The Women of The PAC’s MARY STUART

Charlotte Northeast stars in the title role of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collectives MARY STUART (Photo credit: Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography)
Charlotte Northeast stars in the title role of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s MARY STUART (Photo credit: Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography)

The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective concludes its 2013-14 season with Friedrich Schiller’s MARY STUART, directed by PAC co-founding artistic director Dan Hodge (whose previous credits include the company’s potent inaugural production of THE DUCHESS OF MALFI in 2010). The fictionalized history play, which premiered in Weimar, Germany in 1800, considers the final days of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned for eighteen years under a death sentence for treason by her cousin Elizabeth I of England. Contrasting the authority of the latter with the desperation of the former, MARY STUART pits Queen against Queen, Catholic against Protestant, and politics against interpersonal relationships, while examining the complex issues of leadership, power, and gender. It is also an all-too-rare example of a production that features strong female roles for local actresses.

I had a chance to chat with four of the talented women involved in the show—Barrymore Award-winning lead actresses and PAC artistic associates Charlotte Northeast (Mary Stuart) and Krista Apple-Hodge (Queen Elizabeth), supporting actress Kate McLenigan Altman (in her PAC debut as Hannah Kennedy), and costume designer Katherine Fritz (PAC artistic associate and resident designer)—before a rehearsal at the Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad Street, where the play will be performed.

PHINDIE: How did the PAC come to stage MARY STUART? Who first brought Schiller’s work to the group’s attention?

KRISTA APPLE-HODGE: Dan [Hodge] brought it to the table, one of many classical plays he read. He also saw the recent productions in New York and the West End, London.

CHARLOTTE NORTHEAST: Damon [Bonetti, PAC co-founding artistic director] came in with THE SEA PLAYS, so we wanted to balance the season, not just have ‘all-dude’ plays! I personally like to see plays with women, not men’s plays done by women.

PHINDIE: What elements of the story appealed to the PAC, and how does it fit with the PAC’s mission? Is it important to you to produce plays with strong lead roles for women?

KA-H: We do the classics, and we are especially interested in people. We always ask, “Does the human value of the story hold up?” In MARY STUART, as in all the plays we choose, it does, and the bulk of the PAC’s small budget goes to paying people.

CN: Our other question is, “Where are the women’s plays?” We do classics, often with a huge cast of characters, and it’s not so easy among the classics to find a lot of stories with significant roles for women; we all hope that’s changing, or that it will in the future. CREDITORS was great, and THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, and even CHANGES OF HEART; in every play we’ve done those important women characters have existed—very defined women.

KATHERINE FRITZ: Yes, CHANGES OF HEART’s Lisette [played by Krista Apple-Hodge] could have been the typical flirty floozy, but instead there was depth and soul in the character. And we always consider, when we have a large cast, “How is it in terms of gender equity?”

KATE MCLENIGAN ALTMAN: We’re really interesting; women are so fascinating! So why wouldn’t plays focus on women?

PHINDIE: Do you find it more fulfilling as a woman to play a significant female role than to be cast as a male character, as both of you [Charlotte Northeast and Krista Apple-Hodge] were last season?

CN: Both are definitely challenges. When playing a role meant to be a male, you can’t let that go. Do I embrace it? Do I ignore it? You have to make choices. With Mary Stuart, I can act her and be her. Yes, I prefer that, but there are not as many opportunities.

KA-H: It all comes down to context. If I’m cast in what is a traditional male role, I love it if it’s portrayed as who I am, not specifically as a male. Queen Elizabeth had to function in a man’s world, so there is complexity in that character. What does it mean to be a female leader, how difficult is that–especially at that time, but still today?

PHINDIE: In preparation for your performances, did you do research into the period and historical figures, in addition to reading the script? Do you approach a real-life character differently than you do a fictional one? 

KA-H: I was watching every TV show and movie ever made on Elizabeth. I got to see great actresses play her, and also learned things about her through my reading. When I told Dan, he said, “That’s great–if it’s in the play . . .”

CN: Yes, we have to respect the script. I can’t watch other productions before I prepare for a show, maybe after, though I looked at a lot of pictures of Mary and read books about her. You fill up your brain with facts, then let them inform you, or decline to do so. I found out that Mary Stuart was incredibly tall. Great, that’s good to know; but I’m not! Also from my reading I felt that Mary made some really poor choices, though Schiller paints a very sympathetic portrait of her. In reality, she was brought up from Day 1 to be Queen. Whereas Elizabeth had to learn it, it was just handed to Mary, and then she threw it away. But in this play, I don’t get to have that struggle, I only have to make my peace with God, so I just have to play what’s in the play, and hope that Schiller and Mary aren’t mad at me at the Pearly Gates!

