While Shakespeare's classics often get reimagined, few reformations can match the bold ambition of Bring Down the House. The Seattle Shakespeare Company and Upstart Crow Collective production combines Henry VI's three plays and their story of rival families battling for the crown during the War of the Roses into a two-part taiko drumming-infused epic with an all-female cast. Bring Down the House – Part 1: Throne of Treachery premieres this Friday, January 27. The second installment, Crusade of Chaos, opens Friday, February 3. Both segments will run through March 12, including seven one-day marathon performances of both.
Bring Down the House is hardly unfamiliar territory for Upstart Crow Collective. Founded in 2006 by Betsy Schwartz, Kate Wisniewski and Rosa Joshi, the Seattle group dedicates itself to producing theatrical classics with all-female casts. After their initial production of King John in 2006, they subsequently put on a version of Titus Andronicus in 2012. For Bring Down the House, Joshi directs, Schwartz plays the titular king, and Wisniewski portrays the queen, Margaret.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Wisniewski about condensing Shakespeare, how more obscure plays benefit Upstart Crow Collective's mission, and the abstract violence of drumming.
What led to the foundation of Upstart Crow Collective?
We always kind of talk about it as our origin story. So there are three of us: Betsy, Rosa, and myself. Betsy and I were both cast in a show a little over ten years ago now down at Tacoma Actors’ Guild, which has unfortunately since folded, and we were commuting together from Seattle, so we spent a lot of time in the car. And we were talking a lot about—as actors do—the state of auditions, and in those conversations decided that we really wanted to create an opportunity for a lot of the women that we knew who were really fine, classical actresses to have an opportunity to do more work, especially those of us who are interested in the classics. The irony is that as you get older and have more chops, the roles start to dry up.
We just kept mulling this over during all these hours in the car, and we said, well let’s just see if we can make this happen. Betsy had worked with Rosa on one of the Shakespeares a couple of years previously, and she said, well what about Rosa? Let’s see if she would be interested in jumping on board with this. So that’s what we did.
And then the other part of it was us thinking, well, this is sort of so crazy and unlikely, so let’s just go ahead and do the most obscure history play we can come up with. And that’s when we decided to work on King John. If we’re going to go all the way with this, let’s not just do a play everyone does all the time. Let’s do a play nobody even knows. So that was kind of that was kind of the beginning of it all.
So then is that penchant for relative obscurity what drew you all to Henry VI?
One of the reasons we settled on King John ten years ago was that it felt like a play that really addressed some of the things that were happening politically at the time. And it certainly feels like that again with these Henry VI plays. You can always look at the Shakespeare plays, especially the history plays, and feel like wow, here we are four hundred years later and they are still addressing the same issues. The Henry IV plays feel very contemporary right now.
Frankly, the other part of it was that I was in a production of Richard II at Seattle Shakespeare about two and a half years ago. It was a traditionally cast production and Rosa was directing. And as a woman in a history play, you have a lot of backstage time. You’re in the world of the play, but you’re also sitting backstage for a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour at a time. [During that downtime], I started looking at the Henry IV plays again and I felt there was really something interesting in these plays and it might be material for Upstart Crow.
Part of it is the obscurity. There’s something about doing a play with all women that people don’t know very well that allows them to come to it with maybe a little bit more of an open mind. They don’t have a preconceived idea of who these characters are and how the play should be done. I think that’s worked to our advantage. But I wouldn’t say the Upstart Crow would only ever do these more obscure plays. There are certainly other ones that are not well known that I’d love to tackle, but it’s not the only sort of focus of our work.
What do you see as the modern relevance of the Henry IV plays?
I feel like the relevant story in this play is really about the power brokers of the time, which happened to be these dynastic families. They are so focused on their own political power, and take it to the extreme of inciting a civil war, where the people who are fighting the war are the ones that pay the biggest price. And within that search for individual political power and glory, a power vacuum is created through which a tyrant like Richard III ends up being able to emerge.
Their job as rulers is to rule for the people, and they’re not doing that. They’re ruling for themselves and their own political gain. They’re working out their own personally vengeances against one another at the cost of the common people. And in the mist of that, they’re blind to the fact that they’ve actually created this opening for someone who is going to be far worse and bring on even more misery to people. So that feels contemporary to me.
What is the process when restructuring and boiling down these three massive plays into two parts?
