Getting Tina Packer and Jon Jory in the same room for an interview is not an easy task. The two of them spend much of their time crisscrossing the country and the globe, spreading their respective gospels on Shakespeare performance and acting pedagogy. Packer and Jory may be two of the most famous (former) artistic directors in America, but neither is slowing down in the slightest.
Where to meet? Shall we rendezvous in picturesque Lenox, Mass., home of Packer’s fabled Shakespeare & Company? Perhaps in New Mexico’s busy capital city Santa Fe, where Jory is a professor of theatre at Santa Fe University of Art and Design? After countless e-mails, I gave up. “Tina, Jon…I’ll just call.”
And what a call! Packer and Jory are opinionated, boisterous and passionate about theatre. Since Packer stepped aside (“not down,” she insists) as artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, which she founded in 1978, she has kept an active schedule. She recently completed touring her Women of Will, a five-part, ten-hour lecture/performance about the women of Shakespeare (yes, she plays all the parts). She is finishing up the manuscript of an accompanying Women of Will book and is touring the country lecturing, teaching and directing.
Jory left his post at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2000 after 31 years as the Kentucky company’s producing director. Prior to that, Jory was the founding artistic director of Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, established in 1965. It was under Jory’s watch at Actors Theatre that the internationally renowned Humana Festival of New American Plays was born. After leaving Louisville, Jory took a job at the University of Washington MFA program as a teacher of acting and directing before moving on to a professorship in Santa Fe. And this season, he has two productions coming up nationally: Sense and Sensibility (his widely produced adaptation of Jane Austen’s book) at Dallas Theater Center (April 23–May 24), and his Three Musketeers take-off The Two Musketeers! (at Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville, Fla., April 8–May 3).
In a wide-ranging, 90-minute interview in April (during which this interviewer barely got a word in edgewise), the two legends of American theatre debated, laughed and otherwise reveled in their observations about the American theatre, Shakespeare and the state of actor-training in our universities. The following are the highlights.
JON JORY: Don’t you think, Tina, that this is an amazing circumstance? I think you and I, over our combined many years in this business, have met exactly once.
KEVIN LANDIS: And what was that once?
TINA PACKER: Shirley Valentine! Jon invited me to do Shirley Valentine [in 1993 at Actors Theatre] and we had never met, and so I was thrilled that he invited me to come and do it.
You both have been out of the artistic directors’ chairs for a little while now—how do you think the regional theatre movement is doing?
JORY: Well, first of all, the American regional theatre is more political in its themes than it was during the early days. I remember that we would always turn to Emily Mann, who, at that time, was writing plays of larger scope and greater concern. Now that kind of political sensibility is pretty commonplace, and I just think that’s fabulous!
PACKER: And you should! It’s because of the Humana Festival that it’s like that, Jon.
JORY: Well, one would love to think that, but it is also just the temper of the times. When we were doing the Humana Festival, I remember saying to Michael Billington, the great English critic, “Michael, when you think of an American play, what do you think of?” And he said, “Four people sitting at a dining room table with a very large bottle of bourbon talking about family problems.” I think that impression has certainly been alleviated, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.
I also think there are more first-rate directors working now. Partly it’s just about maturity—when I started out, a lot of us were awfully young and probably had both the energy and the talent of the young, but not an enormous amount of experience. By the time I left, we had a number of company members who had been there for more than 15 years, and some for as many as 25. But economics sort of tore that apart, and that is the saddest loss.
PACKER: When I first came to America [from England in the early ’70s], the Ford Foundation funded me—they felt that this was very much their duty, if you will, to set up the regional theatre. They had done so over a 10- or 15-year period. The moment I got here, though, they were saying to the regional theatres, “You have to find a way to do your work without us.” It did seem to me that it was very much about providing the best theatre possible—it had this kind of “let’s give enlightenment to the working classes and the middle classes” quality.
It doesn’t feel like that now. It feels more like it’s a competition for new plays—that everybody does a bit of this and a bit of that, but there is a lot of “Can it be a run before it goes on Broadway?” That kind of feeling has altered things a lot.
