As Artistic Director of Austin Shakespeare since 2007, Ann Ciccolella has led the company to continue to stage FREE Shakespeare in Zilker Park featuring a 1960s rock musical of The Dream, a Pachuco style Romeo y Julieta, a Bollywood Twelfth Night, a South American The Winter's Tale. She directs at the Long Center’s intimate Rollins Theatre, where she has produced plays by Shakespeare, along with Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Tom Stoppard, Noel Coward, Jane Austen, Harold Pinter, George Bernard Shaw, and Edmond Rostand. In 2013, Ann returned to New York to direct and produce a half-million-dollar production of a new adaptation of Ayn Rand's Anthem Off-Broadway at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. As a playwright, Ann has had full productions of her original scripts: Madame X (inspired by the painting by John Singer Sargent), Fruits and Vegetables, and a number of plays for youth. Ann teaches acting and runs a weekly Artist’s Way creativity group. She also teaches an acting studio and playwriting classes for Austin Shakes and has taught theater courses at UT Austin and St. Edward's University. She is often found in Central Texas classrooms bringing professional actors to work with
students from 5th grade and up. With an interdepartmental degree in Dramatic Literature, History of Theater and Cinema from New York University, one of Ann’s proudest accomplishments for Austin Shakespeare is creating a teen company, “Young Shakespeare,” which stages a Shakespeare play with professional training and designers each year at The Curtain Theatre, an Austin replica of an Elizabethan theater. From 1999-2007 Ann served as Managing Director for Zach Theatre. Prior to that Ann was executive director for Austin Circle of Theaters, a service organization for Austin's 70 theaters, dance, and music groups (now called the Austin Creative Alliance). As a stage director at ZACH, Ann directed: Cabaret, The Vagina Monologues, Full Gallop, Closer, Master Class, and Misery. Before moving to Austin, Ann served as associate director for SHAKESPEARE ON WHEELS, from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, for three years. For ten years, she led the Renaissance Theater Company as Artistic Director, producing and directing Off-Broadway and along the East Coast with shows ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Oedipus Rex to Cyrano de Bergerac. In 2020, Ann helped assemble a group of 75 theater companies in Austin to collaborate on promoting theatergoing #ATXtheatre. On August 9, 2007, Ann Ciccolella was presented with a "Distinguished Service Award" for her advocacy in building the creative community of Austin. As a driving force in the community, Ciccolella worked intensely with voters to garner $32.5 million in bonds for Austin’s arts facilities.
Interview by Usha Akella (2020)
Image Credit: Kevin Miyazaki
"Each of his plays is like a song you love to hear again."
Usha Akella: I am delighted to finally have an opportunity to explore your creative visions, Ann. I’ve attended your plays for years in awe at your ability to cast any play in a contemporary light. Your cross-cultural productions and multi-ethnic casts contribute to dialogue and peace-making. Your productions are playful, pushing the edge yet never lacking conviction or losing a grip on the playwright’s script. You’ve managed to bring Bollywood and Texas boots, and a female Hamlet to your stage. So, let’s begin by exploring the audacity of Ann Ciccolella. Why are you compelled to rewrite/reimagine or re-vision and can we chat about some of your productions that you felt were successful and those that were not—in your opinion.
Ann Cicolella: Usha, thank you so much for noticing our theater as “playful.” We always try to keep that attitude in the rehearsal room and in performance—we live the life of imagination.
My own playwriting is a top value for me. Writing my own adaptations is something that I have been doing in the past couple of years. I want to do more playwriting, but finding the time needed to create scripts from their inception is something that I haven’t been able to do since leading Austin Shakespeare! So, I have been adapting classic stores. I used the plot of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey and wrote a one-hour play version for middle and high school audiences. That experience was alternately challenging and delightful. During the rehearsal process, I try to inspire actors to create an imaginative performance, and with six actors we together created the many worlds of Homer’s The Odyssey. You see, adapting is a way to satisfy that thirst for my own playwriting.
As for changing the time and place of Shakespeare scripts, it has been done for a long time: Think Orson Welles’ Julius Caesar in contemporary dress on Broadway 1937. As for Austin Shakespeare, I think being honest about a locale that will illuminate the play for our audiences leads to what works. Our culturally diverse productions like our Pachuco Romeo y Julieta are very fond memories, especially because of the delight in the audiences they attracted.
