How an actress came to play 'Henry V' at Oak Brook's First Folio
In a few days, Diana Coates will step onto First Folio Theatre's outdoor stage to tackle -- for the second time -- one of William Shakespeare's most compelling kings.
The classically trained Coates (whose first name is pronounced Deanna) will play the titular monarch in the Oak Brook theater's production of Shakespeare's "Henry V." Yet, when it comes to Shakespearean roles, Henry wasn't her first choice.
The Washington, D.C., native wanted to play the witty, strong-willed Beatrice in her favorite Shakespeare comedy "Much Ado About Nothing." But while Coates dreamed of playing the Bard's heroines, she auditioned with soliloquies he wrote for his heroes.
"I never really had it in my mind I would play these men, but I did want to audition with these monologues," she said.
She never imagined she'd take on one of those characters in an actual production. Until she did.
The year was 2013. Coates played Marc Antony in an all-female production of "Julius Caesar" from Babes With Blades, a Chicago company dedicated to telling women's stories and providing female theater artists with opportunities to engage in stage combat.
That production marked Coates' first time playing a male role. The experience paved the way for others.
"The sky became the limit," she said. "For me it was, 'why not?'"
Coates returned to the company in 2015 as Aaron in "Titus Andronicus." She continued to play female roles: Margaret in Rasaka Theatre's "Much Ado," Hermia in "Midsummer Night's Dream" at Evanston's Piccolo Theatre and most recently Isabella in Michigan Shakespeare Festival's "Measure for Measure."
In 2015, Coates played Paulina in First Folio's "The Winter's Tale," which ensemble member Hayley Rice co-directed with her late mother, Alison C. Vesely. Nearly two years later, Rice was directing Babes With Blades' all-female "Henry V" and having a hard time finding her Henry. A colleague suggested Coates.
"We offered her the role on the spot," Rice said.
Rice's father, David Rice, First Folio co-founder and executive director, saw BWB's production three times. He proposed Hayley direct it again in Oak Brook. Eager to expand what had been a small-scale, intimate production, Hayley Rice agreed, with one condition.
"I will not do this show without Diana. She's my Henry," said Hayley Rice, who never considered casting a male actor. "She has a presence. There's something about her you like and that commands respect."
Nontraditional casting removes assumptions, Rice said. It shatters audience members' "preconceived notions of the show and allows them to see it in a light they've never seen before," she said.
"Henry's a dude who's steeped in toxic masculinity. He's a white male," Rice said. "Having someone who has lived outside of those experiences brings something to the role."
Coates immediately accepted Rice's offer to revisit the role.
"I had not explored everything in this character I wanted to," she said. "He is the noble, Christian king, but he's got so many cracks and flaws. I wanted to dig deeper into that."
Coates hopes the production sparks a conversation during which "we'll unpack some biases we didn't realize we had."
One thing she hopes resonates is how people deal with difficult circumstances.
"There are a number of instances in this play where someone who seems to have it all together does not," she said. "It's important for people to know that is OK. That is human."
And when you don't have it all together, it's important to reach out for help, to lean on other people, she said.
That applies to life and to art.
"What I love about theater is that it is not a solo sport," Coates said. "It's always about the other, communicating with one another."
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Where: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org
When: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, July 10-Aug. 18