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Nouvelles Pod #15 - Elizabeth Kolkovich and Tamara Mahadin

 Nouvelles Nouvelles Podcast 15: Elizabeth Kolkovich and Tamara Mahadin

Interviewer: Elise Robbins (ER); Interviewees: Elizabeth Kolkovich (EK); Tamara Mahadin (TM)

Time: April 18, 2024; Location: Zoom

ER: Hello, this is Elise Robbins with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State University. Today, I'm sitting down with two OSU colleagues to talk about their recent project. Elizabeth Kolkovich is an associate professor of English at the OSU Mansfield campus, and Tamara Mahadin is a PhD candidate in English. Together, they have been working on a joint research and teaching project through the OSU-based theatrical group Lord Denny's Players to produce a full-length documentary called Looking for Mariam, 1613. Thank you both so much for talking with me about this amazing project today!

EK: Thanks so much for having us, Elise. 

TM: Thank you for having us. 

ER: Yeah, I'm super excited to talk about it. But before delving into the project itself, I was hoping you could give some context to our listeners and our readers about the play that you're working with, The Tragedy of Mariam, and its author, Elizabeth Cary. 

EK: Sure. I would love to tell everyone a little bit more about Elizabeth Carey. 

ER: Please make her name known! 

EK: Yes! So, Elizabeth Cary is a contemporary of Shakespeare, which means that she was living and writing the same time that he was. And we only have one surviving play that she wrote, although she wrote some other things. And it seems that she wrote an earlier play that has not survived.

The Tragedy of Mariam is about the title character Mariam, who is married to King Herod. And at the beginning of the play, everyone hears a rumor that Herod has died. He's gone off to Rome—kind of on a business trip—and we hear that he isn't coming back. And he has not been a great king, according to the play. He's been a tyrant. And so, the whole first part of the play is about everyone reacting to what they're able to do freely now that Herod is gone. By the end of the play, things turn out a little differently. And my students have asked me not to spoil that for folks. So, you can watch the documentary and find out what happened if you don't know the play. But it did not end happily, as you may guess from the title. 

The Tragedy of Mariam was written around the same time as Shakespeare's Othello, and it deals with several of the same issues. But one thing that my students and I have realized working with The Tragedy of Mariam is that it centers women's voices more than a lot of other plays in the time period, so it's very focused around female speech. It begins with a long monologue by a woman, and all of the female characters get fairly substantial monologues and speeches throughout the play. 

ER: Thank you for that overview! So, with the project, obviously you mentioned you're working with students. Can you tell us a little bit about what you've created with The Tragedy of Mariam? EK: Sure. So, I have a course, an OSU course that I'm teaching online, and it involves students from the Mansfield and Newark campuses. That's why we're doing it virtually, so we can cross campuses and all work together. Title of the class is Shakespeare's Female Contemporary and it's English 4520.02. It's been a super fun experiment! 

So, the students and I read the play, The Tragedy of Mariam. We read a bunch of scholarship about the play and talked about it quite a bit. And then I divided the students into four groups, and each group was responsible for producing a section of the documentary. We also wrote the first section together and the conclusion together as well. And the students interviewed scholars and former directors of this play from around the world. We learned so much. It was such an exciting process. 

ER: Oh, I love that. Was putting on the play a part of it, or was it a combination of performance and research and all that? 

EK: Yeah, that's a great question. So, I just talked about the class element, but the other part of this is the part that connects the most to Lord Denney’s Players’ outreach agenda, which is to perform versions of early modern drama in ways that are fun and accessible and in ways that create wonderful learning opportunities for everyone involved. So, in addition to running the course, I also directed scenes from the play. The play is quite long and it has extremely long speeches. And so, I took the whole play and cut it down. I chose 14 scenes of the play and cut some of them a bit while trying my best to retain the very interesting poetic structure that Cary uses for the play. And then we had open auditions for anyone affiliated with Ohio State, including recent alumni, and chose some really excellent actors who were super smart and engaged and got into these characters in ways that I wasn't even expecting. They taught me so much. And so, then we, with the very important help of Tamara, she and I held rehearsals for four weeks, and in a very quick time period, we recorded over Zoom these 14 scenes. Then, my students and I used those scenes in the documentary so that the documentary includes our kind of narrative about the play's history, as well as arguments about what's happening in the play, interviews with scholars, and then these performed scenes, too. You get a little bit of everything in the documentary. 

