Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed. Today, a conversation with Rosa Joshi about Shakespeare’s play Henry IV part 1—she directed the current production now running at the Folger Theater in Washington DC. This is one of my favorite plays. It’s filled humor, duplicity, and passion. It’s a perfect marriage of politics, family, and dysfunction. I spoke with Rosa the week before the play opened—so it was a busy week for her and I hadn’t had the chance to see it but I did sit in on a tech rehearsal—which focuses on the technical aspects of the production - so I’d have an idea of her approach to the play. So, before we get to my conversation with Rosa—I’m going to give a very brief recap of the play: ready? Okay. Here we go. - - No one is forgetting that Henry IV came to the throne by overthrowing his unstable cousin, Richard II whom he then had killed. The Percy Family had been instrumental in that takeover—but time has passed, things changed and now there’s a rebellion against the legitimacy of Henry’s rule led by the Percy family with their heir, the young, valiant, and impetuous Hotspur leading the rebel troops. But Henry IV isn’t just about power-- this is also a play about fathers and sons. Although titled Henry IV, at the play’s center is his son and heir Hal—who would become the great warrior king Henry V. But when we meet Hal, he is young, estranged from his father and apparently dissolute, hanging around a tavern in Eastcheap, hardly the best side of town, with thieves and drunkards—under the seeming influence of their leader Sir John Falstaff whose utter corruption is marked by humor and charismatic quick wit. Jack Falstaff is a drunk, a liar, a braggart, and endlessly entertaining and he is only too happy to take Hal under his wing and lead him down the road to perdition…in hope for great rewards when Hal becomes king. There’s no surprise ending here although the journey is extraordinarily moving and compelling. We know Hal becomes a King and a great one—we see that greatness in Shakespeare’s play Henry V. And in fact, director Rosa Joshi first encountered Hal when she directed Henry V for the Oregon Shakespeare Company and she was eager to direct Henry IV and see Hal in his youth.
Rosa Joshi: I often think about how we love to know about our candidates’ younger days; we’re fascinated with how they led their lives and we want to wash it all clean. Like they had all the right policies from the beginning; they had all the right ideals; they all did good work.
Jo Reed: Since kindergarten.
Rosa Joshi: Yeah, right. They never smoked pot, they barely drank alcohol, and so to go back and visit Henry V, the king that conquers France and unites England really for the first time, and see him in his bad-boy days has been really fascinating.
Jo Reed: When you’re approaching Henry IV, Part 1 if I said to you, “What do you think this play is about?” and I know that’s very reductive but--
Rosa Joshi: It is reductive but as a director you have to have a point of view, right, and what I love about Shakespeare is the plays will always be larger than me; they’ll always be larger than one production. So, what am I doing right now for an audience right now and where am I right now as an artist and so for me I was really interested in the coming of age of a young leader torn between responsibility and freedom and also torn between two father figures so that was really interesting to me too, Hal torn between a sort of cold, authoritarian real father and the playful, larger-than-life friend father.
Jo Reed: Which is Falstaff.
Rosa Joshi: Yes.
Jo Reed: How are you approaching how, “Duplicity” isn’t quite the right word but it kind of is the right word; it’s--
Rosa Joshi: Doubleness.
Jo Reed: Doubleness. Hal’s being this bad boy but right from the beginning at the end of his first scene he reveals another side of himself that scorns Falstaff and the whole gang, and he confides that he’s really putting this on so that when he becomes king, he will shine much greater.
Rosa Joshi: Yes, and that’s something we’re still exploring because what is the nature of that reveal, how Machiavellian is that reveal, and how-- is he in process trying to figure out what he must do and needs to do in order to become a leader. The play I think is also very much about growing up and about not wanting to grow up, Falstaff as this lord of misrule who doesn’t want to ever grow up in a lot of ways--
Jo Reed: Yeah, I think that’s right.
Rosa Joshi: --and Hal needing to grow up and realizing it but wanting to hold it at bay as long as he can.
Jo Reed: Speaking about growing up, how do you see Hal’s counterpart Hotspur?
