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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DSC_0045Originally posted at HowlRound

In just one September weekend, Los Angeles theater patrons had at least three totally different productions of Shakespeare plays from which to choose. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company‘s all-female Hamlet was running at The Odyssey Theatre; a three-person adaptation of Richard II opened at The Theatre @ Boston Court; and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presented an outdoor Taming of the Shrew. Each production offered an alternative way of doing Shakespeare: Hamlet was performed in Elizabeth dress on a traditional set; Richard II was a modernist/dream-play take on one of Shakespeare’s most psychology-driven plays; and director Ellen Geer turned Christopher Sly and his tricksters into modern urban archetypes who watch/present Taming of the Shrew in Elizabethan dress.

Not only was Los Angeles host to three productions of Shakespeare in one weekend (and there may very well have been more), but all three productions were directed by women—all of whom are the artistic directors of their own companies. According to Douglas Clayton at the LA Stage Alliance, there are about twenty five female artistic directors in the greater-Los Angeles area.

Though I was initially cheered, that number, it turns out, represents only about 8 percent of Los Angeles’ artistic directors. The numbers break down further in telling ways. Los Angeles’ four LORT theaters are all run by men, whereas half of the city’s mid-size companies are either run by women or are collectives that include women as part of their leadership teams, Clayton points out in an email. The number then drops to around 5 percent for ninety nine-seat theater companies.

To find out more about the women running these companies and the challenges they face, I convened a roundtable of seven fairly representative women. Five years ago, Elina de Santos co-founded Rogue Machine Theatre, which presents works that are new to Los Angeles by “up-and-coming playwrights.” Lisa Wolpe, the director and star of the all-female Hamlet, has been running The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for twenty years. Jennifer Chang and Ruth McKee are two of six all-female artistic leaders of Chalk Repertory Theater, a multi-cultural site-specific group in their sixth year. Deborah Devine has been running the youth and family-oriented 24th Street Theater for sixteen years. Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy founded Towne Street Theatre, “Los Angeles’ premiere African-American theater,” twenty years ago. Jessica Kubzansky, director and adapter of Richard II, has been co-artistic director of The Theatre @ Boston Court since it opened its door ten years ago.

The lively discussion that ensued was as heartening as it was depressing. Everyone agreed that eight percent is too small a number, but perspective on how much progress women are currently making in the theater differed widely by generation. While Kubzansky reports discovering more and more women directors all the time, Wolpe has to take a centuries-long perspective to see any real gains. As she put it, “Women would have been killed for being on stage when [Shakespeare’s] plays were written, so I mean I can see the progress.” Likewise, 24th Street Theater’s Devine, who served on the first board of Women in Theatre (a Southern California support group for women in the arts) in 1978, said, “In thirty three years we haven’t come far enough.” Chang and McKee report that their company has purposefully and successfully provided equal opportunities for men and women at all levels.

These fearless leaders did agree on two things:

1) The reasons they began producing are not the reasons they keep producing. Ruth McKee joined up with Chalk Repertory’s other founders because, though she had a national career as a playwright, once she had children she wanted to stay near home. Five years later, she has found that “the influence I have is ultimately making a more profound impact on culture than I could having a play go up in New York for a couple of weeks.”

Kubzansky was so addicted to directing that she never wanted to be an artistic director and accepted the job only with the agreement that the theater would find her a co-artistic director to share the more unpleasant tasks like fundraising.

“When I think about the opportunity I have to potentially make a difference in the artistic landscape of Los Angeles, to influence what types of plays are being programmed at my theater, to birth a whole lot of new work by exciting new playwrights—the scope of influence feels so profound that it feels like something I have to keep doing.”

Davis-Bellamy’s experience, or as she called it, “creative evolution,” mirrored that of some of the other women who have been at it for a while.

“When I first started I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I learned I was producing. Somebody asked me, how do you do this? And I said you just do it,” said Davis-Bellamy.

“The twenty-year mark has been very reflective for us, because a couple of years ago I was ready to forget it, it was too consuming, I had had it. And then we had a recharging of sorts. We got a bunch of new members in and they were younger, they were more producer-oriented. The impact that we have is so profound, particularly for people of color in this city. We fill this large void, because LA theater is majority white. It just is,” she added.

Which leads me to my second point: 2) Despite explicit multi-cultural missions, developing multi-cultural casts and audiences is a huge challenge. Davis-Bellamy founded her theater to produce plays by all people of color, but, unable to attract the Latino audiences to the African American plays and vice versa, she narrowed the mission to producing new plays by African Americans and black classics by historically neglected authors. 24th Street Theater’s outreach focuses on their immediate neighborhood, which is fairly diverse.

Nevertheless, Devine reports that their audience remains “extremely Balkanized” because “the brown people come to the brown shows and the white people come to the white shows.”

Though The Theatre @ Boston Court’s casting notices encourage individuals of all ethnicities to audition, Kubzansky noted, “Actors don’t believe we really mean it.” Chang, an Asian American actor as well as artistic leader of her company, shared her own experience as an actor of color, “I think it’s institutionalized. I went to NYU and UCSD [for acting], and the message I got was, ‘You aren’t going to be cast as the protagonist.'” Davis-Bellamy, who is black, chimed in, “At Western Michigan University, I remember auditioning for a Molière play and the professor telling me point blank that he couldn’t cast me as the ingénue because the audience wouldn’t accept it.”

Despite gains in opportunities and representation, women—and particularly women of color—who want to have an impact on American theater have to be producers as well as actors, directors, and playwrights. Davis-Bellamy put it this way: “If you really, really want to have something, you have to create it and you have to control it.”