My Theatre

12 March 2012

My Theatre Nominees- Q&A with Borah Coburn

By // Theatre

Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.

In The Boston University Shakespeare Society’s workshop production of Richard II, Borah Coburn had very few lines, but she was also the standout character of the play. As the cross-cast Duke of Aumerle, Borah was Richard’s snarky and steadfast rock, earning her a Best Actress nomination in the student division of the 2011 My Theatre Awards.

Can you remember you first experience with theatre.
Uh… I don’t know if I actually remember it myself, or if I just think I remember it because I was shown so much photographic evidence. In any case, it was Cats and I was five or something. But probably the most formative dramatic experience that I can actually remember was watching Bizet’s Carmen on PBS with my mom. It just blew my mind.

What are some of your favourite plays?
Geez, I have so many. For Shakespeare (today, it shifts all the time) I love Henry VI part 3, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. For everything else I love Anouilh’s The Lark, GBS’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, and Stoppard’s Arcadia. But I’m still really woefully under-read in the arena of modern plays—I feel like I still have so many potential favorites to discover.

You first caught my eye in The Calliope Players’ Hamlet as Ophelia. What was the biggest challenge of that famous role?
Probably the fact that it was famous. I was a freshman in college, it was my first real lead, and I sort of had no idea what I was doing, so I think the hardest thing for me was not to get caught up in playing or defying the archetype of Ophelia. You know, not worry so much about the Romantic image of the waif-ish and wasting Ophelia. I had to figure out that I needed to just interpret the character honestly from the words that Billy gave me, and cultivate great affection for the individual I believed her to be.

“Who was my PhiePhie?”—I had to know that she was mine, that she had a specific context, and that she couldn’t be wrong. I decided that she actually had some overlap with my sister—once she was less of a huge archetype to live up to, and actually somewhat based on real person I knew very well, I had a much easier time. Don’t worry, my sister’s totally fine [as in, not drowned in a brook]. 

How did you develop such a strong sibling relationship with your Laertes [Tom Farndon]?
Fiery spark? We’re deeply in love, obviously. Just kidding. We had been in another show together before Hamlet, and we just sort of bonded right away. During Hamlet, I found out that he was an only child, so then we stated playing some kid’s games to get in character as stage-siblings. We’ve been close friends since then—we’re still besties. My real life brother, Luke, likes to poke a little fun at him (although maybe he’s just jealous that I have another fake-brother).

Then you acted and worked on costumes for Titus Andronicus. Why so much blue?
It’s a pretty color that’s flattering on pretty much everyone. I jest. Mostly, it was that my co-costumer, the directors, and I decided to give different colors/color schemes to the different families in the play. The Andronicus family got blue—there are a lot of Andronici in that show, so sometimes it looked a little like Picasso’s blue period out there.

Then you were in Not Your Mama’s Julius Caesar. How was it not my mama’s?
Well, I’m not sure that your mama has a Julius Caesar (no offense, Mrs. Bedard), so there’s that. But I think it wasn’t your mama’s Julius Caesar because it was a gender-reversed cast, with a modern concept.

How does a 20-year-old girl play a believable Brutus?
The same way anybody plays a believable Brutus, I guess. I studied the heck out of that text, and did my best to figure out who I think Brutus is, what matters to him, and create an accurate understanding of the weight of the circumstances he finds himself under. I tend to fall in love with the characters I spend a lot of time on, so that always helps too—to think the character you’re portraying and their story is worthy. I see Brutus as a torn individual—someone who struggles to navigate between his loves (for his country, his friends, his family, his honor) and his need for recognition and his jealousy (of Caesar’s new, absolute power). I think Brutus goes in believing that it’s him or Caesar, and being driven by the (potentially invented) belief that Caesar will continue to ascend without him, and will look down on him. I think Brutus realizes pretty early on that he wants to be the one looking down on others—he believes that he deserves to be there—and he realizes that he wants Caesar’s power for himself and just has to figure out how to rationalize it to himself—how to try and get what he wants while maintaining some belief in his own virtue. And it eats him up throughout the play. So when he’s chased out of Rome, Brutus really gets preoccupied with making sure that all of this personal torment (murdering his best friend, inadvertently causing the death of his wife, being chased out of his home, being stuck with a bunch of lowlifes, the list goes on) is not in vain. I mean, in the end, I think that the tragedy of the play is that it all springs from some ultimately petty concerns for personal gain, but that it all spirals out of control, and then the characters can’t go back. So I just did that.

