5 Questions with Tina Packer

A series of informal, intimate talks given by literary and cultural luminaries, In Conversation with the Rosenbach delves into fascinating histories, intellectual curiosities, and inspiring ideas. Each program offers the audience a chance to join the conversation after the talk and share their own thoughts and questions. Join us February 27 as veteran Shakespeare performer Tina Packer introduces us to some of Shakespeare’s most remarkable heroines.

Author, actor, and director Tina Packer
Author, actor, and director Tina Packer

Rosen-blog: You’ve had an extraordinary career in Shakespearean theater which includes founding Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachussetts and performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. What is it about Shakespeare that inspires you?

Tina Packer: Whenever I’ve finished working on a Shakespeare play, my mind has expanded. His work explores all things human: it’s beautiful, it’s vicious, it’s exciting and difficult.

RB: Your book, Women of Will: The Remarkable Evolution of Shakespeare’s Female Characters, sheds new light on the roles for women in Shakespeare’s plays. Could you give an example of a female character you wish theatergoers knew or understood better?

TP: One of the most obvious ones: Cleopatra. For hundreds of years, our perception of Antony and Cleopatra was that Antony was seduced by this sex bomb, and then he stopped being a great general and died in debauchery. But Cleopatra was not just a seductress; she was a powerful, intelligent woman who chose to unite herself with Antony. What Shakespeare is really writing about is the sexual, spiritual union between the two; it’s not Antony’s tragedy, it’s the tragedy of a love that should have been powerful and instead was crushed under the patriarchy.

RB: You are playing Volumnia in Coriolanus with the Lantern Theater Company this spring. What excites you about this role?

TP: Volumnia is a very powerful, very intelligent woman. She should have been a warrior or a chief of staff, but there is nowhere she can put her power and intelligence, so she puts it all into her son. Her power inspires him but also kills him, and nearly kills everyone else in Rome. She’s a monstrous woman, but if there’s no place for a woman to put her energies and intelligence, she may become a destructive force.

Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus soon after his own mother died. I feel that he couldn’t write a truthful play about the overbearing power of women while she was still alive.

RB: Women of Will was not just a book but a performance, which meant that you’ve had an experience that other authors might either envy or fear— making your argument face-to-face with your readers! Any good stories from these interactions?

TP: In fact, the book came out of the performance. I’d perform the play and then go home and write. When you’re performing, you’re using the whole of your body and voice. That causes you to write from a different place than if you’re just in your head all the time—more guts, sweat, and tears. Shakespeare was an actor too, so he was performing and writing at the same time throughout his whole life; I felt very much that I was doing the same.

Most of the conversations took place after the performance, during talkbacks. In my experience, men do most of the talking in talkbacks, but after these performances, the female audience was much more emboldened to speak up. I felt that I was in dialogue with the women, and it deepened what I was thinking about for the book.

RB: What have you read recently that sparked your imagination or admiration?

TP: I recently went to a lecture at the American Philosophical Society on The Frontier Country by Patrick Spero. It’s about the frontier of Pennsylvania, which knocked me sideways—one associates the frontier with cowboy films, but Pennsylvania and Virginia and Connecticut were all fighting over borders in the colonial era. I’ve also been reading Enough Said by Mark Thompson. He shows how language in politics has broken down, creating a real problem with debate and communication. How people use language today is very different than it was a few decades ago—and from Shakespeare’s time, too.