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THE WINTER’S TALE by Abby Anspach, Isabelle Mann, and Shellyn Qi

Posted by on Wednesday, October 18, 2017 in 1010 blog posts, Blog posts.

Three Vanderbilt students, Shellyn, Abby, and Isabelle, went to watch The Winter’s Tale, directed by Santiago Sosa. This interpretation of Shakespeare’s fanciful story was set in a fairytale world inspired by the diverse South American cultures during the Gran Colombia era, and it featured live music. It was produced by The Nashville Shakespeare Festival, which is a professional theatre company founded in 1988. The company is beloved for its annual free Shakespeare in the Park productions in Centennial Park that have delighted audiences for more than a quarter century. The following dialogue critiques the production and aims to discuss the cultural relevancy of the show. The dialogue is set in Sarratt Student Center.

Autobiographies

Shellyn: I major in HOD and economics, and I love learning about human interactions within organizations and societies. I believe that theatre is socially constructed to let people express their emotions and thoughts about society and their lives. I am passionate about traveling and exploring different cultures, so I love the cultural aspects of this play.

Abby: Although my Cognitive Studies and Child Development majors are quite unrelated to theatre, I’ve always been intrigued by theatre’s capability to create diverse, immersive experiences for audiences. Theatre performances have the ability to be incredibly impactful, and I enjoy getting to share in that impact as an audience member.

Isabelle: As Arts and Cultural Public Policy major, I am highly interested in how the arts interact with politics. I am also a firm believer in the benefit of free arts for the public. I have spent the past two summers interning for a free music and performance arts festival in New York City parks. In addition I am a theatre minor and a member of VUTheatre. I grew up going to theatre and at some point became enamored with it. Theatre has shaped my perspective on the world.

Dialogue

Abby: To start, what was your overall impression of the show or something that you found interesting?

Shellyn: I really enjoyed the contradiction between the tragic opening and the happy ending of the show. I got nervous watching Galen Fott, who plays Leontes, become so convinced that his heavily pregnant wife had been having an affair with Polixenes. The death of both Hermione and the couple’s young son, Mamilius, as well as the abandonment of their baby girl, Perdita, are heart-breaking scenes. The happy ending definitely cheers me up though (smiles); Perdita’s identity as a princess is revealed, which allows her and Florizel to marry. Furthermore, Leontes and Polixenes reconcile, and Hermione returns in the form of a statue, stepping down from her pedestal and reuniting with her family. It was quite moving when the queen suddenly became very animated and kissed her husband, who made a big mistake in act one but changed to be a good man.

Abby: Yes, I was surprised at how masterfully Shakespeare blends tragedy and comedy in this play. The first and second acts felt drastically different in tone, yet they somehow worked together to create a cohesive show. The scene where Hermione is put on trial was particularly gripping for me. You feel your heart beating along with each feeble step that she takes down the stairs. Hermione was unjustly tried apart from reason and without evidence, which made me reflect on how certain people groups have been wrongfully persecuted both throughout history and even today. This scene, therefore, seemed very culturally relevant.

Isabelle: I actually took issue with the resolution. I was a upset that Leontes, even though he did 16 years of atonement, gets a happy ending when his wife returns from the dead. Earlier when all of his advisors and his wife proclaimed the truth of her innocence, he didn’t listen whatsoever. This resulted in not only the death of Hermione but also the death of the couple’s young son, which the play never really brought up again. Everyone was telling Leontes the same thing, but he never listened, even when an oracle told the King of the Queen Hermione’s innocence (sighs). So it just frustrated me how in the end Leontes gets to be happy while ten-year-old Mamilius is still dead. The play shifted to a new setting in the second act, so the plot did not focus on Leontes’ growth and repentance. Therefore, I never recovered from my anger towards his actions enough to desire a happy ending for him.

