SALT LAKE CITY — The Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s Summer tour is well underway, and this year one of the offerings is Julius Caesar; typically a male-oriented play about power and authority. Yet, Grassroots has taken this masculine work, turned it on its head, and commented, maybe at times despite itself, on gender inequality and cultural relevancies.
Despite lauding itself as, “an original Shakespeare company” with no director, no rehearsal time, gender swapping, and performed as in Shakespeare‘s time, this version of Julius Caesar has all of the characters played by women, including the female roles. Two actors and producers from this production, Jessamyn Victoria Svensson and Bianca Morrison Dillard, discuss some of the questions concerning gender theory and how they confronted certain points of tension as female actors playing male characters.
Preparing for this article, I read through Julius Caesar a few times, and noticed in your production that cuts were made. How did you go about preparing and cutting the script, and how did you deal with some of the themes, knowing that only women would be cast in the roles?
Svensson: We normally cut every show we do, so that the script ends up being roughly 9,000-10,000 words long. We do these abridged versions to keep our shows around 1 – 1½ hours long, as the shortness of our rehearsal process and the number of actors cast in our company necessitates a shorter script. Since our goal is to convey the story, we try and cut out anything that may seem unnecessary to the main story being told, this keeps our audiences engaged when it is hot outside or noisy.
There is historical precedence, discussed in Tiffany Stern’s book Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, of changes being made in various states of the rehearsal to help tell a better or more engaging story for the audiences of that time. So, in addition to practical reasons why we cut our shows, it’s also part of our exploration of original practices.
This particular show wasn’t cut with a female cast in mind at all. In fact, it was assumed that the show would be done with mixed cast. I think to have modified or taken away any of the themes or—for instance—if we had removed Brutus and Portia’s relationship altogether because watching two girls in love may be “icky,” would have done a huge disservice to the story and also pandered to a “dumb audience,” which is bad storytelling and also patronizing.
In preparation for acting in Julius Caesar did you research gender theory or different ways that Shakespeare has been approached in nonconventional productions?
Dillard: As a company, we have been experimenting with single gendered casting with our all-male shows, which, of course, is how all of Shakespeare’s plays were performed. We felt as a company that it was time to try something different with single gendered casting and there was some excitement around the idea of an all-female show. We have a lot of talented actresses, but there is not an abundance of female roles. I didn’t do a lot of research for this show specifically. The process is so quick that there isn’t much time for in-depth research. It’s all on our feet experimentation, and, like original Elizabethan theatre, we find out if it’s working once we put it in front of an audience.
You say in your introduction of the show that there are no directors, designers, and limited rehearsal time. Can you describe your casting process for this show?
Svensson: Firstly, we have an initial audition in front of a couple of producers. The callbacks happen a few days later, and we have the actors who make callbacks do a group activity (usually choreograph a jig) and then they get to perform their audition pieces again, only they do it in front of everyone. They solicit feedback on their piece from others in the audition, then they get thirty seconds to implement any feedback they thought was good into their piece. Afterward, we give everyone a piece of paper and they decide who they are going to work with based on who and what they saw from each other at the callback. We tally the votes and then the people with the highest votes get into that specific company. After the company has been formed, they get together and cast the show together according to type.
Our audition and casting process was created to help put the actors into the mindset of a director very early on. Since we have no director it’s a really great and challenging experience for an actor. It takes them out of themselves and put the story first.
Who is in responsible for rehearsals and staging?
Dillard: The company of actors are responsible, as a group, for both rehearsal and the staging of the production. Each rehearsal (of which there are only 10 to 12) has a rehearsal captain who is in charge of keeping us on schedule. Aside from that, each actor is ultimately responsible for the choices they make on stage and each of their fellow actors are responsible for being an outside eye, a bringer of additional ideas, and a director.
The Grassroots process is very demanding and requires each of us to take turns being aggressive in both our leadership roles and in our ability to support and follow. I fancy myself a fairly assertive person; I’m not one to hesitate in speaking up in collaborative contexts. Nevertheless, I was struck in the process of this, our first all-female show, by how much I can and do rely on more assertive (and, generally speaking, male) voices to set the tone, pace, and, at the very least, to be there to get the very first rehearsal off its feet. In the first few moments of our first rehearsal, I couldn’t help but feel a collective, “All right, who’s in charge here anyway?” And then, realizing that it was only us ladies, and that, while it’s always “us” in a non-gendered way, this time it was “only us ladies.” Somehow, in those first few moments of rehearsals, that felt more intimidating than I had anticipated, and I realized that perhaps “only us ladies” might need to be more conscious and assertive as leaders than may have been required of us in other circumstances, which has been both exciting and a bit daunting.
Were there any themes or lines of dialogue in this script that were problematic to you as a woman? If so, how did you overcome them as an actor?
Dillard: I feel like the process is pretty much the same when I’m acting as a man as it is acting as a woman, which might be because the last few shows I’ve acted in have been with Grassroots and I’ve nearly exclusively played men. Our process is so short, and we rely so heavily on typecasting because we don’t have the time or energy in our process to transform ourselves into different people. I try to do things that are not distractingly feminine, but it’s never my goal to try to “become” a man, or trick people into thinking I’m a man when I’m really a woman. I tend to have a more commanding presence than a lot of other women and so if there are more women than female roles, I’m often cast as a man. The hope is simply that I will do a good job of functioning as a man so people don’t have to think about it. I’m a man in the story, so it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman in real life.
I tried not to get too hung up on gender issues because the play is not about sex or gender. It’s about people, power structures, and tough choices. If the audience is thinking about the play on a deep level, then they are thinking about whether Brutus should have killed Ceasar. What was Cassius’s motives? What do we do with old structures, do we tear them down with bloody revolution, is a blood sacrifice necessary? If people are asking themselves those types of questions and not worrying about whether we have what it takes to pull off a male heavy show than I think we have succeeded.
How did you deal with playing a dismissive husband on stage?
Dillard: The same thing goes for playing a male character with a female wife. For me, playing opposite someone has never been about actual feelings I have for them, but about what the story and the moment need of me. In this instance, Caesar says some pretty dismissive things to Calpernia, and I think the fact that Nichole and I are both women, specifically women married to men, made us more sensitive to Calperina’s dismissals than we might otherwise have been. It’s not that our husband’s are dismissive. But I think we both identified that as not being cool of Caesar, and initially worked to minimize that dismissal. Perhaps a man in my position would have had similar impulses, but Nichole and both identified with Calpernia and worked to make the scene easier on her.
I tried playing tactics to comfort Calpernia and to explain things to her gently, to reassure her, when what we discovered the play needed, as a whole, was a Caesar who was a little more dismissive and haughty, a little more reticent to listen to his male friends than his female wife. As a wife myself I find it particularly difficult to treat my stage wife that way, not only because I know that treating people that way in relationships hurts, regardless of gender but, also because it’s not just insensitivity from a spouse, it’s sexist insensitivity from a spouse. Sexism hurts and as a women I’ve experienced the sting of sexism and so it’s hard to need to be a sexist on stage, I think even more as a women perhaps than if a man who were sensitive to feminist issues.