Varied audiences also responded to our Bollywood Twelfth Night, and we are planning to create a new production of it again as soon as we feel safe gathering once more. But I would like to use many more South Asian and Indian actors in it. I’m planning to do some workshops to cultivate MORE South Asian and Indian actors. We have done shows like Tom Stoppard’s marvelous Indian Ink and connected with some experienced Austin actors as well as having brought guest artist Tamil Periasamy from Atlanta as the lead, who had done lots of Shakespeare but never played an Indian role before. We were so fortunate to have three of our supporters house him over the almost two months he was in Austin!
As for shows that were less successful--some memories are tinged with sadness, because I wished they were better attended: Shaw’s Man and Superman, the Emily Dickinson one-woman show with Helen Merino, The Belle of Amherst, and Harold Pinter’s Old Times. Audiences that saw them responded strongly. And, you know, the plays you produce are like your children, you love every one of them.
UA: How did your work with youth begin and how is it different from working
with adult actors? I’d like to hear about opportunities for youth you are creating.
AC: I have been working with teens for much of my career, but 12 years ago
when I became artistic director for Austin Shakespeare, I began envisioning
forming an ensemble of teen actors who loved Shakespeare to produce a
Shakespeare play each summer with a professional design team at Richard
Garriott’s replica of the Elizabethan Curtain Theatre in Austin, off City Park Rd.
We have felt successful by working with those casts with the same rigor of
physical and vocal workshops we have done with our adult professional actors.
Our demands have been high, and the teens rise to the occasion that
This year we performed his first comedy, The Two Gentleman of Verona via Zoom. For training and rehearsals, young actors were together for more than four hours each day, six days a week for a month, and then staged remotely a very successful production for 200 friends, families and supporters. I’m especially grateful to my co-director Nancy Eyermann, who has been working with Austin Shakes on Young Shakespeare for the past few years. A Zoom performance is a challenge for theater, but we are becoming more creative with each experience.
We also love working in the schools, teaching grades 5 and up to speak Shakespeare’s words under the inspiration and assistance of professional actors. Right before the COVID “shutdown” we were in a Montessori middle school on March 12. Our ultimate goal is to do residencies, where we can work with students more than one day. Imagine coming into the same classroom six times a year. We developed such a program with Nancy Owens at Murchison Middle School; we call it “Shakespeare Scholars.” Sixth graders perform their own play and get “badges” for each of the performance areas they complete!
UA: Let’s trace a bit of the early years in theater. Were you an actor before directing became the major hat you wear?
AC: Acting has never been a desire for me, but I did study acting at NYU, and opera as well. I really wanted to understand -- from the inside -- the vulnerability of the actor. So, I have been directing since the age of 15, and always loved working with actors. I admire their courage and fearlessness tremendously. I did have some interest in being a lighting designer, but the math and electrical aspects were a little daunting
UA: Why Shakespeare?
AC: Shakespeare is unique in theater history because each of his plays is a different universe. Even plays you think of as supernatural fantasies are very different worlds: from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest. Those worlds operate in very different ways. When you do a Tennessee Williams or a Molière, you know each play will be in a particular world, but with Shakespeare you hit every point on the compass of the creative landscape. Ah, Shakespeare is the best. I mean, the exquisite poetry, the depth of insight into characters, and those engaging stories. I never tire of restaging the work. Each of his plays is like a song you love to hear again.
UA: Yes, I can relate to that, when I watched Macbeth at London’s Globe Theatre in 2016, I was on the edge of my seat, behaving as if it was for the first time I was entering Macbeth’s world. It always feels like the first time. Are there other contemporary playwrights whose work gives you the flexibility that Shakespeare does? Ironically, does the very historicity of Shakespeare in some sense allow for the margin to contemporize? Would you have that latitude with contemporary playwrights?
AC: Modern playwrights don’t invite shifting periods, the way Shakespeare does. For instance Tennessee Williams really demands to be performed in the period in which he wrote. I do think that the great French comic
playwright, Molière can be updated fairly easily, and I have done that on the East coast.
AC: Well the director and dramatic theorist Peter Brook has always inspired me to find the sacredness in the theater space. Novelist-philosopher, Ayn Rand speaks to my love of the Heroic. I got to return to Off-Broadway in 2013 with a new full production of Anthem. I know Rand is too often misrepresented, but she drives me to achieve more and more. I feel the influence of the simplicity of Pinter and the erudite drive of Tom Stoppard.
