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Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Riley O’Toole playing Cloten

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Oct 21, 2021 at 02:13 PM in Project News
Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Riley O’Toole playing Cloten

Continuing our series of interviews with actors in this summer's Montana Shakespeare in the Parks' Cymbeline, we talked to Riley O'Toole, who played Cloten and Dr Cornelius. Riley discusses Cloten's absent birth-father, negotiating wildfire smoke, 100F heat, thunderstorms, uninvited children invading the stage, and more. He explains how negotiating emerging Anthropocene instabilty in Montana shapes a theatrically dynamic "practice of presences."   

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene Thanks, Riley, for fitting me in as you are wrapping up your time in Montana. Can you tell me about the roles that you play in Cymbeline?

Riley O’Toole Cloten and Dr Cornelius are the main ones. I also double as a Roman soldier in our big battle, choreographed by [fight director] Andrew Rathgaber, and also for a brief moment as a British soldier who comes out to tell everybody that Lucius has been taken.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Riley O’Toole playing Cloten

CA That's enough for one show! It was interesting to see you going back and forth between Cornelius and Cloten, two very different roles, and playing both beautifully. Tell me how you prepared for those roles.

RO’T I always start with the full version of the text, and then compare it to the adaptation. I write down what my character says about himself, what other characters say about him, and how he fits into the story and communicates it. I study the verse and the prose, scoring it almost like a musician does. The program I came out of at the University of Minnesota, in conjunction with the Guthrie Theater, was just a lot of Shakespeare, and concluded with our junior year at Shakespeare’s Globe. I had an opportunity to study with many of the voice and text coaches there, and to perform a small version of The Winter's Tale directed by Bill Buckhurst. And we studied different ways to approach Shakespeare's texts, whether it be a stringent kind of Folio practice, looking at the specificity of the punctuation of the Folio, and thinking about a semi-colon, colon, or a comma, and how that affects my breathing and verse-speaking. But as you've now experienced here in Montana, our approach is more irreverent with the text! I sometimes hear the voice of Shakespeare in my head and his advice of players, “Let those that play your clowns speak nor more than is set down for them” [Hamlet 3.2.36-37].   

CA Ha, that was Hamlet, not Shakespeare!

RO’T Hamlet, sure, ha! Because I have a tendency to engage with our audiences because they're engaging with us. They're having their wine, they're having their meals, the kids are screaming, and you’ve got to be more interesting than the kid playing frisbee with his dog stage left. But the base of my Shakespeare training were the techniques in John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare, and we spend time with those beforehand. But we quickly get stuff up on its feet, because we have such a short rehearsal process in which we're doing both plays at once. So you have to do a lot of work ahead.

CA Yes, that meticulous preparation, before letting loose, as it were, as Cloten, really came through in your performance, which was very nuanced, very detailed.

RO’T Thank you. Our stage is very physical. You have to “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” very quickly [Hamlet 3.2.16-17]. It's very physical storytelling, different from performing in a black box theatre. Everything reflects that; Denise [Massman]’s costumes reflect that. Some of those pieces come straight off the runway! The bright colours meant to be visible in the evening …

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Riley O’Toole playing Cloten

CA They’re glow-in-the dark colours!

RO’T Yes! For some of those evenings when we're out west it becomes “Shakespeare in the dark.”

CA Are there particular parts you've done in the past that informed your roles in this show? Characters or moments you felt yourself drawing on when playing Cloten?

RO’T Cloten’s not as intelligent as Cassius in Julius Caesar, but that kind of kind of plotting, that kind of selfishness, is similar.

CA That’s very interesting. I would never have made that connection, but I can see it now that you mention it.

RO’T Yeah, I probably wouldn't have either if it weren't for my scanning the list of the characters that I've had an opportunity to play. I can be quite boisterous on stage, yet most of the work is trying to rein it in to find the quiet moments.

