Founder and Artistic Director, Chicago Shakespeare Theater
“You feel a sense of relief that this very complex range of emotions can be shared.”
She is the founder and Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which won the 2008 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. She has received the prestigious Honorary OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in recognition of her contributions strengthening British-American cultural relations. She serves on the Shakespearean Council of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. In addition to her many productions of Shakespeare’s work at her own theater, in 2009 she directed Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Barbara talks with me about witnessing significant changes in both her mother, Rhoda Schwarz (pictured on the right), and a dear friend brought on by illness, and how she learns from and weaves a full spectrum of emotions into her work.
I have to tell you, Mark, the more I look back — and I don’t like to look back; I don’t have any time to do that — but when people ask me questions like this, I’m forced to look back. And it is forced, because it’s not where I live. I live in the present-future. But I see that my life has such a destiny, just a destiny to it, that even the horrible times led me to what is happening now.
I wanted to be an actress since the time I could talk. In my early thirties I realized, because all my friends were already married and had a lot of kids, that my journey was going to be a very different journey than my friends’, and that made my heart feel much lighter. I worked in New York for a number of years as a young actress doing mostly commercials. But I decided I missed Chicago [where I had gone to college], and I moved back. [Soon after I returned], I went to the beach with my golden retriever, and my knee went out. I had had two prior knee surgeries before that, and this surgery really took me out of service for a while. I couldn’t walk for about a year and a half.
Now I had no way to earn a living, so I started teaching actors. It was a class that went from 12 people, and in two months it became 40 people. It just took off. Everybody was having a ball. And the very first night of that very first class, I said to them, “Chicago does not have a Shakespeare theatre. So let’s start one.” And I had no idea until I said that in front of the class that that was my dream. It just popped out of my mouth. I swear to you, I had never given that any thought, but I do most of my creative work when I just talk. Things just come out, and some of them, a lot of them have been pretty good, like the idea for starting a Shakespeare company. It was totally spontaneous; I had no idea. I needed a drink after class.
When I couldn’t walk, I thought my life was over, but it was really just beginning.
What were you parents’ hopes for you, growing up?
My parents both had this wonderful quality of loving life and loving each other. They just wanted me to be happy. My dad encouraged me, and my mom encouraged me: whatever you want to make you happy. It was never about them or their egos ever, I was very blessed. They just believed in all of us. My grandmother thought I was a star from the moment I entered the world. As all excellent grandmas do, right? All grandmas, I hope, feel that way about their grandchildren. Of course I believed my grandmother! (Laughs).
I think this is a truth: if you are not loved by one of your parents, there’s always going to be a very deep hole inside of you. Every child would think it’s their fault that they weren’t well-loved by their mother or their father. Children take on that burden. I think that the well of love that my parents gave me is the well I can go back to for the rest of my life. I feel really lucky.
My parents saw [my 1986 production of Henry V on the rooftop of the Red Lion Pub]. It was actually the last play before my dad died; he died quite suddenly. But they both said that that night on the pub roof watching Henry V was one of the happiest nights of their lives.
I’d like to get a sense of what your mother was like.
Maybe ten years after my father died, I’m in her home in Baltimore, and we were just talking. I said, “Mom, if Dad were to walk in the door right now, what would you say to him?” And she said, “I’d tell ‘im to get a hammer and fix a few things around here.” (Laughs) That will give you a good sense of her.
My mother was very wise. When I didn’t know whether to stay in New York and work as an actress or go back to Chicago, the place I loved, she said, “Barbara, it doesn’t matter where you go. You make your own luck.” I mean, really! To be told that by your mother is phenomenal. I’ve told that to many people. You do make your own luck.
My mother was also very political. In the last four years of her life, she was very ill. She had had a massive heart attack, and they didn’t think she was going to live but a few weeks. But she ended up lasting four years. So when Obama was running, she said, “Don’t worry, Barbara. I’m going to live to see the Bushes out of office.” (Laughs) And she did. And she did! On inauguration day in ’09, which is only one month before she died, she looked at me and she said, “If your father were here, we’d go out dancing tonight.” Yeah. Isn’t that lovely?
Do you remember a moment when you first realized your mother was beginning to change?
Yes, I do. I saw all of her bills unpaid on her desk, and that wasn’t my mother. She would pay everything in an orderly, beautiful way. I realized she couldn’t write those checks. There was something going on that prevented her from being that orderly. Another time, she said, “You know, I got into the car the other day, and I forgot where I was going.” Basically, what was happening, which we did not know for a couple of years, was that she was on an overdose of cortisone. The doctor, who loved her, didn’t check her dosage. She was on 30 milligrams of cortisone when she should’ve been on six. And that weakened her heart and everything else.