Rosa Joshi: Young, impatient, really tied to the sense of honor; I’m saying all the generic things first. The thing that I’ve learned about Hotspur is that he could have been great. I mean when I see the arc of him the thing that I’m struck by is that as a model for a leader he has a journey where we see a glimpse that he might have been a great leader himself but both of them can’t be king; only one can be king. So that duel at the end is not good against evil between Hal and Hotspur, right. It’s two equals in some way that realizes that one of them has to die.
Jo Reed: It’s like two different visions of kingship, that sort of Machiavellian Hal and Hotspur who’s that medieval chivalric knight.
Rosa Joshi: Yeah, and who is so tied to honor-- the different versions of honor in the play or the different approaches to honor and Hotspur’s is tied to personal affront and loyalty, ‘don’t dishonor me, this is a dishonor to who I am’, but he’s also a person of action, he’s also a person that’s decisive but not so great because he makes decisions before he has actually any plans.
Jo Reed: And he also for a man of action he talks a lot--
Rosa Joshi: Oh, yes.
Jo Reed: --these long long speeches and I’m captivated by him. I am in love with Hotspur and that’s just the truth--
Rosa Joshi: Well, he’s quite charming also, right. In the performance, also you realize how funny he can be. He’s captivating; so, there’s this play about fathers and sons and dueling versions of fathers and dueling versions of sons and dueling versions of the future of who the next leader of England will be.
Jo Reed: Shakespeare is so good at giving different shadings or right and wrong.
Rosa Joshi: Yes! The rebels have a cause, I mean they have a point that they’re making to Henry, right, and I think that’s what’s also fascinating about this play is that the whole way that Henry IV got to the crown is questionable-- hugely questionable. I mean I just make that sound like a little thing, right.
Jo Reed: A whole play was written about it.
Rosa Joshi: A whole play was written about it but-- so the question of rightful rule and the idea that he had Richard II murdered so-- and we’re really struck by the Percys put Henry IV on the throne and then they had certain expectations of what that would be like once he was on the throne and then he didn’t deliver and they couldn’t control him and that feels very contemporary to me. So, a lot of what I’m looking at when I’m analyzing the history plays is thinking about what are the things that are hitting me in terms of what’s going on in the world, and that really hit me through the play is how much the Percys talked about what they did for this ungrateful king and what you do to put someone in power and what your expectations are about what you will get, which is also what Falstaff says to Hal, right. “There’ll be no more hangings,” right. “Rob me the exchequer. I’m going to get special treatment. Banish everyone else. Don’t banish me”.
Jo Reed: Tell me about your attraction to Shakespeare and why you obviously gravitate towards directing his plays.
Rosa Joshi: I’ve always loved Shakespeare since I was in middle school so I think I got turned on by-- as many young people do by an incredible English teacher who had us read the plays, Phil Klymer,[ph?] and I just really fell in love with the plays but then when I first got out of undergraduate-- out of college I felt like I don’t have the skill, I don’t know how to do it as a director, and then I realized that I just had to learn the skill, right. It’s learnable; <laughs> it’s not just something that’s gifted to you although you can have an affinity for it definitely but there is a technique. And so, I just think the plays as I said are so much larger than who I am as an artist and they go to the extremes of human behavior, the depths of despair and the heights of celebration and joy. They are so full of life and the language is gorgeous, but it’s also muscular and very naturalistic in how we actually speak, Iambic pentameter’s the rhythm of our heartbeat; it’s the way that we move through the world, it doesn’t just have to be about high. So, the depth and breadth of the plays is what really drew me and the challenge of them. As a director, I just love difficult things <laughs>. I really love that the plays are sort of out of my reach.
Jo Reed: I find it disquieting that so many people at all levels believe they won’t understand Shakespeare or that Shakespeare can’t speak to them.
Rosa Joshi: That’s the American education system; it’s the way that we put Shakespeare up on a pedestal or the way also that we’re socialized to believe that Shakespeare-- we can’t understand it. That happened to me a little bit also, right, that “Oh, you really can’t understand. It’s old, archaic language. They’re history plays; they’re about medieval English history. Why should we care as a contemporary American audience?” So, I think that it’s really up to contemporary productions to make them relevant to us-- not make them, find the relevance, uncover the relevance, right, because they are relevant to us. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think they were relevant to-- as someone who loves classics I’m always thinking about what do these plays have to say to a contemporary American audience today not in the sense of dumbing them down or giving everybody cell phones for instance. It’s why do these plays matter for us and for me the history plays are about politics, power and leadership and war and I can geek out over the history in them as well as the next nerd. I love researching the family trees and looking at how it’s all one big dysfunctional family.
