By PHILO COHEN
When I was in Paris last May, my dear friend Violette called me one morning to ask if I would join her to see the kids at her high school perform their end of the year play, Much Ado About Nothing. I love theatre, and especially Shakespeare, and I love seeing young people perform classic plays; I find it impressive. Little did I know that these young people would have the professionalism of experienced actors, and that the young lady playing Beatrice, the lead female role, would make me cry during her final monologue. After the play, I was quite transformed, and immediately felt the need to meet and talk with Dora, the girl who played Beatrice. Violette kindly introduced us and the three of us met in a café where I asked Dora about who she was but also about her relationship with her character, all the elements that made her such a powerful and wonderful actress at such young age.
When did you start performing?
I started performing at the age of 7, maybe 8. At my school, students could easily join the drama club and have access to workshops. Every year, stage directors and actors would come to our school to put an end-of-the-year play together. I quit acting for a while, but by 6th grade I had started performing again, and continued through graduation.
What was your first opinion on Beatrice, the female protagonist in Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare? What do you think of her now?
I had seen Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic adaptation of the play as a child and spoke about it with my friend. She discussed the project with our teacher who said that he loved this play. I was really excited to play this character as I wanted to play it differently than the actress from the film adaption [Emma Thompson]. When Thompson played Beatrice, she was already a grown woman and I felt that her interpretation of the character was much more assertive and less childish than how I would interpret the role because of my age. Beatrice is an orphan living with her uncle in Sicily, so she has this beautiful sense of freedom. She allows herself to think and say whatever she wants. Through her strong character, she acquires and conquers a position very unusual for a woman at the time. While her personality is quite light-hearted and happy, she is constantly at odds with the societal role of women in the 1600s.
Throughout the play there is a kind of mockery towards the clichés of masculinity and men’s position in society. For instance, there are several passages when male characters talk about falling in love, finding the right wife, children, etc. They all talk about women in a way that completely contradicts Beatrice and her philosophy. At the beginning I didn't quite understood her reluctance to falling in love; I interpreted it as her acting as someone that is anti-love, anti-men. Actually, it is the complete opposite! She neither hates men nor the concept of love; she wants to fall in love. However, she rejects the conventions and predetermined role of women in her era: to get married and bear children. For this reason she finds it so difficult to admit that she is in love with Benedick, the male protagonist. Her love interest is the quintessential “macho man,” however, I also find him beautiful with all his contradictions and paradoxes. I find his response to her love very funny: “Yes, she is pretty, yes she is virtuous, but the world needs to be populated!”
Was Much Ado About Nothing the first protagonist part you’ve played?
Last year I played one of the two main female characters in L'Hôtel du Libre Échange [Free Exchange Hotel] by Feydeau. It was very different from playing Beatrice because it was the role of a wealthy French woman who feels abandoned by her husband and wants to take revenge by having an affair with his friend. I really enjoy playing female characters and I actually don’t think I have ever played something other than a woman for an entire play – only small parts as men.
Did you ever feel that you would not be able to complete a certain task while rehearsing?
Not really… Neither this year nor last year. First of all, I was very excited and blessed to play Beatrice. The directors usually give us the text early in the year so we all feel ready to work. I wouldn’t say that I have an excellent memory but when you put yourself in the right conditions, you learn your lines quickly, allowing for more time to spend on other aspects of the play. It is always nice to imagine the placement of the actors on the stage and consider the movements of your character for the first time: “now I go there,” or, “now I move my hand,” “raise my arm,” enter, exit, etc. The more you rehearse and perform, the more confident you feel. Frankly, I never ask myself if I am happy with the way I act; it isn’t my mind that plays the part, but rather my body. Compared to last year, I feel more at ease with following the orders and respecting what the text says word for word. I actually find it more enjoyable not to think about anything, but rather execute, and blindly follow the person that is directing, like a machine. The emotional aspects of the role unfold later in the process.
How did you prepare for this part?
At the beginning, I had to understand Beatrice’s role in Much Ado About Nothing. It was less about working on myself, and more getting to know her: an outsider. I had to fully comprehend her intentions, her path, her background, why she acts a certain way, why she is so scared of love, and such. All these elements had to be analyzed, and compared to other characters thoughts about her. The powerful and beautiful ambience of Sicily also played a major role; something about the cast being surrounded by all these projectors, feeling horribly hot, added to the overall energy of the space. The imagery, the singing and the dancing also really inspired me when playing this joyful character. There was never a moment I thought of judging her. I always believed in giving full validity to her words and actions. It’s amazing to play a role that don't resemble your reality. It might not be your words, or your story, and yet, it is universal, magical. It’s theatre! It isn’t life…
I had a lot of fun dialoguing with Jean-Gabriel, my counterpart, because of how talkative my character was. Honestly, not a lot of work was needed; just the necessary emphasis on specific words and sentences. Sometimes the audience would laugh at a joke, sometimes not… Whenever something did not work as planned, I made sure to say my next line more vividly, more passionately. This year I also came to understand the importance of entrances and exits: these factors define the rhythm of the play. They are impulsions; like breathing.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
Acting is a complicated career… When I was younger I wanted to become an actress, but now I’ve developed other interests, other desires. For a few years now I’ve wanted to go to law school to become a criminal lawyer. I am not finished with drama, but, at the same time, I’m not sure in what direction that path would lead. A lot of performers do other things for one or two years and then start performing again.