Metro Weekly

Dream Role: Holly Twyford on being Bottom

Holly Twyford has helped shape D.C.'s theater scene by taking on gender-bending roles, including Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Holly Twyford as Bottom - Photo: James Kegley

Holly Twyford as Bottom – Photo: James Kegley

“I’m not your traditional Bottom,” laughs Holly Twyford.

It’s not what you think. Then again, with Twyford it seldom is, as she has never been one for tradition. The popular D.C. actor bucked convention in 2012 when director Aaron Posner cast her as the servant Tranio — traditionally a male part — in The Taming of the Shrew at The Folger Theatre. Now, Twyford is back in another role typically portrayed by a man: the buffoonish laborer, Bottom, whose head is famously swapped for that of a donkey’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Challenging convention not only pushes Twyford as an performer, it offers audiences a refreshing take on a well-trod classic. “Aaron is more willing to take a chance on something different than most directors,” says Twyford.

Posner is quick to return the praise.

“She’s one of the best, most honest, most engaging actors around,” he says. “I find her compelling in virtually everything I’ve seen her do…. She always finds in every character the truth, the humanity, humor and complexity, whether it’s a traditionally female role or male role — or even an animal. Which she’s played a number of times….”

Twyford thrives on taking chances, on doing things differently. Though initially dissuaded from the floodlights by Boston University’s theater department, she hit the stage running after returning to her native Washington, earning the first of 17 Helen Hayes Award nominations with her debut professional production in 1993, Bryony Lavery’s Her Aching Heart.

There are remarkably few similarities in the type of roles the versatile actor has taken on — a range as wide as the classic heroine in Folger’s 1997 production of Romeo and Juliet, and Diane, the uber-modern, acerbic lesbian Hollywood powerbroker in Signature’s 2009 production of The Little Dog Laughed — two of four roles that have garnered her Helen Hayes Awards.

But even with awards and productions — and dalliances with directing — it’s when Twyford is at home that her “real full-time work” commences. She lives with her wife Saskia Mooney in northwest D.C., and the couple are raising an 8-year-old daughter, Helena, the reason for Twyford’s expansion into children’s theater.

But for all it’s fanciful magic and faeries, Midsummer is not children’s theater, and it broaches some very adult topics, albeit in whimsically Shakespearean way. Posner wanted to cast Twyford in role that she could bring unique perspective to. Hence, Bottom, masterfully upending one of the play’s central narratives by turning it into a rich play on gender.

“Gender is such an interesting question in the world these days,” says Posner, whose wife, Erin Weaver, also bends gender by taking on the role of the mischievous Puck. “Gender fluidity, gender complexity — gender is not thought of in the same way as it was 400 years ago. Yet Shakespeare’s plays are so rich and have so many complexities, it’s right for us to find new qualities, new energies — whether that’s in gender, in race, in age — anything that will keep it fresh.”

Casting Twyford as Bottom, Posner says, “has allowed [all] the actors to find new aspects in relationships that I’ve never seen in a production of Midsummer before.”

To that we say, Bottom’s up!

METRO WEEKLY: Bottom, Puck and even most of the acting troupe known as the Mechanicals are female in this production. How does that impact the play?

HOLLY TWYFORD: It doesn’t make a difference to the story. It makes a difference in how we approach the story though. Obviously it gives very different colors and nuances to those characters that we have normally seen played by guys. But as far as Puck goes, Puck’s a fairy! Puck should be played by anybody, though it is also traditionally male.

MW: What can audiences expect from a female Bottom?

TWYFORD: Think about Bottom. Traditionally, Bottom is played by a big, older man. That is the iconic Bottom that everybody knows. So, for me, not a big man, to step into that and not totally take it in a different direction, I think, would have been just a silly idea — for me to try to say, “Oh yeah, sure, I can use all the same humor that a man would use.” So it was important for me — and Aaron certainly agreed — that we make it something very different and go to the core of who Bottom really is. We’re trying to be true to the spirit of Bottom.

