The Year of the Shrew, Part One: Pastime Passing Excellent


Tim Kniffin (Petruccio) and Carla Pantoja (Katherina) in SF Shakes’ upcoming production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Next week, we go into rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew, and the season we’re calling The Year of the Shrew kicks into high gear. From the moment when we decided to produce this controversial comedy, I have immersed myself in research of past productions, arguments for and against the play, and my own concerns about how to present it. With this production, I want to reclaim the word “Shrew” and tackle the issues of female dis-empowerment in the play head-on. I hope to find in Katherina a damaged proto-feminist, and in Petruccio a reformed misogynist turned male ally – two prickly outsiders finding their way to each other in a culture full of gender-based expectations. And, of course, I want it to be very, very funny. All this must be grounded in the text – we must find it there, because at the end of the day we want to do the play Shakespeare wrote.

Just days away from getting the actors in the room, I still grapple daily with this play. I don’t suppose I will stop grappling at the end of rehearsals, or even on closing night. I ask myself, is it responsible of me as a feminist to produce it? To direct it? To keep it alive in the canon? Or would it be better to let it fall out of favor, a relic of another time? As the Isla Vista murders and #YesAllWomen have reminded us in recent weeks, the violent subjugation of women isn’t some long-distant 400-year-old memory to look back on with laughter. Culture, and how women are represented in that culture, matters. As a woman director who has always loved this play, I feel a responsibility toward it and toward other people who love it. Why does it still fascinate us? Why do women in particular love Kate so much?


Ada Rehan as Katherina, 1877.

The fact is, this is a sexist play. It’s also not a sexist play, but one that subverts its own genre. Understanding and appreciating Shakespeare, to me, means being able to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time. Shylock is a villain and a victim. Hamlet is indecisive and a man of action. Macbeth is powerful and weak. Shakespeare was never interested in two-dimensional characters or situations, and I believe we do him a disservice if we don’t pay attention to what he’s saying around the edges of the genre. He was a commercial playwright who had to write for an existing audience, and at the same time he was doing things no one had ever attempted before. The fact that he remained so commercially successful in spite of his groundbreaking innovations astonishes me.

The Taming of the Shrew reflects its time, a time of many contradictions, in which gender roles were in flux. There was a woman on the throne, and according to the Divine Right of Sovereigns, she was infallible. At the same time, husbands had their own divine right, to punish their wives for perceived crimes without trial or explanation. How could one woman be all-powerful while the rest were lesser humans? Add to this a new idea of the time that marriage should be based on mutual love and respect, along with the rise of women holding property, engaging in business dealings, and getting involved in local politics (for a terrific book on the real life of women of the period, see Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife). All this resulted in cultural shifts around gender roles in the 1590’s that sound pretty familiar to us even in the 21st century.


Elizabethan women at work.

As you know if you follow the #YesAllWomen feed on Twitter, whenever women begin to gain power, there’s a vicious patriarchal backlash. The emergence of “Shrew” plays and ballads in the Elizabethan era was a reaction to the rise of nascent feminism threatening heretofore unquestioned male sovereignty. It’s not hard to imagine Richard Burbage telling his new young playwright to get to work on a play that would celebrate and re-establish a comfortable Protestant patriarchy, a play based on one of the most horrifyingly misogynistic songs ever sung. No, not “Blurred Lines” – a lengthy ballad known as “A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife, Lapped in Morel’s Skin, for her Good Behavior.”

To spare you having to read through it, here’s the gist: A wealthy man has two daughters of marriageable age. The youngest is mild, sweet, and sought-after, and the eldest is “shrewish” and violent. A young fortune-hunter comes to town and marries the eldest, planning to “tame” her. The marriage is marked by mutual violence – he beats her, she beats him back, until he finally kills and flays his old horse Morel, beats his wife until he draws blood, then wraps her in the horse’s salted hide until she agrees to obey her husband and demonstrate wifely behavior at a public feast.


An illustration from “A Merry Jest.”

As usual, Shakespeare didn’t adhere slavishly to his source material. He used the basic plot of this and other Shrew folktales – a brash young suitor arrives to marry a shrewish older daughter – but subverts it from the start with an unusual structural choice. He uses a framing device, or Induction, set in an Inn, where plays were frequently performed in provincial towns like Shakespeare’s Stratford.