ER: I love it. That's awesome. What was it like to do this whole process over Zoom? You know, performing and I mean, interviewing (I guess we're probably used to Zoom interviews), but I'm interested in performing over Zoom.

EK: I think it worked really well for this particular play. You know, one thing that I didn't say when you asked me to explain what the play is like is that this play is what we scholars often call ‘closet drama.’ I have mixed feelings about that term, but it basically means a play that was written to be read instead of performed on stage. It is possible that Elizabeth Cary and her friends or family read aloud the play or she performed it in her house in some way, but this play was not performed on a public theater stage until the late 20th century. And so, I found (and I'd love to hear what Tamara thought of this too), but I found that Zoom was kind of a perfect venue for a closet drama. Unlike Shakespeare and some of the plays written for the public stage, The Tragedy of Mariam has a lot of long individual speeches by individual characters and then interactions between two or maybe three characters. And there's just a lot of introspective talking. And I thought that worked really nicely with Zoom. 

Another benefit is that it allowed us to bring together some alumni who live in all different places. We had someone on the West Coast, for example, and she was able to join us. If we had staged it live together in person, that wouldn't have happened. So yeah, I'd love to hear from Tamara too, what you thought about Zoom for this play. 

TM: Yeah, I mean, it also gives us the ability to just cut specific lines or move speeches around. Instead of having a five-minute block of just one person just having this long speech, we were able to cut it and continue the scene after the narrator says something or after a scholar comes in and says something about that specific act that we included. And at the same time, yeah, I think connecting with other scholarship and scholars was really exciting. I'm really excited, you know, for everyone to see their answers and what they're saying. I feel like as we're like editing right now, the full documentary, a lot of it is asking questions they're thinking through while they're answering the questions. And I think that's part of reading a play like The Tragedy of Mariam. Like, we have so many questions that we want to answer, but also we don't have a specific answer. And that's where the students probably might struggle with coming up with a specific argument. But rather, here's the questions that we're going to raise across all these topics that we have discussed, and we just want to inform the audience, but also let you think about how you would interpret the play itself. So, I think that's part of the fun part of the project. 

And I think it's an excellent tool for accessibility for teachers who want to teach this play. Like they can say, “Okay, today we're going to talk about the Chorus,” and then go to that section on YouTube and watch the chorus and discuss the performance of the cast of the Chorus. I think that would be very interesting for students to look at. 

EK: Yeah, I think that's such an excellent point. One of the things that's really fun about this project is that although as director, as my role as director and Tamara's role as assistant director, we had particular ideas about how we wanted scenes portrayed, just like any director would, but we didn't have to stop there. We got to frame it with some other questions and possibilities. So we're hoping that instead of closing down interpretations, we're really opening up a lot of different ways to look at this play. And my students and I decided that how we would conclude the documentary is to think about possible futures for The Tragedy of Mariam, because we realized that what we would love to come out of this, and Tamara was mentioning this as well, is that maybe more people will teach and read and perform the play, and we're hoping that we're giving them some tools to at least start doing that. 

ER: I love that so much. I love that you're all imagining beyond this and using this as a resource, but like how that resource can help other students and teachers go beyond so that we have The Tragedy of Mariam everywhere as it deserves. I think you've both kind of gotten to this a bit, actually maybe not more than a bit, quite a lot, about the process for your students. What is the biggest area of growth or expansion that you saw for your students throughout this process? 