MW: In the play, Titania is put under a spell and falls for Bottom. Have you considered the impact that will have for both characters in terms of sexuality?

TWYFORD: You could interpret that in different ways, I think. What’s interesting is, it never really bothered Aaron and I very much, but when we got the rest of the cast together, people were starting to say, “Well, okay, wait a minute, if Bottom’s a woman, this means XYZ. And if Puck is a woman, this means ABC.” In this day and age of questions about gender, people were really focused on it. At one point we were saying, “Let’s get back to the reality of this play. Titania is a fairy! Oberon is a fairy, Puck is a fairy. Who’s to say that a fairy wouldn’t be attracted to a donkey? Why do we have to say, if Bottom is a woman, and Titania is a woman…” It’s really an interesting discussion.

MW: Also in a twist from tradition, the Mechanicals aren’t just played primarily by women, they’re portrayed as good and experienced performers, not unrehearsed amateurs.

TWYFORD: Yes, that’s what we’re shooting for. I don’t know that it’s ever been done that way. Aaron said, “I think it could be really cool if you were actually as great of an actor as you thought you were.” Because Bottom is so confident about her ability. So an interesting twist would be, what if, in fact, Bottom is actually really good? Who knows what the audiences are going to say about that? I couldn’t stop thinking about it, because I think it’s so interesting.

There’s still humor: Bottom doesn’t come across as the most intelligent person, and there are some fabulous malapropisms. But to make Bottom really good at what she is passionate about is delightful and interesting.

MW: You’ve performed a lot of Shakespeare over the years. Do you still enjoy it?

TWYFORD: I do, I do. I love it. And I haven’t done it in a while, and everytime I’m about to do it, I get nervous and think, “Do I understand what I’m saying?” But it’s so much fun to play with. The beauty of Shakespeare is that there are so many different ways to tell his stories.

There are not very many roles for women in Shakespeare, so I would venture to say that there are probably guys who have done a lot more of the canon because there are just so many more roles. And so when Aaron and I talked about Bottom, I had this huge fear — so I had to jump in. Because, when is that going to happen again, that somebody is going to offer me that?

MW: Posner has now offered you two such gender-bending role. Can you see it becoming a more readily accepted trend?

Holly Twyford (as-Bottom) and Caroline Stefanie Clay as Titania - Photo: Teresa Wood

Holly Twyford (as-Bottom) and Caroline Stefanie Clay as Titania – Photo: Teresa Wood

TWYFORD: Let’s be honest — most of the best Shakespeare roles are for men. There’s this great actress Lisa Wolpe out in California. She’s got this theater company, and she’s played all of the great Shakespearean roles — Richard III, Hamlet, Shylock. She just said, “Fuck it!” And she plays them as men — she goes full drag. It speaks to the heart of what it is to be an actor. Because an actor really should be, as they said to us in school, transformational. And that is rarely the case. And it’s not just in California. There’s Taffety Punk here, with their riot grrrl female productions. And it’s the same sort of thing. It doesn’t matter — they’re just telling a story, they’re just actors. And that’s really what it should be about.

MW: With the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival last year, there’s been increasing attention to women — especially the lack of women’s perspectives — in theater. Have you noticed a change in attitudes in your two decades on stage?

TWYFORD: Has it gotten better? That’s a difficult question for me to answer because I don’t know how aware I was when I first got here. As a young actress at that time, nobody was talking in those terms. You only talked in terms of what the next job was, and where the work was. You didn’t think about the fact that it was harder for a woman because there are less roles, that there are fewer female playwrights writing female roles, and that there are many, many more women than men competing for those roles. I don’t think I recognized that in the early days. So I think it must be better, just because I think people have figured out that they don’t have a choice. I mean it has to get better. Just as it has to get better for actors of color, and artists of color. The status quo cannot continue, because we need more women writing plays, we need more actors of color up on the stage — we need that. If we want to truly serve not only this community, but any community, we need to reflect our audiences. That’s why people come to the theater. They want to see at least some part of themselves up on stage. So I think it’s incredibly important.

