DAVID BOWEN INTERVIEWS TOM WELLS
Tom Wells is the co-founder and artistic director of Two Pence Theater Company, an organization devoted to theater of the Early Modern period, including that of the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline playwrights, and Shakespeare in particular. They’re a performance company guided by Renaissance humanist principles devoted to human agency and the individual’s relationship to self and society. As they perform and entertain, Two Pence provides audiences a powerful introduction to another world and time that is much more like our own than we might first imagine. Two Pence also offers actors and other theater professionals a fertile training ground where they’re able to take risks and cultivate their crafts.
Tom’s credits at Two Pence include directing the company’s inaugural productions The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and The Merry Dogs of Reservoir; acting in The Malcontent and The Tamer Tamed; voice and text coaching for Richard II; and teaching classes and workshops including “Owning Shakespeare: A Workshop In Progress,” “Revealing Shakespeare,” “Shakespeare in Play,” the ongoing Two Pence Lab, and “Worthy Warriors” for theatre professionals, students, and U.S. veterans all around Chicago and Evanston. Before settling in Chicago, Tom acted, taught and directed for more than six years at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and assisted with the Shakespeare in the Courts program supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, as well as numerous professional development workshops. In addition to his work with Two Pence, Tom is also a Designated Linklater Voice Teacher Trainee under Kristin Linklater and teaches at The Acting Studio Chicago.
Tom and I have known each other since we were kids. The Internet hadn’t yet been invented, and Mark Zuckerberg was still doing all his friending at the sandbox. Given the technological wasteland we found ourselves in, it was good fortune that we lived three blocks from each other. Now that he’s in Chicago and I’m in Milwaukee, we corresponded by email while discussing Shakespeare, language, and the pursuit of something mysterious in a certain windy city on Lake Michigan’s southern shore. (David Bowen)
David Bowen: How did Two Pence begin?
Tom Wells: I formed Two Pence Theatre Company in Chicago with co-founder and Managing Director Sarah Augusta near the end of 2008. Sarah and I met earlier that year through a mutual friend at an Actor’s Equity audition for The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We were both fairly new to the Chicago theater scene. I had been in the city for a few months, and she had just moved from Boston. We realized that we’d both undergone similar training, and we both lived for Shakespeare.
DB: What kind of training had you both undergone at that point?
TW: Sarah had gone to Emerson, and I’d spent a little more than six years acting and teaching at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Emerson and Shakespeare & Company both approach actor training using Kristin Linklater’s Freeing the Natural Voice methodology. Shakespeare & Company has also developed an elegant body of text and movement training that works symbiotically with Kristin’s approach to voice.
So Sarah and I shared a common theatrical language. And as we talked about it, we realized that there weren’t (to our knowledge) any theater companies with a Linklater voice training core. So we began to talk about why there was a vocal training gap in the many actor and improv training programs in Chicago, and whether there might be interest if we tried to fill it by teaching a class or two—and if that went well, how we might go about producing a play.
DB: What draws you specifically to Shakespeare?
TW: I started acting in high-school because some guy I knew (my best friend to this day) wanted to audition for a play.
So, I thought, well, I couldn’t possibly have a less successful freshman year experience in high school, so why not? And it was a huge, huge win. And then every year after I got cast in a larger role than the last, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that Shakespeare’s plays, characters, thoughts, and words really spoke to and through me, communicating the huge emotional experience I was having as a teenager.
And Shakespeare has been with me every step of my journey since. He’s the one I turn to when I’m having the worst day ever, or the best, and I just can’t quite find words specific enough to communicate what I’m feeling. I just open up some of the tens of editions of his complete works I own, or look through the Shakespeare app I have on my iPhone while I’m on the train, and inevitably, in whatever play I open to, I find someone feeling the way I do in that moment. The character’s life situation is typically much more complicated and immediate than mine, because the greatest plays compress and pressurize time so much, but there’s still that connection to people past and present that allows me access to a deeper awareness of my own experience, connecting my microcosm of an interior feeling life to the macrocosm of such life throughout all time and human experience.
