All My Characters Are Talking To Me
Gabra Zackman, Hudson Valley Shakespeare, and the Joy of Repertory Theatre
Just by itself, The 39 Steps is a challenging job for an actress: A low-tech, high-energy spoof of Hitchcock’s spy film, it requires four actors to play dozens of roles, hurl set pieces, and occasionally make shadow puppets.
But for Gabra Zackman, those hijinks are only half the equation. This summer, while she’s playing all the women in The 39 Steps, she’s also playing a bawdy dairy maid in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
It’s all part of the schizophrenic life of a repertory player. This is Zackman’s seventh year with Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which rotates multiple shows every summer in its elegant upstate venue. (This season, which runs through September 2, also includes Romeo and Juliet.)
As complex as it is, however, Zackman says that if she had a choice, she’d always do repertory work, never performing the same show two nights in a row.
“It never gets dull because you’re not allowed to be complacent,” she says. “You’re never allowed to sink into a routine because you don’t have that liberty when there’s another play every night.”
Plus, all those characters eventually “talk” to each other, or at least impact Zackman’s various performances. In Labour’s, for instance, she plays Jaquenetta, a free-spirited wench who (ahem) loves freely and well. For Zackman, there’s an obvious correlation to Margaret, an innocent Scottish girl in The 39 Steps who’s trapped in a bad marriage.
She explains, “[As Jaquenetta,] I get to have real joy in playing a character who seems so boundary-less, and that makes me understand that there are boundaries in [Margaret.] Maybe that’s how Margaret would be. It’s a similar kind of character—rural, young country woman—and maybe that’s how free she would be if she didn’t have the constraints of being in a marriage she didn’t need to be in.”
In other words, Zackman may be able to shade her portrayal of Margaret—give her a little more energy, a little more repressed exuberance—because she’s cutting loose as Jaquenetta. “That conversation between the characters makes everything more alive,” the actress says.
And the work can go even deeper because so many of her cast mates have been with her in other seasons at Hudson Valley. Whereas some co-stars might use rehearsals to feel comfortable around each other, the Hudson Valley team can skip the formalities because they’ve known each other for years. That gives them more time to craft their performances.
“There are reflections you can’t ever get away from” Zackman says. “I can look at people sometimes and say, ‘I’ve played your wife; I’ve played your mother; I’ve played your daughter; I’ve played your sister.’ And when I’m standing on stage with someone, every once in a while, I think, ‘I can see the ten years behind you of every version of you I’ve ever interacted with.’ And that makes everything richer.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo by William Marsh