Hello again from Louis Butelli, Roderigo in Folger Theatre’s Othello. You’ve got just eight more chances to see the show—we must close on December 4th!
I’ve got a tasty little treat for you today. Janie Brookshire, who plays Desdemona in Othello, agreed to answer ten questions that I put together for her. Check it out—she’s got some very interesting things to say about the theater, Shakespeare, women, and her character. You’re gonna dig.
And so, without further ado, here’s Janie!
Louis Butelli: Was there an event, perhaps something traumatizing in your childhood, that drove you to acting as a profession?
Janie Brookshire: I cannot remember wanting to be anything other than an actor, but I have no idea what generated that dream. I’m an only child of a single parent, so I spent much of my childhood with my nose in a book. I think perhaps it is that fascination with storytelling that has continued to grip me.
Louis: Every actor has moments in their career when they think, “why do I keep doing this to myself?” Why do you keep doing this to yourself?
Janie: Because I’m not done exploring myself and the world around me. Every character and every play offers an opportunity to learn more about yourself, about humanity, about religious tradition in Medieval Italy or the quotidian details of daily life in 19th Century Russia. I’m someone who loved school, who could be on a college campus forever, and so acting is a way to make my art my classroom.
Louis: I know that your home base is not DC. Can you talk about the challenges of relocating (for a fairly long time) to take an acting gig?
Janie: I haven’t been able to quite relax fully into living here because I’ve had to shuttle back and forth to New York rather frequently for auditions—there’s always the need to book the next job looming over your head. And I do get a little homesick. But the time I have had to explore DC has been wonderful. Seeing the sun setting behind the Capitol dome as I walk to work never fails to take my breath away. I got a Capital Bikeshare membership, too, so I’ve been touring around town and exploring the restaurant scene, the monuments, and the museums. There’s so much to see—I’m not nearly finished!
Louis: Besides our production of Othello, can you talk about some of your career highlights to date?
Janie: Othello has truly been a highlight. I had a Shakespeare professor in undergrad who is a fellow at the Folger, and I have dreamt since then of working here. My first job out of graduate school was as an understudy on Broadway. I had the fortune of being truly welcomed by the cast, big names included, and that was a sort of starry/fancy entree into the New York theatre world, for which I still have a dorky middle-schooler’s awe. Perhaps the most artistically fulfilling job I’ve ever had was at a small off-Broadway theatre company in New York called the Mint. The artistic director, Jonathan Bank, unearths these long buried gems of plays. The one I was in was by a deaf Irish female playwright named Teresa Deevy. I fell in love with the play, and the role, and the cast. It was a once in a lifetime amalgamation of luck and beauty.
Louis: So, Othello. What gives?
Janie: Many people have a real problem with this play because they think the whole thing turns on such flimsy evidence—the handkerchief and Iago’s story about Cassio mumbling about Desdemona in his sleep—but I think that’s precisely what makes it so psychologically fascinating. All of the characters are wounded in their most vulnerable state. Iago is so brilliantly composed; it is he who SEES the underbelly of each character and knows precisely where to thrust the knife. Shakespeare shows how thin the line is between happiness and despair. It IS so thin, in the play and in life… Just turn on the news and humanity is making a mess of itself all over the place.
Louis: Tammy Wynette once suggested that it’s best for a woman to “stand by her man.” Can you talk a little bit about how your character would respond to that suggestion?
Janie: I once counted how many times Desdemona called Othello “my lord” in the play. I can’t remember the precise number, but it was astonishing. She thinks of him as a god. His life has been something that she cannot even fathom, and she stands in awe of it and of him. She gives up everything to be with him completely, and she does so with confidence and passion. When she can’t quite comprehend of his actions, she assumes they are the result of something beyond her scope. But then she REALIZES that she has perhaps put him on too high of a pedestal (in a line that has been cut from our production: “Nay, we must think men are not gods, nor of them look for such observancy as fits the bridal”). I think she begins to feel that confidence truly crumble once his accusation is so violently thrust upon her. At that point, I think her struggle is about getting back to him—getting THROUGH to him, through the behavior and anger that she cannot understand. I think she tries to the end to fight for him to see her clearly. She believes to a fault in the goodness of people (thus the tireless suing for Cassio), and she struggles to communicate that to someone who is quite literally a stranger to her. But she exonerates him even in the end, when Emilia asks who has killed her and she responds, “Nobody. I myself.” I don’t think this is dumb ingenue behavior. I think it’s Desdemona’s tenacity, her commitment to fulfilling the promises she makes—to Cassio, to God, and to Othello (in her wedding vows).
Louis: What is the most difficult part of playing the role that you do for eight performances each week—psychologically/spiritually/physically—and what are some of the ways in which your efforts are rewarded?
Janie: When I first arrived in DC, I was struggling with a persistent back injury from a TV job, and the show I did just before this (Dial M for Murder) also involved a lengthy strangulation scene. So I’ve been going to the chiropractor regularly and have adjusted my gym routine to build strength but minimize impact…but it’s been difficult and frequently frustrating! The emotional impact is also tough, especially during the five show weekends. This probably sounds a little out there, but sometimes during the willow scene I feel like the ghosts of all the previous Desdemona’s the Folger has seen are gathering around me, giving me their energy and strength and love. There’s such a responsibility with these plays—I sometimes feel less like I’m in Robert Richmond’s 2011 production of Othello and more like I’m an instrument for this story at this particular time, in order to perpetuate it, or for the one person in the back row who needs to hear it. It feels larger than us.
Louis: While some of Shakespeare’s best stuff was written for his female characters, it’s also commonly thought that the number of juicy roles for women in Shakespeare is far outnumbered by those for men. Plus there was that whole “female roles played by males” thing that happened back in the day. As a woman, and a performer, can you give us a few thoughts about women in Shakespeare?
Janie: I share most actress’ frustrations with the relative paucity of women’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays. I wish there was a single play that revolved around a woman’s journey (Romeo and Juliet comes close—it’s a pity she must be so young and we have such a short window to play her). But if we don’t attempt to stack up the Hamlets, the Falstaffs, the Macbeths, the Iagos on one side and, instead, just look at the women on their own—Viola! Rosalind! Lady M! Paulina! Katherine in Shrew! Cleopatra! Egads, they’re all so kick-ass. I want to play them all. I will say, though, that I wish there were more female directors of Shakespeare, because I think sometimes the complexity of the female characters gets lost when directors don’t take the time to explore it. Women are scientifically more responsive to emotion, men are more stimulated by action. I think many productions could benefit from a more nuanced touch.
Louis: We’ve been fortunate to perform Othello for some high school and university students from the DC area. Is there anything you’d like to say to the young women of DC?
Janie: Hmm. I feel so unqualified to give advice, since my journey as an actress and a woman continues to be filled with mistakes and bumps and hard lessons. Life is a constant recalculation of yourself against the backdrop of your circumstances. If you find a person or a job or an art that makes you feel grounded amid the tempest of this inevitable change, cultivate that garden. And treasure the other women in your life—there’s something about those relationships that goes deeper than any man ever can.
Louis: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to discuss?
Janie: Nope! I’m all spent. That was fun!
Indeed it was! Get your ticket now, and come and see us playing in Othello at the Folger, now through December 4th.