How many audience members do you think noticed the detailing of you putting on your shoes mid-scene to demonstrate that you were at home?
I don’t know. But you did, so at least one person. And that’s what we do it for—for the one or two people who will notice, and whose experience it will enrich. I mean, sometimes those one-two people will just think it’s pretentious, so it’s hit or miss.

Do you think that cute and silent one with the spatula could have taken out the rest of Antony’s army if you hadn’t abandoned her via suicide?
Totally. But Brutus was too emotionally traumatized at that point to think of that.

Next up was another ingénue. How’d you smarten up Cyrano’s Roxanna?
I just read the lines she has. She’s very bright to start with (and specifically book smart—she loves literature, and poetic conceits, and notions of elevated, courtly love), so I mostly just played up all of her complicated feelings about everything in her world, and just let her be pretty free and variable—free to be demanding, righteously angry, petulant when appropriate, and boy crazy when the script called for it. And I tried to make her physically expressive as another extension of her general freedom to be a unique individual. She’s a fun character. And she’s specifically the character that everyone falls in love with all the time, not so much because she’s stunningly beautiful, but more because she’s a volatile, funny, engaging person, with high standards and a lot to say. The only time I was worried about the smart/dumb angle on her was in regards to what expectations the audience will walk in with—which you can’t do anything about, so you just have to let that go—and some stage magic/weird blocking stuff. Because the play has a couple of tough moments where you think: “Oh God, the audience is going to think this chick’s an ignoramus,” but that’s almost entirely about selective blindness during the balcony scene and stuff/not realizing that Cyrano’s her true love/that he’s right in front of her the whole time (even though, let me just say that’s not her fault! Those boys work really hard at deceiving her). I mostly just trusted the directors to take care of the blocking/stage-magic stuff, and I focused on connecting to the other people on stage.

You’ve dabbled in directing; first with Jean Anouilh’s Antigone then Love’s Labours Lost. What were some of the biggest challenges working on those productions?
I had a lot of fun with both of them, but yeah, everything comes with a challenge. For me, the text work is the easy part. The hard parts is accepting that as much as you want everything to come out perfect, and as much as you all care, things are never perfect (it’s not possible, the fabric of space/time would just explode), there are no right answers, and it’s just a play. If it goes “wrong” no one is going to die, and nothing is going to blow up, and everything’s going to be fine. I mean, don’t let yourself off the hook—really work to make theatre you believe in—but don’t torture yourself about it either. I really hate the image of the tortured artist because I think it insidiously propagates this notion that torture and emotional trauma somehow produces artists—or better artists. And it doesn’t. It just makes people need to go to therapy. That was tangential.

Anyway…. on a much less dramatic scale, I had to learn how to count a win—because it really is so much more about the process than the product—and now I know that a win is a production in which at least one person learned something or in which at least one person had fun. If you get more than that, you’re doing splendidly.

Your My Theatre Award nomination is for the Duke of Aumerle in Richard II. How did you make such a small part standout so notably?
Well, I was really lucky in that I didn’t talk much, but I was on stage for most of the show—so I had a lot of time to play an odd, complicated character, and (hopefully) give her some nuance. I also think that the audience tends to like the Loyal Best Friend—I mean, when I’m in the audience, that character usually gets me. So I was lucky with both of those things. But Aumerle herself/himself is also a really interesting, and I think, very sympathetic character. She loves Richard as a person, and because she loves him so much, she 100% believes in him as a divine ruler. But I’m getting ahead of myself. At the beginning of the play, she’s Richard’s best friend, he’s her best friend, and they love each other, and it’s all pretty smooth sailing. They’re the cool kids and nothing can touch them. And so in the beginning she gets some places where she gets to be smart-aleck-y, and sassy, and a little bit fun-bitchy. She gets to be funny! And that’s always helpful. And then in the back half of the play she is totally unmoored from her previous understanding of the world (in part by her father—so that’s a hell of a betrayal), and separated from Richard (which I don’t think she really knows how to handle), and then she gets angry. She wants to fight and take out the people that have screwed up her and Richard’s lives. I just played a character with a lot of love and conviction, and I had a lot of time to do it. And I had a cast—especially a Richard, played by Harry Gustafson—who believed in the relationship between the two characters, and reciprocated on stage. And if your character matters to the main character (especially if he’s the king… for most of the play), people notice.