When she had her massive heart attack in ’05, he called, and he said, “Barbara, I think I put your mother in the hospital.” And I said, “You know what? We have no doubt because the [stated side effects] of this drug were exactly what happened. My brother and my sister and I know you love Rhoda very much, and the only thing we ask of you is that you always double-check dosage for the rest of your career so this never happens again.” And he said, “Believe me, I will.”
He was not a bad man in any way. All of us are capable of making mistakes, aren’t we? It’s unfortunate, though, that it did cost my mother years of her life. On the other hand, she lived a long and happy life. She was 88.
Were the last four years particularly difficult for her?
I think they were probably more difficult for me than for her. (Laughs) I lost all freedom. But there’s a positive and a negative. Like there’s a yin and a yang in everything, right? I was able to take care of the most wonderful person in the world. She lived with me and my dog, another golden retriever. But I had to hire help, obviously, because I worked a lot and very long hours, but you know what? It’s an honor to take care of someone that you love. It is just an honor. But it does have challenges for any busy person. For any person.
Was that role reversal strange for you?
Well, it hurt. How could it not hurt, right? I mean, it hurts to see the diminution of a spirit. It just hurts. No child wants to become the parent – though, I wouldn’t say I became the parent; I don’t think it was that extreme, because she had her brain ‘til the moment she died. She was with it and funny. She was surrounded by me and the dog; and my brothers and my sister would come in regularly. The grandchildren would come in regularly. So she was surrounded by a tremendous amount of love in those last four years.
But she got sadder because she knew, I think deep down, that she was not going to get better. She never asked, because she was afraid of dying. She had been afraid of dying since she was a little girl of 11 when her father dropped dead in front of her. He was a young man; he was 30-something. So that caused a tremendous fear of death within her.
Did she ever talk to you about her own mortality?
She said, “You know, Barbara, I’m not going to live forever.” And I said, “I know that, Mom. But now is not the time.” And she said, “I know, I know. But I’m not going to live forever.” That’s all she would say about it. But she dreamt once of her father coming to her, and she had a heart attack when she told me the story because it frightened her. She thought she was dead.
When we knew it was toward the end, (knew because her breathing then was becoming labored in the last six weeks of her life), different members of the family came in on the weekends to be with her. They were saying goodbye. She didn’t know that, but everybody came in, so she really had a great sendoff.
Do you remember the last lucid conversation you had with her?
You know, the last four days were a nightmare, and she was not really there. She was struggling terribly physically, trying not to die, and so we had no real conversation. She looked up once and said, “I was hoping you’d come home from work.” But I had been there for two days, nonstop. So I would say that the last four days, there was nothing really lucid at all. It was just a nightmare for me, knowing she was going to be dying.
And a nightmare for her, quite frankly, because she didn’t want … She was raging against the dying of the light. Maybe the last conversation was when my brother was there and his new wife, and we had some wine together in the living room. My guess is we were probably chatting about the election, and the family, and I think she laughed — she had a hearty laugh. That last Sunday, we had a good time together, all four of us. It was a lovely, a lovely night. And then my brother left early the next morning. She got really sick, and then the medicine kicked in, so she was hardly conscious, barely conscious.
How was she “raging”?
She didn’t want to let go of life. She wasn’t raging; I’m just using a metaphor. She was holding on. She wouldn’t open her mouth for medicine. She wouldn’t urinate; she was holding on. She just refused to open her jaw; she refused to get any relief. They ultimately used a catheter. She wasn’t aware of any of this, but she was just completely tense. Tense, tense, tense. And it wasn’t until the last night when the morphine kicked in that she was able to sleep a bit.
Were you with her when she died?
Yes. Yeah. I was.
Was anybody else there?
A wonderful person from hospice was there, and her caregiver was there. So it was beautiful, the three of us were in the room when she died, and I knew. The nurse said, “Barbara, it’s going to be seconds.” And I said to her, “No. It’s going to be two minutes.” She looked at me like, how do you know? And I said “Three is her favorite number.” She died at 9:33. The nurse called it at 9:31, but I said, Wait. (Laughs)
After Mom died, I was a bit in shock; it was just an out-of-body experience. The nurse said, “Is there anything you’d like to say?” She sort of gave us permission to say something over my mother’s body. The caregiver said a prayer in Polish, and it was beautiful. I just said, “May flights of angels sing thee to they rest.” Yeah. Only thing that came into my mind.
Do you feel like your mother taught you anything about the end of life?
No. (Laughs) My mother was so afraid of it. I’m the opposite in that way. It’s not that I look forward to it. But I’m very spiritual. From the beginning of my life, I’ve thought that I lived before. I’ve always sort of known that, so I do believe in reincarnation, and it’s just part of me; it’s been part of me since I was five. So we’re very different in that respect. Very different. I think that’s good, don’t you? I think it’s good to learn all sorts of lessons from everyone you’re with.
Did the changes in your mother impact your  production of Lear?
