For an actress with an affinity for classics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the most pleasurable challenges, along with tackling the flawed heroines of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, must be to play one of George Bernard Shaw's smart, loquacious, thoroughly modern Millies. There you are, bewigged, corseted, and pointy-shoed, rattling off some of the most complex and argumentative prose that English-language theatrical literature has to offer. You're liberated on the inside but still abiding by European society's restrictive codes.
What do you need to know to play one of Shaw's amazing women?
First of all—and this applies to males as well as females—you need to come to grips with the language. Shaw is all about talk. "He's incredibly wordy," said Emily Ackerman, who played Prossy in Candida at Marin Theatre Company, and who, when we talked, was in rehearsal for the title role in St. Joan at Aurora Theatre Company. "You have to like language. You can't just spout rhetoric. You have to find ways to make it clear and active and be invested and make your point."
Stacy Ross, who played the title role in the same production of Candida and, more recently, appeared in Misalliance, also at Marin Theatre, elaborated further. "He's so witty and multi-syllabic," she said. "It's about breaking down sentences—there are a lot of subordinate clauses, like in Shakespeare. Technically you have to wrap your mouth and head around an erudite, complex job of speaking. You'll find more and more depth the more you break it apart and put it back together." She added, "The wit rings because of the way he structures sentences."
"You have to trust the language and not hoke it up," advised Aurora Theatre Company artistic director and GBS aficionado Barbara Oliver, who directed St. Joan. She suggested speech and voice exercises, working with a coach, and "doing nitty-gritty stuff like figuring out how a sentence is put together and what the major point of the sentence is. Look for operative words—the important noun and verb—and stress everything else less. Don't be swamped by auxiliary words. You have to sculpt the language with your interpretation."
She added, "You have to be willing to sit still and talk. If you're worried about the audience being bored, moving around a lot won't help. The only thing that will help is understanding what you're saying and saying it with conviction."
Another technical aspect of playing a Shavian woman—and this of course applies to the classics in general—is that you have to get used to the clothes. Ross found wearing a corset helped her posture and grounded her. "As opposed to cutting off your breath, it can actually help you breathe in a more supported way," she said. "Just by standing up straight you have more access to your air, and in Shaw you're going to need it."
The interesting thing is that, despite the pounds of costume, the elaborate hair-dos and wigs, and the bony unmentionables, Shaw's women have a modern sensibility we can relate to.
"Shaw said something like, 'What I do is, I write women as if they were me,'" said Bay Area freelance director Amy Glazer, who directed Candida and Misalliance for Marin Theatre. "He said, essentially, that he puts himself in the given circumstances of what it's like to be a woman with societal restraints and judgments and realities that they must contend with, and that's where his characters emerge from."
As Oliver explained, Shaw's father was ineffectual and in the background of his life. For a while Shaw lived with his mother and sister. He must have had a special connection with women's psyches.
Glazer believes it's important for the actress to find obstacles linked to societal constraints of the era and play those obstacles. "You have to find modern impulses and Edwardian obstacles," she said. "That's where the dynamic comes from. That's what makes it dramatic and comedic."
Most of Shaw's women are, of course, both witty and dead serious about their ambitions. As Oliver explained it, "Shaw greatly admired Ibsen, and he particularly liked his heroines. He went in that direction but made it his own with humor." Ross, who recently played the title role in Hedda Gabler at Aurora, compared Ibsen to Shaw: "Shaw wrote idealized women as opposed to Ibsen's realistic characters." She found Candida to be loving, strong, tender, and gutsy—a woman who changed her own situation from the inside—and said it was one of the most rewarding stage experiences she ever had.
"Shaw appreciated intelligent, ambitious, and effective women," agreed Oliver. "Which doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy the mating game. Man and Superman is his definitive statement on that. In Mrs. Warren's Profession and Candida, there are unusually strong, articulate women." Not that Shaw's women, idealized or not, are angels; far from it. Some are overtly manipulative. One heroine beats her maid. "The plays are so old they won't shock anybody," pointed out Oliver, "but the character may not be liked."
At Los Angeles' A Noise Within, Ann Marie Lee played Ann in the full version of Man and Superman and Ellie in Heartbreak House. "They were similar in being strong and survivors and forces to be dealt with," she said. "But when you first see Ann, she's in full throttle, whereas with Ellie the audience gets to see her struggles, her arc. She comes in earnest and innocent and learns so much along the way, gets her heart broken. It was overwhelming and moving every night. Shaw gives her a major life lesson."
Lee thinks Shaw has respect for and a "healthy dose of fear" of women. "I think he truly feels he can speak for women, and he's right in many ways. You can look at the light side and the dark side of the character. You'll find dark, light, medium, gray sides of them all."
For Lee one of the benefits of doing Shaw is that there is so much background research you can do: You can study the political and social history of the period he lived in, as well as his own voluminous prefaces to his plays and his other writings. She "bathes" in the research before rehearsal starts and then divests herself of that intellectual knowledge and concerns herself with the character's needs and wants and adventures as offered in the text. She found it easy to identify with Ann and with Ellie.
Glazer works to make sure her actresses can take on the mantle of the given circumstances of, say, 1910 and yet perceive as modern the ideas their characters espouse. "There's an honesty and naïveté through which Shaw approaches his female characters that make them pre-feminist," she said. "Doesn't that somehow link us to our heritage in a more dynamic and vibrant way, when we're able to believe the period and yet find those connections?" She added, "Shaw's women are advocates—empowered creatures who learn some indirect ways of empowering themselves but who ultimately win their objective. He approaches them with the same honesty with which he examines himself."
The important thing for the actress is to fully invest in whatever particular ideas and theories Shaw is promoting through that character. "Once you can be an advocate for your character's particular set of ideas and beliefs and commitments and justification and rationale, once you can own those—because he writes them specifically for each character—then they feel like real people," said Glazer. "The trick to finding his characters is to own those positions. To commit to a series of tactics and actions that comprise a dimensional and fascinating and modern character. It's the actor who sits in judgment of the character who can never be the character. Don't color his ideas, don't comment on them; simply internalize them." That's sound advice for any role.
"We keep doing Shaw's plays partly because he never wrote about a subject he didn't care about," concluded Oliver. "Therefore I think he demands that kind of passion from his actresses. You have to care a lot about what you're saying."
"You feel you can soar with the language, he feels so passionately about what he believes in," affirmed Lee. Noting Shaw's Irish heritage, she said, "God knows the Irish can go on with their philosophies, but they have wit, too." She said she always feels changed as a person after playing one of Shaw's women. BSW