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Shaina Taub Plays the Fool (Again) in ‘Twelfth Night’

May 23, 2018 by Allison Considine
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Shaina Taub (Photographed by Jenny Anderson)

The Public Theater’s Public Works program brings New Yorkers together onstage with professional actors to perform Shakespeare works side-by-side under the stars at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The program will return this summer with a re-vamped version of “Twelfth Night,” which premiered in 2016, with a full-blown run July 17-Aug. 19. Two rotating casts of hundreds of community members will switch off to perform a musical-version of Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy about shipwrecked twins who are separated on the island of Illyria.

We caught up with Shaina Taub, the show’s adaptor, composer, and steadfast jester Feste, to learn about the latest iteration.

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Which characters or plot points in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” inspired the musical adaptation?
It is always my goal to really take something that is already there in the play and try to illuminate it further as opposed to adding decorative things to the play. So I’m interested in getting into the psychology of Viola, for instance, and using song moments with her as an opportunity to get deeper into her character.

Viola is such a strong character. Do you think there are moments in the show that will be viewed differently in light of conversations about women?
I was excited for the chance to, dare I say, dive deeper into her character than Shakespeare did. Obviously Shakespeare is a genius and obviously this is an incredible classic play. But for instance, the moment in the play where she has a soliloquy in the text, the soliloquy basically accomplishes Viola realizing that she is in a love triangle. I was like, “Okay, good enough.” But if we can accomplish that soliloquy in the first three lines of a song, which is what I’ve tried to do, once we can have her realize what is going on with this plot, then we can spend a couple minutes with her to learn. She’s this woman who has gotten to look at the world through two different lenses, as a woman and then as a man. What is it like for someone who is playing these various gender roles in different contexts and to see how the world reacts to her in different ways? It seems like if we’re going to do “Twelfth Night” now, and if we’re going to do these classic plays now, how can I bring a 2018 female perspective to it? I’m hoping that comes to resonate a little more today.

Can you talk about the various genres of music that are at play in your adaptation?
What’s so fun about these Public Works musicals is that it feels like the strongest choice is to be very eclectic in terms of musical style because the community that we’re working with that is in the show — hundreds of New Yorkers from all over the city and all walks of life — is an eclectic, culturally diverse group. So in the score, I try to reflect that by using lots of different influences, culturally and musically, to try and have a show that is as vibrant and rich as the community itself. Usually in a show you have to make more choices in that regard, but I like having this big jambalaya melting pot of different styles in “Twelfth Night.”

Darius De Haas and Shaina Taub and the company of The Public Theater’s Public Works production of “As You Like It,” adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery, with music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. (Photographed by Joan Marcus)

What lessons have you learned that you will be bringing to your third Public Works production?
Just a lot about patience and collaboration. It is a giant undertaking. I always think it must be what the Olympic opening ceremonies feel like. I’ve never been in a rehearsal room quite this big. And just to kind of trust the process, and trust that it will get done because it has to get done. Every single time this group and this community comes through at the highest level. I’ve learned to sit back sometimes and just let them carry me.

Have any changes been made for this new iteration?
I’ve done a lot of rewrites. It is still fundamentally the same show, like it’s not an overhaul. The score is largely intact but I’m adding one new song. I’m bringing back a song that had been cut initially, and I’ve just honed in on the script itself now that I know the play a little better. I went back to the original play and kind of went cherry-picking for great lines that maybe I missed. I also dove deeper into the Antonio and Sebastian storyline, because I’m realizing the more I look at the show that that is a love story of its own.

What is it about these community performances that keep you coming back?
It goes back to the central philosophy of the Public Works program that I really have felt so deeply — how the culture belongs to everyone. Plays and theater in New York shouldn’t be just something for an elite audience. There are hundreds of people in our shows — and all of those people have friends and family and loves ones and colleagues who fill The Delacorte with hundreds of people who maybe wouldn’t be seeing a play otherwise. It is so amazing to watch all kinds of humanity from the city come together in one place for that kind of event.

In these fraught times when we’re trying to figure out how to pursue activism and how to get involved in the projects that we care about, I think something that really matters is the idea of proximity, and the idea of not just hypothetically and theoretically standing with communities who are different from you in certain ways. For me to actually develop these deep, long-term relationships with so many of these New Yorkers over the past three years — New Yorkers that I may not have met otherwise — has really opened my eyes to other perspectives. I’m really trying to hone in on the main theme of “Twelfth Night,” the idea of empathy and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and seeing something from someone else’s perspective because that is exactly what Viola does. She essentially walks a mile in her brother’s shoes and learns more about who she is. And that kind of mirrors my own Public Works journey.

In addition to the new songs for “Twelfth Night,” you’ve also just released a new album. What can fans expect?
This album is 12 original songs, most of which I wrote over the past year in my Joe’s Pub concert residency. I did this  monthly residency in order to flesh out the album and try to write a new song for it every month. These aren’t for theatre projects; I love to write for theatre, of course, but these are songs that are more close to my heart and in my own life. It is a really intense album, there are a lot of really political songs and a lot of really personal songs. It feels like the most personal thing I’ve ever released.