Anyway, one of first roles I played with MSIP was one of the Dromios in Comedy of Errors, and that’s what got me asked: the size of role, the liveliness of the expression. And Cloten certainly has similar moments -- the tantrums. Pisanio says he foamed at the mouth. So I needed to embrace that side of him, the slapstick, the buffoon. But I also really wanted to process Cloten’s quieter moments and try to find some humanity in his character. I asked myself how can I hook the audience into not being so distanced from this person, seeing them for their circumstances, and seeing their action as a result of being raised by the evil Queen, and the pressures he's being told of what you need to do to get together with Imogen. I joked in the rehearsal process he’s the shadow side of Hal [in Henry IV] when he doesn’t make the turn to become Henry V. He gambles and loses money and continues to live recklessly. There’s not a whole lot of redeeming moments for Cloten. You can try infuse some of his humanity into talking about how he feels about Imogen, “I love and hate her” [3.5.70]. There’s an immaturity and childishness, but I try not to make him not so two dimensionally evil.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Riley O’Toole playing Cloten

CA Yes. One of the things I also admired about your performance is the way you nuanced Cloten. He's obviously an over-the-top character who can be played in a very broad way -- the villain that everyone hates and loves. But you created something more subtle. The word I would use to describe it is vulnerability, especially in that scene where he says “I love and hate her” [3.5.70]. On one level it’s a comically self-pitying speech. But on another, you conveyed a real sense that this is how Cloten feels. It’s not redeeming, but he’s genuinely wounded by rejection, and it’s not entirely of his making. He’s been oppressed by the Queen, just like Cymbeline. It’s also similar to what Imogen first says about the pressures from Cymbeline and the people at court. Mikey Gray was talking about this. Posthumus is under the same constraints. So all three of you have grown up under social expectations by the older generation. It’s an intergenerational problem.  

I’ve also got a kind of wild card question, and it's speculative, but it may have occurred to you when thinking about Cloten’s character. Do did every think about his absent father? Does it come out in Cloten’s behaviour or vulnerability?  

RO’T Yes, Rachel [Cendrick, playing the Queen] and I speculated a bit about that in our rehearsal process, especially about how long the Queen and Cymbeline have been together, and how has she been determining his life. It’s clear that she’s a survivalist and a climber and pulling Cloten along. And it’s also clear that he's been damaged by absence of love and affection. There doesn't seem to be a sign of having received any healthy guidance on what it means to be a young man in the world from a father –

CA – a natural father, as opposed to a stepfather.

RO’T Yes. And if we're looking at how old is Cloten, I imagine he's 7-18. So even if there had been a father, the effect of the loss of self-esteem is audible when he’s trying to convince himself and the audience of why he is deserving of Imogen. There's not a security that comes from having a father and parental guidance. There's an absence there.

CA It’s an interesting absence. There are a lot of absent mothers in Shakespeare, but in this case it's an absent, or betraying, father.  

Can we shift gears and talk a little bit about how audiences at all of the different places on your summer tour shaped your performance? What I especially noticed in Missoula is how you were listening to audiences, responding to them, working with them.

RO’T Absolutely. Gosh, every night, every night. In the case of Missoula, which is more like the kind of urban audience you'd expect in Chicago, there's a greater number that are following the language more closely, and picking up on more of the subtleties –

CA -- the wit –

RO’T yes, or laughing at it, and following the plot more closely because maybe they've done more homework arriving to the play. And then there's folks, you know, that are there to have their wine and dinner in the park, and it’s their community event, and they’re catching bits of the story as they can. And still, they’re fantastic audience members. It is so different day-to-day depending on where we are. Somewhere like Beach in North Dakota, right over the Montana border, it’s very small town. And this year because of storms that were rolling through the area we made the call to move to play inside, ahead of time. We ended up in the Community Center. We didn’t even build our deck, which are the elements our stage sits on. We built just the side staircases and landings, so we could still have those vertical lines. But there wasn’t enough space for the balcony of the second floor.

But it was such a fascinating day, because normally in Beach – having played there a few times before – it’s one of those audiences where we’ve got maybe 65-70 people. And in the beautiful park location, they're spread out eating their food, and there’s not a lot of real response. You don't feel the engagement as much.

There’s a story in Beach of this kid who’s climbing a tree up over the stage during the production of Romeo and Juliet, screaming to his grandpa, “Grandpa! Grandpa!” Meanwhile Romeo and Juliet are doing their thing and this kid is right above the stage yelling “Grandpa! Grandpa! Look how high I am!” And finally grandpa responds, “pretty high … for a girrrl!”