MW: And that’s why, as a separate but related example, this year’s slate of Oscar nominations is so disturbing. Have you been following the controversy?

TWYFORD: You mean about how white the nominees are? I haven’t, really. I’ve seen a couple things about it, but I don’t know what the latest is.

MW: There’s also LGBT-related nominations. Carol, for instance, garnered nods for its two leads but failed to be nominated for Best Picture or Director. Have you seen it?

TWYFORD: I have not, but I’m re-reading [Patricia Highsmith’s] The Price of Salt in preparation. I read it years and years ago. What about The Danish Girl — was it nominated for anything?

MW: Not really — two acting awards, plus production and costume design.

TWYFORD: Interesting. The Martian, it was really well done. Matt Damon is incredibly appealing, and interesting to watch, and it was a neat story with a happy ending. And just not as complicated as Carol or The Danish Girl.

That’s the other thing that’s interesting about TV and film — they really are quite straight. I’m sure that they’re straight and not narrow, but in some senses there is still this feeling of the outsider. And maybe that’s me and my generation. I mean, it’s fascinating now to meet younger people in the gay community who went to prom with a same-sex partner. That just is totally beyond my frame of reference, outside of the struggle. They grew up with a gay/lesbian club at their high school, and that was totally cool. That was not the way it was when I was there. So it might very well be just my residual struggle. But I think that it is also reflected in Hollywood as a whole — it is not conducive to out gay people — unless you are, I suppose, some designer or something like that. And even then you’re still on the fringes.

I mean, they did Brokeback Mountain with two straight actors, because all the gay actors in Hollywood were paranoid. And the straight actors are, “Yeah, whatever. When I go to the awards ceremony, I’ll have my wife on my arm.” And it’s still very much like that, I would say. I don’t know, maybe that’s because they’re afraid of middle America, who are the people that are going to the movies.

MW: You don’t face anything like that in the local theater scene, do you?

TWYFORD: I don’t, no. I was out from the beginning.

MW: Was coming out a struggle for you?

TWYFORD: Yeah, it was. It’s not what my parents were hoping for or planning on. So that was difficult for them. Although they ultimately came out the other side with flying colors. My father died recently, but he adored my wife Saskia, as does my mother. It truly was — my dad never said it out loud, but my mother did — a question of, “We want you to be happy. And this doesn’t seem like something that’s going to make you happy.” Because that was not something that they could comprehend. And nor could I, frankly. I remember trying to be anything but, thinking this is going to be really difficult.

But kids now, they don’t have to worry about that. Now that I’m on the other side of the auditioning table, and directing shows now on occasion, I see these young people come in, and I know exactly what they’re path is going to be. And I think, “I’m so glad that you are not going to have the struggle that I had. Because you’re in a metropolitan area, and you’re in theater. You’re going to hopefully have an easier life and have a lot of role models.” That’s heartening to me.

MW: Have you and Saskia faced any challenges or discrimination as two women raising a daughter?

TWYFORD: Helena is only eight. We had already come a long way by 2007. Saskia and I worry about it periodically, in terms of, if there’s a new friend at school and there’s a play date, do we have to say, “Hey, by the way, just so you know…” It is this question that we have sometimes. I think, well, I’m not going to go out of my way to say, “Hey, by the way, Helena has two moms. Do you have a problem with that?” I’m going to assume that they don’t — that’s my new m.o. for how I deal with a play date. And so far, even people about whom, “Oh, you’re going to have a problem with this, because I know that you go to church every Sunday, or you do XYZ” — it hasn’t happened. Is this person going to accept the birthday party invitation? And they have. So that’s been nice to witness.

MW: And Helena doesn’t ask or struggle with questions about her family?

TWYFORD: You know kids talk about that stuff all the time. At first kids, they don’t give a shit! “Oh, you like purple too? Awesome! I like purple!” They don’t care about any of that other stuff. That’s what’s so sad, is that all of that stuff is learned — all of that fear, and all of that ignorance is just learned, and passed on. The comments that she would get in, maybe kindergarten or first grade, would be, “No way! You have two moms? I have a mom and a dad!” “Oh, I have a grandma.” It was, “Cool! This is how you’re different from me.” There’s no judgment, there’s no, this is better than that. There are even kids who, I would hear from their moms occasionally, they would say, “I wish I had two moms!” [Laughs.]

