BWW Previews: OTHELLO at Warehouse Theatre - Interview with co-directors Maegen Azar & Anne Tromsness
Othello "explores what happens when evil and manipulation are loosed upon a world where inequity and jealousy already reign. Featuring three of Shakespeare's most compelling characters, the show is filled with manipulation, xenophobia, and love's struggle for survival. Set in a not-so-distant future, the show will clock in at 75 fast-moving minutes."
We asked co-directors Maegan Azar and Anne Tromsness to tell us about their version of this classic tale of deceit, manipulation, and power.
Well, first off, tell me about collaborating. How did it come about? How do you divvy up responsibilities? How does it differ from solo directing?
Anne: There was an opportunity for both of us to work on the production - and I jumped at the chance. Maegan and I have worked together MANY times - as actors in The Merchant of Venice, Something More than a Game, and Angels in America. I have directed Maegan in Luna Gale (last season at Centre Stage), and we collaborated on Eurydice - I directed and she was assistant director and did the movement work. I love working with her in any capacity.
We move toward our individual strengths first, and divide up responsibilities that way - but both of us are involved in all aspects of the process - when one of us has an idea, the other supports offering an addition or a deepening. Like - "I see what you are doing there. How about this, too?" It's a very rewarding process.
Solo directing I love, but it can get kind of lonely. Co-directing adds so many opportunities for us to dig deeper - to ask more questions and to be more prismatic in our discoveries. Also I think because different actors respond to different vocabularies and ways of working, sometimes Maegan can clarify a note that I gave that didn't resonate with an actor - and vice versa. It's a beautiful negotiation.
Maegan: Anne pretty much nailed this on the head! We love working together, and when the opportunity came to collaborate and co-direct on this project, it seemed like a no-brainer! Both of us have co-directed with other folks, but this is the first time that I've co-directed with another female director. That has been a really beautiful process for me because we have been able to really infuse a female perspective on many of the female characters in this show. There are so many preconceived, male-centric notions about the women in Shakespeare's texts (especially Desdemona and Emilia), so it has been nice to explore these characters as strong and vibrant in a completely different way.
The other thing that has been great is that we get to lean in to our strengths as directors. Dividing up the responsibilities outside of rehearsal gives us the chance to really dig deep into what gets us excited about our art. And that's different for both of us! Anne is more text-driven and I'm more movement-driven, so being able to feed off of one another's strengths has been exciting for us!
Have either of you been involved in an Othello production in the past? If so, how has that informed your approach?
Anne: I have not. I studied it in college - in a wonderful course on Shakespeare's Tragedies, but I haven't worked on a production.
Maegan: Same here. Never been involved with a production, but I have seen some wonderful productions of OTHELLO. Those didn't so much inform my approach as much as make me eager to work on this production!
What is your approach to the show? Your overall concept?
Anne: For a production which will tour primarily for high school audiences (in performing arts centers around the state), and for the general audiences that will see it this summer, we wanted to contextualize Othello in a familiar setting. So it is set in the near future (maybe as soon as tomorrow), where distrust, fear of the other, and manipulation are rife. Social media plays a role in this adaptation, as well. The language is Shakespeare's - we didn't change that - but the costumes, music, and other production elements are more easily recognizable to a 21st century audience. This honors the playwright, too - in Shakespeare's time they staged his plays in costume contemporary to Elizabethan England - it helps the audience make an immediate connection.
Maegan: Additionally, Anne and I really believe that Shakespeare's ideas and situations are very pertinent to today's world. We've been talking a lot about truth as a commodity with this production. Everyone has something to gain or lose, and we have been talking a great deal about credit. Who has "cash in the bank" and who is "running on credit." Iago manipulates each character to their breaking point by spinning the truth to suit his needs - by taking out loans on our credit. I think that is something that we can all relate to right now.
This must be a pretty lean cut since it's meant for touring and to play without intermission. What were the challenges of bringing it in under 75 minutes?
Maegan: It was certainly a challenge! Especially because Iago is a character that is known for his lengthy direct addresses that drive the plot of this script. But, I think that we have really gotten to the heart of the piece in this cutting. There can be a lot gained for school audiences by cutting to the chase and focusing on the relationships that are built and torn apart in this show. It took time and effort, but we have really done our best to keep the story intact, while still allowing the haunting manipulation and its effects to evolve over the course of the show.
Anne: That it is usually over twice that long, for one. It was rough to cut - we spent a lot of time on that. We had to get the story down to its leanest form, but also keep trajectories for the characters' journeys that were true to the world of the play.
Tell me a little about the cast and production team.
Anne: We are fortunate to have a cast of 6 actors, young professionals from Greenville, Columbia, and Atlanta. Almost immediately they formed a tight bond, and a willingness to explore some pretty difficult issues - some of the more horrible aspects of humanity - together. We are very fortunate. KayLee Thompson is back again (she did last year's tour, too) as stage manager - and she is wonderful. And our designers - Wylder Cooper (lights and projections), Lauren Girouard (set), J McCabe (sound), Margaret Caterisano (costumes), and Thomas Azar (fight choreography) - even at the first read, their articulation of the story, and themes, and how they contribute to the storytelling through their various mediums is highly collaborative - each element elevates the other. Who could ask for more than that?
Maegan: What's even better about this group is that Anne and I have worked with most of the production team before, while we were actors and/or directors, so it is fun to collaborate with people that have a high standard for aesthetic success like we do. Many of the actors will be familiar to Greenville audiences, but we also have new faces, as well. And they have brought a wonderful new energy to the space. It has been a lot of fun to work with this group!
How do you think the play can best be utilized as an educational tool? What questions do you hope it brings up with audience members (especially students)?
Anne: Othello brings up so many questions. About how we treat one another - in our casual and most intimate relationships. About how we "other" people or groups - whether through misogyny, racism, class-ism, or other stereotyping. And it's about how that othering has real and potentially tragic consequences - how moments or actions which seem innocuous can add up to something horrible. And how an individual or group can take advantage of these prejudices, manipulate the situation and accomplish real evil. I don't think it's just students that will benefit from confronting these issues. Working on the play, we move from the private, individual moments between characters, to a macro-view of their culmination - how they add up - and back again. I know for me, this examination of Othello has caused me to do the same about some aspects of my life and culture - that is my wish for those who interact with the play as audience, as well.
Maegan: I think Anne makes great points about ways that this play can speak to today's audiences. I hope that people won't shy away from those difficult conversations. This play has been known throughout history to turn a lens onto the audience's own moral compass, and I hope that people will walk away from this show willing to talk about the issues it brings up. Too many times we hide from those challenging dialogues, but through art and storytelling, we can hopefully help to engage conversation in our communities.
Warehouse Theatre's production of Othello runs July 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, and August 3, 4, 5 at 8:00pm, and July 23, 30, and August 6 at 3:00pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.WarehouseTheatre.com or by calling 864-235-6948.
The Warehouse's usual discount ticketing programs apply for this show with I Pay What I Can on Sunday, July 23rd at 3:00pm and Blue Star Theatre discounts for veterans and active military applying throughout the run.