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Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Chelsea David as Philaria and Belaria

By Randall Martin on Oct 29, 2021 at 05:11 AM in Project News
Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Chelsea David as Philaria and Belaria

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene Chelsea David, welcome to this interview. I'm really glad you could join me.

Chelsea David My pleasure.

CA Your major roles in this adaptation of Cymbeline were Belaria, and Philaria in the Rome scenes. So let’s start with the smaller of the roles, Philaria. Could tell me how you prepared for that part?

CD Both roles were adapted from originally male characters. So, adjusting to Philaria, I had a difficult time in the beginning trying to figure out, okay, she's a soldier, she’s hosting a party, and we were trying to find some lightness in the scene. Posthumus and Iachimo are doing this barbaric bet to see if Imogen is going to be faithful. It’s all – forgive my French – a pissing match. So to have Philario move from being a soldier who’s part of the guys to being Philaria, a woman who’s part of the guys, I was trying to find the levity and also the weight of that scene. Brandon [Burditt playing the Frenchman] was able to play that levity a bit more. But for me this scene is really dangerous. I'm the only woman in a room full of men, and they're making this idiotic but tension-ridden bet. I'm nervous because wars are started by men. I’m trying to walk this fine line because all these people are my guests, so I don't want to offend them, but I realize this can escalate really quickly.

It became easier once we found a rhythm to play with Joe [Faifer]'s Iachimo who loves to stir the pot. He and I improvised speaking certain lines every night. Posthumus says, “I dare you to this match. Here’s my ring.” And I would say to him, “I will have it no lay” [i.e. wager]. Sometimes he would he say boisterously, “By the gods, it [the ring] is one." (1.5.143). But a lot of times he would look at me and almost whisper, “By the gods, it is one.” It was nice to have that intimacy between us, of “I got this, I got this.” I loved that playfulness.

CA So, being the only woman in the room, you were trying to preserve a festive atmosphere while at the same time negotiating what is really a cock fight.

CD Yes, and it was interesting having to remind my male colleagues that my instincts are different in this scene. If I find myself in a room full of men and I'm the only women, that changes your demeanor, not always in negative ways, but certainly differently. There’s diplomacy this scene. We have France, England, Italy, and I need to keep the peace because I don't want another war. War is impending, and we don’t another war breaking out over this over a silly thing like this. I'm hoping those efforts did come across, because it was tricky.

CA Yes, they did. This is so interesting on many levels, Chelsea. Because, as you know, in the original text Philario is a generic role, he’s a peacemaker. But in [dramaturge Gretchen Minton’s] adaptation this wasn't just a gender-blind change, it was gender change in the role, and it created a more complicated and conflicted character. What was going through your mind in terms of the wager over Imogen’s chastity – it’s a romance cliché in the original text – where she gets turned into a male prize and commodity?

CD Yeah, great question. I'm trying to think of the line that Posthumus says, it's towards the end, he says, “if you can give me proof that you have taken [Imogen’s] chastity, we are no longer enemies.”

CA Yes, right.

CD She is not worth our debate. That line always struck me, as if she meant so little. Posthumus implies, well, in that case we’ll be friends, because she's a damned whore, and I don't want anything to do with her. It’s so flippant about the value of this woman who, supposedly, is the love of his life. But he's speaking as if, yeah, I'll trade you this baseball card. And it struck me -- but I didn't see it strike any of the men actors – that they could have been speaking about me. And I wondered, did any of my past lovers ever say this about me? It was interesting to be inside the locker room and want to run out. But I couldn’t because I had to keep the peace. My tactics were non-verbally to make disapproving eyes or flippant gestures, making it clear I did not approve. But on the opposite side of the stage, Brandon [Burditt] was egging [Iachimo and Posthumus] on, hoping to see a fight. I thought that was an interesting dichotomy, being on literal opposite sides of the stage and having very different reactions and experiences in the scene.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Chelsea David as Philaria and Belaria

CA That also came through in your performance, as did your fundamental point that, when it comes down to the woman that's being discussed, whatever value she has is always subordinate to the priority of male-male relations. That's always the reflex position.

