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MSIP: Mikey Gray as Imogen

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Sep 28, 2021 at 07:12 PM in Project News

Following his recent travels to Montana (and his excellent review of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks' Cymbeline), our project leader Randall Martin is conducting interviews with the MSIP cast and crew. First in this series is Randall's interview with Mikey Gray, who played Imogen in MSIP's touring production.

MSIP: Mikey Grey as Imogen

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: The eight actors in this adaptation of Cymbeline double certain roles. Who do you play? 

Mikey Gray: I play Imogen, slash Fidele, which is also the faux-male version of Imogen. I also play a Roman solder in one fight scene for about 30 seconds. 

CA: Did you find in playing Imogen, in terms of your previous experience of performing Shakespearian and other roles, that you were bringing things from any of that experience into these roles? 

MG: For sure! Technique, a lot of verse work--I spent a month every single day before the first rehearsal working up the text, in the way I was trained in Australia at the National Institute for dramatic art, studying at Bard College, and all my workshops at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Really it's almost like you're taking a math problem and then you make it a reality in rehearsal, but it’s this sort of formulaic approach that is necessary to allow the freedom and the joy to play within that structure.

CA: Were there any particular roles you were thinking of when you were playing Imogen? 

MG: Obviously Little Red Riding Hood, in the [play’s] fairytale world. We played on that a lot with the hood and the [legging] stripes [designed by Denise Massman], and the sort of absurd costumes, and that figure of being attacked in the woods. But I also I talked to [director] Kevin [Asselin] a lot about Alice in Wonderland, actually. I was thinking about her because in one of his notes towards the end of our process, which solidified our work in the rehearsal room and the design elements, [Kevin] talked about touching the “ceiling of the surreal.” The characters of Imogen and Posthumus were specifically one of those things that the surreal circles around. So grounding her as a person on an adventure like Alice in Wonderland, it was more about that. It’s at once absurd and joyful and absolutely terrifying. So I think looking at Imogen through that lens was really helpful. 

MSIP: Mikey Grey as Imogen

CA: That’s interesting to think about in terms of agency, because Imogen’s environment, like Alice’s, is always impinging on her and shaping her directions, her choices. So that leads to another question about playing Imogen in this performance. Where did you think she was particularly shaped or directed or charged by her fictional environments, and her journey from the court into Wales and back?

MG: I think the male-dominated interruptions of the court contracted and suppressed her to the point where she said, “I would adventure.” It’s a moment where she thinks: I’m going to kill myself or I’m going to change something, and I’m going to take off because there’s too much aggression – I mean, it’s my father’s [Cymbeline’s] world. “Pent her up”? in what world do you say that after you banish your daughter’s husband? Even the Queen, that poison -- 

CA: She’s a patriarch too!

MG: Yeah, I think that social hostility propels Imogen into this explorative, experimental [state of] “I will literally transform myself to find my love,” and also to create a better existence for myself which has nothing to do with the court. No court, no father, no more harsh noblemen like Cloten. Any of those outcomes would be terrifying. And so, I think, to answer your original question, there's the transformation into Fidele. It’s an absolute transformation, and it happens offstage. That is when she opens up to strangers, but also to a need--she's actually hungry. It’s not just the heart saying I want my lover back, but there’s a need to survive, and the most intense form of physical survival opens her up to the graciousness that is nature. 

CA: Yes, she’s open to that, and dependency on strangers, because she has needs like hunger, like shelter. So she starts out in this position of tremendous personal courage, moral courage, like that scene with Iachimo where are you stood up to him. You played that beautifully! You brought out Imogen’s moral strength, which she never loses, and is the grounding of her resilience, as when she says “my resolution helps me,” keeps me going forward. 

MG: I think you’re right, there’s this ethical, moral compass that is present throughout. It’s unwavering, there's no obstacle [too big], and I think that the second she does not know where she is on the map, that guides her instead of Pisanio’s [minimal directions]. The “M trail” was a funny bit, but really it’s like, “Maybe the direction was up there? Where was I supposed to be?” In those situations, the moral compass is her true north. 

MSIP: Mikey Grey as Imogen

CA: As a sidebar, you could talk about the “M trail” which you added to your lines? 

MG: This sort of [improvisation] happened most nights. As Hermia [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the other play being performed in the MSIP season], I have a line, “bedabbled with the dew and torn with the briars,” and one night there was elk poo literally everywhere on the grass--it was where we played in Yellowstone, and everyone had to acknowledge it! The audience was sitting on it, we were stepping in it--and I said “bedabbled with the poo!” And that’s what makes this Montana Shakespeare in the Parks experience so giving, is that if you aren’t using the natural surroundings, then what is the point? We’re here.

So [in Missoula] I used “the M trail” because [the University of Montana] mountain trail was directly behind the stage in the full view of the audience, and everyone in the audience knew exactly what that was and has probably hiked it a million times. So using the natural surroundings as fuel and fodder is a privilege, for making each day our own, and for making decisions that in other circumstances would be unacceptable, to ad lib. We have that freedom, especially if it means the audience is drawn in.  

