An Interview with Rebecca Taichman
McCarter Theatre’s Twelfth Night is a co-production with The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. After the DC leg of the play’s journey, Producing Associate Adam Immerwahr asked Twelfth Night director Rebecca Taichman a few questions about the play, her process, and her plans for Twelfth Night in Princeton.
Adam Immerwahr: What is your process of reading a script, and how do you begin to unpack its meaning? How did that approach inform your production of Twelfth Night?
Rebecca Taichman: To be honest, I hate reading plays. Especially that constantly-looking-back-to-the-character-breakdown first pass.
A well-crafted play is a small but complete universe of its very own—with its own logic, rules, vocabulary, sense of gravity & time passage, etc. It’s a slow process for me—stepping into that new universe. Once I’ve gotten through the painful first pass, I force myself to read the play over and over without thinking up an approach or a “concept.” I listen to and parse the text, and eventually images or a point of view emerges. With Twelfth Night, my initial image was of the twins underwater being separated slowly, mysteriously, both reaching back towards each other while being pulled apart. The image, I came to understand, was a reflection of the river of sadness and insatiable longing that runs through Twelfth Night, and the beginning of my sense that in Illyria, laughter is always shot through with tears and tears with laughter.
I had a dream that the first half of the play should be all ice and the second half somehow surrounded by thousands of roses. I brought this dream to the designers, and it became our touchstone throughout the process. A deep freeze that thaws into a wild playground of desire was our organizing principle.
AI: How is your approach to directing a work by Shakespeare different than it is for work by other playwrights?
RT: Mostly I run behind Shakespeare, trying desperately to keep up. I trust the text completely and surrender to it. I try to enliven it in the most evocative, honest ways I can, but never work to contradict it.
AI: So how do the Elizabethan/Jacobean language or the verse influence the process?
RT: I think of verse as music—the notes simply have to be played correctly. Occasionally, I will add a silence that Shakespeare doesn’t give us, but it’s something I do with great awareness (and usually some measure of angst). I love the wild gallop of the speech. Too often the plays are slowed down. Verse is meant to move—so that we’re sweating and breathless trying to keep up.
AI: One of the wonderful things about two theaters doing a co-production is that the work gets to grow over time as it re-enters the rehearsal process and meets new audiences. What did you learn from the run of Twelfth Night at The Shakespeare Theatre in DC? What are your plans for your time at McCarter?
My understanding of Twelfth Night is constantly evolving. My biggest question—and it still dogs me—is about the elusive tone of the piece. It’s ambiguous and slippery, and resists being overly defined. Scene to scene, the tone shifts from raucous comedy to searing romance to heartbreaking drama. It all needs to feel very much of the same world, and yet retain its vast differences. The comedy can run away with the mysterious sadness and vice versa…. It’s a delicate balance.
What do you want the audience to walk away with after seeing Twelfth Night?
I remember at a preview at the Shakespeare Theatre I looked behind me during the curtain call and saw a woman, maybe 80 years old, behind me. I think about her a lot. She was smiling and reaching to grab a rose petal floating towards her. She was so beautiful, and for that moment I imagined she had forgotten about the real world and how it is collapsing around us, and was swept away by how beautiful love can be, how painful, and how terribly exquisite.
What are the other projects that you can’t wait to do?
I am going to Africa this spring with Sundance to develop a piece in Rwanda and am looking forward to that. I am also developing a new musical, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, with Rachel Sheinken, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda at McCarter, and am starting to think about my next Shakespeare play—I feel like I can only do one a year, it takes such focus and commitment—and I can’t wait to wander, wide eyed, into another of his beautiful universes.