Well, not exactly. It’s said in jest, but there just might be some truth to the statement, Packer laughs, while sitting outside her dressing room at the Gym at Judson, where her play Women of Will is in performances. As we converse, I notice the sign on her dressing room door reads “Ms. Packer.” I would expect nothing less from a woman who has devoted 15 years to preparing a production about the women in the works of William Shakespeare.
Packer, whose extensive resume includes stints at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Royal Shakespeare Company before founding and serving as Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, is considered one of the world’s living experts on the Bard. She has directed almost every work he has written, as well has having performed in many of them. Now she is performing Women of Will in the Gym at Judson. Women of Will is an examination of the women in Shakespeare’s works in which Packer performs every single female role with co-star Nigel Gore, as well as delivering short lectures on each of the segments in the show. Two different versions are in performances – a 2 ½ hour version (where Packer plays 10 different parts), and for die-hard fans, a 5 hour version (where she tackles 30 different roles).
Packer, who has been developing Women of Will for more than 15 years, referenced her time at the Royal Shakespeare Company, when she worked alongside numerous Cambridge-educated men, saying she found herself uneasy and unhappy on some level because her perspective differed so greatly from the all-male teams. But it never occurred to her at the time that her discomfort stemmed from being a woman. It wasn’t until years later, when she was performing in television and film, that Packer said she realized her “feminine sensibilities” were contributing to her unease. In the late 1960s and early 1970s she knew she needed to direct.
“Suddenly I started waking up and I realized then because I knew I needed to direct,” Packer said. “I needed to have power in the theater. I needed to be able to put my own sensibilities out there and really start directing the plays the way I thought they should be directed.”
The way Packer thought plays should be directed seems to have resonated with audiences; a few of the honors she has received throughout the years include the 1992 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Direction in Boston, the 1996 Boston Theatre Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre and the 2001 Elliot Norton Award for Continued Excellence in Theatre as well as the Commonwealth Award, Massachusetts’ highest cultural recognition.
“As I started running my own company, I realized my goal was to not be the top director in NY. I wanted a collaborative kind of effort, so I could lead, but from within,” Packer said of her work. “I wanted my ideas to generate out. How I know things is I put out what is creatively right for me. Then I listen to what comes back to me. Then I adjust and adapt. Then I put it out again…The source of Shakespeare and Company – the training methods – that’s the thing that generates the energy out of the company. I direct like that as well. It’s a process of listening and being affected by what other people say. And what I found was that I started seeing who Will Shakespeare was.”
While seeing who Shakespeare was, Packer also saw themes and patterns developed through the playwright’s works. Of these themes, which she discusses in Women of Will, is the power structures of the time, and what the power structures expected of women. One of the products of those expectations is the warrior woman, which Packer depicts through Queen Margaret and performs with Gore in a gripping, violent scene.
When asked about women and power, Packer said without hesitation that she thinks women should draw power from their deep femininity and that one of the common mistakes made by women is to try to be like men, rather than identify their own distinct sources of strength.
“I think women being like men ends up with the Margarets of the world,” Packer said. “They all take on the men’s mantle and not only does it not sit well with them. They pervert themselves. They pervert community, and real leadership comes out of community.”
Packer referenced Antony and Cleopatra as an example of the Hellenistic world of great equality, citing women’s ability to divorce, run business, be learners, having come out of the culture of the goddess Isis. After being overcome by Caesar and transforming into Roman world, women’s status changed drastically.
“Isis for me is the real model,” Packer said. “Isis was the leader of her country – the mother and the lover. She puts back together all the pieces when Osiris is chopped up and thrown all over the place. The only piece she can’t find is his penis. And she breathes life into him and grows it again through f***ing him. I like this model…I feel as if women’s ways of knowing things are absolutely essential to leadership,” she added. “I hope to hell Hillary runs and I hope to hell the leader of The Hague remains a woman.”
Having served in various leadership positions for many years, Packer had a great deal to share on women’s desire to be liked and how that desire can be a detriment to leadership or success.
“I imagine if there are situations where – this is a generalization – women have to train themselves not to be liked,” she said. “Our relational skills want us to find the common ground. That’s our strength. To find common ground and to work on common ground.”
Packer, who identifies herself as a “card carrying feminist” in Women of Will has witnessed the first wave of feminism as well as the more recent trends. While the word “feminist” can be interpreted in various ways by different people, the idea of female empowerment is one that resonates strongly with Packard, both onstage and off.
