Jayne Houdyshell and Elizabeth Marvel in Conversation

Jayne Houdyshell and Elizabeth Marvel.

Written by Sarah Rebell

Photography by Tess Mayer

May 28th, 2019

Jayne Houdyshell and Elizabeth Marvel are both currently starring on Broadway in a genderbending adaptation of King Lear, in which the title role is played by Glenda Jackson. Elizabeth plays Lear’s eldest daughter, the conniving and ambitious Goneril, who dispenses with all pretense of love and respect for her father once she has inherited her share of the kingdom. Jayne portrays the Earl of Gloucester, who is tricked by his illegitimate son Edmund into believing that his legitimate heir, Edgar, is plotting his murder. Edmund’s betrayal kicks off a series of events that ultimately leads to the gauging out of Gloucester’s eyes. I recently sat down with Jayne and Elizabeth for a conversation about asserting oneself in a man’s world, the nihilism of King Lear, why Shakespeare defies time, space, and gender, and more.


Let’s start by talking about the language of this play. Lear is one of the most prose-heavy of Shakespeare’s tragedies. And Goneril is a really interesting example of how he uses prose, in terms of how she starts off speaking in verse when she’s flattering her father and then she switches to prose when she’s talking about her true emotions. What were your approaches to working with the prose, and with the language of this play in general?

Elizabeth: Well, you know, we had a very free rehearsal room. It was very much like Actor’s Studio. You could bring in an idea you wanted to try and workshop it. A lot of those spontaneous ideas ended up in the production. But I felt very free with the language. Even so far as to change some of the words to words that better suited me. Our director allowed me to. Our dramaturg was not that excited. But I did Julius Caesar a couple of summers ago. I did Mark Antony, and my director there, Oskar Eustis, allowed me to do the same thing. I would bend the language a little bit in ways when I needed to. I firmly believe that Shakespeare would wholeheartedly approve insofar as keeping it a living thing.

Jayne: He was bending the language all the time. He was making up words.

Elizabeth: Exactly, and making it a living, breathing entity, which is what I think happens when a director trusts their actors with the language.

Jayne, you’ve spoken in other interviews about listening on stage every night. What do you learn from listening to the language? Has that helped you enhance your own take on the character that you play?

Jayne: I feel like that’s two parts of me in attention with that. It’s Jayne, the curious actor listening to the play, listening to the language. My track in the play is tricky in that I’m in and out, and in and out, and in and out a great deal. I have significant sections of the play where I’m not on stage, but I’m not relaxed enough to go back to my dressing room for fear of missing an entrance. So, it’s a privilege, actually, to sit there and just hear the play night after night. What I’m listening to is not only the language itself, but my colleagues interpreting the language on a night to night basis because it’s a living, breathing thing. I am fortunate enough to be working with a bunch of actors who are incredibly in the moment when they work. So the play breathes differently to me as I hear it every night, listening to my fellow actors do the play. It’s inspiring. I find myself getting revved up about getting back out there and doing the next scene, because my fellow workers are just so beautiful.

Elizabeth: It’s an awesome company. It’s an awesome company, like soup to nuts.

Jayne: And so amazingly diverse in so many ways, including in the way we all interpret the words, in the way we come to the work. So, there’s that going on for me with the language. And in terms of Gloucester, and the prose sections, of which he has a great deal, I love that he speaks so much of his conversations in prose because I can keep it conversational. It feels natural to me. Whether or not it falls on people’s ears that way, I don’t know. But I just think he’s a plain spoken guy and says exactly what he means. So, finding a conversational tone in those prose sections makes a lot of sense. The sections where he does have brief but gorgeous bits of verse, it’s because he’s in a spiritually higher place in those moments. He is discovering something that is bigger than himself. It always feels very appropriate to me that his language becomes heightened at that point.

