Interview


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(L to R) Kalani Queypo (John Ridge), Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross), Kyla García (Sarah Polson) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in Sovereignty. Photos by Tony Powell.

Originally published by Ms. Magazine Blog on January 10, 2018

As a student at Tulane Law School, activist, writer and lawyer Mary Kathryn Nagle once persuaded her Critical Race Theory professor to let her write a play as her final paper that was based on Worcester v. Georgia, an 1832 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that tribal nations have sovereignty over what happens on their lands. President Andrew Jackson, who appeared as a character in the play, refused to enforce the decision. That final project became the seed for Sovereignty, a new play commissioned by Arena Stage which begins previews on January 12 in Washington, D.C.

In the intervening years, Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation, became a lawyer for Pipestem Law—where she works for the restoration of tribal sovereignty, Indian civil and constitutional rights, and the safety of Native women—and an accomplished playwright. (This season, Nagle will have …

Read more on the Ms. Magazine Blog

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photo by Richard Termine

In the aftermath of the presidential election, economist and political science professor Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD wondered, like so many people, whether Clinton would have lost if she were man and whether Trump could have won had he been a woman. Hypothesizing that in a gender-flipped race, Clinton would have come out the winner, she devised an experiment: To restage the debates with the roles flipped, so that Trump is a woman who not only said everything Trump did, but also acted the same way he did, with Hillary becoming a man who spoke and acted just like her. Guadalupe turned to NYU professor Joe Salvatore to direct while she created the script for Her Opponent, a debate between Brenda King (a female version of Trump) and Jonathan Gordon (a male version of Clinton), performed on January 28.

Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one 35-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s ethnodramatic technique in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. A 25-minute post-show discussion followed in which Guadalupe and Salvatore were amazed to find that even as a woman, Trump still came out the favorite.

In the discussion and in an online survey completed later, audiences found King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they found Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacked, Gordon didn’t fight back; she just nodded and smiled. In the body of a man, this response was disconcerting at best and at worst, one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”

Cut to one-month later and an article about the show on NYU’s news page goes viral. Salvatore is drowned in press inquiries and requests to see the footage they captured when they filmed the performance. Much of the coverage is from right-wing sites and individual bloggers, where they rejoice that two liberals were proved so wrong by their own endeavor. This proves, they argue, that Trump’s win was not the result of sexism but rather of the strength of his message and the inherent unlikability of Clinton.

That Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis was wrong does not, by itself, prove that Trump deserved to win. Rather, it shows that we are so programmed to see femininity as weak and masculinity as strong that even when masculine behaviors are embodied in a woman, she comes across as authoritative and confident. Feminine behaviors on the other hand, make even men read as subordinate and even a little laughable.

In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that audiences assumed that the actor playing Gordon had been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. (Commenters on right-wing websites that picked up the story were thrilled to call him a faggot.) In reality he had not been directed that way; that impression arose purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.

Whereas people who have met Clinton up close find her easy to connect to and personable, her debate performances and speeches are so heavily coached that she comes across a bit stale. Like most women, she has probably been told all of her life to smile more, and even planned when to smile during the debates. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it didn’t make her any more likable than she would have been had she fought back. In fact, the audience response to King – a woman who speaks and behaves with all the bravado, aggression, and sweeping masculinity of Trump – may imply that women have far more freedom to behave that way than they think without being thought of as a bitch.

Guadalupe and Salvatore are remounting the experiment for an off-Broadway run beginning March 22 at the Jerry Orbach Theater and are working on a film that replicates, shot by shot, the debate broadcast. They hope that the discussions after the next round of performances can help them further unpack why Gordon’s femininity was quite so off-putting and how even people who reject Trump’s policies could have found themselves inclined to vote for King, whose policies are exactly the same, rather than Gordon, whom they had in many cases already voted for in the form of Clinton.

Guadalupe told me that her theory is that their experiment says nothing about the appeal of the two candidates’ platforms, because when audiences watch a play instead of an actual debate with real world consequences, they are free to react almost entirely emotionally rather than intellectually. She believes that this decontextualization reveals not the power of Trump’s ideas but rather the power of the way he conveys them. The film, she hopes, can be used as a teaching tool, whether in political science or gender studies classes, to show how deeply reception of content is shaped by context.

Though Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis that Clinton would have would won were she a man was wrong, their experiment still proved that it is sexist assumptions – in this case, the one that women can be liked only when they act super feminine – that brought her down. Had Clinton had the liberty Trump had to act in a manner as bold as her ideas, or had Trump been forced by coaching to smile the whole time and nod even as his opponent beat the crap out of him, the election might have turned out differently. Trump didn’t win based on the power of his message, nor did Clinton loose on the issues. Trump won because he came across as the most direct, strong, and yes, masculine, candidate.

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Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame in Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Intelligence at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, February 24-April 9, 2017. Photo by Tony Powell.

Originally published by HowlRound on February 24, 2017.

Exactly eight days after Donald Trump was elected president, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth”—defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—as 2016’s international word of the year, citing a 2000 percent increase in usage compared with 2015.

However, those of us who followed the second Bush administration closely became familiar with what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” much earlier. The sixteen words George W. Bush used in the 2003 State of the Union address, for example, claiming that Saddam Hussein had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” could have been called a lie, but, given that Bush says he believed they were true when he spoke them, they have instead gone down in history as “contested.” As playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton explores in her new play Intelligence, the ensuing Plamegate scandal—involving the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame—was full of its own deep truths not just about American politics but also about life in America at the time.

Our audiences were flocking to—hungry for—stories about politics and power in the whole diversity of how those are told—drama, musicals, all of that. These were the stories we were seeing our communities be inspired by. I think we’re all really hungry to understand who we are as Americans, in all of the delicious complexity, contradiction, beauty, and joy that that identifier can hold.

Lawton’s play is inspired by real events …

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Originally published on HowlRound on September 10, 2016

The original idea behind Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle was to commission a new play for every American president. But when Artistic Director Bill Rauch brought in his longtime colleague from Cornerstone Theatre Company, Alison Carey, to direct the program, she steered it towards a more inherently dramatic premise: To commission thirty-seven new plays about a moment of change in American history. Associate director of the program, Julie Felise Dubiner, told me she thinks the idea is working because “it lets playwrights follow their passions and that moment-of-change imperative implies dramatic action.”

Lisa Loomer and Bill Rauch in rehearsal. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

If the number thirty-seven sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the number of plays generally accepted as written by Shakespeare. According to Rauch, “Both canons—Shakespeare’s and our American Revolutions plays—are composed of relatively large-cast epics that employ a variety of tonal and stylistic devices.” But, he added that the new plays offer at least one very important thing that Shakespeare’s plays are missing:

As a large classical theatre, with the overwhelming preponderance of male playwrights in the classical canon, we have to work even harder to include women’s voices in the work that we commission ourselves. Women are the majority of ticket-buyers, theatre attendees, and of course the population of the world in general. Our field’s lack of respect for gender equity is appalling.