In previous correspondence, Jon, you wrote to me about the “fetish” of producing new plays at the regional level and this move away from Ibsen and Chekhov. What do you mean by that?
JORY: I don’t think it’s a lack of desire to do the great plays. There are fewer of them being done, but the economics sort of made it necessary. Living playwrights immediately got the point that we weren’t doing 20-character or 15-character plays. They wrote to the economics they must operate in, in order to be produced. There are many places still producing large-scale work, but I would assume that the percentage of those places has dropped drastically since the early 1960s.
One of the big changes in the American theatre—one that I think couldn’t be more positive—has been the incredible range of the small but wonderfully, articulately driven non-union theatres. When I was spending my years in Seattle teaching at the University of Washington, there were probably 60 theatres in town. Many of them came and went, but there was a lot of really remarkably good work being done.
Sometimes we don’t look beyond the new play as often as we might, and… [pause] I feel badly about that. I feel like I am setting fire to the brush to say this, but I don’t think that there are that many remarkable plays written every year. It may be that there are far less remarkable plays written than there are stages open to them.
PACKER: This past year, Shakespeare & Company has been in New York twice—we never used to do this. Right now, John Douglas Thompson is doing Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play, which started at our place, then went to the Long Wharf Theatre, then down into New York [the show closed in June]. And then we took Women of Will down. But that’s not a play—we couldn’t decide what to call it. It’s a Socratic dialogue, a dramatized dialogue about following the feminine in Shakespeare’s plays.
I notice in your post–artistic directorships, the common throughline is education. Do you feel that your work right now is as much education as it is entertainment?
PACKER: I feel as if I am free. When I stepped aside, there was an enormous feeling of relief that someone else now has got to keep their eyes on all of the prizes. I have the freedom to think about things that I never could.
Women of Will came out of being an artistic director for all those years and concentrating particularly on one playwright. Suddenly I ended up with a body of knowledge. I told people, “If I don’t download all this stuff, I’m gonna go mad!” Because I happen to be a woman—and because I don’t think a woman has directed most of the Shakespeare plays like I have—I felt that I had a perspective on it that hasn’t happened before.
JORY: I left [Actors Theatre] for two reasons. One: You are always in a symbiotic relationship with your audience, and I felt that within the limitations of the funding and the necessities of the audience, I was tuning a car, and that I had tuned that car absolutely as well as I knew how. Consequently, there was a certain sense of repetition that I felt badly about.
On another level, I really felt that the constant use of the minor authority that one has as an artistic director was actually not the best thing for me over the long haul. In a totally fallacious way, I felt a little too proud of myself. So, while Tina wanted to download the knowledge and have the time to work with it, I kinda wanted to escape from my own mistakes [laughs].
And you are a professor now. Are you able to get away from those parts of yourself that you want to get away from, in the academic context?
JORY: I am. Being in the company of young people is wildly interesting. I am beyond trying to change anything in American theatre—its multiplicity is its excitement, so you certainly wouldn’t want to make it one thing even if you had the power to do so. I left the theatre, and then I taught in graduate school, and now I am teaching undergraduates. And I’m sure in another 10 years I’ll be teaching in middle school.
What is it in education that is giving you passion right now?
JORY: Trying to find out what it is you can teach that can actually be absorbed—most American actor-training is either in a four-year undergraduate program or a two- or three-year graduate program. So you don’t have a lot of time, because your students are spending a lot of time doing other things besides traditional acting work.
I have to be incredibly clear, and I have to be very careful to provide sufficient repetition. One of the great problems is that if you have a great mind for acting, then you tend to move too fast. I am fascinated in finding out what you can do that improves the acting of the student in a demonstrable way.
Tina, that idea that Jon talks about—repetition—is so critical in the work that you do. Can you talk a little about that?
PACKER: I was just reflecting upon the fact that I only teach one kind of acting, which is Shakespeare. I was an actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I had that introduction through John Barton, Peter Hall and all those people. I wanted to go deeper with it, and I wanted to go somewhere else with it that they weren’t currently doing. How do you own that language when it’s no longer the language we speak?