Our adaptation takes three plays—which is maybe 10 to 12 hours of material—and cuts it down to four hours. So there’s a lot more than just cutting that happens when you take that much material and condense it. When Rosa and I first met and started talking about doing an adaptation, we didn’t know at that point we would have the opportunity to partner with Seattle Shakes. So we were looking at it as something that we would potentially be producing ourselves, so we knew that it had to be something that could conceivably be done in one night, which is pretty optimistic.
Most of the first part of the Henry IV trilogy takes place in France and has to do with England’s war in France. The first thing that we both agreed on is cutting most of that. Of course, it has reverberations throughout the play, but our focus was really on what is happening with this battle between the Lancasters and Yorks: How does it start? Where does it come from? What are the personal grievances that begin it and how does it explode into this giant civil war?
And we’re always looking back on what’s the dynamic in the family, because that’s one of the interesting things to us as women working on these plays. Yeah, they’re about these big giant political maneuverings, but [Shakespeare’s history plays] also are—especially for the female characters in the play, I really felt this when I was working on Richard II—about family. Where are your loyalties? Are they with the nation? Are they with your family? And what happens when those are at odds with one another?
Rosa and I would go away and spend about a week working on a chunk of the play, and then come back together to see what parts we had cut. And we found that about 80 percent of the time we were both on the same page in terms of what needed to stay and what had to go. I mean, it’s ironic that this is a group of women doing these plays, and we had to cut the Joan la Pucelle, who is the Joan of Arc character in the plays. It’s a fabulous part for women, but something had to give. You have to make some painful decisions.
Why did you decided to make taiko drumming part of the show and how is it incorporated?
In the creation of this piece, we really talked about how, as a group of women, are we going to handle the violence in the plays? Because we want the violence to feel like it’s very integrated into the story, but you’re not taken out of the of the story by watching a bunch of women fight. I’ve seen you projects with women where sometimes the violence just feels not full realized. From the beginning, we tried to think about how we can think of the violence in potentially more abstract ways.
When we started to look at the violence in this play, there’re so many battles and there’s so much hand to hand combat. We knew we wanted to come up with a theatrical way to portray the violence, and early on we started talking about drumming as a very martial kind of way of abstracting that. Years ago, Rosa was the artistic director of Northwest Asian American Theatre, which is again a theatre that unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. And as the artist director there, she also was presenting different companies and troupes. She brought in a women’s taiko group and was always struck by how martial it was. I mean, it comes out of the Japanese culture of samurai. And so she said, well what about taiko? She knew people in the community. We talked to them about you know this idea and it started to feel like, wow, this could really be an abstract way of creating a really powerful and martial feel to the battles.
Once we sort of wrapped our mind around the taiko, we did a workshop with some actors to try and figure out okay, how is this going to work? How much does it take to learn it? It’s not an easy form to learn. We also knew that we wanted very realistic hand-to-hand battles, so we would be putting those two elements together. So it’s been a combination of the tiako experts, our choreographer Alice Gosti, and Rosa in the room really trying to figure out how to tell the story of the battle with the taiko. Hopefully it’ll be successful.
What are your favorite aspects about playing Margaret?
Its arguably one of the greatest roles Shakespeare ever wrote for a woman. And it’s just not done that much, so having the opportunity to play this role feels like such an incredible gift. You have the challenge of playing a character who goes through 25 years of her life on stage.
Playing the Margret in these plays is so interesting because most people’s exposure to Margret is the Margret in Richard III. A lot of people don’t really understand where she came from. Who is this strange character who is creeping around the edges of that play cursing everybody? What is going on with her? And in these you see how she becomes that person. She’s just a fascinating character.
Historical Margret was the most powerful woman in that particular time in the medieval world. And there’s a three-dimensionality to the version of her that Shakespeare creates with this character. She goes through so much. We see her turn into this person who lives to avenge her dead lover, her husband, and then the price that she pays for that. It’s pretty compelling and amazingly challenging.
Do you have a personal favorite part or aspect of the show?
Just having the opportunity to be in the room with all of these really fabulous people. It’s not just a particular part of the play, but the process and experience of being in the room with 15 other actresses, Rosa, and Alice. Having the opportunity to be in the room with all these women is so unusual with a classical play. I think we’re all kind of constantly pinching ourselves about that.
Bring Down the House
Jan 25–Mar 12, Center Theatre, $31–$50