Director Alexis Confer is in a groove. After three straight successful productions of Shakespeare’s most well loved comedies, she’s taking on the notoriously ambitious, fantastical and wildly dramatic Cymbeline and staging it as a 90’s fairytale in a Vegas casino.
There’s money at stake here, as all proceeds are going to benefit Art for Progress, a nonprofit that supports emerging artists and arts education in public schools.
Culturebot contributor Katy Einerson sat down with Alexis just before a rehearsal to learn more about Alexis’ work and this production, opening April 27 at Theater 80 on St. Marks.
Katy Einerson (KE): Tell me about your involvement with Art for Progress.
Alexis Confer (AC): When I first moved to New York 11 years ago, I was here with a bunch of friends from my undergraduate school and we decided to make theater. We’d done a lot of shows together and we were all public service focused young professionals, so we thought, why not make theater that raises money for the arts? So we had this group called Plays for Progress, and we happened to find this great guy, Frank Jackson, who runs Art for Progress, and we collaborated to raise money for the Harlem Children’s Zone and a few other nonprofits. I’ve also done a few shows with another company I founded called Offline Productions but this time I wanted to go back to the nonprofit model, so we’re partnering with Frank again.
KE: Would you say that Shakespeare is your specialty as a director?
AC: I guess it is my specialty now! I have an acting background and have performed a lot myself. I think a lot of young actors are drawn to Shakespeare because it feels like such a big thing to tackle. Once you look deeper into his work, you realize he talks a lot about issues that are relevant to modern society, like mental health. If you think about Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, they’re both going thorough mental health issues. The more I learned about Shakespeare the more I realized how he had his finger on the pulse of what people were struggling with.
I’ve also directed musicals and more modern pieces. I love monologues, I love one-acts, I love real actors’ pieces. But I do focus on comedies because I think we all need to laugh and I love comedy as an art form. I like finding the truth in comedy, as they say in improv, and Shakespeare gives you a lot of opportunities to do that.
KE: As a former English major, I took my fair share of Shakespeare courses but Cymbeline was not a play I ever had to read for class. It’s not one you see performed all that frequently either. So I’m curious: what drew you to direct this play? And why did you choose to set it in Vegas?
AC: Cymbeline is a piece I didn’t know very well and I wanted a bit of a challenge. The last three shows I did were Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which are arguably Shakespeare’s three biggest comedies. Cymbeline gets mixed reviews. Sometimes it gets incredible kudos for pulling it off – if you stage it in its entirety, it’s four hours long. It has so many plot lines, so if you do it right, there’s the greatest possibility of reward. But you really have to find a way to dissect the play down to the main storylines and make it Shakespeare’s fairytale. In the case of this production, there are huge sequences that have these mystic elements with ghosts coming back, and I’ve taken those out and really boiled down to the main plotlines about folks being banished, the love stories, the class dynamics.
Speaking of class dynamics, we’re playing the Evil Queen as someone who grew up with very little means, and now she finds herself as the “trophy wife,” for lack of a better term, to a head casino conglomerate. So if you think of her as someone who really clawed to get there, was scrappy and worked hard, she becomes less of a one-dimensional character.
We set it in Vegas because when I think about the fairy tale plotline, and where in the United States anything can happen, it’s Vegas. My family grew up as big hikers and campers. One thing we’re very lucky to have in this country is the vast beauty of the desert. The plateaus and vistas are so gorgeous, and the desert has the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen. The colors feel like they actually are make-believe. I’ve been thinking about where in modern society someone could be exiled and really feel removed. There’s this huge stretch of land between Vegas and LA where you won’t see any signs of life other than maybe an occasional truck stop or a diner in the middle of nowhere. The Southwest has the feeling of being remote, but still close to the decadence inherent to the world of Cymbeline. So in this production Cymbeline, the British king, is a casino bigwig whose time has passed. The Romans, if you look at history, were these modern folks who came in and thought they knew best. Caius Lucius and all the other Romans are played by women in this production, so they come in and their ideas are more modern and fresh and they upset the status quo of this old casino world.
KE: The political clashes between the British and the Romans are a major concern in Shakespeare’s text – are you holding on to that theme?
AC: Yes. It’s in there – we’re playing it more with mergers and financial acquisitions gone bad, and we’re playing with some actual physical fighting. We’re setting the piece in the mid 90’s. There will be some violence, but I really want to focus more on what happens when power shifts, how we play with class and how we deal with social dynamics. At the end of Cymbeline, like in any good fairytale, there’s forgiveness all around, which I find really redeeming. We’re all multi-dimensional people, and there is great capacity for goodness, so I’m interested in how we find redeeming qualities in all the characters in this play.