EK: That is a really great question and kind of a difficult one because I saw so much. I think that I'll highlight a few things, I guess. One is confidence. Right now, you know, we're recording this toward the end of April. I'm actually going to teach my final class later today. And my students are working on their final paper. It's a kind of take-home exam, and it's got a portion that asks them to compare The Tragedy of Mariam to Othello. And in the drafts that I've seen so far, I've told several of them that they sound more sophisticated and knowledgeable than most undergraduates would sound because they have the knowledge from talking to scholars directly. Something happened when they started interviewing scholars and thinking about the play as something that they could kind of own and decide how it was performed. They advised Tamara and me on things like costumes and ways of performing scenes. So, once they had that experience, they realized that, you know, the academic approach to this play no longer seemed like something other people did. This was something they could do too. And these scholars are just regular people like them who have gotten obsessed with this particular play. Then, after studying that play for almost an entire semester—it was probably two thirds of the semester we spent on this play—they really are experts. So, I think that confidence is one of the big things I saw. 

Working in groups for big group projects is not something that English majors do all that often, especially ones who focus on literature, as my students, almost all of them, are focusing on literature within the major. And so, I think that for several of them, this was an eye-opening experience that helped them learn a lot of things about collaboration too. 

ER: Do you have anything to add to that, Tamara? 

TM: Maybe because I was part of—I went to a couple of classes with Elizabeth—but I was also on the other end with the actors. And I think that same thing applies to the actors because I don't think anybody read the play before. We did a table read. It's the first time they've ever read it. And I love the growth, how they took ownership of the characters that they wanted to play. And we were walking through the lines with them at the beginning so they could understand the context of individual speeches. But as they moved forward until the last day of rehearsals where we were actually recording, it was amazing, the transformation of how at the beginning they were just, you know, not entirely sure about how they wanted to perform. But then they started embodying it as we talked through these characters with them. And then in the end, they just became experts. I just love how they delivered those lines, how they acted them out, how they engaged with each other through Zoom, even though Zoom can be very not accessible when it comes to acting, but they figured it out. 

EK: I will add to that, that as I've been rewatching some of the clips with actors (my students interviewed some of the actors from The Tragedy of Mariam), I am so impressed by how eloquently these actors can talk about their characters after being that character for such a short amount of time. I mean, like I said, we spent about a month on this and it really shows me several things. One is that many of the actors are sort of Lord Denny's Players long-time alumni, and they've done a lot of early modern theater with our artistic director, Sarah Neville, and they've learned so much, and they really are experts in early modern drama. They were able to get into this play very quickly. Some of our actors were also first-time actors and had very little experience with early modern drama. And they also dove in completely and were able to really investigate their characters in new ways. So, I think for me that a lot of these actors discovered new things about these characters. Tamara and I both have read this play a lot, and I feel like I maybe never really understood it until after this process, or at least I never understood it in both  as specific and broad ways as I do now. 

TM: Yeah, I love how sometimes when they asked us about a specific line, and Elizabeth and I were looking at each other and go, “Huh?” We needed to read this again and again so we can decipher it together because it's such a long play with so many speeches. But I think I love that, you know, walking through these lines together. And just being like, “Okay, what are the possibilities of how we would interpret these lines or how would you want to deliver these lines?”

EK: Yeah, that happened so often, where someone would ask about a line and both of us would just look at each other blankly. “I never thought about that before. That never occurred to me.” But I hope it comes across—it does for me, when I watch these performances—that the actors really knew what they were saying. They had a very clear understanding of the verse, which can be challenging. Many of the actors said that this was some of the most challenging verse they had ever memorized. And I think they did a fantastic job of really getting to the heart of what it meant to them and what it meant for their character. 

