Kim Martin-Cotten is Cleopatra in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

Kim Martin-Cotten steams up Shakespeare's Cleopatra 

Kim Martin-Cotten is Cleopatra in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

With her fiery red hair and her fair skin, Kim Martin-Cotten doesn't seem like the world's most natural Cleopatra. But the actress, who takes on the role in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's new production of Antony and Cleopatra, is familiar with the part.

"Some years ago, I played Charmian in a production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.," she says in her distinctive throaty voice. From that vantage, she learned how the pharoah moved and carried herself. "I can play her as a woman, not just a queen — with passion and vulnerability."

On an outdoor stage like the one that Heart of America erects at Southmoreland Park, her task gets more complicated. "Cleopatra is a good actress herself," says the festival's artistic director, Sidonie Garrett. "She's quick, constantly adjusting, and fleshing out her objective. Onstage, Kim has to be able to work the face and the body so people can see that."

This is Martin-Cotten's fifth season with the company and Garrett's 12th. The two answered The Pitch's questions by e-mail.

The Pitch: Sidonie, what changes have you seen over the festival's two decades?

Garrett: The first two seasons, we had a flat deck and almost no set, with minimal props and costumes and the bare minimum of lights and sound support. We increased our programming in our sixth season to two shows in rotating repertory, which we did for four years. Then we reverted to a single show per season, until this year, where we have two fully supported productions.

Kim, tell us about the makeup and costuming process you go through for Antony and Cleopatra.

Martin-Cotten: I am lucky — the wonderful designer Mary Traylor knows me well and always costumes me beautifully. Cleopatra is complicated in her attire, in that she has many wonderful things to appear in (she is queen after all) — so lots of dresses, robes, headdresses, etc. This year, as soon as I arrived in Kansas City, I went in for a meeting with the costume department so Mary could get a sense of how all the pieces that were built (or pulled) fit on my body. That is a big luxury. To have an opportunity to understand what one will be wearing that early in the process is rare.

You're also playing Hippolyta in this summer's other production, A Midsummer Night's Dream. She's another strong woman.

Martin-Cotten: I have a big, low voice, and I think that pushes my casting that direction sometimes. But I do occasionally get to play the soft-spoken, and I love that, too.

What makes the love story between Cleopatra and Antony relevant in 2012?

Martin-Cotten: There's a lot of information about Cleopatra out right now, with the recent book [Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, 2010] and the National Geographic episodes on her life. And the [HBO] series Rome had a very interesting take on her. She is endlessly fascinating. For this production, I am building her from Shakespeare's text, not research outside of it. So I am focusing on her as a powerful woman; in fact, the most powerful woman in the world, an international force, who falls in love more deeply than she ever has and is experiencing a new kind of vulnerability because of it.

That, to me, is the humanity of this all-powerful queen. We all can be slaves to our passions, and sometimes they cause us to do things that we would not have done otherwise.

How do you unwind after the performances?

Martin-Cotten: The expending of energy in a big, outside venue helps me sleep easily and very soundly. So really, a quick bite of food, a cool shower and I am asleep.

What does it take to keep people engaged in Shakespeare for hours on a hot night?

Garrett: It takes good storytelling. We work to make the plays accessible to our entire audience and, in the park, to very physically tell the story so that it reads to the back wall of our space, which is the size of a football field. We make big choices to help tell these epic stories.

What do you find most distracting about working outside?

Martin-Cotten: Helicopters.

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