by Lynn Jacobs
Tina Packer likes Shakespeare. She really, really likes Shakespeare. In fact, she’s spent most of her adult life studying, performing and directing the Bard’s works. Her résumé practically shouts “serious, classically trained actress” (she studied at the renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London), and she’s known as one of the foremost Shakespearean experts of our time.
“She’s a force of nature,” says Kevin Landis, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs assistant theater professor who has worked with Packer before. “When she steps on stage, people from miles around take notice.”
Packer began her career in her native U.K., working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, performing in the West End and doing BBC television programs. Wanting a change, she jumped the pond and made quite a splash in Massachusetts’ Berkshire region, founding the prestigious Shakespeare & Company in the 1970s.
She’s written books about the Bard: She co-authored Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management with John O. Whitney of Columbia Business School, and her children’s book Tales From Shakespeare won the Parents’ Choice Gold Award. (She’s also had books written about her; check out The Companies She Keeps by Helen Epstein.)
After decades of Shakespearean immersion, Packer says she began to see patterns in the playwright’s “portraiture of women.”
“In the beginning of his life, he wasn’t terribly enlightened about women,” Packer says. “But with the character of Juliet, a huge shift occurred. His female characters became fully embodied. He doesn’t deny them any part of themselves.”
In his later works, women emerge as truth-tellers (often in disguise), and toward the end of Shakespeare’s life, redeemers, Packer says.
For 15 years, Packer has been honing a five-part performance piece exploring these shifts in attitude and writing style. She admits that her opus, Women of Will, is unusual to many theatergoers because of its serial nature. “But we can imagine Harry Potter in five parts,” she adds, laughing.
She’s bringing only the overview performance to Colorado Springs for now. In it, she will portray at least nine famous Shakespearean women, from Kate the Shrew to Rosalind to Juliet. “I love to play a 14-year-old passionately in love,” says the septuagenarian, with another chuckle.
Along with her acting partner, Nigel Gore, Packer delineates the changes in Shakespeare’s writing with monologues, scenes and interspersed analysis.
“Tina has done something no one else has ever done,” says UCCS’ Landis. “She presents her studies in a performative, instead of a scholarly, way. It makes it much more accessible. It’s one thing to read about women’s roles in Shakespeare, and quite another to see it performed.”
Landis worked with Packer when he was a student at Brandeis University, and credits her with helping him “actually learn what Shakespeare was talking about.”
“She’s obsessed with words and the depths of meaning in each word,” he says. “She made analyzing the text, which sounds dry, really fun.”
At a free workshop, Packer will share some of the techniques and exercises she created for actors to connect with Shakespearean language. She hopes that not only actors, but members of the general populace, will attend. “Theater is a great way to build community,” Packer says. “On a different level than Facebook.”