Whether you know all the gory details or not…
...you probably know enough about the ancient tale of Medea to think twice before you let her babysit your kids.
Euripides had heard something about her too.
Inspired by the Greek myth of Medea and Jason, his play, Medea, was first performed in 431 BC at the The Dinoysia Festival in Athens. The festival was held annually in honor of the Greek god of theatre and wine, Dionysus. In the Dionysia, three playwrights competed against each other every year, resulting in a tetralogy of tragedies and one satyr play (it wasn’t until 487 b.c. that they allowed comedies into the Festival).
In 431 b.c. the plays that were performed alongside Euripides' Medea were Philocretes by Sophocles (Euripides main rival) and Dictys by Euphrorion (the son of the famous playwright, Aeschylus), as well as the satyr play, Theristai.
Euripides placed last.
However, 2,400 years later, Euripides is having the last laugh. His “losing play” has remained the most frequently performed, and arguably definitive Greek tragedy throughout the 20th century.
Indeed. The play has been adapted countless times – from plays, to ballets, to operas- and most recently by Titan Theatre Company.
The World Premier of this new take on an ancient tale, adapted by Nefeli Vasiliadou and Artistic Director Lenny Banovez, is currently running at The Queens Theatre through March 4th.
Vasiliadou translated the play from the original Greek, and Banovez drew on many previous adaptations to guide and shape the script. The result is a truly unique telling of the ancient tale, which provides a deep, perilous, and delicious playground for any actor.
And over the past 2,400 years, actresses all over the world have skinned their theatrical elbows and knees on that playground, grappling with the immense challenge of taking on Medea herself. A herculean task of Greek Drama proportions. How do you even begin?
So I asked Leah Gabriel, who is currently playing Medea in Titan's production just that: how do you even begin?
Leah Gabriel (LG): Well, first I panicked. Then I started talking to my wise friends and they said cool things like 'the Greeks give you permission', and 'this will be many people's first Medea so you get to create it for them' and 'she does terrible things, but it's the audience who have to deal with how they feel about that'.
Next I just started working, learned some chunks of text (from a different translation, as our script was still being developed - which ended up being very helpful, having similar but different text to explore) and let myself roll around inside it for a while. It was scary. Medea does not hold back.
Next I went home to Australia for 2 months and spent time with my family. During that time I let the work I'd done settle a bit, and at some point said to myself 'you can be afraid all you want, and you might never feel ready, so all you can do is begin.' When I arrived back in NYC, that's exactly what I did.
Titan Theatre Company (TTC): Now that you’ve been working on the play for awhile… do you think that Medea is the hero or the villain of this play?
LG: HA! Well, I think she's a hero in many ways, she stands up and cries out against the betrayal she has suffered. From her perspective, she has one goal, and does whatever it takes to achieve it, and does so knowing she will ultimately pay the greatest price herself. She is relentless and unflinching and willing to sacrifice everything...I have to admire that in her.
We live by different rules and moral codes than she does. So I think her actions make her a villain, but her drive and fearlessness make her a hero.
TTC: What has it been like working on a new translation of such an ancient play?
LG: Not as difficult as I'd anticipated. It is not always the case with adaptations, but in this instance, being able to read multiple versions is a luxury really, it adds more layers to my understanding of the text.
TTC: How do you think this adaptation is different from others that you've read or seen?
LG: In Titan’s adaptation, Jason is the only male.
Which certainly changes the dynamic, since in this adaptation we lose the element of Medea as the lone female grappling to regain power in a male dominated world.
But she still gets boots in her face at every turn. When you’re on the receiving end, it doesn't matter who's delivering the kick, it hurts just the same. And Medea is still an outsider, a warrior woman from a distant savage land, and in this version pitted against powerful women from a civilized society. So the power dynamic still exists. I will be very interested to see how audiences respond to this shift in circumstances.
This adaptation has also removed almost all reference to Medea being descended from the gods, some of the references to her abilities with dark magic and her departure at the end of the play in her dragon chariot! I think this helps make the play more palatable for modern audiences, and pares it right back to the most human parts of the story. It also means we can't dismiss her actions as easily - though she is descended from gods, she feels human pain as acutely as we do and will suffer as much as Jason will.
TTC: What in your past experience has prepared you for this role?
LG: I did a play two years ago called The Good Girl where I played a woman who lived in a restrictive society and allowed herself to be abused in order to gain freedom from her situation. She had to steel herself in order to survive. I think that was a pretty good warm up for this!
I am also forever grateful for my training at Circle in the Square Theatre School and especially for my acting teachers Alan Langdon and Jacqueline Brookes. I often go back to what they taught me, and would simply not have the tools to tackle this if it weren't for them.
TTC: You’ve mentioned that you went home to Australia. And also noted that Medea is an “outsider… from a distant land.” Yourself, as a native Australian having immigrated to the United States -- do you feel any connection to Medea's situation?
LG: I do feel a connection with Medea in this way! I understand what it's like to be very far away from family. When hard times hit, you can feel completely alone. Then you suddenly… you learn how resilient you actually are!
In addition to Gabriel, Titan's Medea features Broadway Veteran Ellen Fiske as The Nurse, Titan Resident Company members Tristan Colton as Jason and Alyssa Van Gorder as Aegeus, and Titan Journeymen Members Lindsay Nance as Glauce, Rachel Schmeling as The Nanny, and Guest Artist Molly Thomas as Creon. Jake Lesh, Sara Ornelas, and Analiese Puzon understudy.