Abby: You bring up a good point. Although I felt like the ending successfully linked the first and second acts, I didn’t like the ending nor did I find it to be very believable. You’re right; Leontes doesn’t listen to anyone, including his advisors and his own wife, during the first act, so it seems implausible for him to do a complete about-face during the resolution.

Isabelle: It is almost a deus ex machina moment. Technically it is some sort of a witch that brought Hermione back to life rather than a god, yet the end still feels Greek/Roman mythology oriented at that moment; there was this kind of last minute pull to bring resolution to this play. So I agree the resolution did bring the show together, but in order to do so, Shakespeare had to invent this big magical moment that feels out of place. It didn’t make much sense to me, and it was really frustrating. I am definitely defensive about the issue of male power right now and how males sometimes make unwise decisions in leadership positions. It frustrates me when they disregard other people yet end up happy. I want consequences for their actions, not forgiveness. If I saw this show in a different year, I might have less of an issue with this happy ending through magic (frowns), but in the current political environment, it just really upset me.

Shellyn: That reminds me of my feminist philosophy class last week, in which we were learning to reevaluate the ideas of traditional philosophy from within a feminist framework. The professor mentioned Hillary Clinton, who had said something like, “I just cannot came across as an angry woman in the political scene.” I think this relates to challenges in leadership that we are talking about. There seems to be a double standard about the acceptable behaviors of women and those of men. In The Winter’s Tale, Hermione died innocently just because of her husband’s doubt and rage. Although the play might over-dramatize the power of men and the lack of power of women, it clearly points to us the inequality of power between men and women that has not changed over thousands of years.

Abby: I agree that this show felt very relatable to current American politics. Politicians are extremely suspicious of each other’s intentions, and the general public is also quite distrustful of politicians. Recently, the public has voiced many questions wondering if politicians are giving thoughts to the decisions that they’re making and if they’re listening to the American people. As we’ve discussed, a similar situation occurs in The Winter’s Tale when Leontes flagrantly disregards the advice of all others around him. Additionally, this play shows just how quickly people are willing to convict others. We seem to blame others instantaneously nowadays without stopping to listen first.

I also think that the themes of jealousy in the show are always relevant to modern life.

Isabelle: Yes, themes of jealousy were prominent. The story starts with two friends; Leontes tells the Polixenes to stay with him, but he’s unable to convince his friend. So Leontes then tells Hermione to convince him to stay, and Hermione is indeed able to convince Polixenes. All of a sudden, since Hermione was able to convince Polixenes, Leontes believes that she is cheating on him and that she must be pregnant with Polixenes baby. She can’t win (sighs). She did literally exactly what Leontes asked her to do and that still got her in trouble. His suspicion resulted in Hermione having to give birth in prison and stand trial. Still, Leontes would not believe her, and she dies. Throughout these scenes, the theme of jealousy felt relevant to issues of prejudice. When someone else has the control in a situation, no matter what you do, sometimes you just cannot win. Even if one listens and follows those in power, prejudice against them can prevent their opportunities and success.

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Moving on, how do you guys think that the show’s location, as an outside space for a free public audience, impacted your perceptions of the performance?

Shellyn: I loved watching The Winter’s Tale in a park. In a park, I feel closer to nature just as the characters in the play do. The wind is gentle, and stars shine in the sky (smiles). It is relaxing and comfortable. And because it is a free event, it is more economical than watching a show in a fancy theatre. There is also this sense of community when people from different parts of Nashville gather together to enjoy the art scene. Also, just like what we read in Caroline Heim’s book, Audience as Performer, the audience laughs and applauds, and these reactions contribute to the whole performance for viewers. When I saw the show, I sat at the outer circle. From this vantage point, I could see how every audience member reacted. It is nice to realize that we get to co-create an experience with other audience members and with the performers.