A modern rendering of an Inn Yard stage.

The first characters to appear are Christopher Sly and the Hostess. Sly is a drunken beggar, a lower-class, powerless male figure. In the first moments of the play, he is scolded by the Hostess, a female business owner, for breaking her glassware. He boasts of his ancestral privilege, insults her, and then passes out at her feet.

“Sly. I’ll pheeze you, in faith.

1st Woman. A pair of stocks, you rogue.

Sly. Y’are a baggage, the Slys are no Rogues. Look in the Chronicles, we came in with Richard Conqueror: therefore paucas pallabris, let the world slide: Sessa.”

Here we have what might be referred to as a male Shrew.


An elephant shrew, arguably the cutest of the shrews.

What’s a Shrew? In the animal kingdom, shrews are small vicious rodents, originally believed to have a poisonous bite, who squeak loudly – they’re kind of cute if you find the right photo. According to Barbara Hodgdon’s excellent introduction to the Arden Shrew, “by the mid-thirteenth century ‘shrew’ had come to mean a wicked, ill-disposed, or malignant man’, a definition which by the end of the fourteenth century had expanded to refer to the devil.” This description seems more fitted to Iago than Katherina. By Chaucer’s era, the definition could refer to either gender, and by Shakespeare’s, women had taken on the name almost exclusively.

It’s clear to me what Shakespeare was doing here. His audience arrives expecting a Shrew play, and in the very first scene he gives them something unexpected – a male character exhibiting the traits of a Shrew.


The hostess with Christopher Sly.

A Lord arrives at the inn and discovers Sly passed out on the stage. He mocks the drunkard, but then proposes “killing him with kindness” – bathing him, offering him food and drink, clothing him in silks and dousing him with perfume – mostly for his own amusement, but also seemingly as a sort of social experiment.

Lord. Oh monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies.

Friends, I will practice on this drunken man.

What think you, if he were convey’d to bed,

Wrap’d in sweet clothes, Rings put upon his fingers,

A most delicious banquet by his bed,

And brave attendants near him when he wakes,

Would not the beggar then forget himself?”

I like to think of this tactic as the “Opposites Game” – treating someone in the opposite way they might deserve or expect in order to change their behavior.


Sly awakes, by William Quiller Orchardson.

Sly wakes to the sound of beautiful music and servants waiting on him hand and foot. Treated as a lord coming to himself after a long madness, Sly begins to believe he’s a lord after all.

Sly. Am I a Lord, and have I such a Lady?

Or do I dream? Or have I dream’d till now?

I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak:

I smell sweet savors, and I feel soft things:

Upon my life I am a Lord indeed,

And not a Beggar, nor Christopher Sly.”

Believing he’s a lord, he starts to behave like one, switching from slang-filled prose to a pretty good imitation of the Lord’s evenly-paced iambic pentameter verse. Presented with a group of actors who wish to perform a play for him, as well as a young male page disguised as his long-lost wife, he starts to abandon his rude and socially unacceptable behavior and behave in a way commensurate with how he is treated.


The Amazement of Christopher Sly, 1882.

In our production, the Induction will be set not in a Warwickshire inn, but in a place as homey and comfortable to us as Stratford was for Shakespeare – at a present-day performance of Free Shakespeare in the Park. The Lord will be played as an educated, upper middle class young female house manager dealing with an unruly interloper, with the assistance of her largely female staff.

In the Induction, I hope to explore several levels of power, privilege, and performed social roles. Sly is a white man, but one whose privilege is undermined by poverty. The house manager uses her position of power initially to punish Sly for his rude behavior, then seems to feel something for the man, insisting that he be treated with kindness:

“This do, and do it kindly, gentle friends,

It will be pastime passing excellent,

If it be husbanded with modesty.”


Sly with the page dressed as his wife.