For tickets and more information at this limited run visit http://www.titantheatrecompany.com/
In the final scene of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; or What You Will, Duke Orsino struggles to understand: “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons.” How can this be?
Antonio, the outlaw, is equally perplexed and chimes in: “How have you made division of yourself? An apple cleft in two is not more twin than these two creatures.”
SPOILER ALERT: This charming confusion is due to the reuniting of Twelfth Night's Infamous Identical Twins*, Viola and Sebastian.
Viola and Sebastian are in good mythical and literary company when it comes to “two of a kind” siblings. From the godly twins of Apollo and Artemis in Greek Mythology and Romulus and Remus in Roman Mythology, to the Gemini Twins of the Zodiac, to the Weasley Twins of Harry Potter fame, to the numerous sets of twins in dramatic literature (e.g. Goldoni’s The Venetian Twins, the musically conjoined sisters of Side Show, and returning to Shakespeare and his Comedy of Errors where he “doubles-down” on the twin motif with not one, but two pairs of identical siblings)… art, science and culture have been fascinated by and drawn to these doubles since the genesis of literature and oral tradition.
Indeed, there does seem to be something magnetic and otherworldly about these “apples cleft in twain.”
But in all these on-stage explorations, how often were those theaters and playwrights luckyenough to work with the real deal???To have twins playing… twins??
Well, Titan Theatre Company just so happens to have lucked out.
In a rare and exciting production of Twelfth Night; or What You Will, Opening March 24that the Queen's Theatre, real life identical twins, Lauren and Sierra Tothero, will have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to take on Shakespeare’s infamous identical duo, Viola and Sebastian. And you have the once-in-a-lifetime-chance to see it!
In a conjoined interview (sorry ladies. couldn't resist.), I ask Sierra and Lauren, a bit about what it was like to grow up as “an apple cleft in two” - among other things
Read on to get to know
Titan’s Talented Tothero Twins.
- Which of you was born first?
Lauren was born one minute earlier.
- Do you have any other siblings?
Nope! We were a 2 for 1 deal.
- Where did you grow up?
Right smack dab in the middle of Austin, Texas.
- What is it like growing up as an identical twin? Are there advantages?
Haha it’s interesting because, since we don’t have any other siblings, we don’t have anything to compare it to. But it is hard to imagine understanding someone more than we understand one another. I mean it was definitely to a...shall we say...eccentric level.
We had our own language growing up and stuff.
We also had the same tics and neuroses that we wouldn’t know about until we talked about it years later (thanks therapy!).
- Are there disadvantages to being an identical twin?
One disadvantage about being a twin is that in our culture twins are either sexualized or infantilized, and we experienced both growing up.
As teenagers we were consistently talked down to - called “cute”, “adorable,” etc.--not exactly what we were wanting as we were trying to grow into empowered adults. People would also ask our boyfriends “How did you choose??” which was like… what!?! Pretty insulting.
Another major annoyance growing up was people always compared us. Some people-- we're talking adults, like other kids’ parents--would even ask us questions like “Which one is the smart twin?” or “Which one is the athletic one?” Really!?! When else do you ever find it appropriate to ask that question about siblings? But since we were identical twins people thought it was ok for some reason.
Our parents would be very good with responding “Oh we don’t compare our kids,” but people would push. “I mean...who gets better grades?” People have this intense desire to compare us, and it was incredibly annoying.
- How did you deal with this constant comparison?
Lauren: The best thing we ever did for ourselves was go to different colleges. It was the first time in our lives that we each had a group of friends that didn’t know our twin. I was always the shyer one growing up, so I relied on Sierra to create our social life, and eventually had insecurities about being able to have friends without her. But luckily it wasn’t an issue at all! I finally realized “Oh. I’m a whole person even without Sierra. Sweet.”
- Do people have a hard time telling you apart? If so, how frustrating is that and how do you overcome it?
When we were younger, absolutely. We legitimately won a Twin’s Contest in Ocean City, New Jersey four years in a row!
Now that we’re older, it’s less so. And our best friends and family generally have zero trouble. But every now and then, to their utter shock, our mom or dad will call us the wrong name! It’s rare and only for a moment now, and people are always extremely apologetic when they call us the wrong name. But it is truly not a big deal or offensive to us. It’s something that’s happened our entire life, so we don’t really think twice about it.
- Okay. Have to ask. Have you ever pretended to be one another to confuse people?
We did once in elementary school on April Fool’s day because our class really wanted us to, but usually we were too shy to go through with it. It’s one of those weird things that pop culture is all about, but when you think it through it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
- There’s been a lot written about a psychic connection between twins. Have you two ever experienced anything like that?
We’ve had the same dreams on the same night.
We finish each other’s sentences all the time.
In conversations, we know exactly what the other is going to say before she says it. It’s just a matter of deciding who is going to be the one who talks.
And like we said, we also had our own language when we were little.
- Where do you each live now?
Lauren is in Los Angeles, and Sierra is in Austin...for now.
- What are some of your biggest differences as people?
Sierra: Hmmmm… Lauren’s really into beets, and honestly...I could take ‘em or leave ‘em. Taste kind of like dirt to me. But Lauren loves them.
Lauren: And Sierra, however, likes cashews. And I am not a fan.