Dubiner agrees that choosing which playwrights to commission has been at least partly a product of their desire to diversify their stages:

There’s a specific way of handling plot and drama, there’s a specific type of passion for history, there’s the kind of passion someone needs for character when writing a history play. And we are deeply committed to the idea that, when we’re done, we will have created diversity in every way—diversity of ethnicity and religion and gender as well as of style and storytelling.

Other than three targeted commissions, the American Revolutions Cycle has allowed playwrights to choose the moment of change about which they want to write. The process has been guided by what Dubiner calls “passive curation,” in which the theatre brings the writers together to talk to each other about their projects, ensuring as little overlap as possible. The program has yielded instant classics, like Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, about LBJ passing the Civil Rights Law and running for reelection, which became a Broadway show and an HBO special, and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat about the deindustrialization of America, which was a co-commission and co-production with Arena Stage. Currently on OSF’s boards, audiences can find Lisa Loomer’s rollercoaster ride of a play about reproductive rights, Roe, directed by Rauch.

Roe begins just before the meeting of Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade, and Norma McCorvey, the woman who is usually known as Jane Roe. It tells the story of the case, the relationship between the two women, and the dramatic changes that McCorvey has undergone in her life, right up to the present. In fact, for a history play, the piece is very much a product of its current moment—Loomer even wrote a new line based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the Court ruled that Texas cannot place restrictions on the delivery of abortion services that create an undue burden for women seeking an abortion.

Operation Rescue member Ronda Mackey (Amy Newman, center) tries to convince a woman (Gina Daniels) not to have an abortion at the clinic where Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) works. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Neither Loomer nor Rauch initially realized that they had chosen a moment of change that not only makes a great story, with a number of little known twists and turns, but also provides opportunities for all kinds of diversity in addition to great roles for women. In fact, they didn’t know a lot about their topic when they started out. Rauch told me that,

Before directing this play I knew very little about the history including the divergent paths of Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey. Some of my colleagues at OSF also helped educate me about the role women of color in particular played in the battle for reproductive rights justice.

Loomer echoed those sentiments:

When I began to do research, I did not know the points of Blackmun’s decision, which have come to influence subsequent cases on abortion. I did not know that Sarah Weddington clearly stated, at twenty-six, in the Supreme Court, that she was not advocating abortion, she was not saying that it was “good” or “bad.” She was advocating choice. Something else that surprised me was how race and class are bound up in the larger subject of reproductive rights. In the very first moments of the play, one of the protagonists says that one’s account of “history” is colored by factors such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. This idea is a predominant theme in the play and I saw it played out again and again in my research.

Like the creators of the show, the audience for Roe might leave knowing a lot more about Roe than they came in knowing. They will discover, for example, that the Roe baby was McCorvey’s third child, but before that pregnancy, she had never even heard of abortion. With the third child, she tried to self-abort but failed, and, as the case took its time making its way through the courts, “Roe” eventually gave birth and gave the baby up in a closed adoption. Two weeks after giving birth, McCorvey tried to commit suicide. Audiences might also be surprised to learn how prominent a role women of color play in the reproductive rights movement and to see those women onstage alongside their white feminist counterparts.

Informed by all of this, Loomer has written a play that refuses to oversimplify what is obviously a very complex topic. Using a variety of structural components, such as narration, direct address, and on stage costume changes; other actors staying on stage to observe and help with transitions; projections; and suggestive props and costumes, Loomer has intricately depicted not just the complexity of the story, but also the complexity of telling a complex story.

The larger structure of the play is that of a memory, created by the characters beginning the play in the present, telling the audience who they are and what they’re going to be reenacting for us, and ending the play back in the present. These bookends dramatize the idea that memories, the material out of which history is made, are themselves imperfect and often contradictory. References to a variety of sources, such as books, historians, obituaries, and Wikipedia, remind the audience that even with a great deal of research, history is still a product of a many different forces and not fully understandable from any one point of view. An accompanying stylistic blurring of reality, especially in the scenes in which McCorvey is using drugs and drinking, reminds us that reality itself, at any given moment, might not be what we think it is.

This combination of epic devices, the structure of a memory, moments of surrealism, and a focus on the character of Roe all keep Roe from being didactic docudrama. In fact, Loomer and Rauch have been pleasantly surprised by how much empathy the audience feels for Norma, given her difficult life and sometimes questionable choices. Loomer says this came from her desire not to oversimplify:

A man I respect a great deal and conferred with, Father Greg Boyle, talks about the value of having a “reverence for the complexity of human beings.” What surprised me in my research, what never ceases to surprise me, is how complex we are. When you see that … well, for me at least, it’s the beginning of compassion. Even compassion for “the other side.”

Nevertheless, abortion itself is such a polarizing topic that OSF planned ahead for the potentiality of pushback and/or emotional responses to the play. They sought and received a grant from the General William Mayer Foundation to bring in a trainer to help them create emergency protocols and procedures to deal with, for example, a company or an audience member being triggered. Most of OSF’s post-show discussions are led by actors, but with Roe, the company decided to also always have a staff member from the education department or the Revolutions Cycle there to field questions that the actors might not want to or be able to address. Oregon is an open carry state, so OSF made sure to clearly define that patrons cannot bring guns into theatre.

Connie Gonzalez (Catherine Castellanos, left), and Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) find love and stability, two things that have been hard to come by in her life. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Dubiner says most of these measures will remain in place as part of a larger effort to practice good “company and audience care” and better engage in all kinds of dialogue. In fact, though the connection has not been explicit, Dubiner sees this training as part and parcel of the work the theatre is doing on diversity, which also involves a lot of trainers, and is essentially about answering the question, “How do we talk to one another?”

What better play to do this work around than Roe, a play on a topic about which America has almost completely lost the ability to dialogue? Loomer says she gets letters every day from patrons telling her the ways in which seeing the play enabled them to talk about abortion, sometimes for the first time:

One woman who is “pro life” told me that she talked about the issues with a “pro choice” friend on the car ride back from Oregon to California. They had never broached the subject before. It is my hope to get people talking. In this country, we yell, we obstruct, we wave placards. We don’t talk.

Perhaps the quality of the play’s dialogue and the dialogue it creates are a result of how much dialogue went into writing the play and mounting the production. The American Revolutions Cycle was able to support Loomer on a research trip to the University of Texas at Austin where she did a reading of the play, solicited feedback from students, attended women’s studies classes, and otherwise engaged with the people and culture about which she was writing. Moreover, the production itself is a three-way co-production with Arena Stage and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, necessitating an additional layer of dialogue between three different institutions in three different cities.

