Robin Goodrin Nordli performs her one-person show, ‘Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare’s Women’ as part of Portland Shakespeare Project’s 2015 Season kickoff and fundraiser event on March 9. Now in her 22nd season with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), she has performed in regional theatres around the country, and played leading roles in plays by Chekhov, Moliere, Shaw, Coward, and Ibsen, as well as in contemporary works and musicals. She is one of 21 actors included in ‘North American Players of Shakespeare: A Book of Interviews’. She appears on the cover of, and her work is discussed in, ‘Women Direct Shakespeare in America.’ She received the Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artists Fellowship for 2009, and a Lunt-Fontaine Fellowship for 2013.
She took time out of a busy schedule of final rehearsals for ‘Guys and Dolls’ at OSF (she plays Miss Adelaide in the production running February 22 – November 1) to talk with Portland Shakespeare Project.
People here are so anticipating Virgins to Villains. Tell a little about its inception and what inspired you to write this particular show.
I actually sat down to write something like this show about 1998 and came up with a different show called Bard Babes I Have Known or How to Play a Female Shakespearean Character. But it’s a more complicated show. It has a lot of props, I have to have an assistant. That’s just how it developed, and it prevented me from doing it more places.
So I finally sat down and tried, again, to write an autobiographical piece. Only this time I took a different approach. I wanted it to be very simple – just a music stand and two chairs – and to be able to do it anywhere, any time.
Virgins to Villains is my journey with Shakespeare’s women and how they have often coincidentally assimilated with my life, and how I ended up doing what I do. I wrote the show a couple of years ago and have refined it since and been able to do it a lot of different places. It’s been very portable and useable.
Sometimes I make myself have a date where I have to perform a piece even before I’ve written it – so I’m forced to come up with something. A lot of times I start out with some sort of outline or I have an idea and it germinates. I do my best thinking in the shower, or I have Post-its all over the place, I have piles of Post-its. I heard Woody Allen has a drawer by his nightstand that’s full of ideas, and I thought “I can relate to that.”
When I couldn’t figure out how to get started on this play, I talked to Lue Douthit (Director of Literary Development, OSF) and said I wanted no duplicate material between this and Bard Babes in case I ever do both pieces together. She said take two pieces of paper. On one put the events that are outstanding in your life in order, then on the other list all the plays you’ve done in order, and lay the two pieces of paper next to each other and see if anything cross pollinates – a totally different approach than Bard Babes. Things started tying together and it kind of expanded out of that.
Did you work with a director in creating the show?
For this one actually I didn’t. I have several friends who are directors and I’ve shown it to them and they’ve said this section needs a little more, or I’ve shown it to different playwrights and they’ve said I want to hear more about this or this wasn’t clear, and I then go back and tweak it.
I think the person who’s helped me the most is Penny Metropolis, particularly with Bard Babes. She’d come and watch and give me great suggestions. But it’s been more developed on my own.
What can the audience expect when they see Virgins to Villains?
Well the full title of the show is Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare’s Women. I start out with auditioning for my first high school play, The Taming of the Shrew. I recount different aspects of how something has resonated in my life or what an audition was, what I was thinking, how it went – and I carry that through the different events of my life up until right now.
I’ve done 55 productions of 28 different plays by William Shakespeare. I’ve played 47 female roles, 21 male roles and 2 “others.” I interweave what was going on in my life, sometimes with a monologue, sometimes cutting back and forth or talking about a particular play, maybe a play I’m doing at the time.
I’m a firm believer in having a lot of humor, because I think sometimes Shakespeare becomes a sacred cow. It’s about saying look, it’s nothing to be afraid of. Shakespeare is accessible. Shakespeare resonates in your life. Even if you don’t understand every word, it doesn’t matter. There are phenomenal stories and journeys and what that means to each of us in today’s society. I think demystifying Shakespeare has always been a big thing for me. When I started out in high school I had a teacher who just said figure out what you’re saying and find a way to mean it. Of course it’s more than that, but that was a fabulous starting point.
I purposely wrote Virgins to Villains to be accessible both to people who know Shakespeare and those who don’t and Bard Babes is the same way. And I do believe there has to be humor and a lot of things people can relate to. It can’t sit on a pedestal.
Part of the show is also saying I’m an actor, I do this for a living, this is part of my process. I’m a worker bee. There’s technique and this is how we do it.
I did get the part.
Were you already a fan, or was auditioning for that show your first introduction to Shakespeare?
Yes, that was the first introduction, and it was like, oh, that’s scary. What is that? But I had a teacher who demystified it. She just really was very concrete and pragmatic and said tell the story and we’ll worry about the words later. She was kind of amazing.
For me, as I wrote Virgins to Villains, there were many things that touched back over the years, came full circle in certain ways. In fact, that high school drama teacher came to see me at OSF when I did Portia in The Merchant of Venice years later. It was such a huge thing, a full circle for me to have her do that. I’ve had several things like that happen in my life that I thought had to be in the show.
As an actor, is your approach to doing Shakespeare different than other types of theatre?
Yes and no. You have to be really careful about your technique and clarity. More so with Shakespeare – where you pause, where you don’t pause – because it’s all about how can I make it the clearest and as natural as possible to the audience without them knowing I’m doing certain things technically to make sure they understand it. You can’t take huge Mamet pauses; it may work for the moment, but the audience will be asleep three quarters of the way through the show.
After playing the number of Shakespeare roles you have, is there one that you’ve not played and want to – female or male?
I will not answer that question, because it’s in the show. How’s that.
How about answering the question “Which role have you played the most?”
I’ve done Viola four times, Olivia twice and Maria once, so I’ve done Twelfth Night seven times.
Out of those which was your favorite?
Oh, I can’t say that. Because you think, oh this is the best role in the play. Then you play the other one, and you go, oh that’s totally interesting for a totally different reason. And Maria was the last one I did, kind of thinking I need to do this role so I can just say I’ve done it. But I had such a good time and realized I can’t say I just did it to do it. I had a great time – and from a totally different perspective.
One final question. What is it about Shakespeare that speaks to you?
It’s totally universal. It has survived and remains universal to everybody at every juncture in their life. There is truly something for everyone. I just find that amazing.