The Interval interviewed the creative team for the premier production of As You Like It at The Public Theater in New York. This interview featured adaptor Laurie Woolery, the director of The Public’s production, and Shaina Taub, composer of the music and lyrics who also performed in the show. The following includes selections from this interview.
Laurie Woolery, Shaina Taub, Sonya Tayeh, and Andrea Grody. Photo by Jacqueline Harriet.
On How It Started:
Shaina Taub: I met Public Works by doing the show Twelfth Night last summer, which was Public Works’ [at The Public Theater’s] fourth show. When looking at it this year, Laurie Woolery—the artistic director of Public Works—and I paired together to pick and create the show for this summer, which is Public Works’ fifth show.
Laurie Woolery: I was so excited that I even could have the opportunity to work with Shaina because I was such a huge fan. So we were already plotting while Twelfth Night was happening, going, “Okay, this is what we need to think about,” and so we hit the ground running. It was really just trying to find out which play we wanted to do. It was in dialogue with Oskar [the Artistic Director of the Public Theater] that we had a couple options, but landed on As You Like It for a variety of reasons. I feel like the center question that we kept asking ourselves was, “What can a production of As You Like It look like, that only Public Works can do?” Public Works became the third collaborator in the room as we were reading plays and talking about what play could best serve our community.
It was also very important to have representation. I wanted to make sure that there’s diversity and that our community can see themselves in multiple aspects of this work, not just as a performer. Being a person of color, it was very important for me to have you step into that [role] for our community and for our young women to be able to say, “Oh gosh, I could do that. I could be a choreographer if I wanted to. That’s another option.” Or, “I could be a composer. That’s another option that’s available to me.”
On Being in the Rehearsal Room:
LW: Public Works is about radical joy, but we’re part of The Public Theater, so it’s also about radical excellence. It’s not about dumbing down theatre for anybody. It’s about what is the most excellent theatre—play, musical, choreography, music direction, direction—that we can give our community, because they deserve it. If Meryl Streep was in the room, we’d be doing the same exact thing. I don’t ever want to lose that ambitious appetite that Public Works has to create an amazing play. It’s that level of excellence that we’re all demanding of ourselves in the work and that we’re demanding of the community, which is, I think, why we are getting the focus and the concentration and people tracking their entrances and exits in a way that I haven’t experienced before. I feel like it’s the team.
Something that’s very simple, but when we say, “Okay friends, let’s gather and get to the floor,” people stop conversations and get there. That traditionally has been many, many, many, many times asking and trying to get people to quiet down and focus. Imagine a room of 200 people every night, and we just have to ask once and people are focused. It has been the most jaw-dropping thing for me and I’m always humbled by. It’s like, “Oh, they’re ready. I got to be ready.”
We don’t know all of peoples’ histories and we don’t know the joy and the trauma and the heartbreak and the success and the lack of opportunity and the lack of access that they’re bringing into the room.
It’s like, “Stay open. Stay open.” Just acknowledge this is where we’re at and we’re all learning this together, and I think that has also been a really huge shift for everyone in the room. Stay open to the discomfort, because we’re going to come through it. We’re going to come out the other side in a better, richer, deeper place. It’s kind of like holding onto its hand like, “Okay fear, we’re dancing today. Okay fear, we’re singing harmony even though I don’t know what that means. Okay fear, I’m going to have to hold someone’s hands and say these Shakespeare lines that don’t necessarily feel authentic to me, but I’m going to stay open to find out how I’m going to find my truth in this.” That’s what’s so moving, is watching them own the story and own their place on that stage.
On the Guiding Principles Behind the Adaptation:
LW: A lot of it went into just trying to figure out what play to do and what we had done in the past and what could we do that was different. I think I wrestled a lot with As You Like It because of the similarities with Twelfth Night of a female being in men’s clothing. That’s a personal thing that I was struggling with.
I think the pillars, for me, were what play can we pick where community is at the heart and the soul of the telling of the story. It was the election. It was rights being assaulted—LGBTQ, immigrant, female—and it was the refugee situation. All of that was alive when we were meeting once a week. We would bring that in and we would talk about our lives and we would talk about what’s going on in the world and how helpless we felt. I think a lot of what we talk about in Public Works is about a citizen artist. What can you do to contribute? What can the arts do to contribute? It’s about owning your story and telling your story. Those were with me as we were moving through.
