Thursday, March 31, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Rebecca Patterson on Taming of the Shrew

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #9 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

Maybe unique in NYC's theater ecosystem, the Queen's Company mounts English classics with all-female casts. This spring, AD Rebecca Patterson directs the company in Taming of the Shrew, and her approach to casting should throw an interesting light on the combative play. (Coincidentally, this summer in Central Park, Phyllida Lloyd will also mount an all-woman Taming.) Patterson took the time to answer a few questions about Shakespeare's play and the Queen's Company.

Let’s start with Taming of the Shrew, one of Shak’s most contentious plays. What drew you and the company to stage it in Spring 2016?

I felt the time was ripe to once again wrestle with our cultural legacy of institutionalized sexism — also on a more intimate interpersonal level the play is about selfish people who want things their way, and that gets in the way of love.

Have you directed Taming before?

Yes, I directed the play just over 10 years ago. At that time I was more interested in how the women in the play survive with their selves and humor intact in a world where they are just one step above property. Now I’m more interested in both the men and women and their relationships — how do we transform a history of dominance and submission into a future of egalitarianism and equality?

Some critics and artists view the misogyny of Taming as beyond redemption, but there are many positive interpretations, including feminist ones. How do you read the play’s view of women? What does ‘taming’ mean in your production?

Yes, of course misogyny is beyond redemption! But Taming of the Shrew is about people living and loving in a misogynistic world, Shakespeare himself is very sensitive to the dynamics of power and deeply empathetic to people who are getting the short end of the stick because of gender, class or wealth. In our production ‘taming’ has two meanings, the good one is being ‘gentled’, that is learning how not to be an asshole, and the bad one which is enforced obedience — we could all use a little more gentling and a lot less obedience.

The Queens Company casts only women in its shows. How does that gender dynamic affect the sexual politics of Kate & Petruchio? of Bianca and her suitors?

It doesn’t really effect the gender dynamics because the female actors play the men as men. It does allow the audience to see beyond the gender of the character to their humanity — it becomes about the dance of power between people, not just about men and women.

More generally, as a director, how do you speak with your actors about playing male roles? How do you hope the audience views the women onstage, and the women within the plays?

I talk to my actors about playing people who happen to be either men or women. What I hope is the audience sees the elemental humanity that is within all of us and experiences a world free of the artificial boundaries of gender.

Could you tell me about the Queens Company? What inspired the decision to cast only women in productions? What do you and your collaborators look for in potential scripts? Why produce classics in the 21st century?

I wanted to figure out the best way to direct classical plays for our contemporary world — all-female casting does two things, it opens up opportunities to underserved classically trained female actors and it cracks open the plays in subtle profound ways. We look for plays that play to the current zeitgeist making its way through our cultural memes — it’s often gut instinct that guides our script choices. The classics speak — literally they are language plays — and in our visual world I think we are hungry for the sound of another human voice. That’s why I direct the classics.

Let’s talk a little more about gender-blind casting and gender-exclusive casting. What benefits are there in collaborating solely with women on Shak and other dramas? What surprises have you discovered by casting women in traditionally male roles?

What is startling with a one-gender cast is how gender disappears and it becomes about the elemental humanity of the characters. Another surprise is because Shakespeare’s Renaissance men are quite different from contemporary men — they are both strong and emotionally expressive — contemporary women are actually better equipped to play Shakespeare’s male characters than their contemporary brothers. To understand Hamlet or Macbeth you need to see into the character’s soul — it is a degree of inner transparency that female actors often have an easier time accessing.


The Queens Company's Taming of the Shrew runs from April 16 to May 1 at the Wild Project on the Lower East Side.


photo 1  Ken Walker
photo 2  Bob Pileggi