"Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!"
KING JOHN explores a world of ‘realpolitik’, where conscience is crushed by twisted political gain, where ambitious power brokers strategize to keep control at all costs and lords swear and break oaths, all in the name of patriotism. We're especially excited to revisit this often overlooked Shakespeare history, which was the first play that upstart crow produced in 2006. Despite the passage of time the story continues to speak to our current political moment with chilling and ruthless honesty .
Our production dramaturg, Wiley Basho Gorn, sat down with us to talk about upstart crow's history with this political thriller.
Wiley Basho Gorn: Hello everyone! Let's start with a quick round of introductions.
Rosa Joshi: Hi, I'm Rosa Joshi. I'm one of the co-founders of upstart crow collective and I am directing King John.
Betsy Schwartz: I'm Betsy Schwartz. I am also one of the co-founders of upstart crow collective, and I will be playing Lewis the Dauphin (the Prince of France).
Kate Wisniewski: I'm Kate Wisniewski. I'm the third co-founder of upstart crow collective, and I'll be playing King John.
Wiley Basho Gorn: And I'm Wiley Basho Gorn, Production Dramaturg for King John and affiliate artist with upstart crow collective. So, this is not the first time that upstart crow has worked on this play. King John was the collective’s inaugural production in 2006. What led you to pick that play?
Kate Wisniewski: I think it was a few things. When Betsy and I first went to talk to Rosa, we knew we wanted to do a history play. Right? That was on the table right from the beginning. I know for me; King John was already on my mind. I had done it in grad school, so I knew that it was really interesting and that you could make a good cutting of it that would be great for an audience. And it felt prescient because it was just a couple years after the 2000 election. That was the “hanging chad” election, right? With Gore and Bush? Gosh, that all seems kind of quaint now, doesn't it? Anyways, the idea of legitimacy was present in our minds, and that's something that the play addresses quite a bit.
Rosa Joshi: And who was running in 2004?
Kate Wisniewski: That was Kerry and Bush.
Rosa Joshi: Right. But it took us a while pick the play, because I remember thinking, "if Kerry wins the election, we might do Richard II and if Bush wins, we'll do King John." Am I making that up?
Kate Wisniewski: All the history plays deal with questions of legitimacy. You could pick any one of them and find parallels to current events. But that was the political environment that we were thinking about. And we knew we didn't want to do a play that was "too on the nose" either.
Betsy Schwartz: Right. We didn't want to do one that had the weight of a million iconic performances and productions. We wanted something that we could kind of come out of the box and people go, "Oh, I don't know that play so well."
Rosa Joshi: Yeah, so there wouldn't be any baggage attached to the fact that it was a bunch of women playing it. Right? Because that’s enough baggage in and of itself!
Kate Wisniewski: Yes. We were reaching for the history plays, but we weren't going to do, like, Richard III, which might be the most well-known of them.
Rosa Joshi: But we also got people saying, "King John…why would you do that play?"
Betsy Schwartz: Yeah, so many people were like, "oh my God, I would never want to see a production of King John!"
Kate Wisniewski: But they would have said that about any play that we proposed. So, it started to feel like we were on the right track. If that's the response we're getting from people – “why would you do that play?” Seems like a pretty good reason to do it!
Wiley Basho Gorn: That's great! I love that it feels like a new play. People don't have as much knowledge associated with it. Considering how politically relevant King John felt back in 2006, what's it like doing it now? What are the similarities or differences that you’re finding?
Rosa Joshi: A big thing that has changed for me, this time around, is how I see the women in the play. I'm more aware of their presence and impact on the storytelling. For example: I have a different idea of Lady Falconbridge than I did fifteen years ago. She's much little less cynical now. The women really hold the heart of the play for me. They are the ones advocating for authentic, genuine connection and humanity. They hold the sense of family.