Abby: The park setting definitely exemplifies what Heim talks about when she classifies the audience as a performer. Like you said, Shellyn, Centennial park is a comfortable space, and I think that this comfortability gave the audience the freedom to have strong emotional reactions and express them. You feel the tension in the audience at moments–quiet on the exterior but bursting with emotions inside. Other times, you can hear roars of laughter. You could see the actors in turn feeding off of and responding to the audience. At one point, Autolycus ran into the crowd during the show, talking with audience members and even sipping someone’s drink (laughs).

Isabelle: In my performance, he actually took a bite of someone’s Jeni’s ice cream, which is a crime against humanity (laughs).

Abby: (Laughs) Definitely. Still, I felt like there was really great interaction between the audience and actors, and this was only possible because the park created a very comfortable space and allowed for a close physical proximity between the actors and audience. You could see the impact of this physical proximity when certain actors would come out on the catwalk in the middle of the audience. They gave speeches directly in the center of the audience, which created the illusion that you were a part of their thought processes. In those moments, the audience and actors were intertwined. This was a very unique experience that the park setting created.

Shellyn: I also like how the outside space became part of their stage. I remember one actor just ran off of the stage and outside of the performance area, screaming on his way out. His movements guided the audience’s attention to the environment around them. It is interesting to realize that we live in a modern society, but we are watching a play about an ancient time.

Isabelle: Now, something else that’s very interesting about this production, besides its location outside and it’s free policy, is that the cast and crew also performed Antony and Cleopatra on the same set. I noticed right away that this set is, in a way, very standard. It doesn’t have South American influences. There are definitely South American influences in other aspects of the show, but the set was very plain and didn’t have the vibrant colors present in South American culture. However, the director made it work for this production. It was interesting to see a set that had to work for two very different shows, so it could not have period specific design elements on it. Each show had to make the set its own.

Abby: Although I do applaud the company for making the stage work for two different shows, the stage didn’t contribute any sort of ambience to the production. The stage was a bare bones two story structure, leaving only the outdoor setting and twinkle lights overhead to create ambience; the stage in itself did not create an atmosphere that yielded an emotional response. I do think that the staging allowed the audience to really focus in on the actors and the plot, however, because there wasn’t the distraction of changing sets or backdrops. This allowed the audience to devote more of its attention to honing in on the characters’ emotions. Even so, I think that the show would’ve greatly benefitted from more detail in the staging and atmosphere.

Shellyn: I actually went to see both shows (Antony & Cleopatra and The Winter’s Tale). In both plays, the set has multiple levels and is complete with a narrow thrust stage, which supports the unfolding action with style. I noticed that the decoration of the stage was fancier in Antony & Cleopatra than in The Winter’s Tale. In The Winter’s Tale, the stage looks kind of plain and doesn’t have much colorful decoration. But I really like the lighting of The Winter’s Tale–the color varies as the ambience of the play changes. Especially at the end, the lighting makes the play seem almost like a fairytale.

Abby: You bring up a good point about the lighting. When Delaney Keith, who plays Time, comes out on stage, a mesmerizing star visual is projected onto the stage. This lighting created a mystical feel that helped smooth the transition between the harsh first act and the more whimsical second act. I think the the lighting served a distinct purpose in that moment.

Shellyn: I also like their costumes. Trish Clark’s colorful costumes help define the vibrant worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia, from military jackets to flowing peasant blouses and skirts.

Isabelle: So from my understanding, a lot of the costumes were influenced by Sosa’s choice to set the production in South America. Those are very South American colors. Sosa’s note in the program says that he aimed to capture that kind of energy. Since the set is so plain, he captures that energy through the costumes, some of the staging, and the music that the production incorporated, which was an original score. I think it was definitely a challenge to establish a setting for the show without using the actual set pieces to describe it. The costumes were bright and colorful, but I’m not sure that alone would have informed me that the setting was intended to be South America. The music was crucial in establishing the setting. I’m also interested to see what you guys think about why this production is happening here and now based on the director’s interpretation.

