I’m leading a class on Austen right now, and after I mention that there will be a play version of Emma running right as we’re reading the novel and that it is directed by Brooke Aiello, a woman whose face I recognize but whose name I cannot place stays after. “I’m glad you told us about the play. I go see everything with Brooke’s name on it!” Pause. “(You, too. . . ),” she pats me on the arm. I laugh at her reassuring me, but Brooke is so much more recognizable than I am, I know she takes center stage. “I saw you both for the first time in Three Rivers – that production of Miss Julie. It wasn’t what I expected, but I really enjoyed it. I see a lot of plays now and always what Brooke does.”
Turns out, she wasn’t joking. From that little production of Miss Julie in Three Rivers to her leading roles at Woodward Shakespeare to Hedda Gabler. . . she even caught the warmly received Guys and Dolls that Aiello directed for Fresno Pacific University last spring. But she isn’t Aiello’s only fan. Over the years working with her, I’ve heard many people speak about how Aiello’s unique interpretations of classic roles changed their perspective (Hamlet) or how her commanding presence onstage draws them back to the theater on the regular (Venus in Fur).
Jane Austen’s Emma is Aiello’s second turn as a director and very much in her wheelhouse. As an actor, Aiello is closely associated with period pieces and classic leading ladies here in Fresno, even though her character work in contemporary pieces is just as strong. As a director, her understanding of the context of Austen’s time and her technique with period style is well paired with an Austen adaptation. There are few in the area better suited to teaching students about the rigors of playing the Regency period (and in acting in the period costumes she also designs).
Here is Brooke Aiello’s Drive-Thru Interview:
In one word, describe your present condition.
In one sentence, what’s going on in your world?
Teching ALL the shows!!
With no restrictions on content or form, describe the present condition of your artistic outlook.
Right now I’m big on community. The community the audience creates, the community the cast creates, the way art influences and reacts to community. The cast started making little hashes in their script every time I would talk about it. There are a lot of hash marks now.
Why “Emma” for Fresno Pacific University?
Well, the intersection of plays I’m interested in doing and plays that work in the pedagogical rotation at FPU is pretty narrow. I am a die-hard Jane Austen Fan and I thought the script offered opportunities for students to work on a period piece that has some more abstracted elements. (“Abstracted olden timey” is my favorite!)
You work with students not only at FPU, but also at Fresno State and FCC. What do you find exciting about working with college students in the theater?
I feel you never can tell how well you KNOW something until you try to teach it. On a purely selfish level, having to re-root myself the basics keeps my personal technique sharp and pliant. Also watching a student get turned on by theatre or a new skill is pretty gosh-darn rewarding in and of itself. And then, of course, the energy and vitality of young people is exciting to be around a lot of the time.
As a director, what are your goals for this production of “Emma”?
Well, it is hard because my director goals are sometimes at odds with my educator goals. As a director, I want the audience to be entertained by the story of a community where everyone has the ability to achieve perfect happiness, if only they can find their right “fit” in the community. I have used the idea of an English garden, a climbing rose with out a trellis is a sad thing indeed, a shade plant in the glaring sun will never flourish. Emma is the story of a gardener figuring out how to listen to her garden.
As a theater artist, what are you better at now than five or ten years ago?
Uhhhh….everything? I am so much more comfortable now in my technique and comfortable in admitting where my abilities and technique falls short. That doesn’t mean I throw up my hands in defeat when I realize I suck at something (so very many things). It means that I am much better at getting over my ego and embracing a “ beginner’s mindset” that is okay with failing and finds value in the effort regardless of the product. Also being okay with not being good at everything. “The world is wide enough” for what I bring and for what you bring. The blending of those things is where you can start to really make something awesome.
What are your top three theatre reads?
What would you like to see more of on Fresno stages?
I am a sucker for period pieces. But I understand why this may not be the moment for them. Plays about women and their experiences. Plays that pass the Bechdel test. Plays that highlight the feminine and especially LGBTQ+. Plays about folks that aren’t white men.
Describe one personal theater ritual you observe for each show.
I don’t have director rituals. Should I? Am I failing at directing with out a ritual? As an actor, I generally get there as soon as possible and take a long time very specifically building the character internally and externally. Sometimes it feels like a ritual, other times like a labor. Depends on the day.
Well I have a couple things I am auditioning for in the near future. I am positively ACHING to do some Shakespeare again and Haley White is talking about doing a remount of “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.”
Brooke Aiello is one of the Central Valley’s most versatile actors tackling leading and ensemble roles with equal vigor. She was most recently seen as Hedda in The New Ensemble’s production of Hedda Gabler. As a leading actor, she has a large range of Shakespearean roles to her credit, including portrayals of Hamlet (Hamlet, The New Ensemble), Titania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Woodward Shakespeare Festival), and Portia (The Merchant of Venice, WSF). She’s also portrayed Vanda in Venus in Fur (Live Theatre Co.) and The Governess in the two-hander The Turn of the Screw (TNE). In regional theater, Aiello was featured as Mrs. Watson in the Bay Area Children’s Theater production of Mercy Watson to the Rescue and as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Southern Arena Theater in Mississippi. In addition to acting, Aiello is a theater educator, a director, and an accomplished theatrical and historical costumer having worked with California Opera Association, The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, Tulane University, and in film and television. Aiello is a graduate of the theater department at Fresno State and holds an MFA in acting from the University of Mississippi. She currently is an adjunct professor of theater at Fresno Pacific University and Fresno City College and part of the costuming staff at Fresno State.