TAME./Shrew Part Two: Shrew views and dangerous plays or what’s a theatre for?

Last week, we posted Part One of my talk with three local theatre-makers who have engaged Shakespeare’s troublesome early comedy The Taming of the Shrew.

Jonelle Walker’s TAME. runs through December 11th at WSC Avant Bard.

Allyson Currin’s play Learning Curves featured Shrew’s Kate as a character and was premiered at WSC Avant Bard (then called Washington Shakespeare Company) in 2002. The musical Silver Belles, for which she wrote the book, is at Signature Theatre through December 31st.

Cam Magee, as dramaturg for WSC’s 1999 production of Shrew (which featured an all-female cast), wrote a framing device for it that contextualized that casting choice.

Recently, Shakespeare Theatre Company produced an all-male production of Shrew. Since no one at the table had seen it, no one wanted to comment on or criticize that production, but the subject broadened, and that’s where we pick up the conversation:


Magee: There’s something about an all-male production that just makes me angry.

Currin: Me, too.

Magee: Sometimes I think it leeches something from the play. I saw Richard III [the Propeller production,] and any humanizing moment in that play was gone, because the women were gone. They basically played them not as women, but as men dressed as women. My feeling is, there are so few roles for women. I try to break out new roles for women in Shakespeare whenever I can. I try.

Currin: There’s enough testosterone-fueled crap in the world as it is. You don’t need any more.

Walker: What’s so weird to me about the Shakespeare Theatre production that just happened is that, if you’re going to have an all-male cast of Shrew, it’s very boring to have the female characters be male actors in drag. I just feel that’s a very simple choice, especially if you’re not doing it like a theatre history project, as they did with the Mark Rylance production of Twelfth Night. And it’s also, as we’ve been suggesting, deeply symbolic of how classical theatre is run: not only are you seeing all men on the stage, but if you look in the program, you’re seeing male directors, male designers, male stage-management. There’s a female costume designer — surprise, surprise! — but it just shows the lack of awareness. Because (and maybe this is just my focus as a scholar) I think we are aware of how disadvantaged women are in theatre. If you look at the statistics, it’s frightening. It is frightening.

Currin: Did you look at the count for DC this time? You know, even last year, with the Women’s Festival, we were still under 50%. And this year’s worse than last year.

Walker: How does that happen? I think it should really frighten us; it should be very unsettling, particularly because women make up the vast majority of the theatre-going audience.

Currin: And, to layer another thing onto that, I was on a panel discussion about women and their representation on-stage and at the end of it, Karen Abromaitis was sitting out in the audience (she’s a few years older than I am) and she said, ‘I’ve been listening to this conversation since the 70s, and it has not moved.’ That’s what’s really disturbing.

Walker: It’s crazy.

Currin: The needle hasn’t moved. It’s jacked up!

closes December 11, 2016
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Magee: No, it hasn’t moved. It’s one of the reasons I’m proud of WSC. They let me make the French King a Queen in King John.

Walker: It’s important to remember that we are less than a century out from women getting the vote. That’s always something that frightens me and makes me think, ‘Wow, there are people living today who were born before women were able to vote.’ And I think you’re right — I’ve thought about this a lot, about why it is, and how that tends to be true in entertainment, weirdly, and in the arts, and I think it’s because, as a society, we tend to think that male perspectives are neutral, are the standard, and the female perspective is somehow ‘other,’ somehow, like, ‘niche.’

Currin: And you know the evidence of that (I’ve been bitching about this for years to anybody who will listen): I cannot tell you how many times the word ‘woman’ has preceded ‘playwright’ when describing me.

Walker: Thank you! Thank you!

Currin: I’m not a woman playwright. I am a playwright. End of discussion. I mean, in The Washington Post, everywhere, it’s ‘woman playwright;’ ‘women playwrights.’ That’s not acceptable, to call me that. It’s not. It marginalizes me. It puts me in a basket. ‘You’re special, somehow. You’re special, kid. You made it. Yea, good for you, in your little marginalized world.’

Henley: Back to the production history of The Taming of the Shrew

Magee: The BBC in the late 70s did film versions of all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Henley: The BBC Shrew had John Cleese.

Walker: Oh, I’ve got to see that.