Sierra: Haha seriously though...there aren’t many. I suppose like any close people or best friends, there aren’t many. From a nature vs nurture perspective, we have identical nature and pretty close to identical nurture, so it’s not surprising that we’re pretty darn similar.
- How did you get into theatre?
It’s just something we both always loved. We’d always be putting on plays and shows for our neighbors to come see. Acting in front of movies and whatnot. We were cast in this puppet show in 1st grade and loved it.
Sierra: I remember assuming that everyone loves this. It took a few years to realize that the love of performing is not intrinsic for everyone. We did musicals in middle school and then went to the fine arts academy in Austin for Performance Theatre. That’s when it became an obsession. I don’t think we came home from school at a usual time for 3 years (shout-out to Mom and Dad for those 10pm pick-ups!).
- What was the first show either of you did?
Not discounting our elementary school theatre experiences (which were awesome! Go arts in schools!), our first traditional theatre experience was Annie in 7th grade. We were chorus orphans. This was quickly eclipsed by our stand-out performances in the Lullaby League in the 8th grade production of The Wizard of Oz. Chorus Orphans to Chorus Munchkins...what a rush.
- Since Chorus Orphans to Chorus Munchkins... what have your individual theatre training backgrounds been?
Lauren: I received my BFA in Drama from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts
Sierra: I received my BFA in Acting at Rutgers University. But do you want to know what’s crazy? Lauren didn’t get accepted to Rutgers, and I didn’t get accepted to NYU. How weird is that!?
- What is your favorite Shakespeare play?
Sierra: I’m kind of a romantic, so I have to say Romeo and Juliet. I love exploring and celebrating that naive, youthful, unapologetic love. The text in that balcony scene--all those shared lines--is so fun to say. Too bad how it ends though...yikes.
Lauren: I love As You Like It. Rosalind rocks. I’m also all about the portrayal of strong female friendship.
- What draws you to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; Or What You Will?
Sierra: Feste has always been one of my favorite characters in the canon, so I’m excited to have a scene with him. It’s also exciting to explore that feeling of unrequited infatuation between Viola with Orsino.. And of course the opportunity to work with Lauren for the first time in 9 years!
Lauren: It’s going to be so fun playing with the different levels of “gender-bending.” I’m a woman who is playing a man. Sierra is a woman who is playing a woman who is playing a man. It’s a cool twist on the original productions in Shakespeare’s time (when all the characters were played by men). I’m excited to see how our portrayals--me being a man and Sierra being a woman playing a man--are similar and different come opening night.
Twelfth Night; Or What You Will runs March 24th - April 9th at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Park. For more information, show times, and tickets visit
Julius Caesar said "experience is the teacher of all things."
If Caesar was right, then Jack Young has certainly earned his title as Master Teacher.
His experience abounds:
Young is the Head of the Professional Actor Training Program at The University of Houston where he is a Professor of Acting and Movement (and the recipient of the University of Houston Alumni Association Distinguished Teaching Award). He is currently the Artistic Director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival. Prior to HSF, he served as Executive and Artistic Director for other successful theaters across the country, has worked with 10 different Shakespeare Festivals, is a Certified Teacher and Fight Director for the Society of American Fight Directors, has choreographed violence for over 100 productions, has Directed over 120 productions, and is a celebrated actor in his own right.
He is also happens to be the director of Titan Theatre Company's final production of the 2015/16 season, Julius Caesar.
With such a prolific professional resume, I was curious to talk to Jack Young about his personal thoughts on the theatre. He graciously obliged.
Check out his interview below!
Theatre is where I can blend my love of history, art, music, people, language, logistics and transformation.
- Let's start at the beginning: what lead you to a life in the theatre?
Southern upbringing blended with Irish gift of the gab--family gatherings were telling family stories--add in, as a kid, listening to comedy recordings, creating "haunted houses" in neighborhood garages to scare the younger kids, being lousy at sports in a neighborhood full of All-Stars (made me work harder in movement classes), playing piano competitions and flute in the school band, and working in a high school drama group that raised $ for our shows by serving as the tech/production team for a ballet company--theatre is where I can blend my love of history, art, music, people, language, logistics and transformation
- So - what was your first experience with Shakespeare?
The first I can remember is my mom dragging my siblings and I in to watch the Bill Ball TAMING OF THE SHREW that was broadcast on PBS--none of us had any interest in coming indoors to watch some dumb play, but then the language and the physicality grabbed us all--
I didn't get to perform any until way late into graduate training--I spent much of my early time doing new plays (apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville) but working with living playwrights gave me insights into the crafting of dialogue, character and structure. I figure BillyBard must have brought the same attention and drive to his work.
- Since then you have worked at over 10 Shakespeare Festivals, and directed and acted in so many of his plays – what is it that still draws you to Shakespeare's work?
Good plays attract good artists--the actors, directors, designers, voice/text, movement coaches who are ready to take on the challenge of a Shakespeare are fun to work with. The fun of working in a variety of places and companies is discovering how the plays bloom in different soil.
- As a director, artistic director, actor, fight director and teacher you wear many hats. Is it difficult to switch from one to another? Or do they inform each other?
They feed each other--all in the process of Sharing the Truth. As an artistic director, choosing the play is choosing which set of Big Truths the company is going to attempt to share. As an actor or a fight director or director, it's contributing a different part of shaping the Truth. As a teacher, I help hone my students' skills and challenge their courage to share Truths worth witnessing. The vantage point of each helps give me a more nuanced sense of what may be going on in any given moment in the process.
