Katy Stephens On … Life at the RSC Post-Histories
Katy Stephens, who won this year’s Whatsonstage.com Best Actress in a Play Award for The Histories, has returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of the new three-year ensemble. To start her new tenure, she stars as Rosalind in As You Like It, which opens this week in Stratford-upon-Avon and, like the eight-play Histories cycle, is directed by RSC artistic director Michael Boyd. Further ahead, Stephens will appear in King Lear and Antony Cleopatra as well as some of the plays Other Russia season. Beyond the RSC, Stephens’ stage credits have included Mine, Tamburlaine, The Seagull, Three Sisters, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Blood Wedding and The White Devil.
I would have come back to the RSC whatever the role – to be offered Rosalind in As You Like It was amazing, but I would have done anything just to be part of the company again.
What’s amazing about working with a group of actors for such a long amount of time is that you have a chance to get all those inhibitions out of the way before the end of the job. When you only have a six or seven-week rehearsal period, sometimes it’s not quite long enough for all those nerves and self-consciousness to drop. If you have more time with people, you settle into a place where you’re much more courageous with taking risks and maybe falling flat on your nose, and you create a kind of shorthand between other members of the ensemble. With The Histories, by the time we got into rehearsing the late Henry VIs and Richard III, we were working almost telepathically with each other – there was a real sense of connectedness, we could predict each other’s moves. That’s just gold dust.
And we created a family. They are people who still see a lot socially, people are going to be life-long friends. There were just six women, compared to, I think, 38 men in the Histories company. The women stuck together, we had a very determined and strong dressing room. But I’ve worked in very male-heavy environments, and I never felt that the men were any different from us. We all just had really good fun.
To spend two-and-a-half years with the RSC was also important for my development as an actress. They’re constantly investing in you as a performer here, with movement and voice, verse and text work – it’s a bit like going back to drama school. When you’re working in short contracts, you’ve only got that particular production in mind, so you rarely get the chance to sit back and reflect upon your art and your craft. In Stratford, I’m constantly learning - and I know I’m in the best place to be the best actress that I can possibly be.
Getting the Whatsonstage.com Award for The Histories was amazing. The most amazing thing was that my mum and dad were there at the Awards Concert that night, so they could finally see …. Coming to the RSC and then winning the award, both for them and for me, it made sense of all the past 20 years of hard work, poverty and struggling, especially after I had my son.
After playing Margaret in (in Henry IV Part I, Henry VI Parts II and III and Richard III, it’s just so nice to play someone whose son doesn’t die! Rosalind is joyous, and she’s an absolutely joy to play. I noticed in rehearsals that for me, personally, I am just in such a better mood all the time playing her and it has a really positive effect on my life. It does take its toll playing someone like Margaret for two-and-a-half years. If you’re playing a character like that for that long, it’s kind of impossible for their tragedy not to eat into your soul somehow. I would sometimes go weeks and weeks before realising, oh my god, I haven’t smiled, I haven’t laughed.
Towards the end of The Histories, I learned how to cope with it and to stop it bleeding into my personal life. I had to get rid of Margaret before I left the theatre. Alison Bomber (senior voice coach at the RSC) taught me this yoga exercise. I would lie on the floor for 20 minutes before I went home and I would empty my body and empty my mind of Margaret, and then Katy Stephens could go home. I think method actors call it de-roleing. It really worked. There’ll be more tragedy for me later, when I play Regan in King Lear (scheduled for 2010), but I think I’m better prepared for it this time.
When I first started for the new RSC season, I really mourned members of The Histories company for awhile, but like I say, they’re still part of my life. It’s great to be making the first step towards another family with another great group of actors. And, of course, Michael Boyd (the RSC artistic director helmed all of The Histories and has also directed As You Like It) is the constant, a sort of father-figure role, or certainly a very avuncular leader. He’s not just a brilliant director but an amazing man. No matter how busy he is, no matter how stressed he might be, he always manages to connect with everyone in the company.
As You Like It opens on 28 April 2009 (previews from 18 April) at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it continues in rep until 3 October 2009.