Elizabeth: That’s so interesting. I’m going to listen differently tonight. It’s like being a detective, working on Shakespeare. [Goneril] starts by saying “sir,” and then that’s the end of that line, which indicates she doesn’t know how to handle the moment, because there are all these empty feet [syllables]. I decided to change it to “well” instead of “sir,” because I wanted it to be more in motion. Then, it is very strict verse, until it’s not. Then it breaks down. Then there are extra feet and then there are many extra feet by the end of this speech. So, you can see her emotional breakdown happen as she keeps going, which then says to me, “Oh, her father’s probably not sending her signals of satisfaction.” So the desperation engine kicks in. So, you can be told how to play stuff, if you just tune into the rules of the road.

In terms of Goneril not getting satisfaction from her father [King Lear] in that opening scene, there is definitely a parallel between Gloucester and Lear of a parent who seems unable to fully understand or appreciate their children and subsequently gets betrayed. Has that encouraged you to examine any of the relationships in your own family, and those dynamics, in a different way?

Elizabeth: Well, I mean, I’m a mother. I have to say I find the parenting examples in this play appalling. But I mean, that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.

Jayne: But I think it’s no accident that there is an absence of mothers in this play.

Elizabeth: There’s an absence of mothers.

Jayne: It’s an exploration of fathers and their children. And it makes some powerful statements about that.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. And an absence of mothers in every generation, generationally. Not just: we are children without mothers, but we are women without children. For me, the driving story is that her father curses her womb, because that’s why she’s not inheriting the entire kingdom, because she’s the oldest and has no male heir. So she has to share [the kingdom]. And clearly she’s not been able to have any children with the husband that she’s been married off to. So after her father curses her womb, she goes after the bastard [Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund] to try to get pregnant. I got that from the language, because she uses these words that are very fertile. You know, she says “conceive.” It’s very fertile language that she uses. I think it’s interesting, if she’s trying to become impregnated by the bastard, because then she’s burning her father’s legacy all the way down to the ground.

I’m so glad that you brought that up because I kept thinking that she reminded me of Lady Macbeth. When I was doing a little bit of research on this show, I was thrilled to discover that he actually wrote them [Lear and Macbeth] around the same time and the first performances were in the same year [1606]. I was definitely reminded [of the similarities], in terms of the lack of maternal instincts and the ambition of Lady Macbeth and Goneril. What is your relationship to ambition, as women in the 21st Century, especially when compared to the women that you’re playing?

Elizabeth: It’s something that flummoxes me. Every night I find myself sitting on the stage with no words. I deliver a speech to my father, and then I have to sit for about thirty minutes with no words and just take it. And there’s so much of the play, as Goneril, that I have to sit and just take it with no words. It’s really intense, and I’m used to playing Lady M or Hedda, or women with a lot of language, a lot of words to say what they have to say, and it’s very weird for me to have to just hold space and take it. But that’s her story. She’s in a man’s world. It’s a man’s world, the play of King Lear is a man’s world, which is why it’s so fascinating to subvert it gender-wise. Except we never really unpack that as a company, so I don’t really know what it means, being inside of it. I’m not totally clear on what gender is here, except that I do know that it’s a man’s world that I’m in, and that Goneril is a woman in a man’s world, and when she pursues what she needs, she uses traditionally male tactics while using totally female power. She uses sexuality. She uses her womb as her weapon. It’s really interesting.

Jayne: That is interesting.

Jayne Houdyshell


Have you unpacked this at all for yourself, as a woman playing a man in a man’s world?

