Ask Philippa: Twelfth Night Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s last and darkest comedy, written in 1601. Director Christopher Liam Moore calls Twelfth Night his favorite Shakespeare play, treasuring its capacity to soar to the heights of mirth and delve to the darker parts of humanity. Set on the tiny island of Illyria, the play takes its characters on a huge emotional journey, in which they question who they are, mourn losses, entertain big dreams, and discover parts of themselves that they didn’t know where there.

I’d be delighted to answer any artistic or dramaturgy questions about what’s in store for this season’s production of Twelfth Night. Curious about cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Ask Philippa! Please leave your questions in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.


Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at, or post below to ask her a question.

Buy tickets for Twelfth Night, or subscribe to the 2015 Season, by clicking here; or, call the Box Office at 510.548.9666.

This entry was posted in 2015 Season, Ask Philippa, By Philippa Kelly (dramaturg), Main Stage, Twelfth Night and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Ask Philippa: Twelfth Night Edition

  1. Mary Ann Koory says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the performance and your excellent talk on Tuesday night. Your reminder that Shakespeare would have expected his audience to recognize Malvolio as a type, a Puritan, was a great introduction to Stacy Ross’ intense performance (especially in the first half) as the repressed and righteous Malvolio. She makes a case for the play as Malvolio’s story.
    My question, though, is about the doubling of Sebastian and Viola: it seems like a natural theatrical choice for a pair of identical twins, until that last scene when they need to face each other. How do you suppose the Chamberlain’s Men would have solved that problem? They’d have had a lot of experience with twins (Comedy of Errors for one). Obviously, CalShakes is not, and should not be, limited by what the Chamberlain’s Men would have done, but I’m curious. What do you think?
    Mary Ann

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Hello Mary Ann,
      We can be pretty sure that the young boy actor in Shakespeare’s time playing Viola would have looked very different from the man actor playing Sebastian (because boy actors with unbroken voices had to play all the women’s parts). So when, for example, Antonio says ‘an apple cleft in two looks not more like/Than these two creatures’, or Orsino says: ‘One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,’ it’s hard to believe the two were physically alike enough to pass for one another. So it’s possible that Shakespeare’s company used costume to create enough similarity to satisfy audiences in the willing suspension of disbelief; or even that the actors may have used masks.

      • Philippa Kelly says:

        ps Mary Ann, I think the costume aspect would have been BIG, because Shakespeare’s company spent an enormous part of its budget on costumes.

  2. Marisa says:

    I saw the show Tuesday June 2nd and was pleasantly suprised. The comedy was much more contemporary than I had anticipated with flashes here and there of our modern technology. It was also more slapstick and boldly acted than I had expected for a Shakespeare play (mind you you I haven’t seen very many). At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about this, it was entertaining but not as serious as I had expected, but at the end I realized this relaxed and lightheartedness thrown into the performance made the closing scene with Malvolio much more tragic and dark. Overall, a more wholesome performance. 🙂

    My question is, how do you decide how serious to make the characters during the performance? And is there a specific reason for this?

  3. Philippa Kelly says:

    Hello Marisa,
    I think this is the magic of direction – that each director has a vision for how he/she wants to create the tone of the play – like a piece of music that is played in a certain way, with different rhythms and emphases. I think that ‘Twelfth Night’ is a play that, as you say, has so many tonal possibilities (in keeping with its highly musical nature – eg. all the songs that Feste has.) I loved the way that our production had Julie Eccles as Olivia be osentatious in her mourning – it was very funny, but it also highlighted, in contrast, the private mourning that Viola does for her own assumed dead brother, in which she ‘creates’ Cesario in his likeness. The more funny Olivia is in her absolute self-absorption, the more poignant is Viola’s own loss and her brave attempt to compensate for it. And in this show Maria was a riot – so quicksilver in her obviously intellegent understanding and her capacity to indicate the eay she was ‘dramaturging’ everything from downstairs, as it were. The more witty and ironic maria’s stance, the more clearly one sees the outrageous way in which she takes advantage of the celebration of Twelfth Night, a special night in which servants could take th eplace of masters. Maria LITERALLY takes the place of her mistress by writing a letter in her name! This was beautiful, I thought, in the interplay between Julie Eccles (Olivia) and Domenique Lozano (Maria.) And then the levity of the drunken lords (Catherine Castellanos and Margo Hall) really played up the merriment, as you point out – so that poor Malvolio (Stacy Ross) seems so pathetic in his unctuous primness! I suspect that the more the merriment is played up, the more the darker tones sound out – so long as you give Malvolio, as Christopher did Stacy, the chance to impress on the audience his absolute self-conviction as well as his dismayed puzzlement when he simply cannot understand what has happened to him and why he has been so sorely punished.

  4. Julie Keitges says:

    I saw Cal shakes production of Twelfth Night on its opening night. It was a delight from start to finish. Domique Lozano, Stacy Ross, and Julie Eccles were familiar talents inhabiting personas in which I’d never seen them. Ted Deasy was terrific in his many roles and his command of the stage. Lisa Anne
    Porter and Rami Margron captured my imagination as Viola/Sebastian and the Duke Orsino. And Catherine Castellanos and Margo Hall made me want to spend a night on the town with them. Great production.