In fact, all of the American Revolutions productions have been produced or presented elsewhere by design. Knowing that it may take quite some time to produce thirty-seven plays, the Cycle has been encouraging playwrights to identify where their home theatres are (or where they wish they were). Then the theatre reaches out on their behalf, ensuring that writers are getting the opportunity to work with people they want to work with and to have their plays seen by a wider audience.

The level of complexity involved in producing Roe was present in Loomer’s writing process as well, and she is celebrating that:

The more I thought about the issues in the play, the more I questioned why we want to take what is complex, what is difficult in life, and make it simple. Why should it be easy?

My guess is that none of the American Revolutions Cycle plays make history especially easy—because history is not, in fact, easy—but they do make it dramatic, present, and human. Rauch put it simply:

In these crazy political times, [these plays] are a reminder that who we are as a country and the choices we make are important and impactful, and will be affecting the lives of Americans for decades, if not centuries to come. Countries and their histories are serious business, and we treat them with the importance they deserve.

Originally published by HowlRound on October 7, 2015

HowlRound readers and social media revolutionaries may remember an event that occurred in our nation’s capital in February 2014 that became quickly known as the Summit. Convened by Washington Post critic Peter Marks around the issue of gender inequity in theatre, a panel of metro-area artistic directors discussed their collectively abysmal records at producing plays by women. As the discussion proceeded, more than one panel member was called out on social media for the tepidness of his/her approach.

Lost in the ensuing shuffle was the fact that the month before word leaked to the press of what would eventually be dubbed the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an entire fall of world premieres of new plays and musicals by women. When the Summit was held, forty-four theatres signed up to participate. The total is now forty-eight, two of which are offering multiple premieres.

Despite the rocky start of this venture, the seven artistic directors from Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company formulated the idea behind the festival. They quickly regrouped and hired coordinating producers Nan Barnett and JoJo Ruf to organize the festival and reframe it as a concerted, collaborative effort to do something about the problem.

Cut to about sixteen months later, and the whole country is abuzz about the Festival, its origins, its possibilities, and its realization of world premieres by fifty female playwrights. I spoke with Ruf and Barnett; Maggie Boland, the managing director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA; and Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth. I also talked with Caleen Sinette Jennings, who is a professor at American University, a founding member of a DC playwright collective The Welders, and author of two premieres in the festival; Jami Brandli, a Los Angeles-based writer and author of Technicolor Life, which will premiere at Rep Stage; and Karen Zacarias, a professor at Georgetown University and author ofDestiny of Desire, premiering at Arena.

Poster for Technicolor Life by Jami Brandli. Courtesy of Rep Stage and Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Collaboration and Cross-Pollination
Unlike the discussion at the Summit and the media firestorm that followed, producers and artists alike gave positive, forward-thinking feedback, and, on the part of Boland and Shalwitz, were refreshingly self-critical. The story goes that the artistic directors of the Big Seven regularly get together for brunch to talk about the state of DC theatre. Following on the mild success of a citywide Shakespeare festival a few years ago, they began to discuss another collaboration to highlight the range and quality of DC theatre and to promote cross-pollination between artists and audiences.

“I think there was about ten seconds between the idea of a festival and the idea of focusing it on women. It just seemed like a no-brainer to put the focus where we could provide leadership by creating a model of something that could be part of the solution,” shared Shalwitz.

Boland puts the time between inception and definition at closer to twenty seconds, but both she and Shalwitz have found that the simple fact of working on the festival while also planning future seasons has forced them to place more of a priority on diversity. Boland shared:

“One incredible side effect of this citywide conversation is that every single conversation we have internally about season planning and about artistic vision involves a discussion of who are the artists and are we doing enough to represent a diverse set of voices.”

Signature is offering three shows by women this year and Boland expects to continue doing this many shows every year, consciously diversifying in other ways as well. She notes:

“We’re not trying to wear a hair shirt about our past, we’re just trying to do better. We’re trying to look at the talent pool that Signature is drawing from at every level of the organization, onstage and off, and make sure that we’re being thoughtful and specific about having different kinds of humans around our building.”

Yet, playwright Brandli is a little more skeptical, but still inspired:

“I’m hoping that the festival really does cause a ripple effect. I’m not ungrateful at all—this is the best thing to happen to me in a long time. But what I don’t want to hear is, ‘Well you had your festival, so now you can be quiet.’ I don’t want all us female playwrights to have our ‘queen for a day’ moment, but when it’s over, we’re told to go back into the corner, and to not bitch as much if there aren’t as many female playwrights in the next few seasons of American theatre. I’m tired of being polite about it. I know I sound pretty ornery, but you get to a point in your life where you’re like: fuck it.”

Jumping All Together

Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Shortly after hiring Barnett and Ruf, the Festival consciously included representatives from more than the originating seven companies on committees devoted to marketing and publicity, development, and programming. This resulted in a genuine community-wide effort to celebrate and promote the work of women writers. Sinette Jennings has been in DC since ’84 and from the moment she arrived, she was struck by the collaborative and supportive relationships between local playwrights. She still feels like the Festival is a game changer, saying:

“I feel like part of a mosaic to know that all of these stories are going on at the same time. It’s an amazing affirmation of our talent and the power of our stories. We have artistic directors here who have always gotten it—they didn’t need a festival to recognize the power and importance of women. But this has been a fabulous way to make other artistic directors aware that this wealth of material is out there, and it’s not all touchy feely kitchen sink drama. I’ve got female playwright colleagues who scare the pants off me in terms of how edgy and tough they are. So any assumptions people have about a woman is X, they need to throw that out the window.”

The offerings range from Woolly’s production of Sheila Callaghan’s overtly feminist Women Laughing Alone with Salad, which examines the ways sexually charged representations of women in the media effect both men and women, to a new musical at Signature called Cake Off that tells the story of the first man to win the Pillsbury Bake Off. Then, Zacarias’s Brechtian telenovela is about what happens to a troupe of actors doing a Mexican television series when the women, dissatisfied with the way their roles are written, take destiny in their own hands, and start changing the script.

Although Zacarias, a founding member of Latina/o Theatre Commons, is one of the few Latina playwrights represented in the whole festival, she is still struck by the camaraderie behind the event. She remarks:

“It’s usually a very solitary moment when a theatre does a new play, like you’re the only one jumping off the cliff, while everybody else is doing some golden nugget that you know the audiences will come to. Because we’re all taking the risk at the same time, it takes away the competitive nature of things and everybody just wants to do as well as they can. We’re all jumping off at the same time and we’re hoping that everyone makes a beautiful dive.”