DB: Why should people go to the theater? What might other people get out of seeing work that was composed four-hundred years ago? Does it have to do with this self-awareness you’ve described?
TW: I don’t know why people should go to the theater. There are too many shoulds in the world already, and I don’t want theater to be another should in people’s lives. I think we get out of seeing theater the very same things the Greeks, the Elizabethans, and everyone else got out of seeing theater composed in their own time. I think that the question “Why am I going to the theater?” is actually one of the gifts people get before, during, and after seeing theater. Questions are the most divine tools we have in our toolbox, and I think it’s in a spirit of inquiry, the question, where true theater begins, and where the most rewarding experiences of theater can be discovered. If self-awareness is one of the rewards of seeing theater, and I think it is, then we must begin with questions.
Etymologists would tell us that the Greek word for theater was theatron, which means literally “a place for viewing,” but I would like to suggest that the theater is the place from which we view the gods. The gods without. And the gods within. The suffix –tron denotes “place,” and the word thea has two meanings: “to view” and “goddess.” Thea meant Goddess. Theo meant God. So, theo-logy is where you study the god(ess), the-rapy is where you talk about the god(ess), and thea-ter is where you get to hear, feel, and see the god(s) speak. And by god(ess) I mean the images, the myths, the archetypal characters and stories that have been passed down from human to human since before recorded time. And these stories are still being passed down—the same twelve or so stories, some would say—in the theater. It’s the very thing that connects the Millenial Generation, Generation X, and our parents’ generation, and back and back to theater that was wrought five-hundred years ago. And not just in an intellectual way, but in a very visceral, tangible way.
DB: Are there plays or roles or passages from Shakespeare’s work that have been particularly transformative for you?
TW: Yes. And even now, as I’m thinking the line in my head, it occurs to me how cliché it sounds to choose it, but here it is: To be, or not to be, that is the question. It expresses a divine understanding of what it is to stand on the precipice and view life in all its sublime horror, angst, and utter beauty. I don’t think anyone has ever written or said it more simply. I mean, this is the essence of the microcosm of man inside and out, and the macrocosm of life on earth, and the universe.
I think that thought alone gave birth to a new self-consciousness that we have been wrestling and coming to terms with since Shakespeare grappled with it himself. And the most important part of the line is the part at the end: that is the question. That is the quest-ion. That is the quest in life, and the question that every human embodies with every breath of every day.
The most exciting thing for me about the plays from this period is the way that the Elizabethans and Jacobean playwrights used the English language. Book after book has been written on the subject. They understood that the language you use, as an individual human walking around on the street of your hometown, in small town Wisconsin or Michigan or wherever, that to talk about that teeming, seething, sensual stuff happening on the inside of them, of you, was and still is in direct relationship to the words. Language shapes your experience of the world. That’s a fact.
DB: How have Two Pence and its projects evolved since 2008 to explore the language of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and how have you involved other actors and audience members in the quest?
TW: We began by teaching a text-based class called “Owning Shakespeare,” and then we produced Romeo & Juliet at The Evanston Arts Depot just north of the city. After a hugely successful six-week run, we ended up in the black financially. A huge deal in any theatrical venture.
The next summer we produced the pastoral comedy As You Like It, directed brilliantly by Kathryn Walsh. Several actors and a lighting designer got excited by what we were trying to create, and Sarah and I had been dreaming up new programming, so we agreed that it was the right time to grow the company. Associate Producing Director Kathryn Walsh, Director of Education Lucy Carapetyan, Grants Manager Michael Mercier, and Production Manager Jessica Carson became company members and all helped create As You Like It.
Since then, Eliza Hofman has come aboard as Literary Manager. We also produced Richard II at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theater; added A Dead Man’s Hand—Chicago’s only reading series dedicated to Jacobean playwrights—and developed middle school residencies and a high school festival (inspired by Shakespeare & Company). We also teach The 2P Lab—a free actor training program—and throw a “Fun(d)raising” mashup and cocktail mixer each summer. We keep having great ideas and huge successes.