ER: I want to circle back to when we were talking about the process for your students and for the actors in the play. Something that you both mentioned there were these ideas of increasing confidence, understanding, but also it kind of feels like really being able to claim the play in a way. Or not claim it, but to be able to say, you know, “I can make this my own” or “I'm feeling really a part of this” and that’s something that stuck out to me. I'm teaching a Shakespeare class this spring, and I think one of the things that I've noticed about teaching Shakespeare is students, once they get to the point where they're like, “Oh, I feel like I'm a part of this, I feel like this is not just somewhere I don't belong,” that is really a significant moment for them. But I also feel like it takes quite a while because we many times know these characters, we know the Shakespeare plays. I'm wondering if you think that with a play like The Tragedy of Mariam, where it hasn't been this cultural giant for so long, do students, you think, feel more like they have opportunities to enter into it and make it their own and feel some kind of ownership over the play? 

TM: We’re going to talk a lot about the idea of Salome’s speech. And as a woman reading that play for myself, I can tell that I connected a lot with it. And I can also tell that the actors connected with it. Because during the rehearsals—and these were like recorded behind the scenes footage because we wanted to go back and see them—a lot of them were like, “Oh my, I can't believe that I'm reading these lines. This is crazy.” And they would react instantly about why would Mariam talk to Salome this way? Or why does Salome respond this way? But then trying to justify also why women are reacting that way, it's because of the society that they live in. And I think because we have three characters that you're going to see, Salome, Mariam and Graphina…and Doris. So, all these women characters, every single one of them is living in society that is confining them and they're trying to escape and also defend themselves. And that's where like the gender and race aspect comes in. 

But from the actors, I can tell that they were really thinking through how they want to deliver the lines. And they would ask us, “Elizabeth, okay, do you think I should do this or that?” “Do you want Salome to be snarky?” “Do you want Salome to not be snarky?” And we just went through and said, “Okay, read the speech three times in three different ways and let's see which one you feel that fits well with this character.” Then you feel like, “Okay, this is how I want to deliver it.” And I think that says a lot about this play that we can connect with it, especially when we understand the historical, religious, cultural background, but also relate it to our current moment. We have a part in the film documentary where we ask people, “If we told you there was a female writer writing a play during Shakespeare's time, what would you think?” So, I'm excited for you to see the answers to that. 

EK: Yeah, I think Tamara brings up a lot of great points about how this play, although unknown by basically everyone who worked on this documentary—except for the two of us—this play connects so easily to students' and actors' contemporary experiences. The one speech that everybody who works on the film keeps going back to is a soliloquy where the character Salome speaks alone on stage. And she's Herod's sister. And she is kind of the play's villain, but we all fell in love with her too. I mean, not that we condone everything she does, because she does some pretty terrible things, but she has this very modern sounding speech where she says, “I don't want to be married to my husband anymore. Why can't I divorce him? It does not make sense that men can divorce women and not the other way around. Why can't women have all the same rights as men?” And it sounds like a kind of 21st-century way of thinking about marriage and gender and roles of men and women. But she also does really terrible things. So, the play invites you to kind of love her and hate her at the same time. But yeah, that connection made the play feel like it wasn't obscure, it made the play feel like something that just kind of made sense to all of us. So, there was that component. 

But I also think the other part of your question, Elise, is that you're getting at something that I agree with completely, that there are opportunities with a play like The Tragedy of Mariam to feel a kind of sense of personal connection and ownership. If you're one of only a few people in the world who know the play as well as you do, there's a real special feeling to that. I do think that there are also a lot of opportunities if you want to perform this play because these are not speeches that everyone knows. If you're putting on a production of Hamlet, you're not going to cut the “To be or not to be” speech, unless you want audible gaps from the audience. But with this play, you can cut it in all sorts of ways and really make it your own because people aren't so precious about this play as they are with Shakespeare. But likewise, if you see a production of a Shakespeare play, you're always going to see cuts and rearrangements. And because it's been done so many times, sometimes directors feel like they have liberty to do different things. So, I do think... That's one thing we thought about with the documentary. What if this is someone's only encounter with this play? And again, if I were directing Hamlet, I wouldn't have that question because I would assume that people would have some encounter with some part of Hamlet if you just live in the Western world, but with The Tragedy of Mariam, I guess I just see lots of opportunities really. 