When she decides to have her young male intern perform the role of Sly’s wife, she demonstrates that wifely behavior is a performance, even resorting to an actor’s trick to produce tears on cue:

“Tell him from me (as he will win my love)

He bear himself with honorable action,

Such as he hath observ’d in noble Ladies

Unto their Lords, by them accomplished…

And if the boy have not a woman’s gift

To rain a shower of commanded tears,

An Onion will do well for such a shift,

Which in a Napkin (being close convey’d)

Shall in despite enforce a watery eye.”

The Induction introduces both the Opposites Game (later used by Petruccio with Katherina) and the central theme that all gender-based behavior is in fact a performance, one we engage in to get along in society. In addition, in the mock marriage of Sly and the young man, it’s possible to see marriage as an arrangement that benefits men in which women are outsiders.


Stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte.

As Sly and his “wife” watch, the Players enter and perform the first scene of Shrew, in which we are introduced to numerous Commedia Dell’Arte archetypes (the kind Shakespeare may have also seen in his Warwickshire youth) engaged in a fairly standard romantic comedy set-up. We have a Pantalone figure (Gremio), the young Innamorati (Lucentio and Bianca), the clever Zanni (Tranio), and as well as a befuddled father (Baptista) and a foolish suitor (Hortensio) – and then the actress playing the house manager appears again, this time as Katherina the Shrew. Like Sly, she is noisy, rude, inappropriate, and violent – perhaps demonstrating to Sly the affect of such behavior on others.

At this point in the Induction, Sly, still a bit worse for drink, dozes off, and it’s the last we read of the character in the First Folio version of Shrew. This, of course, leaves tantalizing questions – what happens to him and the other Induction characters? Are they still on stage? In the Anonymous play The Taming of A Shrew, which may be an earlier source for Shakespeare’s play, a first draft, or even a “bad quarto” pirated from live performance, Sly interjects throughout the action. But in Shakespeare’s version, he disappears.

A Shrew title page

The title page of The Taming of A Shrew, 1594.

In our production, he goes to sleep… and imagines himself as the suitor to this powerful, unruly woman Katherina. Perhaps at first he’s having a wish-fulfillment fantasy, imagining himself the sort of man who can tame her. Or perhaps he’s out for revenge against women after his treatment by the Hostess. He certainly enters the play cocky, boastful, and arrogant, very much the Il Capitano archetype of Commedia. But the tactics he uses are not those of the “Merry Jest” ballad – he doesn’t engage in violence of any kind. Throughout the play, the text never indicates that he lays a finger on her. Instead, he uses the Opposites Game – the more Katherina abuses him, the more he praises her good behavior. He gives her the kind of respect her father and the other men in the play have never given her, even when she responds with physical violence. As they continue to interact, they are clearly equally matched, and by Act Two, if we do our job right, the audience will be rooting for them to get together.

20140325_Shrew PR_8408

Katherina makes short work of a gift from Petruccio.

This essay is the first in a series in which I’ll share some of my thoughts on the text and how we’ll deal with its thorniest corners. I may see the play one way in my head, but everything changes as soon as the actors are in the room. I look forward to sharing our journey with you.


CASTING FOR JUSTICE: Making Some Mirrors

 “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? …If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

- Junot Díaz

Last year, I wrote a blog post called “Holding the Mirror Up to Nature,” about the necessity of casting for the theatre in a way that represents the audience. Since then, I’ve spoken to many well-meaning directors and artistic directors since who want to pursue policies of gender parity and racial equity in their organizations, but aren’t sure how.  They’re afraid of tokenism, or of offending someone by casting them as the “wrong” thing.  Or they think there aren’t enough actors of color or talented female actors in their communities to allow for the kind of casting policy we’ve adopted at San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. Or they’re afraid the audience won’t accept a female Othello or a black Hamlet. And so they continue doing what they’ve always done – casting “traditionally,” while saying “I wish I could do what you’re doing.”


Melanie Marshall and Phil Wong in SF Shakes’ 2014 Tour of Julius Caesar.

