I first interviewed Debra Ann Byrd, the founder of Take Wing and Soar Productions, during The Harlem Shakespeare Festival's inaugural season when they were doing a staged reading of Othello. It is great, three years later, to catch up with Debra Ann as Take Wing And Soar Productions produces a full production featuring a multi-racial all-female cast. It's wonderful to hear about the expansions of The Harlem Shakespeare Festival as well as Debra's insight into this ground breaking production.
Also, featured in this interview, is actress Mary Chieffo, whose mother, Beth Grant, was a "Call Me Adam" participant a few years ago when she was here in New York City starring in Tricks The Devil Taught Me. Since that interview with Beth, I have gotten to know Mary through Beth's Facebook postings. Now, to actually have the chance to talk with Mary, personally, especially about Othello is a real honor.
Debra Ann Byrd: The Harlem Shakespeare Festival has brought an all-female production of Othello to the stage in order for women to have additional opportunities in Shakespeare. We feel that an all-female cast can bring new life to this wonderful classic, as doing so stirs excitement and intrigue in all our faithful and potential patrons. It also gives women much needed opportunities to stretch beyond the traditional roles for women in Shakespeare, while giving audience members the opportunity to stretch their imaginations and experience the story in a new way.
Mary Chieffo: I recently read an interview with Dame Harriet Walter in the New Yorker about being a part of an All-Female Shakespeare Company and she pointed out how while there are some wonderful female roles in Shakespeare, pretty much all of their scenes do not pass the Bechdel test. As we’ve worked on this production of Othello, I’ve been astounded by how "Iago" gets to do anything and everything as a male lead; he’s funny and charming yet vicious and scary. One moment I’m singing, dancing, and laughing in the Tavern, and the next, I’m back to deepening my villainous manipulations. Women possess as many layers as men in real life, so why not have the opportunity to explore all of them on stage as well?
Debra Ann Byrd: During the time when brave producers chose to cast Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson as the leads in Othello, you would find that the remainder of the cast was usually all white. In the past few decades you might find one or two other people of color in an Othello ensemble. Take Wing And Soar Productions (the founding organization of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival) exists primarily to help classical actors of color to realize their full potential. Choosing to cast a multi-racial cast is a tradition with the company and our Othello is no exception. The world of our Othello is multi-racial indeed and we use it to enhance our story by playing up the racial differences of the people in any given scene. For example, the senate scene, when "Brabantio" is berating "Othello," the actors of color check in with each other. And also during "Othello's" speech when he says he was "sold into slavery," I check in with another actor of color. This becomes one of my tactics to win the senate crowd to my side. However, the most important thing for me, as a producer, is to make sure that all talented actors, regardless of race or gender, get to fulfill their classical dreams.
Mary Chieffo: For "Iago," it fuels the fire of his anger and revenge in many different ways. I see "Iago" as a victim of poor white man’s racism; he is told by society that he should be on top, works his entire life to be the best soldier he can be, but his commanding officer is a Moor who promotes a black man "who never set a squadron in the field" over him. "Iago" is not a psychopath, he is an angry, confused victim of this vicious and slowly disintegrating standard of hierarchy. Early in the rehearsal process, Trezana brought up how this mentality is manifested in the culprits of a vast of majority of the mass shootings of late. I think it is incredibly important to note that these problems cannot be explained away on an individual basis, it is a larger problem that hopefully our production can help illuminate.
3. Debra Ann, you are playing "Othello," a general in the Venetian army and Mary, you are playing "Iago," "Othello's" jealous Ensign. You both play characters of authority. What authoritative roles in your own lives are you bringing to these roles?
Debra Ann Byrd: I have been a leader for many years. I remember leading even as a child. Playing a general surely requires many leadership skills, including authority and bravado. I think my role as a producer and artistic director calls on some of the same skill sets. I am therefore bringing those skills to help along with my 20 plus years as an actress.
Mary Chieffo: Through my research and exploration of the text, I’ve come to realize how, as a soldier, "Iago" is the best of the best — impulsive and brilliant, he is all war, all of the time — but when it comes to status outside the battlefield, he is known as "honest Iago" because he is a reliable Ensign. He is blunt, straightforward, and as "Cassio" says: "You may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar." "Othello" doesn’t promote him to Lieutenant because "Cassio" executes his authority with far more diplomacy and "courtesy" than "Iago."
