The Arts Initiative chatted with M.F.A. Directing Candidate Shannon Fillion and actress Meaghan Witri about their upcoming production of As You Like It. Shannon is directing the piece as part of the 2011-12 Columbia Stages Season and Meaghan plays the leading role of Rosalinde.
Shannon: I moved to New York right after undergrad, which was at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. When I got here, I worked in the city – freelance directed, was on the staff at New York Theatre Workshop for three years doing mostly administrative work. But I knew I wanted to be a director, so I applied all over the country. But I fell in love with Columbia, mostly for two reasons that I can narrow it down to. The first is Anne Bogart, who is more than anyone could ever want in a mentor. She pushes you, and then she leaves you alone, and then you have to figure it out. In all the best kinds of ways. The second thing was the fact that we are in New York, and after having been here already, I didn’t want to lose this resource. Because that’s what it is, particularly in this program, where we don’t have any setup with the acting program where we work with them on a consistent basis. We can work with them, but we also use New York actors in all of our productions and classwork. So over the past two and a half years, I’ve really grown a company of actors together – who are now also my friends, and not just actors. And that’s how I met Meghan.
Meaghan: So Shannon and I have worked together twice before – this will be the third time. I also assistant directed for her on a production of Three Sisters (by Anton Chekhov). I did my acting training at Muhlenberg College in Allentown Pennsylvania, and I came to New York about four years ago and have been working in theatre and film since. One of the things I’m really excited about with As You Like It is that, because it’s an educational environment you get to explore things, like questions and artistic choices that when you are doing this in the real world there isn’t time or the luxury of delving into what lives behind all these characters and stories. And that’s also what excites me about Shannon, because Shannon always does that, and I think that she will always do that, no matter what happens in the professional world, which is exciting, because it’s really an artistic experience in addition to actually creating something for the audience to experience. We are all developing something together.
AI: Tell us about the rehearsal process for this show. How will you start off tackling this play?
Shannon: I like to work with people who are really collaborative, particularly actors. I feel like it’s necessary with designers, but not all directors like to work with collaborative actors and I do. I like to bring in questions into the room instead of answers and make them think a little bit. And I think that’s what Meaghan is talking about. I have some tools that I bring into the room and some ideas of spatial relationships, but really delving into the text is a group effort.
We’re rehearsing the regular four weeks because that is what is allowed under the showcase code. Which is actually wonderful because that is something that Columbia is particular about is we do get a real New York showcase code. We’re considered a real production. So we’re rehearsing the real four weeks but I’m doing a series of readings beforehand with the actors so that we can work on the script together. But it’s not that much longer of a process than it would be, but I think the people that I put together, they put in the effort that they need to.
AI: How did you go about choosing a script for your thesis production? What brought you to choosing this play?
Shannon: Well, the way I came to As You Like It was from a couple different directions. I knew I had to pick a thesis, so I sat down with Becca Schneider, who is also part of this project. She is the assistant director, the dramaturg, and she plays Celia. She’s my right hand girl right now. But she and I sat down and I made a list of all the things I wanted in a thesis. Things like an ensemble cast, things like a world that has a little bit of hope in it. And a couple of other things. I wanted to make sure there was music in it, because that is a big part of what I do. And I wanted it to be a script that was pretty well done. I had just finished adapting something at the end of last semester, and while I love doing that kind of work, I knew that for the thesis there would be a lot of other stuff to worry about, so I wanted a script that was done. So Becca and I sat down and we made a list of all the things we could think of that fit that criteria. We narrowed it down to about four, but I was really strongly drawn to As You Like It, when we thought of it. I was a little hesitant because I had spent a lot of my teenage and college years working on Shakespeare. I went to summer workshops all throughout high school and really delved into it at a young age. And then in college, I threw it aside in favor of experimental theatre. So coming back to Shakespeare after taking five, six years off, felt both a little exciting and a little obvious.
Then I sent my short list to Anne, and she immediately responded to As You Like It as well, and said, “I don’t know why you’re hesitating, just do it.” So I sat down with the script and it just felt right. And it feels right for the time period too. There is a lot in it about massive disparities in wealth and power, and people getting exiled from their homes and looking for a sense of community. I am not the type of director that usually seeks the political in plays, but it’s there. It exists. There are parts of this play that are just about love but there are also part of this play that are about people who have absolutely nothing, living in this forest under a tent and trying to find each other so that they can come back up in the world.
AI: Meaghan, how did you get involved with As You Like It? Were you always going to be a part of Shannon’s thesis, no matter what it was?
