January 26, 2021

"The Brightest Heaven of Invention:" Stephanie Weeks on HENRY V

After being rehearsed entirely online, HENRY V begins live-streaming this Friday. To get a closer look at the process and production of the Department of Theatre's second “virtual theatre” production, Aaron Swenson connected with director Stephanie Weeks.


AARON: So in the interest of full disclosure, we’re doing this interview on the phone rather than Zoom—which is not a knock on Zoom! In fact, I’m curious about any gifts it’s brought to the process. Can you speak to that?


STEPHANIE: Well, for one thing, I am in New York. I know there's no way I could possibly be doing this play in Utah and teaching here if it weren’t for Zoom. There’s a loss of connection on one level, but it leads to other things you wouldn’t expect. And I like to think of myself as a director who is pretty open. I have ideas I want to start with, but the processes that I love are super organic, that can only happen with that group of people. I've gone into projects where there’s only space for that director's vision, like, "Stand here. Say this. Do this." There’s no room for interpretation, and I like to create spaces where that's still allowed. We have to invite and cultivate and constantly create play in whatever space we have.


For example, one thing that’s cool about Zoom is how we’ve found ways to be present and available for one another. We don’t get those side conversations you can have in person, but I also don't disable the chat. So many things happen on chat that are just so funny and witty and charming, and it’s a side of them you might not see in the room. It’s this parallel conversation where they're joking with each other, and with me, while they're still working, but in ways that feel necessary for the work. I get to know them in a different way, and we make discoveries that add to the production. And it's necessary for our wellbeing because we're so isolated, right? We need that bit of levity, where we’re not caught up in notions of "working."


Do you feel that this particular group is a crucial part of the recipe when it comes to that?


Absolutely. It's a small group of only nine actors—mostly seniors and a couple of juniors—so most of them have known each other for years. And they are all so game because they've been with each other for so long. They already have an intimacy that would be, I really believe, impossible to build. This is a play about history and relationships, and it’s been so lovely and useful to have these relationships already in place. And for as well as they know each other, they are also surprising each other, and I love that.


It would be incredibly hard do this piece without that level of intimacy and trust because, essentially, we are all in our own individual spaces working with a camera and a screen. And yes, there are people on that screen looking into their cameras as well, but for all intents and purposes, you're working alone.


Can I ask what interested you about this project, considering the circumstances? It wasn’t the original selection, to start with…


Yes, they had to pivot because of the pandemic, as you know. We all did. I think “Cymbeline” was going to be the “classic” piece this season. But later in the summer, Robert Scott Smith approached me and said, "Would you be interested in doing ‘Henry V?’ Does that interest you at all? It doesn't necessarily have to be ‘Henry V,’ but I think the students would benefit from having you there.”


It was interesting because I have a history with “Henry V.” I'd seen a bunch of Shakespeare all my life, basically, but it felt archaic, or contained, or boxed in. And then I saw a production of “Henry V” at Stratford when I was studying in London, years ago. I was in the last seat of the last row; I couldn't have been further back. And it was really quite stunning. They’d set it as if it were in World War II, but the original was around the War of the Roses. So the very first image was thousands of rose petals falling to the floor, which had been set with a Roman numeral five.


So you had these roses evoking land and earth, on this floor marked with a huge “V,” juxtaposed with the nastiness and brutality of fighting over something beautiful. And I was so struck by that image. And then it came to the wooing scene of Henry and Kate, and I was floored. I was weeping. This man, who was so merciless and heroic and cold and larger than life, gets in front of this woman and is completely a bumbling idiot. He's human.


It was so lovely. It wasn’t just some patriot play. It said so much about cruelty and love and self-doubt and the need to conquer, and the conflict between romantic ideals and the reality of war. It was the first Shakespeare I’d ever seen where it all came together and I got it.


So with this project, you’re thinking about college students and how they can make the story relevant for themselves under these circumstances. And what I love about Shakespeare are the stakes. The stakes are always so high. So I’m thinking, "Huh, it's pretty amazing to be in an election year, and we just had an inauguration in a pandemic. Lots of unrest in the country, lots of division. The stakes couldn't be higher.” What an incredible opportunity, to bring this play to life and investigate what it means now.


That leads me to the next question, which is about the Shakespeare of it all. How does that affect the experience? It seems like it could go a couple of different ways, like, maybe it brings you closer because you have a shared challenge, but does the nature of the challenge work against that? Especially over Zoom? 