CA Ha!

Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet are trying to stay in the play, and take that in as much as you can, and that's how I always thought of Beach. But this year, because we moved it inside to the Community Center,  those 65 people weren't able to bring their picnics, they just sat in chairs and were all together in a small space, and were so quiet and forced to be attentive and to listen. And then suddenly they’re responding in a way they usually didn’t respond. Because with any audience you need a certain amount [of focus] in order for them to start laughing or feeling they have permission to laugh because they hear others responding. And it creates confidence, a feeling like, “oh, I do understand this.”

And that happened in Beach, and it suddenly felt like we were in a Missoula, and they followed it so closely and were on their feet at the end. It was such a beautiful unique experience, because they knew it was special for us too because we didn't have our set, and we had to improvise certain blocking, and the fights were inside, they were around us, and we we're dealing with our quarter staffs [in the battle scene] and trying to make sure not to hit them. So speaking of how the audience impacts performance, that experience really stuck as well. And suddenly we could key into an intimacy we normally wouldn't have. It turns into a very special performance, you can play with smaller brushes, as it were. That is very different from the one that ends up outside at the end of the summer with a large crowd in Missoula.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Riley O’Toole playing Cloten

I always tell actors that are interested in coming out here, and one of the reasons I stay out here, and one of the reasons I have confidence regardless of what it's doing for my career, is the practice of presences. It's such a gift every day because your scene partners have a different mountain behind them, or you're in the community centre or the high school or gym. Because that's the work of doing a long run of a show, how is it rediscovered every day, how is it made fresh. Out here you're forced to be fresh because you’ve got an elk walking through the audience, there's a snake slithering under their chair, and they scream, and you have to take it into production. You get all these gifts that land everyone in the same space. You just realize it's not even about the Shakespeare in those moments, it’s about the actor acknowledging, “here we all are here, and we just saw that thing happening together.”

CA It unites you in the eventness.

RO’T Yeah. The train goes by, and suddenly we all can't hear what's going on, and so we all sit there and watch the train go by and then we continue with the play. And that's what they will remember three, four years from now. They might not remember the plot of Cymbeline but they’ll remember the time we had to hold for rain halfway through, or how the actor acknowledged the train horn that kept interrupting him during his speech. There’s an irreverence.

CA Absolutely. Those are beautiful illustrations of spontaneous collaboration. And you're doing my segues for me, because Mikey Gray told me to ask you about the creek. So I’m shifting from the human environment that you were working with to the physical and material environments. Where was that?

RO’T That was in Charlo, in Mission Valley, south of Flathead Lake. We were in Palmer Park, a beautiful location surrounded by old willows. [see Instagram photo]. And there's this creek stage right, running three-and-a-half, four-feet deep. And it's halfway through the play, and I’m sitting backstage with Rachel [Cendrick, doubling Cadwal], you know, normally, she beats Cloten, and he flees off stage; and she has his sword in hand, and [in the script] cuts his head off stage. And I said to Rachel, what if instead of immediately going off stage, Cadwal dragged Cloten over to the creek and just gave him a good dunking? as if to drown him? And Rachel, as you saw in her performances, is just ready to seize any moment, and she's says, yep, I’m on board. And I said, well, you know the customers might get wet, and our costumes, we might smell like the creek for the next couple of performances. And she's, no, it's fine, it's great. So sure enough, we did the punch, and I’m knocked put, and normally she picks me up by the hair and slams me into the wall. But instead of doing that she picked me up and walked me over to the creek, in full view of the audience (because the creek travels right next to the stage) and she dumped me in the water, and I mimed hands flailing everywhere. And then she hauls me back up and then dumped me again, and then just hurled me off stage!

CA Hilarious!

RO’T It was, it was fun. And one of the audience members actually came up and said, “it was so fitting that Cloten was dunked in that creek, because that's actually the run-off from agriculture farming.” Not quite sewage, but, hmm --

CA pesticides and herbicides -- 

RO’T yeah, full of nasty stuff. And I was like, “Oh that's nice to know. Glad I took a nice big sip.” And then later Cadwal comes back with his head and says, I’m just going to throw his clotpoll in the stream, and it’s going to travel down to feed the fishes.  

