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"Time to grow up"

An interview with "Twelfth Night" guest director Henry Woronicz

NOTE: For its upcoming production of Shakespeare's most successful comedy, Twelfth Night, the Indiana University Department of Theatre and Drama enlisted the support of acclaimed director Henry Woronicz. Woronicz brings a wealth of nationally recognized Shakespearean experience to the production, which opens at the Ruth N. Halls Theatre on Feb. 23. He served as the artistic director for the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival from 1991 to 1995. While there, he directed Pravda, The Rehearsal, Hamlet, Cymbeline, La Bete and All's Well that Ends Well. He also is a respected actor, playing numerous roles on Broadway, including Trebonious in Julius Caesar at the Belasco Theatre with Denzel Washington, and in Shakespearian festivals across the country, including the venerable Utah Shakespearean Festival. On television he has had roles on Law and Order, Seinfeld and Star Trek: The Next Generation, among many others.

Last week, Ph.D. student Tom Robson sat down with Woronicz to discuss the IU production and the remarkable endurance of Twelfth Night. Here is an excerpt of their discussion:

Henry Worornicz

Henry Woronicz

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Tom Robson: First things first, how are rehearsals going so far?

Henry Woronicz: So far so good, can't complain, we are having a good time.

TR: With all of your professional experience, how is it different working with students in an academic setting like IU?

HW: Well the major difference, Tom, is that the students are a lot less experienced than professionals, I mean, that's the obvious thing. And dealing with a playwright like Shakespeare that has arguably written some of our greatest Western dramatic literature, there are real challenges involved in terms of being able to act that material, and the more experience you have the better, but that's a given going into an academic situation. There's a certain element of directing in the academic area that has to do with teaching and giving young actors a chance to wrap themselves around such great material that has been around and out there for 400 years, thereabouts. So that is the major difference really.

TR: You have a very diverse cast. You have several graduate students who have a lot more experience, and you have some freshmen and sophomores in there.

HW: Yes, I think there are several freshmen, there are a couple sophomores and juniors, and seniors, and then some grad students; first-year, second-year and third-year grad students are in there.

TR: So, you really run the whole ranch.

HW: It is the whole ranch, and within that dynamic there is a range of experience and levels of strength and weaknesses, so that's all part of putting the package together. But, that is to be expected when you come and work in the academic theatre. That is one of the big joys, actually, for me. I like that process of working with young actors and opening up some doors in their artistic process, helping them understand this great material and the challenges that are involved in working on it.

TR: I think there were more names signed up on the audition sheet for Twelfth Night than any show we have done here in years.

HW: I think probably that Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's great comedies, and it's his last true comedy in a way. I think it is perennially a favorite of audiences, and I think people like to be in it. There are some wonderful roles, some great comic roles, and a couple wonderful roles for women, particularly Viola and Olivia. Viola is one of the great Shakespearean roles for women. And Olivia is not too bad, either. There is Toby, and Malvolio, and Andrew. There is quite a good range there. I think that had a big part to play in the number of actors at the audition. I think we saw 109 people, who came to audition.

TR: What is it about Twelfth Night that makes it such an enduring play that we are still doing it 400 years later?

HW: Well, Twelfth Night works on many different levels. It works on a purely 'love story' level; people falling in love and trying to fall in love, and all the complications that result from falling in love. The whole story of Viola, for instance, who recently lost her brother and feels that she has to go in disguise so she can be protected in the world, dresses up as a boy. There's a very human story in that. And then this young woman, Olivia, falls in love with her … it's a very complicated plot on some level. And some of the elements in the play that are very accessible to people have to do with comedic farce and mistaken identities and things like that, although I wouldn't call Twelfth Night a farcical play at all, but there is some broad comedy in it.

At the same time, there is a thread of melancholy throughout the play. I think as Shakespeare's last comedy, he was ready to move on to other things, and you can sort of feel that in what I call its skeletal structure. The play is almost built around tragedy. As I said, Viola has been in a shipwreck and she thinks she has lost her only brother, her only family member. So the play starts for her in a very tragic vein. The young woman, Olivia, whom the Duke Orsino is in love with -- though she is not in love with him -- is in mourning for her brother and father who recently had died. So the play starts out with a air of tragedy about it. The wonderful character, the fool named Feste, goes through the play singing rather upbeat but melancholy songs, and a lot of his lyrics are double-edged. At one point, he sings in the middle of one of his songs, "Youth's a stuff will not endure." And perhaps that is where Shakespeare was at this point in his life. He was old enough and wise enough to understand that all things pass, the happy and the tragic, and our lives are composed of those two elements. So all in all Twelfth Night is, I think 1) a good story, and 2) it has great heart, great humor and some wonderful characters. There is a love story, there is a little adventure, there is a little swashbuckling, and things like that. So all of the elements come together in this big, wonderful mix. They have a complex flavor, I guess, if I can use the cooking metaphor a bit further.

And I think that it is a very appealing play, it is a very appealing story. It touches a lot of bases. I spoke to the cast very early on about the title Twelfth Night. Everyone is always debating, what does the title have to do with anything? The subtitle is, Or What You Will, which was more in keeping with the kind of comedy titles that they had in Elizabethan times, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, things like that. But Twelfth Night, as I had said to the cast, was also the last day of the Christmas celebration. It was the last day of holiday merry making. And the thing about any last day of merry making is that the next day, you have to get up and go back to work, you have to go back to reality. And so the play is tinged with a level of reality with which the characters keep having to deal with; unrequited love, lost siblings, death, drunkenness, all kinds of things that can just inhibit our lives and keep us from finding our true path, find their own particular love and find their way through the thorny forest of reality.

TR: Is [Twelfth Night] something that you have worked on before?

HW: I have. I played Malvolio, I played Orsino, and I have played Andrew, but I have not directed it before, which is always another completely different perspective on the play. But I knew the play very well, and I knew its structure very well, and I know the joy that is buried in the play. But as I said, it is buried in a certain melancholy and that affects design, casting and all those things that go into making the play speak to an audience. At the heart of Twelfth Night is a knowing smile. Time to grow up.