Artists in Conversation
Director Tyrone Phillips and actor Julian Parker sat down with Chicago Shakespeare Associate Producer Aislinn Frantz to talk their ideas for I, Cinna (the poet).
What is the significance of telling an epic story through the eyes of a single character and voice as playwright Tim Crouch does in I, Cinna?
Tyrone Phillips: What I love about this script is that we really get to know Cinna, who is a character we meet very briefly in Julius Caesar. In working on the piece, we’ve realized that it’s a kind of “Where were you when…?” story, You know, there are those key moments in life and society, when people say, “Where were you when…?” For my generation, that’s 9/11, for others, it was the JFK assassination. I also love that we’re witnessing the events of a major world change. Caesar’s assassination is marked in our minds as the Ides of March. We relive his assisination through the eyes of a character who is also an artist—an artist who is trying to figure out how his words impact the world he’s living in and if his art has a place in the political world at all.
Julian Parker: When epic events happen in real life, it’s usually something that we read about or that we see on TV. But the true stories that we lean into are about perspective—and we want to know who was actually there so we can develop an opinion.
Julian, what about Cinna draws you in as a character?
JP: What I really relate to in Cinna as a character, if I can be honest, is this weight I put on myself that I have to say the right thing or say something profound. And that really comes from my feelings of wanting to avoid conflict at all costs. I see a lot of that in Cinna. He’s a man who lives behind his work, and he also really wants to avoid conflict. It’s almost like we’re both in the wrong industries if we think that’s how this is gonna go!
What I envy about this man is that he sees a potential in himself that’s untapped that he hasn’t necessarily used before. He has seen how your word can turn against you. We watch him grow up in front of us, and it’s something really remarkable to watch a man dare to walk the plank. He’s also completely alone. He has to create a vocabulary for himself that keeps him mentally and physically safe—and it’s a really hard thing to do when there’s a war going on outside. What’s awesome about Cinna is that he realizes, if he wants the world to be one he wants to live in, he has to go outside and pursue that. Being stuck inside isn’t going to do that. It’s a show about the verb. He’s going to go do it, now.
What themes of this show resonate with each of you now in this moment?
TP: The question of how we engage, or disengage, with politics is huge. It’s a question that’s present in Julius Caesar, that’s present in this show, and that’s going to continue to be present and important in our society. I think we’ve all learned that we have to be active participants and that it’s our responsibility to change and grow by making informed decisions by the past.
But also for me it’s about time. How do we spend our time? I ask this so often. And not to be morbid, but what separates us from the dead is our breath—and that we can still make choices. Cinna’s battling this tug of war: do I write or do I go outside my door right now and make noise with the world? His poetry is the way that he’s going to affect and change minds. I also love to say, as Cinna says, that poets have premonition, they can see into the future. As events started to change our world last spring and summer, even as we were in rehearsal, it was exciting to imagine how impactful this show could be.
JP: Another theme that affects and surprises me on stage when I’m finally getting in sync is the rhythm of the script and the poetry, which is attached to time. Cinna struggles with a pervasive writer’s block in the show, he speaks about these distractions that keep him from what he wants to do. And there’s something so infuriating about knowing what you were born to do and having the world keep you from that. He realizes he may have to change his rhythm in order to play this game.
For me, it goes back to this idea of loneliness, and what do we do in solitude? How do we keep ourselves positive? He doesn’t talk about his family. There’s not any mention of his family. Obviously, we all come from somewhere. And that’s what my eye has been drawn to—where does he find a home? His sense of belonging is lost, So he finds a home in himself, and spends the play trying to center himself in that home.
Can you talk a little bit about how you see the relationship between Cinna and the audience, how that relationship changes throughout the piece?
JP: I think it’s something super exciting. Without an audience, there’s no theater. As far as this show is concerned, it’s really Shakespearean in its bones already. There are so many moments of self-reflection and contemplation—what we understand in Shakespeare as soliloquies.
TP: I think what’s really important as well is that Cinna’s a writer. His relationship with the audience changes throughout. In the beginning, it’s solitary–Cinna’s writer’s notebook–but it quickly becomes a situation where the audience are his co-writers. He’s urging them to pick up the pen, pick up the pencil and write along with him, puting their words to work. And by the end, it’s the audience that actually becomes the lead writer. That transition toward creativity and responsibility is really important.
In this piece, not all the cameras are there just for the video capture. Can you speak a bit about how the cameras themselves play a role in Cinna’s relationship with his audience and the world outside his door?
JP: Cinna’s intentionally created this space where the world is his audience. First, he has his camcorder, which he’s set up as what we’ve called his ‘video journal,’ where he’s trying to capture his thoughts in order to create this brilliant poem. He’s also set up a bunch of other cameras around the room to witness his natural reactions to the news or just looking outside his window. And then there are other cameras which aren’t in his control—that’s the world always watching, always observing, always analyzing him. These tapes Cinna can’t revise: this is his life unedited. Finally, he takes his camcorder to the streets and becomes a part of history rather than hearing or reading about it.
Cinna’s appearance in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is, of course, very brief. What does it mean to you to give him a fuller life in this show—and how do you feel that your identities as BIPOC artists may have shaped who this man is?
JP: In all honesty, it’s questions like these that make me wonder about questions like these. ‘What does it mean for your experience as a Black person, a person of color?’ I live that every day. So when I have the brief luxury to not only live that Black but to finally love that Black, it just catches me for a second that I always have the responsibility to address how my skin relates to the events of the play.
TP: At this moment, in these times of such isolation and social unrest, we’re focusing on how we all communicate with each other. What are the ways in which we stay connected? And in this play, what drew me to it was the immediacy to what was happening outside of my door in Chicago. When I got the script, George Floyd had just been murdered. Julian and I even protested together. And in Cinna’s story, there are friends urging him to join the revolution, to join the change. But this character feels like his words are important, and he wants to be sure he knows what he wants to say before he says it and proclaims anything.
What was interesting to me was creating the environment of ‘home.’ We feel safe at home. What are the things that make us feel that way, when we say we’re ‘safe?’—versus going outside where anything can truly happen. I really wanted to focus on the question of how the outside world comes to infiltrate our safe space.
I know you two studied abroad together at Shakespeare’s Globe. How did that experience inform your relationship to Shakespeare? What do you think that revisiting these plays through a new lens as playwright Tim Crouch and you have done can offer us?
TP: We had the privilege to go overseas and study at the Globe in 2011, and that was life-changing for both of us. As artists, it was the first place that we felt free of the learned racial tension in America. Our minds shifted about how we identified and how we wanted to come back and create art in America, and that was the initial impulse for Definition Theatre, which Julian and I started together. I initially went to a classical training program because Shakespeare was the only artistic area that I doubted myself in.
The power of standing on the Globe stage and saying the words and owning it is how Julian and I have stayed connected throughout the years—this bond of language, of poetry, of trying to find the words when we feel like we don’t have them. That experience really shifted our minds when it came to who we were at that moment, and who we are now. It still serves as a clear reminder as we can look back and say, ‘Remember that feeling we had? Remember standing on the Globe stage and looking up to the skies?’ I think that has fueled our love for Shakespeare and informs how we collaborate on I, Cinna. But what’s even more important to ask is, ‘How do we pass these stories to the next generation? How do we inspire them?’ It may be with a Shakespeare play itself, or you may use that work to inspire a new story, a story that we need to hear, that addresses today. I think Tim Crouch has created for the next generation a beautiful piece, speaking to how we can draw inspiration from the classics and speak to a contemporary audience.