Kate Wisniewski: There's always this kind of tension in Shakespeare's history plays between loyalty to country versus loyalty to family. And the women are often the ones that are really pressing this idea of loyalty to family, what it means when you're disloyal to your family, and how that betrayal reverberate through the whole country.
Betsy Schwartz: I remember in 2006 we were all watching a lot of The West Wing. We talked a lot about how political decisions are being made not on battlefields, but in back rooms, and those decisions are changing people's lives.
Rosa Joshi: Exactly! Last time we were influenced by The West Wing, but now it's the show Succession. We're examining the extreme privilege that goes along with being a member of the ruling classes. Back in 2006 we were also thinking about preemptive wars because of the war in Iraq and because there's a preemptive war going on in King John between England and France. Right? We’re always looking at what's going on politically as we think about the history plays. You can always find a connection because it's always about power and leadership and how the decisions that powerful leaders make affect everyday people.
Kate Wisniewski: Yes. What's hitting me a lot as I'm reading the play now is what a gangster King John is. Well, he's not a “gangster,” but he kinda operates like a mob boss. That's something that feels a lot more present to me, especially after our most recent president (not the current one!).
Betsy Schwartz: Another big thing that’s different is that when we first did King John in 2006, we did not have Alice Gosti working with us as Associate Director of Movement. This production will have a completely different physical life than it did before. I am so excited for Alice to get her hands on this and to see how her work helps crack the story open in a different way for us.
Rosa Joshi: Also, we referred to ourselves as an all-female company back in 2006, and over the last sixteen years our relationship to gender and identity in the work has continued to shift and develop. Now our identity and mission as a company is to perform these plays with diverse ensembles of women, nonbinary, and trans people. So that has been a change in terms of who we are and how we tell stories. We welcome nonbinary and trans folks in the space, but we do center the experiences of being a woman in the world. That's the perspective that we have as a company.
Wiley Basho Gorn: I'm so excited for the way that conversation is going to continue to evolve as upstart crow works with more nonbinary and trans actors. Each artist brings their own experience and knowledge to the process and the collective’s identity.
Rosa Joshi: Right. We want to create a space for people who've been disenfranchised by the work, but it is a specific space also.
Wiley Basho Gorn: Absolutely. Betsy and Kate, who did you play the first time around and who are you playing now in this production?
Betsy Schwartz: Well, the first time I played young Arthur (the boy) and now I've grown up a few years and I'm playing the character that Kate played, Lewis the Dauphin.
Rosa Joshi: You're all grown up, Betsy!
Kate Wisniewski: Yes. And I get to go from being the hot-headed young prince of France to being the king of England. So, I grew up a little bit too.
Rosa Joshi: And now I get to... no, wait, I'm still the director.
Wiley Basho Gorn: That you are! What are some particularly vivid memories from the 2006 production?
Kate Wisniewski: Well, "terror" was probably one of the foremost things in my mind, because we were doing everything. We were self-producing it. We were doing all the publicity, running the box office, doing all the marketing…We were building the freakin' set! We were bringing costume pieces in from home, we made the program, we laundered the clothes after every performance. It was terrifying.
Rosa Joshi: We had such an incredible set (designed by Jen Zeyl). We elevated the audience in an alley seating about five feet off the ground. Or was it three and a half feet?
Kate Wisniewski: No, it had to be at least five, because we were walking under it. We had to fit underneath it.
Betsy Schwartz: Yeah. There were seats so high up that people could touch the pipes hanging above them.
Rosa Joshi: I remember that because I was wrapping those pipes! The audience was quite elevated. Also, because the space we were in (Capitol Hill Arts Center in Seattle) had certain regulations, we couldn't nail anything into the floor. Remember that, Kate? We had to use duct tape to stick tiles onto the floor that we had repurposed from a production at Seattle U, where I teach. At that time Kate was teaching at Seattle U as well, and we would walk over in between classes (because the theater was near the campus) and literally make the floor! That memory has just viscerally stayed with me. So periodically I'll say to Kate and Betsy, "No matter how bad it gets, we are not double stick taping tile onto the floor of the set right now!" Whatever situation we find ourselves in, it's better than that!