ER: Yeah. Well, I love that. And I imagine there is a certain kind of, gravity in being like, “This is perhaps going to be and definitely will be many people's first exposure to this play.” So, I'm fully confident that you both did that with such care and such attention that I'm really excited to see how it comes across in the documentary. I think this is a logical segue. I was going to ask both of you, as people who have worked with this play a lot, is there anything that for you personally was surprising that happened during the process or that you learned or saw in a different way? 

EK: Neither Tamara nor I have ever directed before. And so, I joked with her at the beginning of the process that this was going to be a “fake it till you make it” situation. And that actually did work, as it turned out. I mean, one thing that we had going for us is that we both know this play really well. Tamara writes about it in her dissertation, and I have a forthcoming article, and I am editing the play. And I've taught it a couple of times before, too. Anyway, we know the play well. And I think that's maybe the first thing you need to do as a director is just know the material pretty well. But I think that was something that also worked in our favor about neither of us having directed before is that we didn't come in with any expectations about how exactly it should go. So, we got to work together between ourselves and with the actors to create a way of directing and acting over Zoom. And that was really great. So, I think just the fact that Zoom can be so interactive and can make you feel connected to people is something that I was happy to relearn. I know we all learned it during the lockdown part of the pandemic, but I know that in higher education, a lot of us have moved away from Zoom in many ways, and we're wanting the in-person experiences again. And certainly, the actors said some of them were really missing that in-person connection. And also, it's strange to act sitting down looking at a camera when you're used to being a stage actor who can move around. And some of them talked about it being difficult to memorize when they didn't have blocking to rely on. So, there were some things that we worked out together. That all made it feel really experimental and fun. And so, I think one thing that I learned from the experience is that I like those kinds of fun experiments. And I think that there's an incredible amount of learning that can happen. 

Now, in terms of what I learned about the play itself, there are so many things. I suppose one thing that I learned that was surprising is that I came to find Herod to be a more nuanced character than I thought at first. So, Herod is the tyrant figure, and he, especially if you, like Tamara was talking about earlier, if you're a female reader like the two of us and you connect with the female characters and you see them as oppressed, then Herod is obviously the bad guy, and he's not someone that I connected to. But the actor who we had played Herod, Antony Shuttelworth, thought so carefully, so thoughtfully about this role and what it meant. Conversations with him and watching him figure out how to deliver Herod's lines really taught me a lot about Herod's character. And I do think that he has some remorse about some of the bad things he's done. We spent a lot of time laughing about Herod because he's actually quite funny, too, because his emotions are all over the place. But anyway, that's a character I didn't really expect to think that much about, I have to admit, but this process made me think a lot about the portrayal of Herod. And we have a whole section in the documentary about Herod, too. 

TM: Yeah, I would add to that also, Graphina and Doris. I’ve read the play a lot. I focus extensively on Salome and Maryam and Herod, but those characters also, I learned so much from just listening to the delivery and listening to these lines again. And that's part of the surprising part that I enjoyed. I've reread the play multiple times and this time it's not my voice. I don't have to read it out loud. I can hear other people read it, and I can pay attention. And that itself is just a new learning curve. Because as you said, right now I'm like, “Oh, well, Herod, he's a bad guy.” But, also the way that Antony explained to us in the “Behind the Scenes” how he would think through his character. Yeah, it's just such a complicated character. All of them are. 

And the same applies to Graphina and Doris. Graphina doesn't have that many speeches. And Doris has a couple and one with Mariam, too. But those characters are still not talked about in scholarship as much, especially for instance, Graphina. They're mentioned, but not extensively like researched and how their figure is. One of the things that is discussed is race, how Doris and Mariam are in opposition to Salome and the fair skin. But other than that, it's not much talking through the plot and these characters and these four women all in total. So, I hope that this documentary also sheds lights on Graphina and Doris and other characters in the play too.