Artwork for Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarias. Courtesy of Arena Stage.

Barnett is already looking to raise money to gather data about the festival and to produce a handbook for cities looking to do something on their own turf. She states:

“I want to know what the long term effects of this are. Three months from now, I want to be able to do a really great analysis of what tickets were sold. Did we accomplish the goal of making people outside of DC aware of how much theatre there is here? Did we get people to go to different theatres than where they normally go? And of course in the long run, are the DC theatres continuing to program more female writers than they were before the festival? Will we see subsequent productions for the plays that were supported by the festival? These are questions that will need to be answered. It’s important to make sure that the lessons learned are shared.”

Ruf added, “There’s already musings happening in Philly, Denver or broader Colorado, and elsewhere. I think that would be phenomenal. This is a first step towards gender parity; I certainly hope that eventually we won’t need a festival and it will happen on it’s own. But this is a good step in that direction.”

Take the Challenge
I’ll be heading to DC in October to check out as much of the festival as I can in one weekend and I’ll let HowlRound readers know whether I find the metro-area to be the Emerald City that I’ve been lead to expect, where every Dorothy has her glittering day.

In the meantime, the effects of the social media revolution that followed the Summit are obvious. Ryan Rilette, Producing Artistic Director at Round House Theatre and the receiver of the most severe Summit-prompted Twitter lashing, issued a challenge on Facebook. He’s willing to buy a drink for any and every one who sees more plays by women this fall than he does.

People, let me hear you say it: “Challenge accepted.”

_JWG8561‘Tis the season when theaters across the country announce their 2014-2015 seasons. Two plays continue to dominate the boards, just as they did last year: David Ives’ Venus in Fur and Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. These shows played off-Broadway in 2010 and 2012, respectively, both transferred to Broadway and both have been top choices for artistic directors across the country ever since.

The bajillionth time I saw that one or the other of these plays will be/have been part of a regional theater’s season, I had to ask myself,  What is it about these plays that makes them necessary art right now? Will they help promote the theaters’ stated missions of diversity and attracting new audiences? Are they about healthcare? Immigration? Gay rights? Gun violence? Unemployment? These are issues concerning all Americans these days. Plays about these topics might actually be timely in New York and Los Angeles and D.C. and San Francisco and Nashville and Dallas and Minneapolis and Chicago and Seattle and Milwaukee and Portland.

But neither of these two popular plays are about any of those things. They are both written by white dudes and  feature middle- and upper-class, educated white characters. And both plays contain characters who work in the theater. In other words, the plays are set in the same worlds occupied by the mostly white male artistic directors who love them, which may explain why they all find them so relevant. But I’m not so sure that they are that relevant to a theater audience that is 68 percent women (at least in London), and they certainly won’t bring in the young, diverse audiences that theaters claim to be devoted to attracting. Oh, but Venus in Fur does have a dominatrix. So there’s that.

_JWG8917Meanwhile, genuinely relevant, quality plays are being written by women all over the country. Deborah Salem-Smith’s play Love Alone, for example, is an intimate play about family and grief that also manages to take on gay rights and medical malpractice. The story centers on three women at totally different points in their lives: Helen Warren (50s), her daughter Clementine (20s) and Dr. Becca Neal, a 33-year-old anesthesiologist. When Helen’s partner of 20 years, Susan, dies while undergoing minor surgery, Helen and Clementine have to learn to live without her, while Dr. Neal has to deal with her first “bad outcome”–the loss of a patient on the operating table.

The brilliance of Smith’s play is that it works on both personal and political levels. Helen and Clementine go through the same thing every mother and child go through upon losing a family member: They cry, they laugh, they yell and, in the form of a lawsuit against the hospital, they seek an explanation for a loss that can probably never be satisfyingly explained. Witnessing these deeply human experiences allows audience members to empathize and identify with the characters, so that when they discover that Helen–not having been married to Susan–does not have legal standing to hold the hospital accountable, they understand on a personal level how deeply unjust marriage inequality is.

In what must feel like a rare gift to the women in Love Alone, all three characters have complete story arcs that make them more than just wives, mothers and daughters. The loss of Susan changes Helen, who had never been the kind of person who seeks revenge. It changes Clementine, a rock-’n’-roll performer whose music becomes quieter and more introspective. And Dr. Neal goes from being cold and distant (she experiences the tragedy primarily as a threat to her career) to being compassionate and able to accept responsibility.

Love Alone, which premiered at Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island in 2012, will open its second production on March 1 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C. Smith shared with me her goal in writing the play:

I really wanted to write a play with a 20-something female who is not in a love story, because I don’t see that person on stage enough, and I think 20-year-old vibrant women have a ton going on in their lives. They’re not just trying to kiss someone.

Smith’s previous plays did not contain gay characters, but as her children have grown older she’s begun deliberately writing them and deliberately addressing issues relevant to gay families like her own:

I started to have a growing realization that as our children are getting older and they start coming to the theater, I want them to see our family on stage. The other motivation was that when we talk about marriage equality in our country, we tend to overlook that the biggest cost of having a lack of marriage equality is on children. Because a lot of gay families now have children, and you put those children in a really perilous positions when you don’t empower those parents to make choices for the family.

_JWG8833I spoke with the director of this production, Vivienne Benesch, about how she thinks the play will resonate with a North Carolina audience:

I hope and expect that it leads to a very genuine conversation about an important topic–marriage equality–that may not even be in the zeitgeist of that community in the way that it should be. I’m also excited to be doing it in the Research Triangle and the medical community, because they understand the ethical tightrope that medical professionals have to walk.

Relevance to the community in which it is being produced? Check. Written by a woman, featuring women characters that can be cast with any ethnicity and therefore add diversity to a theater’s season? Check. Appeal to a young audience by featuring live rock music and projected music videos? Check. No wonder artistic director Joseph Haj decided to produce it. He put it this way:

Deborah’s play is beautiful. Full stop. That’s why we programmed it. It offers aesthetic diversity, a diversity in point-of-view and diversity in style from much of our other work. We’d be crazy not to want that for ourselves. It’s actually that simple. Running a theater is monstrously difficult. Including women and people of color as playwrights and directors is not one of the hard parts of the job.

PlayMaker’s 2014-2015 season includes 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog and Trouble in Mind by the late Alice Childress, who is African American as well as a woman. Of course the season also includes Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. Given Haj’s genuine dedication to diversity, maybe at least he, unlike everyone else across the country, won’t cast it entirely with white folks.

Love Alone runs through March 16.