Jayne: Personally, I’ve learned a great deal about myself in playing a man. It’s been a really fantastic privilege and opportunity to do this role. Early on in rehearsal there was a workshop done, where people sat around a table and discussed the text and the play for two or three weeks. I was not able to be there because I was out of the country. My first rehearsal experience, when the whole rehearsal time started, was a moment that was scheduled by our director, Sam Gold, with my two sons [Edmund and Edgar], the actor playing Kent, our dramaturg, and our text person. It was all men around the table, and me. We started breaking down the Gloucester family dynamic, and the Gloucester scenes, and the Gloucester-Kent relationship. And all the guys started weighing in, weighing in, weighing in. And I had, what is for me, a very usual and decidedly female response, which was to immediately become judgmental, resentful, and superior as I sat in silence and just waited for them to talk themselves out, so that I could finally find a time when it would be gracious, and easy, and graceful to start speaking myself. As these guys took off with this conversation that they were having, it eventually became clear to me that they were not going to let me in. It was totally unconscious. All of a sudden, the penny dropped, it was like, “Jayne, you’re playing a man, assert yourself!” So I just jumped in, topped them with my voice, in a very strong and forceful way. I had, thank God, the presence of mind to bring in a point that was very sound and clear that I was able to be articulate about, and I backed it up with page after page after page of footnoting and notes that I’d taken. I had this moment where I just got a lot out, and there was dead silence around the table. Then, our dramaturg looked down at the script and ruffled through the pages and said under his breath, “Smart.” It was a little begrudging. And I thought, “Oh, that’s how it feels to be a man in the world,” to constantly be ready to assert oneself and willing to do that, and own it, and feel that it’s totally appropriate at any point in time to assert oneself. I started conducting myself differently in rehearsals from that point on, in terms of the way that I had conversations with the men in the room, because I started thinking of myself as one of the guys in the room, and I had things that I needed to get accomplished. I didn’t operate in the same way that I normally operate in a rehearsal. So, it was a great learning curve for me, and it was fun. It was illuminating. It taught me that I can behave that way anytime I want to. It doesn’t have to be gender-specific. And I grew up a bit, as a person and as a woman, through that experience, that gift of playing Gloucester. I’m very grateful for that.

Elizabeth: That’s cool.

Jayne: Yeah, it was amazing. It was fun to figure that out about myself. I got to call myself on my own game. I don’t need to do that thing that I have done all my life as a woman to in deference of men.

Elizabeth: Do you have brothers?

Jayne: No, four girls.

Elizabeth: See, I have two older brothers, so I think I lean toward—

Jayne: You learned how.

Elizabeth: I did, because I do assert myself. That may come from having older brothers that I had to battle with to get anything.

Jayne: Yeah. We were a very female family.

Elizabeth, have you ever felt, in a rehearsal room, that you had to dial back on that instinct to assert yourself?

Elizabeth: I’ve been very lucky. My whole career, I’ve been encouraged. I think that’s been something that directors have liked about me, my tendency to assert. Because I leap before I look, and it’s my nature, for better or for worse.

And Jayne, I love hearing that you’re learning things by playing a man in Shakespeare, because of course, when Shakespeare was writing, it would have been the other way around. There would have been gender swapping, but it would have been with Goneril not Gloucester.

Elizabeth: That’s correct. Which I think they should have done. They should do! Because I think that’s what’s so beautiful about the theatre, you are whatever you say you are. It’s a magic space, and so it’s time that we really honor that as Shakespeare did; that whatever you say you are, you are. We’re beyond gender now.

Jayne: We know when we hear it, or speak it, or participate within the plays or sonnets in any way, we gravitate toward it because it’s extraordinarily human. It’s gender-free, in a way. Like you were saying, it’s beautiful to play it with a wide, open mind, not only in terms of gender. And that’s what’s so lovely about the universe that Sam Gold created in this production. It’s a widely diverse cast in many different ways—in terms of gender, yes, and people with disabilities, people without disabilities, race, and all of that. And it looks and feels like the world, or more like the world than many plays we’ve seen, and certainly the plays that I traditionally grew up doing [during] the first 40 years of my career. There’s something very fluid about the worlds that Shakespeare created.

Elizabeth: It’s such a beautiful thing when you’re doing Shakespeare or the Greeks with vigorous, rigorous actors because you can have this crazy experience where time collapses; you feel it all collapse. Then, sometimes, it accordions out, and you can feel all of that time since the writing of the play meet the moment, and it’s exhilarating.

That transitions nicely to something that I had wanted to bring up about the primary thematic struggle in the text. There is, seemingly, this indifference to human suffering. Some of the language that Gloucester says after being blinded really speaks to that point, with the idea of the “opposeless will of the Gods,” and how, “as flies to wanton voice, we are to the Gods.” How do you deal with the ideas of fate and justice in the show, and then go step out into the world of the present, as it is right now, after being caught up in all that timeless suffering?