I always look at structure, because Shakespeare’s structure allows you to go emotionally where you need to go. It’s like music in that respect. You have to let the structure support you to get to the emotional state—so it’s a repetition of those things. Of course, when you start owning the words, they have so much power that the words themselves take you to the places you need to go.
JORY: That’s so fascinating, Tina, because it brings up the crucial importance of structure. I’ve seen 87 billion auditions, and the main problem with the auditions that I see is that there is talent and there is skill, but there really isn’t a very interesting understanding of the structure of the material. And, having seen the curricula in many universities, there is occasionally a focus on the dramaturgy, but I think not nearly a great enough one.
I think the more you own the words, the more you wake up the creativity which touches your emotion and informs the words. But I don’t think you can work backwards.
PACKER: They often call it styles of acting—but actually teaching the style of acting doesn’t really work, because that’s a superficial assessment and it doesn’t get to the playwright’s deepest creativity, which is what you are actually trying to do.
You have implied that we are offering our students pseudo quick fixes.
JORY: There is a lot of pressure across all the universities now to explain to distraught parents exactly how their children are going to make a living. And, of course, there is only so much you can promise, because there are too many variables. The business has always been the great selector. “Sell yourself for all markets.” That is the perfect advice for an actor.
PACKER: Because actors today have 20 different places they could earn a living, it’s very difficult for them to know who they are. If I had any advice to a young actor it would be, “Try to stay in one company for three years so that you find out who you are as an actor.”
What I find really frightening for young actors today is the prospect of going to Chicago, to New York, or wherever they are going, and launching themselves into this world. If they’ve got really good marketing skills, they might be okay. But for most of them, it will be a pretty wretched experience, unless you’ve got a certain look. But having a certain look does not give you an inner strength. They never get time to settle into themselves as actors. And so, because they don’t get time to practice being actors, they don’t know what kind of actors they are—and that’s very disassociative for them.
Let’s end with this: What are you working on right now?
PACKER: I feel that I have started on a whole new career. The Women of Will book is one that I passionately wanted to write. One of the ways in which we grow is by learning a hell of a lot about things, and then being able to stand on the shoulders of what we’ve learned and launch again. I feel as if I am launching myself again.
JORY: I agree. That is a great privilege and gift. My interests are almost entirely different. I loved the new play work that I’ve gotten to do—I loved it. But now I have almost a psychosis when confronted by a new play. I’ve read so many of them, and one of the results of that was that even as I got a little better at reading new plays, I also became one of the least educated men in America. I think I’ve had time to read about two novels a year, neither of them contemporary.
I love what the Japanese say about hobbies—you have a profession and then you have a hobby that you treat like a profession. And writing has always been the hobby that I treat like a profession. I’m not a first-rate writer, but I’ve written an hour and a half every day for 40 years, so it’s a fabulous hobby. I’ve adapted four Jane Austens for the stage and Tom Jones…
PACKER: My God!
JORY: …and a lunatic version of Three Musketeers and Candide at the moment. So that’s enormous fun. I have been released again to educate myself, which is terrific. I think about acting through the methodology of writing three or four books on acting and directing. I now feel fascinated—as fascinated as I was at 24 when I desperately wanted to run a theatre—about being able to find out as much about acting and the way to communicate it as I possibly can in the time I have. I have a new passion that sustains and energizes me, and I really don’t know what better way to move from one career to the next.
PACKER: What makes me very happy is that I know there are a lot of people out there doing the work that we all did in those years—they keep this Shakespeare text work going. So there is a conversation about it between us all. I don’t have to be the generator of that anymore. It frees me to go and do all this other stuff. What I think is great about this moment in time is being free. I feel much sexier somehow. I feel like, “Yeah, I can do that!”
JORY: You’ve got the best of it, Tina, because you feel much sexier, and all I feel is much nicer. “Sexy” is obviously more powerful than “nice” [laughs].
Kevin Landis is assistant professor and theatre and dance program director at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He is a professional actor and the producer of the Prologue Lecture Series.