab the dog on the poster. He’s a wonderful character. In a play that deals with all kinds of servant/master relationships it’s so delicious that Shakespeare includes a relationship between a man and his dog to ask questions about love, loyalty, expectations and identity.
How many actors are in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and how many characters do they play?
6 actors play about 13 parts.
Why did you want to play Julia? And how do you relate to her? Do you play any other characters? And what have been the biggest challenges preparing and performing your role?
We’ve really tried to embrace the simplicity of Shakespeare’s play, there are very few props and a very simple set (the play doesn’t really require anything beyond some letters and a rope ladder). Our production consists of actors and the text. This is thrilling and it’s also scary because I can’t get away with any tricks, my acting in this production requires honesty and abandon. Period. It’s a wonderful challenge.
Your production of Into the Woods is coming to Roundabout next season. What makes this production so ‘Fiasco-like?’ Is there another Sondheim musical you would like get your hands on?
Our production of Into the Woods is “fiasco-like” because we’ve put the play center stage. There are no stars or fancy moving set pieces in our production. We have 11 people, one piano and a handful of instruments and hand props. It’s a play about stories and the consequences of telling them, and we’re storytellers so we’ve put the actors and the story at the center. We’ve created a production that invites the audience to listen, carefully and intimately, to this beautiful musical with us so they can experience the incredible show that Sondheim and Lapine created.
I would love to work on another Sondheim. The reason I love Sondheim is because he puts human experience into music and language similarly to Shakespeare: with simplicity and incredible depth. It is a gift to work on.
How can audiences in 2014 relate to The Two Gentlemen of Verona and what do you want audiences to take with them after seeing your production at The Folger?
I hope they hear and experience Shakespeare’s play. It’s damn good writing.
What advice would you have for a group of friends who went to school together, admired each other, and worked together who wanted to start a new theatre company?
Let the work lead the way. We never really set out to “start a theater company,” we self-assembled because we wanted a place to do the kind of work we cared about. Do good work that you believe in with people whom you respect and admire and who challenge you.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona plays from April 17-May 25, 2014 at The Folger Theatre-201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 554-7077, or purchase them online.
Fiasco Theater’s ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘Cymbeline’ at Folger Theatre-Part 1: Director Ben Steinfeld.