Bringing Shakespeare's Henry V to life — with a cell phone
"I really like the idea of theater being so mobile that you can just throw it in a trunk or a suitcase."
Julia Gayden Nelson, artistic director at Bare Bones Shakespeare, loves to mix it up with The Bard. The company is known for its stripped-down plays (hence its name), and nothing could be more bare bones than its upcoming production of Henry V at Fort Worth's Fringe Festival.
Not only is Nelson taking on the traditionally heroic-male role of Henry V as a woman, but she's also doing it as a solo show. There are usually 8-15 actors in this play, which is probably Shakespeare's best-loved history play.
We caught up with Nelson ahead of her show this weekend to ask her about the pros and cons of minimalist theatre and how to keep a theater audience listening — to a cell phone onstage.
Henry V is a traditionally male role, but you’re taking it on as a woman. Why?
The reality that I'm playing with is that “The King” is a job title, not a gender.
When we did Macbeth, which was our first production, we completely gender-swapped. Our Macbeth wore camo in the first scene because it takes place on a battlefield, but the guys who played the witches were dressed as homeless men.
When Macbeth comes home, she dresses in a dress and pearls to welcome the king into her house. The audience really kind of dug that. So we do a lot of experimentation with gender.
Henry V is a weighty play — with a famous, climactic scene, the Battle of Agincourt. What’s been the biggest challenge in bringing it to the stage with only one actor?
The hardest part for me, because I'm also the main script guru for the company, was having to cut out entire scenes of characters who aren't on stage with Hal. When he’s on stage, I try to leave at least a little bit of what's going on.
We’re using a cell phone to help with this. As Hal, I put the phone on speaker and have conversations. I do all the voices, so the other side of the phone conversation is a recording of me doing the voices of these other characters.
We’re playing with that by including the audience. You can have somebody on speaker, and you can look at the audience and roll your eyes or whatever when they say something ridiculous.
It’s a big departure from our usual style, and it's also technology — which is not my strong suit. But it seems to be working.
What compelled you to start your own theater company?
It was part of my training. I went to Mary Baldwin University, which is partnered with the American Shakespeare Center, and starting a company is part of their MFA program.
And my mom, Laura Yancey Burford, had a series of small theater companies in DFW in the ‘80s and ‘90s and I would go on tour with them. They were just local tours, like to book clubs and stuff -- what they called the Chicken Salad Circuit. I grew up watching two actors or sometimes my mom doing one-woman shows. They would switch hats or shawls or something for different characters and just throw gender out the window for these things. I didn't even draw the connection until last year that my company does more or less the same thing.
I really like the idea of theater being so mobile that you can just throw it in a trunk or a suitcase.
So that was part of my training and that's kind of what we do at Barebones Shakespeare. My cut of Henry V can be performed in a classroom. Or like we did a dress rehearsal yesterday — in my parent’s living room.
And it is not a big living room.
What’s a fun fact you’ve learned about Henry V?
You know, he had this famously misspent youth, right? Running around with Falstaff, going out to pubs and hanging out with thieves and tormentors. And then he has this, many would say, miraculous transition and turns into one of the best kings that England's ever had.
Where did this come from? That was a question that a number of playwrights handled differently in Shakespeare's day.
And it turns out Henry V had an injury. This is kind of gross, but during a battle, when he was still the prince, an arrow went through Hal’s eye socket and into the other side of his brain. And, it seems as though he was a big jerk before the injury, but charming afterward.
I think it’s extremely interesting that his personality switch was famous and talked about at the time and later in the era that Shakespeare lived, but the injury was not. I don't think that when he had the injury, people really associated those two events.
Do you have a dream role?
I do. I want to reprise my role as Hamlette, Princess of Denmark as a popcorn-tossing melodrama. Because everybody always wants to throw things at Hamlet.
When we did it, we put out a big whiteboard and a bunch of dry-erase markers in the lobby and let the audience write interpretations of Hamlet. Then we would take it backstage and decide which interpretations to try that performance.
It was a lot of fun, and I want to do it again. So, it's less of a dream role because I’ve done it before, but still a dream role because I didn't get to do enough different interpretations.
What do you think Shakespeare would have to say about the 21st century?
I think that he'd be really concerned about the way that we distance ourselves from performers and from the stage. And I think he'd also be concerned about how hard it is to get people to treat artists as a real profession that's worth not just respect, but also pay.
He was a sharer in a theater company. He was an actor. He was one of the few playwrights whose plays we still read and perform, and who was also an actor. That's one of the reasons why I think his plays are so strong. He knew what being an actor was like, and he also knew what interacting with the audience was like.
I don't think there's a single rhetorical question in all of Shakespeare. I think it's all asking a question and seeing what the audience has to say. So I think after the massive culture shock wore off [from traveling to the 21st century] and he got vaccinated [for COVID], he'd be very concerned about how separated the audience is from the performers.
In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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