Magee: I remember being so disappointed in John Cleese (and Jonathan Miller, who directed it) because they did not move. They did not move. It was just an intellectual conversation — that rough and tumble scene.

Walker: Oh, that’s so sad! There’s so much movement written into the language!

Magee: We used to use it for ‘action clues’ with kids: Shakespeare’s giving you stage directions.

Walker: ‘Come sit on me.’

Henley: Do you like the play?

Walker: Such a fascinating question. ‘Like’ is such a strong word. [Laughter.]

Currin: I like playing it, even though I can’t solve it. Because there is the fundamental satisfaction that Kate makes things very difficult for people, and that’s fun to do, in that moment. ‘No, I’m not an easy win. I am going to be a huge obstacle.’ And I like the perversity of that. Especially in its historical moment. So that’s satisfying. I don’t know if it means I like the play. There’s much not to like. Like, Bianca is such a mealy-mouthed little non-entity. All she is is pretty.

Magee: No!

Currin: I don’t like Bianca.

Magee: I do! I do like the play. Because I view it as fluff. If I were trying to politicize it, I wouldn’t like it so much. I think one of the reasons Bianca is in the play is that here’s the woman who is really playing the game. She has figured it out. She’s manipulated it just fine.

Currin: I’m not sure I give her that much credit.

Magee: I give her more credit. But that’s because I’m looking at it as fluff. I’m not looking at it as an intellectual, and I’m not coming to it as an emotional, mature woman. It’s like, in the back of my mind, I’m still seeing Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor tumble and be sexy.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 film The Taming of the Shrew

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 film The Taming of the Shrew

Walker: Well, that’s what I was going to say, going back to what you were saying earlier: a lot of what makes Shrew work in production is if you have a Katerina and a Pertruchio who can make the specificity of their relationship get beyond what can otherwise feel really icky and gross. Yeah, so I think the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor — oh, my God, you want them to get together. Their chemistry is wild.

Currin: Well, that’s the answer to the Petruchio problem. You just have to have the right chemistry, so it’s not all on him.

Magee: You have to have the right chemistry. It’s a romantic comedy. And without that chemistry, there’s nothing romantic about it.

Currin: Maybe we should just let go, and not try to prove anything with it.

Magee: Yeah, that’s really my argument: that’s why I think your plays are so important, because they do handle the bigger issues. I really do. I make no apology for it.

Walker: I do think that’s a good way to think about it. One of the Fringe reviews called my play a poison pen letter to Shakespeare, which I find hilarious, because I love Shakespeare. I absolutely adore Shakespeare. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Shakespeare. I was President of the Shakespeare Troupe. Instead, I think it’s more what you’re saying: I’m taking those issues and I’m really trying to wrangle with them. It’s not a dismissive gesture. I’ve never thought of it that way.

Magee: And that’s why I like ‘response.’ It’s not a takedown. At all. It’s not the same play.

Walker: No. It’s not.

Henley: Jonelle, another thing from your blog-post that I’d like you to talk about is the idea of challenging audiences, making them uncomfortable. Could you talk about that as regards TAME. and as regards your work more broadly?

(l-r) Jill Tighe (Cathryn), Karen Lange (Mama) in Tame. from WSC Avant Bard (Photo: DJ Corey Photography)

(l-r) Jill Tighe (Cathryn), Karen Lange (Mama) in TAME. from WSC Avant Bard (Photo: DJ Corey Photography)

Walker: I’m really glad that you asked that question, because I think about this all the time. My plays — I have written three plays, and all of them involve a lot of violence, and a lot of sexuality, but not sexuality in the kind of romantic way we like to think about it — a little more complicated, a little bit darker, and I definitely think TAME. does that for sure.

TAME. confronts a lot of issues about self-destruction and violence and how complicated our desire for self-destruction can be, and I think, in setting out to write this, I really wanted to figure out what a shrew would look like. If we really were to go with the way that this play is talked about, where it’s a man completely destroying a woman, and her fight not to be destroyed, what does that really look like? How bad would a person have to be to earn that mantle? How bad would the fight have to be for her to actually be taken down? And so that got really bloody in this play, it got really messy, it got really vicious, and I think when people see this play, and when people read my other plays, they’re definitely surprised. Always surprised.