MW: You directed a show — the world premiere of Norman Allen’s A Lump of Coal for Christmas — at Adventure Theatre-MTC over the holidays. Did your interest and involvement in youth theater develop because of Helena?

TWYFORD: The first children’s show that I did was at Adventure — If You Give A Pig A Pancake. Michael Bobbitt and I met and were chatting once, and he said, “You should come do a show with us.” And at the time Helena was, gosh, not quite four. You know she had never been able to see a show that I had done. And Michael sold me on it: “She can come see it, and blah-blah-blah. It’ll be so much fun!” And so I did it. And Helena saw it six times.

Children’s theater doesn’t get as much respect as it deserves. But, in fact, a great deal goes into it. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Washington Post has a new policy not to review children’s shows, or at least TYA [Theater for Young Audiences] shows at Adventure and Imagination Stage. And this is exactly the kind of disrespect that children’s theater has had for a long time. These are the next generations of audiences, who are going to keep the big theaters alive.

The reason I like theater is that my parents took me when I was little. And everybody I know who is a huge theatergoer, has gone since they were very small. It’s a huge thing. I’m confident now that Helena is going to want to go, because she goes to see shows at Imagination and Adventure and even at the Folger, if it’s Shakespeare. You can’t express how important it is that these theaters continue the work that they’re doing and that they’re respected for that work. Otherwise, the audience is just going to age out. It will be a serious problem. I know that there’s a campaign underway to get the Washington Post to reverse its policy.

Holly Twyford as Bottom - Photo: James Kegley

Holly Twyford as Bottom – Photo: James Kegley

MW: They had reviewed Adventure shows in the past?

TWYFORD: Yeah. They didn’t come to Lump of Coal. That’s where we figured it out.

I mean, I don’t think their first string [chief theater critic] was going to do it, but they sent someone there. And they go if the Kennedy Center is doing a TYA show, or if there’s a touring TYA show through the National. But as far as Imagination and Adventure, they decided to not do that anymore. It’s a shame.

MW: Do you plan to do more TYA productions?

TWYFORD: I do, absolutely. I could be making this up, but I feel like there maybe was an unspoken prejudice against children’s theater by actors as well, and by artists. “Oh, I don’t want to do that — a show for a bunch of kids.” “The writing’s not very good.” All of these excuses, and I feel like that’s changing. And the case in point would be Lump of Coal. I was able to get five-time-Helen Hayes Award Winner Erin Weaver to play my Lump of Coal, and she rocked it. To get somebody of that caliber to go and do a show every morning, and three shows on Saturday and three on Sunday, or however many it was — that’s pretty amazing.

MW: Do you have a favorite role among all that you’ve played in your professional career so far?

TWYFORD: It’s such a hard question because so often the roles are connected to the production, which is connected to the people, and depending on what the experience was — and also, I guess, whatever role you’re sort of in at the time is, and should be, kind of your favorite role. I’ve been so lucky, I really have. I loved playing Juliet, I loved playing Evelyn in The Shape of Things. I’ve loved so many of the roles that I’ve done, the Shakespeare women, they’re so fun to take a bite out of — Beatrice in Much Ado and certainly Viola in Twelfth Night. It’s hard to say. They were all really fun.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that I just played at Olney Theatre, in this play called Bad Dog. It was not a particularly fun role, in some ways, but it was so full. It was one of those things, I read the play and fell in love with it the second I read it and immediately knew that I had to do it. And that doesn’t happen very often. But I literally turned the last page and I thought, “Oh shit! I have to drive an hour [each way, every day] to get to Olney now. Because I have to do this play.” Again, it was a great group of people. A bunch of incredibly talented women, not to mention the playwright, who was just amazing. So yeah, I’ve been very, very fortunate, I really have.