Photos by Jon Gardiner

CRK-1Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

At a recent panel on diversity in Southern California theater, several of the artistic directors on the panel trotted out familiar platitudes about their commitment to diversity, their willingness to challenge their audiences with plays about people that don’t look like them and their desire to build a more diverse audience. Yet these same artistic directors run theaters that still devote the majority of their resources to plays written and directed by white men.

Given the astonishing range of theater being made by women and people of color all over the country (see here, here, here and here, to name just a few plays), the reluctance of major theaters to walk the walk they talk is increasingly at odds with the reality of American theater as a whole. Yet somehow, the argument is still being made that there just aren’t plays out there by women and people of color that are ready to be produced in the big time.

Well, I’m starting a binder. Binders of plays, binders of playwrights and binders of women and people of color currently writing and directing in the professional theater will be available to any leaders who continue to protest, “I want to produce a diverse season, I just can’t find any plays.” I’ll start the list with two–you add on in Comments.

After, all imageJennifer Berry’s After, All, which opens February 14 at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre as a guest production of The Pasadena Playhouse, explores the nature of female friendships through two women in their 40s who were brought together by circumstance and torn apart by loss. The play explores marriage, motherhood, divorce, mid-life career changes and the particular kind of intimacy that women share. Berry, who is directing the play herself, shared,

Women’s friendships are close, so I find what we tell each other, what we keep secret, what we show, really interesting to write about. Women raise their children side-by-side. If you go check out any park in Los Angeles, you’re gonna see a bunch of women sitting their with their kids talking, and usually it’s not the kids that they’re talking about. They’re usually talking about their lives and their secrets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe play not only provides roles for two women in their 40s, it also shows us these women free of any male gaze. Though men are spoken of and are part of the characters’ lives, the audience engages directly with these women as people rather than through their husbands and children. Accordingly, they talk about much more than husbands and children. Berry again,

One of the women says things that nobody else will say: We’re just friends because of circumstances. Some of it harsh, but a lot of it is real. It’s what two women, closed in a room together, would say to each other if they knew this is the last time you were going to see this friend that you loved so much.

Though the production is taking advantage of the opportunity to market the play specifically to women and their friends (the matinee on Sunday, February 23, offers a two-for-one deal to women who come together), nothing about the play actually makes it niche. After all, the Western canon contains a number of plays about men that are not presumed to be of interest solely to men. With plays about men by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett,  Sam Shepard and Edward Albee, audience members can simultaneously empathize with the characters as humans and understand the role that sex and gender play in defining them, regardless of whether they share that character’s sex, gender or ethnicity. The same is true of After, All.

Note to artistic directors: The actors in After, All could be women of any color. So go on, make it a two-fer.

On February 22, Closely Related Keys, written by Wendy Graf and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, will open at The Lounge Theatre in Hollywood. Graf’s play takes place in New York and centers around Julia, a young, successful lawyer who suddenly finds out she has a half-sister in Iraq. When that sister shows up on her doorstep, Julia and her estranged father are forced to confront their past and their own prejudices.

Rich Schmitt Photography 002Graf, who is Jewish, has written a number of plays with Jewish characters and themes, but she also writes characters with cultural heritages different from her own. No Word in Guyanese for Me is about a lesbian Muslim refugee from Guyana. Leipzig  features an Irish-Catholic family in Boston. Though this production has a black family at the heart of its story, with Julia being in an interracial relationship with a white man, director Finney told me,

Anybody could tell this story or play this story. The core of this family could be anyone. The biracial relationship, the betrayal of the father, the multi-cultural child and the foreign element could be told by anybody and the story would remain the same. This is not a play about the African-American experience. This story is very contemporary and is about the interconnected world we live in.

Finney’s resume is as diverse as Graf’s: She has directed plays by and about African Americans, Latinos and Japanese people:

My job as a mythmaker is to tell the emotional truth of that story—to tell a story that helps us navigate our time. Emotions see no color. Storytellers who transcend race consciousness, who transcend gender consciousness, are doing the due diligence of transformation in our artistic world.

ShirleyJoFinneyAnd yet, Closely Related Keys is as firmly grounded in the details of the cultures it represents, as it is in the basic humanity of its characters. As the family drama unfolds, the truth of America’s relationship with Iraq, past and present, is illuminated, as well as what changed (and not for the better) for women in Iraq when we deposed Saddam Hussein. One moment in particular could have been pulled straight from the feminist blogosphere: When Julia attempts to get her Muslim half-sister to put on an American dress, her sister firmly rejects the idea, arguing, “I would not feel like me.”

After, All and Closely Related Keys are just two new plays by women being done in one city in one month. Others premiere all of the time in cities across the country. What new work have you seen that would refute the notion that big theaters are trying but just can’t find plays by women and people of color to produce?

The thicker our binder gets, the fewer excuses established theaters will have to produce seasons without gender parity and ethnic diversity. They claim they want their stages to look like the world we live in: Let’s hold them to it.

After, All runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. from February 14—March 16 at the Carrie Hamilton Theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Closely Related Keys runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m/ and Sundays at 4 p.m. from February 22—Mar 30 at the Lounge Theatre in Los Angeles.

Originally posted at HowlRound

When The Antaeus Company began in 1991, under the auspices of Center Theater Group, the idea was to find a way to maintain a classical theater company within the specific environment of Los Angeles where, for most actors, a living is made through a series of one-day jobs as costars, guest stars and spots on commercials. Today Antaeus operates as an independent theater company in North Hollywood, but it remains true to its vision of providing a touchstone for actors working in film and television, a place where they can “regain their creative strength by returning to the wellspring of their craft: live theater.” Today many of its founding members still perform with the company, which produces a wide range of plays by Shakespeare, Greek drama, and Restoration Comedy; American classics like The Crucible; and modern updates and adaptations of the classics.The governance of the company has changed over the years—today they have three co-artistic directors—but since the beginning, Antaeus has practiced double casting, or what they call “partner casting:” Every role in every show is cast with two actors. Though the practice began as a way to ensure that they would not have to cancel shows every time an actor booked a lucrative one-day gig, according to co-Artistic Director and actor Bill Brochthrup, it grew from there:“What we started to find after the logistics of it were implemented was that it has artistic merits and it’s an interesting thing for the actors. It’s tough for the scheduling—the scheduling is nightmarish, there’s no way around it—but we started to find that when you’re creating a part with another person and you set it up from the beginning that these two people are creating this role together, and come at it with a lack of ego and a collaborative spirit, you really find interesting things.”Over time, the company has discovered that the best way to foster the kind of collaboration necessary to building such a show together, the whole company has to rehearse as a group until tech, when the actors are finally divided up into two casts. Up until tech, whenever a character is called, both actors playing that part are called, and they alternate acting and watching their partner act.Co-Artistic Director and actor Rob Nagle described the benefits this way: “As long as the actor can set aside their own ownership of the role and start to watch it as though you are creating something together, it works. Each time Brian [his partner in a recent production] would go onstage and do something I could say ‘Oh that’s good, I like that, I want to build on that.’ So you find yourself building on the shoulders of the other person’s performance, so you both get higher and higher up into the role,” he says. “But you have to check out of this ‘I have to make it mine concept,’ which is a really hard thing for actors to do because we’re supposed to make something our own. We have to make it ours in a plural sense.”

