Tomorrow night, the online production of Measure for Measure that I put together with the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company will be available on their YouTube channel. You can check out the event here.
I’m excited to have finally had the chance to dig into this text with actors. I think I proposed it a year and a half ago, and I’ve been thinking about it for longer. Having the chance to work on it a tiny bit a year out from a planned (🤞🤞🤞) in-person performance is a rare gift. I so often hear my cut of the script and the doubling read aloud for the first time on the first night of rehearsal. Sometimes I realize I’ve made some sort of terrible mistake, and correcting it at that point always feels awkward. Interestingly, I didn’t have any of those this time. I might rearrange some of the doubling, but the cut didn’t have any weird gaps, and the time was right where I had estimated it. Maybe I’m finally getting better at cutting plays.
I always learn from rehearsal, and this time was no different. Doing the play on Zoom, I suddenly realized how much Shakespeare doesn’t say in this play. The last Shakespeare play I worked on, before the pandemic, was As You Like It, and it’s such a straightforward play. We know why everyone decides to go into the woods, to disguise or not, to revenge or to forgive. They say what they’re doing and why, constantly. But in Measure, so much is left unsaid. Often, when actors propose a theory about some piece of backstory or objective, I ask where they see it in the text. We have words we can examine and debate. In this play…there’s a lot of talking, but not a lot of revealing. I might not have noticed this so clearly if I had actors’ bodies in space to work with. A shared glance, a connection with the audience, a passed prop, carries so much meaning. Physical acting is the spackle on Shakespeare’s seams. We figure it out on the Zoom, but I kept wishing I could just… have one actor take a step away from another, or tense a shoulder, or refuse eye contact.
I talked about this a little in a video for PCSC. I still have a lot of questions.
One other notable thing about this (pre)production: It’s nearly all gender-reversed casting. This was the original concept for the show. We always do gender-inclusive casting with Pigeon Creek, but for this production, with the exception of a couple minor characters in doubled parts, everyone is playing a gender that is not their actual one.
I did this for a lot of reasons. One major one is the same reason as our usual policy of gender-inclusive casting: Opportunity. This play has about four roles for women, only one of them particularly interesting, and we have many excellent female actors. Why not cast in a way that lets me bring more of them into the ensemble? Another reason, though, is that I wondered if this play would read differently to men if they saw a man taking on the role of a woman, hearing something like, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” Would it change how they thought about power? Would they project themselves more, imaginatively, into Isabel than they might if she was played by a woman? We (and, I think, most classical theater companies) don’t cast men as women nearly so frequently.
One other reason for this cross-gendered casting, rather than an all-female cast, was to force myself into doing it. I have the same prejudices that the rest of my culture does; for some reason, seeing a woman play a man feels fine, but it takes a bigger step to see a man play a woman. I noticed the ease with which our female actors embodied male characters, and how little they asked if they were being masculine enough, where the male actors had more concerns, and I realized that it’s because the women have had so many more opportunities to embody the other gender, and to realize that, at its core, it’s just about people living out stories. Is a man more different from a woman than an average, modern, middle-class woman is from a murderous queen? Probably not, so why does that feel like such a leap to male actors? I think just because they haven’t done it much. When we did our all-female Caesar in 2009, we talked a lot about gender presentation. That was a long time ago, though. Both this group of actors and society at large has grown into a more nuanced and experienced understanding of gender, and how women can present, particularly. I want to give male actors those opportunities for empathy and growth.
In our productions, we don’t go out of our way to make the actors look perfectly like the gender of the people they are portraying. We never put shoulder pads on women who are playing men; we generally put their hair in a ponytail, but don’t hide it under a hat. I think that the imaginative distance between an actor’s body and a character’s body is the space where we invite the audience to play with us. Come create with us, this casting says. We’re not trying to fool you. I experienced this myself as an audience member several years ago, when I saw Miriam Donald, quite pregnant, play Juliet at the American Shakespeare Center. The actors talked about it in the preshow; they were clear that this was not an avant garde production concept. Miriam was pregnant and Juliet wasn’t. It worked. Oddly, I felt respected as an audience member. Nobody was trying to fool me into not seeing Miriam’s body.
Our men, when we do this as a real production, will shave, and wear a bit of makeup and wigs and probably padded bras. But we won’t be trying to create an illusion. Nobody will look at them and think they’re women; they’ll see that we are telling a story where we invite them to understand these male actors as playing female characters. I trust our audience. I trust that it will work.
For Zoom, though, without the full context of the body, we felt like this wouldn’t quite work. So we took a step further back. The male actors have beards. No wigs, no makeup. I felt like, in the context of a Zoom, with so much focus on the actor’s face and so little else, attempting any of that would invite scrutiny of their skill at “guyliner.” So … they’re just themselves. They have a scarf or necklace to distinguish them from other doubled characters, but that’s it. I hope audiences are okay with it. I don’t think there was a better choice.
We rehearsed and pre-recorded it. I’m always surprised when folks do these things live—we can’t see or hear or feel the audience, and while, yes, we might see their comments in the chat on the livestream, most of the time the actors are working too hard to pay any attention to that. It’s not the same as the little shifts of weight, the inhalations, the murmurs that we get from a truly engaged audience. And then there’s the uncertainty of everyone’s internet connection, the occasional cat butt during a soliloquy; even when we do it live, it doesn’t feel like live performance, so why not pre-record?
I miss audiences. I hope that people will see this video production (I do think it’s quite good—solid acting all around), and that it will make them want to see the real thing. I hope we get to do the real thing in the fall.
I am, as always, grateful for the opportunity to work with these wonderful people, even if it only makes me long more for the day when we will finally be together in person.