Photo by Josh Spiro
I have had the privilege to know Frances Kimpel since our time at Brandeis University, where we met in a production of The Tempest put on by our old college theater troupe, Hold Thy Peace. Since then I’m glad to say we have become good friends, and over the years and the many plays we’ve worked on together I’ve had a front-row seat to the fabulous performances she’s delivered in that time. All this led me to the great privilege of having her be the one to embody my hero.
Photo by Charlotte Oswald
Frances Kimpel is from Tacoma, Washington, with a degree from Brandeis University in History and French, as well as a masters in Medieval History from Durham University in Durham, UK. I have directed Frances many times, starting with our time in Hold Thy Peace, Brandeis’s resident Shakespeare troupe, including a turn as Hamlet. Once she even directed me, when she cast me as Cordelia and the Fool in her moody, contemplative, sepia-toned production of King Lear.
She’s always been a great source of inspiration to me. An incredibly talented actor, dancer, and all-around artist, her versatility on the stage is remarkable. With her blonde hair, green eyes, and trim figure, she can easily step into the personas of innocents and beauties, but just as easily does her physicality lend itself to startling androgyny, making all manner of roles, from intellectual men, to energetic children, to inhuman monsters, all within her grasp.
Years ago, when I was first conceiving of the character of Victoria Hawking, I knew I wanted her to be a striking, dangerous figure, able to do amazing things, which to me naturally suggested someone who looked looked like Frances— a small, lean figure yet still with intense physical presence. As a friend of ours, once said, “She looks like the blade of a knife.” That combined with her incredible acting ability always made her the person I wanted to take on the character.
Frances’s favorite roles tend one of two ways, the otherwordly, and the tragically philosophical. For her the first category includes the likes of Puck, Ariel, Caliban, and one of Macbeth’s witches. Of these roles Frances says, “I love portraying non-human characters, both because doing so often incorporates a lot of fun movement and also because I am perpetually fascinated by the border between the familiar and the unknown— between what is human and what is other.” Her talent for changing her physicality shines especially in these roles. On the other hand, some of her most memorable and moving performances were as Hamlet and Brutus, two of the most weighty and challenging roles in Shakespeare. She has always enjoyed “playing characters with complex inner lives— highly imaginative, philosophical, or idealistic characters, characters with great dreams or great delusions —and exploring how those imaginings are reconciled (or not) with a dissonant reality.”
Frances as Hamlet with Dave Hinterman as Horatio
So when approaching Mrs. Hawking, Frances brought a great deal of experience building complicated psychologies to inform her acting. I asked Frances how she saw her character and how she went about building her performance in the role. “I usually get to know characters by doing imaginative background work. I try to imagine what sorts of things they habitually think about, how the would react to various hypothetical situations, and moving through various spaces feels like for them. I then try to let these things inform my development of a unique voice, bearing, and set of mannerisms.” In this case she used not only Mrs. Hawking’s life with the Colonel, but who she was before then. “In order to actually portray this character it was important for me to root my understanding of her in something further back still: what was she like before her marriage? Why and how did the marriage— the great tragedy of her life —happen?”
Frances gave a lot of thought to how that informed the person she was stepping into. “As we see her now, her specialty is stealth: everything she does is painstakingly planned and concealed. Though she risks her life on a regular basis, she does so in a manner that— when it comes to the possibility of discovery —is cautious in the extreme, and whenever she slips up in this regard, she is profoundly disappointed in herself. But she was not always this way. Her younger self was much more reckless— much less painfully aware of the limitations within which she must operate —and also much less bitter. Developing an understanding of the metamorphosis that must have transpired is what really made the character ‘click’ for me, and forms the crux of what I brought to her mentally and emotionally. It also helped me to link the character to my own state of being— to provide some through-way for channeling my own natural energy (much more akin to her younger self, I would say) into the mature Mrs. Hawking of this play.”
Frances’s particular abilities lend themselves especially well to creating our hero’s defining stage presence. “I would describe Mrs. Hawking’s physicality as like mine, but less fidgety and chaotic— more confined, deliberate, and— surprisingly —more delicate… she walks a delicate line— she carries a delicate operation —and that level of masterful precision and forethought shows in how she moves.
“Developing her voice, of course, was the most difficult thing for me, because I had to build the character voice on top of a foreign accent. I think I settled on a lower register than my natural one, with a kind of perpetual edge (whether of irritation or calculation or vigilance or threat— there’s usually something beneath whatever she’s saying) and a tendency to default into irony. This last, I think is because she sees the bulk of social interaction as a ridiculous but obligatory farce.”
Finally, I asked Frances what she enjoyed about her character. “I love her ferocity, and the tension between the explosiveness of that ferocity and the level of control that has been imposed upon it. I very much enjoyed the process of perfecting her physicality. While I am accustomed to portraying danger in a more chaotic form, I have never played a character with quite her level of deadly precision… Her rage is meticulously contained and channeled into deliberate actions. It was also of course great to get to play a canonically asexual character— as opposed to playing a canonically sexual character with a secret head canon of asexuality, as I am sometimes wont to do. And I loved climbing the set.”
If you’re interested in seeing more of Frances, she’s got a number of other projects in the works. “I am currently preparing to direct The Chameleon’s Dish‘s upcoming performance of my original play, Annabel Lost, an experimental piece combining visual art and performance poetry with a montage of dramatic scenes.” The play will be performed at the Democracy Center in Cambridge, MA, on the evenings of March 22nd, March 29th, April 3rd, and April 5th. She’s also been published in the winter issue of Window Cat Press and in the upcoming publication Polychrome Ink. She will also be performing some of her poetry at Mass Poetry’s U35 Reading Series on May 26. In conjunction with Eboracum Richter-Dahl, Frances additionally craft a line of art objects and jewelry which can be found for sale at Revolutionary Concord at 34 Main Street in Concord, MA, or online on at her Etsy store.