Luisa Sermol on crafting Mary Queen of Scots in Mary Stuart

In three sentences, describe the character you play in Mary Stuart.

I play Mary Stuart, otherwise known as Mary Queen of Scots. Underneath the voluminous amount of history that describes her, she is, at her core, a woman of faith, passion, intelligence, and lover of beauty. Born in Scotland, and whisked off to France at age 6 (later Queen of France for a short time), Mary was well educated, charismatic, artistic,and refined. A rightful heir also to the English crown (as her cousin, Elizabeth was the daughter of a marriage not recognized by the Catholic church–Anne Boleyn to Henry Viii), no wonder Elizabeth was threatened by her, thus imprisoning her for 19 years, before the final step…

What is your favorite line in the play (yours or someone else’s) and why?

“I am your Queen” (obviously, to Elizabeth)

What is the biggest challenge for you to overcome in this role/play? 

As a Scot myself, I was brought up to idolize Mary Stuart. I didn’t really know why–just that she was unfairly killed by the English Queen Elizabeth. (I also grew up with a good humored enmity for the English–it seemed to have been built into Scottish history.) In taking on the role of Mary, and really having to bring her to life, one of the more curious challenges was to figure out her dialect. My romantic image of her would be, of course,to have a Scottish accent. But in my research, I had to come to terms with the fact that she was more French than Scottish. Although born in Scotland to Mary Guise (a French woman) and James V (King of Scotland)–her father died and in one of the first acts of protection, her mother sent Mary to France. Here she was brought up in a highly sophisticated court. She spoke mainly in French and was known to have thought of French as her first language (It is said that it is the language in which she thought and wrote). But she was also a highly intelligent woman,great at languages and also a musician.Therefore, she is able to adapt her language with ease (she can “code-switch”). I did a lot of research to just find her voice. I, myself, used to have a Scottish dialect when I first came to this country at age 3. I don’t have one now, except for a couple of words. Mary was 6 when she went to France, so there would be certain Scottish sounds that would stay with her. (She would not, for example, be unable to make the “h” sound in English–as so many French dialects might exclude. She would keep the flat “a” of the Scots). Ultimately, in exploring different options, when I spoke her words in a French dialect with Scots sounds, I felt more of what she must have felt like. More of a woman, not really all Scottish, not really all French. It made me feel like an outsider in England, in Scotland, and in France. And so, I have found the voice for my Mary.

If you could choose one song that represents this show for you, what would it be?

“The Girl with the Weight of the World in Her Hands” (Indigo Girls) (<- click the link to hear the song!)

What have been some of your favorite shows to work on in Portland?

This is a tough question! Each role has brought its own joy–whether working and getting to know fabulous creative people, taking on a huge challenge, telling a story that needs to be told.

What are your non-theater hobbies?

hmmm…my day job, being a mother to a 17 year old, and flying Southwest Airlines to visit my boyfriend in the Bay Area. When I have time, reading,making earrings, cooking, playing my viola.

What’s your favorite bar/restaurant/venue for post-show theater debrief?

What’s around the corner, or my parent’s dining room.

If you could dedicate your performance to someone, who would it be and why?

It would be to my mother, Dorothy, who has filled my life with love of Scotland. Among the many songs she sang to my sister and me, one always haunted me. It was “The Queen’s Maries”-a song about a lady in waiting to Mary (Mary had four ladies in waiting, all named Mary). Years later, when my daughter Isabella heard the song, she too was haunted and ended up writing an historical fiction novel inspired by it.  My mother’s voice is filled with the beauty and the passion and the love of the Scots and is someone Mary Queen of Scots would have loved.

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Cate Garrison on Hannah Kennedy, Mary’s Handmaiden in Mary Stuart

In three sentences, describe the character you play in Mary Stuart.

Hannah Kennedy is Mary’s lady-in-waiting, nurse, servant, mother-figure, and friend. She is fiercely loyal and protective, almost to the point of denial of any kind of guilt on Mary’s part. She is also pragmatic and realistic, and tries to keep Mary’s feet firmly on the ground in her moments of romantic rapture. By the end, however, it is Mary’s strength that keeps Hannah from crumbling in the face of grief and injustice.

