BYU’s ‘Mary Stuart’ Opens Dialogue on Power, Femininity and Kinship

BYU’s ‘Mary Stuart’ Opens Dialogue on Power, Femininity and Kinship

Two of Europe’s most notable and intriguing queens face off in the BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts production of “Mary Stuart.” Director Stephanie Breinholt emphasizes in this production how the power struggle between cousins Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England closely mirrors today’s political contests.

Breinholt said, “I’ve been wanting to direct this show for a long time. One of the big draws is that it’s about two women who were queens and how they navigated a male-dominant political and social situation. I found that to be fascinating. We have a lot of female students who don’t often get to play those big roles. I strive to be a strong woman and director so I think it’s interesting to direct strong women.”

A Tale of Two Queens

German playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote the original “Mary Stuart” as a verse play in 1800. The BYU production will use an English version translated by Peter Oswald in 2007.

The play is a historical depiction of the last days of Mary’s life as she languishes in prison. In the story, her cousin Elizabeth is being pressured to sign Mary Stuart’s death warrant. When the play begins, Mary has been in exile for many years and her supporters are instigating uprisings all over England and Scotland.

Schiller’s play imagines a situation where Mary asks to speak to Elizabeth, and the British queen agrees to visit her cousin in captivity. The two meet and discuss the possibilities of Mary’s fate. As we know from history, things do not end well for Mary; Elizabeth signs her death warrant and she is beheaded. The foundation of the play, and its relevance to modern society, lies in the relentless problems of political intrigue and power plays.

“When we auditioned,” said Breinholt, “I thought it was very applicable to the current political environment of the United States. There are so many roles being redefined in ways we have never seen. And no matter how we feel about the sides or the ‘party,’ politics fills our news feeds everyday. This show, although it’s a different era, deals with very similar things and I thought, ‘How interesting. Have we learned anything since the 1600s? Some things yes, and some things no.’ So we explore that a little bit in the show.”

Breinholt decided to cast a company of 10 people, choosing the best actors for the part regardless of gender. This means there are women who play men’s roles and vice versa. Breinholt connected her casting choice to the current shattering of traditional stereotypes and gender roles.

The director also purposefully cast her main characters to reflect the imbalance of power between the two queens and their supporters. Breinholt said, “I cast a sophomore MDT student in the leading role of Mary Stuart and a senior in the role of Elizabeth I because I wanted Elizabeth to have a little more presence about her — a little more working knowledge about the politics —  and I wanted Mary, even though historically they were similar in age, to feel a little bit out of her depth in the political court. There’s something about three years of being a student that gives you a little bit of knowledge.

“Sophomore Miriam [Edwards] is full of passion and emotion,” Breinholt said, which juxtaposes well with Elizabeth’s actress, Madison Hall, who comes off as more mature and composed. Breinholt continued, “I thought about that when casting those two actresses specifically, as well as with the characters who play definite lovers for the two queens. One is Leicester, who is played by a senior vocal performance student, and the other is Mortimer, who is played by a BFA student who just got back from a mission. That age difference gives it a nice contrast as well.”

Edwards, the actress portraying Mary Stuart, said she has never had to play a more difficult role, yet this experience has been exhilarating as she has tried to find out who Mary is to her. “The second I found out I was cast I started to research Mary’s life,” said Edwards, “trying to find accounts of what others thought of her and poring over the script for hours. Mary is seen as both a symbol of hope and as a threat. I find it interesting that there are so many movies, plays, books and more about Elizabeth I, but when it comes to Mary, Queen of Scots, hardly anyone knows about her life. Mary was a woman equal to Elizabeth in every way. Elizabeth just happened to have more luck. This play gives a glimpse into that.”

Edwards said she has enjoyed the collaborative effort of this production. She calls the cast “marvelous” and the story “gripping.” The costumes, music—which is all performed live by the student performers—and stage design of the production work together to set the scene and reinforce the themes. Edwards said there is a “certain minimalist feel to the show,” which highlights the acting. Because they perform in a small space, Edwards said there is a sense of intimacy that stresses the complexities and nuances of power, femininity and the struggle for connection.

“I cannot express how many hours I spent memorizing for this show,” said Edwards. “The language is gorgeous and complicated, and took forever to learn by heart. But, as many times as I’ve read the script, I am still captivated by the story. Acting is extremely vulnerable, and to portray a character honestly, you have to let yourself show. It’s not like putting on and taking off a mask — it’s more ingrained than that. Stephanie constantly tells me to, ‘Just be Miriam. Say the lines like Miriam would say it.’ It’s been an absolutely terrifying delight to discover, not only who Mary is, but to find new pieces of myself.”