CA That’s brilliant!

RO’T We have so many opportunities like that, because we are all across Montana in these natural spaces. Especially Belaria and Cadwal, they’re having their scene together talking about the natural environment, [3.3.] Cadwal’s bemoaning being raised, you know –

CA in a “cell of ignorance” –

RO’T Yes. There was one day I actually went up on my line coming out for the beating by Cadwal,  because I just took in Cadwal in these redwoods in Sealy Lake. I was like, wow, this is exactly it, this is exactly the spot. This is where you'd shoot the movie version of this. And I suddenly saw Rachel staring at me, like, “your turn.” “Sorry, I’m just a little lost.” And it so perfect up there in Sealy Lake, because normally, we have to deal with smoke because there’s a lot of forest fires. But that day you could see where the smoke was sitting down in the valley, and the sun ended up setting through the smoke, producing this red light at the end of the play. Everybody was talking about that, saying it was spooky, spooky.

CA These are wonderful examples of how environments partner with your productions, and you with them.

RO’T Here’s another example. We had a new location this year, White Sulphur Springs, it's super hilly, and right behind us was a castle mansion towering over our set, especially on that side which is supposed to resemble the court and Britain. And there you saw this amazing real “castle” right behind you. [see Instagram photos]   

And in one of our more iconic locations, Silver Gate besides Cooke City, and you have lines like, where Pisanio says “seek her on the mountains near to Milford” [5.4.281] and he points up at these glorious mountains. As an actor to be taking that in, when you’re in this environment that you imagine the play referring to, it’s such a gift. Gosh, there's so many influences in so many different ways.

CA Was there any cumulative effect of these influences on your performances? Another way of asking the question is, did you find your performance of Cloten was changing over the course of the summer? Was there a process of evolution to the way you played or conceived of the character?

RO’T It definitely makes it very real. Thinking about this figure who spends all his time in Lud’s Town [London], and then thinks he’s equipped to go on this journey to Wales, and suddenly he finds himself alone in the forest, scared, terrified.

CA But putting on this bravado. That’s another exposure of vulnerability. That's what I was picking up on your performance.

RO’T Yeah. And not that it's hard to imagine that journey for someone, but it certainly makes it very real  when you're out in all these isolated environments, and very exposed, physically, to all these elements, and thinking about this very sheltered character moving through them. So many of these places still are rather wild, with all the garbage cans in town have bear locks on them. And we end up, unfortunately, drinking a lot of bottled water because some of the towns don't have clean or reliable water.

CA You obviously can't afford to get sick, when you are on this long tour.

RO’T And especially these days, it’s been become increasingly common in the short amount of time I’ve been working for this company, navigating smoke. We deal with it a lot. It came earlier this year. Hardon was really bad. Just outside of the Crow [Indigenous] Reservation. It's so sad because being there, and performing there in 100F degree heat, you realize this is by [White settler] design that this reservation was placed here, because this landscape is quite unforgiving, certainly not the lush valley we're in right now. And that definitely affects the show, not by choice. We've all been out in the sun and smoke all day and we were all more fatigued.

CA Did you ever feel that your health was being adversely affected?

RO’T That certainly is one of the challenges of this job. There were days when we made the call to move inside because the air quality index was too poor. Like up in Malta, in our first week, we moved into the high school, because not only was it close to 100F degrees but the air quality index was over 150.  But we got to the park, I’m scoping out the location because there's a lot of things to consider with the level of our stage, and a two-and-a-half-hour drive can become a four-and-a-half-hour job, if I can’t can find the right spot. I also had ten mosquito bites, because it was spring. And I’m thinking, what is the best experience going to be for the audience? It's impossible to remove ourselves from the environment because it is so omnipresent. Every day is such a huge factor. We've got special bolts for our stage we call Dillon bolts, because one summer day in Dillon the stage blew over. They had wind gusts high enough to pick up the stage and throw it down.

CA Oh my goodness!

RO’T But luckily the actors fled the stage before the destruction happened. And that all makes it into the experience, and it’s impossible to separate it from the show. It’s the context every day.

