I’m beyond excited about Richard III at Pigeon Creek Shakespeare. It’s such an interesting play, and the actors are doing amazing work. The truth is, though, I didn’t go into it expecting to be so personally moved by it. I’ve seen productions of this play before–five or six of them, probably. I never walked out of a theater thinking, This is a story I must tell. If Scott Lange hadn’t mentioned to me that he’d like to play that bottled spider, I would never have even asked if the play had anything for me to offer.
When I read it after talking about it with Scott, two years ago now, I was asking the play, What do you have for me? Scott was interested in this role, and I take that trust very seriously. I told him I would direct Two Noble Kinsmen if that was the play on his heart and in his bucket list (but please don’t ask me to!). So for the first time, I read this play asking it if I could find my way into it. It was transformed.
The women mourning leapt off the page at me and demanded my attention. What a wonderful and amazing thing it is that Shakespeare gives them a chance to speak their pain into the space of this play. I loved the power of Margaret’s curse that filters through the whole story and drives it. I loved that even poor Anne got her moment to show up as a ghost and tell Richard what she thought of him. I loved the chunk of IV.4 where Elizabeth just completely owns Richard and flips his script over and over again. I read it and started to feel like this was a play I needed to do, after all.
Beginning a year ago, I told Scott (who is my music director as well as playing Richard) that I wanted one of our songs to feature the women in the play, and I wanted it to be a time when their grief could come into focus in the music. The song we ended up picking, after a lot of back and forth, was the 10,000 Maniacs’ “Big Parade.” It’s a bit of an odd choice; it’s very specifically about the Vietnam Memorial, and our Richard isn’t concepty–it’s set in the 15th century, with no other moments of time bending. And yet, I think it works in its specificity. I wanted to point out that this insane system where we send our children to kill other mothers’ children as a way of solving our problems is still going on. The names in the Wall echo the litany in the play of, “I had a Richard, til a Richard killed him.” Richard III also stands in contrast to the “war as glory” play that is Henry V, much as the Vietnam Memorial is a contrast to the other, more optimistic portrayals of war on the Mall: “Slow deliberate steps are involved. / He takes them away from the black granite wall toward the other monuments so white and clean.” I love this moment in our play, mostly because I hope it temporarily confuses people and then allows them to enter into it in a new way.
I told the actors about something Bethany said to me a few weeks before I started rehearsals: “All violence is misogyny, because people are made by women. And women are expendable. If society really valued women’s lives and women’s work, nobody would ever allow any harm to come to a person who was created by a woman.” It’s so true that it hurts to say it. In this play, women mourn their children, over and over. Queen Elizabeth weeping for her princes in the Tower is the most famous example, but the play is full of others. Elizabeth’s older sons, from her first marriage, die at Richard’s hands, too. Margaret is wracked with grief for her son Edward, who died in the battle at Tewkesbury. The Duchess of York mourns for her son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, killed before the play’s action begins, for her son King Edward IV, who dies of an illness early in the play’s action, for her son George, Duke of Clarence, murdered by Richard’s hired hitmen, and for Richard himself, who is so awful that she disowns him in a completely fantastic moment.
One feature of the play, in my direction, is that the curses the women lay on others have actual power. In some of the productions I’ve seen, the response to the curses is very, “Oh, that crazy Margaret is at it again.” Some of the later moments when characters say things like, “Now Margaret’s curse is fall’n upon our heads, / For standing by when Richard stabb’d her son” are cut in these productions. They minimize her power.
I always say that magic is more theatrically interesting than not-magic, given the choice, but even more so in this play. I think that the connection between mothers and their children has so much power that it can create events in the world–and investing the women’s curses with this power helps to tell that story. When Kate Bode was raining down Margaret’s curses, I told everyone to act like she had a loaded gun. Mothers can be terrifying, as anyone who has ever heard their full name uttered in a certain tone can attest.
