By Jeremy D. Goodwin
Packer in "Antony and Cleopatra" at Shakespeare & Co. Photo: Kevin Sprague.
When Tina Packer
first led a troupe of actors up to the Berkshires from New York in 1978 and took residence in Edith Wharton’s then-neglected home, The Mount
, the group produced plays on the lawn outside. When she directs a play on Shakespeare & Company's
main stage nowadays at its Kemble Street campus, she does so in a theater named after her.
“It’s faintly embarrassing,” she says of the honor on a recent Sunday afternoon, seated on a bench outside Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse. “I think of myself as a jobbing actor-director. Now I’m institutionalized, so it’s a very odd feeling. On the other hand, I feel terribly grateful to all the people who did it and worked for it to happen,” she says. “But as I say to them: I’m not dead yet! And not only am I not dead, I’ve not retired either.”
Indeed. When her production of Shakespeare’s late-period play Cymbeline
begins performances at the Packer Playhouse on July 4, the theater maven will have reached a remarkable milestone: She'll have directed every single play Shakespeare ever wrote. (There’s about 37, depending on how you count.)
The milestone coincides with the 40th season at Shakespeare & Company and the first of new artistic director Allyn Burrows. Packer herself left that job behind after the 2008 season, citing the importance of handing over the reigns in a stable manner and her desire to complete a list of creative projects that her leadership position didn’t leave time for.
Packer and Epstein in a radio interview in 2016. Photo: Ava G. Lindenmaier.
That’s the sort of thing plenty of people say when they retire from the big job. In Packer’s case, it was true. In the decade since, she has completed and toured extensively with her magnum opus, Women of Will,
a deep exploration of Shakespeare’s evolving conception of females, executed with scene partner Nigel Gore. She’s turned it into a book published by Knopf. She’s worked as a freelance actor, most recently in a production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus
at Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater in March. And she’s continued to direct, closing in on her goal of completing Shakespeare’s canon.
Gore met Packer when he played Claudius to her Gertrude in the 2006 Hamlet
at Shakespeare & Company that marked her return to the stage as an actor in a major Shakespeare role after many years. They've hardly stopped collaborating since, principally through Women of Will,
which has toured Mexico, Prague and China. (Packer and Gore will reprise it in the Packer Playhouse for one night this summer, on August 25.)
“When we go out on the road it’s very moving sometimes to see, especially among young women directors, just how important she has been as a role model, how people look up to her,” Gore says of his collaborator and friend, “and how much she’s achieved and accomplished. She has iconic status for a lot of people in this country and in the world.”
Gore is in the Cymbeline
cast, as is Jonathan Epstein, who has his own long body of work created in collaboration with Packer.
Photo: Enrico Spada
“Tina is one of the few really prolific Shakespeare directors who puts the actor at the center of the concept,” Epstein says, noting that her company’s aesthetic is to start with the text of the play and the actors assembled, rather than shoehorning everything into a director’s high-concept interpretation. “Without Tina’s kind of work, you really can get a little hungry as an actor. Because you feel that your voice isn’t heard.”
Given the demands of the box office, Packer notes, even directors who are Shakespeare specialists may only get the opportunity to direct 10 or 15 of his plays. “By the time you’ve done it all, they all are in relationship to each other. You can see the whole,” she says.
When you consider Packer’s familiarity with the canon—as a director, an actor and an educator—her perspective on the Bard is something rarer than uncommon. Her peers are few.
But that doesn’t means she’s stopped asking questions. Somewhere in the pile of papers she carries around after rehearsal are a list of notes she made during that recent run of Coriolanus
—observations about the role of women in that play that she hadn’t noticed before.
“They seemed really important to me all of a sudden,” she says, even though she had recently sent the last chapter of her latest manuscript, a book on sex in Shakespeare, to her publisher. Now she needs to make some revisions.
Tina Packer’s oeuvre remains a work in progress.