Tina Packer is well known to New England audiences as an innovative director, inspirational educator, and vibrant upholder of a theater that has nothing to do with dead white poets and everything to do with "raising the intensity of the theatrical experience".
As artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, based in Lenox, Massachusetts, Packer has introduced a generation of actors and theatergoers to the passion, violence, joy, and visceral world of Shakespeare's language in action. Together with a team of master teachers that either helped found the company or who have been trained in its unique vision and precepts, Packer has built the company into one of the largest outdoor Shakespeare festivals in North America. Its educational outreach programs have won national acclaim and are being replicated widely using the Shakespeare & Company "model," often under the tutelage of the group' gifted actor/educators. Even the company's collaborative management practices--in which every member has a voice in the decision-making process--now are meriting study by business schools and organizations alike.
An articulate and distinctive figure in what had never before been considered a theatrical niche industry, Packer has recently been the subject of a book--"The Company She Keeps" by Helen Epstein, and a WGBH documentary, "Sex, Violence, and Poetry: A Portrait of Tina Packer". Such a portrait, of course, has to take on many colors, since the list of plays Packer has either directed or acted in would fill more than two pages (very small type, single-spaced), while her record for grant-getting and honorary degrees and awards is unbeatable.
Recognition is great, of course, and Packer received it early when she received the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts' Ronson Award for Most Outstanding Performer. But to this extraordinary actress/director/educator/writer, the recognition has never been as important as The Work. And her journey toward The Work began with one word: Frustration.
In the early 1970's, and armed with a wide-ranging intellect unsuited to meekly following a theatrical party line, Packer found herself at an impasse in a "traditional but good" British acting career that paid the bills but lacked satisfaction. "I felt that my voice always had to be a muted one," Packer says. "I had certain perceptions--or what I would now regard as insights--about what should be happening on stage. But my perceptions were either too much or they had no resonance with the directors I worked with--or it felt like that to me. My own exploration was always severely limited."
Turning to directing in the hopes of finding personal direction, Packer left acting for a time and went to work at the London Academy of Dramatic Art, where she proceeded to direct 12 plays in two years. "What I was looking for was raising the intensity of the [theatrical] experience...then I realized that the intensity of the experience really lived in the language. I started getting really interested in the voice and what happens to the voice and all its components."
In working at LAMDA with master fight choreographer B.H. Barry, Packer then made another discovery: "there was something that changed in the energy of theatrical experience when you added fight, and the energy that the good fighter needed was the energy a good actor needed." Dance, Packer found, had much the same effect, in "always lifting the energy of the actors". By this time, Packer was becoming more and more "passionate about the actor/audience relationship" and its own unique flow of energy.