Your chemistry with Richard was really strong. How did you two establish the feel of such a longstanding relationship? 
We’d worked together before, so that was nice. It’s always helpful to have a rapport and feel comfortable going in, but I think a big part of it was that we’d change things up during rehearsals and even the shows, so we were always actually responding to each other, and always had to pay real attention to what the other was doing, and we’d each play along and go for it, so I think we both learned to trust that we had a willing scene partner. But we did also spend a fair chunk of rehearsal time working on their physical rapport—he’s got a queen, Aumerle’s usually a dude—and figuring out how to navigate a close, loving friendship without making it sexual in a way that we weren’t going for in our production, or undermining either character as an individual. So… play, trust, and practice.

Do you have a favourite moment from that production?
I really liked my last scene in that show—which is interesting, because in the original play, my character’s not there at all, and her last scene is actually a confrontation with her parents. My last scene in our production was the scene where Richard’s in the tower, and he’s just finished this huge, beautiful, heartbreaking monologue, and my character walks in, sees him still alive and breathing, and says; “Hail, royal prince!” And they sit together, and are just happy to be with each other again, even if it’s in the tower. I loved that—the moment when she stops, still sort of in the doorframe, and just lets go of all of her anxiety and anger and fear, and lets out this huge sigh of relief—because he’s okay and they’re together again, and that was the most important thing in the world to her.

What has been your favourite role to date?
Ooh. Tough question. Brutus was definitely the biggest challenge, and I definitely still have a soft spot there, but I think my favorite’s probably Aumerle. I just like her so much as a person, and felt really natural and at ease with her.

Do you have any dream roles you think are perfectly suited to you or something completely against type you’d love to try as a big challenge one day?
I actually think I would make a rockin’ Julia (from Two Gentlemen of Verona). I think I have a lot of basic personality traits in common with her. She’s funny, and kind of a nutbar, and she feels very modern to me—I mean, she gets parts where she’s like: “Poor Proteus. Wait! What am I saying?! He’s a jerk who promised to love me and he’s running off after his best friend’s girl. Ugh. But I actually do love him (god help me)… so I still feel bad about it. …Man, we’re all a bunch of morons.” So I think playing her would be awesome. And I have something of an obsession with Joan of Arc, so playing one of her various incarnations one day would be amazing (I’m looking at you, Anouilh). And one day I’d like to play Vivie (from Mrs. Warren’s Profession)—when everyone goes haywire around her and her world crumbles she says: “Screw you all. You’ve proven to be destructive, so I’m cutting you out of my life. I’m going to go do math and support myself as an accountant. Good day.” Man, there are so many good ones. For a challenge I think I’d like to play a villain/monster (I’m actually thinking Caliban. I don’t know who’d cast me there, but let’s get on it, universe!). I haven’t gotten to play either yet, and it seems like a ton of fun. I’m going to have to live for a long time, because clearly I just want to play everyone.

What performers have always had a big influence on you?
You know, other than people I’ve worked with, I don’t know if I have specific performers who influenced me. I fell into loving theatre by doing it, and didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what other people were doing with theatre before that. I feel like everyone continually helps me hone my aesthetic, and gives me something to learn. More than anything I’ve had a string of wonderful, supportive teachers who have helped me figure out how to really do the work.

What are you working on now?
Auditioning for everything I can get my hands on.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
Watch this space? Mostly joking. But not entirely. Here’s my website if you’re interested: http://borahcoburn.com.

Mostly I’d just like to say thanks for nominating me, taking the time to talk to me, and thanks for consistently supporting small independent and student theatre. It’s wonderful to know that people are watching, and care.

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