KMA: For my homework I read a few books—Jane Dunn’s Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens; and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots. The character I play, Hannah Kennedy, is actually a compilation based mostly on the real-life figure of Jane Kennedy. In the script she is called Mary’s nurse, but she was her servant—an older woman who grew up with her, knew her, and was there throughout her life for all of her experiences; she even bound her eyes for her execution. So I’m essentially Mary’s best friend, and I wonder if Hannah gave her any advice, and what her opinion was of Mary’s choices—was she there when she made the bad ones?

PHINDIE: Dan noted that an important part of Schiller’s message is that the men in the world of MARY STUART often underestimate the intelligence of these women and expect them to behave in predictable ways. Is that something you can relate to; do you feel that you’ve ever been underestimated because of your gender?

KA-H: Yes, I’ve had times when it felt hard to be heard in a roomful of men; plus I’m a shy person, which doesn’t help. What I desperately wanted to say, what I did say, didn’t get heard.

CN: It’s so funny, because when I have conversations about gender disparity in the theater, men can’t relate to it, because there are so many roles for them, they just haven’t experienced it. It’s everywhere; it’s so endemic that everyone has become used to it. What choice do you have? You can do a play like this.

KMA: It’s even obvious in the words used to describe men as opposed to women. When men speak up and insist on being heard, they’re strong; when women do it, they’re bitches.

KF: It’s so complicated, and we’ll probably have to deal with it for the rest of our lives. You’re not a bad person for not seeing it, but it’s definitely there. Am I a bitch?

PHINDIE: If it means that you’re strong and opinionated, I would take it as a compliment! So, ‘bitch,’ can you describe the artistic design for the production, and especially the importance of period-style costumes, hairstyles, and make-up to establish the setting and the characters?

KF: The PAC’s first production, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, had one chair as its set. That’s been upgraded in MARY STUART to one chair and a kneeler! When we start with a script, the set is the first to go. It’s always a challenge to design a set with a small budget, and it’s also Dan’s aesthetic to go minimalist. Our performance room at the Broad Street Ministry already does so much to establish a beautiful space and a sense of history, that we really don’t need an elaborate set. We like to let the audience do the work for themselves; the less you see, the more you can imagine. I know I have been disappointed when I’ve seen the film or stage version of a book I read, and envisioned the setting differently than how it is depicted. We prefer to let the rest of the production—the acting and direction, the costumes, lighting, and sound—inform that decision. And we all love clothes! Here, the costumes create a world of structure and hierarchy. The first visual information the audience gets about the culture and the characters is presented in terms of their clothing. The costumes support the text, and also indicate where the characters fit into the society’s pecking order.

CN: Shakespeare will just say, for example, that it’s outside. The Globe Theatre in London lets costumes, acting, and words establish the setting.

KA-H: And we have the beautiful hammered dulcimer music of John Lionarons–our artist-in-residence for this production–who will perform live at every performance. He will help to create a classical mood and to feel the moments when Elizabeth is vulnerable and heartbroken, not just a majestic queen.

KF: It’s definitely different than what the big-budget theaters do; we embrace what we are, and the fact that we already have a room with character, evocative of a time that is not present-day, is very helpful. Site specific work is right for the PAC. And we also employ period-style hair and make-up for MARY STUART. Jessica DalCanton did a one-day consultation with us on the make-up, and Keighty McLallen taught us how to execute the hairdo for Elizabeth. We’re not using wigs; we’re lucky that Krista has the right hair to work with. The others are wearing wimples.

PHINDIE: How much does that help the actresses to get and to stay in character? Or when you’re performing, do you forget what you’re wearing?

KA-H: I never forget what I’m wearing. My fitting for MARY STUART fundamentally changed my approach to the character. Every movement Elizabeth makes is amplified by her big, heavy clothing.

KMA: I don’t either; costumes give you a lot. They change the way your body moves, especially when you can’t put your arms up! It’s fascinating to experience what they were wearing every day, how much weight these clothes had, what they had to carry.

CN: Yes, these clothes are so restrictive. Mary’s are not as fancy as Elizabeth’s, but they make a statement, create structure, and inhibit movement.

KF: More than with any other PAC show, the fitting for MARY STUART has been one of my favorite parts. When a fitting goes well, I can see that character, that person. The costumes are all indicative of a restrictive society. And we’re even cheating a little here; I didn’t use all the layers they really would have worn. We have the bodices, but the corsets were eliminated. When I discussed the costume design with Dan, he said that using strongly built clothing was fine, as long as the women don’t look like battleships! But the costumes do have as much structure as a battleship; clothes were these women’s armor.

You can see the work of these strong and disarming women in the PAC’s production of MARY STUART from April 2-19, 2014, with tickets priced affordably at $10-15 for students, $15-20 for adults.

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