- In regards to that -- the process of Sharing the Truth -- Why Julius Caesar? Why now?
An election year is always a good time to remind ourselves of the Power of Rhetoric to stir emotions and steer groups of people in ways that we might not if we took a moment to think on our own. Plenty of excitement about HOUSE OF CARDS- We live in Elizabethan times.
- What is your preparation process like as a director approaching a play? What sources do you draw from? Has anything particularly informed your approach to Titan’s production of Julius Caesar?
Hearing the text is just as important as reading it. As much as can be found in making sure I know what the characters mean when they speak, there is just as much in sensing the Onomatopoeic event that will fill the audience's ears when they hear it.
Going along with that is music--finding the pitch/volume/rhythm that is going to support and shape the play. As a physical performer, I watch a lot of dance, martial arts, and sports to find iconic shapes and gestures that can populate the work.
In this production of Julius Caesar, given that the actors play major characters and Citizens of Rome, a lot of work has gone in to create a heightened physicality and vocal work to make them into a Crowd, a Mob, and an Army.
Then there's loud and ever present Media Feed of the current electoral process. Every rehearsal there's a line in JULIUS CAESAR that could have been a headline in the paper.
- You have worked with Titan Theatre Company before (Hamlet 2010). From your experience, how has the company changed in the past six years?
The rehearsal space has given the company a good Kitchen to create in. The company's rising profile has attracted Guest Artists with deep background and serious skills. What hasn't changed is the drive, the energy and the smarts of the company--those are core parts of TITAN.
- Lenny Banovez, Laura Frye, and Michael Thatcher, who are all in the company of Julius Caesar, are all former students of yours. What is it like working professionally with actors you have helped to train and develop?
First off, there is an efficiency in working with people who share a common language. Adjustments and improvements can be implemented so much quicker. The shared history also means I can draw on the strengths I know they have. What's great now is that they've all matured in beautiful ways; they've worked with a great range of people since their training days, and are bringing even more experience and nuance to their work.
- If you had one piece of advice for new actors approaching Shakespeare – what would it be?
See it. Hear it. Very few people sit down with a Mozart score and read it--you LISTEN to it. As much as this may upset the English teachers, BillyBard didn't write these plays to be read--he wrote them to be HEARD (Hamlet asks if the royals will HEAR his play--not see it). There is so much video out now--RSC, The National Theatre, film versions, youTube--see as many different versions as you can--none of them are perfect (well, with the possible exception of Adrian Lester's OTHELLO--it's mighty damn fine) but there's much to be gained in seeing the different ways different productions Share the Truth.
See it. Hear it. ... there's much to be gained in seeing the different ways different productions Share the Truth.
The Importance of Being Earnest opened this past weekend, signifying Titan Theatre Company's return to The Queen's Theatre stage for their 2015/16 season. However, the opening of Earnest also signified another return to stage, one of a personal and emotional nature for Titan's Artistic Director, Lenny Banovez.
As Co-founder and Artistic Director of Titan Theatre Company, Banovez has faced many challenges in order to stand on his own two feet-- professionally, artistically and also quite literally.
In the interview below, he opens up about his battles, his return to the boards, and shows us a glimpse of his remarkable and indomitable spirit.
So Lenny, how did you first get into theatre?
[He sighs] A girl. I had always been in choir, but the theatre bug hit because a girl I was dating
during my Freshman year in High School suggested I try out for a play. So I did. Our high school actually had one of the better theatre programs in the country. So, I went from being a jock to a drama geek almost overnight.
Then I got my BA in Theatre in Wisconsin and my MFA from Ohio University’s Professional Actor Training Program under Jack Young.
And how did Titan Theatre Company start?
Titan started as a way for friends and myself to have something to do when we were off contract and auditioning in NYC. We started doing Shakespeare in the now infamous “Tex Mex restaurant" and began to realize people were really into what we were doing. So Kevin Beebee, Laura Frye, and myself decided to really go for it. We then hired the amazing Alyssa Van Gorder and she has been instrumental in moving the company ahead. But to be honest, I never thought it would turn into what it has!
What are some favorite roles you’ve played as an actor?
This is always a tough question.
For Titan, Hamlet was a big one for me obviously.
Valere in Tartuffev at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre is one of my favorites, because of the brilliant cast we had. Some of the most important people in my life were in that show.
Henry V, Feste, and the Fool in Lear are other favorite roles. And Algernon 1.0 at PCPA is easily my favorite production of all time.
What are some favorite experiences you’ve had directing and as an Artistic Director?
My directing career is still so surprising for me. So to talk about it is still odd.
One of my prouder moments with Titan was our "pull your part out of the hat"
The first iteration, especially, was a very special show for me and one of the best times in my life.
And Titan’s Henry V was our first REAL production, so it has a special place in my heart.
Outside of Titan, returning Texas Shakespeare last year to direct Man of La Mancha was a real honor. I had been there as an actor and to return as a director felt like a huge accomplishment.
As an Artistic Director I would have to say the "Shakespeare in Queens” Project with the Queens Library is something I’m very proud of. To join forces with the Public Libraries of Queens in such an ambitious and exciting outreach program--doing readings of ALL of Shakespeare's plays throughout the borough to audiences who may not otherwise experience Shakespeare--is already shaping up to be something very special.