The play features three different dialects: French, because Mary Stuart was raised in France, Scottish and British. Calling this classic text “crafted,” Breinholt said it is easy to follow the play because of Oswald’s translated new version.

Dressing the Part

Breinholt said she wanted to take a contemporary perspective on the time period, and her goal is visible through the costume design. She wanted the production to feel accessible and attractive to a contemporary audience, and especially to a university audience. She wants women who attend to think, “I want to look like Mary and Elizabeth.”

“I really like the men’s clothing as well,” said Breinholt. “I really love the thought that we know these people through historical accounts from their portraits. So we see the portraits of these women and we make all these assumptions about them from it. In terms of staging, I play a lot with the idea that these are portraits. We’re creating new portraits of these people, and then they come alive in front of you.”

Rebekah Silver Jackson, the costume designer for “Mary Stuart,” said the production has been a new and unique design project for her. “When Stephanie and I first met to discuss the show,” said Jackson, “she told me she wanted it to look like Project Runway with an Elizabethan twist. I couldn’t have been more excited! While I am primarily a theatrical costume designer, I have done some fashion design in the past and this has been a fun way to combine two very different approaches to design. I’ve enjoyed the challenge.”

Jackson said because “Mary Stuart” is permeated with themes of power and art, her inspiration came from the historical portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. This is also expressed in the costumes of the noblemen portrayed in the play. She researched what indicated power and status in their era and then looked through modern high-fashion portraits to similarly find what indicates art and status in our own time, then tried to blend the two concepts.

“Trying to get the embroidery worked out for Queen Mary’s dress was a particular challenge,” said Jackson, “as we had to do several samples and make a lot of phone calls to figure it all out. Eventually we got it done, and it turned out to be stunning. If audiences get a close look at her dress, which is possible with how the seating is for this show, they will see all sorts of hand beading and the Scottish Thistle as a crowning motif.”

Jackson praises Mary Jane Wadley and Deanne Dewitt for doing a wonderful job patterning and constructing the queens’ two costumes in minute detail. She also credits the uniqueness of this production to Breinholt’s vision.

“She has worked hard with everyone in the cast and production crew to help create this sense that we’re seeing history come alive today, as if the characters are stepping out of their portraits into our time to show their story. This production brings them to life. If Queen Elizabeth I or Mary Stuart were alive today, they would certainly be at the forefront of fashion as they were in their day; everyone wanted to imitate what they wore. In relation to costumes then, this show will be unique in that not only will the costumes be telling a story, but also they will be selling a fashion.”

Giving Women a Voice

Breinholt notes that all but two members the cast and crew are students. Greta Gebhard, the dramaturg of the play, spent this past summer in Germany visiting significant places in Schiller’s life to get a sense for the original context of the play. 

“I think history is fascinating and we seem to repeat history,” said Breinholt, “and unfortunately we’re going to have to learn some lessons as a society. This is a timeless story. I really love that it highlights women. I am an actress and we’re always looking for parts. We always play the ladies in waiting who don’t have any lines that come on and have to cry when somebody dies. You will see that in the show, they are there, but they are there because I think it’s interesting that we also have, in the same play, the women who can speak and have a strong voice.

“My hope is not for it to be good, because I think it will be what it needs to be—which is very good. My hope is that people will come and see it. Not just to sell out or for accolades, but to support the arts and because I think it’s an important message.”

Breinholt said the show will be a nice surprise because it finds an interesting, exciting and riveting approach to some things that are currently appearing on news feeds. “How do you talk about those things? How do you process them?” asked Breinholt. “Well, we do it in front of you for a few hours and then we provide you with other people to talk about politics or relationships with; all in order to gain a larger understanding of where we are, what we’re doing and what all this has to do with us. ‘Mary Stuart’ is innovative; it’s not what audiences will have seen before. They will not be sorry. It’s bold and it becomes somewhat immersive in that the audience is so close to the action and they become portraits for each other. The set design is such that they become part of the story in many ways.”

Tickets and Show Details

Performance Dates and Times: March 9–10, 14–17, 20–23 | 7:30 p.m. and March 10, 17, 24 | 2:00 p.m.

Location: Margetts Theatre, Franklin S. Harris Fine Arts Center

Price: $10-16

Tickets: Available in person at the BYU Ticket Office in the Harris Fine Arts Center or Marriott Center, by phone at 801-422-2981 or online at