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Director Rosa Joshi is mad for Shakespeare

Director Rosa Joshi at "Richard II" rehearsals. Credit: Photo: Seattle Shakespeare Company

“I don’t choose easy plays!” exclaims Rosa Joshi. She’s explaining her selection of "Richard II" as the vehicle for her directorial debut with Seattle Shakespeare Company.

“There are no small choices in Shakespeare. He makes you go to the extremities of emotion and experience, from the heights of joy to the depths of despair. That to me is infinitely challenging,” says Joshi, who has been on the fine arts faculty at Seattle University since 2000.

Extreme situations frame “Richard II,” which traces the downfall of its titular king. Ill-suited to the throne, the impolitic Richard is forced to hand the crown over to his cousin-made-rival, Henry Bolingbroke, before being imprisoned and assassinated. His dramatic reversal of fortune has its counterpart in Henry’s equally dramatic ascent.

Over the past decade, Joshi has made a splash in Seattle with her all-women versions of Shakespeare. In 2006 she co-founded upstart crow, a local collective devoted to producing classic theater with exclusively female casts. Their inaugural production took on the Bard’s “King John”; their second effort followed in 2012 with the ultra-violent “Titus Andronicus.”

“Any time you have one gender onstage it makes you look at gender differently," Joshi says. "I’m not so much prescriptive about what it means, but think of it as an experiment in how the audience relates to the work. For some people, the gender simply goes away, and some people really notice it.”

Director Rosa Joshi at "Richard II" rehearsals. Photo: Seattle Shakespeare Company.

With “Richard II,” Joshi has stayed with conventional casting for this male-dominated play. There are only two actresses in the Seattle Shakespeare production – a seeming contradiction to her goals with upstart crow that doesn’t go unnoticed.

Jay Myers, George Mount, Jason Marr, Dan Kremer, Peter Jacobs in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2014 production of “Richard II.” Photo: John Ulman/ Seattle Shakespeare

Still, she explains, things aren’t that simple. “With Richard, there is a way of looking at him as a character who has a certain female energy in a male world.” As he loses the confidence of his subjects, Richard becomes increasingly marginalized. The actual women in the play, meanwhile, “are the only ones who hold on to family while the others are torn by loyalty to the state.”

The other question she gets about “Richard II”, she finds more puzzling. “Why do you, as a woman of color, insist on doing this work by Dead White Males? Whenever I’m asked that, I point out that these plays are just as much my heritage, too.”

Joshi, who grew up in England and Kuwait, initially thought she was destined to become a doctor, like her father. Still, she kept her options open, studying theater as a double major in the U.S. It was during a semester abroad in London that she was given the opportunity to direct – and realized she would choose theater over medicine. It was a thorny piece: Harold Pinter’s one-act “The Lover.”

That experience spawned internships at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, New York’s Juilliard and a stint at Yale Drama School during the Stanley Wojewodski era. Her classmates included Paul Giamatti, Liev Schreiber and the indie director Tom McCarthy. “I learned so much just from being around my peers,” she recalls.

When Joshi relocated to Seattle during the 1990s, the fringe theater scene was exploding. Legendary local director John Kazanjian of New City Theater became a key mentor, giving her the opportunity to produce her own shows — including her Seattle debut, a “Twelfth Night” staged on the steps of Capitol Hill's Richard Hugo House.

“Seattle is a great place where emerging artists can sink their teeth into work. But it’s harder to sustain mid- and late-career artists,” she explains. It’s an experience that can be seen in Joshi’s turn to upstart crow; a recent trend toward adventurous local theater that Joshi has seen also in groups like New Century Theatre, azeotrope, Washington Ensemble Theatre and Strawberry Workshop.

“A lot of these are companies started by artists who realize they need to self-produce: artists who have a shared mission and the expertise to produce their work, which is empowering.”

Since taking up her position at Seattle University, Joshi has guest directed at several Seattle theaters. She seems especially at home with Seattle Shakespeare, where she coaxes a poetically nuanced performance of the doomed Richard from George Mount, the company’s artistic director.

“The existential journey that Richard goes through is something I think contemporary audiences can relate to in terms of how we define ourselves in the world,” she says. “Richard has to grapple with who he is when he’s no longer king.”

“How does he cope with the absence of that identity? How does Henry edit his identity in order to become a leader? And how much are both shaped by who they are versus the people they have around them?

Do we get the leaders we deserve?”

If you go: Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of "Richard II"  plays through February 2, 2014, at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center. Tickets: 206 733-8222 or online.

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