Paige Clark played the role of traditionally male Benvolio/a in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s fall 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet. Her twist filled with “tough girl, punk rock” attitude mixed with her natural empathy allowed her to shine in this supporting role, and, for that, she was nominated for a 2013 Boston My Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Play. In her interview, Paige talks about her love for Shakespeare, her interpretation of the gender-bent role (including why Benvolia needs to shake-it-out!), and her take on friendships.
Paige, I know you must be so busy, so thank you for taking the time to interview with us before the 2013 Boston My Theatre Awards Season closes. Can you start by introducing yourself? Where are you from? How did you get involved in theatre? How long have you been in Boston? What are your education, training, and experience?
Hi! Thanks so much for nominating me! So, I’m Paige Clark; I’m originally from San Antonio, Texas, but I came to Boston to study acting at Boston University. I got my BFA in Theatre from BU in 2009, and I have been living here ever since (well, actually right now I live in Salem with my husband, Dave). The BU program is a four-year conservatory style training program and I cannot say enough about how wonderful I think the training is there. I’ve also studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts through the BU Study Abroad Program. I’ve been doing theatre ever since I was little, but I really made a commitment to pursue it starting in high school. I had a really great program at Churchill High School that was into all sorts of play contests, speech and debate opportunities, and getting its students into great conservatories.
Okay, let’s dive right in. You played Benvolia, a clever take on the classic trio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. How did you react at first when you were offered the role? Had you ever played a cross-gendered role?
Yeah, I gotta say that I was a little surprised when I got the call! But I was thrilled! I’d played gender-bended roles in Shakespeare before (in theatre school, the girls often wind up doing that so that we have some more opportunities). In fact, I’d played Benvolio before in a touring production with Shakespeare Now!, an educational theatre company that performs for school groups. So, this time I really wanted to find a different side of the character. I was really nervous going into it because I had no idea what direction the directors wanted to take me!
What were the biggest challenges for taking this historically male role and making it your own? How did the relationships change in your Actors’ Shakespeare Project production because of a female Benvolia? What were some of the successful elements of such a change?
Well, the first obvious question is “Are you gonna try to ‘pass as a male’? Or are you gonna ‘just be a girl’?” Once we decided to truly keep Benvolia a female, and not apologize about it, I started thinking about “What kind of girl is this who runs around with these guys?” Ya know, WHO AM I? Which is always the question I’m asking myself about the characters I play, regardless of the gender-bending aspect.
There was also a direction from the directors that I really struggled with at the start: just because she’s a girl doesn’t mean she has to be sweet. I really struggled with that because I, as a person, tend to be a good listener and tender to my friends. So when Benvolia is listening to her friend Romeo spill his guts, my natural tendency was to kinda have an “Aww, poor baby!” attitude. But the directors were not having it. “Toughen her up!” they kept saying. I had to really work on finding those tough moments, without pushing it or making it a caricature. I feel like eventually I ended up with a Benvolia who is totally mine.
One hidden gem we found with making Benvolia a female was the relationship dynamics between the threesome of Mercutio, Benvolia, and Romeo. I like to think our production had a little bit of sexy in it, so Mercutio and I worked out a fun little subplot for ourselves. We thought, “Well, if this guy and this girl are this hot, and they’ve been partying all night, of course they’re gonna hook up!” So, we found places where the text could support something like that and gave it a try. I think the result was something fun and original. Having Benvolia be a female also, I think, helps Romeo open up about his feelings at the top of the play. I feel like my character helps Romeo reveal more of himself than if he were talking to Mercutio or another male friend.
Absolutely! The production was sexy! Talk to us about your text work with Shakespeare. How do you prepare to perform Shakespeare? What have been some of your favourite roles? Interpretations? Your Romeo and Juliet was very modern-feeling. What did you like about your production’s interpretation?
So, when I first get cast in a Shakespeare play, I read the play. Like, a bunch of times! I do a lot of work with the script. I’m one of those people who really believes that the text is gospel, so I’m always looking through it for clues. I’ll look at what other characters say about me, what my character says about others, and then I’ll take every scene I’m in and look at the verse and poetic devices. I do all this homework before we really even start rehearsing, just so that I know what I’m saying. Once I get into the room with everyone else, I let that nerdy book-work go and just play with the actors onstage. I was really fortunate to have a lot of exposure to Shakespeare during my college training program and I also studied Shakespeare when I was in London.
The favorite Shakespearean roles I’ve played are probably Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona (also with Actors’ Shakespeare Project), and actually Cassio in Othello (that was one in college where I was sorta trying to “pass as a male”). Probably the most crazy was the Shakespeare Now! tour, when I played Hermia/Snug in Midsummer, Benvolio/Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, and Witch/Fleance in Macbeth all in rep, each one hour long, each with only 6 actors. It was wild!
As far as interpretation, I love all kinds! I like it when it’s pretty traditional, I like it when it’s modern. What I think is most important is that there be a clear world in which the play is set. And it helps if the concept is supported by the text and isn’t too arbitrary. My favorite example of an over-conceptualized production is Hamlet in space. I loved the darkness of our interpretation. Everything was black, white, and red, and the people of this world were tough and smart. It felt like there was danger on the streets, not just a pretty idyllic Verona. Ya know?