You see, we did it. We committed to 50% women and 50% actors of color in our Free Shakespeare in the Park cast of The Taming of the Shrew, and we did it. It certainly helped to have my integrity on the line – there’s nothing like being accountable to your community. But here’s the thing – it wasn’t hard. We recruited and read great actors of color for every role, and plenty of them were the best actors for the roles.  There was no “compromising” – a word I hear whispered in fear by white directors whenever casting actors of color comes up. In a play where gender is a central theme, I considered both women and men in opposite-gender roles and thought about what that would mean to the gender dynamics of the play. I found that although I didn’t cast across gender in every role, because I felt it would undermine my own feminist take on the play, I still ended up with numerous roles cast across gender. Our audiences, already diverse, will see themselves reflected on stage this summer.

But the last thing I should do is sit in my office patting myself on the back and sneering at folks still producing heavily white-male seasons. I believe we’re talking about the future of theatre here, and if one of us goes down, we all go down. So it’s up to all of us to help each other out with this stuff, because it’s tricky, and it can be sensitive, and we’ve all been brought up in a very racist and sexist system. We’re all going to make mistakes, because this stuff is very deeply ingrained, but we’ve all got to try harder to do better.

Lisa-Wolpe-and-Chastity Dotson Hamlet

Lisa Wolpe and Chastity Dotson in Hamlet at the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company.

In January 2014, I had the opportunity to co-present a panel at the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s annual conference with Lisa Wolpe, founding artistic director of Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company.  Lisa has been casting critically- acclaimed all-female productions for decades. Her own portrayals of Iago, Hamlet, and Richard III are very nearly legendary.  Lisa and I both wanted to show our audience of leaders from Shakespeare companies across the globe that casting non-traditionally is not only the right thing to do for our society, but artistically compelling.

As I shared at the beginning of our presentation, casting is 90% of the work – actors on the stage are not just people but symbols. Audience members automatically look at the cast for signs of identification. Some of us, the white able-bodied folks, usually don’t have to look very hard. Our empathy doesn’t get much of a workout, because there’s usually someone up there our age, race, ability, and gender – someone who is easy for us to identify with. Women have to stretch further than men, usually, since men are still represented far more frequently on American stages. People of color can get so exhausted by constantly being asked to identify with those who not only don’t look like them, but have historically oppressed them, that they burn out completely and stop going to the theatre. As for people with disabilities, I’m amazed any of them go to the theatre at all.

Measure at OSF

René Millán and Stephanie Beatriz in Measure for Measure at OSF.

There are three types of casting:

  1. “Traditional” Casting. Or as I prefer to call it, “White-male default casting.” This is what you most often see on American stages and in American films. This type of casting is based on the assumption that a white male actor is “neutral” – that he can play anything. He doesn’t symbolize anything or carry a set of codes that refer to his social meaning. He’s the perfect blank slate. White-male default casting also assumes that everyone else – women, actors of color, actors with disabilities – are so full of meaning that just one thing about them completely defines them. A woman must represent all women, a Black man represents all black men, etc. For Shakespeare companies in particular, this type of casting is often justified by tradition – in Shakespeare’s time, white men did play all the roles.
  2. “Blind” Casting. I still hear the terms “gender-blind” and “color-blind” casting used on a regular basis. Here’s the thing – this kind of casting doesn’t really exist, unless the director and the audience really are all physically blind. Because actors are symbols, because we are all trained to see meaning in color, gender, age, and so on, no casting can be truly blind. I don’t care how open-minded and evolved you are as a director, even if you claim not to “see” color or gender, your audience sees it. Your casting choices affect how they see the play, for better or worse.
  3. “Non-traditional” Casting. Or as I prefer, “Intentional” Casting, or Casting for Justice. This type of casting acknowledges all the meaning present in every person. White men aren’t neutral, they’re just as coded with meaning as everyone else. Your deliberate choices resonate with your audience, and they resonate with different people differently. That means if you cast a black man as a servant or a young Asian woman as a prostitute, you have to acknowledge all the cultural baggage behind that choice.


