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Q&A with Director Lisa Peterson on Timon of Athens and Coriolanus

Lisa Peterson

Director Lisa Peterson made her directorial debut at the Festival this season, directing not one, but two plays. Both staged in the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theater, Peterson took on the “giant brain tease,” as she called it, of directing Timon of Athens and Coriolanus in repertory. 

Peterson is a two-time Obie Award-winner for her productions of An Iliad and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Recent credits include Shipwrecked, Motherhood Outloud, and The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. Shakespeare productions include Antony and Cleopatra at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Hamlet at Oregon Shakespeare Theatre, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage. 

She has also directed at the Mark Taper Forum (where she was Resident Director for ten years), La Jolla Playhouse (where she was Associate Director for three years), and Guthrie Theatre, to name a few. Peterson is also a member of Ensemble Studio Theater and on the executive board of Stage Director and Choreographers Union.

The Festival had the chance to visit with Peterson about her experience directing these two plays.

The Festival: What should our patrons know to help them understand the plays better? 

Peterson: The first and most important thing is that these two plays speak to each other. The idea of doing these two plays in repertory is what captured my imagination from the beginning. I’m hoping that people will see both plays, so [that they see] there are themes between the two plays that are very much aligned with each other. 

In a way, it’s the same story told twice. Even though they’re set in very different worlds— Timon is a rich patron and it’s about money, and Coriolanus is about war, look first to see how it’s the same story, and then look for the differences. 

The Festival: Are there any special “Easter eggs” you have implemented into the plays as a director?

Peterson: At the end of Timon of Athens, there’s the suggestion of a coming war, and to me, the fun order in which to see the plays is first Timon, and then Coriolanus. 

They are a couple of props that are used in both shows. This was so both patrons seeing the shows would notice and to emphasize the similarities between the two plays. 

The Festival: What do you hope audience members walk away with from these productions?

Peterson: First, to be newly appreciative of the range of Shakespeare’s writing talent. Timon is experimental and quite funny, but it feels quite modern. It’s kind of like a farce meets existential poem. Then, when you get to Coriolanus, you say, “Wow, he could really write drama.” 

[I hope patrons] have appreciation of the actors and what magic acting is— how people can transform in front of us, and represent humanity in front of us. And lastly, to think about how hard it is to be a good leader after seeing Timon of Athens and Coriolanus, as I think it’s [really about] the responsibilities of citizenship and what makes a good member of society, as well as how it goes wrong when it goes wrong. 

The Festival: Why should our patrons see Timon of Athens and Coriolanus? 

Peterson: I think they should come see both plays to do a deep dive into this part of Shakespeare’s career, when he was quite well-known. He’d written Romeo and Juliet, but hadn’t written King Lear. It’s interesting to me because you’re diving into a year and a half of Shakespeare’s writing life. I don’t know if anyone ever has been able to see these two plays back to back— it’s highly unusual. 

And, I’m proud of the work the actors are doing. It’s smart and funny and offbeat and honest, in a way that Shakespeare isn’t always. Both plays feel very modern, though they were written 500 years ago. 

The Festival: What were the challenges of directing this play? 

Peterson: These plays are for people who like to challenge themselves and like an intellectual puzzle, and who are excited about a kind of radial theatricality. This is what drew me to working on both plays. 

I’ve done about a dozen Shakespeare plays, including Hamlet, but Coriolanus is one of the hardest I’ve ever directed. It’s dense, and it’s about hard things, such as betrayal. But it feels as if we excavated it. It feels like we went at a mountain with a pick and a shovel and got out on the other side of it so others can go up and see the view. 

The Festival: How long have you been directing? Why do you continue to direct? 

Peterson: I’ve been directing plays for 30 years now. I started when I was very little in the acting world. When I was in high school, my friends and I started a theatre company. I went to Yale as an undergraduate, and it was in college that I discovered that my gift might actually be as a director and not an actor. 

I fell into the new play world in New York, but at the same time wanted to keep my hand in directing classics. I don’t want to get categorized as one kind of director, so it’s been important for me to keep my hand in new plays, classics, and musicals. After [so many] years, I still love rehearsing. I love being in a room with a bunch of smart actors, figuring out how to tell a story. 

But I still love going to theatre. You can sit in a room with strangers and listen to a story and have a reaction at the same time. It’s just so . . . human. 

For more information on Peterson, visit playwrightshorizon.org.

To purchase tickets to Timon of Athens and Coriolanus, visit bard.org or call 800-PLAYTIX.

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