(pause)

Isabelle: For me, the South American interpretation confused me because I don’t know much about South American history. The play’s plot reminded the director of the political situations from his childhood. Although Sosa obviously knows a lot about the subject, I am very unfamiliar with it and would guess that many of my peers would be too. As a result, the only thing that the South American interpretation just reminded me of a Telenovela (a type of Spanish soap opera). It made sense with the high drama plot; a woman is pregnant and has a baby, but who is actually the father? Her true love believes that she has betrayed him, so she and her son die of shame! But wait–this girl is actually the King’s long lost daughter! While this Telenovela feel did help me forgive the fanciful plot, this is not what the director envisioned for his interpretation. I don’t feel like I knew enough about South American history to really make the connection as Sosa intends.

Isabelle: More specifically, I read that the director is from Ecuador and that he was greatly influenced by the Colombian independence of the 1800s.

Shellyn: Wow, that is really interesting! I actually stayed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, for two months last summer.

Isabelle: That’s awesome (smiles)! Did you see these colors and this music reflected when you were there?

Shellyn: Their traditional clothes were definitely very colorful like they are in the show. The Ecuadorian people have a rather distinctive dress code, which is influenced by the cultural diversity that can be found in the various regions of Ecuador. The men’s dress usually consists of a blue poncho and white knickers. Women usually wear very colorful skirt. In coastal regions, women typically wear light dresses, similar to what the dancers wear in the play.

Abby: For me, the South American influence could’ve made a bigger statement if this thought had been more evident in the first act’s costumes as well though. I saw a lot of that South American flair in both the costumes and the choreography during the second act; the choreography reminded me of a mexican folk dance because of how the actors stomped and flaired their skirts. But I don’t think that enough of that same energy was developed in the first act, which created some confusion for me. In theory, the two settings are supposed to be reasonably close in distance to each other, yet the cultures felt like they were polar opposites. This opposition is not necessarily a bad thing since there’s supposed to be a hard transition from the first act to the second act, but I just don’t think that the director’s vision was carried throughout the whole play.

Isabelle: I agree, and I think that it was an interesting choice to present that culture to a Nashville audience. The performance was open and free, so I would assume the audience members consist of varied education levels. If it was hard for me, as a well educated individual, to understand how Sosa’s culture influenced the show, I would venture to guess that others struggled to understand the South American influences too, except for those who come from South America or have familial ties to the area. However, it is a statement on diversity to bring a different culture into to the play. It’s interesting in this moment in time to show something that’s not all about America. People come from other places, and it is refreshing to see that in a show’s visuals and interpretation instead of taking an American interpretation, which happens more frequently.

Abby: Yeah, I’ve seen several other Shakespeare in the Park shows, in previous years. Both As You Like It and A Comedy of Errors had significant country influences. You could hear the country roots in the original music of those shows, and you could see it in the costuming too. Therefore, I did enjoy how Sosa attempted to develop a new kind of atmosphere for this audience by presenting a different perspective than in years past. I thought that the attempt was bold and enjoyable, even if it wasn’t necessarily the smoothest execution.

Shellyn: I also like the idea of bringing the South American cultural elements into the play and showing it to a Nashville audience. I think that how Santiago Sosa was able to bring his own heritage and blend it with Shakespeare’s classical writing is amazing–I hold my cultural heritage as an important part of me, and I often think about how my past cultural experiences shaped me to be who I am right now and how they blend with my interests/future career. It was also amazing for him to be able to show these cultural elements to a diverse group of audiences in Nashville. Nashville, as we all know, is a vibrant and fast growing city with possibly the top cultural scene in the state right now. It is famous for country music and amazing southern cultural charm. However, I think Nashville can grow in being more welcoming to the international cultural elements. This play was a great opportunity for audiences in Nashville to expand their perspectives.
Abby: Was there anything in the show that you connected with strongly in terms of personal experiences that you’ve had?

