Virgins to Villains’ Robin Goodrin Nordli talks Shakespeare’s Women, Life with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival , and her Return to Cal Shakes

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.


Season Artist Profile: Christopher Liam Moore

CLM in Ghost Light

Christopher Liam Moore and Bill Geisslinger in GHOST LIGHT at Oregon Shakespeare Festival; photo by Jenny Graham.

In the months leading up to the start of our 2013 Main Stage season, I am once again profiling the creative minds behind our productions. The March installment of the Season Artist Profile features Christopher Liam Moore, a frequent guest artist at Oregon Shakespeare Festival who may be familiar to you as the actor who played Jon in Ghost Light at OSF in 2011 and Berkeley Rep in 2012. The noted director makes his Cal Shakes debut this summer when he helms Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde.

What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Chris. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

Stefanie Kalem: What are you working on right now? What projects have you done most recently, or do you have coming up?

Christopher Liam Moore: I am directing two shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season. I am currently in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire, which opens on mid-April. I start rehearsals next week for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which opens in mid-June. This winter, I directed Red Herring by Michael Hollinger at Artists Repin Portland.

Red Herring at Artists Rep

The cast of Moore's 2013 production of RED HERRING at Artists Rep; photo by Owen Carey.

SK: Is this your first time directing Wilde?

CLM: This will be my first time directing Mr. Wilde. I am thrilled and terrified.

SK: What do you like about directing for an outdoor stage?

CLM: I love the scale of it. I love that the stars are the roof. I love the intimacy and claustrophobia of a Victorian drawing room juxtaposed against the expansiveness of the hills and trees.

SK: How do you think working on our stage will be different from working with the OSF one?

CLM: In the Elizabethan Theatre at OSF, there is a massive two-story Tudor facade that is the backdrop for every production. It is a decidedly strong visual presence which can be wonderful and also challenging. I am very much looking forward to having the hills of Orinda lend their magic to Mr. Wilde’s world. I am looking forward to learning the space acoustically as well.

SK: Can you share with us any additional early thoughts on this production of Lady Windermere?

CLM: We have a tremendous cast. I know we will dive deep and create an emotionally fearless production which honors Mr. Wilde’s wit and sharp insight. Our early design meetings have been exciting. There will be some unexpected choices.

SK: Was there a piece of theater you saw when you were younger that made you think, “I want to be a part of this”?

Original production of Streetcar

Elia Kazan's original Broadway production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, starring Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Jessica Tandy.

CLM: Yes, I saw Midsummer at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I was in high school. I had never seen Shakespeare done with such wide-open imagination.

SK: What inspires you right now? Any particular theater artist, music, film, television, visual art, politics?

CLM: Two people: my husband, Bill Rauch, the artistic director at OSF, for always putting his heart into the work and inspiring me to do the same; and Jon Moscone, for being brave and daring me to be so, too

SK: And lastly, if you could have directed or acted in any production in history, what would it be?

CLM: Right now, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the rehearsal process for the original production of Streetcar.


Season Artist Profile: Richard Montoya

In the months leading up to our 2013 Main Stage season, I will once again be profiling the fertile minds behind the season’s productions—American Night, Romeo and Juliet, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and A Winter’s Tale—in our e-newsletters. For the inaugural installment of the year, I spoke with Richard Montoya, founding member of the legendary performance trio known as Culture Clash, which began in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1984. He collaborated with them and with Jo Bonney to write American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, developed as part of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” program (the same program that developed Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone’s Ghost Light). When it ran at OSF, it resulted in their first-ever extension performances; when it opens our 2013 season in May, it will only be its fifth-ever production.

What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Richard. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

Stefanie Kalem: When and how were you attracted to writing for performance, with Culture Clash and as a solo writer? Did you have a formative experience with theater as a kid, or did it happen more organically? 

Richard Montoya by Jenny Graham - OSF

Richard Montoya; photo by Jenny Graham - OSF.

