On Monday July 20th—for one night only—Oregon Shakespeare Festival favorite and Cal Shakes’ alumna Robin Goodrin Nordli will bring her one-woman show Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare’s Women to the Bruns Amphitheater. From Queen Margaret to Lady MacBeth, Goodrin has performed over 70 roles in 25 different Shakespeare plays. In her own work—which also includes a kind of how-to for playing Shakespeare’s women called Bard Babes—Nordli strives to make Shakespeare more accessible and personal. With Virgins audiences will see her mix Shakespeare’s language with intimate, poignant, and often hilarious stories about how these characters have affected her life and career as a performer.
Producer and Cal Shakes board member Craig Moody first saw Nordli, who has been a member of OSF for over 20 years, as Regan in King Lear while on a trip to the festival in Ashland. He knew from that moment that he wanted to help bring this gifted performer back to the Bay Area if only for just one night. Here, the lawyer-by-day-and-theater-enthusiast-by-night interviews Nordli about her favorite Shakespeare characters, the struggle to find great roles for women in the theater, and her long-awaited return to Cal Shakes.
What prompted you to create both Bard Babes and Virgins to Villains?
Bard Babes was the first one I did. That started out because I realized I had played a lot of female Shakespeare roles and I kind of missed playing them. I missed the characters, and I wanted to talk about playing them. One season when I was doing The School for Scandal and Henry IV, Part 1 I had a lot of offstage time. I had like 45 minutes to an hour and half break between entrances sometimes. While I was sitting at my dressing space I just started writing. I originally wanted to make Bard Babes a one-woman show, but I realized I couldn’t; I needed an assistant, and it needed a lot of props, so it wasn’t exactly the piece I wanted to write, but I liked it well enough. Then I did it as a Carpenter Hall lecture here at OSF [in 1998] and it worked. I had a couple of people give me feedback on what it needed, and how to tweak it. I ended up doing it a variety of places and still do. Then I wrote [a piece] for Shakespeare Santa Cruz called Shakespeare’s Labors in Love about how dysfunctional relationships are in Shakespeare. It’s kind of a comedy piece that I wrote for Michael Elich [Nordli’s husband] and myself . We did it for a benefit and it went over very well, and then I finally sat down and wrote the piece I’ve always wanted to write which was Virgins to Villains. I sat down with Lue [Morgan] Douthit from OSF—she was very helpful to me with Bard Babes—and I told her I wanted to write this other piece, but I was so afraid that it would turn out like Bard Babes. She said, “Write down all the information. Write down everything you’ve done. Write down when you did it and what was going on in your life at that time. Make a bunch of lists of anything you feel is important and it will appear to you,” so I did that and it kinda did. I sat down and I wrote this piece. Sometimes it helps me if I have a date that I have to perform it by, so I called up the [Oregon] Shakespeare Festival and asked if they could give me a Carpenter Hall lecture. It was a good first shot at it, but since then I have changed about one-third to half of it and gone on to perform it in various places. It doesn’t have any props except a music stand and some chairs. It’s very simple and portable, which I love—and it’s just me.
Other than Virgins being a one-woman show, what are the main differences between Bard Babes and Virgins to Villains?
Bard Babes is more about how to play a Shakespearean character; it’s a “how to.” It’s about why Shakespeare isn’t scary, but it’s actually funny, and that it’s very accessible and why, as opposed to Virgins which is my personal journey with Shakespeare’s female characters.
Do you have any particular thoughts about coming back to Cal Shakes where you were so many years ago?
Of course I do! I badly wanted to do this because Cal Shakes—which was Berkeley Shakespeare Festival prior to—was one of the most influential places I’ve worked. I was there for three seasons when it was Berkeley Shakespeare Festival and two as Cal Shakes, and those five years were huge for me and my development. I’ve always wanted to come back and do something and this seems like the perfect piece to do there.
What are some of the roles you remember doing while you were at Cal Shakes /Berkeley Shakespeare Festival?
One season while it was still Berkeley Shakespeare Festival I was Mistress Quickley in Merry Wives of Windsor, while I was doing Desdemona in Othello, and Imogen in Cymbeline. Then we rehearsed Twelfth Night and I was Viola, so at one point I had those four in my head. My first year there I did Ariel in The Tempest with Louis Lotorto, who was also Ariel and it was just phenomenal. It was the role I was dying to play. I ended up splitting it with Louis, and we had a great time. I wrote my Master’s thesis on it [because] it was such a phenomenal experience.
It sounds like those five years here were a good time in your life.
Definitely. The last year I was there I was Rosalind in As You Like It, Constance in King John, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, and multiple roles in Hamlet, so that was another one of those hard-core seasons which was just great.
There’s always a lot of talk about Shakespeare having cast boys in women’s roles and women not always having the best parts in his plays. Do you think Shakespeare gave short shrift to female roles?
