(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: Gender Parity in the American Theatre
“As a director, I love Shakespeare, but get frustrated seeing women limited to playing ingénues and nursemaids in 2014. Women in our lives are ambitious, funny and flawed. Why is it still so rare to see that full spectrum onstage?
In envisioning Two Gents for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it was simply instinctive to imagine female company members who would shine as headstrong teenagers, bawdy clowns and brave adventurers. This is OSF’s first all-female Shakespeare, and our casting is a playful parallel to the original all-male casting. But what excites me most about our production is the way this all-female cast is illuminating questions of gender and forgiveness at the heart of this play. It’s like listening to a new band cover an old song – we are simultaneously honoring the lyrics and hearing them in a whole new way. “– Sarah Rasmussen, director
Jacqueline E. Lawton: Tell me a little about the project you are working on and why you were interested in participating?
Christiana Clark: This all-female production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is historic! The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in it’s 79th year has never done an all-female Shakespeare production at all, and this one will be staged on the 1200-seat Allen Elizabethan Theatre styled after performing houses of Shakespeare’s time. Our monogender casting pulls us into current pulse of the American Theatre not for the sake of gimmick. This is an opportunity to hear this rich language through the bodies of extraordinary artists who otherwise would not have the chance, and that allows an audience to hear the story in a new way breaking through their preconceived ideas surrounding this “problematic play”. This to me was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I didn’t even foresee for my lifetime. As a Black girl from the Southside of Chicago, not coming from an extensive classical training to now be making history playing one of Shakespeare’s male leads at one of the World’s most renowned theatre institutions with a cast of obscenely talented, seasoned professionals as well as passionate and creative young artists shows me the hard work that I’ve put I to my career is aligning me to be right where I should and at the same time in position to be part of things greater than I’d imagined.
Sofia Jean Gomez: My name is Sofia Jean Gomez and I am delightfully working on the first All Female Shakespeare Cast for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of The Two Gentleman of a Verona as Valentine. The Ladies in the cast- we like to call it “No Gents”! We have one dude: Picasso. He’s a beautiful huge 10 year old Great Pyrenees with a fashionable gold Shakespearean ruff! I was greatly interested to dive into this project because it’s a dream! One: to work with Sarah Rasmussen. I have had a great fondness and admiration for her work. A savvy, smart, playful, soulful, risk-taking woman of theatre. It’s her wild thoughts and unbridled passion that brought this project here. And thank the heavens! Finally! Which leads to reason Two: A theatre of this size and caliber – in this country -with this play- made this opportunity. It’s rare. A very rare opportunity to have such a large scale production like this for an all-female cast. The dream of working on Shakespeare with a fierce group of talented women? Uhm. Yes, please. And I always like surprises with shows. So, I would have to add Moria Clinton, our costume designer as the surprise. What a gem! The lady has serious skills and a killer drool-worthy edgy, enticing, rebellious, passionate eye for design. I’ve never been so excited for half hour call to put my costume on. Ruffs, chevrons, jewels, and damsels in doublets…yes, please!
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
CC: To me as a Black female theatre artist it’s important that my being not be used to tick off a box and fill quotas. It’s not enough to pepper a rage with diverse individuals, in celebration of that diversity we need to consciously examine why the presence of certain bodies deepens our storytelling as received by audiences that are comprised of these wonderful differences. Each woman in this production taking on a male role, all things being equal, has the chops to earn that role so removing that gender barrier ushers in the actuality of that. Even with this cast, the gender representation in OSF’s reason just barely evens out so there’s much still left for conversation and plenty work to be done.
SJG: As Artists, we tell the stories of our world. Gender is a huge huge topic in our daily lives.We make hashtags, memes, gifs, and blogs filled to the gills with Gender “Issues.” Right now, this conversation of the female voice in theatre needs to be heard to balance – challenge the waves and uproar of “thigh gap” teenage girls in this country blogging about their self-worth in Louboutin wannabe heels while drinking Red Bull to curb their diets – while they Instagram themselves into a selfie-induced coma. And now, I will say this respectfully, male voices and a very old- yet highly prevalent – vision of “what women are to be” is being upheld creating this disheartening dialogue. We all say we need, we want, we should — revise, re-imagine, evolve our thinking of Gender Issues because of this constant repetition of condoning women, their perspective, and validity. However, it’s taken how many years for this country to “accept” Gay Marriage? It’s a slow slow progress but even a nudge, the opportunity such as the OSF All Female Production of Two Gentleman of Verona are valuable on the path to not only continuing the conversation but enlightening, engaging, and provoking communities to expand and hopefully, change the view of Gender in theatre. I know too many talented fierce surprising women artists in this country that could open and are opening a new chapter for women.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
CC: I recommend taking a chance. Bet on implementing at least one heavily female favored reimagined classic or (gasp!) new work and raise the bar of expectation for your audiences. To artists connected in communities, invest in girls and young women to explore possibilities for them not on stage, but in playwriting, directing, arts administration that would lead to running a theatre themselves.
