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“I had no idea Shakespeare could be done that way!”

An Interview with Director Carl Cofield

Study Guide Article

Will Power! Education Program


Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

directed by Carl Cofield

Yale Repertory Theatre

Carl Cofield, the director leading Yale Rep’s production of Twelfth Night, spoke with production dramaturg Molly FitzMaurice about his first encounter with Shakespeare—and how he hopes Twelfth Night will invite young people into the vibrant, Afro-futurist world of Illyria, and into a friendly conversation with Shakespeare.

Molly FitzMaurice: Could you tell me about the very first time you encountered Shakespeare?

Carl Cofield: My first encounter was not until I got into theater conservatory at the University of Miami. As part of the actor training, we had to explore Shakespeare, and I remember vividly saying to my instructor that, in my future career, I didn’t envision doing Shakespeare. I didn’t think there would be a part for a young, black man in the canon. I told him that I would leave Shakespeare alone because Shakespeare had left me alone. And he persuaded me and said that there wasn’t just one role for me—but the possibility of many roles.

MF: What did performing Shakespeare for the first time feel like?

CC: Once I made the text and the characters make sense for me, and gave myself that freedom to explore and to push, I realized, “Wow, I know exactly what this character is feeling. I know exactly what this character is saying.” I found myself pulled to the rhythm of iambic pentameter and the heartbeat that went along with it—that seemed to just feel right. That was my first taste of Shakespeare, and that began my career. I spent the next twenty years doing classical Shakespeare work as an actor and director.

MF: What made you keep returning to Shakespeare’s work?

CC: I saw that Shakespeare didn’t have to be done one certain way. I came to it with a phobia that it had to be English, it had to be very stodgy. But when I saw it being done as I think it would have been done in Shakespeare’s time—for the people, with the audience of the time in mind—it just became so much more alive and so rich. It became freer and much more accessible. And that’s what drew me to Shakespeare’s plays. I think if Shakespeare were alive, he would be pushing the boundaries with music, working with different contemporary musical genres, like rap, hip hop. All of that has a place within the canon.

MF: How does your belief that Shakespeare should be geared toward the people watching it now influence your vision for Twelfth Night?

CC: I’m a big believer that Shakespeare productions should be accessible. And of course, for me, that always means the play should look like a twenty-first-century representation of where I live. So there are different hues of people; there are different complexions; there are different body types.

MF: Why are twenty-first-century reinterpretations of classics so important?

CC: I think it’s vital. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was created when it was created (1814), and to a certain group of people it means one thing. But when I hear Jimi Hendrix play “The Star-Spangled Banner” and put his flavor, his funk, on it, it unlocks things that I don’t even know if Francis Scott Key knew were there. And it makes me hear it and feel it a different way.

So that’s why I love to reinvestigate classics with a more inclusive lens and hopefully unlock parts of the text that might not resonate if it were done in a more conventional way. When I see brown and black people grapple with Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, there might be something in there that really comes into focus, and that’s what’s exciting to me about discovering the world in a more twenty-first-century multi-cultural lens.

MF: That strikes me as even more powerful in offering new ways to look at the central character of Viola.

CC: She’s one of my favorite characters in the canon. She exudes confidence. She exudes this supreme wit. She’s washed up onto the beach with nothing. But yet, through her will, her courage, and her wit, she’s able to navigate a treacherous environment. To see this young women meet this challenge head-on and be a woman of color is something that I hope will resonate with audiences. To see this woman do her thing like that, I hope will give all of us a little bit of courage and a little bit of reflection.

MF: Could you tell me more about the world of Illyria, where Viola unexpectedly finds herself?

CC: To me, it is a fantastical, romanticized version of where we could possibly be thirty years from today. In a world where Black Panther, Hamilton, and Beyoncé are the norm and not the exception. What’s important is creating a world where brown and black people have taken the reins on how their narrative is going to be given over to the world.

MF: What influenced the visual design for this production of Twelfth Night: the setting, costumes, lights, and projections?

CC: I’ve been inspired by the Afropunk movement: a movement on Instagram where brown and black people are defining and reclaiming their own narratives. Shapes of beauty, different skin tones, and different body types are being celebrated in a way that they haven’t been before. The production design team and I have the crazy vision of, what does this world look like when Viola walks in and says, “What country, friends, is this?” It looks and feels much like the world in a state that Afropunk is inhabiting now. It’s much more vivid. It’s much more lush. You have Afropunk artists really pushing the boundaries. What I’m excited to collaborate with the designers to create is a magical, vivid, lush world.

The seeds of Afropunk have been sown in 2018, and if they were to really blossom, what would they look like thirty years from now?

MF: I know music, sound, and harmony are important in Twelfth Night. What music inspires you? What’s on your Twelfth Night mix tape?

CC: Sound is referred to so much in Twelfth Night: the use of music, the use of prose, and the use of iambic pentameter, heightened language, lower language, and music especially. I would love this world of Illyria to have a soundscape that is both familiar and strange at the same time. I listen to musical artists like Fela Kuti, who’s bringing a world music that’s deeply rooted in Africa but also has influences from around the world, and creates something brand new all of his own. It’s my great hope to have the audience think they’ve heard this type of sound before, but yet also say, “Wow, this is so different. I’ve never heard it this way before.” And to me, that would be an ultimate success: if the text can resonate with the audience in that same way. “I’ve seen Twelfth Night a thousand times, yet this one feels different, fresh, more urgent, and more alive.”

MF: What do you hope audiences, especially young people, seeing Twelfth Night, come away with?

CC: It’s vitally important for me, as an artist of color, to have the next young theater maker be in the audience, one who might come into the theater begrudgingly, and say “Why do I have to see this old white man? He’s not inviting me into the conversation.” Hopefully that young theater-goer can come in and say, “You mean to tell me that Olivia can be a beautifully eloquent black women with dreadlocks? I had no idea Shakespeare could be done that way!” To me, that would be a resounding success and unlock some future theater maker, artist, or citizen’s imagination. My biggest hope is that they’d come back and say, “I had no idea it could be done that way. And if it could be done that way, what’s to stop the next thing from being done even bolder.”