BWW Interviews: Dennis Henry of CORIOLANUS
Dennis Henry is a visiting director, working with the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company. Their production of Shakespeare's tragedy Coriolanus opens on June 19 at the Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Thank you for speaking with me today, Dennis! To start out, for those who aren't familiar with the play, can you tell us a little bit about Coriolanus and what the show is about?
Coriolanus is a great general during the infancy of the Roman Empire. He was raised by his mother to be the ultimate warrior, which he is, but he also happens to be the world's worst politician. He has disdain for the lower classes and is incapable of lying about it. His arrogance leads to his banishment from the city he always defended. Hijinks ensue.
How did you come to be involved with Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company?
I was familiar with the company through mutual friends and I saw a call for directors on their website. I wrote Katherine Mayberry (Executive Director) an email and she was familiar with my work at American Shakespeare Center and invited me up to Michigan.
Pigeon Creek is known for their performers' intimacy with their audience and their utilization of traditional practices in performance. This seems like a good fit for you, as you have extensive experience in Shakespearean performance and in traditional practices, as well. Can you tell our readers a little about your background?
My first significant job after college was as a touring actor with American Shakespeare Center (then called Shenandoah Shakespeare). I loved how they worked and they hooked me not only on Shakespeare, but also on their fast-paced, audience-interactive style. I spent seven years with ASC as an actor, director, education leader, and touring director, among other duties. In 2006/07 I led my own company in San Diego called Excellent Motion Shakespeare that used this style as well. I think it is great that Pigeon Creek uses these very exciting staging techniques and it has been a pleasure to work with them.
Do you feel that Shakespeare is most effective in more traditional settings, rather than attempting to modernize the production value?
I think original practices have a higher batting average than modern staging when it comes to Shakespeare. You can have a modern production that uses all kinds of technology and it can be really good as long as the technology isn't being substituted for the language. Original practices productions, by using the staging conditions for which Shakespeare was writing, put the focus on the language, which is the key to a successful staging of a Shakespeare play. Too often, technology becomes an end in itself and the magic of the language becomes an afterthought.
To what extent do you think the design of a given theatrical space influences the character of the performances within it?
Part of the joy of live theatre is that no two audiences are like and no two performances are alike. The same is true with the environment in which a play is played. The relationship of audience to stage is a huge contributor to the energy in the house.
The plot of the show centers on the character of Caius Marcius Coriolanus, who is physically violent by nature, or at least by nurture, and becomes emotionally manipulated by those about him. How do you keep the show from becoming too heavy and dark?
On the first day of rehearsal I talked to the cast about finding the humor and they have done that. Although people categorize Shakespeare's plays as comedy and tragedy, Shakespeare never wrote things that were all one or the other. All the great tragedies have amazing, surprising humor in them, even in dark situations. He was ahead of Quentin Tarantino by 400 years. This cast has not shied away from the humor and the result is a show that is intense and fun.
Many countries have that sort of history: a leader establishes a sort of cult of personality, which is promptly followed by a bloody rebellion. How do you feel the play relates to a modern audience? Do you think that there is a political or cultural relevance to Coriolanus or its characters that American audiences can relate to?
This is Shakespeare's most political play and it is shockingly relevant to today's politics. The citizens' revolution echoes the recent "Occupy" movement. Menenius gives a speech describing trickle-down economics that you can hear Sean Hannity giving every day. The politic maneuvering that goes on throughout the play is all too familiar to any follower of modern American politics. To open the show, I chose a song by Love and Rockets for the cast to perform called "No New Tale to Tell." The lyrics remind the audience that "Yeah, this crap has been going on forever."
What is the biggest challenge in staging a play like Coriolanus?
Coriolanus is probably the most easily disliked protagonist in the history of western theatre. Somehow we have to make the audience empathize with Coriolanus even if we don't necessarily think he is a good guy.
What have you enjoyed most about working with this group of actors?
They love what they do. Every rehearsal they were glad to be there and have a great time making this play entertaining for the audience.
Do you have a favorite line or scene from the play? What are you most excited to see on opening night?
The "You common cry of curs!" speech that Coriolanus gives to the citizens after he is banished is one of my favorites in all of Shakespeare. He is self-righteous and indignant and offensive and just a complete jerk, and at the same time, you know that every word he is saying is true and that the people are going to regret banishing him. The speech is frightening and I love how Chaz Bratton delivers it in this production.
In the next few months, audiences will be bombarded with a variety of summer stock musicals and comedies, what do you feel that a Shakespearean tragedy offers to the lineup of summer theatre?
A good play entertains you. A great play entertains you and makes you feel something. A classic play entertains you, makes you feel, and makes you think something you had never thought of before. That's why Shakespeare has lasted so long and is more popular now than ever. You can't top a Shakespeare tragedy for memorable, fulfilling entertainment.
What would you say to entice theatre-goers who have yet to see a Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company production, and what do you hope audiences take away from Coriolanus?
You will never see another play like Coriolanus and I hope you come away thinking about how we can learn from both ancient and recent history and reassess the basis on which we choose our leaders.
What plans do you have after Coriolanus completes its run?
I am teaching Acting for the Camera for one week at the Clint Vaught Young Artist Institute in Louisville, KY. After that I am still looking for my next project. So, if anyone needs a director out there, I'm available!
Directed by Dennis Henry, Music Direction by Scott Lange, Fight Direction by Steven Schwall and Scott Wright; Coriolanus will be taking place June 19-21 and June 26-28 at 8:00 p.m., June 22 and 29 at 3:00 p.m. at Dog Story Theater, 7 Jefferson SE Grand Rapids, MI. Tickets are $14 for adults, $7 for students and seniors. For tickets, visit www.dogstorytheater.com; On July 13 at 7:30 p.m. it will be performed at Creative 360, 1517 Bayliss St Midland, MI 48640. Please call for ticket information: (989) 837-1885; July 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Seven Steps Up, 116 South Jackson Spring Lake, MI; July 26 at 7:30 p.m. at The Box Factory for the Arts, 1101 Broad St, St Joseph, MI 49085; Please call for ticket information: (269) 983-3688; Tickets are $14 for adults, $7 for students and seniors. For tickets, call the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company at 616-850-0916.
WITH: Kathleen Bode (Volumnia/Ensemble), Chaz Bratton (Caius Marcius Coriolanus), Antonio Copeland (Sicinius/Ensemble), Kat Hermes (Brutus/Ensemble), Sean Kelley (Titus Lartius/Ensemble), Scott Lange (Tullus Aufidius/Ensemble), Owen McIntee (Young Marcius/Ensemble), Sarah Tryon (Virgilia/Ensemble), Kate Tubbs (Valeria/Ensemble), Kyle Westmaas (Cominius/Ensemble), and Scott Wright (Menenius/Ensemble).