SJG: Every community has their own specific needs, obviously. I think my biggest call to action would be how gender is brought to the table with theatres. There is a huge residue to the already big question mark of ” All Female Cast doing Shakespeare? Can it be good?” I have two problems with this residue: placing expectations of result that are in comparison to Male performances. Two different perspectives and approaches to character – which makes it soooo invigorating. Envisioning Shakespeare’s words in a new light. It’s okay for a theatre to take a chance by setting Much Ado About Nothing in a Spanish Villa (which is great because we are engaging a cultural diversity participation). However, much more of a challenge for an All Female Cast? “Can females sell tickets? We don’t want to offend. Will it hold?”
I think my wish would be for theatre companies to take the question mark out this equation and replace it with an exclamation point!!! Because it is happening around this country. Fabulous and vibrant female artists bringing Shakespeare to the masses. Embrace the choice of an All Female Cast with a positive forward energy and market it that way. What we are doing at OSF with Two Gents is not completely revolutionary. We are not the first. We are the first group of gals for this theatre and I hope more to come. I hope that our production, whether “good” or not, will open conversation this summer for OSF Audiences to debate, converse, and just SEE the other side. Sarah had a vision some many months ago and gathered a fiercely delicious group of women. The play of Two Gents in our womanly hands will entice, and spark – without a doubt – conversation. And I couldn’t be more excited for that. Storytelling at its best. Risk-tasking, surprising, moving, heartbreaking, adventuresome. Come up to the mountains this summer! Let the damsels in doublets, our gorgeous set by Andrew Boyce, enchanting music by Andre Pleuss, vivacious costumes by Moria Clinton, and our dog Picasso, illuminate your summer night with a tale by a man who was questioning friendship, love, honor, virtue, gender,and heck, growing up. I hope you will invite this within your community. As I say to Christiana before we start our work: “Let’s Dude This.” ( Yes. I am ham and adore my cheese.)
Christiana Clark, a Twin Cities based actor, currently in her second season at OSF, portraying both Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Lucinda in Into The Woods. Last season as Biondello in The Taming of the Shrew, Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other career markers of note include Off Broadway: Caroline in Pure Confidence (59E59/Mixed Blood) Oya in In the Red and Brown Water (Guthrie/Pillsbury HouseTheater); Jasmine in the world premiere The Trinity River Plays (Goodman/Dallas Center Theatre); Janie Crawford in Gleam (Centerstage); Bulrusher in Bulrusher (Pillsbury House Theatre); Emilia in Othello, Clov in Endgame (Ten Thousand Things); First Lady in Fucking A (Frank Theatre); Ida B. Wells in Constant Star (Park Square Theatre. Awards: Best Actress, Minneapolis/St Paul City Pages, Minneapolis (2009 & 2012); Ivey Award for Emerging Artist, 2006. Training: American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Sofia Jean Gomez: The Angel in Angels in America, Parts One/Two (Lucille Lortel Best Ensemble, Signature Theatre); Page 73/New Georges,TerraNova Collective, Manhattan Theatre Club; Public Theater Shakespeare Lab. Other theatres: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Repertory Theatre,Goodman Theatre,Yale Repertory Theatre, Denver Center Theatre Company, Portland Stage Company; Arizona Theatre Company, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, The Shakespeare Theatre Company, McCarter Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Stages Repertory Theatre. TV: Unforgettable. Education: Yale School of Drama, Sam Houston State University. Denver Post Nomination Best Supporting Actress,Bay Area Critics Nominee Female Principal, Helen Hayes Nominee Outstanding Supporting Performer.
Sarah Rasmussen is the director of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Her recent credits include I & You (Marin Theatre Company), In the Next Room (Jungle Theater, Zach Theatre), The Seven (Ten Thousand Things), We Play for the Gods(Women’s Project), Bureau of Missing Persons (Neighborhood Prod. NYC), Ballad of 222& 223, Hero Dad (Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival), Chile Pod (La Jolla Playhouse), Crashing the Party, Red Ink, 1001 (Mixed Blood). Sarah has developed and/or directed new work at theaters such as Soho Rep., New York Theater Workshop, Arena Stage, O’Neill Playwrights Conference, The Lark, PlayPenn, and The Playwrights’ Center and has worked as an assistant director on Broadway. Fellowships include Princess Grace, Drama Leauge, Fullbright and OSF’s Phil Killian. Upcoming: Sense and Sensibility, Dallas Theatre Center. Awards: Minneapolis IVEY Award for Overall Excellence & Best Director, Austin Critics Table for In the Next Room. She is the Head of MFA Directing at UT Austin.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com