All The Folger’s Her Stage: An Interview with Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch on As You Like It

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. On the Folger Theatre stage, they have their entrances and their exits, all overseen, given form and structure, and creatively envisioned by Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with the show’s Director to get her take on what’s up with As You Like It.

Thank you for giving us some time, Gaye, if you’ll just give us a brief introduction to yourself we can get started!

Gaye Taylor Upchurch, directing As You Like It at The Folger Theatre
Gaye Taylor Upchurch, directing As You Like It at The Folger Theatre

Gaye Taylor Upchurch: I’m Gaye Taylor Upchurch and I’m directing As You Like It. In the last year in DC I worked on The Year of Magical Thinking with Kathleen Turner at Arena Stage, and also Animal at The Studio Theatre with Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell.

What is it about As You Like It that made you say, “I have to go direct this piece!” what drew you to it?

Gaye: As You Like It is one of the great love stories in the canon. Rosalind is Shakespeare’s most prominent female character. I think she’s so wonderfully complicated. She’s funny, she’s smart, she can be cruel, she can be a great friend. She’s allowed to be both a heroine and a complicated person and that’s often not allowed, honestly, for female characters. I was interested in working on a play with a character like Rosalind. The challenge of the piece is that it’s very plot-centric in the beginning and then it opens up into the forest and becomes this exploration of love and relationships. I was interested in how that might work on stage.

I was told by a little Shakespearean bird that I have to ask you about New Orleans influence.

Gaye: Well, I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and when I was thinking about Duke Frederick’s Court, a place that in my mind is a city that was once rich in culture and heritage and arts that has been taken over by corruption in the ranks. He’s replaced a lot of the culture with wrestling matches and things like that. And New Orleans is a city that I love that is also steeped in culture but is also never too far away from corruption of some sort taking over. It just made sense to me to think of that as a jumping off place. I’m only using it aesthetically, it’s not technically set in New Orleans, we’re not doing accents or anything like that.

Aesthetically it was very helpful to me and it certainly helped to shape the kind of music that we ended up using.  Heather Christian, who also happens to be from Mississippi— we didn’t know each other before we worked on this play together— she understood what I meant when I said New Orleans was our jumping off place. She wrote all different kinds of music that have a southern base to them, which is everything from gospel to blues to folk songs and they really well into the context of the play.

So you’re using a lot of live music and that is influencing some choreography, I’ve heard?

Gaye: Oh yes, that’s true. Alexandra Beller is our choreographer and she’s amazing. She’s helping to use dance to show the difference between the civilization of Duke Frederick’s Court and then what the foresters are like out in the woods under Duke Senior in this much freer society.

Are we still going to have the wrestling?

Gaye: Yes. There is definitely wrestling still happening.

What is it about As You Like It that will resonate with modern audiences, it’s a great love story but we’ve all seen or heard and even lived great love stories, so what is it about this one that’s going to make people want to still come see it?

Gaye: That’s a good question. I think that the relationships are timeless and just the fact that it explores all different kinds of love throughout the play. It has one of my favorite friendships in all of literature in it. The friendship between Rosalind and Celia is so beautiful and the language that he gives them is gorgeous, and their acts of sacrifice are so touching. It’s also about community and what it means to live with each other in civilization. I feel like those are questions that never get old, especially now with the changeover of power that’s happening and we’re all reexamining what it means to be citizens, how we treat each other and how we work together. There’s some of that in this play as well.

This play is also, throughout its 400-year history, has been thought of as a refugee play. And certainly now is one of those times to think of it as such. People are banished from the court, or they choose willingly to leave a court that they no longer agree with and they go to form their own society in a place that is not their home. We did a lot of research of Syrian refugees and looked at a lot of those images to help us figure out what Duke Senior’s court in the forest might look like.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered thus far?

Gaye: Well it’s a complicated piece in that once you get into the forest, the plot takes a back seat. So finding what keeps the play activated in these explorations and keeps it from just being an intellectual piece, but also a visceral, emotional, engaging piece has been a good challenge to work on.

You talked a lot about the forest.