Kathryn Hunter and David Harewood in Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I think there are several sub-categories here, which include:

  1. Casting the way things are: This type of casting highlights problems in our culture. An example: a recent production of Measure for Measure at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in which Isabella was a young Latina and the Duke was an older white man. The less empowered characters in the play were played by actors of color, pointing out the skewed power dynamics and lack of justice in the play. For plays in which race is central, like Othello, or modern plays such as M. Butterfly or Ruined, this type of casting makes a lot of sense.
  2. Casting the way we wish things could be: This type of casting shows a utopian ideal in which race and gender still exist but have ceased to indicate power or relationship. An example: Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Theatre for a New Audience. The cast was multi-racial, with actors of color playing powerful characters, and traditionally male roles played by women. In a cast like this, an Asian father might have one black daughter and another daughter of Middle Eastern descent without explanation or apology. This type of casting presents the world that we’d like our children to see. (You’ll often see this type of casting in educational tours.)
  3. Casting the opposites: This type of casting includes cross-gender productions, or a production like Patrick Stewart’s Othello in which he was the only white man in the cast (playing the title role). It can serve to highlight problems in society or for comic effect (as when a man in drag plays Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest). Most single-gender productions work a bit differently in that they invite us to deliberately find points of identification with the opposite gender or highlight themes that we might usually ignore. They also allow us the sheer enjoyment of virtuosity – appreciating a flexible actor in convincing drag.


DebraAnn Byrd as Cleopatra at the Harlem Shakespeare Festival.

Last year, Lisa directed a reading of Othello at Harlem Shakespeare Festival, with their artistic director DebraAnn Byrd in the title role and herself as Iago, demonstrating this third type of Casting for Justice. As part of our presentation, DebraAnn and Lisa performed a scene from the play. Lisa also directed two colleagues from New York Classical Theatre, Nick Salamone and Sean Hagerty, in a Desdemona/Emilia scene.

Harlem Shakes' Othello

Lisa Wolpe, Mary Hodges, and DebraAnn Byrd in Othello at the Harlem Shakespeare Festival.

It’s difficult to put into writing the impact of watching these four skilled actors inhabit roles they would not traditionally perform. The room was transfixed. Afterwards, the actors and audience shared their experience of the performance. Here were some of their impressions:

  • “It reminded me of how great a playwright Shakespeare is – everything you need is in the words.”
  • “I feel like I heard the words for the first time.”
  • “Thank you. This is just such a fantastic play.”
  • “These are just great characters – it doesn’t matter who plays them.”
  • “I see how cross-gender casting isn’t just about being fair, it can actually make the play more interesting.”

I found that watching two women playing hyper-masculine military men coping with sexual jealously brought new resonance to a familiar scene. My attention was drawn to gender-based expectations – the strength men must display according to our culture, their fear of vulnerability or sexual competition. “Performing masculinity,” when portrayed by women, is revealed as a false construct that anyone can put on.

Sean in Richard III

Sean Hagerty as Richard III, New York Classical Theatre.

Perhaps because we’re used to thinking of men in drag as comic relief, the scene in which two men played women talking about their abuse at the hands of men had a particularly strong impact. (The line “These men, these men” rang through the room with piercing pain and irony.) Lisa side-coached the scene in a way that reminded the actors of their characters’ sexual history, experience of domestic violence, and solidarity in a masculine world.

Sean, a bearded white actor in his forties who played Emilia, had never played a female character before. As he said afterwards, “Rather than limiting the play, casting across gender actually opens it up. It plays into the meta-theatricality inherent in the text and makes it somehow more relate-able, more experiential, so that they identify not with a character themselves but with the issues at hand. In that sense it’s almost Brechtian.” In other words, by using actors whose physical appearance signals something completely opposite from the characters, our minds expand, we become more open to new experiences – and we experience a more universal empathy.


Nick Salomone as Dorn in The Seagull, New York Classical Theatre.

Nick, who played Desdemona, is a white actor in his fifties, slender and balding. His emotionally raw performance left several audience members weeping. “As a gay man, I’ve worked so hard at appearing as masculine as possible. I’ve never allowed myself to be this vulnerable on stage. Desdemona let me into a side of myself I usually try to hide.” These white male actors, the usual beneficiaries of traditional casting, delved deeper and stretched further when cast non-traditionally.

Casting for Justice isn’t just about fair and equitable treatment for women and actors of color, although that’s incredibly important. It’s about making the art form relevant for all of us. It’s about expanding all of our minds, freeing us all from the tyranny of received wisdom, and giving us new ways to see the world. Best of all, it’s about making what we see so unexpected that we have to listen instead.