[Another time,] we were in Sealy Lake, and were warned that it was supposed to be smoky, but it never was. And then in the middle of the performance a huge gust of wind came, and you could see the smoke cloud travelling in, coming from behind the audience to the stage. And so Fidele was dead, and when I woke up from my poisonous slumber, the entire world had changed in the span of five and half minutes. And it made me [as an actor] emotional, because these wildfires are such a supreme example of the destructive nature we are living in. It was like nighttime, and the sun was pink, and it was eerie. That whole monologue of hers coming to [4.2.292-333], there was no way I could say the words without deeply deeply feeling them. And that is one of the greatest gifts. It was not audibly invasive, it was visually invasive. The sun and sky became my scene partner, this other character. And that was so surreal. 

CA: That’s a wonderful illustration of Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: the marrying of the content of the play and the human-altered environment. Because as you know, in that speech [Imogen] revives, and she begins in this dream state; she’s in this twilight zone, and that sounds like what you were feeling physically in the moment, this very strange blurring of the border between the fictive and the real. 

MG: Yes, and the line is "The dream’s here still. Even when I wake it is / Without me as within me; not imagined, felt,” and that line means it is quite literally here, and nature is coming at us from all corners. 

CA: Were there other moments, as MSIP went around the 71 performance sites, where you felt the non-human or human environment externally shaping your performance, changing it, from the previous nights or weeks? 

MG: I’ll give two examples. One was in Fishtail: it was a tight spot, and the stage was placed inches away from this tree. And so this tree was unfortunately blocking part of the stage, and the canopy of it was in our way sometimes. And it was this invasive quality that was actually quite beautiful as the play went on, because we were touching, feeling, and we were literally using this tree which was on the stage, and its leaves. In that final moment, Chelsea [David, playing Belaria] touched it as she said, “The powers of the natural world do tune / The harmony of this peace.” Just having a physical, natural [scene partner], and it being an aspen, so deeply connected us to the communication of other trees around us. 

CA: Nice observation! 

MG: I learned so much about aspens, because they’re everywhere here [in Montana], and I’m not used to them. So that’s a small example of how we used the tree as a character too, and that it slowly became part of the story. And it happened to be on stage left side, where that PVC tree is [in Tom Watson's set design], and just to have that juxtaposition--if I was watching it, I would have found it visually stunning. 

CA: Absolutely. That’s wonderful. 

MG: I have another example, it’s just so vivid in my memory: that monologue where Fidele first enters, and sees this cave, and it must be cruel because that’s what the court says, and I do the little [to the audience], “should I go?” 

CA: I loved that where you invited the audience to be part of your decision. 

MG: That’s a Kevin [Asselin invention]. We cut some lines and did a little ad lib there. There was one girl, she must have been 12 years old, but her active listening was so right. And right before I say, “best draw my knife,” as I’m about to do that, this girl goes, “your knife.” And she prompted a line that Shakespeare had written to protect myself, and she knew exactly what Imogen needed. And it wasn’t, like, “you have a knife.” It was, “use your knife.” It was, look at what you have; it was like an order. That moment was so amazing. And I remember coming off stage, and everyone asked me what happened, and I said the audience just told me what Shakespeare told me to do, because they’re so connected. 

CA: That’s a lovely anecdote to illustrate the word you used just a moment ago: “listening,” and using that active attunement to shape your performance, and to be shaped by the audience. You and the rest of the company were listening especially in Missoula, I thought, very closely to the audience reactions. I used the word blurring before, but that’s usually a negative term. “Listening” is a positive one, it’s a synergy between the human and nonhuman environment. The two are constantly shaping each other. And that includes feeling, and seeing things to take advantage of, and turning them into another "person" in the play. That’s not just a backdrop. That is one of the basic principles of eco-Shakespeare in performance, that the surroundings are active participants. That’s the way we’re trying to reorient ourselves towards the environment: it’s not just to be exploited, it has just as much reality, just as much being as the human…  

MG: The key, the lifeness…

CA: Absolutely. We’ve lost that, and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in. So I’ll ask a leading question, because one your key lines--and Imogen/Fidele says it slightly differently a couple of times: “I see before me.” It says so much about Imogen’s journey through the play. What do you think about the nature of her being able to see what lies ahead?    

MG: I think that is a hundred per cent about, I see my path towards Posthumus, wherever he may be. I see the end of the tunnel. She says, “Accessible is none, but Milford way,” even though the rest of the world may interfere again. And it does, thank goodness, because I discover a sister and a mother. Sight is such a theme in both roles I play – Hermia too. “Our eyes are like our judgements blind”, she says, and there’s something about that where we can visualize something, but it’s like our judgements which aren’t fully informed.

[Imogen]  imagines she can fly literally with wings on a horse to Milford Haven, because of the ecstasy of that idea. But it’s also that we are somewhat blind in that path, and that’s her development of understanding, of her own psyche, which is at the beginning naïve, but towards the end is, "oh, I can know where I want to go but not knowing that that’s true," and that leads to the desire. 

