As a kid, my father lovingly—and about half-jokingly—told me that I was “not like the other children.” Teasing or not, he was right; for evidence, one needed look no further than my school supplies. While other girls’ notebooks were photo collages of Britney Spears and Jonathon Taylor Thomas, mine were plain. To be honest, they were probably covered with “Niki’s Stuff!” in jell-penned bubble letters, but my point is that I was never one for celebrity worship. My heroes, my inspirations, were the stuff of literature and history. Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet. Strong women, bold women—women who defied gender roles and societal expectations. They spoke when they had something to say. They fought when the cause demanded it. They were brave, they were fierce. Yet, always, they maintained their dignity and poise. Femininity and power, they taught me, were not mutually exclusive. I learned this lesson anew from the Duchess of Malfi, as played by Laura Cole.
Resurgens Theatre Company is producing The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster’s macabre masterpiece, this weekend at The New American Shakespeare Tavern, and I was fortunate enough to see the production in rehearsal. It was nothing short of a dark delight. Malfi has it all—murder, incestual desires, a werewolf, a poisoned Bible, and even a severed hand. But, at its heart, is the bright, fiery person of the Duchess. Forbidden by her brothers to marry after the death of her first husband, the Duchess takes an empowered stand against patriarchal rule and defies them. Not only does she remarry, she proposes, and to a man beneath her social standing.
According to Director Brent Griffin, he doesn’t cast conventionally—at least not along the lines of modern convention. Griffin builds his plays (by editing the script and making certain artistic choices) with specific actors in mind, as was the practice when Webster wrote the play in the early seventeenth century. Malfi, Griffin said, was selected and tailored for Laura Cole.
“The Duchess is passionate, smart, pure of heart, but manipulative and secretive,” Laura Cole said, reflecting on her character. “She’s romantic, too, and sensual. She’s unafraid of what she wants. And when she must meet her fate, she does it like a prince; like Elizabeth.”
It isn’t surprising that Griffin chose the Duchess for Laura; many of the traits that Cole admires in the Duchess are abundant in Laura herself. Laura’s Duchess takes the stage and immediately steals it. She is regal, a prince, and feels the weight of her office. She refuses to relinquish her agency, but she is not a hard person; she feels deeply and expresses it. “I suppose [Griffin] thought the role would be a good fit for me and my pushy qualities,” Laura admitted with a laugh. Though the fearless pursuit of her passions seems fundamental to Laura’s DNA, it was not always so.
As a child, she was always coming up with little skits and performing them for her family, but she suffered from debilitating shyness. It wasn’t until her mother enrolled her in acting classes that she found her voice. She grew up in Athens, Georgia, and though she received her acting degree from Northwestern University, she always wanted to come home to act in the South. “There’s just something about the South. The sound of cicadas. The smells. The atmosphere. It pulls you back.”
Broadway’s loss is certainly Atlanta’s gain.
She began her work with the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse and the Atlanta Shakespeare Company in 1995, and after twenty years with the Company, Laura wears many hats (acting pun definitely intended). Laura is not only a Senior Acting Company Member, she’s also director of the ASC’s education department and the Apprentice Company, which she actually began. As a result, she’s taught Shakespeare and acting to adults and children for the majority of her career. “I’ve had the opportunity to mentor a lot of young people in their career goals,” Laura said. “We offer training in Shakespeare, obviously, but we also teach madrigal, fight—even taxes.”
Although not much arts training was available when she was a child, Laura worked under some truly great acting teachers. “Rosemary Newcott,” Laura said without pausing when I asked about artistic influences. “I met her during a summer theatre program when I was just sixteen. I then worked with her at the Academy Theatre, among others. I went to Northwestern—sight unseen—because that’s where she went. I didn’t even apply anywhere else.” Laura’s other great influence was Lynne Ann Blom, her modern dance and choreography professor. “Lynne was this incredible creative thinker. The way she worked with me and mentored me…I am increasingly impressed with the influence she had on my creative life.”