Are there any female Shakespeare roles that you would love to play? Any male roles that you’d love to cross-gender and play?
Oh yeah! Like ALL of them?! No, but really I actually have this dream of getting to play all the pants roles in the canon. So that’s all the girls who dress up like boys in every Shakespeare play: Julia, Viola, Portia, Imogen, Rosalind. I guess I have an affinity to cross-dressing? And if I could convince somebody to cast me as Iago in Othello, I could pretty much die happy!
Ooo, I’d love to see you as Iago; smart, a little sexy, and lots of menace. Jumping back, why do you think Romeo and Juliet is still an important play to produce and perform? Any other Shakespeare plays that you would like to see performed now?
I think that all of Shakespeare’s plays are important to perform and produce again and again because with each generation new problems come to light. Through these plays, we see problems of the human condition played out and we learn from them. Talented actors and directors can bring the most relevant lessons and themes to the surface to shed light on issues of our current time and place. Also, every actor is different! So my Benvolio is gonna be different from your Benvolio. Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet is different from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. And the list goes on! Each actor inhabits each role differently and makes you laugh and cry at different places. So, to me, it worth watching over and over. That’s the beauty of all enduring works of theatre!
Do you have any funny or embarrassing performing stories?
Hahahahaha! Probably too many to count! But one in particular that springs to mind is right now, I’m playing Christmas Eve in Avenue Q. While that whole show is just hilarious, during the wedding scene, I have to wear this god-awful Goodwill poofy sleeved wedding dress that’s just a little too small for me. So every night I get stuck trying to get out of it. Like, literally half the lace is over my face and my arm is pinned to my chest as I’m trying to wriggle out from under the taffeta skirts and giant bow. It’s a sight to see.
Best friends and loyalty were so important in Romeo and Juliet, especially in watching your relationships with Romeo and Mercutio. What was it like being the only girl in such friendships? In real life, how did you know that your best friend was your best friend? What do you think is your best quality as a friend?
Aww, that’s such a nice question! Well, first off, I would totally agree with you that loyalty and friendship are so important to the story of the play. I think being the only girl in that circle really gave the friendship dynamic a balance that you don’t get with three dudes. Benvolio is already written to be the more sensitive and reasonable one of the bunch, so having a girl play that role reinforces that. Also, being the only girl onstage with Romeo, Mercutio, and Tybalt really just makes me feel like a bad-ass! Like, “Yeah! I can run with the fellas! What of it?!” I’ve always been able to be friends with guys, and I usually feel that being surrounded by masculinity only serves to point up my strengths as a female.
In real life, actually, my best friends have always been members of my family. Sure, I had close friends in school but a lot of times they let me down when I really needed them. My sister, and now my husband, are really the greatest examples of best friends I could ever have. They tell me like it is, but are always on my side. They never turn away, even if I’m being awful, and they encourage me to stand up for myself. I think that those are some of the qualities I like to present as a friend myself. I also, am a really good listener. My natural response to someone spilling their guts is to listen and sympathize and to try to make them feel better.
What do you think is your biggest strength as an actor? What do you know is your strongest attribute as a person?
Again, I think my greatest strength as an actor, and as a person, is that I am a good listener. On stage, you have to be present, listen, and respond honestly. In life, you have to do the same.
If you had to give up something that you do every day, what would it be?
I would/should give up watching TV. It melts my brain.
What is the hardest thing for you to do while acting? What is the easiest? What do you continue to try to improve about your performing?
I still get really nervous when I have to sing. I think I’m getting better at it (I sure hope so, since I’m in a musical right now!). I find it relatively easy to speak Shakespearean verse, but again, only with enough prep work! I want to get better at comedy and dancing! I’m a lousy dancer.
If you had to create a playlist for Benvolia as a person and character, what songs would be on it? Would she have a theme song?
I totally totally already did this! Everyday before the show I would do my warm up and run around the theatre (The Strand Theatre is HUGE!) listening to my Benvolia playlist. Pretty much all of Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials album is on there. She also listens to a little Regina Spektor and Mika as well. I like to think Benvolia is a little more troubled and dark than most people would at first glance, so I feel like her theme song would be “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine. There’s a kind of weight on her that she has to carry around and she has to hold so much: Romeo’s love for Rosalind, the death of her friend, and the news of Juliet’s death. Sometimes, she’s just gotta shake it all out!
“Sharing is caring.” Discuss.
Hmmm. Well, if you mean in life, of course! We teach kids to share. If you mean on stage, I am a firm believer in developing a strong ensemble to share the stage. It can only make your production stronger. If I am playing a leading role, I still want to share the stage with others. Some of the greatest discoveries happen in the silence.
If you could perform one prior role again, which would it be? What would do differently?
I would love to play Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream again. I would like to try it both totally broad comedy and see how funny it could be, and then see how truthful and honest I could make her. That play can go in so many directions, I could be in it forever!
Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?
I’ll be in Where The Mountain Meets The Moon with Wheelock Family Theatre in Boston. It’s a great adaptation of the children’s novel that explores Chinese folktales and one girl’s journey to change her family’s fortune. I play Jade Dragon and various other roles.
Do you have anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
Watch and read Shakespeare! It’s awesome!