CA: How did the experience of Britain through Montana, over a two-and-half-month season, change your character? As you had different local experiences? 

MG: For sure, we experienced growth, which is natural unless you don’t want to experience it and shut that off. But I think the most distinct moment of change was when we went from the blackbox [theatre] to the duck pond in Bozeman where we performed for the first two weeks. That was at once both liberating and extremely challenging, because of the intimacy of our rehearsal process. It was a different play, actually: it built the layers of these characters which we could expand in the natural world.

I remember one of first performances on stage, the wind gusts were 40 miles per hour, and you’re fighting nature to be part of it, to exist with it. [Laughs]. It’s strenuous, and it’s hard, and you have to be bigger than this person you’ve created in this intimate blackbox space. So I think that was the biggest change. And the second [time] we were on the road, every audience size was the biggest influence on how we engaged. Some audiences wouldn’t say anything when I said, “should I go?”, and some would say “no.” So I think those sizes made us fall back on the blackbox experience: smaller, more contained. 

CA: Contained, that’s a good word for it, both literally and imaginatively. 

MG: There’s more subtlety in that smaller space. I’ve done a hundred performances of A Christmas Carol before, but over four seasons, so I’ve never done this many performances consecutively. That is its own sort of journey as an actor, which is that you know every moment and you’re able [snaps fingers] to improvise, and when we trip over the roots of our PVC tree on stage, we use that. And I think you were there the other day when [my] scab reopened and started bleeding again, and you just have to use those moments.  

CA: Yes, taking the pauses, throwing in something from the surroundings, that’s what you were doing especially in Missoula. And so there’s a kind of tightness and looseness that allows for the creativity and agency in the moment. 

MG: It’s liveness, that’s what it is, that’s why we do this! 

MSIP: Mikey Grey as Imogen

CA: Yes! These are wonderfully illuminating comments. Perhaps we can draw this to a close by asking a broader question about you, as part of the wider company and production. Was there an environmental idea or feeling or consciousness you were taking to audiences to let them share with you? 

MG: After every performance, if it wasn’t dark, I would go out into the audience and do a donation box, and sometimes strike up a conversation with an audience member, and say, do you mind if I record this conversation on my phone? And I think the responses from Montanans were actually more giving than what I [expected]. This is our goal. It was more, do you see any connexion to nature? There was this one woman who said – you know Cymbeline’s last line is, ”Never was a war did cease with such a peace”? And, she said, it’s a very challenging time to discover peace in the world right now, and she literally pointed at the smoke. And she was talking about the earthquakes in Haiti.

I think the mission that I came to discover was that the natural world is not just beautiful, and that Montana is not just beauty, beauty, beauty, but no--that we manipulate the natural world, like the Queen, but those poisons are still natural. They exist, she did not manufacture them from falsehoods; those are real tangible things from her herb garden. [The point is] to grapple with the fact that our impact is absolutely a negative force, but also that these cycles we live in are also part of nature. 

CA: So it’s not the romantic view of nature. But just because humans are destroying nature, it’s not a zero-sum game either. It’s still got be a struggle, that the redemptive aspects of Gretchen Minton’s adaptation–Belaria as an Earth-mother figure for example--have got to be earned, not just thinking romantic thoughts. It’s a struggle with the othered nature, the “non-nature,” which we have created: the smoke etc. 

MG: Yes. The power of the last scene for me, and for Imogen, is that, there are words that are jolly and redemptive, but to question that, and to say, where did we just come from? Like how [Posthumus] slaps Imogen, and then, thirty seconds later in our play, says, "love me better." Where do we go from there? How do Cymbeline and Imogen co-exist beyond that point? I assume that if Shakespeare wrote the sequel, it would not be so peaceful. 

CA: Shakespeare signals that sense of unfinished business when Cymbeline says, “nor the time nor place [now] / Will serve our long inter’gatories.” In other words, there’s got to be a fuller coming-to-terms with all these different individual experiences, and creating a multilayered narrative, and then we’ll have a sense of what it all means and what value it has. And then he leaves it up to the audience imagination. And Shakespeare does this quite often. At the end of The Winter’s Tale, for example. Because not everybody has been heard, and not everybody has been understood, that ongoing work has to happen so that peace, in the case of Cymbeline, is earned as a process, not just a momentary thing. And that means attentive listening, to go back to something we talked about earlier. That’s one of the great aspects of environmental consciousness in this play. We keep telling stories to live better. 

MG: There’s so much juice in this play. Kevin [Asselin] said on our last night, after we tore down the set, "I really hope everyone can let this resonate." And I feel that still. I want to hold that relationship with nature, the birds flying over the stage at the moment of, “a great pool in a swan’s nest" -- that has to resonate, whether it’s a cycle of destruction or redemption. And I am indebted to the audiences for fuelling us. None of us could have done the physical, and emotional demanding work that we have done without being refuelled by nature and the “natural humans.” 

CA: That’s a lovely thought to end with. Thank you so much.