Well whoever he—or she—was, he [for the sake of this interview] was a commercial writer. He wrote to make money. He wrote for his audience, and he wrote for the actors that he had. I think you always have to keep that in context. It was the world he lived in. Other than the fact that a woman was running the country for most of the time he was around, it was very much a man’s world. Also, he was writing for boys playing those women roles who would grow out of those roles. With some of the male roles the guys could play them for much longer, so you always have to take that into consideration, but that said he did not write two dimensional women. For the most part they are multi-dimensional characters, even the small ones. That’s what’s so astonishing. I wish there were more. I wish they had more language. I wish they had more power, but the fact that he gives us characters like Beatrice and Volumnia… There were a bunch of them that he wrote—more so than anybody else at that time—that were fairly wonderful and multi-dimensional, particularly the pants roles.
Can you explain pants roles for those who may be unfamiliar with that terminology?
Those were women who disguised themselves as men in order to survive or get something done. There are basically five of them: You have Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night, Imogen in Cymbeline, and Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. They’re very multi-dimensional, and you learn a lot about what the world was: what surviving was, and where the power was to make changes. It was in a male society and therefore you had to adapt to achieve what you needed to. But I am surprised to say that my two favorite productions of Twelfth Night—which I’ve seen more than any other play, and I’ve done more than any other play—are Mark Rylance’s all-male production, and a Russian version that came to the United States about 10 years ago that was just interesting and phenomenal, and it was also all male. There’s another layer in the play that you get when it’s all men that you don’t get when it’s played by women. It’s fascinating. It’s something on a subliminal level. It’s hard to explain, and I was quite blown away, but those are fabulous roles for women. I wish there were more, but I understand at that time, with those people that he wrote for in that climate, and the culture that he lived in, for him to do what he did was quite a lot.
Do you think women’s roles in the theater are improving?
Not a whole lot. I think new writers are trying to address the female issue, but I don’t think there’ve been any huge breakthroughs yet. In the 1800s you had Sarah Bernhardt, Julia Marlowe, Fanny Davenport, all these fabulous women actresses who toured the United States, or Europe with their companies and they played male and female roles. They were power-driven forces, and they were the actors and managers of the companies. We don’t have anything like that anymore. Even with movies in the 20s and 30s, there were women who were huge stars, and box office draws, now it’s the guys. We’ve kind of taken a step backwards in that direction, and I think in theater we have too. There’s a number of people out there trying to shake it up, but it’s tough.
What are some of your favorite and least favorite roles that you’ve played?
I have favorites for different reasons, and I have ones that I can’t stand for different reasons. I don’t have just one. I will tell you this though, I really loved playing Margaret through the Henry VI cycle. We did Henry VI, Part 1 and then a combined Parts 2 and 3 and then Richard III, so I played her through from a teenage girl to an old lady. Nobody gets to do that. Usually you break it up, and different people play different ages, but I got to do it all the way through. It was fabulous.
You also played Elizabeth in last year’s OSF production of Richard III right?
Yes, that was fun too—to turn around and play [Richard III] from a different angle. I’ll also tell you that the first time I ever felt like I played a character who really drove the boat, so to speak or controlled her own destiny, was with Imogen in Cymbeline. That was the first time I felt a character control things, as opposed to reacting to things.
I had a great Measure for Measure at Berkeley Shakespeare Festival. I did it in ’89 there. Richard E.T. White directed it. It was one of my favorite productions anywhere, ever, but of course I love Twelfth Night too. As far as least favorite? So much of that has to do with the production instead of the play, but I can’t think of a Shakespeare one that I didn’t enjoy in some way, or have a good experience with.
Are there any Shakespeare roles you haven’t played yet, that you still want to play? I can’t believe there are…
You’re going to have to come to my show, because I talk about that. You will understand and be satisfied with my answer.
We certainly will! One last question: How has your life changed since putting down roots in Oregon?
The beauty of this place is it’s a repertory theater and you don’t get that at many places now. When I started out there were a lot of places to go and do rep, and not just Shakespeare, but other plays too, and that experience is really lost in America. Even Cal Shakes is show to show. It’s not a rep anymore. Berkeley Rep used to be a rep at one point, and A.C.T. too. I miss that, so here I get to still do that. This year I have one of the best rep seasons I’ve ever had. I’m only in two shows, but in The Count of Monte Cristo I play a spy who goes into all these different disguises, so I get to play all these different characters under the same character. I also get to do Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. It’s not Shakespeare this year, but it’s infinite variety, and that’s kind of what I really love to do, and what I’ve always wanted to do. And I get to live in a small town. I ride a Vespa or a bike everywhere. It’s pretty ideal at the moment.
Robin Goodrin Nordli will perform Virgins to Villains at 7:30pm on Monday, July 20th. For tickets click here. You can also meet Nordli in person at an after-show dessert reception by purchasing premium-priced tickets.