What is your favorite line in the play (yours or someone else’s) and why?

So many to choose from! I am going to pick a line/image from one of Mary’s speeches to Elizabeth, where she describes herself and her erstwhile hopes:

“…………Broken-winged,

All my ambitions creep along the ground.”

I love the image of Mary as a lapwing…a bird so often to be seen on the Scottish moors. And what is so compelling about this is, of course, that the lapwing only appears broken. It “acts” broken, to lead predators away from its nest, and is therefore astonishingly strong. Is Mary truly broken? Or is she still hiding something? We know by the end that she is strong. Is she so strong that she can even go to her grave without giving everything away? This question is very much the crux of the encounter from which this quote is taken, and not resolved until the very end of the play, if at all.

So it is a beautiful, but also a clever image.

What is the biggest challenge for you to overcome in this role/play?

As with the previous question…so many, so many! But for the purposes of this blog, I think I would isolate the notion that Hannah is both very like me and very UNLIKE me. I have to focus on her forthrightness, her down-to- earthness, her absolute will to appear…and be…strong, where Cate would probably give in and let go much sooner and more often. Of course Hannah does let go also, but she and I have a very different tipping point.

If you could choose one song that represents this show for you, what would it be?

Well, speaking from my character’s point of view, Hannah’s love for and loyalty to Mary is so powerful that, although it is NOT by any means a romantic or sexual love, the song/poem that comes to mind is of course Robbie Burns’ “ A Red, Red Rose.” I think many people felt this way about Mary, both before and after her death, and of course that is what Elizabeth could not tolerate.

Here is my favorite version, by Kenneth McKellar (I defy you not to weep!):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6Z8f42fF8M

O my Luve is like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June;

O my Luve is like the melodie

That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

So deep in luve am I:

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:

I will luve thee still, my dear,

While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee well, my only Luve

And fare thee well, a while!

And I will come again, my Luve,

Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

If you could dedicate your performance to someone, who would it be and why?

My father, Allan Nicol, was a Scotsman. Hannah’s idiolect is based on his. He died, unjustly and innocently, in a senseless road accident when I was a little girl. His absence in my life has been as real as any presence. I would dedicate all Hannah’s words, and love, to him.

Recording Original Music for Mary Stuart

Balancing the world of Elizabeth l with a contemporary sensibility, this production of Mary Stuart will feature an original score, composed by world renowned musicians Gayle and Philip Neuman. Recorded on Renaissance instruments, many of them built by the couple, then remixed electronically by sound designer Sharath Patel, the score is an uniquely provocative musical landscape that spans over the centuries supporting the story’s examination of women in power, then and now. Here’s a photo of the master musicians at work recording their original score!

MS Music session

Check out the preview for Mary Stuart

Click on the link below to see a 2-minute preview of the forthcoming Mary Stuart, presented by Northwest Classical and Cygnet Productions.

Mary Stuart Promo

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Mary Stuart by Peter Oswald – opens February 27th

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Northwest Classical Theatre Company and Cygnet Productions join forces to bring the Portland premier of the multi-award winning drama, Mary Stuart by Peter Oswald on Feb 27th- March 29th, 2015 at the Shoebox Theatre.

Nominated for 7 Tony awards in 2009, Mary Stuart, based on the original 19th Century classic by Friedrich Schiller, is a taut political thriller that examines the cost two women must pay when forced to choose between power and love.

Mary Stuart, a staunch Catholic, is imprisoned in England—nominally for the murder of her husband, Darnley, but actually because she has pushed her claim to the throne of England currently held by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s advisors urge her to sign the death warrant before Mary’s supporters succeed. The pen is poised when a request from Mary to meet her in person arrives, offering Elizabeth a possible way out and a chance to meet her famously beautiful cousin who threw her power away for love.

Starring two of Portland’s most powerful and multi-Drammy Award winning actresses, Luisa Sermol plays Mary, Queen of Scots and Lorraine Bahr plays Queen Elizabeth I. This production also will feature an original score, composed by world class musicians Gayle- Stewe Neuman and Philip Nueman and a stellar cast of NWCTC seasoned veteran actors.
Director Elizabeth Huffman returns again to NWCTC having directed last year’s critically acclaimed Lion in Winter and winning King John in 2012.

