Q&A with "Cymbeline" co-adaptor Sara Becker

Posted September 8, 2021

Gallery Cym

Recently, Sara Becker – APT’s Director of Voice and Text, and Dramaturg and Cymbeline co-adaptor along with director Marti Lyons – answered some questions about how they came to adapt Cymbeline and what the experience was like. Check out her answers for insights on what really goes into adapting a large Shakespearean play.

Have you adapted classic texts for smaller, modern casts before?
Sara: It’s very unusual for me to work on Shakespeare plays that don’t have some level of cutting involved. As a Voice and Text coach, I love it when I get invited to collaborate with the director on creating their cut. It helps me to get to know their point of view and how they like to work.

The really liberating thing about working on Shakespeare is that no one knows for sure what the definitive edition of any of these plays are. They were published after his death, compiled from bootleg editions, partial actor scripts, etc. (as anyone who saw our production of The Book of Will in 2019 will remember).

We started from Henry Woronicz’s excellent adaptation as an initial jumping off point, but ended up drawing from lots of editions and research, and the script has many beautiful ideas the actors brought to rehearsals and workshops.

I think the group of us have really found a way to let this play shine for this group of artists at this time, for this audience.

We started thinking of this play when we workshopped in 2020. At that time, it was just sort of a thought experiment and a way to keep limber. But in those Zoom rooms, it was really clear that something special and important was germinating. I’m so glad APT invested in seeing Marti’s vision come to fruition.

What drew you to Cymbeline in particular?
Sara: I love that it is a late career Shakespeare. His early plays are so different from his late plays, and he seemed to always be trying to push his skills as a writer. You look at all of the elements in this play leading up to the glorious last scene, and have to wonder how he’s keeping all these balls in the air. How in heck is he going to tie this one up? It’s a big play.

Also, He’s writing this play around the same time as The Tempest and Winter’s Tale. I love those plays too, and he’s at a time in his writing when he seems obsessed with themes of forgiveness. Forgiveness is really hard; mysterious. In life, it definitely doesn’t always follow a tidy five act structure. It’s fiercely personal and also the only way we can live as a community. We all mess up. Lots of people at the end of this play have something they have to apologize for - and to watch forgiveness and apology bounce around the stage and the community of this play is incredible.

That last couplet- “Never was a war did cease/ Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace” is incredible.

I liked that this same play has been interpreted so differently over time - it bugged George Bernard Shaw, it was held up as an example of Victorian ideal womanhood, it has been used to examine nationalism and empire. There’s just a lot there. It gives a great place to take a lot of the things we are working on culturally and be in dialog with them through Shakespeare’s language.

Also, it’s just a ridiculous mix of the greatest hits of Shakespeare’s other plays.

How did you decide what parts to keep and which to delete?
Sara: We really kept most of it, honestly. Some of it is told visually now, instead of with language. Some of it is told in a slightly different order than the original, or it is the same words but in the mouths of different characters. The big structural pillars of the story are all still there.

We didn’t go back and give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending or anything like that - although George Bernard Shaw (who had a lot to say about this play) couldn’t help himself and rewrote the end of this play just for his own amusement.

I think Shakespeare would like what this company has found.

For you, where does this sit in the realm of Shakespeare? Why was it important to stage this play now?
While it may not be as heavily produced as Shakespeare’s other plays, it’s not as obscure as some of his others. All of these plays tend to bubble up from time to time, and Cymbeline has enjoyed periods of enormous popularity at certain times in history.

There’s been a few big notable Cymbelines in the last few years - Cheek by Jowl did it in 2007 with Tom Hiddleston. Fiasco Theatre in NYC was a critic’s darling when they started doing it in 2009. There was even a really loosely adapted film with Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris and John Leguizamo in 2014. A former student of mine right now is doing a big production of it. When plays like this bubble up, it’s a great chance to see what themes we ask Shakespeare to help us explore.

This play speaks right into themes of misogyny, cancel culture, nationalism, the MeToo movement, and the complexity of forgiveness.

Did writing the show for a small cast of women make you hear the lines in a new way?
Sara: One of the actors made the observation in rehearsals that so much of the casual misogyny in this play would skate right past you until you hear a female-identifying actor speak it. There were lines that are just so joyous to hear, “Who is it can read a woman?”, “Could I find out the woman’s part in me - for there’s no motion that tends to vice in man, but I affirm it is the woman’s part”, and “You must be our housewife!”.

I have to say that gender fluidity is something that these plays were always built to do. It’s just this time we flip it on its head, instead of the all-male company of Shakespeare’s time you have an all-women company of our time. Perhaps some of the more horrifying aspects of gender are really just a performance - and if we get to see them performed, we can decide if we want to wear that costume too.

By the way, The Taming of the Shrew is up next! :)