Elizabeth: Well, it’s fascinating. Last night before the curtain rose, I turned to my fellow actor who plays Oswald, the brilliant Matt Maher, and I gave a litany of all the things that [are happening], “Well, we may be going to war in the Middle East. Abortion’s just been banned in Alabama. And now let’s do King Lear!”

Jayne: It’s like there’s no difference.

Elizabeth: There’s no difference! This play is completely cosmic, completely now. The world is not just. Life is not just. It is, as the Buddhists say, “It’s suffering.” And this play is intensely nihilistic. No one wins. There are no good guys. Even Edgar is left with a pile of bodies, dead bodies. And he’s lost everything. I think, in many ways, it speaks to this moment that we’re all collectively in. And I find great pain in saying that, because I have a child, and I don’t want that to be the story that I’m telling. I don’t want that to be the world that I’m in. But I am.

Jayne: Here we are.

Elizabeth: And here we are.

Jayne: I mean, when I leave the play, the brutality of the play doesn’t seem distant to the world in which we live. And the craziness of Lear’s descent into madness, and his relationship to his children.

Elizabeth: The impulsivity of the destruction.

Jayne: Yes. That craziness does not feel distant, to me, from the family that is leading our country, the randomness of the brutality.

Elizabeth: And the lack of love and kindness in this play. Every once in a while, a little light will shine, a little patch. Gloucester or Kent will have few words of loving kindness, but it’s rare. It’s rare.

There were moments, actually, where I was a little bit reminded of Ivanka Trump in certain things that you were doing as Goneril. And then, she even claims at one point that the “text is foolish.” It seemed to me like maybe that was Shakespearean for fake news.

Elizabeth: That’s awesome. Yes! Totally. That’s so great.

Do you think that theatre is serving a higher purpose by showing us a mirror to our own world?  

Elizabeth: Well, that’s the goal. Right? I mean that’s the goal of storytelling—to help, to be of service to your community. I mean, if it was just flashing my panties every night, I think I’d need to hang my hat up. But I think it’s the job of holding the mirror up, and hopefully that helps.

Jayne: I think there’s something sacred in that, I dare to say that. I mean, it’s a ritual that’s as old as human beings.

Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s catharsis. Collective catharsis.

Jayne: It’s been happening since we sat around campfires, telling stories, and making up metaphors for the world, so that we can try to understand the craziness in which we exist. And the fact that that ritual is still happening gives me hope.

Elizabeth: Yes, I agree. I think there are people that can sit with this production, and hold it, and take it. And there are people that just can’t. I think that that really speaks to what we’re talking about.

Jayne: And this is a crazy play. I mean, it’s fragmented. It’s bizarre. It’s mystical on some levels, it’s political on some levels, it’s utterly—

Elizabeth: It’s domestic.

Jayne: Yes. Grounded in totality, and the lowest, basest form of humanity, and searching for something that is absolutely over the top. It’s all over the place, I think, more than any other Shakespeare. The most extreme, that play. And I had to keep reminding myself, and trying to stitch it together enough to make a sense for myself as an actor, that I also had to be willing to let go of the need to do that. Because this was written before Freud. Before any of us had ever had therapy. It was written before any self-help concept, any neatly tied bow of, “Let’s figure ourselves out so that we can function as highly as possible in the world.” There’s nothing tidy about the world in which Shakespeare lived, or in the way he wrote. And it’s actually, I think, one of the reasons it reflects so accurately over the ages to us, all the time, no matter what generation or century we’re born into. Whereas a lot of the plays that came out of our current century, I don’t know how much people will be curious about looking at them down the road. Will they feel prescient and important, and take us to that kind of visceral, ritual space that we’re looking for when we enter the theatre? That’s the beauty of Shakespeare. He defies space and time, in some ways. And yet, he probably will always be current.

