Richardson — How many people can you name that have directed every work by William Shakespeare? Who can say that they have started one of the most successful Shakespeare theaters in the nation? Who can also note that they have taught in MBA programs at some of the best universities and worked prolifically as an actor in theater, film, and television? How many people who started their career in the 1960s can still say they are working as an artist regularly?
Tina Packer can.
Packer started out as an actor in London, working on television series and films like Doctor Who and David Copperfield (starring alongside Ian McKellen). When opportunities arose, she “grabbed the brass ring” whenever she could; these choices opened up completely new and uncharted paths for her ever-evolving career. She decided that “Broadway and film wasn’t my ultimate goal, but having a theater company was.” So, she started taking opportunities that would lead her in that direction.
She came to the United States in 1974 through an 11-month grant with the Ford Foundation, giving her and four other theatre practitioners the task to uncover the roots of Elizabethan Theatre. After she decided to stay in the United States, she founded Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, a theater company that runs by the principles of her research in voice, text, and the body. The company still runs to this day (even after she passed the torch of Artistic Director in 2009) and is a prime example of a successful regional theater that significantly affects the local community culturally and economically.
Through 40 years of running the company and directing and acting in Shakespeare’s plays, Packer gained an immense amount of insight on Shakespeare’s characters—specifically the evolution of the feminine in the Elizabethan world. After she left her post at Shakespeare & Company, she started to create a performance based on Shakespeare’s women and the discoveries she has made over time called Women of Will.
Within this performance, she presents selections from Shakespeare’s notable heroines and discusses how Shakespeare evolved the representation of female roles over time—into quite a progressive ideology that the young female characters could “redeem the sins of their fathers.” She plays all of the major roles, immersing herself into the text and characters with passion. She developed this work with director Eric Tucker and performs it with her collaborator Nigel Gore (since many of these female characters form romances and conflict with male characters).
It’s a tour de force performance from one of the greats, having two performances this weekend at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson, at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3 and 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4. In addition to these performances, Packer maintains her roots in training actors for engaging with Shakespeare by investing her week in Dallas with a group of undergraduate students at University of Texas at Dallas.
For nine years, the Eisemann Center has partnered with UT Dallas to offer a performing arts residency with one of the touring artists or companies. Typically, the students work with the artist for a number of days and offer a showcase at the Eisemann for the public, demonstrating how an intensive work environment can lead to inspirational performances. Since Tina Packer is a living historical vessel of Shakespeare and performance, it was a no brainer to use the time with Packer to delve deep into the Bard’s work.
Through master classes and talks, Packer has offered a number of insights to the UT Dallas School of Arts and Humanities: from complex, sculpture-like descriptions of characters, to historical rabbit holes of seemingly endless knowledge, to short nuggets of wisdom for the aspiring actor. She makes Shakespeare approachable, not just through her mastery of the subject but the manner in which she guides these young actors to enter into Shakespeare’s text.
While you may think that the most important part of performing Shakespeare is speaking the text well, Packer’s workshops encourage the actor to first be completely present and in touch with their whole physical self. Speaking the text comes later. What I found most meaningful is that while Packer has a lifetime of knowledge, she opens every workshop by listening to the group—when I’m sure every participant would just as easily listen to her for our full three-hour block of rehearsal time.
At every workshop, participants must first sit in a circle and share something: the landscape of your childhood, your emotional journey over the past 24 hours, a new connection to their character. These discussions take at least half an hour to complete, but they are important in creating common ground and trust among the workshop group.
As Packer says, “Speaking the truth is incredibly important.” And that truth has to come from a visceral place, not simply from intellectual understanding. That’s why actors must first engage the physical body to become vulnerable and in touch with one another’s physical presence in space and time. Without that, we simply become talking heads, saying fine words without meaning.
From her talks and workshops, Packer easily connects Shakespeare’s text with modern day analogies. She reminds students that it is vital to bring themselves into the interpretation of their characters and to connect their circumstances to today. In reference to the importance of truth and honesty, she reminds us that the Presidential election arguably was won by this same construct—that Trump won because people believed that the had a raw honesty about him, while Clinton’s intellectual prowess made her seem changeable.
To hear Packer speak passionately about Shakespeare feels like for a brief moment a veil has been lifted. Shakespeare’s words are perfectly clear as Packer unravels the context and stakes for each character. She speaks about the characters as if they are old friends, ones that you have traveled with for ages and know all of their inner workings. When she performs Women of Will’s cascade of Shakespeare’s heroines, I’m sure that same sense of familiarity will be present.
The UT Dallas showcase with Tina Packer will be at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 3.