Laura considered pursuing a graduate degree in choreography, and in her senior year at Northwestern, she received the Young Choreographer’s Prize for her choreography work under Lynne Blom and Susan Lee. But Laura chased another dream. Instead of studying dance, she underwent specialized training in Shakespeare, and her expertise enables her to coach the Company on matters of text and to offer in-depth insight to her students. Considering her first theatrical appearance was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps her career seems destined. But Laura leaves nothing to fate.
Today, she works tirelessly alongside the ASC’s Artistic Director, Jeff Watkins, to expand their educational opportunities. “I’m a cheerleader,” Laura said. And it’s true. She spends her days encouraging forward thinking and finding the funding to support the education department’s initiatives. Undoubtedly, hers is difficult work in the age of STEM, but it’s worth it because, as Laura told me, “Students speaking Shakespeare: that’s what changes lives.”
Though her work is also her life’s great passion, Laura does occasionally take time to smell the hosta. “I grew up around a lot of nature,” she said. “I love spending time in my garden. It’s all ornamental—hosta, shade, fern.” She, her three dogs, and her husband Joe—who also happens to be the ASC’s Company Manager and Technical Director—live in a beautiful, 100-year-old bungalow in Decatur. “He’s a carpenter, and we’re always finding things to fix.” History is theme with Laura. She and Joe didn't meet in the theatre, but in high school and dated during college, and she’s known some of her dearest friends since early childhood. Even Brent Griffin isn’t a new acquaintance; she met him long ago in a production of Marlowe’s Edward II before either of them left and returned to Georgia.
Any discussion of Laura Cole, especially in her role as the Duchess of Malfi, would be incomplete without mention of her hair. It’s striking—short, spikey, and platinum blonde—all sass and youthful elegance. “I guess my hair is part of my identity,” Laura said with a grin. “It’s been short for about ten years now.” She cut and died it blonde for (what else?) a part. She was playing Mephistopheles in a two-man production of Faustus and wanted a look that evoked a fallen angel. “I remember thinking that I might look like David Bowie,” she said. Not everyone can pull off the pixie cut, but it suits Laura perfectly.
Though her spunky cut is distinctly feminine, it has actually removed some gender barriers for Laura. She’s had the opportunity to play a number of male roles, which has also allowed her to do far more sword fighting and hand to hand combat acting than most female actors. In Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, female characters often demonstrate strength of mind and of character, but not of body.
Griffin takes full advantage of Laura’s unique look in his production of Malfi. Laura opens The Duchess of Malfi in a long, intricately styled wig, but in the moment when she throws “off all vain ceremony…and claims [Antonio] for her husband,” she removes the wig and plays the duration of the show without it. In a way, her hair is a symbol of the Duchess’s agency. It is a very effective artistic choice, but even if she’d worn the wig, the fierceness of her Duchess’s dignity could not be concealed.
Even as the Duchess confronts death, the strength and regality that radiates from Laura is arresting. She stands—eyes and voice all steel and cold fury juxtaposed against the ethereal glow of the stage’s candlelight wash and the wispy lines of her white gown—and declares, “I am Duchess of Malfi still.” Witnessing that moment, a chill slipped down my spine, goosebumps rose on my arms, and I believed her. That breathtaking mix of power and gentility, agency and femininity is what Laura Cole brings to her role as the Duchess and to every aspect of her life and craft.
Niki Knippenberg graduated summa cum laude with degree in English from the Honors College at the University of South Florida and went on to study book publishing at NYU and the University of Denver. By day, Niki is a children’s book publicist; by night, she’s an editorial consultant. When she gets a spare moment, she likes to draw portraits, play with puppies, watch long and dramatic movies, wear fuzzy socks, pretend she lives in a cottage in the English countryside, jump off cliffs, eat Mexican food, travel, try new shades of nail polish, and drink dirty chai tea lattes. When she grows up, she wants to be a mermaid.