The final production of Antaeus’ 2013 season—David Ives’ adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar—could be seen with the “Tangerines” cast or the “Cherries” cast in alternating performances on Saturdays and Sundays, and on Thursdays and Fridays with a mash-up of the two called the “Pomegranates.” (These fruit-themed groupings derive from the play’s titular character’s elaborate lie about a great date at which “five blindfold virgins served us pomegranates on alabaster plates.”) Through the weekend, Tangerines and Cherries take alternate turns on the stage through three shows. Though technically the Tangerines and Cherries casts were two wholly different sets of actors, when anyone in either cast got another job, their counterpart subbed in.

Though Ives’ translaptation, as he calls it, of Corneille’s neo-classical comedy strays from the original in plot, character, and dialogue, it recreates, often in modern urbanese, the florid verse peculiar to the form. Likewise, the acting and design of director Casey Stangl’s production capture the essence of the period’s style without turning its stylistic elements into set pieces. In fact the rhyming couplets and physical comedy of the mistaken-identity/lost twin/life-changing events-that-nevertheless-unfold-within-24-hours shenanigans that typify these comedies make it perfect for the practice of partner casting, in which the blocking or the positioning of actors on the stage must be executed with exactitude so that any actor may be subbed in with any cast at any time.

Stangl says that the process necessary to building such a show actually suits her directing style, even though the usual “negotiations” are a little bit trickier: “You really have to talk about everything in the moment that you’re working on it so somebody doesn’t come back the next time and do it completely differently cause they think that’s how it should go. It’s a little more delicate matter juggling that so that everybody feels heard and listened to and valued.”

For her, the benefits are well worth the scheduling nightmares. Speaking of the actors’ process, she shared, “In a way it’s almost like you’re watching yourself on stage, you have a sense of your character not just when you’re up there in your bubble, but you can see it in the whole of the production. So you start to see how your character fits into the world of the play in a kind of holistic sense. And I have found that as a director to be invaluable, to have actors be able to make observations and comments based on that kind of bird’s-eye view.”

Though the blocking stays the same in all performances, Stangl, who has directed with the company before, works with the actors to find what she calls “dealer’s choice,” moments where two actors playing the same role can make different choices. As a result, when one actor substitutes for another in the cast with which she doesn’t usually perform, the subtle differences require the entire cast to be particularly in-the-moment. As Co-Artistic Director John Sloan, who also acts with the company, put it, “You are instantly that much more alive and awake and listening that much more acutely. It’s fun and terrifying.” Nagle echoed the sentiment, saying, “It’s fantastic because you get to play again like you were in rehearsals. In front of an audience. It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.”

The roster of actors in The Antaeus Company is multi-faceted: Some ensemble members have decades of experience performing in theater, film, and television while others have only recently joined the Antaeus Academy and are still surprised to find a company so focused on the classics in the heart of Hollywood. Sloan contextualized the value of Antaeus both for actors and audience this way: “One of the founding goals of the company was to counteract the speed of Hollywood and the jobs you’re forced to do as an actor where you go, you have a couple of takes and you’re told what to do when and it’s over in 20 minutes. In a place that worships the new, the next thing so aggressively, hopefully we can offer a little oasis that says there’s value in taking time and in the practice of listening to complex language and thoughts—that there’s something to be learned from that as well.”

As to The Liar in particular, it’s not hard to find the resonances for a Los Angeles audience of a play about a compulsive liar and rake whose skills in love are surpassed only by his ability to spin a tall tale. In a land where the ability to sell oneself is prized above all else, the liar’s ode to lying really hits home:

This world’s a scrim, Cliton, a fiction,
A richly tapestried, inch-thick depiction
Stretched over some mysterious cosmic hole.
You say that you’re a servant. How do I know?
Who’s she, or he? Who is the whole back row?
How do I know the smallest thing? I can’t.
No one knows anything. So people rant,
Protest, despair, take up astrology —
For each man fears in his biology
That life’s a fraud, a fake, an empty vial.
Why else do people primp and pose? Denial.
That’s where the liar comes in. Because he knows
The truth, accepts the void, because he shows
Us the absurd commedia we’re all masked for.

Images:
Joe Delafield and Bo Foxworth as Alicippe and Jules Wilcox and Kate Maher as Clarice. Photo credit: Geoffrey Wade.
Jules Wilcox and Kate Maher as Clarice and Ann Noble and Joanna Strapp as Lucrece. Photo credit: Geoffrey Wade

Latino Latina Latina/o Theatre Los Angeles

Originally posted at HowlRound

I can’t believe I don’t speak Spanish. I grew up in Texas, but I took German in high school. I lived in Washington Heights for three years, yet I never learned much more than huevos y queso sándwich (though I did like being called mami). Now I live in Southern California, but still, like most white Americans, I recognize little more than the word on exit signs—salida—and that’s mainly because the signs look just like the ones in English.

Latinos constitute almost 17 percent of the US population and nearly 38 percent of California’s. They represent a whopping 58 percent of the people of Los Angeles; many of their ancestors were here before America even became a country. So my ignorance of the language aside, I really should not have been surprised that when I began to look into the Latino theater scene here I found an incredible depth and breadth of creative activity. In just two weeks, I saw four shows: ¡Ser!, a solo performance by Karen Anzoategui, an emerging Latina queer performer whose autobiographical show mixes English, Spanish, and live music at The Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC); In the Heights at Casa0101, co-produced by Teatro Nuevos Horizontes; La Virgen De Guadulupe, Dios Inantzin, presented by LATC and the Latino Theater Company; and Ladybird, a community collaboration of 24th Street Theatre’s Teatro Nuevo Initiative.

Latino Latina Latina/o Theatre Los Angeles

The missions of the companies presenting these works are as varied as their shows. The Los Angeles Theatre Center, operated by the Latino Theater Company, has been a downtown institution since 2007 in its current avatar. In 2006 the Latino Theater Company was awarded a 20-year lease to manage the space—which holds four theaters, a dance studio, a gallery, and a huge lobby—and a four million dollar grant to refurbish it. The LATC presents multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural work, including not only Latino theater but also African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, and LGBTQ theater. Though the LATC staff sometimes get asked why a Latino theater company would do plays by and about non-Latinos, Literary and Program Manager Chantal Rodriquez says they don’t choose their shows based on the ethnicity of the creators:

If the play deals with issues that we feel passionate about and we think are really relevant to the city itself, then it doesn’t matter ethnically what it is. We produced the road weeps, the well runs dry, by Marcus Gardley [about the founding of the first all-black US town by Black Seminoles] this year because the themes of the play are so related to migration, identity, and historical loss. These are the themes that resonate with our communities as well. The goal is to spark dialogue and discussion.