Isabelle: In terms of personal experiences, I relate with the frustration of dealing with people who will just not listen, no matter what. There is no changing their minds. It’s an issue of the human ego and overconfidence. Some people believe that they are inherently more correct than other people (frowns). I sat in the audience thinking, “Just listen to one person, one of the dozen people that are telling you to rethink this, to rethink how ignorant you’re being.” Then, to see Leontes still only believe himself was just painfully realistic. It happens too much these days, people getting such a closed mindset, especially men with power. When they want to see something a certain way, that’s how they see it. As I have already talked about a lot, that really felt realistic to me, especially given all that is happening with Trump right now. He only sees things one way and takes that route. He invents his own truth and will not hear otherwise.

Shellyn: Yeah, it can be really scary when we think about it, even though I am not really into politics. I feel powerless as a student and just cannot understand the direction that the world is heading. Many decisions, especially those that are related to war and the possible loss of lives, need to be taken seriously. The reality is not like the play, in which life can be taken back. If war on a large scale really does happen, the outcome will be disastrous.

Abby: Moving away from connections of the show to politics, something else from the show that felt personally relevant to me was how Polixenes’ son, Florizel, seemingly builds his own life away from his parents. I feel like that is the experience that many of us have here at Vanderbilt; in college, we build our own life, which begins to diverge from the lives that we previously had. Over the past three years, I feel like I’ve grown in many ways, and every time I come home, I am a little bit more of a different person. I’ve learned more and experienced new things. It’s challenging for my parents to understand that sometimes. Though the play presents an extreme scenario, I can still relate to the confrontation between Polixenes and Florizel well.

Shellyn: I hold a different viewpoint. The aspect of the play that felt more personally relevant to me was how deep the bond between parents and children can be. Even though Perdita has never met her mother before, when she sees her mother open her eyes and suddenly become animated, I was almost moved to tears. Hermione takes her daughter hand, and in that moment, it seems like they’ve already known each other for so long. I have a very close relationship to my mother, so I think a powerful ending like this for the daughter and mother is meaningful for me.

Isabelle: Additionally, I think we’ve talked a lot about Queen Hermione, but there is also the very loyal Paulina (played by Denice Hicks). She is not afraid to stand up to the Leontes and tell him what she believes is right and where he is making mistakes. By the time Leontes realizes he was wrong and that Paulina was right, it’s already too late. She sticks by him afterwards, which is very conflicting to me. On one hand, I believe she should ditch Leontes. He is terrible. On the other hand, Paulina knows that she is right and she wants to move forward past Leontes’ mistakes. When he makes the decision to atone for his mistakes, she is there to help him. She is also still a very strong character and in the end turns out to be some kind of witch, which is very random, but powerful women in those days had to be a witch. (Laughs). Does anyone have any closing thoughts?

Abby: As we close, I think it would be helpful for us to think about one more question: how are Vanderbilt students served by the telling of this story? Let’s expand on how The Winter’s Tale is relevant for our campus.

Isabelle: For me, it comes down to the idea that I first saw the show from a very political perspective that reminded me of Trump, but then there is Sosa, who sees the show as reflective of his own culture. It feels like he almost planned this, knowing that people would not have the same upbringing as him, to help remind people that some of these crazy things going on in our country are universal. Also, it’s is not all about America. There is diversity. I think that is important for Vanderbilt students because there is diversity on this campus, and there we are about to enter into a diverse world when we graduate. I thought it was very important to have that reminder, to encourage us to see things from multiple perspectives and to not get stuck on our points of view.

Shellyn: I also like the multiple perspectives people have when watching the show. It illustrates that when people of all perspectives watch the show, they bring certain assumptions and upbringings, yet they leave with different thoughts. The theatrical experience changes them in a meaningful way.

Abby: I think that this show presents an important lesson for Vanderbilt students as well. We are under tremendous stress here, and this stress results in strong emotional responses to events both big and small in our lives. We can often let these emotions cloud what we know to be true about ourselves and about others. This show emphasizes the importance of not letting our emotions override our logic in times of stress, whether it be the daily Vanderbilt stress or otherwise. We must assume the best intentions of others and listen intently to what each other has to day. I think this is an important lesson that will help unite our campus as a whole and create more positive interactions amongst each other.