In my own life, I’ve spent too much time being diplomatic in my authority for the sake of other's feelings, so I am having an absolute BLAST playing someone so notoriously uninhibited, direct and wry. He’s definitely rubbing off on me in the best and worst ways: I’m much more inclined to take my space on the subway and throw out a handful of silly zingers to Claire Jamison ("Desdemona") at our make-up station as we get ready for the show, but I might be dropping the F-bomb a little too quickly when I drop my keys or miss the subway.
Debra Ann Byrd: Well, let's see...I look mighty young, but I just reached half a century while in rehearsal for Othello. I am so, so glad to see 50, even though my bones are creaking after all that running around the stage.
Mary Chieffo: I’m gonna have pull an "Iago" on this one: "Demand me nothing, what you know you know."
5. What is about Shakespeare you love?
Debra Ann Byrd: I love the words, the language, the challenge of effectively telling the story...I love Shakespeare's rhythms and rhymes and playfulness and treachery...life, death and those emotional roller coasters. It is all wonderful. Wonderful, indeed!
Mary Chieffo: "Words, Words, Words!" His writing is so rich and full of such fantastic imagery, you can't help but grow and find more depth in the words every time you embody them. The more you give in to the rhythm, sound, and structure of the lines, the more you learn about your character and his or her circumstances. The characters of Shakespeare are people who communicate with such eloquence and yet are tapped into something so primal and undeniably human. It is a thrilling combination!
Oh and the humor! With a tragedy like Othello, many people seem to assume they are in for a night of absolute melancholy and devastation, but the reality is, so much of the play is about the joy and humor that fill these people’s lives before the tragedy actually strikes. Finding the humor and charm of "Iago" in every scene makes the maliciousness of his betrayal all the more frustrating for the audience. Shakespeare is the master of antithesis in every which way!
Debra Ann Byrd: I can relate to feeling uncomfortable as the "other" in the room. I can relate to "Othello's" loss of his true love, which makes it not so difficult to perform Shakespeare's huge emotional monologues. I think I have almost 20 monologues in this play. "Othello's" journey is fast and furious. It reminds me of a three-year period of my own life. So glad that my personal journey was able to fuel this magnificent, powerful, heart-wrenching journey.
Mary Chieffo: "Iago" is an actor! I read that Shakespeare may have recently retired from acting when he wrote Othello and as a consequence infused much of those shape-shifting and transformative qualities into the character of "Iago."
This play is so much about the power of thought. "Iago" creates confusion, but at the same time, he is the most confused character in the entire play. While he appears to be the master of duplicity, it is a result of his astounding ability to improvise. While he knows what his ultimate goals are, how he’ll get them is still elusive to him: "Knavery’s plain face is never seen till used." He is so overwhelmed with his intellect and imagination that once he begins a manipulation, he cannot help but finish it - he becomes so caught up in the puppet-mastery, he sees no way to let go of the strings.
It is also my belief that "Iago" is not simply the devil in man’s clothes. I believe, much like "Macbeth," he discovers the line that separates "murder" and "killing" can easily be blurred. But, unlike "Macbeth," the inciting incident for "Iago’s" revenge is much more visceral for me. His lack of promotion ignites all of his other insecurities and fears. The devastation of working incredibly hard and not attaining my dreams is very large anxiety of mine.
Debra Ann Byrd: I once had a partner whose actions caused me to mistrust them. Fortunately for me, unlike "Othello," it did not prove fatal. I chose to roll with the punches, took my lessons, prayed and moved on. I am much older and wiser now. I am a better judge of character, I think.
Mary Chieffo: I’m not going to name names as the internet is a dangerous place. BUT I will say I’ve learned that lack of communication is the root of all betrayal. I’ve been pretty lucky in the quality of character in my closest friends, but the few times I have truly felt betrayed or I have betrayed someone else’s trust and lost that friendship, it has been because we avoided a very necessary albeit painful confrontation where we discussed our feelings/thoughts on the matter. This is absolutely what happens between "Iago" and "Othello." Instead of confronting the issue head-on and letting "Othello" know that not getting promoted deeply hurt him, "Iago’s" lack of self-esteem causes him to revert to subversive means of revenge. Interestingly, this is a means I’ve witnessed manifest itself more in women than in men.
Debra Ann Byrd: Women are by nature nurturing and supportive. It is great to see them check on each other and build camaraderie. Our cast of Othello has at least five generations of women on the stage - from their 20s to their 60s. I have seen them work together to support and encourage each other. I am sure this experience will create future bonds.