You say your "directing career is still so surprising" for you? Why is that? What precipitated your transition from being an actor to a director?
The cause of my sudden transition from actor to director was my completely unexpected diagnosis with Myasthenia Gravis, also known as MG. MG is an auto immune/neuro muscular disease that is very similar to Multiple Sclerosis. The body produces antibodies that attack the neuromuscular junction. By attacking the junction between the nerves and muscles, your muscles aren’t able to work properly and the byproduct of that is extreme muscle weakness in voluntary muscles such as the mouth, the lungs, throat, arms, legs, hands and eyes.
When did you notice something was wrong? And is Myasthenia Gravis difficult to diagnosis?
The process of trying to figure out what "I had" was the most horrifying experience of my life.
The very first symptom I had was slurred speech. Which for an actor is obviously terrifying. I knew something was wrong so I went to a few doctors and was told, first, that it was just an inner ear infection and then that my symptoms were caused by stress. Soon, I began having issues swallowing food. Then double vision. I didn't know it at the time, but the muscles in my eyes were too weak to be able to keep both eyes focused at the same level, which caused my double vision. Then, I lost my voice completely because my muscles were so weak that my vocal chords couldn’t move to produce enough sound. Eventually the muscles in my throat were so weak I couldn’t swallow food at all. Finally, I went to a doctor who believed I was dealing with more than just "stress" and recommended I see a neurologist.
The nuerologist ran a battery of tests. The first tests were for a possible brain tumor. Then ALS/Lou Gehrig's disease. Two illnesses that would have meant my life would most likely be over before 33. Looking back I still can't wrap my head around that. Thankfully those tests came back negative. Then came a test for MS, which came back negative as well. The MG diagnosis came after a blood test confirmed the presence of MG antibodies.
What was it like when you realized that you would have to forego acting because of your health condition? How did you process and cope?
I was crushed at first.
I had two shows lined up and interest from some of the largest companies in the country that I had always dreamed of working with. Everything I had worked so hard for seemed to disappear overnight. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t sing. There was no chance I could perform - and the prognosis was that I might never perform again. I believed my acting career was over.
Luckily for me, I have an amazing wife who wouldn't let me sit in that state of mind for long. Within a week I started to refocusing on directing. I couldn't perform myself. But as a director, I might still be able to have a voice through others.
I still remember my first day of rehearsal for Titan’s Henry V. I couldn't speak yet, so I wrote all my notes down and whispered in actor's ears. It actually went amazingly well. I was thrilled to be working still. I knew I'd be able to have a career in theatre still. It just seemed that God had a different place for me in that world.
What Doctors did you work with and what treatments did you undergo in order to “get your body back?”
I am not a normal patient. Which can be a good and bad thing I guess. My disease is rare. Extremely rare. So I did a lot of research on it. I wanted to make sure that I knew as much about it so I could dictate my care in the right way.
For me, I focused heavily on the fact that it was an auto immune disease. My body was attacking itself. So I focused on how to "call off the attack" and on a long term recovery.
After a long road of hiring and firing doctors, I found what I refer to as my odd couple. I found a holistic applied kinesiologist (aka hippie Doctor) and the best neurologist in NYC. They worked together as a team, which was unique if you know anything about the difference between eastern and western medicine. My nuerologist's job was to focus on my immediate care. Meds to make my body stop attacking itself. The western philosophy: cure the symptoms. My hippie doc focused on long term treatment of my body to cure an incurable disease. Things like detox and meditation.
I also took my diet into my own hands. I have a firm belief that food can be a huge part of wellness and curing disease. It definitely was for me. I went entirely organic and start juicing. I know many think of it as a Hollywood fad or a way to loose weight. But for me it was the key tool in restoring my health. I still swear by it and still do it today.
What motivated you to stick to these treatments and believe you could get better?
My wife. At 31 years old and not even married for a year yet at that time and I was in a hospital connected to machines and tubes. Barely able to talk or eat. Not once did she look at me like “I didn’t sign up for this.” All she ever said to me was, “You got this. It won’t always be like this.” She pulled me through everything. Like a champ. I will never forget that, and she will always be my best friend because of it.
How do you deal with relapses and the “new normal” in this highly stressful and unforgiving profession?
Running a company is so damn stressful that it is insane for me to process at times, so I don't know what the "new normal" is. “How can putting on a play be so stressful?” I don’t know…but it is. Balancing stress is the hardest part of my health now. Stress can cause a relapse in symptoms. And my body will tell me very clearly when it is unhappy. Usually it shows as extreme exhaustion. Every now and then my words will begin to slur or my eyes will begin to get "lazy," and I take those as "warning signs" telling me I need to make some serious adjustments. However, I’ve been in full remission (meaning no medication and no debilitating symptoms) for coming up on three years. So it’s been going very well.
So how long has it been since you were on-stage?
What made you decide to return to the stage for The Importance of Being Ernest?
As I mentioned, I had played the role before at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts a number of seasons ago. So I knew the stress of learning a new role wasn’t going to be an issue. Plus, I just flat out love the part. I’m a good fit for it. And I wanted another crack at it. So it made sense.
How is the show going for you so far?
I am having the time of my life. It’s a bit surreal at times to be doing it again, but I love it. I was definitely rusty at first, but after a little while, things started coming back pretty quick. It reminded me how much I love it. How much I missed it. I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to be acting again. Many people who have MG struggle with everyday life. For me to be able to this again... it is truly a blessing.