Failure and Folly – How costume design made it more ok to drink wine in the tub. by Casey Ballard

Failure and Folly

How costume design made it more ok to drink wine in the tub

I will be the very first person to admit that I fail on an almost constant basis. I fail at getting to the gym regularly; I fail at not eating popcorn for dinner three days a week; and I fail spectacularly at least once in every costume design project I work on.

It’s an interesting study in hubris and humility. I will be working steadily, thinking to myself, “Oh man, I am really nailing this- it’s gonna look so good” only to cut the final thread and see that instead of a perfectly tailored jacket, I have, in fact, created something that looks like the unfortunate offspring of a cape and a snuggie. Thus, I am left to seam rip approximately 9,000 yards of fabric while swearing out loud to myself, as my dog looks on, pityingly. That’s a lie- he’s seen me make so many obvious mistakes, he no longer offers sympathy. And yet, despite the fact that they are indeed very obvious mistakes, I make them. I sew one giant pant leg, instead of two. I cut the fabric out backwards, yielding two left sides. I buy the wrong size of EVERYTHING even though I wrote the sizes down.

So why on earth do I keep doing this? Why on earth do I subject myself to the constant humiliation of failing in little ways all the time? You mean, aside from the fact that I get to make people shirtless at the drop of a hat? Well, mainly, it’s because each failure has only been an opportunity for growth (WERE YOU EVEN READY FOR THAT NEW AGE TRUTH BOMB?!!). And I don’t mean growth in the sense of “Oh I’ll never make a mistake again”- this is quite obviously not the case with me. I mean the “Oh dang it, these shoes are the wrong size and I cut the tags off already and the store exchange policy clearly states that

the tags need to be attached so maybe I can hot glue the tag back on and they won’t The fear of failure is something that has a crippling, stunting effect, and yet is ingrained in our essence from the get go. Socially, academically, financially; all these arenas seem to demand success (of course, you are welcome to disagree. You’d be wrong and I will laugh at you, but still…juuuuust kidding, friend). When I was younger, I developed some pretty severe anxiety around making sure I was “succeeding”, which quickly turned into fear of trying, should I look like a failure to those around me. Then, out of the clear blue, I stopped caring and everything was perfect, the end.

Psyche. That did not happen. I still regularly drink wine in the bathtub while I stretch my mind around a seemingly unfixable issue. What did happen was costuming (in tandem with reading a loooooot of self-help quotes…). I fell into costume design by pure bravado, so instead of using my fear of failure as a detriment, I switched to using my natural tenacity as a catalyst. I stopped thinking about how embarrassing it would be to fail, and started focusing on how rad it was when I fixed something, and made it a thousand times better. Like when I made the sleeves of a cloak way too long, so I doubled them up, and magically created a unique, interesting layered look- AND NO ONE KNEW IT HAD HAPPENED BY MISTAKE! Bwahahahaha! Mistakes and failures are going to happen, it’s inevitable, but it’s not the end of the world. I hate to be “that girl” who includes a quote, but I am, so deal with it: “When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” – Eloise Ristad

Working as a costume designer has been one of the best things for me, in terms of growth and acceptance. It has made me far less afraid of trying something, because it has helped instill in me a sense of trust and confidence in myself to solve any issue that may arise. Not to mention, worst case scenario, I just make everyone be shirtless.

-Casey Ballard, Costume Designer

The First Feminist (Slut Shaming) Revenge Drama, or, Agency by Brenan Dwyer

The First Feminist (Slut Shaming) Revenge Drama, or, Agency

(this post contains some plot spoilers, but seeing as the play is over 400 years old, so if you don’t know yet that Bruce Willis is a ghost, you’re a little behind… oh sorry, wrong story?)