Regarding assistant directing, yeah, I have zero experience. I loved how we don't have experience, but we know about the play. And at the same time, we have the actors, who did an excellent job, and we have the students. So, honestly a lot has to do with Elizabeth's leadership and the collective effort from the students and actors and how we were able to make this all come together in such a short time too. 

EK: Yeah, it required a lot of people on board, working together, but that was amazing. And it really, it's such a lesson in how many skills humanities and arts folks have. And what we can do when we combine efforts. I mean, it's really kind of incredible that we were able to produce the documentary in one semester, in three months, essentially. 

And I'm so pleased that Tamara brought up Graphina in particular. She became the beloved character of my students. And if you know the play, you will know that she appears once. She has one speech in the entire play; she has one scene, one speech, and she's silent through most of this scene. My students just really kind of fell in love with Graphina because they loved (these are English majors, right, they love to dig into text) the different ways they were able to interpret that character based on one speech. And it also helped that Vivian Shenberger, who is in my class, played Graphina. So, she was both a producer and an actor, and she was there, able to talk with us about her take on the role. And that was really fun to have that connection between the actors and the students. But I hope that future scholars will take more of a look at Graphina, because like Tamara said, there is some scholarship on her, but not nearly as much as on Mariam and Salome, who are much bigger characters. And Doris too. We did something different with her. I'll be curious to hear what some of our colleagues think about some of our choices, in the way that we cut the play and what we recorded, because we actually cut out one of the women in the play, one of the female characters, because in the play, Mariam's mother makes an appearance. And we decided to cut her for a few different reasons. One was just practical. We needed to keep the cast kind of small so that it would be manageable in the time we had. I also decided to not record any scenes that had more than two characters. There are so many, so many long speeches and we needed to cut some of those. So we ended up cutting out that one character. Also, Doris has a interaction with her son, and we cut the son just because he's a minor character. And again, we wanted to make it manageable, but that turned Doris's long speech into a soliloquy performed on stage by herself (“on stage” in scare quotes, on Zoom by herself. And so, we were her audience, and that brought something different to Doris's character and it gave her a more kind of equal weight to Mariam and Salome who both have these long speeches by themselves. So, it was interesting to see how our cuts and our changes brought some things forward that we may not have noticed otherwise. 

ER: Oh man, I love all of this, and both of your answers are making me even more excited to watch this when it comes out. So much good stuff there and I think I'll probably leave it at that, but I do want to ask for you to remind us, when will Looking for Mariam, 1613 be coming out and where are we going to be able to watch it? 

EK: We are going to premiere the film on Sunday, April 28. We're going to start it at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time. It's about 90 minutes in length. Then, when it's over at about 8:30 to 9:00, we are going to have a talkback session with Tamara and me (if Tamara is willing to get up really early in the morning because she'll be in a different time zone; she is completely dedicated). But anyway, also with the with the cast and crew. Some of my students will be there, as well as the actors. And we'd really love people to ask us questions. So, this will all happen like the documentary itself and the whole process in an online space. And we are working right now on a Zoom link. So, everyone who would like to join us will be able to register for Zoom all the way up until right when we start at 7:00 p.m. and watch the film with us and then talk about it. 

Now, if you are listening to this podcast after April 28th or if you're not able to join us on that night, that's fine too, because our film, Looking for Mariam 1613, will live free on YouTube for anyone to watch. And you'll be able to find that through the Ohio State English Department’s YouTube channel. 

ER: Awesome. Well, I'm really excited to watch it. I will definitely be there on the 28th. And I look forward to seeing, I think as you both are, what this does out in the world. It's very exciting. EK: Thank you so much. 

TM: Thank you. 

EK: I was so excited to come and talk about this with you. 

TM: Yes. Thank you so much. 

ER: Yeah, thank you for talking with me about it. And I look forward to seeing where it goes.