How do you think your health battles have changed you as a theatre artist and a person?
It has changed everything about me. It has humbled me. It has given me appreciation for life. It’s made me care about others more. It also made me work harder. I have to admit that it made me extremely ambitious. Having your mortality tested at a very young age made me really work hard now and not wait for later. Because later is never guaranteed. I say no to very few projects and I work very very hard all the time. I want to do everything and anything I can while I have the honor of walking this planet. So I do that.
I always say, if I could go back and have a choice to get sick or not get sick….I would choose to get sick. I know that sounds nuts. But I would. MG has made me a better person. I love more. Share more. Give more. Care more. Create more. All because I almost had it all taken away from me. The person I am because of MG is way better than the person I would be without it. That is what I truly hold dear in all of this, what I'm actually proud of -- that I was able to turn something devastating into a positively life altering opportunity.
some production photos from some of Lenny's past shows
Titan's Othello opened this past weekend at the Queens Theatre to standing ovations and great response. A significant part of those ovations were, of course, due to the exceptional portrayal of the title character: Othello.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Othello herself, Leah Dutchin, about her background and what has lead to her nuanced, compelling and powerful portrayal of Othello.
Check out the interview below!
Where was home for you growing up, and where do you call home now?
I grew up in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota and I currently live in Los Angeles, California with my husband and our two dogs.
Are your parents also from Minnesota?
My Mom is from Minnesota and has lived in either Wisconsin or Minnesota her entire life. Her side of the family is German, Swedish, Norwegian, and possibly a little Irish. My Dad is from Guyana – which is a tiny country on the North side of South American, next to French Guiana, Surinam and bordering Brazil. And his parents' genealogy is Indian, by way of Portugal – in fact, we recently got more specifics about our family lineage from a DNA test.
What was your first introduction to the Theatre and Shakespeare?
The first play I read was Romeo and Juliet in High School – we all traded off reading the parts in class. I loved it. And I remember not being intimidated at all!
Also, my Dad was raised in Guyana, which use to be an English sovereignty, so he actually grew up with Shakespeare. He can quote Shakespeare like [snaps her fingers]. All of the schools were Catholic with English teachers – literally teachers from England – and they used Shakespeare to teach the kids English.
And what was your introduction to Acting?
I joined a troupe called S.O.S. Players. We toured the Midwest doing skits for kids from kindergarten to 18, about teen issues: sex, drugs, violence, peer pressure, depression – things that kids were, most likely, unable to really talk about with other people. That really really changed my life: to realize I could do something I was passionate about and change lives.
How did you develop your passion for acting? How did you “train.”
My real introduction to it all - acting, public speaking, the technique of it - was through my speech teacher in High School, Mr. Estenson. He is the reason I became an actor. He saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there, something he called a “spark.” He trained me how to get your voice across an auditorium and how to approach classical texts – specifically Medea- and make them human.
Then after High School, I went to the University of Utah and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts there.
Did you study a lot of classical theatre at The University of Utah?
Yes. We studied it of course. But I was always cast in contemporary plays. Not sure why. So I thought I was really only meant to be a contemporary actor when I left.
But then I did the internship at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre [where she first met and worked with Emily Trask - who plays Desdemona in Titan's Othello] right after graduating from Utah. I was in Richard III in a small role (which was originally a man’s role!) and Mary Stuart in rep, so I became immersed in classical theatre. I got to understudy Queen Margaret in Richard III – and watching the actress, Rose Pickering, do that role changed everything for me.
So after that, Shakespeare was all I did for awhile! Three seasons at Montana Shakespeare in the Parks [where she met and worked with Abbey Siegworth - who plays Cassio in Titan's Othello] and one at American Players Theatre.
After which, I decided I wanted more training and went to Grad School at The University of California – Irvine and got my MFA.
UC- Irvine is a great theatre school and also has a great movement program. You’re a very physical actor. When did you discover that?
That began in High School. I was in sports my whole life. So I felt pretty comfortable in my body.
As soon as I got to the University of Utah, I really connected with my movement teacher, Jerry Gardner. He taught me so much about movement. Focus. Physical Focus. So that started the ball rolling. And I realized that movement doesn’t have to be dance.
Then my first professional show, Skin Tight, was a heavily movement based piece of work and stage combat – mostly unarmed – and it was against one man. So I had to match him. Physically. And that was wonderful. No one in the audience doubted I could.
Then, when I got to California Irvine I got immersed in Contact Improv - which is an exchange of energy between one or more partners – it’s essentially call and response with your body. So I guess I've always been a "physical actor."
Has your movement background helped in your approach to Othello?
100%. I’m always in a fight stance in this show. I don’t do that in my real life at all but… that’s Othello. In fact, that was probably the one thing about playing Othello that I wasn’t worried about! I was ready to fight. It’s a language in my body that’s just inherent in me.
You mentioned your family “lineage” earlier and a DNA test?
Yes. I did something called 23 and Me which is, essentially a DNA test/ data base. You submit a DNA sample (your saliva for example), and 23 and Me collects all of this information and it helps you figure out where your family actually comes from and fills in the holes in your family tree.
And I found out that I’m actually very Indian. Very Indian. My family is from North and South and East and West India. And I’m African as well. Sub-Saharan.