“I do see that it is our job to really throw up models of feminine power, which are not just women having power in the male system,” she said. “It’s the masculine system is killing us. I think most men don’t want the masculine system either. I think a hell of a lot of men know that it’s killing us.”
The name of her show is Women of Will, but the male point of view is featured throughout the play, beginning when Packer’s co-star Nigel Gore enters the performance space announcing, “I come bearing testosterone.” Packer said that entrance was Gore’s idea, in order to demonstrate that the play is not viewed as merely a feminist rant. Gore also provides his own commentary before and after performing scenes with Packer; following a scene from Henry VI, Part III, between Margaret and York, Gore tells Packer that, during that scene, he wants to kill her.
“He’s totally supportive of the politics of the piece,” Packer said. “He’ll throw in his own hard-wiring so he can say, ‘This is how I feel. I’m basically with you, but honestly, you want to know how I feel? I want to kill you. No amount of enlightenment meetings stop that impulse in me.’”
Both that impulse and lack of enlightenment in modern-day culture were demonstrated recently when the New York Post ran a cover story on Hillary Clinton’s statement at the recent Bengazi hearings with the headline, “NO WONDER BILL’S AFRAID.”
“That really bespeaks to men’s fear that women actually do dominate them,” Packer said. “Of course she has to call the shots! She’s the center of a huge empire. What we can have some trust in is that she’ll call good shots and not wipe out a whole section of society.. I think why she got so much respect as Secretary of State is 1) she didn’t weaken on women’s rights and 2) she kept on seeing the predicaments other people are in…society had to change and that’s not easy.”
Changes in society are necessary in order to benefit both sexes, Packer said. She thinks the existing system, which she calls “hierarchical” and “patriarchal”, is as detrimental to men as it is to women, citing how it cuts men off from their children and denies them softness they might otherwise possess.
But despite the existing social and political systems, Packer said she sees shifts in the arts community that point towards more equitable systems. She sees more and more women becoming artistic directors, especially in the Shakespeare community. While her work deals mainly with male playwrights and male subjects, she also listed several female playwrights that had experienced recent success. Citing early work by Joan Littlewood, Packer said, “there was always a political perspective with her. It was always put inside the politics that were behind it. If the politics isn’t there, the woman’s situation in the world isn’t there. It isn’t as powerful as it could be.”
Despite Shakespeare’s work being mainly about men, Packer said his plays also “point to the ludicrous position so many women are in”, and hopes Women of Will will inspire people to think more deeply about their own lives as well as the actual words the playwright has written.
“I think an awful lot of the time you don’t hear the depth of what he’s saying…is that true? Is that not true?” Packer asked. “Shakespeare was deeply, mystically philosophical in that way. I don’t know whether that’s not so much to do with women but really owning the text and having the multiplicity in that point of view. That’s the only way the world’s going to go forward…The Bible is full of thou shalt nots. Shakespeare says, ‘Look, here’s the world and it’s got the 20 points of view in there. How are we’re going to find out how to live?’”
Finding out how to live, especially as an artist who also happens to be a woman in a leadership position, has been a challenge for Packer, who says, “I think every artist has always known that you’ve got to be deeply in touch with your feeling, intuitive side – that you’re picking up messages below logic and linear. Even the Bill Gates of the world know this hierarchical ‘My way or the highway’ is death. It’s all based on dominance.”
Citing Luciana in The Comedy of Errors, who speaks of “headstrong liberty is lashed with woe..” Packer said, “I think he [Shakespeare] believed it at that moment. His journey was not only that women have souls but they are profound souls. You breathe your substance into your lover. You can aspire to the greatest heights, your spirituality and sexuality between men and women are equal.”
While striving for equality between the sexes, Packer also continues to strive for artistic achievement, saying the intimacy of theater is irreplaceable and the commitment to live theater is essential.
“It’s only through live theater that you get that it’s other human beings up there. It doesn’t matter how good the film or TV is, there’s always that separation,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you feel, it’s going to be what it is. I think they’re going shift something but it’s not the same as building the collective spirit, which is something women know about and really attend to. I feel as if my theater company was built out of the collective spirit.
“I had to step aside in order to do my own work. It’s so difficult to build structures that are not based on hierarchical rewards. That are built on responding to other people, and picking up the vibrations of that. I don’t think there’s any ‘should’ about theater particularly; the more women can strengthen themselves, the more we’ll have real theater…In Shakespeare’s play, it’s always the psychological, political, philosophical and poetical, of course. I think women are going to do really well. When I started, there were no women directors. Now there are almost half women are directors. They don’t have the prominence that men have yet but they will.”