Right. And Lear isn’t even set in his society. There are oblique references, but it was set in pagan times. So, he’s reaching at some deeper trope about miracle and ritual.

Jayne: And, historically at the time he was writing it, he was very cleverly trying not to step in the religious mess that England was in at the time between the Protestants and the Catholics. So, to place it at a time prior to that was very smart of him, so that he could tell the story of what was going on in that time without it having immediate, current event references of the religion in society.

You play a character who is so willing to believe that his own son is plotting against him, but is so willing to believe in the miraculous. The notion of blind faith trips Gloucester up in the beginning, but then maybe ultimately helps keep him alive till end.

Jayne: That’s right. And it takes him closer and closer to the truth. Which he was going towards.

The truth about his relationship with his sons, and his treatment of his sons, his wife, his mistresses. I think that’s a big part of his M.O. in the world. I mean, I don’t think it was a one-time thing.

So in that case, perhaps Goneril’s infidelity doesn’t seem that extreme? Is it just the world that they live in?

Elizabeth: I think it does [seem extreme] though, because again, it’s a man’s world. She’s using male agency, but female weapons, female power. Because she says, “I must change names at home, and put the knitting into my husband’s hands. I must become a man now, and he must take on a woman’s duties.” And sadly, we still have to make statements like that. We’re so far from just assuming [equality]. We still have to use that language.

Jayne: And be ready to defend it.

Elizabeth: And be ready to defend it. Yes.

Elizabeth Marvel

As actors, what do you think that the theatre community today could do to make things better for women in the workplace?

Elizabeth: They could provide childcare. I think that needs to be a fundamental change in the entertainment industry, period. There needs to be a Broadway nursery.

Jayne: And paid leave for pregnancy.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. I mean it’s ridiculous.

Jayne: As far as I know, Lifespan of a Fact was the first show on Broadway to have space made in the theatre, during tech and rehearsals, for children.

Elizabeth: It’s interesting, because when I worked with Ivo van Hove when [my son] Silas was small, he would just say “Bring him!” Silas came to rehearsals all the time. But he’s European.

Was that Little Foxes?

Elizabeth: That was Little Foxes, which he calls the “purple box play,” because it was all purple carpet, just like we have in Lear, which is interesting because Sam [Gold] took that from Little Foxes. Which is very funny. But because Ivo is Ivo, he was like, “Bring your pets, bring your children,” like, “More life is better life,” like that. But with most American directors, you don’t get that kind of encouragement. Although I have to say that I did a play right after I had Silas, and I carried him, while I rehearsed, and that was fine. Everyone was cool with that. But it shouldn’t be like, “Wow, everyone was cool with that. How awesome.” You know, I really felt penalized. And now, in the show we’re doing, how many people are in this show? Glenda [Jackson, who plays Lear], Stephanie [Roth Haberle, who is Jayne’s understudy], and I are the only parents in the whole company.

Jayne: And Lisa [Buxbaum].

Elizabeth: So there are three actors, and a stage manager. And none of us ever have enough sleep, because this show comes down at eleven, and then I’m up at seven. And then, I don’t have the train commute that Stephanie and Lisa have. So, they’re running on five hours. I run on about six to seven. So then, we also need built-in nap time, apparently. Paid nap time. Theatre is not conducive to parenting. It’s very hard. It’s hard. Also, I think they should universally shift the theatre hours earlier. Because it’s not a supper club culture anymore. It’s not people going out for their big evening! They’re going to the theatre, and going home to get up to go to work. So, I think if they pushed the theatre hour to six or seven, it would behoove everybody!

I love that you mentioned the production of Little Foxes because I actually wrote a piece, also for The Interval, about how Regina is a character who has been so maligned over time, especially by a male critics.