I often avoid talking about my experience as a mother especially because I hate how our culture represents motherhood. I don’t want to ever imply–as so many people do–that one can’t understand love without having a child, or that people who don’t have kids are somehow incomplete. I’m cautious about what I say to people who don’t have children because I don’t ever want to give the impression that I buy into that message that is everywhere. And yet, I can’t deny that the way I read this play is so different from the way I read it before I gave life to three people. Not more right, but definitely different.
My experience as a parent influences my work, of course, as all major life experiences do, but I don’t generally talk about it in rehearsal. I want to be able to tell stories in a way that anybody can access, and I want to make space for the actors to express their connection to the text. I think of my work as shaping the overall picture and helping the actors tell the story, but my own story usually is tertiary, at best. With Richard, I found that I couldn’t be silent about that piece of it. Parenting–mothering–is so much at the center of what draws me to this play, I was much more explicit in naming it than I can ever remember being before.
I also feel sometimes that talking about my own emotional life as part of a rehearsal process draws attention away from the story, where it should be. I don’t want actors to feel like I need them to manage my feelings. My work is about getting out of the way and creating a safe place for them to do theirs.
And yet, with this play, which is so much about mothers and children, I couldn’t leave that outside. I talked about the visceral connection I have with Petra and Silas, the specifics of where that lives in my body, where my energy feels tied to theirs. I talked about walking alongside a dear friend as she grieved for her baby, and tried to communicate the magnitude of that grief. I was nervous about speaking to that, but when I see Katherine, as Elizabeth, in the scene where her boys have died in the Tower, I see the way she centers her energy in her belly, the way her body can hardly maintain verticality against the gravity of the Earth, and I know that she took what she needed from my words. Watching her perform those scenes absolutely guts me. The same literally every time Kate says the word “Edward,” and freights it with so much pain and anger. I have seen the mourning women played as fundamentally weak in other productions; what I love about the women in this one is how their grief stokes their fire and gives them power to move toward righting the world. That’s how I have seen it work upon the real-life bereaved mothers in my close circle. I don’t think I ever said that, specifically, to these actors, but they found it anyway.
I’m interested in Shakespeare’s choices around storytelling for this play, too. His children were 8 and 10 around the time he wrote it. His son Hamnet still had a couple of years to live. But surely, by that point, he had seen enough of life to know what a grieving mother looked like; he had seen the strength a woman needs to bring a new person into the world and then to let them follow their own path, whatever the cost. In this play, I think he honors them, and I am so grateful to him for it.
Richard himself is separated from this cycle of mothers and children. Although the historical Richard had a son (named Edward, of course) with Lady Anne, Shakespeare leaves that out of this play. I think that’s a fascinating choice; I wonder if he is being deliberate in excising his fictional version of Richard from the wheel of family.
I have found this play emotionally harder than many that I’ve worked on, and I’m sure it’s at least in part because of my children. I began to wonder, How many other mothers have directed this play? For a play that is so much about mothers and children, for a play that has the word “womb” 50% more than any other play in Shakespeare’s canon (and that’s not even counting euphemisms like “nest of spicery” (ew)), surely this is a play for mothers. In my searching, which is of course not exhaustive, I’ve found only three mothers who’ve directed this show professionally in the past several decades. 95% of the people who have directed it are men; nearly all of the others, as far as I’ve been able to tell, are women who don’t have kids. I keep circling around that fact. What does it mean that this is not a story that mothers tell? Is this why I never thought of this as a play for me, because I never saw that story told by somebody whose body had made a person?
I remember many years ago, at a KCACTF conference when Silas was only a year old, my friend and mentor Heidi was talking with students about her experience as a parent and an artist. One student asked if her kids had made the work more difficult. “Oh, definitely,” she said. “But they also make it possible.”
At the time, I was so mired in the complexity of figuring out how to parent and direct, having just closed my first play since my son’s birth and working through logistics for how to do my second one, away from home and without my partner, that I couldn’t begin to understand how they could make the work possible. Now, I get it. I could have directed Richard III without being a mother. Most people do. But I couldn’t have directed this Richard III, and I’m so grateful that this is the one my heart had to offer.
Richard III is a play about how every person is some woman’s child. All violence is misogyny.