NOTE: This essay originally appeared at Works by Women SF, where Rebecca J. Ennals is a guest contributor.

GUEST BLOG: OUR HEARTS ARE MIGHTY – My Internship at SF Shakes by Sabrina Rosenfield

20130721_Cupertino opening_3541

(Sabrina Rosenfield, above left, served as a Stage Management intern during the summers of 2012 and 2013, and an Education intern before that. Prior to high school, she attended Shakespeare Camp for many years. She’s now majoring in stage management at Emerson College. She offered to contribute a guest blog about her experience as an intern, and I eagerly accepted. If what she has to say inspires you, our internship application is now available.)

As I’ve gone through my first two months in Boston, studying stage and production management at Emerson College, I’ve found myself thinking about SF Shakes almost every day. For the past two summers, I’ve been a stage management intern for Shakespeare in the Park, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be here without those experiences.

In many ways, I feel like SF Shakes formed the intern program around me. When I wanted to do design and stage management for Advanced Shakespeare Workshop, I was able to do that. The next year I became a stage management intern at Shakespeare in the Park. It was an incredible amount of work, but I learned a ton about theatre, and stage management, and myself.

Interns at work

Sabrina backstage with fellow intern Alex in 2012.

As an SM intern, my role changed from rehearsal, to tech, to performance. In rehearsals, I would be on book (during my first college show, where I was also on book, everyone constantly told me how good I was at it – thanks SF Shakes!) and sometimes make rehearsal props (the leek in Henry V as a roll of paper towels wrapped in gaff tape will always be one of my favorites). In tech and performance, I was backstage, doing prop hand-offs, quick changes, and setting up and striking every night. And, for about 30 seconds in Macbeth, I appeared on stage. Don’t let anyone tell you that stage managers don’t want to be noticed – I enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.


Performance Interns entertain the crowd with the Green Show “Witchipedia.”

To be totally honest, I had some doubts about going back for the second summer. It’s a lot of hours to commit, and it was hard for me to explain to everyone why I was choosing to not make any money the summer before I left for college. It was a really hard decision to make, and I’m sure I shed some tears my first week of rehearsal, spending long hours in the SF Shakes scene shop while my friends enjoyed their freedom.

By the time we got to Pleasanton I remembered why I had wanted to come back so badly, and why struggling through the long rehearsals was totally worth it. Pleasanton is beautiful, and tech week for Shakespeare in the Park will always be one of my favorites. Stepping onto the Macbeth set for the first time was magical, opening the sliding doors and climbing the ladders. During tech week, we had a two-hour dinner break during which I would eat, read a book, and lie in the grass. It didn’t feel like work – it was warm, and comfortable, and magic. What a fabulous way to spend a summer. In Pleasanton, the nearby Safeway has a Jamba Juice inside it, and I became a gourmet (the Macbeth SM team liked to joke that the angriest they’ve ever seen me was at the inferior Jamba Juice in Cupertino). At night, we did dress rehearsals of the show and in between my handoffs I would hang out backstage with Rainier, Sarah, and Rasika, the three performance interns who played the witches in Macbeth. The times with them backstage are some I’ll always remember.

Hanging Out

That’s Sabrina in the lower right corner, with her Jamba Juice.

Some highlights during my two years as an intern:

- During Henry V, Craig Marker, who played Henry, came offstage opening night snapping frantically and pointing at a roll of gaff tape. It turned out he had split his pants right down the back seam, so we gaffed him back together and sent him back onstage.

- The huge storage container where we store all of our supplies, affectionately called the “bomb shelter” or just the “bomb”, has to be organized just so or nothing will fit. This process, called “Bomb Tetris” is an awesome late-night game I will never forget.

- During the Pleasanton strike for Macbeth, the sprinklers went off. At the time it was the farthest thing from funny, but looking back on it, watching our sound technician Leigh sprint across the field yelling “get the speakers!” is a fabulous moment of theatre I will never forget.


Leigh and his interns at the tech booth in 2013.

The usual stigma of being an intern is that you do all of the work with none of the recognition – but this isn’t the case at SF Shakes. The cast, crew, and staff are so appreciative and it makes working long hours in heat and cold so worth it.