ST: Also, the line between reality and fantasy was really big for me. Reality and magic and where those meet. There’s the fantasy of the role we feel like we have to play in life and the idea of “all the world’s a stage,” and then we’re all kind of moving through life with the prescribed set of behaviors that we feel are put upon us, and in our journey as people we strip that away and figure out who we really are. Trying to lessen the gap between how the world sees you and how you see yourself. [In As You Like It] both in the macro way—in terms of all the refugees that are out in Arden that have been banned from the court—and then with Rosalind, who’s spent her whole life playing this role of this women she felt she had to and stripping that away to see what’s really underneath.
Rosalind, from the start, knows what being a man can afford her. Her first thought when she’s banished is, “I want to be a man,” because she knows. For her, it’s more the journey of what she uncovers later.
LW: Yeah, living behind the mask, whether it’s the mask of a man or whether it’s the mask of the court and the role she has to play as woman. There’s a certain kind of woman she’s expected to be in the court. Whereas, when you’re in Arden—this was the other thing we kept talking about—it’s where you go to work your shit out. If you are a refugee and you’re stripped of everything, or if you’re just a human being and you’re stripped of all of the things that we have—our clothes, our home, our old job, our identity, our title, and we’re thrown out—what are we left with? How do we thrive or fail in that?
On Putting Ideas and Themes into Practice:
ST: Last fall, when we were outlining this and trying to think of what would New York City need to hear on Labor Day weekend 2017—because it’s not only so specific for this context, people-wise, but it’s for a certain weekend—I was at the Women’s March in DC and one of the big chants was, “No hate, no fear, everyone is welcome here.” Writing the song “Under the Greenwood Tree,” which is an original lyric, but the hook is inspired by the Shakespeare song within the initial play, I just took down the line and rebuilt around it. I thought, “Oh, this cord’s an invitation.” It’s saying, “Come on in.” That chant was in my mind of, “All are welcome here.” Now it’s made its way into the lyrics that say, “Do not fear, all are welcome here.” It was just hanging across the room. It feels dramaturgically correct for the moment, but it also, I hope, feels resonant for our larger moment.
LW: One other thing that we kept wrestling with is, “Why does Rosalind not reveal herself when she gets to Arden?” No one’s stopping her. He’s there. She knows he digs her. Why is she not like, “Hey,” and they go live happily ever after? One specific rehearsal we spent just getting really transparent about ourselves and how we block love. There’s one specific song, “When I’m Your Wife,” it takes me back to that day and how vulnerable we got with each other about why love is scary and really understanding and stepping into Rosalind’s shoes in that moment of going, “Here’s a woman who has been abandoned by men and society and has not been accepted for who she is and how she has to stay open to this opportunity of love that’s presented to her.”
The process of writing that and staging that and now witnessing that circles back to those moments when I’ve closed myself off.
ST: One big theme of the show is education and getting emotionally educated. I feel like, oftentimes, treatments of Rosalind are that Rosalind is so brilliant and amazing and she just has to fix Orlando and get him ready for love. That is true, but it’s not the whole story. Rosalind also has some work to do on herself. I think, for Rosalind, it’s much easier to project onto other people and say, “Ah, let me fix what’s wrong with you.” It takes her the play, to end that ultimate moment, the night before she gets married. We’ve inserted a soliloquy for her that’s not in the play, because in the original play, we get no moments alone with her. By fixing Orlando and teaching him it’s like, “By my pupils, I’ve been taught.” The teacher becomes the student, and I think part of going to Arden is realizing how much you have to learn, and that’s also part of going to Public Works. I feel like that’s a thing that’s really mirrored that’s in this play.
My biggest lesson at Public Works is just listen, listen, listen. I have so much to learn. I play Jaques, and at the end, when everyone leaves, there’s an epilogue. It won’t give too much away, but Jaques, at the end, when everyone runs off, says, “There’s still much matter to be heard and learned out here.” That’s always how I feel about Public Works.
It’s like fear standing in our way. A guiding principle for us is there’s a quote hanging in the room, and it’s the James Baldwin quote, “Love takes off the mask that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” That just feels so right within our show and the program. You hold on to these walls you have because it just feels familiar. I can’t live without them, but you know underneath you can’t live with it. Both are always true. Every day I go through that process.
Read the full interview!