2 Comments on “THE WINTER’S TALE by Abby Anspach, Isabelle Mann, and Shellyn Qi”

My experience with The Winter’s Tale was similar in many ways to the group’s experience, however their critical dialogue opened my eyes to the plays relevance today in a way that I had not thought of before. I, too, was not satisfied with the ending where Leontes suddenly gets a happy ending. I wish the idea of forgiveness and atonement had been discussed more and the audience shown more of his change of heart. I also enjoyed the setting of the play in the outdoor park amphitheater. It gave an authenticity to their work providing free theatre for all people and the space provided room for the actors to run through the crowd which is usually not possible in a typical indoor theater. However, the set did not provide much for the actors to interact with and could have impacted the show if it had more detail or relevance to the play.

Considering just the script and the meanings and themes of the show, I am interested in what the group discussed about men having power and not having to pay the consequences of their actions. I had not thought about this idea of atonement through the lens of gender and while I see the group’s perspective, I disagree with their summation of Paulina. She is not just a strong character, she is the moral compass and her standing up to Leontes would be ground-breaking in this time. I did not see her loyalty as a detriment to her character. She is not less of a woman, it makes her more of one to hold her ground and continue push him through his time of atonement. If you think Paulina brings her back to life, then she had the power to bring Hermione back at any time, however she waits until every man can learn something (like Polixenes learning “common” people are not unremarkable). She would then completely control the narrative which I think would make her the dominant force, not the men in the play.

lampleor on October 20th, 2017 at 1:29 pm

I think it is significant that, when I was walking out of Centennial after the show, my own post-show discussion with friends was preoccupied with many of the same issues as this dialogue. Particularly, my own conversation focused on gender and power, setting and moment, and the outdoor staging of the play as well.

I left feeling frustrated with Hermione’s fate at the hands of her husband and the play’s absolution of Leontes through magical intervention. However, I also felt a particular kind of emotional drain at having watched Hermione’s treatment play out on stage. Seeing women embodied in theatre and watching abuse inflicted on those bodies is familiar and exhausting. I instinctively recalled my experience as an audience member in another Shakespeare production– VUTheatre’s production of Othello last year. In that play, Othello murders his bride on stage because he has been led to believe she was unfaithful. My reaction that play caught me off guard at the time, and I left with angry tears at having watched something too familiar embodied on stage. And it really is particularly visceral to see women’s bodies brutalized in that way. While Winter’s Tale was considerably milder in some ways, I felt that, as an audience member, these scenes and stories aren’t something I need to engage with on stage to know about. Sometimes I think we forget that these social issues/tensions which arguably need to be explored in the theatre space are, for some, lived realities and not theoretical or philosophical issues.

I was also a little perplexed by the choice of setting. I understand that the director felt there was urgency in telling this grand story in the grand color and culture that is his own experience and heritage. And while I understand that Shakespeare’s plays are stories about people and that there is no reason these stories could not or should not be stories belonging to Colombian/Ecuadorian people, I couldn’t help but also fixate on the “why here/now?” There are a lot of meanings packed into this choice– what does it mean for the works of Shakespeare, whose art has been weaponized by Eurocentric/colonial standards of culture, to be staged in bright colors and clothing associated with Andean cultural resistance to colonization? What does it mean when it is cast by almost entirely white actors? What does it mean to a Nashville audience? I was intrigued but also a little puzzled, caught between feeling I was watching something radical and like I was watching something not quite fully explored, more like a costume.

Lastly, I’ll just add that I think the outdoor staging (complete with bats!) meant not just that actors had to work harder for audience attention, but that the many distractions and sounds and the lack of internal control created a very different kind of attention and engagement altogether.

pethera on October 23rd, 2017 at 11:09 pm

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