We sat down with By the Queen director and longtime company member Brian McEleney to chat about Project Discovery, working with his former student Whitney White, and why Shakespeare works best outside of the classroom:
Q: As a director, what drew you to this show?
Brian McEleney: From my point of view as a director and listener, By the Queen asks: What does it mean to be a woman in history? A woman in a Shakespeare play? A woman in power? And what does that cost? Margaret is the only character in Shakespeare’s canon to appear in four whole plays. She’s by far the longest-running, most complicated, and most fleshed-out female character, and maybe out of any character. Margaret’s character is seen through the lens of history from Shakespeare’s time. In Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III, she is not a terribly sympathetic character. Although to be fair, none of the characters in those plays are terribly sympathetic. This was a time of intense partisanship, with everyone trying to claw their way into power. It’s reminiscent of where we are now in our own political world.
This play will be a reflection of Margaret’s point of view, what all of it meant, what it cost, what she had to do to take power from her own point of view. She was married to an exceptionally weak king, who is a religious nut, and probably also mentally ill, and she kind of took over. She’s trying to protect her son, Edward, but he’s ultimately murdered. There’s a lot of murder in this play, and Margaret does her own share of murdering. And I think she’s going to ask the question, Was it worth it? And on a larger level, Whitney asks what it means to be a woman, particularly for her as a woman of color, today looking at history, at Shakespeare, at this cultural touchstone.
But I think that the most exciting part of this play is the fact that three women of different ages are playing the same character. Whitney said she was inspired when she went to see MJ on Broadway where there were three different actors playing Michael Jackson at different ages. She wanted to work on the premise of looking at an entire life, being aware of how different people are at different times. So we ask, What do the Margarets think of each other? How do these women function as the same person, when they’re played by three different people of different ages, races, and backgrounds? Is this how history gets formed? From all the people we are?
Q: Sometimes, audiences hear Shakespeare and get a little afraid. How does the play make his work more relatable for today’s audiences?
BM: A lot of people are intimidated by Shakespeare because reading the plays, especially older ones, is hard. But Shakespeare never for meant them to be read! He didn’t publish them in his lifetime, he never asked to have them studied in school. Shakespeare was a playwright and an entertainer, and he wanted the audience to get it and to understand. We’re doing no one any favors as theater artists by not keeping that in mind.
As theater artists, it is our job to make plays more accessible and more personal. Especially since Trinity Rep was founded on the back of Project Discovery, which performs exclusively for students. There is a Trinity Rep myth about how in the early days of the theater, when Adrian Hall was artistic director, they were doing a student performance where no one was paying attention. And Adrian closed the show, said “we can’t do this.” Then he worked with (resident set designer) Eugene Lee to redesign the whole thing. If you feel that the students aren’t getting it, or the students aren’t paying attention, you just go up and grab them by the shirt front, and you talk right in their face and make sure that they’re hearing you. That applies to any audience that’s watching our work.
It’s our job to make sure that people get it. It is our job to make sure that people are involved, feel part of it, feel that it is being done for them, and not going over their heads. That has always been the mission. So without giving away too much, Whitney and I have talked about what is the predicating event of this play. The play kind of exists in this liminal space where the three Margarets are looking back on their lives.
Q: Having been a company member for over 40 years, you’ve acted and directed in a lot of Shakespeare plays. How has working on this adaptation been different?
BM: I have a strong and long connection to Shakespeare, and particularly a history with this eight play War of the Roses cycle (The Henriad, Richard III, and all parts of Henry VI). When we did The Henriad (which includes Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V), back in 2004. I played Richard II, and a few years later I played Richard III. But I was never in the three Henry VI plays, which By the Queen does cover. I feel like it’s a tremendous opportunity to work on a chapter of Shakespeare that I’ve been eager to for a long time.
In addition to directing and acting at Trinity Rep for 40 years, I was head of acting in the MFA program and taught Shakespeare to the MFA actors for years – including Whitney, who was one of my students. At Trinity, we have always tried to find a unique and personal way into doing these plays that are relevant to today’s audiences. We’re not presenting museum pieces, but finding authentic ways to look at these classic works. I think that Whitney is doing exactly that, as a woman who loves Shakespeare but wants it to be reflective of the 21st century.
Whitney is a former student of mine, and she is tremendous. It’s a professional honor for me to get to work with her, because she’s one of the hottest theater artists working today. I’m thrilled that she entrusted me with this project.