Shammen McCune: On a Roll with Shakespeare Roles

Once more, Shammen McCune is immersed in an iconic Shakespearean role. In 2017, McCune portrayed Lady Capulet in PICT Classic Theater’s Romeo and Juliet. In 2019, she inhabited Caliban in The Tempest at Pittsburgh Public Theater and the assassin Brutus in Julius Caesar for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks. Acclaimed for her performances in those innovative all-female productions, McCune also slipped in a comic turn as Lena Horne in Briocolage Production Company’s holiday hit Yinzer Scrooged  before year end.

McCune returns to PICT playing the dual role of the fairy queen Titania and captured Amazon Queen Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at PICT Classic Theatre, running Feb. 13-29 in the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, Oakland. Alan Stanford directs a cast of 13 in a “wonderful summer delight by William Shakespeare, to warm your loving hearts in the midst of winter.” Visit PICTonline for tickets and details on all special events.

Between Midsummer rehearsals, McCune mused about her life-long relationship with the classics and her relationships with some of Shakespeare’s most intriguing characters.


PITR: So what is it about Pittsburgh audiences that connect them so to Shakespeare?

McCune: My gut says what connects ‘burgh audiences is what connects audiences anywhere –it’s the story. It’s some aspect of the human condition and if it happens to land at the right moment in time, in history, it highlights a flaw or is cathartic. We’ve all of us, at some point, related to a character, a line, a movement, a pause – even if for a second, there was a moment of, “Ahhhhh.” To learn from, to make you think, not just feel, to see a different point-of-view — these subjects affect everyone regardless of race, affluence, gender, sexual identity, religion, political affiliations because we’re human. Again, there’s a reason Shakespeare’s stories are still important in modern times.

But maybe audiences simply come because of a sense memory. Maybe they want to see their favorite actors. Maybe they like travelling around to different venues with Quantum. Maybe they are season ticket holders. Maybe they are ready to expand their world view; to challenge their belief system.Maybe they want to escape (or think they are), and be with other people having the same experiences, silently. Together. Maybe they’ve always wondered. Maybe they read about it in the New York Times.

Or maybe it’s one night they could wrangle a babysitter.


PITR: What happened here in 2019?

McCune: It wasn’t a coincidence that Marya Sea Kaminski chose her directorial debut as the Artistic Director at Pittsburgh Public Theater to be a diverse, all-female Tempest that started in a cancer ward, and Artistic Director Jennifer Tober chose similar casting of Julius Caesar for PSIP’s 15th anniversary season; the latter supported by an all-female production staff helmed by director Elena Alexandratos. The manipulation of power in politics, corruption of the foundations of government; degradation of family, failure of the body, toppling of societal norms. FEAR. Fear of the unfamiliar, of the unknown. Fear of women in power. Look at the current cancerous political landscape – we’re in an election cycle, the impeachment. At what cost to us, the represented?


Tamara Tunie and McCune in Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s “The Tempest”


Or cancer – what would say to someone you love without knowing, truly, when they won’t be here anymore? What if you did have time? How many of us know someone, related or friend or friend of a friend, that has battled or succumbed to any disease? The coronavirus.

What can we learn from all of this? How can we help/heal each other to not just survive, to live?

All these themes – timely.


PITR:  What was your earliest experience with Shakespeare for good or ill?

McCune: Nothing but immeasurable good.

My earliest experience with Shakespeare was American Players Theater (founded in 1977) in Spring Green, Wisconsin, opened July 18, 1980, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and rep’d with Titus Andronicus, under the leadership of Charles Bright, Anne Occhiogrosso, and Randall Duk Kim.

The first words of Shakespeare that I heard were spoken by Jonathan Smoots, “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace.” I. was. gone. Mr. Kim played ‘Puck’ and the title character in Titus and all I could think was, “I wanna do that!” It was electric.

Outdoors, no sound amplification, sitting with 1000 other people, as the song of the whippoorwill fades away, the stars appear, and the moon rises you hear, “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear,” surrounded by a gentle breeze in the trees, crickets chirping, breathing inall that Oberon and Titania describe, how can you not…just breathtaking.

And Titus. Greatest horror show ever. I mean, come on. Serving your nemesis her offspring in a pie and watching her eat?!??!? Brilliantly, appropriately horrifying to a level beyond twisted.

McCune in PICT’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (2020)

PITR: What/who was your greatest influence in classic theatre experience and why?

McCune: Fair to say, those three people are my greatest classical theater influence. The experiences/playwrights they bestowed upon me so graciously, so willingly for the next 10 years was more than anything you’d even get in school.


PITR: And your other top influences?

McCune: My second greatest influence in theater was my Voice and Speech professor at DePaul University and my first African-American teacher, Phyllis Griffin. I remember her giving me the gift of Juliet, a character I never considered playing because I didn’t consider myself remotely to be an ingenue because of the way I looked, multi-racial–and she said it didn’t matter. Juliet was in every woman. She taught the Lessac method, which I still use today, marking up my script (especially Shakespeare) to make those luscious words trip off my tongue better.