Jo Reed: That’s part of what I love about Roman and Greek gods. It’s family dysfunction writ large-
Rosa Joshi: Right! So, to me the plays, the history plays especially are so much about how the personal affects the political and vice versa which is very contemporary.
Jo Reed: I was curious I sat in on a tech rehearsal and basically three scenes and I was there for three hours and--
Rosa Joshi: <laughs> Welcome to tech.
Jo Reed: --and I know Sunday night when I go and see the play it’ll be two and a half hours more or less. Tell me about your prep. Tell me when you knew you were going to do this play, how you began to do research and what that research entailed and walk me through how we end up seeing what we’re going to be seeing on the stage at the Folger.
Rosa Joshi: So, I just read the play a lot; that’s the first thing I do. I’ve done Henry V, I’ve done Richard II, I’ve done an adaptation of the Henry VIs and Richard III so the Henry IVs, Part 1 and 2 are the missing link as it were so in terms of the research into the other plays I have a familiarity with them having done those but I always start with the text. I just do a deep dive into the text. I spend a lot of time with my lexicons-- my Shakespeare lexicons just understanding all of the language and then I cut the play. I spend some time cutting the play because I sort of do a first pass and then come back at it. Often if I’m working with a dramaturge I’ll give them a cut of it and then they’ll give me feedback because the cutting of the play is the shaping of the story that you’re telling as the director. No two productions of Henry IV are the same simply at the first start of what do you include and what do you not include. And then I go into a design process with designers and so that was starting this past January so yeah, I’ve been living with this play for about nine months at least and so I’ve read Shakespeare’s Kings and a lot of those background books before but I do like to read writings about the period and especially about how Shakespeare is using history. And then I voraciously read all the notes in the text that I have and doing a lot of analysis of the play. You were in tech with us so you saw a lot of lights and sound but I’m very much a text-based director. All of those ideas come from first and foremost what’s in the text and what are people saying to each other, what are the themes, what is the nature of the language, the life of Eastcheap versus the life of court as revealed through prose versus verse in the play.
Jo Reed: How much time do you spend rehearsing?
Rosha Joshi: The actual time of being in rehearsal is so much less than the time you spend preproduction, right. By the time you get to rehearsal, I mean in the American theater you have three weeks and then tech and then previews--
Jo Reed: And then bye-bye.
Rosa Joshi: --and that is a very short amount of time to put together a massive classical text like Henry IV, Part 1.
Jo Reed: You do all this research and then you come and meet your cast. Talk about that process of being open to the cast’s ideas and how in some ways you have to let that research inform the way you’re looking at this play but not be rigid within it.
Rosa Joshi: I love working with actors. My favorite part of the whole directing process is being in rehearsal and working with actors. I love all of it. I love working with designers; I love being in tech. I love all of those things but being in a rehearsal room parsing through a text, uncovering a moment, discovering things with actors that’s what gets me up in the morning and makes me want to go to work. So, I want actors who have ideas-- and big, bold ideas and bring me things-- and then who aren’t precious about it and I try not to be precious about my ideas too. I come in hopefully with a strong point of view and a vision for the work and then you have to have all of that preparation and then be ready for that to all get molded by who’s in the room and what happens in the room and to just have an eye for editing it, so that I’m looking and hopefully saying, “That choice makes sense. This choice doesn’t make sense” and always keeping story in mind. I have to be willing to let go of an idea that I’ve deeply held if it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. Why would I be stubborn about that? That’s not going to create the best art. The sum of what we’re creating is greater than ourselves because the play is greater than us.
Jo Reed: Tell me about the process of selecting the cast.
Rosa Joshi: So, casting happened-- I want to say it started in March and then it continued. We cast here in D.C. and then we cast also in New York. I came back in-- I want to say it was around May so that process takes a while-- took a while also. I knew Ed was Falstaff—
Jo Reed: Ed Gero, yes.
