The Princess Bride, 2017, Starring Harriet Cohen (right) as Buttercup (Penguin Productions 2017)

Interviewing Harriet Cohen: The Joys of Summer Theater and Shakespeare

Written by Linda Yan | June 4th, 2021

This piece is a part of an ongoing series spotlighting local penguins and their love for theater and Shakespeare. Register today for a summer theater experience with Penguin Productions!

Summer is upon us– and so is summer theater! I spoke with Harriet Cohen, a cast member of the upcoming Penguin Productions show The Tempest, about the joys and discoveries of summer youth theater, and why Shakespeare is fun. Below is our conversation edited for length and clarity.

Harriet Cohen is a junior at Ballard High School who enjoys playing violin, reading (her favorite author is Terry Pratchett), and cuddling her cat Zelda. She first joined Penguin Productions in the fall of 2018 for The Hamlet Project. Since then, she’s been in lots of Penguin plays including Love and Information, The Princess Bride, and She Kills Monsters. Harriet is currently also a member of the Penguin Advisory Council.

Linda: You’ve been with Penguin Productions for awhile now. How do you think Penguin stands out?

Harriet: Penguin is super nice because one, you always get a part; that’s guaranteed. And two, Penguin really tries to take care of you. If you want a challenge they’ll give you a challenge. And they won’t put making the production great over giving you a great experience. Also the community– it’s just a group of friends, so that’s nice to have.

Linda: At Penguin Productions, we’re currently doing registration for our summer programs, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But from summer camps to family vacations, there’s always so much for kids to do in the summer. Why should someone participate in a summer theater production with Penguin?

Harriet: Well, summer theater is kind of magical. It’s a bit like something you can focus on more where you don’t have the resets of school and other stuff where you get really stressed out. So you can relax, and that makes it so much better. And theater is just super cool; I find it that the more time you can spend on it the better.  Summer theater is also unique because the group that does it can hang out before, which lets them be a bit more of a posse as they’re not so defined by the time of the rehearsals. There’s more freedom, and that’s really nice.

Linda: After over a year of virtual theater productions, this year’s summer programs will be in person and outdoors at Green Lake Park. How do you feel about these new developments?

Harriet: It brings back memories! I used to do theater at the Bathhouse when I was younger, and I love that lake. I definitely am looking forward to being in-person. I miss the mobility and the energy of blocking and sword-fighting and all sorts of other things that come from being in the same space. I’m sure it will be very fun.

Romeo and Juliet, 2020, Featuring Harriet Cohen as Friar Laurence (Penguin Productions 2020)

Linda: That’s awesome, I’m really looking forward to seeing how things play out this summer. Now, let’s move on to some questions about Shakespeare, starting with why do you think someone should read Shakespeare?

Harriet: Why should a musician play Bach? Shakespeare is so beautiful that it is unavoidable. Shakespeare is such a great writer. His writing is so exciting, and his plots are genius. Like, I’m not sure how one playwright can manage to write all that but I think it’s genius.

Linda: What do you think studying Shakespeare has taught you?

Harriet: Well, it’s definitely taught me how to read Shakespeare, as well as poetry, and how to analyze it. Additionally, it’s taught me all the major story forms and how to make a great plot and stuff like that. Like I know that Romeo and Juliet is the basis for a whole lot of movies and books and stuff like that. Shakespeare is really an architect of sorts for stories, so it’s good to read his work for that reason. 

Linda: Even though Shakespeare has definitely stood the test of time, there’s a lot of things that need to be re-examined, such as sexism and racism, in his plays especially in modern contexts. How do you think theater artists and theater directors should approach that?

Harriet: It’s definitely important to acknowledge it, and you gotta make sure that everyone feels comfortable, but you don’t need to include all the words. If you’re interested in this issue, you should do some digging online. I have a good amount of experience with Shakespeare, but I’m not an expert. My understanding is that he was a complicated, and sometimes contradictory person, as well as a man of his time and a progressive thinker. Like in Romeo and Juliet Juliet does spend a lot of time holed up in the house with her nurse, but she’s super strong-willed and she talks A TON. So, there’s always another option in Shakespeare. 

Linda: For those who feel intimidated by Shakespeare, do you have any advice that you would like to give them?

Harriet: Well, Shakespeare is a language. I don’t think it should be intimidating. I just think that if you make the effort to learn the language then you’ll feel more comfortable with it and it’ll feel more natural to read, and easier to get your mind around it. You definitely got to put in the effort though, and it’s hard at first.

Linda: If someone’s on the fence about registering for The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream what would you tell them?

Harriet: It depends on why they’re on the fence to be honest. But I’d probably tell them that Penguin is very flexible, you don’t have to show up to every rehearsal. If you want a small part, you can ask for a small part. And it’s not so formal, we respect everyone, it’s a nice community, and we welcome all skill levels and experience levels. And we’d just be really happy to have you.

Penguin Productions is currently accepting registrations for The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To register, please visit our Productions and Performances page. There is no obligation to pay for our programs.

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