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Interview

Shakespeare in the Park’s Heather Lind Talks a Feminist ‘Othello’ + The Power of No

Shakespeare in the Park’s Heather Lind Talks a Feminist ‘Othello’ + The Power of No
Photo Source: Courtesy The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park

A few weeks before Heather Lind was set to graduate from her MFA program at NYU, she was cast in not one, but two Shakespeare plays. The summer of 2010 saw Lind’s Broadway debut by way of The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park’s “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale”—performed in repertory—as Jessica and Perdita, respectively. Not only did the performances earn her an Equity card straight out of school, her turn as Shylock’s daughter nabbed her a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Debut Performance. As Lind puts it, she “owes the Public!”

So it’s fitting that eight years later, Lind finds herself back onstage at the Delacorte, this time as Desdemona in “Othello” (running through June 24). Though her current character meets a more tragic end than her former roles, all three women share a strong will and a motivation to pursue their needs and desires, despite what society says. It’s a thread Lind is honored to uphold every night, a story she feels compelled to tell through a modern lens, particularly given the cultural movements of #MeToo and Time’s Up. 

One week into the show’s run, Lind spoke with Backstage about the bravery she finds in Desdemona, why she admires Shakespeare’s myriad female characters, and how learning to say no is the single most important thing an actor can learn in her career.

Tell us about your as Desdemona in “Othello.”
The role of Desdemona has been really challenging for me. I had never worked on her in school. I’d only ever seen one other production of [“Othello”] and I didn’t have a great base understanding of who she was. Sometimes I think that’s a real gift when you’re auditioning for something, especially Shakespeare because there are so many opinions about all of the characters out there

For this, I just really didn’t have a clear sense of exactly what happens to her and exactly what she does to the world. And I felt like it was a nice place to start but it was also really scary for me to start that way. I think from playing her, I’ve been able to explore, interestingly, a fearlessness and unselfconsciousness because I think Desdemona happens to be incredibly brave, incredibly accountable to herself—she takes responsibility for her choices in a way that I think is really interesting and knows that she’s entering in a very risky decision in her life and she does it for love and for self-respect and because she’s curious about another person.

She kind of compelled me to really leap into moments and not be afraid or not be weighing the consequences to heavily. And that’s a really good muscle to flex and something I’ve always wanted to do more in my work and in my life.

The female characters in this production have quite a bit of agency. Was that a conscious choice given the current political and industry climate?
I think Ruben Santiago Hudson, our director, was very determined to make all the characters very bold, particularly the women. He kept reinforcing that he was interested in telling the version of this play that presents the women as incredibly strong, that are really leading the male characters in a way as opposed to coming up under them or submitting to them.

What’s interesting is that text of “Othello” supports that decision. What’s really incredible is that we didn’t set out to make a very feminist or “forceful women” version of this play. We looked at the text first and discovered there was great support for that way of telling the story. Emilia speaks up for how women have the same desires and needs as men—that’s right there in the text. And Desdemona, my character, stands up to her father, marries someone without his permission, goes to war with her husband. Textually, it is a story of incredibly strong women.

The way we see it now from a modern perspective, especially in this cultural moment, is we get to see historically what has always been true for women; there have always been women who have spoken up and there have always been women who have suffered for that. That particular color comes alive on stage as we watch two women tell the truth and both end up being murdered for it. And I think that’s because of the cultural moment we’re in right now; we’re seeing that reflected so much in our contemporary stories that it just feels almost eerie. It feels as if we put that on the play but really, the play said that all along.

We can tell whatever version of the story we want as long as the text supports it. So why not try to tell that story, too? What we learned is the more we can flesh out all of the characters in the play, the more the entire story gets told, as opposed to just one half of the story. 

There’s a fair amount of misogyny written into the play and I think our modern eyes can just see and feel it more, or feel safe enough to expose it whereas maybe it wasn’t safe before. It’s a nice recognition that those things take place in the play. And I think that the women in this play are heroines in their own right. We don’t see them that way very often because they don’t win in the end, but they do a great deal and they affect the story so profoundly that I think they are people to be admired. 

Performing in Central Park means you’re at the whim of nature every night...
Shakespeare in the Park has its own challenges. [Sunday] night, for example, we had to hold the show and the night before because of rain. That kind of emotional roller coaster can be tricky because you show up at the theater and get ready for your show, do your warm up, get in hair and makeup, do everything you’re supposed to do and then sometimes, the show has to be put on hold or has to be canceled. You’re at the whims of whatever the weather is, so that is a bit of an added stressor in the park that can be tiring, especially if you’re having a couple of bad days in terms of rain...

