Bringing The Duchess of Malfi into the 21st Century

By Ashley Dillard

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MFA actor Ashley Dillard and director Katie Horwitz

Hello out there! I’m Ashley Dillard and I am in my last semester (insert all of the emotions here: sad, excited, terrified, happy) as a MFA actor at Indiana University. What you are about to read is my first interview ever! (Although it is with my dear friend, former roommate, former director, artistic collaborator and classmate, so one might say that I’ve spent the past 2.5 years preparing for this piece.) Katie Horwitz, 3rd year MFA director, and I sat down to discuss her upcoming production of The Duchess of Malfi, her interest in updating classical texts, the role of feminism in this production and her dedication to creating an environment where collaboration is not only encouraged, but expected.

Many of you will remember Katie’s production of Antigone last season. She used contemporary music and dance to help tell the updated Greek story to a modern audience. Katie now faces the same challenge with The Duchess of Malfi; how do you make a 17th century Jacobean play in verse exciting to a 21st century audience? “The story has to be accessible,” she said. “Putting it in a world that we, today, recognize. It’s not set in the 1980’s or 1990’s, etc. It is set in its own world. It feels modern, but it has throwbacks to earlier centuries. Poniards are in this world, electricity is not in use, you still have to get to places on horseback, but it’s not set in a specific period. The costumes feel very relevant to us, the action feels relevant. It helps the audience, especially a college audience to say–Yes, I absolutely recognize this world and connect to it.”

Creating a cohesive world that isn’t set in any specific time period, but still feels modern, is no small task. Katie believes original music written for the play will help make that world more concrete. “I have two composers who are in Indianapolis, one is a Butler graduate student and the other is a Butler undergraduate student. It was really important to have the music not be incidental. It needed to accentuate the world and move the action along, but also help create the tone of the world.”

Bringing The Duchess of Malfi to IU’s audience has taken a lot of collaboration between the director, designers, choreographers, and musicians. “The biggest things in terms of collaboration with this project has been my discussions with my lighting designer (Tony Stoeri) and my set designer (Alana Yurczyk). And having discussions about the play, not just about lights and sets. Our production has changed and gotten more specific. It’s really clarified the atmosphere and the feeling that we’re going for. It was incredibly helpful.”

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Director Katie Horwitz and with actor Ryan Claus who plays Ferdinand

The Duchess of Malfi, while dealing with themes of revenge, murder, and corruption, centers around a strong female character who refuses to give up what she wants in the face of her overbearing brothers. I remember when I first read this play I was struck by how resilient the female lead was. Though I know feminism was not a construct back in the 17th century, it’s interesting to see that this play can be viewed through a feminist lens. Katie had an intriguing take on the subject, “It wasn’t originally written to be a feminist piece. Actually, no, I can’t say that. We don’t know if it was written to make a statement or not. When I read it, I clearly see it as pro-Duchess, that she is being wronged. To see a lone female ruler who is very strong, very autonomous being wronged and looked at sympathetically, to me says it’s a very pro-woman play. It surprised me.”

In my conversation with Katie I found out that the plot of The Duchess of Malfi was actually loosely based on a real life event. Being an actor who loves historical research, this was really exciting! Arabella Stuart (1575-1615), a major claimant to the English throne, was considered to be the “second lady” of England during King James’ rule. Having not been married off by the age of 34, she procured permission from King James to marry whom she pleased, as long as she did not marry a foreign prince. What she then did was unheard of—she promised marriage to an Oxford scholar named William Seymour. When King James found this out, he forbade the marriage. “She had a clandestine marriage as well, with someone beneath her rank, and they were caught,” Katie said, “She was imprisoned and died there. People were very, very unhappy about [what happened to her].”

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Actor Emily Sullivan who plays The Duchess

As a woman in the arts, but also the world, I am very excited to see The Duchess of Malfi. Katie summed it up really well, “I think the idea of a woman being as strong as a man, but still owning being a woman is incredibly relevant. For this play in particular and where we are politically in the world right now and dealing with feminism, making this show about female autonomy makes it very accessible.”

Thanks so much for reading my first interview and stay tuned for more to come! And if there is any member of faculty or staff, a design team member, or theatre student that you’re dying to know more about, please feel free to let me know by commenting below. I will interview them over coffee without delay! (I love to talk and I love lattes…)

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Ashley Dillard is a 3rd year MFA actor at Indiana University. She has been seen most recently as Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa at IU, Katherine in Home at the BPP, Marianne in Sense and Sensibility and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream both for IU Summer Theater. Though she calls beautiful Bloomington home now, she originally hails from Highland, IN.

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About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peak behind the curtain at the Indiana University Theatre Department productions and student work.
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