Shakespeare is definitely a challenge. Anytime you bring Shakespeare into the mix, you have to have a certain amount of discipline and care about it because the language is not easy. I believe that there are tools that help you make the language and story clearer. I also believe everyone can learn the tools that can help them tell and understand these stories. We get into our heads about how it's supposed to look, how it's supposed to...I think it happens with all classical plays, but especially with Shakespeare. There are people out there who believe that there’s a "right" and a “wrong” way of doing it. But on the other hand, it's been done so many times.


I am of the mind that it’s a called a “play” for a reason. What that means to me is, “let's explore and find out what this story means to us: this group of actors, this director, and this room of creatives, right now.” What can we offer to bring the text to life? I think that is what is exciting to me about doing Shakespeare over Zoom. What better opportunity will you get to learn and play where—and I truly mean this—no one can say that you did it wrong?


That’s another challenge right there. I can get caught up in "it needs to be perfect. It needs to be this, it needs to be that…" And then I have to challenge myself to say instead, "I don't know if this works, but let's see what it offers us.” But honestly, this experience has been so rewarding. It’s so exciting to see these actors and bringing things in that they want to try, and I can welcome that and say, “That's great because that’s your artistic eye coming through. That's your point of view.”


It’s such a unique opportunity. I don’t know if this production will succeed on the terms we’re used to. But I believe these students have really learned things about their artistry and how they work. They are taking risks for their own sake, and for each other, and I believe that has been a success.


henry zoom no logoThe cast of HENRY V. Left-right, top-bottom: Liam Johnson, Danny Borba, Lexie Thomsen, Connor Nelis, Jack Gardner, Tom Roche, Shelice Warr, Jessica Graham


So you have these unusual circumstances and this medium of Zoom, and this challenging text, all of which might seem like obstacles to connection, but they’ve given you some valuable entry points, yes?




How does that relate to the size of the cast? Depending on how you count the roles, I see somewhere between three and four dozen potential characters, which will be played by nine actors, right? Was that intentional, or circumstantial, or...


 It was always going to be nine actors, for a number of reasons. And I initially thought, "Wow, that's something I'm interested in doing—in a shared space." Over Zoom, well, that was going to be tricky no matter what. So, yes: it was always going to be nine actors playing multiple roles, but it wasn't always going to be all of them playing Henry.


And that was my next question. The idea of having all nine actors share the role—where did that come from?


I always ask actors what role they want to play and why. I'm interested in treating actors as artists, because they are, right? And I'm interested in how they think about character, and how they collaborate. I find it very useful.


When I received the audition videos, for the most part everybody said, "I want to play Henry.” It's interesting: some of the women who auditioned said it kind of shyly, like they shouldn't want to, right? I've been in that position where I wanted to play a part that's really fierce and interesting and complex, and that part happens to be written for a man. I thought, “if I want to make space, and cultivate play for them and for myself, and challenge everyone as artists, then let's do it. Let's see what happens when we say, ‘Okay, the play is big enough. Can it hold us?’” It may be their only shot to do this role. It could spark their exploratory imagination. Who knows?


It's been really exciting to watch. Each of the actors is so wonderful. They're all bringing themselves to the work. They're putting themselves in the role, which means we’re working at varying degrees, coming at this from varying angles. But they are meeting it—the Shakespeare and the requirement of Henry. They’re not shrinking down from it or shying away. It’s very exciting to witness both as a director and as an educator, because they are seeing themselves in the role: as a king, as a leader, as a human, with these incredible stakes at hand.


Vintage premium frame mockup design Left - right, top - bottom: Dylan Burningham, Connor Nelis, Jack Gardner, Shelice Warr, Danny Borba, Jessica Graham, Tom Roche, Lexi Thomsen, Liam Johnson 


 Will we be seeing nine different Henrys, or more of a single, collective Henry emerging from this…gestalt, or—


I think know exactly the question you're asking. I believe that you are seeing nine different Henrys that will collectively show you who this king could have been, or who he is, because this feels very much alive. As an actor you have to carry what’s come before, whether you’re playing one character or five, or sharing a role in this way. There are definitive moments in the story where it might be the first time he's been betrayed like this, or the first time he's had to be responsible for the death of someone he cares about. Even if you didn't play him in that section, you carry it with you. Right? So you ask yourself,  “what is it to carry that, and where does it lead me in this moment now?” We’re watching individuals explore their sense of betrayal, their sense of loss, their sense of longing, and connect all of that back to the stakes and given circumstances of Henry.


And yet it’s not necessarily those moments people think of when they think of “Henry V.” It’s usually “once more unto the breach,” etc., right? That St. Crispin’s Day speech casts a pretty long shadow. Let’s say that’s all I know from “Henry V.” What am I missing?