So your father’s heritage is actually closer to what Shakespeare would have defined as a Moor? Which was“a Muslim of mixed Arab and North or West African descent. “
So how did your father’s family end up in Guyana?
My grandmother’s side came through Spain and Portugal and I found out that they actually came over to Guyana as indentured servants. And so my family hails from indentured servitude. Which... well, we know the story of indentured servitude.
I've always been asked the question - "what are you?" ... Those three words - over and over and over...
Growing up in the suburbs in Minnesota, what was it like to come of age in a primarily white community?
I’ve always been asked the question “what are you?” I don’t know why, but I would assume it's because all of us want to put each other in a box. Just to safely put each other some place to say “Oh. That’s what this person is” – ‘cause people are uncomfortable about things that are different. But it was hurtful to me after hearing those three words – “what are you?” – over and over and over again.
When was the first time you realized you were “different?”
I was leaving the school going to the bus (even thought I lived close, it went by my house so sometimes the bus driver would just let me get on and drop me off). So I was about to get on the bus when this kid, he was Caucasian, yelled out the window the N word. At me. He , he called me a nigger. And I looked around because – was that at me? But he was looking right at me and the guys with him were laughing at me. I didn’t know what that word was, but it felt bad. It felt wrong.
So I slowly turned around and went inside and went out the back door of the school and walked home. And so when my Mom came home I asked her “what does this mean?” And her face just got so red. And she was like “Why do you know that word!? What happened?” And so I got nervous and I told her the story. When she calmed herself down and I asked her again “what does that mean?” And she said “it’s not a good word but what they don’t understand is they want to put you down, they want to put you in a box because they don’t know 'what you are.' But that’s what makes you beautiful.”
But I still didn’t get it. What am I?! Why do I look so different from everyone else. So (God Bless her), good Midwestern woman, she goes to the freezer and pulls out the ice-cream. And she pulls out the chocolate ice-cream and the vanilla ice-cream and takes a scoop of each and mixes it together and say – that is what you are. You are sweet. And you are a wonderful girl. And it does not matter what the color of your skin looks like – you are beautiful. And every skin color is beautiful. So you go and tell them that!
So that next time some asked “what I was” I said I’m chocolate and vanilla swirled together.
How has your own history and your own conversation with race affected your journey while playing Othello?
I never considered this play in my realm of possibility. So I never thought hard about the play for myself as an actress. But when I’d read it or seen it, I connected to him. To Othello. To trying to get people to see beyond my color.
I don’t deal with it that much any more in my life. I surround myself with good people – so I feel safe. But I still get it every once in awhile.
Do you “get it” in the theatre?
Mmm Hmm. It’s that look. “What do we do with her? She’s good but… where do we put her?” “Does that mean we’re saying something if we cast her in this role?” There aren’t very many Tennesse Williams plays that people are going to put me in [laughs]. Even though I love Tennesse Williams and connect very much to the women’s characters in his plays. And I’m also tall – so when I walk in the room – there I am.
I have tried to play that down or fight that in my life. Fight my height. Fight my coloring. Fight my big hair. But I’ve realized now that I have to embrace it! Yes. It does hurt my feelings when I suspect that might be a major factor in why I don’t get a role or work at certain theaters – but I’ve realized that’s not something I can do anything about. Just like Every. Other. Actor. There is that thing that they have to deal with and work around.
And so. Am I a little nervous that I’m “light skinned” Othello?? Sure. I’m worried that people won’t get it or will judge it. But I had to filter that voice and try to use it. Just like Othello does.
And really Othello is Muslim! North African Arab. He/she probably looked a lot more like me – than ebony necessarily.
But that’s the beauty of the world we live in now. People of all races fall in love - make babies. The babies look different. It’s not just white, black, brown, yellow. There are shades. A beautiful crayon box.
Women are often spoken of as the “weaker sex.” Titan’s production of Othello would beg to differ.
Othello’s Fight Director and Resident Company Member, Johnathan Hicks, weighs in about what it’s like to stage violence for a cast of fighting females in one of Shakespeare’s most physically brutal tragedies.
“Who wants to see a bunch of chicks fight?" Fight Director, Johnathan Hicks, asks.
"EVERYBODY." he answers himself. "I don’t need to get on a soapbox to let people know that women can get a negative rap for being the “weaker sex” – both in the world of stage combat and the world in general. But by now, this idea should be obvious bull honky. One of the best Fight Directors I know is a woman.”
Bull honky, indeed.
In fact, in Titan's production of Othello, when given the choice between a simulated slap and an actual slap that would make contact with her face– Cassio (Abbey Siegworth) and Othello (Leah Dutchin) immediately decided that, due to the proximity of the Queen's Studio Theater space and the importance of the moment in the two character's relationship, Siegworth would simply take Dutchin’s slap to the face.
Maybe not too terrible, if you have to do it just once but, unlike film, in the world of theatre repetition is key. A stage combat move like this requires much repetition and precision to get the physical contact to a “safe" and repeatable place in the adrenalin of performance. So Dutchin and Siegworth have to deliver and receive the slap over and over again in rehearsal and fight calls (fight calls are similar to a dance warm up, and they happen each time before the show is run), to ensure the actors are consistently making eye contact at the same moment (this is the unspoken, split-second, go-ahead to proceed with the violence), that Dutchin is striking Siegworth's cheek in the right spot (too high you make contact with cheek bone or eye socket- too low, the jaw takes the impact - both are potentially dangerous and more painful for both actors), making sure Dutchin's hand at the optimal level of tension and Siegworth's face is at the optimal angle and, lastly, that neither actor flinches or anticipates the strike - which, I needn't tell you, takes a greatly developed control of one's innate reflexes.