Gaye: You are going to be in a forest. Scenically its suggested. We won’t suddenly find ourselves truly in a forest. But they go to the Forest of Arden and relocate there for the entire second half of the play. So yes, there will be a forest, but not an actual forest. The Folger space is so beautiful and scenically I wanted to keep that space pretty open. One of the things that we’ve done is to use the bare stage and what’s in it to help inform the forest and what we’re using as our actual objects. We really use the theatre and the people in the theatre as our scenic elements, per say.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in exuberant song.Teresa Wood
The cast of Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in exuberant song.

What has the cast been like so far?

Gaye: They are lovely. They are prepared and game and totally generous. I’ve loved working with them so far. I’m very excited about these actors.

What has taking on a project like As You Like It, taught you about yourself as a Director or even just as a person?

Gaye: I think approaching the text like it’s new— for me— has been the way to go. Of course you know it’s been time tested so if there is something that’s not working you have to dig a little deeper in yourself to figure out how to make that work. Taking pieces of it that I know were meant for that very specific time— like the political jokes that he was making that were aimed at the politicians of that time— and trying to find ways to come at those fresh, draws on a lot of my experiences just as a person and the way I interact with the world. Trying to find the spirit of the comedy sometimes instead of the exact translation of a joke has been really intriguing to me.

What has it taught me as a person about myself? I have learned that I love experiencing joy on stage. I think this play is very joyful at its heart. That can sometimes be a difficult thing to achieve in the theater because we occasionally have a sense that an audience is very passive. But actually I think that audiences want to engage, they’re there because they want to take that leap with you. Getting to trust that once audiences starts to come in that the other half of our equation will be there to help us lift this story up in the most joyful way possible, is a great learning experience.

The Folger has a penchant towards 4th wall dissolving and in some cases being completely obliterated. Can we look forward to any of that?

Gaye: There will be a little bit of that, yes. I think that’s sort of built into Shakespeare’s plays, people were often talking straight to the audience, some of the jokes are in direct address.

What is it that you’re hoping will take away from seeing As You Like It?

Gaye: I think there’s something about this play that is about embracing the ridiculous and the fact that we all can be fools for love, or maybe fools for other reasons on occasion, and that that is okay, that’s part of being human. I think the opposite of that is to live your life in a very afraid and fearful manner. In looking at all these lovers in the forest and all these foresters who leave their homes and take on another life, they’re all brave and fearless and foolish in some way. This is celebrating that.

If you could be someone in As You Like It, who would you be?

Cousins and best friends Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter, left) and Celia (Antoinette Robinson) share a moment of amusement in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Teresa Wood
Cousins and best friends Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter, left) and Celia (Antoinette Robinson) share a moment of amusement in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Gaye: I think Celia is amazing. I mean, Rosalind also, she’s the quintessential female character. But Celia— it’s her idea to run away to the forest. She leaves The Dukedom that she stands to be heiress of, she says “I will leave everything to follow my friend because my friend was wronged.” I feel like she has such great empathy. That would be somebody to aspire to be like.

What does the title As You Like It mean to you?

Gaye: We had a joke in rehearsal when there are things that we can’t figure out, “Oh, right. As you like it.” I wish I had a better answer for this question. One thing that I’ve been focusing on is that Oliver has this line that I don’t know that I’d ever really heard before until this time working on it here at the Folger. But when he has his conversion and he says that “I do not shame to tell you what I was since my conversion so sweetly tastes being the thing I am.” And being the thing I am is what I think all the characters in this play are striving for and in some way I think that pertains to the title— who they are at their core, the core of themselves.

Why should people come and see As You Like It?

Gaye: Come to want to be steeped in the play. Let the music of the play and the rhythm of the play wash over you and draw you into the forest. Come out for the performances, I’m blown away every day by these stunning actors. The play itself is gorgeous, the language is so beautiful. They’re rendering it in a really joyful and exciting way.

As You Like It plays through March 5, 2017 at the Folger Theatre in the Folger Shakespeare Library— 201 E. Capitol Street SE in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 544-7077 or purchase them online.

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