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Julie, it is wonderful to get this note! I am sorry I didn’t see it. Normally we have a set-up where I get an alert when a post comes in, but we’ve changed systems, so I’ll get it fixed. I’ve unknowingly violated by own 24-hour response window!!! I am going to send your post (of course!) on to the actors and Christopher

  5. Alan Cunningham says:

    Ellen would like to know if the women who auditioned for this production knew they were trying out for a specific role — or were they just trying out and waiting to see which role the director felt was right for them?
    It’s a question that could be asked with any play, perhaps, but somehow seems more interesting in relation to this cast in which all but one performer was a woman. It was a magnificent and very entertaining production, by the way.

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Hello Alan,

      This is a really intresting question. From what I gather, it went both ways – they may have gone in auditioning for one part and then been asked to come back and read for another (called a ‘call-back’) I am pretty sure that Stacy auditioned for Malvolio and was cast as Malvolio. I’ll ask them at the talkback on Sunday. I am so thrilled that you loved the production, Alan.

  6. Sara Mayeno says:

    Did Shakespeare have a dramaturg?

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      hello Sara,

      An intriguing question. The term, ‘dramaturg’, was invented by the Germans in the 18th century (comes from the Greek construction ‘dramos’ plus ‘ego’ – i.e. ‘worker). The Germans wanted specifically to curate Shakespeare so as to keep his works in the form thy were originally ‘intended’. They were really the force that generated Bardolatry for all time – so we have them to thank, not only for the word, ‘dramaturg’! I think, though, that Shakespeare did have a dramaturg, just not someone called that name. In order to preserve his ownership of the material, he only gave each actor his own lines plus the cues directly before and after each speech sequence, so that they would know when to come on and deliver their lines and when to go off again. (See critics Simon Palfrey and Tiffeny Stern for more on the text and cues.) The actors would not have the whole script, so they could not defect and run off to Manchester and produce Shakespeare’s play as their own! But I am pretty positive that Shakespeare had one or two actors (maybe Heminge and Condell, who eventually put together his complete works?) who acted as dramaturgs, taking charge of the whole script and doling out lines and cues.

  7. Sapna Drew says:

    Dear Philippa,
    I liked the scenes in Twelfth Night with dancing and humorous music to make it interesting to kids.

    Sapna Drew
    age 9

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Hello Sapna,
      I’m so glad you liked these features! This is exactly what Shakespeare would have hoped for! By the way, there is an Inside Scoop on Monday at the Orinda Library at 7 pm. There is (theoretically – adults may have an issue with this!) UNLIMITED ice cream, and you get to see some of the actors and designers interviewed about their show. I hope I will see you there! Your spelling seems excellent for a 9 year-old. By the way, did you know that Shakespeare left school at 13? His dad ran out of money.

  8. Phil Grover says:

    I would like your opinion regarding suspension of disbelief as it applies to how twins were handled in two recent plays at the Bruns, The Comedy of Errors last year and Twelfth Night this.

    For these plays to have reasonable credibility, the twins must be very similar in appearance since they are identical twins in Comedy of Errors and fraternal twins made identical in Twelfth Night – “An apple cleft in two is not more twin than these two creatures”. In both cases, a set of twins was played by one actor and role changes between twins happened in front of the audience. The only alternative would have been for two people play the roles and, unless actual twins were found to perform the roles, the audience would no doubt see that the two actors are not really twins. All of this is necessitated by both twins being together on stage at one or more times during the plays.

    Whichever way it is handled, we the audience have the problem of maintaining suspension of disbelief. This was particularly difficult with Danny Scheie’s portrayal of the Dromios. Maybe because the play is a farce anyway or maybe because it was just Danny playing Danny, he seemed to be saying to the audience that he knew we could see that he was both characters, that there was no reason to pretend otherwise and that he might as well have fun obliterating all the make-believe.

    While watching both plays I found myself moving between suspension of disbelief and being aware that I was watching actors playing a role. I cannot say this ruined the plays but it does change the experience. And at one point in Twelfth Night it was a bit odd when I was simultaneously aware that an actor was changing characters while I was still seeing others on stage as real characters.

    So I am wondering, is suspension of disbelief always necessary for live theater to work? Or do we the audience need to be sophisticated enough to move in and out of it without loss of moment, meaning and continuity?

    I am also curious if you, while watching a play, are fully in the moment and suspending your disbelief or are you busy analyzing the performance in your role as dramaturg and scholar

  9. LARRY WALKER says:

    Hi Philippa – When we briefly chatted yesterday about 12th Night, I told you I had a hard time following it, and you referred me to “my website” where I might find your essay explaining the play.
    I can’t find that essay – any tips?

  10. Kerstin Hellmann says:

    Dear Phillipa,
    Very belated response to seeing 12th night. In my mind it was an extraordinary performance by the actors and an extremely successful as directed. The all women production was surprising at many turns, over and over highlighting the gender mannerisms, which beautifully underscord the plot. I had never seen men portrayed by women so convincingly, poignantly illuminating what we generally assume to be normal male and female behavior. This wasn’t just a bold decision by the director, together with the actors it elevated the performance to another level. Congratulations to all! I hope many got to enjoy it.
    Many thanks Phillipa for the ever enlightening Grove talks and your generosity sharing your insights.

Please leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We’re so pleased to be able to offer this forum for our community to see behind the scenes of a working theater organization, and for our patrons and friends to be able to provide their insight, as well. Please observe the following guidelines:

• No personal attacks
• No profanity
• No shameless self-promotion

We do not wish to moderate this important dialogue, but we reserve the right to remove inflammatory, off-topic, or otherwise inappropriate comments. Thank you for participating in the conversation!