Kate Wisniewski: But there were so many people who jumped in to help when we were clearly so in the weeds. Jen Zeyl designed an incredible set, and it really did add to the production in ways that I don't even think we realized, so it was well worth all the effort. We had this tremendous group of people who stepped up and were amazingly helpful with all the amount of volunteer work that they put in. We couldn't have done it without them.
Betsy Schwartz: I have a funny memory: the space that we performed in, CHAC (Capitol Hill Arts Center), was a converted auto showroom. It was never meant to be a theater. It had this main playing space (which we were in), but it also had a basement space, a small cabaret theater that would do evening performances. During our run there was a show also running in the cabaret space, which was this very boisterous rollicking, two hander called Stones In His Pockets. Very loud. Very joyful. And there's a moment in our play (in King John) where somebody dies, and a character is on stage processing this information. It's meant to be a very quiet, intimate moment…and it just synced up perfectly with this Irish jig that was part of the soundtrack in the show below us. So, there's this actor having their feelings, having their moment, and you hear this upbeat fiddle and pipe drifting up from the downstairs theater! I think at the time, maybe we weren't laughing so much, but I look back at that moment now with great fondness. Just one of the joys of making fringe theater.
Rosa Joshi: I vividly remember the curtain call, I don't know how it all felt on stage, but watching it for the first time with an audience and watching all those women on stage bowing at the end of a Shakespeare play is something I had never experienced before. That was a moment that really hit me and has always stayed with me. Now I'm really quite used to seeing a bunch of women take a bow at the end of a Shakespeare play, and I feel like that's progress!
Kate Wisniewski: Yeah, I do remember that. It was powerful, you could feel it in the audience.
Wiley Basho Gorn: I love that. I love hearing those stories. What are your favorite lines or moments in King John?
Kate Wisniewski: Well, I love a line that John has at the end. He says, "I crave cold comfort." And that's such an interesting phrase, cold comfort. It's not one of the more famous lines (if there are many famous lines from this play) but that's one that just stuck in my head, even when we did it so many years ago. It's a beautiful and haunting image.
Betsy Schwartz: I love Constance's line (I think this is probably one of the more famous ones) "Grief fills the room up of my absent child." That whole scene is so heartbreaking and beautiful, and that line just gets me every time.
Rosa Joshi: There's also that famous exchange, of course, between King John and Hubert discussing the preemptive murder of a child. One line shared between two speakers. "Death." - "My lord?" - "A grave." - "He shall not live." - "Enough."… So chilling!
Wiley Basho Gorn: What's something that audiences are going to take away from this production of King John?
Kate Wisniewski: I think they're going to be surprised at how funny it is. It's a really funny play! I mean, it's not a comedy, obviously, but it's got a lot of great humor that grows out of the circumstances of the characters in the moment.
Rosa Joshi: They’ll also be surprised at how much pathos there is. It's extremely moving. Highly cynical but also highly empathetic.
Kate Wisniewski: Well, yeah. I mean, the stuff with Constance that Betsy was just talking about, those scenes about the loss of her child are incredible.
Rosa Joshi: And, we're using an exciting new design element! We're incorporating projections! I don't know if that's giving anything away…I don't think it is... But it's going to be interesting seeing where they really serve the story. There are things from the first production that I'm attached to and that I wanted to keep the spirit of, but I also want to make sure that we're creating a new production for now. This King John does not look like the 2006 production at all, but the spirit of it is still there. There are core things, I think, that people who saw that original production will recognize, but the visual and physical storytelling is completely different.
Wiley Basho Gorn: Oh, I'm excited to see how that all manifests. Well thank you all so much, and we'll see you in tech!
You can learn more about our production and the rest of OSF's exciting 2022 Season on their website and social media pages.