CD That’s what we see in Midsummer [Night’s Dream, being played alternately with Cymbeline during the summer]. Egeus goes to Theseus about his daughter, and his complaints are being negotiated between two men about this woman who's barely given a say. There’s so much that’s similar between Midsummer and Cymbeline. A lot of devices that are very similar.

CA These are wonderful insights into how you were prepared for Philaria. Can we continue with the other major role you played, and the other main gender change, Belaria? Gretchen’s adaptation turned her into not just a woman but also the King's first banished wife. That raises a question as to why, if Belaria is mother to Cadwal (who is combining Guiderius and Arviragus from the original script), she does not reveal to Cadwal her royal ancestry? Why does Belaria want to be a secret mother to her? Why does she delay? Because it’s not until the final scene that Cadwal learns her true identity.

CD Well, it’s clear from the introduction [to their first scene], you know, “A goodly day not to keep house with such / Whose roof’s as low as ours” [3.3.1-2], that being outside, being in nature, and valuing, nature, the court is a despicable place (“Oh, this life / Is nobler than attending for a check, / Richer …  than rustling in unpaid silk” [3.3.21-24]. And when Cadwal leaves [the scene], Belaria says, “O Cymbeline, my conscience knows thou didst / Unjustly banish me” [3.3.99-100]. Belaria has extensive court experience. She has been draped in silk, and done all the political things she needed to do. Yet you can tell from those lines that even before the banishment she was miserable. And then suddenly to be banished, and with child, it’s emotional and physical PTSD. And being cast out from her home is also basically what Imogen is feeling.

CA Yes.

CD You know, going out in the wilderness, “a man’s life is a tedious one” [3.6.1], and trying to hunt and fend for herself, that must have been terribly frightening at the beginning. But now, having 20 years on her side, she's learned how to live with nature. But being out in the wilderness was extremely difficult at first. And then she has a baby and has to learn how to care for her alone. So she has to find security in herself by working at this entirely different life. Cadwal, being just so ready to burst out of the nest, doesn't really hear that. But those lines say to me, I'm glad I am where I am because I could be wasting away in a castle.

CA Yes. So effacing or erasing her royal relationship to her daughter is a survival technique.

CD Yes, to save not only our emotional relationship but our actual lives. She’s saying to Cadwal, you're curious about something that is deadly, trust me. But I can't tell her why for fear of her curiosity getting the best of her. The court is more dangerous than any wild animal we could find out here. I know this from experience. Just trust me; you don't need specifics. “You may then revolve what tales I have told you / Of courts, of princes, of the tricks in war” [3.3.14-15] I love these lines, but there's so much to unpack in them, it felt almost felt impossible.

But I know that when I say, “To apprehend thus, / Draws us a profit from all things we see, / And to our comfort shall we find / The sharded beetle in safer hold / Than is the full-winged eagle” [3.3.17-21], that Belaria is talking about perspective, and perspective is everything in this conversation. Cadwal may think that because the neighbour’s grass is greener, but it's not. We're living in a cave, and you may think it's pinching. But I was at the top looking down on all these lowly people like us now. And I got cast out and was in their place in a second.

To think about the pandemic for a moment and what happened to artists, I was watching people who I revered so highly, working at Steppenwolf, working at the Goodman, working in all these wonderful places in Chicago. They were in line at the unemployment office just like myself, just like other people who weren't artists. It was the great equalizer, and I thought of that when I was saying these lines. We need to take stock of what we have and be grateful for it.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Chelsea David as Philaria and Belaria

Yet in that same scene [3.3], as I'm trying to gently massage Cadwal into appreciating this life that I was able to cultivate for us out of nothing, I also get to appreciate her dynamism. Getting to see this daughter that I've raised be so sprightly, I revel in her curiosity. It’s joyful as a mother to see your child so filled with excitement about what could be out there.

CA Yes.

CD And after Cadwal exits, one of my favorite lines was, “and though trained up thus meanly / I’th’cave wherein they bow, / … nature prompts her / In simple and low things to prince it much / Beyond the trick of others” [3.3.82-86]. For me that was never something to be saying reluctantly. I always felt an instinctual joy when I was delivering it, because Cadwal knows not who she is, and yet she does. She has no idea she's royalty and yet she commands nature as if she were queen of it. That was one of my favorite moments. It’s also such a natural joy to be able to say that about Rachel Cendrick [playing Cadwal], who is one of the most generous scene partners and friends I've had the pleasure of working with. She made my job easy.  