CA Yes, yes. And did you – this is a larger question with an Anthropocene aspect to it -- did you find within the ensemble of the actors and of the entire production of Cymbeline that you were bringing an environmental consciousness of the conditions you’ve been describing to the audience and having an implicit conversation there?

RO’T The Belaria character in our production is where I see the greatest Anthropocene lens. The line which always popped, especially on those days when it’s smokey or it’s storming was when Belaria says at the end of the play, “the natural world has tuned the harmony of this peace.” Montanans are people who love nature, and so many people have a physical relationship with the land because they are farmers or ranchers. So that adapted line by Gretchen [Minton, MSIP dramaturge] especially popped for them. Also the relationship with Cadwal for audience members who are raising children in, say, Conrad. They have kids who feel the same: “I want to get out of here, I want to go somewhere else, I’m sick of this place.” And their parents tell them, “you don't understand how beautiful it is here!” There are many people who are returners to Montana. They were raised in Montana, have had that relationship with the land, and come back.

CA Yes, definitely.

RO’T Definitely that was something that resonated in our production. On a day in Hamilton we made the decision to move inside because the air quality was so awful outside, and for a large audience too, we performed in the fairgrounds. And we were all sheltered from the smoke inside, almost hiding from it. And yet as you're looking out and telling the story, you’re wishing you were performing outside. In the last ten years the smoke has gotten bad.

CA I've been finding that in my time here. When you were performing in Belgrade I had to go to the park washroom and wash my eyes because they were stinging. They’re stinging a bit now.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Riley O’Toole playing Cloten

RO’T There was a production in 2017 of Macbeth and I was out on stage, and when I came backstage to change my costume a bunch of ash had settled my chair and I had to dust it off. [see Gretchen Minton’s article, Shakespeare Bulletin 36.3 (429-448)].  

CA It's becoming an issue. We published a blog back in the spring, it was based on a piece in The San Francisco Chronicle. The journalist had done research into five different outdoor Shakespeare festival locations in California, and how wildfire smoke was affecting the actors and becoming workplace health issue and shutting down some places. It’s an ongoing problem, not just a one-off thing.  

And that leads me to a sidebar question. In every location you go to, is there always a provisional indoor location?

RO’T Yes, there’s always an indoor option. Mostly because of storms. That’s the kind of weather we deal with in the summer in Montana; it’s very unpredictable. You’ll have a day of thunderstorms rolling through and you need to be inside. But smoke is also now a part of that, even from my first summer in 2016 in which we didn't go inside but for one time because of storms. But then this summer we must have gone inside seven, eight, nine times.

CA That’s a lot.

RO’T Right. It’s part of the weather now, the smoke in the heat. And seeing that change after such a dry year. Our audience, like I said, being farmers, they’re talking about the drought. And on the days when we move inside because of the rain, they're actually thrilled they're getting rain. And a lot of times the rain is moving out the smoke for us. So we are kind of happy on the days when we were getting rained out, or when we were performing outside in a bit of rain, as was the audience. They come prepared for that; they have their umbrellas and they’re ready to sit out in it.

On one of our opening performances in Bozeman, we had to cancel. We had close to 1400-1500 people there. And we started Midsummer and we did the opening quarrel, and Theseus spoke his line, “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,” and lightning, lightning, lightning! and thunder crack! And I had to come out and say, “Hey, we're going to hold for a bit and hope this passes.” And they cheered back “Thank you. We're with you!” But we waited and tried to restart, and more lightning. And the lighting folks, which we have in Bozeman, make the call that it's just not safe. So we had to cancel the show.

CA That’s the Anthropocene coming to you, as it were.

RO’T Yeah. There are ways in which this production was designed with an Anthropocene lens. But the biggest part is just the fact that we are performing in these environments that are so affected by these new conditions.

CA Absolutely. The impacts don't strictly have to be imagined or fictionalized because they’re external realities on the play, and it's that conversation which you’ve illuminated today. It’s been absolutely fascinating and a huge pleasure for me, Riley. I can't thank you enough for taking the time, especially the day after your mammoth run. I'm really grateful.

RO’T It’s such a privilege. It's actually quite nice to reflect at this moment, looking back on all of it, and really appreciating it. Thank you for that opportunity.

 CA You’re welcome.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Riley O’Toole playing Cloten