Yup. We're dealing with some pretty resilient and bad ass ladies here. So much so that, when Siegworth wasn’t present at rehearsal one day and Maggie Wetzel, Cassio’s understudy stepped in, she was given the option to “mark” the combat as the understudy. Instead, Wetzel took it on the cheek as well, without batting an eye.
When asked if he changed any of the combat choreography when he learned he would be working with all women, Hicks said No. “There really hasn’t been much thought about what I need to change in order for women to be able to combat instead of men. ”
Hicks approaches the combat from the point of view of story - not gender.
This goes hand in hand with what Lenny Banovez, the Director of Othello and Titan's founder and Artistic Director said when asked about the "concept" of an All-Female Othello.
"We aren't doing an All-Female Othello. We're doing Othello. With a female cast." -
When it comes to physical fighting in real life, there are some things that work in women's advantage as fighters:
- The male center of gravity is in the shoulders. The female center of gravity is in their hips - which is closer to the ground. Making them harder to knock over.
- Women have a higher pain tolerance
- Females, on average, have a larger Limbic system than males. This area of the brain is referred to as “the reptilian brain” because it houses instincts. This area, which is home to the mothering instinct and innate primitive fighting instincts, is larger in women than men. It has been observed that, when threatened, women actually display a primitive killer instinct far greater than the male.
Just think Momma Bear.
These things also aid them as stage fighters. Because of these reasons, as well as artistic choices, Hicks and Banovez have decided to stick to a specific “fight vocabulary” for this Othello
“Our Othello is contemporary world. What is cool about this is that it allows for more options as far as styles of violence. This modern setting gives us a broader choice from any fighting style and any weapon - past or present.
So everyone should just have guns then right? Ha!
We have used guns in Titan productions in the past and they immediately take the violence into the present [which is cool]. But guns are a tricky business for the theater. They are expensive. They must either be functional or be accompanied with some other technical element. They lead to questions: Does everyone have a gun? If not, who has one and why?
For Othello, we have decided to use a combination of daggers and unarmed combat. Since the idea of the human as a martial instrument has been around since Cain met Abel, and since here at Titan we like to keep it simple and raw, it works for us. There is an inherent brutality to the play. Therefore, the up close and personal quality of these weapons help to highlight the gruesome, intimate nature of the violence in the world of Othello”
A world you are invited into at The Queen's Theatre this month.
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Good Madam, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons. - Act 1, Scene ii
The first day of TITAN Theatre Company's Othello is here!
Everyone is eager to get into rehearsals and sink our collective teeth into this delicious, heartbreaking, mind-bending tragedy. But, don't be fooled, the work has long since begun. The cast and creative team have been preparing for this day for quite awhile. And everyone readies themselves a little differently. So we thought we'd get this blog rolling by asking some members of this fiercely female cast: How in the ot-hell-o do you get ready to tackle a play like Othello?
or - in other words
"How do you memorize all those lines!?!" - asked someone at every talkback ever.
Check out what the Bard's broads have to say in response.
"If I have to memorize quickly, I record the lines and listen while strolling or jogging. In this instance...
...I wound up across from Shakespeare's Globe."
Deanna Gibson - Emilia
"I like to memorize lines by recording my cues into my phone with little pauses where my lines are and then play the tape back and say my lines to it. I also like to do an activity, like cleaning the dishes or folding the laundry, because if you move while you memorize something you work both the left and right sides of your brain and the material sticks better."
Erica Knight - Lodovico
"I memorize the lines in many different ways, but my one top method is to write the lines over and over again. I have notebooks filled with lines from every show I have been in."
Laura Frye - Iago
"In the warmth of sunny Austin, Texas, I've been reading the text, re-reading the text, looking up the roots of words, reading the text again, and scanning. Lots of focus on departures from the iambic pentameter and going into imagination-land for the potential reasoning for it. I've also been eating a lot of tacos while doing this, as seen in the picture. Ah my two loves: Shakespeare and breakfast tacos. :)" Sierra Thothero - Desdemona u/s
"When I memorize a script, I start at the beginning. I memorize and say out loud little chunks of text at a time, adding another line, paragraph, scene until I know it all. I like to spend this time in quieter places (talking to oneself in public can be a bit distracting to others I've found) like my home or a patch of grass at a park."
Leah Dutchin - Othello
"In terms of preparation for three characters, 'No Fear Shakespeare' and multicolor post-its are definitely my friends." Molly Densmore - Montano
Osmosis. - Alyssa VanGorder- Gratiano
"Snow day! I've got Thai food on the way, I've got my complete works and my Othello script in hand, I've got coffee and the OED!" - Kate Gunther – Bianca
"A good Folio. A good Rye. And a good study partner."
- Emily Trask - Desdemona
"I'm a huge nerd. I gather every book, read every article, look up every word. With our current cutting, I'm looking for information about what version of Cassio will most help propel my fellow actors, and therefore the play, forward. They have harder journeys than mine; I'm seeking ways to make their jobs (as characters) harder, and their jobs (as actors) easier."
Abbey Siegworth – Cassio