Elizabeth: Ugh! So gross. But it’s interesting because I became obsessed with [The Little Foxes]. I brought that play to Ivo, because he had never heard of it, or Lillian Hellman. They don’t have a tradition of Hellman in Belgium. So I brought it to him, and he loved it. But my whole way into that play was a very famous fight between Muhammad Ali and Foreman called “The Rumble in the Jungle,” where Muhammad Ali was totally outclassed by Foreman. Foreman was just so much bigger than Ali. The whole story of the fight is really interesting. Ali went to Foreman’s training camp, and saw Foreman basically dent the heavy bag with one punch, which is like Hercules. It’s insane! So, Ali got in the ring, and that’s when he created the rope-a-dope, which is to let Foreman lay him back on the ropes, and just hit him, and put his arms up, and just take it. He just took it. And he leaned back, and you watch the footage, and it’s like a swan dive back. And Foreman is just hitting him, like huge body blows. Ali is taking horrible damage. Then finally, after taking, taking, taking, he leans forward, and you see him put his arm around the back of Foreman’s neck, and he leans forward, and you find out later that what he said was, “Is that all you got, George?” It was a psych game. And he won that fight. I mean, he paid for it with his life, years later, but he won that fucking fight. And that’s what I based Regina on, because she was outclassed. Her brothers outclassed her. But she wins the fight, because it’s a mind game, I think. But I digress.

Oh, I think it’s all connected because you’re talking about your approach to playing strong, ambitious women who are maligned by the world around them. Do you feel that the types of roles that have been open to you, or the perception of the characters you’ve played, have changed over time? Both of you have been fortunate to have long careers in the theatre. Have you seen a marked difference in how these women are written or talked about?

Jayne: Well, I’ve always been fortunate, in that I’ve been able to play a wide range of roles. I’ve never been pigeonholed. And I purposely shaped a career path for myself that would not allow that to happen. It’s one of the reasons, until very recently, I’ve never been drawn to the on-camera arts because I have never found that part of the industry to be particularly interested in me. A woman like me. A physical type like me. A person whose skill set is mine. I didn’t see versions of me being used in movies, in television. I didn’t feel like that was my world. The theatre was my world. I made a career that was all about working in theatre, and working in theatres that did seasons of plays, where I could do multiple roles within a season, and keep stretching, and growing, and hopefully remaining flexible and malleable, rather than getting narrowed by the industry, which happens to women so much, and has historically happened so much, particularly as women get older. And so, now that I’m older, I’m an older actress, I’m still playing a wide range of roles. Lucky me! So I feel fortunate to have had a very nice life in the theatre as a character actress. I hate using that term, because I don’t even know what that means. Euphemism for I’m not young, sexy, or pretty, I guess. The theatre has been a very good place for me, as an artist, and I feel lucky in not being restricted as a woman. Now that I’m getting older, however, I’m also now branching off and doing some film and television work, but I’m happy to be doing it now, because it’s at a time when the casting options are getting broader because of what’s happening in our world.

Elizabeth: My whole theatre career, I usually play women on fire. I’m just out there orbiting and burning, and that’s often what I’ve been asked to do. I think, maybe, because I’m game, and so I’ve done it a lot. And when I was a younger person, I had more energy to do it. But now, since I’ve had my son, mainly what I do now is film and TV, and it’s so funny, because in that world I get hired for the exact opposite. Everybody I play on film and television is incredibly enigmatic, very still, very strong. Or very mousy. You know, just not burning. I’m never asked to do comedy on stage! I’m never asked to do someone simple, or easy, or calm. So, I’m very grateful to have all the film and television work, because I’m very interested in water color instead of oils. I’ve spent a lot of time painting in oils, and I’m really interested in sketching and watercolor and smaller landscapes. But, not to say that I won’t pick up oils again; I’m using oils right now.

If you could play any role, any gender, in the Shakespeare canon, oil or watercolor, who would it be?

Elizabeth: Richard III.

Jayne: You would be so thrilling. I’d go for Falstaff.

Falstaff in any particular play?

Jayne: I’d love to do all of them!

Elizabeth: That would be awesome.

Jayne: I love him because he’s a beautiful fool. He’s a foolish man of great heart and loose morals. I mean, he’s complicated. He’s complicated. But he’s a complicated, interesting guy. Yeah, I’d love to play him.