I think what you’d be missing is something we do a good job of showing, something I'm really investigating, which is how human this story is. Henry is not just heroic. He can be merciless and cold-hearted. And he is also somewhat of an underdog, even though he's a king, and he comes out on top against big odds. Hopefully—not only because there are nine actors playing the role—you can see yourself in Henry, making those choices. You're capable of greatness, of leadership and courage, and you're also capable of ruthlessness and self-doubt, and fear. And it's not just about Henry: it's about the common man going off to war, and friendship, and loss of friendship. It’s about Katherine wanting more outside of her station, and using whatever agency she can to achieve it in small ways.


I think if that heroic moment is all you know, you’re missing these great moments where you see the role of God in the Church of England and the monarchy. Many times in this piece, Henry defers to something even larger than himself. This brilliant man believes in himself so much, until he doesn't. He acknowledges that you have to ask for help. We all feel that weight to some extent. We’re all the final authority about something, so what happens when you don't have the answers? Who do you go to? You might have such fortitude until that moment when you realize, "wait a minute, I don't know everything." And maybe you recognize that there's more to know, to explore, to learn. And you make space for it.


Before we finish, I’d like to push past Henry a bit and into theatre more generally, and how it works in us and in the world. The process you’ve been describing is so generous—how much of that generosity comes from seeing things as an actor and a performer? I mean, it’s nice to hear people working out how theatre might look in the future as an art form and an industry, but what about right now? Is there an argument for theatre as a way to make people better citizens of the world? I’m being totally serious.


Well, thank you so much for saying that about the generosity, because I feel like that is something that I am trying to lean into as a director, as an artist, as an educator, and most definitely as an actor. I have gone into rooms where I’ve felt…not particularly seen, or that what I had to offer was “less than.” One of the things that I'm really proud of, and that I believe is one of my purposes, is that I want to create space where people feel that they can bring their selves to the exploration. What I mean by that is that you get to really play, and instead of, “you can't do that,” you get, "I love that you did that; maybe it doesn't work in this arena, but it’s so great that you got to do that because of what we learned."


And with theatre, through theatre, I want to create and to be a part of spaces where we can say what we think and feel heard. I believe that that's how lives change. That's how we get more stories that need to be told, from different points of view—because someone has been heard. When I was younger and in grad school, they’d say, "You know what? You just need more life in you. You're playing this part now and it's great, but think about what will happen when you have more life in you." I feel like what we're doing right now, to the hundredth power, from 2020 into the beginning of 2021, it's like we're garnering all of this life, all of this history and life in ourselves, during this separation. And when we're in the room together again, we're all going to have so much life we will need to share.


When theatre comes back...I mean, theater is happening. We've created virtual theatre. This is a Zoom production. And I believe it will continue to manifest in different ways. When we're in the room again—and we will be, we've been telling stories together in rooms for thousands of years—I believe we will cherish that space even more because we have been absent from it. We will cherish it and hopefully honor it with big stories, and share pieces of ourselves because I think that that's what the theatre is. We share pieces of ourselves with the hope that when we're done, we see the world differently. You don't have to believe a particular piece, or subscribe to it, but it gives you a broader perspective of the world. It heals on a local level and it heals on a global level. You go out in the world and you are different, because of a story.


But that only happens if you hear a different story. The majority of my teachers were white until maybe grad school. It’s important for these students to see a black woman in a position of leadership as a director. It’s important for them to see a black woman in a position of knowledge and of authority, and as a working artist. I think that is an incredibly important story to make available to them. I think it's important that there is a seat at the table for everyone, in how stories are told, how they're made, how they're developed, how they're produced, how they're written. It’s important that there's room at that table for everything we bring to it. I’m not just an actor or a performer: I’m a director, and not just a performer and director of "black" plays or plays with black people in them. I have a vision that can be realized and that is worthy of being seen. I feel like that is the importance of theatre and storytelling, and it’s where I think we’re going: where everyone, behind and in front of the scenes, has a seat at the table.




The University of Utah Department of Theatre presents "HENRY V"
Jan 29, 30 and Feb 4, 5, 6 | 7:30pm
Jan 31, Feb 6-7 | 2pm
Live-Streaming Online
Get your tickets here


Forget about “The Queen, “The Favourite,” or “The Crown”—Shakespeare has been serving up royal drama for over 400 years. In HENRY V, a young monarch with a checkered past wages war on France and his own reputation. As he moves from battle to battle, wielding swords and words with equal skill, Henry must discover for himself whether a good man can also be a good king.

Directed by returning guest artist Stephanie Weeks, this virtual re-imagining of HENRY V will be performed live and streamed online for a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience.