Interview With Ben Steinfeld at Examiner
These days, Shakespeare productions may not have the mainstream appeal like the popularity of high budgeted Broadway productions or pop entertainment culture. But in different corners of communities, regions, and countries, there are initiatives and committed people who preserve and perpetuate Shakespeare’s legacy and his ingenious works. The Fiasco Theater Company is one such force that is committed to not “dumbing down” the profound messages of life and human conditions in their Shakespeare productions. A group of consummate professional actors, the Company provided a fine example of their core mission and passions in their recent production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, closing an 18-week run in New York’s Barrow Street Theater. Now for the first time, Fiasco’sCymbeline will be produced outside New Yorkand is the only presentation currently planned for 2012 presented by Duke Performances in Durham, North Carolina.
According to the press release for the play, Cymbeline is a love story about “Imogen, daughter of the king, and Posthumus, an orphan and commoner. With their romance condemned by the king, they face deceit, subterfuge, and betrayal as they wind their way through the elaborate plot to realize their love. The play becomes a wild ride of music, comedy, and drama that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.”
In 2007, graduate students from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Consortium Masters of Fine Arts Acting program established the Fiasco Theater, which produces classical and new work and offers conservatory-level training to young professional actors in NYC. Ben Steinfield, one of the founders and Co-Artistic Director, said, “We wanted to bring the kind of theater that we have been doing and bring some of the principles and create an actor-centered, story-driven, and no frills kind of theater that we were not seeing.” Ben Steinfield shares insights as an actor, director, musician, and a teacher regarding Shakespeare’s plays, core ideals of theater, and performing. Readers may be inspired to enroll in an acting class or two – “to be or not to be” another thespian.
K– I’m all about creating accessible opportunities to experience all forms of arts and trends in audience interests. Specifically, are Shakespeare plays a “hard sell” to audiences these days?
B-My sense is that there’s always an audience with an appetite for good Shakespeare. Because we are presenting Shakespeare’s (works) in a way that engages the audience and the way we treated it, we can take our work to seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. We have a sense of humor about the elements that are in the play. The run of Cymbeline was very successful when we did it with New York audiences. My guess it that like everything else, you have to be introduced to it in a way that helps explain the greatness. You can’t just expect students, audiences, or anybody to say, “This is cultural spinach. This is good for you.You should come to this.” The proof has to be in the pudding. The audience has to have an experience and relationship with Shakespeare’s (works) that feels personal, special, and magical in order to be convinced that it is special and magical. That is something that we strive to do and we’ve been able to do that so far and I think we’ll be able to do that anywhere in the country.
“We do (productions) the way we believe that it supposed to be done and it turns out that “that approach” is accessible… Sometimes so much emphases is placed on making things accessible that you start talking down to the audience. We are very weary of that and sometimes people think in order to make it accessible, you have to put everybody in modern dress, singing rock songs or rapping into microphones in order to prove how relevant it is. In my experience, that is a very limiting approach and tends not to give the audience nearly enough credit for the ability to make connections between their own lives to the material. People do everything with Shakespeare’s work.
You always have to make choices. We teach the audience to watch and listen to what we’re doing. Our choice is to try to leave a little more room for the audience to meet us halfway rather than telling them what (the play) is. (We also want) to engage their imagination and gage them in terms of the way they listen, watch, what they think and feel. As a result we have a huge success with high school groups, college groups, the older matinee ladies that attend the show, the hip downtown NY theater people, and the bed bread and butter subscribers of Shakespeare. All different kinds of people who come to the show have enjoyed it. I think it’s because we’re not saying it’s for specific kind of person. It’s for everyone.
K-What was the intrigue to pick this particular play to produce and what are the considerations you go by for production?
B-We are all actors. Noah Brody, Jessie Austrian, and I run the company together and the other cast of Cymbeline are company members. We pick plays for parts that we are interested in playing. This play has lots of roles. We thought we could combine several of the roles of the play to create really rich acting opportunities for each of the six cast members and play off of their variety of strengths and not just one of the strengths. So it is primarily for the acting challenges and secondarily, we chose Cymbeline because it is a wild story. We were interested in trying to solve all the challenges that Shakespeare puts out there in the play. We have all kinds of crazy stuff; we have battle scenes, headless body, there’s poison, there’s disguise, wonderful villains, heroic and romantic stuff, there are characters that are old, there is evil, wonderful villains, heroic and romantic stuff. We were intrigue by the adventures that’s inside of the story. It reminded us of things like The Princes Bride, or Harry Potter, things like that where the plot and the actions have a sweeping scope. We like that.
K-Expressed in his own words, a sneak peakof Cymbeline production and a story that may never get old to tell for Ben.
B-We decide to add more music to the shows. Shakespeare’s plays almost all have some songs in them. There are a couple of songs in Cymbeline that exist. The first half of the play takes place in Cymbeline’s court in England. There are a couple scenes that take place in Rome. It’s the very sophisticated urban, cold, and kind of cynical, broken, and dysfunctional portrait of those cultures. At a certain point play, it sweeps out into the country and into Wales. So any time, Shakespeare takes you out of one location to another, and you have to decide what kind of signals to give the audience of what that new place is. In Shakespeare’s play we find ourselves meeting a family that literally lives in a cave. We meet them going through their morning rituals hunting, talking about the nature, and exploring their place in the world. So we wanted to find a way that the family expressed their love for each other through music. So we decided to have them live in this Appalachian world. We suggest this very, very, very generally but primarily through the music. What that does, it allow the audience to plug-in emotionally to the kind of family, type of environment, the physical landscape that were trying to conjure but still letting Shakespeare’s language and characters lead the way.