Richard Montoya: It happened organically as a child—my folks were involved with the United Farm Workers Union and close to César Chávez, and there was a Farm Workers’ theater at that time that was used as a great tool for organizing workers, pulling them directly from the fields to join a fledgling union. This was done with song and earthy humor and satire and absurd comedia styles; all of that is very much in my tool box to this day—theater for a purpose beyond entertaining. I like entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but the theater of those times was urgent: The sheriff and the Teamsters could be rolling down the street so there was that need to be nimble, mobile, swift—make your point, get a laugh, sing a song, and move on. This is American Night

SK: What made you first decide to sit down and write a play on your own, without your regular collaborators?

RM: I started writing solo out of need. I was tired of missing deadlines or getting three schedules together. Writing for one is hard enough; three crazy guys through the years, near impossible. Like in a boy band, there are dynamics—we started out as a committed collective like the Cheese Board in Berkeley but found eventually that one guy was better at sauce, another guy could make the dough. And so I enjoyed the hours and solitude and relative peace of writing solo. But it really took flight in the year following 9/11. We were mid-commission at Arena Stage with Molly Smith (for Anthems: Culture Clash in the District) and the tragedy happens; six days after September 11, 2001, I am on a plane to DC to finish the commission which completely changed at that moment. I sat at LAX with a grief counselor on his way to walk a family through the Pentagon. We talked for 11 hours nonstop at the airport bar. I wrote feverishly—I was never a super patriotic person, but when the counselor took his American flag lapel pin off his jacket and put it on mine and told me I was a war correspondent with a greater responsibility, my life changed: I didn’t suddenly go around saluting flags but I knew what is what like to be a writer in America. And I wasn’t in the boy band anymore. Anthems: Culture Clash in the District was my first solo outing.

American Night at Yale Rep by T. Charles Erickson

The cast of AMERICAN NIGHT at Yale Rep; photo by T. Charles Erickson.

SK: How will the American Night that Cal Shakes produces differ from the original production at OSF? Or more recent productions at Yale Rep and elsewhere?

RM: It is always very fun and essential to write specifics for a region, I believe. The Bay Area version for Cal Shakes is already a riot for me—I know, or I like to think I know the East Bay fairly well. The difference between LA and the Bay is vast, and so is New Haven; Orinda sounds very Spanish to me and romantic and I love all that confusion and clashing of Alta-California and how un-Spanish Walnut Creek and Dublin sound!

I also relish the things that bind us; our country is getting smaller. I remember a “thank you” note from a lovely couple following a show at Yale Rep, and it said come visit us anytime in Newtown CT. It tears me up to look at it now but it draws me in at the same time and allows me to feel that tragedy is ever more present, not just a far-off news item and pundits yelling on CNN. I think a lot of Americans felt that way. And so this huge country can be a small town, too.

These are the things I think that are difficult for a recently arrived immigrant to feel and know, but I want our American Night hero Juan José to know that, while America can be a violent place, here—as is Mexico—there are more reasons to stay and become a citizen and contribute and make a place better as our grandparents and those before them did.

My hardest job sometimes is explaining to my Salvadoran house keeper (yes, I have one, too!) that after the Korean Conflict my dad and his comrades took their GI Bills and went to art school at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and that action changed our family’s life. I am still riding the wind from that decision. And that a country does that for those who serve—not a bad idea, my housekeeper thinks!

SK: What’d the latest on your film directorial debut, SF Noir? And how did it come to pass that you’d direct a film adaptation of Water & Power?

RM: I participated in four films in 2012: My own picture Water & Power, based on my play of the same name; Chavez with Mexican director Diego Luna about the life of my childhood hero; The Other Barrio, based on a short story from Alejandro Murgilla, the Poet Laureate of SF; and something else I film this week in LA. W&P is my baby and I am super proud of it—it took years of Sundance Lab time, which I am grateful for, and it will be ready in early spring 2013.

SK: What inspires you right now? Any particular music, current events, people, et cetera?

