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Unmanning Shakespeare

If you're a woman who has always secretly longed to play Hamlet or Othello, come on out of the closet. In a reversal that's no more than divine justice—considering that in Shakespeare's time women did not appear onstage—there are now companies on both coasts (and perhaps elsewhere) that stage Shakespeare plays with women only. I talked to the artistic directors of two such California companies, Lisa Wolpe of Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company (planning The Tempest for next summer) and Erin Merritt of Woman's Will (which toured Pericles to Bay Area parks this summer). Both women act as well as direct.

The reasons for such companies are obvious. Not only did Shakespeare write relatively few women's roles but also, as Wolpe pointed out, women have rarely had the opportunity to play large, complex, poetic characters such as Shakespeare's males. "If you're always playing victim, whore, or mother, nurturer, or sex object—the traditional female parts—you don't have a chance to show range and balance and understanding," she said. "We need to create opportunities for women to be seen and heard onstage and in the full range of who they are and what they have to say."

Said Merritt, "Shakespeare's women tend to exist to get the emotion out and are often defined by men they're with or by their relations with others. We hadn't really noticed that until we started taking on the male roles and realized, hey, we're doing something that actually moves the plot forward."

In both companies women play men as men. "The text takes them on a male journey," explained Wolpe. The cast works together to cross gender, investigating gesture, physicality, costume. "Women tend to break the angles of the body and to go 'off voice'—diminishing the range of their voice to feel less threatening," said Wolpe. "Men, raised to understand the world is theirs, inhabit the space more fully. Women tend to make a gesture, then stop it; men sustain their gestures for a longer period of time. Women smile to cover up true feelings in order to be an acceptable female partner.

"These are all wild generalizations," she added. "But by exploring them as a group, we can find each individual's behavior." She also described how women tend to play from an area between the sternum and the forehead only. Men, she said, have more awareness of what's going on behind them. If you can create that "backal" (as opposed to frontal) awareness, that will immediately shift the way you inhabit space. "Gestures for men tend not to be staccato gestures around the face and heart but rather sustained gestures around the hip," said Wolpe. "You have to really imagine your center between your legs, not in front of your face or heart."

Objectively Speaking

I wondered if the directors ran into problems in combat scenes, as women are less likely to be trained in stage fighting. Merritt noted that many women do have fight training but rarely get to use it. However, in the plays the company has done—including Two Gentlemen of Verona, Comedy of Errors, and others—there was no fencing, although there was some stage combat. When auditioning newcomers, she solicits women whom she knows are well trained in combat, and offers a few minimal fight classes, as well. Wolpe said when they had 30 women onstage in Richard III, the huge fight scenes were indeed uneven, although "the mano a mano stuff was terrific."

I also wondered if the directors feel limited in their choices—that only some of the Bard's plays lend themselves to cross-gender casting. Not at all. Both feel the sky's the limit and hope to do the entire canon some day. Nor do they expect the women they cast to have a particularly androgynous look. Whether you're a girly-girl or a tomboy, straight or butch dyke, you can do the work if you brush up your Shakespeare and work on bringing out your masculine qualities.

Rami Margron, a member of Woman's Will who played Leonine, Lysimachus, and several other males in Pericles, found it harder than she realized to behave with a sense of entitlement that's typically male. She had to learn to take up the space both mentally and physically in unfamiliar ways, and to touch people and objects harder, with more assurance.

Pericles cast members also worked on lowering their voices, making them less breathy.

"You choose different actions toward your objectives," added Margron. "Also I made more assumptions that I was going to achieve my objectives. It wasn't even a question. So when I didn't, it was more of a genuine surprise for my character."

Heroes' Journeys

"Women get stuck trying to be beautiful and likable onstage," mused Merritt. When she played Coriolanus, "one of the least likable people on the planet, yet completely redeemable," the experience was eye-opening. "He's so angry for the whole show," she said. "When you're a woman and are that angry, you don't get to be the hero of the play."

She related one particular moment of new awareness. Coriolanus has sold out his country and is about to be attacked and killed, and his wife and mother plead with him to make a truce. To hear a mother's pleas as a son rather than a daughter "just felt different," said Merritt. Coriolanus' mother has trained him to be a warrior, not a lover, and for Mom to change her mind, Merritt found, greatly undermines Coriolanus' authority.

"There's no way for him to save face. Then his wife comes and kisses him. Every kiss I've ever done onstage is me as a woman kissing a man and fawning over him and being emotionally available. But this is a man who's not comfortable with sexuality and emotions. And his wife kisses him in front of his fighting buddies. To have Lizzie [Calogero, as the wife] kiss me and to not want to kiss her back and be embarrassed—I personally became very uncomfortable. Those face-saving feelings were really new for me." At the same time, though, her actor's self stood apart and wondered if the audience thought she was squeamish about kissing another woman.

In fact, the Woman's Will actors—a mix of lesbians and non-lesbians—are fine about playing romantic scenes with each other, although in the case of two longtime pals that had to do a mushy, sexy smooch, it took a bit of practice to relax with it.

Merritt also said some of the actors worry that they're stealing a role that a male might be playing. Presumably they get over that pretty quickly.

Playing the Bard's men is, like any good acting experience, an exploration, said Merritt. You can't come in with any preconceived notions. "It might bring up strange feelings for you," she added. Margron said that the main feeling it brought up for her was, "I just want to be a guy more, both as an actor making larger character choices and as a person walking down the street. I know that I don't normally have that entitled feeling, and that stops me from moving forward in my career. And it was so much fun."

Merritt said playing Shakespeare's men can open up your idea of the world and who you can be in it. After Woman's Will's first season, she asked the cast members what Shakespeare role they'd ideally like to play. The initial response was Lady Macbeth. Then it dawned on them that now they could literally play any role, so they opted for Hamlet, Iago, Othello, Macbeth. Merritt thinks such awareness of increased possibilities affects your whole life.

How can women prepare to play Shakespeare's guys, other than immersing themselves in Shakespeare? Woman's Will offers "drag king" workshops. Merritt suggests asking the men in your life lots of intrusive questions like, Where do your balls go when you sit down? You could consult the transgender community for available classes.

Wolpe said voice work—she's a devotee of Kristen Linklater—is the key; it unlocks the power of Shakespeare and your personal power. She suggested getting together with friends and reading the plays aloud. "Get the line of your body long. Invest in Alexander work if it helps you."

Later this fall, I'll write in more detail about the fine art of women playing men. BSW

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