K-I didn’t know that bluegrass, banjoes, and folk songs were part of Shakespeare’s works or culture. Is it the pleasures of creative liberty or cultural adaptation for North Carolina? (Question said in jest)
B-There’s some mighty fine picking going on. I have to say that I’m a little nervous. In New York you can say you’re playing bluegrass and nobody will know the difference, but down in Carolina, we better get it right because they’ve actually heard it before.
We (also) got Stanley Brothers tune, traditional English tunes, some classical music from Shakespeare’s era, a cappella music, and all different kinds of stuff. We are all singers and musicians as well and we love to incorporate as much of the music as we can into the show and use that to tell the audience where we’re going rather than technical tricks. Our whole point of view of theater is that actors should be telling the story and taking responsibility for the story in every way. Anything actors can do, we do it … move the furniture or play the instruments, we sing the songs, and we create the physical space instead of having set pieces roll off and on. We’re doing it all. And that allows the audience to engage their imagination too.
K-What can the audience expect and what would you like them to remember the most or be moved by in the production?
B-I hope it’s a combination of things. People have told us they’ve been affected by a lot of things and people remember lots of things about this production. One is that they laughed their asses off. I don’t know if you can print that. The show is very funny and it’s got a huge amount of comedy. I think people are pleasantly surprised by the ability to understand Shakespeare’s sense of humor.
I think the people remember the music. I think they’ll remember the great physical storytelling, the battle scenes, and the fight sequences. They will be very, very moved by what the play has to say, about what the play is really about ultimately, that we never know where we are in our own stories. We never know where we are in our own life’s journeys. And sometimes the struggle, pain, suffering, and grief are actually necessary for us to be able to receive the joy that that comes afterwards. And that’s what Shakespeare is really trying to say. Sometimes the people that are most tested in life, as we say at the end of the play, “it makes their gifts more delayed, delighted.” I think that’s what people will be moved by, is how complete the play is in terms of its generosity toward the possibility of redemption.
K-Wow, I feel like I just experienced church.
B-Yeah, I hope people will feel that way. It should be a spiritual experience, especially with Shakespeare. The theater should be spiritual in that way.
K-I love the stories behind the stories of artist’s inspirations and maybe an obsession of their art form. What inspires you to do what you do to take on this somewhat new journey and a sense from fellow cast and production members?
B-Well, it’s a good question and sort of “the” question that we keep answering, and the answer keeps changing as life goes on. I’m 33 now and some of the reasons why I am interested in acting in theater, directing, and music are exactly the same as when I was a teenager, and some of them are quite different. As your life’s experiences change, your relationship to what art means changes.
We’re going to be asked to sit down with a bunch of college students and tell them how to make it in the theater. There’s no answer to that question. It’s a personal journey. For us we’ve been very lucky that we’ve all decided to throw in our lot in the little bit together. We have a community of people that are supporting each other and working to help and move forward and not just seeing each other as competition, or something crazy like that.
K-That may be the reason for longevity, the community and bond that you have.
B-The theater community really does exist and we’re lucky to be part of it. Theater is communal because you do it together. You (perform) with the audience for real in real time, and there are no cameras and there is nothing mitigating the audience to the relationship of the play. Our whole goal as a theater company is to be in the same room with the audience and to let them know that we’re all in this together, and to say, “Look, over the next couple of hours we are going to have an amazing experience together and you’re going to be a part of that.” So what inspires us to do what we do is different for each of us, but mainly it’s just pleasure.
K-This is an amateur curiosity question. I think it is amazing that actors can memorize Shakespeare’s lines and perform. What type of training or aptitude must one have? I’m thinking it must be a gift from God.
B-We get that question a lot. I don’t know, I think it’s just the tools of the trade. How do doctors know the names of every parts of the body? How do lawyers know all of the penal code of every shred of documents? That’s their profession. That’s what they spend their time learning and studying. So part of our profession is the ability to memorize a lot of text. Some of it is a tool of the trade but the other thing that I tell people is that we don’t think of ourselves as memorizing lines. We think of ourselves as memorizing or learning an experience. So part of what you’re doing, let’s say that you have a long monologue for example in Cymbeline. There is a long monologue of one character and he’s fiercely jealous because he thinks his wife has cheated on him. Parts of what you’re memorizing are thoughts that are associated with a jealous rage. You’re not just memorizing Shakespeare word for word; you’re memorizing the experience of what it’s like to be in that position. So part of what you’re doing is because Shakespeare is a very good writer: the thoughts lead one to another quite well. So you’re actually memorizing a person’s thought process and you try to put yourself through that thought process and through that experience… We’re memorizing human events.
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the production features Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Ben Steinfeld, and Emily Young. http://fiascotheater.comBen Brantley of the New York Times calls it “the most truly enchanting Cymbeline I’ve seen. Exquisite.”
The company will be in residence at Duke for two weeks and will begin the work of setting Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Fiasco will present their progress as a workshop reading on Friday and Saturday, February 17 & 18, at 8 pmin the Sheafer Lab Theater in the BryanCenter. In addition, the company will participate in a series of open to the public and free artists-in-residence events.
Tickets: Performances for Cymbeline: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, February 2, 3, and 4 in Reynolds Theater on Duke’s West Campus. Call 919-684-4444 or in person in the top level of Duke’s BryanCenteron West Campus, Monday to Friday, 11 am to 6 pm. Tickets also available online at www.dukeperformances.org . $28 • $22 • $5 Duke Students