Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.
Let’s start with Sebastian. What have you discovered about him?
I love Sebastian’s earnestness, especially within his relationships. He loves simply and without reservation. He falls in love with Olivia at first sight, which is really quite Romeo-esque. That said, my favorite part of Sebastian is his friendship with Antonio. They have true love for each other. Platonic love between two men isn’t represented enough in pop culture, and the friendship between Antonio and Sebastian is such a great example of healthy masculinity.
What role does Sebastian play in the world that Shakespeare creates onstage, and in your understanding of the play?
From a narrative standpoint, Sebastian just comes in and confuses the heck out of people. Except he has no idea that he’s doing it. To me, this gives him an endearing, almost childlike quality. He literally has no idea what is going on: “Why did this beautiful woman just kiss me?” “Why are all these people trying to beat me up?” What I love the most about the “This is the air” monologue is that it’s the first time that he gets to really express this confusion, and he does it with such a childlike wonder.
Sebastian has such an earnest, childlike quality to him which, to me, really sets him apart. He’s not as witty as Viola is, and he takes everything at face value. When Antonio saves Viola during the fight, her first response is “Oh my gosh Sebastian might be alive.” Sebastian isn’t able to put two and two together like that.
I’m interested in cross-gender casting, so I’d love to hear how you approach Sebastian’s gender and sexuality.
I never wanted to be a woman playing a man. I just wanted to be a man. I never wanted it to be a caricature, so I kept the physical adjustments subtle. That said, I wanted there to be a very clear difference between Viola and Sebastian in the final scene, when we’re both on stage for the first time. If you watch a man and a woman walk down the street, there really isn’t a huge difference between the two. I never wanted to be a “crotch-scratching, burping” cartoon of a man. I focused more on how men and women take up space in the world. How men aren’t afraid to square their shoulders. How they tend to take larger, slower steps. It was more of an energetic thing than anything else. I read about different techniques (primarily from Eastern philosophies) to increase masculine energy. I wanted it to start from an internal shift, as opposed to an external “just walk like a dude” one.
Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?
He did his best considering the time period he was writing in. By having women characters disguised as men, it gave him more rein to give them complex, interesting inner lives. You can see the progression of his female characters from his earlier works to his later works. Obviously, The Taming of the Shrew leaves much to be desired. But it’s encouraging to see the growth of his characters. I mean, Juliet is hugely feminist, and even has sexual agency. Lady Macbeth is allowed to be this power-hungry character. Because of the time he was writing in, the male characters will be more interesting. But there’s really no excuse anymore as to why you only have to cast as written. More, if not all, Shakespeare productions should use gender-blind casting.
Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play, or to go back to? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?
I would love to play Iago one day. He’s by far my favorite Shakespeare villain. He’s just so freaking confusing, which is such a great challenge for an actor. He’s also the complete opposite of who I would be typically cast as, which makes it all the more intriguing to see how I would approach the role.
I’d also like to take a swing at Viola one of these days. ;)
headshot David Noles
photos Michael Pauley