KE: I know you’ve worked with this cast over a long period of time, and that several of the performers are true Shakespearean actors, while others are stand-up comedians. Can you tell me what it’s like to work with actors with such different backgrounds?
AC: Sure – that was very intentional. I have all those backgrounds myself as an actor—I’ve acted in Shakespeare, in musicals, done improv. I think there’s more connectivity than people realize, and if you’re able to jump between those art forms, it gives you more versatility as an actor. A stand-up comedian will bring something much different to a role than a standard Shakespearean actor, and vice versa. Even in the way they approach memorization of lines, the way they hit the jokes… if you want a diverse, multi-dimensional, robust piece, you have to bring diversity to the table.
If you’re a Shakespearean actor, you’re going to approach the text with the poetic terms and timbre that Shakespeare intended. But if you bring in someone who hasn’t been trained in Shakespeare, they’re going to read it in a way that feels natural to them. So they cut it in different spots, which pushes everyone to realize that just because it’s written in a sing-songy way doesn’t mean you can’t cut it in the first third of the sentence. Or put the emphasis on something Shakespeare didn’t intend, and really hand it to the audience.
Shakespeare was meant to be enjoyed. I love a good classic production of Shakespeare, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen Shakespeare at The Globe and it was life changing and beautiful. But for a modern audience who’s never seen Shakespeare, you have to dissect it and make it feel relevant and fun and easy to understand.
KE: In the research I did to get to know this play I discovered that people have VERY strong opinions about it – about its artistic merit and its stage-worthiness as a play. It’s a massive undertaking, with a huge cast and sub-plot after sub-plot. I’m sure you’ve heard George Bernard Shaw famously called it “a stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order,” which I think, to be honest, is an excellent tagline.
AC: Yeah! That’s kind of where the Vegas idea came from.
KE: Ah, that’s wonderful. Bernard Shaw also famously re-wrote the ending. So I’m curious, and I know you talked about this a little bit earlier, but how true are you staying to the script and how much liberty are you taking with what you’re putting on stage?
AC: I would say I want Shakespeare enthusiasts and folks who are open-minded about Shakespeare to come see this show, but I’m definitely not a Shakespeare purist. I’ve cut huge sections, plotlines, middles of sentences. We’ve cut a bunch of characters. Cymbeline was one of Shakespeare’s last works, and it sort of has all of his plot devices wrapped in one.
KE: Right, it’s almost a self-parody, where he’s re-doing everything he’s ever done.
AC: Yeah, it is. You have your Romeo & Juliet, your deadly potion, the evil queen, the popular-then-unpopular monarch, people being exiled, tons of fools running around. I’m always asking, is this driving the plot forward? Are we telling a story the audience needs to hear? Or are we saying things only because we like saying them as actors? We’re not changing words; it’s been more about cutting. There’s been some gender bending and playing with age. In the original text there’s a character in the desert, Belarius, who is supposed to be the surrogate father who stole king’s sons. In our production that character is played by a woman who’s around the same age, so instead she’s their sister and we’re calling her Belle. So there is some embellishment. And to help clarify the plot, which is pretty complicated, it’s come down to taking out irrelevant plotlines.
I do think this piece has to have a fairytale mood, I have an excellent composer named Tom Lee. He’s done music for our last three shows, and he adds a lot of the magical elements back into the piece.
It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s a challenge the cast and I are excited to be taking on. Because we’ve done four shows in less than two years, we have sense memory and our muscles are well honed from the last three productions. So I realized that if I was going to strike at Cymbeline, now is the time to do it.
KE: Is there anything else you want to share about this production?
AC: Just that this is a really hard-working group that cares a lot about the public service and arts education elements of this project. So many of us came from public schools or places where we were able to participate in theater camps, so it feels personal for everyone to be able to do this with a nonprofit. It’s a really special collaboration. And I think everyone feels privileged to be doing theater in New York City. Our cast comes from all over the place and calls New York home now, and we continue to have this familial element in a city that’s tough to do what you love, especially theater. So there’s a lot of appreciation and gratitude within our team for being able to do what we do.
Cymbeline, presented by Art for Progress, is running April 27 – May 14 at Theater 80 on St. Marks. Tickets available at https://theatre80.wordpress.com/cymbeline/