Mary Chieffo: It has been exciting and liberating to create a new ensemble with such a wide range of female actors. Some of us are recently out of school, while others have an amazing wealth of knowledge and experience under their belts. I am honored to be a part of such a strong group of women from all walks of life. This rehearsal process has been a tremendous learning experience to say the least!
9a. Debra Ann, when we last spoke, the Harlem Shakespeare Festival was in it's inaugural season. What is it like to see this festival have a third season? What do you hope for this festival's continued growth? I am ecstatic to see our little festival flourishing. We are extremely grateful for our producing partners Voza Rivers/New Heritage Theater Group and the community of funders, friends, and supporters. Surely there would be no festival without them. We have been fortunate to see components of our festival in London, France, Canada and most recently at the 2nd Annual International Shakespeare Conference in Massachusetts. It is our hope that we continue our national and international trekking, as well as, continuing to flourish and grow in and with our community of Harlem.
9b. Mary, I have been fortunate enough to interview your mother, Beth Grant for "Call Me Adam," and your father is actor Michael Chieffo, who graduated from Juilliard's School Drama Division, Group 6, making you the first legacy in the school's 47-year history. Firstly, with having two parents successfully working in the business, do you feel any pressure to achieve the same level of success? Secondly, what does being the first legacy in Juilliard's School Drama Division mean to you? I am lucky enough to have two incredibly creative and talented humans as parents who have always encouraged me to pursue whatever made me happy. I had a lot of different passions growing up, but when they saw that acting was my deepest and truest love, they couldn’t help but understand why. Of course this is a scary and uncertain time for me entering the "real world," but I trust I will find the artistic path that is my own. I can’t iterate enough how much my parents’ support is the greatest gift I could have ever hoped for as an young artist.
Being the first legacy at Juilliard has been a beautiful and surreal experience for my whole family. Jim Houghton and the entire Drama Division have done so much to strengthen the alumni base and I am so grateful my dad and I can be an example of how the program has continued to grow and create a strong community of artists beyond the 4 years of training.
A small legacy anecdote: In my 2nd Year, my dad sat in Room 306, a room he had performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in many years ago, and watched me play "Lear" in King Lear. Talk about an emotionally charged performance!
10. If Shakespeare himself were to attend this production of Othello, what do you think his thoughts would be?
Debra Ann Byrd: Shakespeare would think to himself and say, "By heaven, women are surely powerful and magical beings."
Mary Chieffo: I hope he would enjoy seeing the gender-bending reversed! It is so interesting to see real women play the female roles amidst all of the other women dressed as men. It adds a beautiful simplicity and truth to the scenes between "Emilia" and "Desdemona" and augments the tragedy of play. I get chills every time "Desdemona" exclaims "These men, these men!"
Debra Ann Byrd recently starred as "Marc Antony" in the all-female Julius Caesar, directed by Petronia Paley. As the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Take Wing And Soar Productions & the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, she guided the company's growth from its birth as the passionate dream of one determined woman, into a viable support organization serving classical artists of color and theater arts groups throughout New York. This hard working young woman received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Acting from Marymount Manhattan College and ompleted advanced studies at The Public Theater's Shakespeare Lab. Her classical roles for the stage include "Queen Elizabeth" in Richard III, "The Choragos" in Antigone, "Mrs. Malaprop" in The Rivals, "Volumnia" in Coriolanus, "Winter" in Love’s Labors Lost, "Hippolyta" in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, "Cleopatra" in Antony & Cleopatra, "Othello" in Othello and "Lady Bracknell" in The Importance Of Being Earnest; the latter, for which she received Best Lead Actress and Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role nominations from AUDELCO and the NY Innovative Theatre Awards. Member of AEA since 2002 and the League of Professional Theatre Women since 2005.
Harlem Shakespeare Festival & New York debut! Having played "Macbeth" in Erica Schmidt’s all-female production (The Juilliard School), Chieffo is thrilled to continue exploring her inner male demons as "Iago." Favorite roles include "Lear" in King Lear, "Chris" in Dancing at Lughnasa, "Jessica" in This Is Our Youth, "Queen Elizabeth" in Richard III and "Nat" in Rabbit Hole. Chieffo recently received her BFA from Juilliard, winning the Michel and Suria Saint-Denis Prize (Outstanding Achievement & Leadership in Drama).