Because it’s outside, it feels vast. When you’re on that stage, it feels like there are 10,000 people around you, like you’re in a stadium at first. And then when the sun sets and the lights come on, you really just can’t see anyone. So it’s an interesting experience: you know they’re all right there but the darkness is particularly dark out there, so it just feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere sort of screaming. I actually come into the play in the last scene through a lift, so when I’m under there and the stage opens up before I get lifted up, I just look at the sky. I take a moment to open my eyes and just look at [where] I’m performing, this vast, open space. It’s a very magical experience to work there.

READ: How to Conquer Shakespeare

What Shakespeare role would you kill to play?
I’ve always wanted to play Lady M. Chuck [Iwuji, who plays Othello] and I were talking about this the other day, there are some elements in that marriage in “Othello,” or at least in the way that we’re playing it. There’s a partnership we’re exploring and an alliance they’ve built together against the world. And I think working on this play has sparked my interest in trying to understand Lady Macbeth better.

I just love playing women that maybe seem to be doing things that are unexpected or unusual for women and then to play them with the deep, deep experience and knowledge that those things aren’t unusual. To play women that are surprising to others but to me, and to the women I know, are just women. Lady M makes some very dark choices but she’s a warrior in her own right, and maybe you wouldn’t say the same thing about a man who makes her choices. And I’m interested in that kind of yucky conversation that can be had about the way we want our women to be and the way we feel women ought to be to fit in—that crunch between those two things. I’d love to try to play her and see what she’s like. ‘’

What’s your worst audition story?
I went for this non-equity movie, it was like, low-budget horror. I went to this building I’d never been to before and there were like, 50 people my age. So we went into the audition in groups of four—two men and two women at a time. I remember going in and it was kind of like an improv audition where they said, “Just flirt with each other, just hang out.” And we would all improv and feel kind of stupid.

And at one point, the director looked to us and said, “Ok, now two of you kiss each other. The other two kiss each other. Act as if the night’s gotten long. I want to see what it looks like when it gets kind of nasty.” I remember freezing. They said “action” and two of the people started kissing and this other person, I look at, and sort of laughed and kept flirting a little, and we left the room. And I thought, “Oh god, what is this movie?!” The director called me into the room after and said, “Heather, I noticed you’re really not participating, you’re not taking our notes. Are you interested in this role?” I remember feeling horrible and saying, “I don’t see why we have to do that in an audition.” And he said, “Well, you can leave if you want.” And I said, “Ok.”

I remember going out into the hall and getting my bag and leaving. Actually, it was an incredibly important moment. When I left the audition, I felt terrible like I should turn around and go back. All my acting teachers told me to be game for stuff and try new things and if you’re afraid, it might mean something good is about to happen. And I just thought I was being a coward. But really I look back on it and it was just the first of many moments where I learned there’s no reason to do something that makes you feel horrible. Just say no, be respectful, leave the room.

What advice would you give your younger self?
It’s so hard to look back, isn’t it? I think the biggest thing I would tell myself is, I think at the beginning, you are sort of subliminally given the message that you have no power, that you are waiting around for somebody to give you permission to act. You don’t get work and you look for work and you feel sort of desperate—that’s how I felt. If I could talk to my younger self in that moment, I would just encourage myself to trust my instinct about what doesn’t feel right.

I remember auditioning for a lot of things that felt, you know, I didn’t want to turn down any opportunities. They didn’t feel good but I felt that I had to audition or I had to try to get these opportunities to move ahead in my career. Now, I would tell [younger] self, just say no. There will be other opportunities and I think the way forward is to know what you’re not ok with or what your boundaries are. And to know that even though you don’t have any power, maybe, or you don’t have any credits or experience, you still have a great deal of instinct and you have to trust yourself that the only way to get the career you want is to say yes to the things you believe in and, more importantly, saying no to the things you don’t even when you have nothing else going on.

In hindsight, I wish I had really trusted myself that, in fact, I did have some power, that I had authority over my decisions. And that, I think, is a skill you continue to hone in your career, even as more opportunities come to you. You really get to say no if you want. You don’t even need a reason, you can just say, “that doesn’t feel right to me, that doesn’t feel true and I’m gonna wait for the thing that feels true.” And that gives you power; you have a lot more power than you know.  

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