Q & A with Milla Riggio, James J. Goodwin Professor of English

MillaR.jpgMilla Riggio, James J. Goodwin Professor of English, has been at Trinity since 1972.  She has taught literature, film studies, and other courses, specializing in Medieval Literature and the works of William Shakespeare.  Riggio has produced two plays at Trinity, the medieval morality Wisdom in collaboration with Theater and Dance and, under the direction of Charles Keating, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Othello.  She has also worked in various roles at the Hartford Stage over the period of about a decade and a half primarily when Mark Lamos was Artistic Director but also under Michael Wilson.  This semester, she took her students to the Westport Playhouse, where she served as the dramaturg for a new rendition of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by Mark Lamos. 

Q: What is the role of a dramaturg?
A: The role of the dramturg is to translate what the text of the script means, both when it was written and the implications of that meaning now.  In this case, my main job was to make sure the actors know what they are saying, to help the director insure a consistent story, and to help the script fit a modern audience. If you get the many small details right, the audience won’t even notice, but they will enjoy the play better for its consistency. This does not mean that we change many words for we do not.  We primarily work to help actors understand the actual language of the play as dialogue.  

Q: Can you give one example of where you needed a change to make the play more contemporary?
A: The word “leasing,” when this play was written, actually meant “lying.”  A modern audience would understand that to mean “renting.”  

Q: How does one become a dramaturg?
A: There are degrees in dramaturgy.  Yale University offers one.  But, for me, it’s an extension of my life as a teacher and a scholar – a reader’s job.  The translation of the text contributes to the social ambience of the play, which requires knowledge of the meaning, nuance, innuendo, history, and character.  It’s certainly a theatrical job. 

Q: How does an experience like this relate to what you teach at Trinity?
A: This was an extension of my classroom, with one difference.  In the classroom, the reading would be open for debate which might in the end be unresolved. I encourage that from my students in that setting.  In this forum, there is no room for ambiguity, as actors have to know what is being said.  Their livelihood depends on it!  I was, in essence, an on-set teacher to the actors during rehearsals – it was an interesting way for me to conceptualize what teaching means. 

Q: What unique opportunities did this afford you with your students, as a teacher of Shakespeare?
A: I am teaching Twelfth Night in my Shakespeare class, and it has been added to the syllabus for the fall semester.  My students [had] the opportunity to watch the performance live.  I always stress how important it is for them to understand, not just what the dialogue says, but what it really means.  I give them exercises in class to practice that, and for them to see it in action is a great learning opportunity. 

Q: How did you formulate such a strong understanding of Shakespeare?
A: I studied Shakespeare under David Bevington in Graduate School in Harvard.   He is one of American’s foremost Shakespeare scholars.  He was a mentor, and ultimately, a friend.  I’ve been teaching Shakespeare at Trinity for close to thirty years, since the early 1980’s. 

The play, entitiled “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” runs from October 11 – November 5 at the Westport Playhouse.  For more information, visit: http://bit.ly/oSAbeH.