Asked about the challenges of getting Asians to come to black shows and Latinos to go to Asian shows, Rodriguez says they don’t have to worry about that because they don’t rely on a subscriber base—though that strategy has it’s pluses and minuses: “Theaters that have a subscriber base tailor their season to what they know their audiences like. We like to challenge our audience, and sometimes we take a hit.”

Latino Latina Latina/o Theatre Los Angeles

The Latino Theater Company is an ensemble of actors, a writer (Evelina Fernandez) and an artistic director (Jose Luis Valenzuela) who have been together for 28 years. La Virgen De Guadulupe, Dios Inantzin—a spectacular staging of the well-known story of tolerance featuring drama, comedy, song, and Aztec dancers—is actually the only show they do in Spanish because their focus is usually on Chicano (meaning Mexicans who grew up in the US) theater. Both Fernandez and Rodriguez point out that because Chicano theater has its origins in political activism, it makes sense for a Chicano theater group to continue the legacy. Rodriguez says:

Chicano theater historically comes from a political space. It grew out of protests in the grape fields of Delano, where, Luis Valdez’ El Teatro Campesino staged plays about the strike on the back of a flatbed truck. Theater became a place for mobilizing large groups of people. It is a space for dialogue and a safe space for expression that we’re not getting in the dominant culture, mainstream media.

Though the LATC is located downtown, most of the Latino population of Los Angeles lives in Boyle Heights, where Casa0101 makes its home. Casa0101 was founded by Josephina Lopez in 2000 with the purpose of bringing theater to the community in which she was raised. Lopez shared the history of the neighborhood and her vision for its future:

It is very left out of the larger conversation in LA. It’s kind of like you’ve crossed the border into Mexico. For years the city neglected the Boyle Heights community: There were no resources allocated and so there was much gang violence. Today the perception is still that Boyle Heights is violent, that you can’t find parking, that it’s dangerous, but we are the catalyst for an artistic renaissance that’s happening in this neighborhood. People are finally paying attention and we’re even getting in the news for world premieres of quality plays instead of just drive-bys.

Casa0101 teamed up with Teatro Nuevos Horizontes, a six-year-old group dedicated to bringing Broadway musicals to Latino audiences, to produce In the Heights. On opening night, all 99-seats were filled with an eager and supportive audience while a Broadway-quality cast turned a tiny stage into a whole world. Abel Alvarado, Artistic Director of Teatro Nuevos Horizontes, shared his reasons for wanting to do Broadway musicals in Boyle Heights: “I think the hardest thing we as Latino artists have to face is we’re supposed to stick to art that is only relevant to us. TNH wants to tell American stories with Latinos in them.”

The Teatro Nuevo Initiative at 24th Street theater presents Spanish-language theater with English supertitles for recent immigrants. Their mission is three-fold: to produce professional theater, provide arts education, and engage with their community. Given their location in North University Park, which is 95 percent Latino, Executive Director Jay McAdams and Artistic Director Debbie Devine told me they wanted to make sure they weren’t just producing theater “made by two honkies,” so eight years ago, they hired Jesus Castaños-Chima, an actor who had previously worked with The Latino Theater Festival bringing companies from Mexico, South America, and Spain to Los Angeles. Chima shared his pride in the 24th ST program: “We had people in our neighborhood who didn’t know what theater was. So we started giving tamales before the show just to engage them and bring them to see a show and now it’s a tradition at 24th Street that we give tamales before every show. We started with audiences of five to ten people and now we can sell out.”

Ladybird began with story circles conducted with the parents of the children in 24th Street’s arts education program, who responded to the question, “What are the things that we carry?” Creators Victor Vazquez and Laurie Woolery then wove the shared stories of love, loss, immigration, and tradition into a play performed by these parents (dubbed the Teatro del Pueblo ensemble) for their children, family, and friends. After the performance, the cast and audience participated in a posada: a procession around the block then back to the theater where the kids got a whack at a piñata and everyone enjoyed tamales.

Much of the audience wept as they listened to their family and friend’s stories about, in Chima’s words, “what they went through and what they are now.” Casa0101’s Lopez highlighted the importance of such storytelling in the Latino community:

I am happy if white people come, I think that’s great, but I really feel like we need to heal a lot of wounds that have been unacknowledged. We need to present those stories so people can cry about all the wounds and oppression that sometimes we’re not even conscious of. We need to acknowledge the stories that were left out of the history books. And it’s an opportunity even for the children and grandchildren to cry about the pain and the sacrifice of their fathers. It’s wonderful to see people crying with their fathers.

Commonalities like this exist between Latino theater companies in Los Angeles and across the country. At HowlRound’s Latina/o Theatre Commons convening last November, Rodriguez discovered that “several of us do a Christmas pageant, which indicates that there’s definitely a dedication to large-scale community pieces. Most of us are doing new work as well and classics from the Latino canon, which is still young and still developing,” and everyone is investigating the definition of Latino theater. Fernandez, on the other hand, noted one major difference between Latino theater in LA and in other cities:

There’s so much Latino theater in LA, so many groups creating work in different communities. Not everybody is making theater the same way, and what is so different with LA theater makers is that their dream is not to get into the regional theaters. They’re happy making theater in their community and they’re doing important work in their community. Not everyone has their eye on being on the Taper stage or the South Coast Repertory stage.

Fernandez acknowledged that not everyone can afford that kind of focus: “I’m in a very unique situation: I’m a playwright that writes for a specific company. We have our own theater. I know my plays are going to be produced. And I understand that most playwrights want to be at Steppenwolf or the Taper or the Public or any of the regional theaters. But I wish that we could understand our value without having to make that our ultimate goal. We have the numbers, we have the talent, I wish we could create an independent Latino theater movement.”

I have no excuse for not speaking Spanish. Those with younger brains have an opportunity to avoid my mistake, and they would be well advised to do so. When the Census Bureau reported that America’s white majority will be gone by 2043, Mark Hugo Lopez, Associate Director of the Pew Hispanic Center, noted that “The rapid growth in the Hispanic population, coupled with the young Latinos who make up the largest minority group on the nation’s college campuses, has serious implications for the nation’s labor market and economy.”