Meaghan: I think in our hearts we knew I was always going to be a part of it no matter what that meant, weather it was taking notes during run-throughs or being an actor or helping with costumes or whatever, just because I get Shannon’s perspective and I love working that way. But then, to Shannon’s credit, she courageously decided to have a regular audition process, despite the fact that we all do know each other, and she does know what we’re capable of. But this piece is so about the relationships between the characters onstage that it was really important I think that she got the right chemistry and the right pairs, which is not easy to intuit, even when you know people. So we went through a traditional audition process and then we had call backs, and that’s when Shannon asked me to play Rosalinde.
AI: What draws you to the play As You Like It and to the role of Rosalinde specifically?
Meaghan: I really love Shakespeare and I love classical texts, and Rosalinde is really interesting because she is a very powerful figure, I think, in the theatre in general. I think a lot of people think of like Rosalinde or Lady MacBeth as these big female characters. And it’s so complicated because she’s a man for most of the play, or almost all of the play actually, and so that fascinates me, to ride those lines of asking, how does power live in our beings, as people? Is it because of our gender or is it because we know how to get someone’s attention because we know how to perform a different gender? So, in other words, when I am dressed like a man, can I also attract women and men the same way as I can when I’m a woman? I’m always drawn to the exploration of power, and I think that is something theatre is a great tool for.
And the thing I love about As You Like It on the whole is that it’s a comedy. I think stories about hope and love and things coming together as opposed to things being broken apart, I think that’s what people are really craving. And what we, as artists are really craving to tell those stories. That’s what I’m interested in putting my energy behind. I think that’s the power behind comedy, is that everything resolves.
AI: What is the central concept behind this particular production of As You Like It?
Shannon: Well, the play begins inside, in a palace, and then they go to the Forest of Arden. And there have been hundreds of variations on the forest, but you cannot escape that it is the Forest of Arden. The designers and I, who are an amazing team, we have gone through a couple of different incarnations. I started out by just trying to set a time period that we could bounce from. So going off the little bit of politics that I had initially found in the play, we decided to set it in America in the 1930’s. Although very little of that will be seen onstage. It’s more about the interactions between the characters. And there’s a couple of top hats, but that’s as far as it goes in that sense.
Other than that, I’ve always been interested in puppetry, and the fact that a puppet is almost like the memory or the imagination of a figure, it’s not trying to be the figure itself. We’re not saying, ‘here’s a real person’, we’re saying ‘attach your ideas to this person’. And also, with a puppet, every gesture has so much importance, because you’re deciding it. It doesn’t just happen. And the designers and I talked a lot about that. So what we have come up with is what could be considered the puppet of a forest. Everything is very flat. Everything is very white. So that everything we put onto it has intense meaning. The gestures that are attached to the forest become more alive.
AI: What are you looking forward to the most after you have finished school? What are you the most scared of?
Shannon: I’m most looking forward to moving forward with a lot of the ideas that I already have. We are blessed in the Columbia program by doing things every week, and every month. We always have a new project, another new project. So we end up really honing our craft. But you come up with a lot of ideas during that time that you never really get to delve into. So I have three or four productions up my sleeve that I’m just really excited to go back and work on. I’ve made a lot of good friends in the playwriting program, colleagues that I am excited to work with. I love working on new plays. I love to work with playwrights in the room. Like actors who collaborate, playwrights who collaborate are fantastic.
The last project I did in my second year, so last May, was I adapted Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the team which Meaghan was part of, we actually want to give it a little run in the city. So if there’s something coming up next that we would work on it would be that. We were all very sad to leave it behind, although this is really exciting.
AI: How has your time at Columbia changed you as a Director and a theatre artist?
Shannon: The biggest thing that Columbia has taught me it’s to keep digging into the details. I feel like if you come into this program with exciting, great ideas about theatre, you will leave with those same ideas, you’ll just know the tools to dig in a little harder. I’m the kind of person that get’s so excited when something is working out at all, that before I got to Columbia, we’d get to 90% and I’d say, ‘that is so good, that I’m happy’. And Anne and the program have really taught me to keep going, to get to 100% and get everything to be the way that it could be. And find the right team that will do that as well, that won’t say, ‘well, that was good enough’. It’s just to keep searching. Because that’s what theatre is, that’s why we do it every night. To find something a little bit more, a little bit new and different.
Meaghan: And I can say, having witnessed her development, that’s actually really true. You can see, in Shannon’s work, the trust she has in the whole thing. She’s not just ramping up toward the end and then saying ‘alright guys, see ya!’, because that is a really scary part of the process, to get to the end.
Shannon: It’s a fine line to tell people in that last week, that they are doing a great job, but that they could still work harder, without knocking someone’s spirit down. And the master of that is Anne Bogart. Because she can tell you, ‘that run was awful!’ or ‘that run was amazing!’ and both ways, you just want to work harder.
As You Like It runs January 25-28th at the Theatre at Riverside Church. Tickets are FREE with a CUID. More info: columbiastages.org.
– Meropi Peponides, Theatre MFA, 2013