The third would be my Shakespeare teacher at American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA in New York), B. Bram Lewis who gave me these gifts: deeper text analysis/character study; my favorite scene partner, Edward Yankie; and giving me my Actors’ Equity (union) card with Viola in Twelfth Night while being directed by the late Sir John Barton (yes, that Sir John of the Royal Shakespeare Company).


PITR: What characteristics do you strongly associate with some of your major Shakespearean roles? Caliban, Brutus, now Titania. Others? How do these roles inform one another as you take this actor’s journey?

McCune: Golly. “Stubbornness” popped into my head immediately (chuckle); a love/respect for nature, of natural sounds. This is my second crack at both Titania and Hippolyta. (Hippolyta #1 was in college; Titania 20 years ago).Biggest difference – life experience. Regarding women/sacrifice/property–What does Hippolyta (mythical not in the play) sacrifice? What does Titania? That changeling child “problem” gets solved rather quickly as soon as Oberon gets what he wants – through trickery.  I think about parenthood, failed relationships, betrayals, toxic family dynamics, love (in every complicated and delicious form), respect, integrity. And oh, the words.

McCune in PSiP’s “Julius Caesar” (2019)

Whatever the character, these plays are universal and that’s why they continue to be performed. They are all of us, every nitty gritty ugly and exquisite part of being human (or part -human).

Brutus (and Caliban) see so many things with rose-colored glasses at times and has the best intentions and when it doesn’t work, he’s perplexed. How can people see different things when presented with the same evidence? I can’t imagine playing Brutus in my 20’s (but I did want to be Tybalt – I had a lot of anger) but at this juncture in my development, the timing was right.

And Caliban –invasion of space, hurt, betrayed, disrespected, discriminated, gullible, and at times, so charming, eloquent (that love of nature creeps in), and childlike but, what a toxic family dynamic. Totally relatable where I was in my life.

Lady Mac. I played her right after I was engaged and I felt so powerful, but boy, would I love to have another crack at her.

Life experience. So many riches yet to mine from so many characters yet to play (that aren’t Shakespeare, too) and so little time. But on my mind at the moment, OthelloThe Merry Wives of Windsor, Titus Andronicus, Henry VIIIHamlet, King Lear. Oh heck, why not? All of ‘em.


PITR: If you had to be on a desert island with only one Shakespeare script, what would you choose and what version/edition?

McCune: I’d try to sneak in the complete works, but at this moment, Midsummer, since it was the first Shakespeare I saw. And it’d be a toss-up between the First Folio, Riverside, or Oxford (but since I can be snotty, probably the Folio).


PITR: I find the language so vivid in parts of Midsummer–while it also has some of the most outrageous comic situations. Something for everyone as in many Shakespeare works. What fascinates you about this play?

McCune: I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on head, it does have something for everyone, but I think it’s the fantastical nature: having the physical and metaphysical worlds collide and one possibility of what could happen (the mischievous version of fairies anyway); who doesn’t like Puck? It reminds us that we humans used to think that fairies were part of our lives, or at least we wished they were, like gods. And this play shows the parallels the human/spirit worlds, how things go horribly wrong when Nature is at odds with itself – see where I’m going here? Look at the state of the planet, how sick we’ve made her, and how some people continue to be in denial that humans have caused this disharmony.

It occurs to me that Shakespeare’s descriptions of nature, especially in Midsummer, those very fields of flowers, blooms, seasons, are a love letter to Nature. One now that disappears more each day. Without stunning creatures like bees and butterflies, we don’t have food?

And, sentimentality. It was my first.

McCune in PPT’s “The Tempest” (2019)


PITR: What do you think will fascinate audiences about this production in one of the city’s most comfortable and intimate spaces?

McCune: There is the theme of midwinter but the story, the language is the star of this show. The historical aspect of being in the Fred Rogers Studio doesn’t get old. And neither does the sentimentality of gentler days gone by. Ever. It’s not possible to enter that space and not smile and feel good about yourself. And hope for the state of the world. Be kind.Find the magic in the world.




Shammen McCune was born in Chicago, raised in Wisconsin (considers herself a very proud Cheesehead, thank you very much)–on a 260-acre working beef farm with chickens, duck, geese, horses, cats, dogs, and a goat named Libby by her gentleman farmer radiologist father and Director of Religious Education/work-the-farm mother with her three siblings.

Around Pittsburgh, she has appeared in: Inside PassageYerma, 36 Views, and The Task for Quantum Theater; Jocasta in Oedipus RexB.U.S. for Bricolage Production Company; in Mercy & The Firefly and Lost Boy in the Whole Foods for Pittsburgh Playhouse Rep. Regionally, Shammen’s worked with companies including: Barter Theater, Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati, First-Stage Milwaukee, Phoenix Theater, Stage One, and Native Voices at the Autry. She is a co-founding company of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. McCune has “a smattering of television/film credits”: Arrested Development, The Last Witch Hunter, Downward Dog, and the board game, SpyQuest.


Photography Credit: PSiP Julius Caesar pictures credited to Catherine Aceto; PICT Midsummer Night’s Dream pictures credited to Maria Palermo Photography


Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh LinkedIn

Categories: Feature

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,