UA: Ayn Rand is quite popular in India; she exerts a certain power over the young and it was quite a thing reading her during my undergrad years. I recently watched the film adaptations of Atlas Shrugged on Netflix, hopefully more tempered. I was surprised to meet a young Russian poet in Struga Poetry evenings a few years back who hadn’t heard of her at all. Goes to show the impact of influences can be startling, rarely acknowledged in one’s homeland but creating a rage elsewhere. What are some of the contemporary works you admire?
AC: I have long been in love with some of the plays of the South African playwright, Athol Fugard. He has wonderful plots, strong convictions and an unblinking eye on the truth. Some of his plays can be bleak, but his Road to Mecca about the misunderstanding of a lone sculptress in her final years is a tour de force everyone should see.
In the music theater world, I am a huge Stephen Sondheim fan. He is our Shakespeare in language, heart and head. Fortunately, Austin Shakespeare has had great success recently in teaming up with Parker Jazz Club to do more musical cabaret revues. I still hope we will do the Cole Porter Songbook we were rehearsing with an amazing group of singing actors when we had to close down. It will be at the top of our list when the world reopens
UA: Which brings us to the topic of actors, the marriage partners to the director in the world of acting. Can you talk a bit about your actors? How do you do your auditions? What are you looking for
AC: I love to get to work with new actors. We hold auditions at least four times a year always searching for new talent. We hold one set of auditions at the beginning of the entire season, and more for each of our three major productions. Keeping the door open to a diversity of actors has worked beautifully for us. Generally, we have half a cast of new people, and half of whom we have worked with before. In terms of style, I value actors who perform on a grand scale, yet they must also be truthful and honest—authentic and “in the moment.” So besides new folks, you will see some of our favorite actors again and again on our stages.
UA: Plans for 2020?
AC: Right now, we are thriving online. Our audiences have responded enthusiastically to the quality and
creative imagination of our work online. They have been generous in their contributions. We don’t rely on
a few high-dollar donors; our strength is that we have many, many modest size contributors. We are
planning a unique Zoom gala “Happy Hour” with wine, beer and desserts delivered to your door as our
actors and singers entertain you in August. It should be a lot of fun. With plenty of room for social
distancing, we hope to stage our Free Shakespeare in Zilker Park in collaboration with the Austin Parks &
Recreation Department when “the coast is clear.” We also long to be back in our home at the Long Center,
the Rollins Studio Theatre.
UA: What drew you to 'Hedda', your most recent production?' Was it the atypical female protagonist? I know you depart from Shakespeare's work from time to time. A couple of years back you did a Shaw play
AC: Ibsen is a master playwright of plot and character. The powerful and mysterious Hedda is a play that I have been in love with since college. I found most translations to be old-fashioned and stogy. This was my third production. But I wanted to write my own adaptation, aiming to keep the language very clean, inspired by the spare dialogue of 20th century playwright, Harold Pinter. We especially enjoyed setting this exploration of a marriage in the restrictive 1950s that Betty Friedan unmasked in The
Feminine Mystique. We always produce Shakespeare when we are in Zilker Park, but at the Long Center’s Rollins, we often choose playwrights who use “heightened language;” so: Schiller, Shaw, Stoppard, Tennessee Williams. Our new tag line is “The Bard is only the beginning.”
UA: The world's been blindsided by COVID. For an organization that relies on audiences, rehearsals and performances, how is Shakespeare Austin adjusting?
AC: We have postponed our outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But we have been doing lots on Zoom: we had an open rehearsal for supporters; we did a Facebook live interview with actors who did Othello and Iago: Marc Pouhé and Michael Miller; a complete staged reading of Young Shakespeare doing The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and a showcase of our Playwriting Class’ final projects! Our weekly Artist’s Way creative workshops have expanded to Wednesdays and Thursdays at noon via Zoom. Thus far, we are relying on donations from kind supporters. Like most businesses and arts organizations, we NEED to get back to work as soon as it is safe. We are fortunate that we have some outdoor venue options!
UA: I probably have the shutdown to thank for finally being able to pin
you down. A delight chatting, absolutely thrilled that it’s materialized.
AC: Thank you so much Usha for asking me these questions.
Appreciated the opportunity to talk about creativity and my love of live theater!
Michael Miller as "Cardinal Woolsey", Henry VIII
Free Shakespeare in Zilker Park Crowd
Young Shakespeare on Zoom