The implications for American theater are just as great. Whether Latinos begin a theater movement of their own and/or begin to get produced on regional and Broadway stages in representative numbers, given that 49.9 percent of Americans under five are racial or ethnic minorities, Latino theater may soon be more American than Arthur Miller.

Originally Published by HowlRound

Though Shakespeare created around 798 male characters, his dramatic corpus contains only about 149 female ones. That’s a ratio of roughly sixteen to three. Yet every year the best conservatories accept at least as many women as men—if not more—and every year they graduate both men and women trained to act in Shakespeare plays. The women are even trained to swordfight. Ninety nine percent of them never get to use that skill.

The difference undoubtedly accounts for why so many talented women create their own opportunities to play the full range of Shakespeare’s best roles, including male ones. This month two productions on opposite sides of the country are providing women with just that chance. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company is running Hamlet, directed by and starring Lisa Wolpe, and Taffety Punk in Washington, D.C., is producing Riot Grrrls: Titus Andronicus, directed by Lise Bruneau.

Titus is the fifth all-female Shakespeare production of Taffety Punk. Their first, Romeo and Juliet, was staged as a companion to/protest of an all-male production of the play at D.C.’s prominent The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Bruneau, inspired by Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, and Fiona Shaw’s Richard II, has always been interested in the performance of gender. However, with her Riot Grrrl productions, she’s interested less in staging a commentary than in staging good Shakespeare.

Lisa Wolpe has been running the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for 20 years. This is her second Hamlet. Like Bruneau, she doesn’t consider what she does a “concept.” She does it because the parts are great, because she loves it, and because she’s good at it. 

Though both directors are wary of doing anything in production to comment on the sex of the actors, they acknowledge that inevitably text about gender—and there is a great deal of it in Shakespeare—becomes especially loaded when the entire cast is made up of women: Just imagine Claudius as a woman in drag criticizing Hamlet for his “womanish” tears. Both directors have also dipped their toes into gender flipping. Bruneau’s Measure for Measure included a pregnant Provost, which I imagine highlighted the hypocrisy of punishing Juliet for something everyone is doing. Wolpe has made her Rosencrantz a woman and believes that doing so reveals something about the nature of the relationship between Rosencrantz and Hamlet.

“Rosencrantz is a player, a woman with an agenda, who wants certain things for herself. She is a player who then gets played by Hamlet,” said Wolpe, during our interview. “And there are women like that. There are women characters in Hamlet like that. Gertrude stands twenty feet away from Ophelia and watches her drown.”

Though the actors in these companies are in it for the opportunity to play great roles and not to study sociology, the fact that their characters are men means that acting the part is different than it is when they play characters of the same sex, and that involves understanding the ways behavior is gendered. Bruneau has interesting insights into the outside-in process of building a character, who has a different relationship to the world by virtue of his gender than the female actor.

“We have found that changing your physical stance changes the impulse,” she said. “Once you change that it can start opening doors to a different perception of information and a different way of responding. It leads to a lot of discoveries about the differences of the sexes, of which there are many.”

Bruneau volunteered an example. “One of the most basic differences we’ve found is that women tend to sort of reach their chin forward as they’re talking and listening, and really try to encourage the other person to speak. We reach forward with our whole face. Men tend to sort of sit back and to receive and they tend to not reach. So that’s a very simple physical difference that makes you realize that they are dealing with everything based on a completely different type of experience than you are.”

According to Wolpe, women tend to break the alignment and the angles in their bodies, their wrists, their elbows. “Usually they’re off their voices, their heads are tilted, their faces are going in one direction and their hips in another, their hands turned open in a helpless ‘what can I do?’ supinated position—not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because that’s what you’re trained to do as an American girl,” she said.

“You’re trained to disempower yourself, to make yourself look less strong, more delicate, more ‘oh push me off of my pumps and I’ll be unable to resist the rape’ type of a thing. It’s not believable in a man who doesn’t have any threats.”

Wolpe went on to elaborate,  “This is a crazy quick map through how to play a guy, but basically: it’s not your fault, you don’t take it on, and if you hurt somebody’s feelings, they’ll get over it or they won’t but it’s really not your problem. The thing about women is we usually anticipate having an apology before there’s even an event. Men don’t negotiate. They command.”

The end game for Wolpe is a production in which the quality of the text and the acting enable audience members to forget that most of the roles are men being played by women. However, when I saw Hamlet, I did not ever forget that the performers were all women. In fact, I yearned for the fact to be more foregrounded. Though Rosencrantz was a woman, no use was made of the possibility that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be a couple, which would have been logical and, given, the eroticism that pervades Shakespeare’s male-male pairs, not un-Shakespearean. Similarly, the revelation about Gertrude’s character did not result in her coming across as any more cold-hearted or self-serving than she usually does.

Bruneau reports similar responses from critics in D.C. who expect her productions to do more with gender, but the Riot Grrrl aspect of her shows represents a desire to be accepted as a serious artist and not be singled out for being a woman doing a man’s thing. Similarly, Wolpe repeatedly expressed frustration that people expect her to do anything other than what the greatest actors of their times have always done when playing these roles: Play them well. 

Unfortunately, productions that keep all the male characters male inadvertently preserve the gender status quo: In their play-worlds, the men still have all the power. On the other hand, flipping some of the male characters and gendering them female would reveal a world in which women can be powerful, violent, and vengeful, too. Women can woo their lovers, protect their families, and command armies. (They could in Shakespeare’s time, too, whether he represented them as such or not.) The practice also reinforces a false binary in which men are always masculine and women are always feminine, whereas in reality some men and women defy gendered norms of behavior.

As pleased as I am to watch well-trained women deliver fantastic performances of the kind they too rarely have an opportunity to give, I yearn for a production that reveals that behaviors defined as masculine can be embodied both by women playing men, and by women playing women. Changing gender pronouns does not disrupt the verse—he, she, her, and him are all monosyllabic. Though Anglo-Saxon names like John might require some tinkering, modern audiences are unused to Latin, so they can easily accept most character names as either male or female. If anything, the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s stories become even more apparent when they are populated by people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexes.

In the meantime, both companies continue to receive rave reviews. Though some Shakespeare purists may still wring their hands at the prospect of women playing men’s roles, Wolpe says her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

“There’s never been a negative comment about an all-female production. There never has been in twenty years. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘You’re ruining the play.’”

Now that these companies, along with Judith Shakespeare and The Queen’s Company in New York as well as others across the country have proven that women are capable of playing roles with all of the depth and complexity of Shakespeare’s male characters, I hope they’ll turn to creating play-worlds in which women don’t have to pretend to be men in order to be powerful.

**

Images: Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet. Photo credit: Kevin Sprague. Riot Grrrls production of Julius Caesar. Photo credit: Abby Wood.

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