MW: Since you brought up Bad Dog, I wanted to ask you how you approached the role of Molly, a relapsed alcoholic in full-bore self-destructive mode with her family. You managed to make her sympathetic, even likeable — not to mention witty.

TWYFORD: Well, it was Jennifer Hoppe-House’s first play, and it’s beautiful. And I had to play that role. And she’s pretty open about it — it sort of has autobiographical aspects to it. And she was on set for a while, and we became friends. She was an invaluable resource, of course, when it came to a lot of the addiction stuff. It was incredibly special in so many ways.

MW: So you didn’t necessarily draw on any personal experience with alcoholism or addiction?

TWYFORD: I had some people say, “Well, you’re not an addict. You don’t have an issue like that. How can you relate to that?” I think that there are many, many forms of addiction. And there are things that come out of addiction that a lot of people can relate to, and I certainly could. And so I brought what I brought to the table. I was thrilled when I had folks who really did deal with some of that stuff come up and say, “You just did my life.” That meant a lot.

MW: Do you have a least favorite role?

TWYFORD: Not that I would want to name. I don’t think so. One came to mind, but even thinking about it now, she taught me something. That is not to be ignored — that that aspect of even playing a role that is either not fun or not as fulfilling, they do all teach you something. Or they should. And that’s definitely worth a lot.

MW: Do you ever worry you’ll run out of challenges that inspire you?

TWYFORD: When I start getting complacent, and when I start not being a little scared of what I’m doing, then I think that’s the time to stop. But I’m not quite there yet.

This is all that I do. I don’t know how to do anything else, frankly. I mean, I used to tend bar, I waited tables. I did a lot of little odd jobs like that. But I really have no marketable skills.

MW: Well, it helps that you’re so good at this.

TWYFORD: It does — but I also have been very lucky. I think that when I first got here I didn’t have a degree in theater, I have a degree in what’s called theater studies. I was cut from the acting program at Boston University, and I ended up going into a different program, called theater studies. So it was a little bit of a blow to the psyche. There perhaps would have been more opportunities had I gone that other way [to New York], but I didn’t. I made my own way here, and when I got here, I remember meeting a lot of people who were saying, “Yeah, I’m going to work here, and put that on my resume. And then I’m going to go to New York.” And I did not. And I never really wanted to. And I stayed, and just kept working. And kept going at it. I think that’s been a huge thing — I mean, there are people who have left and come back. And I’ve built a home here, which I’m really thrilled about. And I love this community.

MW: And the D.C. theater community has certainly grown up with you.

TWYFORD: Oh my god! Absolutely! Again, the people who said, “I’m going to do this and this and then I’m going to go away.” And now people say, “Hey, let’s make D.C. a destination. Now there are people who graduate from whatever program and they say, let’s go to D.C. and start working. Or let’s go to D.C. and start a theater company. It’s now a destination for theater artists, and that’s incredibly exciting and it’s been so fun to watch that happen.

MW: Since you mentioned it, would you ever start a theater company of your own?

TWYFORD: I don’t know if I could do that. I don’t know if I could. There are too many things to think about. And I think my family is too important to me.

MW: Do you think Helena might grow up to become an actor?

TWYFORD: I do not. I think she’s going to be a visual artist. She will get up at six in the morning, and just start drawing, and she’ll draw for a couple of hours. She loves it. If there’s a lull somewhere — cause sometimes I bring her to rehearsals — she’ll pull out the pad and the markers. She’ll watch rehearsals sometimes, but she’ll just be drawing away.

MW: How is it being a mother?

TWYFORD: It’s hard. I was just having this conversation with a young person actually. I was discussing it with another mother and saying, “Yeah, it’s difficult being away, and blah-blah-blah.” And this gal says, “Well, that’s why I don’t think I want a child.” And I said, “But, what you’re getting out of it just so far outweighs all the logistical stuff and all the worries.” She’s great. She’s just been nothing but a joy in our lives.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs to March 6 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $35 to $75. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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