Rosa Joshi: --Ed Gero was coming in as Falstaff.
Jo Reed: Hey, here’s a quick aside: Edward Gero, who is an acclaimed actor just so well versed in Shakespeare, he’s playing Falstaff and I actually saw the play after I spoke to Rosa and he is brilliant. He’s brilliant. This is a role he was born to play. His Jack Falstaff is smart, hilariously funny, sometimes touching, and not afraid to be appalling. It’s a great performance. Okay, back to Rosa.
Rosa Joshi: In terms of casting classical plays I think very much that the people on stage should reflect the people in the community so I’m very much committed to diverse casting in classical plays and for that to become normal in classical work because that I think is the future of how these works will live for next generations. I think young people of color need to see themselves on stage in order to imagine themselves on stage and to seek a life in the theater and then for these stories to be represented by the people who look like the community that they’re being presented for.
Jo Reed: You also had women playing parts that traditionally are played by men. A couple of the dukes--
Rosa Joshi: Worcester and Vernon-- and Poins in Eastcheap.
Jo Reed: and that’s right and Poins as well --are played by women and I know that is a commitment that you have. You’re a founder of Upstart Crow Collective, which is a theatre company that puts on classical work and all the roles are played by women.
Rosa Joshi: Yes. So Upstart Crow Collective started in 2006 and is really the brainchild of two actors, Kate Wisniewski and Betsy Schwartz, my cofounders. It was their idea. They approached me to ask me to direct their first production and we didn’t think we were making a company; we were just creating opportunities. They were sort of frustrated by the lack of roles for women in classical theater and they love classical theater and women have incredible chops in classical theater and they get aged out of the canon. There aren’t as many opportunities for them so instead of complaining about it they decided to do something about it and produce an all-female work, and doing that work really opened my eyes to all kinds of inequities in terms of gender in classical work and so it has become a real passion for me and commitment. So, when I do work that is not all-- when we do all-female work we keep the gender of the characters as is; it’s just flipping the convention that existed in Shakespeare’s time of all-male work. So, when I do more conventionally cast shows I take the roles that are male and I actually flip the gender to make them female. There’s so many ways to create equity and diversity in the work that I don’t think there’s just one size fits all. So yes, I’m-- I was interested in creating more opportunities for great classical actors like Naomi Jacobson to perform in these works so taking a major role like Worcester, a powerful enemy of the king, and to give that role and that text to a woman is really invigorating for me and exciting and thrilling to have a woman with that kind of agency in a Shakespeare play.
Jo Reed: You’ve done some unusual plays for Upstart Crow like King John, it really isn’t often produced. This is not your usual play.
Rosa Joshi: That was our first production. I think because Kate and Betsy and I-- my cofounders and I were interested in politics since it was our first time doing the work we didn’t come in with any preconceptions. We didn’t say, “We’re going to do this.” It was an experiment, what will this be like, how will this affect our approach to gender in the play, and so we thought it would be interesting to start with not a play that everyone knew that was really familiar because then we sort of had more freedom, right.
Jo Reed: We all have our preconceived notions of what Falstaff is like.
Rosa Joshi: Right,-- and also, I love the play. I mean I’ve literally heard people say-- people who do a lot of Shakespeare say, “What a terrible play” and I just go <laughs> “What? That’s an amazing play” so it’s also part of my taste. Like I said I like difficult work.
Jo Reed: You also did “Titus Andronicus.” Hello.
Rosa Joshi: <laughs> Yes, I know.
Jo Reed: Among the many awful things that happen in that play, Titus actually bakes two villainous men in a pie and feeds them to their equally vial mother.
Rosa Joshi: I know <laughs>. That was our second and it’s kind of like what’s the sort of craziest play you could do with a bunch of women, “Titus Andronicus,” but yes, it’s audacious, right, and we’re called Upstart Crow because we’re being audacious, but at the same time we chose King John also because we’re really interested in leadership and power and women in power, we didn’t choose one of the existing gender-bending plays. We really wanted to look at what it meant to give women really strong roles and roles of leadership and what it would look like and also I have to admit I take great kind of joy in taking a play-- a history play that’s usually a showcase for a whole lot of men and maybe two women so to take the stage and fill it with powerful, talented, intelligent, skilled women that excites me. And I will remember the most thrilling thing for me on that production was in the curtain call when I saw I think it was 14 or 16 women standing to take a curtain call in a Shakespeare play; that blew me away.