Because, when you talk to me, I’ve got big dimples, I laugh a lot, I tend to think that I’m a light and fluffy kind of person, but my imagination is not at all that way. At all, right? Like, my idols in writing are Sarah Kane and the Grand Guignol playwrights and all the in-your-face playwrights. I like to make audiences uncomfortable. If you see one of my plays and you didn’t want at some point to run for the door, then you probably weren’t listening. And I do think it’s very interesting to me. I enjoy making people uncomfortable. And I think I can make people so uncomfortable in part because I am a young woman and I’m not afraid to show scenes where — for example, in one of the plays I’m working on right now, the first act ends with an orgy where everyone’s covered in glitter and blood. People are surprised by all that.

Henley: What’s the name of that play?

Walker: It’s called Prophets of Doom.

Magee: At least there’s glitter.

Walker: There’s glitter.

Currin: That’s girly.

Walker: Yeah!

Currin: To counter-act the blood.

Walker: [Laughing.] Yes. Exactly. It always makes me laugh, but it also makes me kind of sad, that when Sarah Kane first published Blasted, when it was first produced, the newspapers called her a naughty school-girl. Which is, of course, incredibly patronizing and totally reductive of the work she’s doing. Whereas David Mamet, right? Super-angry. Oleanna ends with one of the most violent…

Currin: I hate that play.

Walker: I hate that play, too. It ends with this horrible violent moment. When people see that, it is this intellectual choice, it is an artistic choice, whereas when Sarah Kane does it, it is absolutely, like, spectacle. It is pure gall. It is not artistic.

Magee: I think you’re right about that. They assume that, intellectually, males bring logic to it, they bring rationality. Women are ‘special interest.’ They’re always ‘the woman’s agenda.’

Currin: What I always find fascinating in terms of reaction to my plays and my personal experience is that people always assume that the woman in the play speaks for me.

Walker: Oh my God, yes.

Currin: And that drives me nuts. I wrote the men, too. And I actually usually write men better than women, anyway. I don’t know why. And the audacity of that assumption; it won’t ever go away. People just keep saying it. And I’m, like, I wrote the guys, too. A great example of that I think is Caesar and Dada [her play which premiered at WSC Avant Bard in 2013.] Everybody assumed that the main female character is my voice, and I’m, like, actually, no. If you look at the text, it’s that poor Irish PTSD soldier. He’s the voice of me.

Walker: I shudder to think people will see this play and think that I am Cat. That will be fun. If they do, they’re going to see me in public and run. It’s going to be great.

Magee: ‘You have that prideful, unabashedly feminist play!’

Walker: Yeah. I’ve been nervous to hear that people think it’s a comedy, because it is not a comedy in any way. So I really hope people coming to see it know what they’re in for.

Magee: That’s what I think the subtitle should be.

Walker: ‘Unabashedly feminist play?’ Well, we wouldn’t want to marginalize it. That’s my reaction to that, too: yes, they should know that, but they shouldn’t be, like, oh, I don’t want to see that because of the implication of that phrase in our culture. That’s the thing. I mean, we think of that as a great thing that you can engage with, but there are people who think, ‘Oh, that. I don’t want to be yelled at by a woman for two hours.’

Currin: Who’s probably on the rag anyway. It’s like: invitation for dismissal.

Walker: But to speak more broadly about my work, I really enjoy plays that I feel uncomfortable in. I like to sit in discomfort and figure it out; figure it out with the play; figure it out with the rest of the members of the audience. I feel like theatre should not make you complacent. Theatre should transform you. And I think that that should, and often does, require discomfort.

Currin: It’s the big why of it, you know? Why do it? Why do it? Why do it? Because so many theatre practitioners do not believe what you just said. And I think so many plays this season, I’ve sat there and watched and thought, ‘Why are they doing this play? I do not understand the reason to do this.’ And unless it’s, you know — I’m paraphrasing somebody, maybe one of my old college professors — if it’s not blood, sweat, and tears, don’t write it. If I don’t love something, I’m not going to write it — like, deeply, passionately, intensely something I can fall in love with and believe in.

