BWW Interview: Kate Eastwood Norris of KING JOHN at Folger Theatre

BWW Interview: Kate Eastwood Norris of KING JOHN at Folger Theatre

Kate Eastwood Norris stars as Philip the Bastard in Folger Theatre's upcoming production of King John. She is a two-time recipient of the Helen Hayes Award, and has been challenging gender expectations in casting for most of her career.

Tell us about King John. It's not one of the better-known Shakespearean plays - how does that impact how you approach it?

It's almost like a new play as well as a Shakespearean play - there's a discovery with it. It's not often get to play an iconic role without audience expectations set by movies and past iterations. But since it's lesser-known, it lets us introduce the play to people.

King John is also the beginning of Shakespeare's history plays. It's not grouped with anything, it just starts them. It's about a king who's neither good nor bad. It can be argued that he's not a very good king, but not because of super evil deeds like Richard III. And there are times where he's a good king, but not amazingly heroic like Henry V. He's a complicated man, and not easy to peg. That might be why some people find this play not unified - it doesn't end in a nice tidy bow, like most Shakespearean plays. It's a disjointed play, and it doesn't feel like traditional Shakespeare. It operates outside expected paradigm, and it's very complicated. We don't know them, and we don't know the story. But Folger audiences are the smartest I've ever experienced and I think they'll enjoy it.

What's it like playing Philip the Bastard?

It's like the best role - it's a fantastic role. It's something I never dreamed having the chance to do, being a woman, and I'm having a ball. I just love it. Most bastards in Shakespeare are evil characters, and this one is so cheerfully an outsider, which makes him an outsider among the bastards.

In the play, he's welcome and he's knighted, but he never fully fits in, but I don't think he wants to. He can see how Court life really is, and doesn't get sucked into it. He can engage with the audience, and look at what happened and say, "This is ridiculous." He's also really smart - he takes information and uses it to help himself. He's happy to be an outsider because he's not sucked into the decay of the kings. I think he's a hero - he's all about England. Yes, he's working to rise to power, but I think he's looking to use that power for England. I don't think it's personal for him; I think it's for England. There's an integrity to him that's missing in some of the other characters.

The outsider status gives him the opportunity to comment. Usually fools get to tell the truth by using humor. The Bastard isn't a fool, but he uses comedy to tell the truth all the time, and I think he's allowed because he's an outsider. So he's like a fool, but taken seriously - he's not a fool, but he has the license of the fool, and he's a badass. He has permission to say things a lot of other people don't.

Playing the role is a dream - I get to be knighted, I get to jump off a bench and be held back by two men to avoid damage. I get to be confident and say things the way that men do.

I find that an interesting perspective - that you get "to be confident and say things the way that men do." What's it like playing a male role, as a woman, but not specifically playing it as a gimmick?

It's interesting - there's a lot of me similar to the Bastard already, but I'm approaching the role as a human being. Gender is one of the things that define this character, but it's not the basis of the character. I've always gone this way; I've played a bunch of male roles, and I think it gives them a complexity that allows you to build them. It's cool too - being a woman is my outsiderness, that not quite fitting in is something.

Cross-gender, cross-age, cross-race casting is really common in England, but it seems to be a bigger deal here in US. I started with a touring company, and women played men all the time; as I've moved into more professional, non-touring settings, it became less common, and usually needed a grand concept to occur.

Is there one (a grand concept) for this show?

This isn't like that - it's so nice.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Specifically the times you've challenged those gender norms? How did those experiences prepare you for this role?

I really whet my teeth on the other men I've played; I really thought it was normal to cross-gender cast, and was surprised to find out it's not. But when I'm told I can't do it, it makes me want to do it.

I've played some notable male roles: Richard III, Petrucio, Hamlet - both as a man and as a woman. I did a one-woman show since no one would let me play Hamlet; it was a Folger workshop. I couldn't get an audition, so I wrote a one-person show. Then, last summer, Santa Cruz Shakespeare wanted Hamlet to be played by a woman, so they called. It was inspiring to a lot of people, and wasn't a big deal or gimmick, but it gave new insight into the character. We changed the pronouns and everything. It's funny - there are more actresses than actors, but more male roles. It makes sense to let talented people play these roles.

I've had a lot of practice playing male roles, so it's not as foreign, and helped me prepare. But, as a child, I didn't know I "couldn't." I played Huck Finn and Rumplestilskin in elementary school, and it was frustrating when I was told I couldn't play them as I got older. When I'm told no, I get pissed, and try to get things done in a creative way.

What made me think it was possible and not give up, though, was comedy. Carol Burnett was especially influential. She played women, but didn't act ladylike; she wasn't afraid to act as she needed to make the joke.

I'm hopeful though. A lot of new plays these days involve some really interesting female characters. I can play a guy in Shakespeare, or I can do a new play and have a complex role where I get to play something other than someone's mom or a servant in the background. If people can allow the idea that genders can be swapped, a whole world opens up. I feel hopeful that it will.

There are great companies that do cross-gender casting, and find it not just a political statement, but also a good way to tell the story. I'm excited about the ones that just go ahead and have it happen, and tell the story - that aren't built around it.

Is there anything you think audiences should know - or strip away - before they see the show?

Don't be intimidated, be excited. The language is in good hands. We have great actors, and a director whose primary concern is that everything is understood.

It's like finding Prince's new music - it's been out there, but if you don't know the story, it's actually more exciting. Come in, and get taken away, and enjoy.

And for people who've seen it before: we've stripped the pomp and circumstance - we have a bare stage with a throne, so it'll be new whether you've seen it or not. The language is the biggest scenic element, which is unusual, but it's really great.

King John is playing at Folger Theatre October 23rd through December 2nd.

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From This Author Rachael Goldberg

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