RM: Work inspires me. I have four play script deadlines this week and I am on vacation! Campo Santo inspires me and it’s why I am writing a very intimate new work for them inspired by the life and loss of their guiding spirit, Luis Saguar. I was riding in the back of a shuttle van a few months back, traipsing thru the Santa Cruz mountains near Watsonville with Lynn Nottage and Amy Freed, and I thought, man these chicks inspire me! We’re all conspiring on a play about food for your old friends at Berkeley Rep and the Ground Floor Project; that whole thing just had me buzzing for months, and I am thinking jeez, I am writing a play with Lynn and she is curious about me and it’s just a bunch of nerds bouncing around the organic farms and migrant camps of NorCal doing our work. Also on the bus was a newcomer named Octavio Solis, but I spent my time with the ladies! They inspire to no end…

SK: If you could have written any play in history, what do you wish it could have been?

RM: American Night put me in touch with a deep regard for history—American history, sure, but actually all things old. What did West Texas in 1918 really look like, smell like, feel like? I have to drive there and feel it and sit with it and stand with it and ask permission to use it; I stand at graves and say little prayers or sing songs or leave bottles of cold Coca-Cola and this is my way of thanking and borrowing. What I often drive away with is my mind loaded with richness and an understanding that the early America was a multicultural camp with characters armed to the teeth… Oh, westward ho, indeed, carefully and swift as night.

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A Haunted HAMLET

Blithe Spirit has been such a witty whirlwind that things got a little behind in the Hamlet department around here. As a result, here’s a belated combo blog, featuring impressions from a lunch the marketing department had with director Liesl Tommy, notes from the first rehearsal day Meet & Greet and table reading, and photos from the Meet & Greet. Notes by Director of Marketing Janet Magleby; blog by Publications Manager Stefanie Kalem; photos by Marketing Intern Marivie Koch (view the full set here).

Liesl Tommy grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, with her brother, Kurt (yes, both of them are named after characters in The Sound of Music). She has lost many people in her life—one roughly every ten years—and therefore her ancestors and their spirits are of crucial importance to the director. “I don’t know if I’ll ever stop exploring the way the dead and their spirits effect my thinking,” she told us.  “Even in the production Party People (the story of the Black Panther Party, produced earlier this year at Oregon Shakespeare Festival —ed.) I changed a character—made him dead.”

Clint, Liesl, Philippa

Clint Ramos, Liesl Tommy, and Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on he first day of rehearsal.

This is the door through which Tommy, her set and costume designer (and frequent collaborator) Clint Ramos, and the rest of the Hamlet team is entering the venerated tale of Hamlet: as if entering a haunted version of Shakespeare’s world, a place where the dead pile up, wherein being a survivor is a position of dubious triumph. Tommy and Ramos took early inspiration from a New York Times photo spread on the abandoned homes of busted Mexican drug lords, then places like Saddam Hussein’s palace and Mike Tyson’s mansion. “We decided the story needed to happen on this emotional level,” said Ramos on the first day of rehearsal. “The set needed to contain violence, confusion, and solitude. We looked at places that were post power, pre-ruin. This is a place that was not allowed to die.” Ramos’ clothes for this production are modern, but not contemporary: Slim suits, long dresses, a palette of grays, blacks, and blues with shots of color. And Jake Rodriguez’s soundtrack will include R&B ballads—music that delivers pure emotion.

LeRoy, Tommy, Kitchens

LeRoy McClain, Liesl Tommy, and Jessica Kitchens (Rosencrantz, back to camera) on the first day of rehearsal.

Hamlet is played by LeRoy McClain, who Tommy has also worked with before, and of whom she says, “I trust him with my life.” In a New York restaurant, she told us, they sat and talked about Hamlet all day—through three consecutive meals. McClain’s first-day script-reading was almost completely from memory, eyes closed but tones smoking with wide-open anger; Tommy’s idea of the title character is poetic and romantic, sad and violent, and—like the empty pool that takes up much of Ramos’ set—unsatisfied. “I love everything to do with water.” said Tommy. “Water is romantic, dangerous, and beautiful.” The pool, she says, is “in a state of unfulfilled function and  purpose, like Hamlet himself.”

“We are going to have an adventure together,” said Tommy that first day of rehearsal. And indeed, we all left the room that day with a combination of anticipatory chills and fevered fascination with this stellar cast and with Tommy’s unique, provocative vision.

Hamlet plays September 19 through October 14 at the stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater. Get your tickets today.