Jo Reed: How did you get into theater?
Rosa Joshi: I acted a little bit in high school, deep, dark in everybody’s past, right, and-- when I went to university I was actually premed and I was a psychology major and I continued to do theater. I stage managed, and then I took a directing class and I fell in love with directing and then I dropped being premed and I continued to be a psychology major and I continued to do a whole lot of theater and realized that in my junior year if I took a few more classes I could actually double major. And then my senior year I spent studying abroad my fall semester in London, saw about 35 plays in two months and directed a play there also. I just felt like if I don’t do this it will sort of be a what-if in my life and-- it was something I was really passionate about and also because I didn’t know if I could do it. It was a risk and I felt like-- not that being a doctor is easy, being a doctor is hard, but the path was really clear; if I studied hard and I went to med school and I worked hard I could be a doctor. And there was a path of success that was clear to me and I did not know what if there was a path of success and that was both-- terrifying but also felt like well, that’s the thing I have to do because I don’t know if I can do it; I don’t know if I can make a life in it. So, I decided to not to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology although I feel like I practice clinical psychology quite-- <laughs>
Jo Reed: I’m sure it comes in very handy.
Rosa Joshi: Sometimes. And so that’s sort of the quick story of my path into theater
Jo Reed: Did you ever think about film or was it always theater?
Rosa Joshi: It’s always been theater. It’s really interesting because of course I’ve had classmates in college who’ve gone on to much more lucrative careers in film and I love film and I actually-- sometimes when I’m talking to designers or talking to actors I’ll have to say, “So the-- this is the equivalent of a close-up” or “This is a cut” so the language of film, but I think why I actually love specifically theater is because it’s ephemeral-- it-- because you can’t re-create it exactly the same way all the time so it’s a living, breathing art form and because anything’s possible in theater. I feel like there’s nothing you can’t do if you ask the audience to engage their imagination.
Jo Reed: What are you doing after this?
Rosa Joshi: I teach at Seattle University so I’ll go back and teach a class in directing and I direct usually once a year there. But next, I’ll be directing Bring Down the House, which is an adaptation of the Henry VI plays for Upstart Crow-- that was created for Upstart Crow Collective that we will be partnering with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to do. And I go into rehearsal for that in January and it will open in March and run all year with 16 women telling the story of the War of the Roses with taiko drumming and lots of physical abstract fight choreography as well as some wicked broadswords.
Jo Reed: It sounds fabulous.
Rosa Joshi: It’s going to be amazing. It is like, going into rehearsal for these history plays I think sometimes is like going into battle yourself. <laughs> You have to be prepared beyond belief and have a plan and then be ready to improvise.
Jo Reed: Rosa, thank you for giving me your time. I know this is a busy week for you. I really appreciate it.
Rosa Joshi: It was my pleasure. Any time I can sort of just talk about my love for Shakespeare I’m so happy to.
Jo Reed: I’m so right there.
Rosa Joshi: Thank you.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That was Rosa Joshi, she directed Henry IV part 1 which runs at the Folger through October 13. You can find out more information at folger.edu
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Director Rosa Joshi is a lover of classical theater, particularly the work of William Shakespeare. She is also committed to producing theater in which the cast reflects the demographics of the audience, and she is passionate about creating work that has big, juicy roles for women. That might pose a dilemma to a director who is driven by the text of the play—as Joshi is. But she approaches casting creatively—casting actors of colors in all roles and switching the gender of the play’s characters—so that in her current production of I Henry IV at the Folger Theatre, Wooster, Poins, and Vernon are played by women. Additionally, she is one of the founders of the Upstart Crow Collective—a theater group that creates classical work in which all the parts are played by women. That creative flexibility is one of the reasons Joshi loves theater. As she noted, “There’s nothing you can’t do if you ask the audience to engage their imagination.” Listen to my conversation with Joshi about theater, imagination, Shakespeare, and I Henry IV. Her passion is contagious!