And just a lot of theater, especially in — I don’t want to slam my own town — but I just feel that I see a lot of plays here (and elsewhere, to be fair) that just don’t have any raison d’être; fire in the belly. This is the frustrating thing (about new work, in particular) that anybody who’s written a play feels that it’s worthy of everything. And playwrighting is the hardest literary form that exists, because you have to lose control over it. And there are a lot of people out there who think they can do it who can’t. And audiences have been mis-educated about good new work, because so much crap is getting done. You mis-educate an audience about what is good.

And I think we — especially with new work — have trained our audiences to fear ambition. And to fear epic. And to fear big ideas. That’s not in our typical theatrical fare. And I think that’s profoundly dangerous. And it’s everywhere. We’ve not trained an audience to expect or want or understand something that’s dangerous, something that quests with a capital ‘Q.’ And this is a problem. When something like that comes along, people don’t know how to take it.

Walker: It’s so vulnerable for an audience member to be in a room with something raw, which is what I love about her [Sarah Kane’s] writing, that her plays are like raw nerves, like open wounds.

Currin: Done with craft, though.

Walker: With craft! They are well-crafted. Oh, man, are they well-crafted. Being an audience member in the room with something like that is not part of our vocabulary, being that vulnerable in a public space. The sense of being watched in a theatre audience is something we don’t talk about as much as we should, I think. Because people are watching us.

Currin: That’s what I find interesting about the new play that I’m shopping around now and developing. It’s a comedy, but it gets to very dark, sad, vulnerable places. It’s really interesting to watch the audience response, because the play is not an abstraction, the way that Kane is; it has the trappings of the familiar. Audiences are much more able to click into its emotion as opposed to something that is an abstraction. And it’s been interesting, watching that process of development, thinking about why people react the way they do.

Henley: I’d like to ask Jonelle if she sees herself settling here in town for the mid-term or long-term.

Walker: It’s kinda something I’m wrestling with, you know? Twenty-five is a weird age, because you’re far enough out of college that you’ve got to start making really long-term decisions, but you’re young enough still not to have had enough experience, really, to make those decisions.

Currin: It’s the ‘go on the national tour now’ phase of your life. Because in ten years, you’re not going to want to do that.

Magee: I have shoes that are twenty-five. [Laughter.]

Henley: I have theatre companies that are twenty-five. [Laughter.]

Walker: So, yes, the plan right now is to be here for at least the next couple of years, but I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out. We’ll see.

Henley: Do you now think of yourself as a playwright?

Walker: I think the broad term ‘writer,’ definitely. Because I do journalism, I do scholarship, and I’m a playwright. Whether I’m going to pick one of those as the absolute be-all, end-all form for me, I don’t know yet. Definitely writing. Absolutely. That is where I want to go.

Currin: It’s rewarding, too. I’m not a misanthrope or anything.

Walker: I think the thing that frustrates me about playwrighting is that, in my mind, everything works so well — it’s the translation from my mind to the page that’s so tough. That’s what’s frustrating. But the rest of it I love. There’s nothing like seeing something come to life that you made up in your brain. That is crazy to me.

Currin: And it always strikes me at tech.

Walker: Yes!

Currin: When you’re sitting there going, okay, every single actor, the director, all these designers, stage management, ASMs, everybody is here because I had this story in my head. It’s a humbling thing. You’re just, like, I cannot believe that a) this is even happening; b) that anybody believed in this to this extent. And to see it actually, like, four-dimensional — it’s a crazy thing. It’s really humbling and awesome.

Walker: Yeah. We had a read of the play last weekend and people were talking about the characters like they were real people. ‘You know I just feel that she would not be this way.’ ‘I feel really sorry for her.’ And I was like, ‘These aren’t really people, but you’re talking about them like they are real people, and I made them up. This is so cool.’ It’s magical. There’s no better way to describe it.

Christopher Henley About Christopher Henley

Christopher Henley began acting (1979) and directing (1980) around DC with Source Theatre Company. He was a founding Ensemble Member at WSC Avant Bard (formerly Washington Shakespeare Company); was its Artistic Director for more than 16 years; and continues as its Artistic Director Emeritus and as a member of the Acting Company. Other theatres at which he has worked include SCENA Theatre (founding company member), Longacre Lea Productions, Folger Theatre, The American Century Theater, Quotidian Theatre Company, and Ambassador Theatre, in addition to several companies no longer functioning, such as Cherry Red Productions, Spheres Theatre Company, and Moving Target Theatre.



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