Ten Minutes With Tina Packer
a revered shakespeare theater practitioner
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane
Tina Packer began her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company before founding Shakespeare & Company in Lenox in 1978. After directing most of the Bard’s 37 plays, acting in seven, and teaching the canon at 30 colleges, Packer further explored Shakespeare’s women as an actress in Women of Will and with the just-published book of the same name. Packer’s treatise is that as Shakespeare matured, so too did his women, evolving from shrews and sweet virgins to fully dimensional characters.
Women of Will seems like the result of a lifetime of work. Was it? I talk about downloading my brain so that I could get something else in there. I had seen this pattern, a natural progression to the way Shakespeare wrote about women. As he grew older, he grew more sophisticated. His understanding of women deepened.
How did you make this connection? When you direct plays, you’re not just studying them, you’re absorbing them into your cellular structure. I had absorbed about two-thirds of the canon by the time I started seeing this pattern. In the beginning, I didn’t even ask if this was an early play or a late play, but over time, I’d start knowing in my bones where the play was written in the canon. I could tell how well he’d write the women. That happened through the process of being immersed in Shakespeare all the time.
Was this always a book? It was a performance piece. Why it became a book was because there was so much material.
Since Shakespeare’s writing evolved, is it best to play certain roles at certain ages? Juliet’s my favorite role. A 14-year-old! She’s so smart, so mercurial, so innocent inasmuch as life has not done her in, even at the end of the play.
“Will” in the title is a play on words? There are three meanings. “Will” in William Shakespeare. The “will” to power, because, except for Cleopatra, every other woman is either trying to get into the power structure or thinking how to manipulate it. And “will” is sexuality, I fancy you.
What is your writing process? I want to write with Shakespeare’s energy. I was in Colorado directing Nigel [Gore], my acting partner, in Richard III, and we were performing Women of Will. I’d get off stage and go home, and I’d really try to write then and there out of my energy and out of my performance perception because I thought there’s no way I can compete with the academics. Shakespeare was performing every day as well, and then going home at night and writing, so I do the same thing.
Is there a next book? It’s called Direct Shakespeare or Shakespeare Direct, which is that the point of doing Shakespeare is to say directly what he’s saying. Own the language. You don’t need anything else.
When did you first find Shakespeare? I was at a Quaker boarding school, and they would take us to Stratford-on-Avon often. I liked the energy of actors, being in that presence.
You said you’ve “become more human” doing Shakespeare. How so? It was Margaret. She kills the Duke of York. I auditioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company with that speech, and I liked doing it. That allowed me to know that I was a violent person. Before then I thought, I’d never kill anyone, Miss Goody Two-Shoes! But she allowed me to see my humanity.
How did Shakespeare & Company come to the Berkshires? I met a man called Mitch Berenson, who said, “I’ll help you set up your company, Tina. We’ll go and do it in the Berkshires. There’s classical music, there’s classical dance, we’ll stick a classical theater in the middle. It will work perfectly.”
You’d never been to the Berkshires? Never been here in my life!
What’s it like to be a Brit in the Berkshires? I’m an American now as well. I think the Berkshires is one of the best places to live. I go to New York, London, and while I love it, I long to come back to the Berkshires. I like knowing the restaurants. I like getting good healthcare. I like knowing everybody. The community is bright, intelligent.
What did you dream of doing as a girl? I never went to university. I ran off to Paris at 18. I went from suburban, working-class England to my fantasy life living with artists. Artists were my tribe.
So all of this is not surprising? I don’t want to say “Live your dreams,” because that’s such a f—ing cliché. But if we don’t tell the truth in this world, how can you hope to get on with each other?
What was the alternate Tina Packer path? I see my contemporaries, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, all that lot. I was kind of in that pool, and I think: Would I have made it to their position? While I think I’m a good enough actor, if I can put it like that—I don’t want to be arrogant, but I think I’m a good enough actor—but just being an actor would never have satisfied me. I always ask: What’s the bloody point? What’s the purpose of theater? Why are we doing this? Which was the thing that would get me into trouble. So I can’t see that I would have done anything else.