CA Those are lovely perspectives. Again, a small pivot, but not away from Belaria. I'm thinking about the way you first appear on the set. Or rather, in Belgrade from behind the audience, or in the final performance in Missoula on the oval commons of the University. You came in from the trees and you were speaking your lines to the audience. Could say something about how you as an actor, and in character, responded to the local environments and audiences in these and some of the other 30 places you performed in over the summer? And how they shaped your performance from night to night?

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Chelsea David as Philaria and Belaria

CD What a great question. The landscape was a major player in that scene [3.3], especially when I was trying to figure out, how do I pace this. I noticed either the abundance, or the lack thereof, of trees. And when I said, “Oh Cymbeline, my conscience knows / Thou didst unjustly banish me,” I always picked one tree and I spoke to it as if it were Cymbeline. And sometimes, if we didn't have any trees, that lack also informed that moment, as in, “I still feel chaotic, I still feel out to sea.” Or, if we were surrounded by trees, it felt really fruitful to have a specific relationship with the trees.

And when we performed in Fish Tail, there was this one specific tree which was basically on stage. We had set up so close to it that the branches were eye-level with me. And I spoke to this tree, and it was so magical for me. I touched it a lot of times as if I were silently remembering Cymbeline. I had a relationship with the grass as well.

When Rachel’s going on in her introductory monologue, I just want to get out, I would look around to see if there any flowers, or look at the grass, or try to interact with the audience members sitting on the grass. And after she's just cut off Cloten’s head, I say, “We are all undone” [4.2.124], and she's trying to convince me that it's all going to be fine. But I have convinced myself that it’s a nightmare. And then I usually took a handful of grass, and looked at it, and tried to feel a connection to the earth while I'm spinning internally out of control. And to me, at least to my actor brain, it was a gesture to stay grounded, and try to figure out what to do. Also, I’m thinking, you took a life, and we have said that life is sacred. Yet you’re speaking about it is as if Cloten were a tick that you plucked off.  

CA Yes!

CD So there's a lack of sanctity there. And in the environment we were in, if it was particularly dusty, or really hot, that just exacerbated my feelings as Belaria at that time. But if was lush and we were surrounded by trees, it was heartbreaking, because we're about to say goodbye to all of this [when the court comes after us for Cloten’s death]. So, that's a long way of saying the landscape was an improviser, because it was going to be different every day. And those kinds of quiet moments, I would pick up some foliage, or talk to the tree [in Fish Tail], sometimes even caressing it. We could never have planned for those moments. They were lovely.

And in regard to the audience, it was so fun to look them in the eye, or to have some unscripted asides. For instance, when Rachel comments on the small size of the cave, I would talk to an audience member and say, “it's actually quite spacious back there.” Or Belaria says, “Our valour is to chase whatflies” [4.2.42]. And the longer the summer went on, I would pose a question to the audience: “Have you ever tried to catch something that flies? Try to catch a chicken, try to catch a duck? The fact that we do that with ease, it’s so skilled.” Yet Cadwal is talking as if that's something not to be proud of. So I loved talking to the audience like that.

I especially loved when there were kids in the front row, and they were enthralled. Kids are easily enthralled with Midsummer because there's fairies and fun costumes. We had fun costumes too, but Cymbeline is three plays in one and there's so much happening, it can be confusing. I want kids to be excited about these crazy, witchy, woods-people who come in halfway through the play; I want to get them excited curious about Belaria and Cadwal. And a lot of the times when we had dogs in the audience we got to play with live animals. That was wonderful too.

CA The way you brought audiences – human and non- human! -- into the show was delightful to watch. And that leads naturally to a further question about different interactions from night to night across the season. Did you feel that Belaria’s character changed from where you were with her at the beginning of the run to where you got to in the final performance in Missoula?

