Adversity in ‘As You Like It’ connects to 1930s and now

Jackson Gay, director of the CTC production As You Like It.
Photo by Lauren Rock.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

Dressed in 1930s garb over their daily outfits, the cast members of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It work on two pages of text for one hour during an early blocking rehearsal. Each line of dialogue is a discussion, and each movement on the stage takes repetition to perfect.

Presiding over the rehearsal process is director Jackson Gay, who, through conversations with the actors, designers and production staff, brings As You Like It to life. The third and final Chautauqua Theater Company full production previews at 8 p.m. Friday and opens at 6 p.m. Saturday in Bratton Theater.

The show runs through Aug. 17, and behind-the-scenes details will be shared at 12:15 p.m. today in Bratton Theater at the weekly CTC Brown Bag discussion.

As You Like It, a pastoral comedy, follows protagonist Rosalind after her banishment from her uncle’s court as she turns to the Forest of Arden. The play deals with themes of disguise, love and self-discovery.

Gay and her team chose to set As You Like It in the 1930s, because the tumultuous era mimics the tormented age of the play.

“The country and other parts of the world were hit with a major crisis … and suddenly, all bets were off. There was a lack of control and a real uncertainty about what was going to happen,” she said. “That really fits As You Like It.”

For Gay, one of the central lines of the play is “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” as Duke Senior speaks in Act 2, Scene 1. She said she perceives the meaning of the quote to be as follows: it is when people are pushed to their limits and made uncomfortable that they understand who they are and what is really important.

That theme is evident in today’s world as well, she said.

As You Like It is relevant now, mainly due to the anxiety people feel in the world about what’s going to happen to them,” Gay said. “A lot of people feel that the rug has been pulled out from under them, and a lot of people are finding that they have to reinvent themselves.”

The lack of familiarity and uncomfortability the characters feel will resonate with the audience. The difficulty of the work is making Shakespeare’s lyrical prose palatable to a 21st-century audience, she said.

The cast, comprised of all 14 conservatory actors and two guest artists, works with Gay to infuse their words with meaning.

“My style is I like to see who people are and what they bring to the work, and what their instincts are without me getting in the way, and then taking what I see and helping to shape it,” Gay said. “I try to be collaborative with the actors, and I do think that this group in particular, even though they are young, are very smart and skilled.”

Throughout the early blocking rehearsals, the director and cast exchange thoughts on the motivations for certain lines and scenes and why certain moments occur in the text.

Though Gay has the overarching vision, her collaborative style of directing yields from her undergraduate acting career.

An actor originally, she took one directing course her senior year of college and found her true passion in putting together the whole picture. After undergrad, she went straight to the Yale School of Drama for directing. Since her 2002 graduation, Gay has been a freelance director based in New York City.

“I really enjoy taking all of these different elements and putting it together and making sure that everything is telling the same story and working towards the same goal,” she said.

As You Like It marks Gay’s first production at CTC, and so far, she has immensely enjoyed her time at Chautauqua — a place where family is valued and her 7-year-old daughter can attend Club while she works.

“Chautauqua is like a Forest of Arden in a way,” she said. “It’s this strange, wonderful, unique place, and then you are going to go back to where you came from maybe a little refreshed, and relaxed and reconnected to the things that matter to you.”

One of her favorite aspects of working at Chautauqua is collaborating with the conservatory actors, because their youth and excitement is rejuvenating.

“It’s very hard to be an artist in America. A lot of times as the years go by, you sort of get beaten down,” Gay said. “With students, there tends to still be an amazement that they are doing this with their lives.”