Barry Kyle, the director of The Maids’ Tragedy, since first offering me the part of Evadne, has pitched this role and this play to me as the First Feminist Revenge Drama. I know Barry has an interest in gender equity (heck, Barry has an interest in everything), and I also know he is catering to my particular interest in creating art that questions, embodies and creates identity. But this play presents some interesting challenges for being considered Feminist. Let us consider.

What does it mean for a play to be Feminist?*

(*Capital F means I’m talking about the Feminist movement. Lower case f means I’m talking about the general idea of gender equity.)

A quick Google search yields lots of academic papers about the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and the (relative) surge of performances of plays written by women – from uncovering unsung Restoration writers such as Aphra Behn to new work from playwrights the like of Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane.

Interestingly, most definitions I could quickly find mentioned that the content of many of these plays depicted the oppression of women in a patriarchal world, not depicting a framework demonstrating the alternative to patriarchy by giving women agency. So, one might argue, isn’t a Feminist play really just like any other? A play written from a patriarchal paradigm (no matter the gender of the author) unconsciously places women in roles of oppression, and a Feminist one consciously does so to illustrate a point. Then again, one might argue that in art, intent is the most important ingredient, and furthermore that plays from women’s perspectives are inherently different in ways not called out by these online references.

But, for the purposes of my exploration, I’m interested in the idea that perhaps what makes a feminist* play is the production. And I think this because of the particularly challenging case of The Maids’ Tragedy. I play the character of Evadne, a socialite who has just been placed in a sham marriage to cover up her love affair as the King’s mistress. PLOT SPOILER: She ends up killing the King.

You could argue that this play is Feminist and/or feminist because you could argue that the protagonist is a woman, and that she breaks a cycle of abuse and/or oppression because she kills the King, presumably a symbol of her oppression.

However, the reasons this play, and Evadne’s story, are not any sort of F/feminist are many:

  • It is written by two men.
  • All female parts would have been played by boys at the time of its first production (1619)
  • You can argue the protagonist is a man (Melantius), not Evadne.
  • Evadne’s fault is having had (and enjoyed) premarital sex.
  • You could argue she kills the king:
    • because she is physically and verbally abused and coerced into doing so.
    • because he has deflowered her, which is, oh my god, SO TERRIBLE.
    • to maintain the honor of her brother (man).
    • to obtain the love/acceptance/forgiveness of her husband (man). Via his semen, poetically called “the beams of your forgiveness.” Seriously.
  • And once it is all said and done, she kills herself because she has no reason left to live once deflowered and rejected.

What power she does have, is all sexual. I would argue it takes a modern audience to even consider a woman’s sexuality as power, whereas in the good ol’ days, I don’t imagine she would have been a very sympathetic character. When she is called a “whore,” people probably agreed (will they still?).

One idea that has been floated to me is that she is powerful because she knows how to please (or withhold pleasure from) men. It is seen in this exchange:

King:                      Why, thou dissemblest, and it is in me to punish thee.

Evadne:                  Why, it is in me then, not to love you, which will more afflict your body than your punishment can mine.

This is not the same thing as sexual agency, which is the choice to give or receive sexual pleasure based on what I (the woman) want, which does not mean disregarding what a sexual partner wants – it means valuing both desires.

This scenario disregards the woman’s ability to take action with any other type of influence other than her Lysistrata sexual veto power. And it totally ignores the fact that women truly have power and agency in many ways: through talent, humor, money, rhetoric, expression, emotion, friendship, and violence, to name a few.

But what is especially interesting to me in the playing of this character is that the discussion of the play as F/feminist has become less and less important over time, and has even hindered the playing of the text as it is actually written. A purely F/feminist reading of the script leaves out the human element – the possibility of love. The truth of being broken through abuse. The reality that sexual desire is messy and certainly not political. The feeling of not knowing who you are; looking inside and seeing nothing, and hating even that. Heartbreak.

These are real things that real people, myself included, experience.

And to me, being a feminist means inhabiting a woman who is all colors of human – including the compliant, powerless, and un-Feminist traits. Whether those traits are inherent or socially created, they are still within modern women, and a modern production with a modern Evadne must embrace them. And it’s what the production of this play seeks to do.

Come see the show and let me know what you think.

-Brenan Dwyer, Evadne