DB: What are some of Two Pence’s upcoming projects?
TW: We’ll be opening the Chicago premiere of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women on September 8 at The Den Theater in Wicker Park, one of Chicago’s ultra-hip neighborhoods. Kathryn Walsh will direct, and previews begin September 4. Women Beware Women is sexy, passionate, and deadly—a play that uses those “Machiavellian Italians” (a favorite Early Modern trope) to explore sexual politics, their consequences, and what happens when a gender imbalance impedes one sex’s ability to survive and thrive.
We’ll also produce the The Fall Festival of Shakespeare: Chicago, our flagship education program for high school students. Then in February or March of 2015 we’ll produce an original adaptation of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s city-comedy The Roaring Girl, which I’ll adapt and direct. And then Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night, or What You Will in the Fall of 2015. We’ll also continue to explore the Early Modern period with the Dead Man’s Hand series. And we hope to raise funds for these projects and many others at our annual Fundraiser Gala Shakespeare Mash-up: Shake Wars: Revels, Alliance!
DB: Let’s talk a little more about the Dead Man’s Hand reading series. What draws you to Jacobean playwrights? Aside from Middleton and Dekker, which other playwrights have been part of the series? Who else would you like to include in the future?
TW: I love the Jacobean plays because they are bloody, damn sexy, and very Greek. And very Tarantino at times. Incest, patricide, genocide, murder, revenge, rage, jealousy, secrets, shame—all those feelings that we’re too polite to talk about. And those Jacobean playwrights really exploded the theatrical form, experimenting with dis-unity of plot and character. And because I’m still learning about Shakespeare’s many collaborators, comrades, and admirers, there’s the excitement that comes with exploring the unknown. There’s so much that’s been studied, written, known, and assumed about Shakespeare and Elizabethan theatre that it’s really exciting to unearth these other plays written by his comrades and competitors, and explore the personal and theatrical connection to them, as well.
In 2014, we got Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Aphra Behn’s The Rover up on their respective feet. Aphra Behn is the first female playwright of the period that we’ve explored. And in the past we’ve read John Fletcher, John Marston, and Ben Jonson.
As far as what I’d like to see us do in the future? I would love to do a reading of Nick Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister, Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor, James Shirley’s Hyde Park, and then even more obscure playwrights like Margaret Cavendish and Mary (Sidney) Herbert.
DB: What’s the Chicago theater scene like, and how does Two Pence fit into it?
TW: The Chicago theater scene is eclectic, dynamic, and mostly centered around contemporary and new works. I think it’s the best town for theater in the country. There is a sort of movement springing up where small theater companies are producing Shakespeare, but—this may be a bold claim but I’m gonna make it—I think that Two Pence is the only store-front theater company in Chicago whose specific mission is to produce Early Modern playwrights.
And we’re also the only theater company I know of in Chicago committed to training actors of all ages to speak the thoughts and words of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. That’s what we’re really passionate about. There are several small companies who are using modern methods of actor training (Improv, Meisner, Stanislavski, etc.) to work on Shakespeare, and that’s been going on for years. But it’s my experience that Early Modern playwrights demand a different type of training. To fully embody Shakespeare’s words, an actor has to embrace a different way of experiencing the cosmos, the physical world, their inner being and language, the language they use to express the connection between. This requires a more specific way of approaching the plays of that period. And Two Pence (inspired by the body of work created by Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts, and American Players Theater in Wisconsin, and other companies) fills that particular space for theatrical production and training in the community.
I think the best productions of Shakespeare’s plays trust the story of the play, and make Shakespeare’s words the star. And when Shakespeare’s words are the star, everything becomes illuminated because of the light of the consciousness with which he wrote. So, that’s what we’re gonna keep working towards…the light.
The latest Two Pence production, Thomas Middleton’s “Women Beware Women” directed by Kathryn Walsh, runs through September 26, 2014, and tickets are going fast. Find out more at http://www.twopencetheatre.
This is a portion of the interview. For the full interview, check out the print edition of GLR Summer 2014,