A Conversation with the Director
Jenn Thompson met with the CST staff on the first day of the rehearsal process to share her thoughts on directing Mary Stuart.
When Barbara Gaines and Rick Boynton first reached out to you to talk about this play, what drew you to it?
I have many friends who have worked here and speak so highly of the institution, and so I was thrilled to get their phone call. I’d seen the Donmar [Warehouse] production in New York in 2009. It was gripping then—and it’s even more relevant now. This play is a pot-boiler political thriller, laced with romantic and sexual intrigues, which have real potential for depth and complexity. There’s so much room in this story to talk about women in power, and women being manipulated by men. I’m interested in our production exploring how can you be a woman, be feminine, and have power. But I think the most important thing is to honor these two women as full, complex, flawed people.
Returning to this play now, has the story become a different one from when you saw it first several years ago?
How each one of us views a production at the same time is always going to be different, and in fact how I see a matinee and how I see the evening performance could be different based on the news story I just read or a phone call I just had. If there’s an upside to the climate we’re living in now, I do think there’s a pressure—and a great opportunity—for storytelling. As artists we feel that charge more than ever. It’s certainly the most important moment in my lifetime. I believe that our audiences feel that, too. People are listening differently now, and I think that makes this an extraordinary and important time to tell any story, but particularly this story.
As a director, what’s your way into the story?
Initially, it certainly felt like it was Mary’s story—after all, it’s called ‘Mary Stuart.’ But the more I’ve worked on it, I have come to feel that the play is exceptionally even-handed about these two women. A good play will do that: you think it’s one thing and then you peel and you peel, and then you get to know the story and the characters. All the conversations with our design team and actors involve finding ways to present these women in all their complexities, how to humanize these two iconic figures. They are lots of things, as all of us are. They are not victims. They are not monsters. They are human beings.
And they have never met one another—except in Schiller’s imagination.
Yes, it’s two women who don’t know each other. And when they finally meet in the scene that Schiller creates, they’ve never laid eyes on each other before—but they have been primed their entire lives to fear and hate the other. We never see them alone together without men whispering in their ear, pushing them down this path. I find myself thinking about what that conversation might have been between them if they had been alone.
How have you imagined the world of the production?
I imagined these two women against a massive, masculine landscape in its size and scope, but also wanted to explore how both women use their femininity set against this backdrop. [Set Designer] Andromache Chalfant and I have been friends for years and admirers of each other's work, but hadn't found a project of our own. With Mary Stuart, I knew it was our chance. Influenced by the style of Brutalist Architecture, Andromache describes the set as ‘monumental and unforgiving, but with a beauty in its surfaces; a simplicity of form, and an awesomeness in its strength and scale.’ We looked for ways to emphasize what was similar about Mary’s and Elizabeth’s circumstances. Obviously, one was in prison and one was sitting on the throne, but in many ways they were both imprisoned by their world.
You’re also working with Costume Designer Linda Cho.
I have always wanted to work with Linda, but what drew me to her for this project in particular is how she dresses women. I love how she celebrates women’s bodies in all of their femininity, and power, and strength. We wanted to create a world of the 1580s, but didn’t want it to feel like a museum piece. The costumes are inspired by the time period but have a modern sensibility. We’re interested in how constricted these women were and how manipulated their bodies were, we know that Elizabeth I liked to wear extremely elaborate clothing and was all about accessorizing. Those eighteen thousand pearls became her armor, a need to exert an image of power—and femininity. I want to emphasize that this struggle—of being a woman in power, of exercising your authority as a woman—is a forever and timeless struggle: it has always been, it is now, and perhaps it will always be.
What do you hope to create with co-Sound Designer Mikhail Fiksel for this production?
Schiller took a lot of liberties with the history, which I’m grateful for because it frees us up to tell the story we want to tell in the way we feel that people will respond to it now. The aim is to be as fluid and cinematic as we can. We want the soundscape to have a percussive quality and a drive that reflects these two women lunging toward the edge of a cliff together.
You’ve chosen Peter Oswald’s version, which he wrote in verse, as Schiller did. Can you tell us more about your choice?
The Oswald text is beautifully written. There is musicality and poetry in it, but it is very accessible and we don’t have to do extra work to hear it. It feels modern— which has influenced all the other things that we’ve been talking about. It’s a very muscular, visceral type of read. It jumps off the page and leaps out of peoples’ mouths in a very immediate way. Oswald succeeds in dropping in the necessary exposition artfully. And I think that this translation is very successful in its clarity, its comedy, and its bite—and those qualities will influence how the play moves.
Last question…how much of this history does the audience need to know?
I don’t think they need any. I would not dissuade anybody from reviewing the historical context, but one of the strengths of this play is that its story stands on its own. It’s like a political thriller and should feel like one in the way it moves. We already know what ends up happening, and so it becomes our collective job to make the story so compelling that everybody forgets that they know how it ends! We come to the theater to have that experience. Human beings in conflict—that’s the event. The framework is the history, but we’re there to see the struggle.