CD Great question. You know, when we first started rehearsals, I was intimidated by Belaria. She’s a mother, I am not. She is probably mid-40s, I am mid-30s. In this adaptation, Belaria could easily go to a witchy, shaman-ish figure. I was playing her very two dimensional at the beginning, trying to find my way through. I was rounding my shoulders more, my posture was more in my neck and ears, I was playing it more Earth Mother, but it never felt right.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Chelsea David as Philaria and Belaria

Then I spoke with Gretchen, who gave me the wonderful suggestion that Belaria is the cool, biologist mom who takes her kid out into nature, and says, “okay, let's see how many different kinds of leaves we can find. Let's go to the pond and see if we can see fish and identify them.” That made all the difference. It took away the caricature. It was a perspective change. I found that my confidence did come from nature. That I could find inspiration from outside of me as opposed to manufacturing it with my body language. From the dress rehearsal onwards, the costume also did a lot. I had a long, white wig on, and that wonderful head dress with the braided horns.

CA Yes, those costumes were just so inspired. We did an interview with Denise Massman and she talked about them. It's on our website. She’s so smart, so creative. You heard people in the audience, when you and Cadwal came on, talking about the costumes. I would say that I don't think you entirely lost the Earth Mother, but you were also more expansive.

CD Yes, totally. It was less ethereal, more grounded. I focused more on the tangible Earth, the trees, the grass, the foliage, what I could see as opposed to what I imagined. I found the spiritual in the tangible, if that makes sense.

CA That makes complete sense, and I'm glad you mentioned that, because that’s certainly one of the things I took away from this show. Because in Gretchen's adaptation -- this was a very purposeful change -- she took out most of the references to the gods in the play. That shifted the location of the spiritual. It’s in nature, in the physical, not something that's being controlled by Jupiter, a patriarchal sky-god, whose original scene was cut. Instead, the spiritual and the physical are integrated in a way that reminds me more of the way Indigenous people think about spirituality and kinship with the Earth. It’s not divorced from the physical, but is intimately inhabited in the physical.

CD Completely. You know I hesitated to say that, because to some people, and maybe Christian audiences, it sounds devoid of faith. Faith is the belief in what you can't see. But to me the faith of this character came from this absolute proof. Look, this brook where we get all our fish from. There’s a spiritual power in this feeding. The proof is in everything you're seeing. I thought that was a universal message for all of us to experience at the same time. It was a lovely way to channel the idea of spirituality in this adaptation. It was also interesting improv exercise. I found it a more fulfilling way to perform.

CA You just answered my final question, which was, what environmental ethos did you think the production overall was taking to people in Montana and other state audiences?

CD I would expand a bit on what I was saying just now. I think audiences related to Belaria the most in remote places. They are hunters, they do live off the land, they live simpler lives. And I was so happy to bring something to them they understood, or at least recognized and valued. The only reason that that Britain won that war was because of the mountain people.

CA Yes, they are the redeeming ethos for the court. They take it out of its patriarchal dysfunction and its ecological blindness in the largest sense, which has to do with care for descendants, not only people but other animals and plants, the whole biotic community.

CD Yes, I hope people walk away feeling valued, especially Montanans who have been there for generations and generations. And that they felt connected to something larger.

CA Yes, that’s a different perspective from presenting those values to city people, perhaps. It’s different from the identity-recognition that goes on with rural audiences in the very diverse environmental settings you have described.

CD Yes, and not only that, but it felt bi-partisan. I mean, we are very liberal individually and as a company. And going to conservative towns, we were nervous as to how we as were going to be accepted, and the reception of this play. But our show transcended any sort of political party, any sort of beliefs, religious or not, that are polarizing, any opinions about the pandemic. The production brought people of many different identities together, and to get many things out of it. If I were an audience member in the city, I think it might inspire me to do better with how I'm recycling, what I'm bringing into my home, the brands that I'm buying from, how often I'm buying things. It might bring more awareness to things that are already on my mind. Everyone can get something from this play, and I was surprised by it. I didn't think how well-rounded a message that it has. I think if I were to do or see it again, I would find even more lessons that I didn't see first around.

CA Yes, it's an incredibly rich and an underrated play, and that's one of the reasons I chose it. And it's lovely for me to feel a sense almost of vindication in hearing what you say! I’m also delighted to hear that the production has been such a hopeful experience for you, and that you shared that with audiences.

Well: that’s a very upbeat note to end on! It's been very fascinating to hear about your roles and experiences, Chelsea. Thanks so much.   

CD This has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Interview with Chelsea David as Philaria and Belaria