Scarlett Strallen

StageNotes: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Meet the Artist:
Scarlett Strallen (Hippolyta/Titania)

by Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

Scarlett StrallenEnglish stage actress Scarlett Strallen plays Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and Titania, the Fairy Queen, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Strallen, a two-time Olivier Award nominee, assumed the role of Sibella in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway in 2015. In 2013, she played Cassie in the West End revival of A Chorus Line. A household name in England, Strallen also starred as Lady Macduff in Kenneth Branagh’s production of Macbeth and as Mary Poppins in the West End and Broadway productions. She most recently appeared in the Encores! Off-Center revival of Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers. Strallen spoke with Hartford Stage about her career, Midsummer, her dream role, and more.

You were raised in quite an accomplished and storied theatrical family.  How did this influence your decision to pursue a stage career?  Was there ever a time when you considered an alternate path?

My very earliest memories were of being backstage with either one of my parents, sometimes both of them if they were appearing in the same show, and it feeling so special. It felt like I had been given a secret key to another world by association. Backstage of a theatre is similar to our forest in the dream, another realm that the mortals watching the show cannot see…a magical place where all the cheeky spirits collect to make magic and mischief. There really hasn’t been any other world I have found to make a living in that has compared so far. But who knows? It would have to be as much fun, which I imagine could be hard to find.

You initially started out as a dancer. Was there a specific show or person which influenced your decision to also pursue singing and acting?

Dance for me was my earliest form of expression, but it was really my first singing teacher, Ian Adam, who discovered I had this very high soprano. He introduced me to these beautiful arias that I felt so stirred and moved by I wanted to learn how to express them. Even without knowing what I was doing to begin with, I felt it was another skill that, if I tried hard enough to perfect, would be yet another means of expression for me. This brilliant woman called Barbara Houseman was the first person to give me enormous confidence in speaking Shakespeare and helping me believe I could use the spoken voice, too. All my teachers and all of the wonderful people I have been lucky enough to observe have been great influences in my life.

You’ve had the opportunity to play several iconic leading characters in musicals – from Mary Poppins to Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain to Sibella in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder – how did you make these roles your own?

Scarlett Strallen, Jeff Kready, Catherine Walker in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Scarlett Strallen, Jeff Kready, Catherine Walker in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Whenever I approach a role, I always start with trying to understand the character’s agenda and deepest desires. It’s always helpful to find out why it is they are appearing in that particular story. From there, their traits and characteristics seem to emerge very naturally to me. I’ve been lucky – I have empathized deeply and have grown to really love most of the characters that I’ve played thus far. But I think it is the actor’s job to discover every minute detail about the character you’re playing, even if you find it difficult to empathize with them or you are even completely opposed to their beliefs and wants. It certainly helps me to understand human nature a little more to study the grey and what lies underneath the surface of each human we encounter, whether it be fictional or real life.

What has been your most challenging role to-date?   What do you consider to be your dream role, and why?

Every role I’ve played has been a wonderful challenge in one way or another. It terms of physical and emotional dexterity, Cassie in A Chorus Line was highly demanding physically and an emotional rollercoaster dramatically but Cunegonde in Candide required a new level of self-care and daily silence until the show to keep the high e’s enjoyable every night and not a trial. Mary Poppins was onstage for most of the show and required magic, singing, dancing and flying – so perhaps she was the biggest challenge to date!

I love flawed yet lovable characters. My father was in the very first cast of Sunset Boulevard, and I remember being at the first night and somehow at age 12 becoming obsessed with Norma Desmond at that moment – her devastating invisibility after such fame in her youth and yet glorious stature and humor through sometimes monstrous behavior, ending of course with deep tragedy. Very exciting to play, I imagine. I may have to wait a few more years to take on Norma, though.

What most excites you about Darko Tresnjak’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Ever since I saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, I have been in love with Darko’s vision. His specificity and attention to detail is unlike anything I’ve encountered, and I think it makes for such clear and beautiful art. As well as his mischievous spirit and wit that is so apparent in his shows, I knew it would make the perfect ingredients for a beautiful new imagining of the Dream 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Why do you feel it resonates so deeply with audiences?  How do you personally connect with it? 

I think at its core the play is all about transformation and change. Every single character in the play is somehow different at the end. The wild and untamable forest is where the change happens. The characters fight their way through the forest, no holds barred, through painful and turbulent moments. Sexual jealousy, marital power and mutual frustration are all very relatable for audiences.  There is also a deep wonderment at the feeling and acknowledgement of transformation. The characters have no idea how it happened. The audience then holds the secret, which is incredibly empowering. Whether we have lived and loved through experience, or are younger and at the beginning of life watching the play, I think it resonates for all ages. I think we are all mostly unaware of the constant transformation we are experiencing through life until perhaps we wake up from remembering a powerful dream – dreams being our subconscious mind, trying to explain things going on deep inside us. As Bottom shows us towards the end of the play, it is intangible and almost completely impossible to explain or even remember. Shakespeare’s writing is magnificent in this moment. He perfectly captures someone trying desperately to grasp onto it while it slips from his mind. It’s so moving. I think personal transformation is the most beautiful thing about life, especially once we have been through the tough times and come out of the “woods.”

What similarities have you discovered between Hippolyta and Titania?

I think the doubling of Theseus and Hippolyta with Titania and Oberon makes perfect sense.  The direct mirroring of the mortal court with the mystical court is genius and wonderful to get to play two characters. Both couples are at odds with each other when we meet them and at odds with themselves. Things are not quite right in either world. Two very distinct differences in both characters for me to explore is how they express themselves. Hippolyta is repressed, icy and practically voiceless when we first meet her and yet quietly observing everything going on around her; whereas Titania, the queen of the fairies, has an amazingly powerful and eloquent speech about the decaying of the earth and her deep passion for nature to be put right again in the first scene that we meet her. She also has another beautiful speech about sisterhood and of her maternal love of the little Indian boy. She has no problem expressing herself extremely passionately. Finding a way to show how changed both characters are by the end of the play is the most delicious challenge. I think if they were to meet they would delight in each other’s differences.

The forest plays an important role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – representing not only an escape from strict Athenian laws but also serving as the gateway to a magical realm. What is your own personal magical escape from everyday life?

I feel extremely lucky to have an everyday life that requires me to escape through whatever story I’m helping bring to life. Singing is highly meditative to me or being around water of any kind takes me to a very peaceful, calm place. Journaling helps me get rid of the cluttered mind I sometimes wake up with, and relaxing with friends is always the best tonic for anything troubling I’m dealing with. As I said, I’m very lucky that everyday life for me is currently a pretty magical place to be.