Actually, not that much. I guess a friend of mine impacted it more. He was a brilliant, brilliant man who now has Alzheimer’s. I love him very much; I love his wife very much. He’s had Alzheimer’s for about five years now. Just a tragedy, the horror of watching one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever had the honor of knowing turn into what he’s turned into. It’s just so painful.
I still spend as much time as I can with him and his wife. I recognized that he would ask the same questions over and over again, and Lear did the same thing. I went, “Oh my God! Oh my God! He’s in dementia.” So it was really my friend who had that tremendous impact on that production, because, as I said, my mother did not have dementia. She would forget things, but it was normal forgetting for her age. But! She never forgot anything that the Republicans did. (Laughs)
Nor should she.
Right! She was still Rhoda. And she was still funny, and she still enjoyed a glass of wine and having people around her that she loved. But my friend, now, who is in this horrible dementia, Alzheimer’s, that’s totally different. He’s not there anymore, and that’s the difference. My friend has lost himself. So going through that was the trigger [for that production].
I’ve always felt that Lear was kind of crazy before the show begins, always. I just didn’t know enough about dementia to put it all together until I went through that with my friend. No one in his right mind would give away the kingdom and expect to be treated the same way by everybody. That’s just plain crazy. So I realized, when I got to know dementia in that personal way, that the king, before the show even begins, is in it. Otherwise, you just don’t divide that kingdom up. That’s a sure way for disaster, and Shakespeare knew it and wrote about it, and he must have known people who were in it. That is my assumption. I directed it twice before, and it never occurred to me, because I had never been through it before. It’s the experiencing of [dementia] that reminded me of Lear.
My wife and I have experienced dementia with my wife’s mother. She recently passed away, and, like you, we were both there.
I’m glad you were there.
Because of our experience, I connected powerfully with your production.
Oh, I’m so glad. I’m glad it connected to you. I’m glad you were able to feel that. In some way, it makes you a little less lonely to see that one of the great geniuses of life was able to connect with the horror, the pain and the tragedy of a great mind gone. Thank you very much. It makes me feel so good to know. Please tell your wife that it’s a comfort to my heart.
During an experience like yours, both with your mother and your friend, does any part of you divide off and witness it as an artist and think, what can I salvage from this?
Oh, it’s a wonderful thing. Life is wonderful. Through all the good and bad and horror, all artists, and I’m quoting someone, I can’t remember who. I love this idea. Artists weave their grief into art. And that’s what we do. We take everything. We take the good moments, we take the bad, we take the silly, we take the insane, and we put it in our play.
Is there solace in that?
Oh, it’s great. Yes, great solace. Because you have to communicate all these emotional moments to your actors. You have to communicate what it feels like to give up hope or what it feels like to have a parent die, or a child die, or like Orlando to fall in love with a lightning bolt in your heart. You have to dredge up all of these wonderful memories, all of these moments of your own life, and communicate from your own life through Shakespeare to the actors. It is opening your veins every time, every day, every moment and every rehearsal. And that is an unbelievable feeling. You do get very tired, but you also feel a sense of relief that this very complex range of emotions can be shared. You got that in Lear, Mark. Very complex; from a bastard to someone you felt badly for. Lear. He was this total, complex tyrant in some ways, and then your heart would break for him.
Your heart absolutely does break for him.
And that’s the key, to be able to communicate, and you only have yourself. You have to investigate your own interior landscape; otherwise, I don’t know how you can direct, actually. A lot of people do it in a totally different way. There are many roads to Mecca. As we say, there are many roads to Windsor. And everyone has a different style and a different way of getting through and making, you know, a different window. My window is to go down deep within myself and try and help people understand through whatever it is I’ve lived through. And then Shakespeare, of course, is the trigger.
And you have a venue to share it!
I do! No kidding.
Would that make it hard to retire?
Oh, I never think about retiring, except when I’m really tired and a technical rehearsal has gone south. Retirement killed my father. Yeah. Without a doubt. He never planned on retiring. It really hurt him. He had nothing to look forward to. Look: most artists who are as passionate as myself, and not everybody is, but when you have this kind of passion that is the fuel for your life, the only thing you can think about is the next thing you must communicate. So that’s how I live my life.
Keep working, Barbara, you’re still young.
Yeah. But you know what? You always think, Oh my God, if my eyes go, if my hearing goes — those are the two crucial things, right? Sight and vision. (Laughs) [If they go], then you teach; then you do something to share, to give something back; that’s the key.
That’s what happened to you at the beginning, isn’t it, after your knee went out?
Yep, that’s right. There’s a wonderful play called Duet for One. It’s based on the life of Jacqueline du Prè, the cellist who had developed MS and couldn’t play. One of the doctors says to her, “There are many branches on the tree of life.” Which I think is something we all have to remember. So your question can’t even be answered because there are so many impulses inside of me that need to come out. Just consider me pregnant with a whale. (Laughs)
You make your own luck.
You make your own luck, you do.