Aside from having a blast, there are two huge things I’ve gained from interning.

The first is the people I have met. I’m still in touch with a lot of interns from the past two years, and there is definitely a bond between us all. When you end up lying down in a parking lot in Pleasanton at midnight, that tends to happen. I’ve also made amazing connections with the SMs and ASMs I’ve worked with. I lived near the stage manager for Macbeth, Justin, so we would carpool every weekend. I’ve been to his house, met his family, and spent countless hours in the car with him. We developed our own inside jokes and, when his assistant Stephanie and another SM intern Amelia joined our carpool, the SM team felt like a real family. Our last weekend before I left, we stopped and got ice cream together. Justin still texts me every so often to check up on me and make sure I’m doing ok on the other side of the country. These are friendships that are worth more than anything.


Intern friends relax backstage in 2012.

The other thing I’ve learned from interning is how to be a stage manager. I already had the interest in high school, or I wouldn’t have done it, but working for an Equity company is miles different from any high school experience. I’ve learned so much from my stage managers Les, Lydia, Justin, and Stephanie. In my stage management class at Emerson, I know a lot more than some of my classmates, simply because I’ve worked in that professional setting. I already know when Equity breaks happen, the differences between straight 6s, 7/8s, and 10/12s, and how long you can rehearse without a meal break. But even more importantly than all of the skills and facts I’ve learned, there is no way I would have known what to do with my life without SF Shakes. Without Shakespeare Camp when I was 8 years, I wouldn’t have gotten involved in theatre. Without being an SM intern, there’s no way I would’ve (or should’ve) decided to study stage management. Theatre is something you have to try before you commit to it. And a summer in the sun with some great people? What a great way to experiment.

So to go back to the question: why intern instead of getting a “real” job? Why work so hard for no monetary compensation?

Answer: because sometimes you have to make decisions with your heart instead of your head. Because some things are worth so much more than money. And isn’t that what theatre is all about anyway?


2012 Interns laugh as the cast of Henry V sings them a closing song of appreciation.

WHAT WOULD SHAKESPEARE DO? Advice from 400-year-old Players

In August, some sad news spread across the Shakespeare world – Shakespeare Santa Cruz, an acclaimed 32-year-old professional company on the UC Santa Cruz campus, was told by the University that it will have to close in December, unless its board members and fans can manage to re-invent it as an independent non-profit.

Shakes SC

SSC’s 2013 production of The Taming of the Shrew.

SSC’s predicament follows others in the Shakespeare community over the past several years. In 2011, the Bay Area lost its all-female Shakespeare company, Woman’s Will, due to financial struggles. In August of this year, the 36-year-old North Carolina Shakespeare Festival temporarily suspended operations due to financial challenges, and now hopes to raise $100,000 by Oct. 31. Every time we get the news of another struggling or fallen comrade, Shakespeare producers think “There but for the grace of Will…” It could happen to any of us. We all live a tenuous existence, because producing theatre in America means trying as hard as you can not to spend money.

“What is wrong with this country?” lamented one friend on Facebook when I posted the news about SSC. “Ugh, it’s not like this in Europe/South America/Australia” was a common reaction in the community. We rant against the broken system, we watch in horror as our government spends billions of dollars on defense, prisons, and security while the NEA struggles by on pennies, we vote our socks off and donate and sign petitions, but at the end of the day, we live here. We love our country with all its faults, but we believe people can’t live without art. So how are we going to provide it, while staying within our ever-tightening budgets?

Shakes got to get paid

I should probably have one of those little bracelets with the words “What Would Shakespeare Do?” etched into the plastic. I like to think back to the way theatre companies were run when he was around, and the advice he might give if he was here today. I think he’d start with this:

Spend money on people, not stuff. Shakespeare’s company was called the King’s Men, not the Globe Theatre. Today, theatre companies tend to be named after concepts or buildings, not after the artists and managers who comprise them. In Shakespeare’s day, theatre-makers knew that no matter how nice their building, it was the people that made the company. Richard Burbage, the lead player of the Lord Chamberlain’s/later King’s Men, gathered some great people around him – including Shakespeare. Like a sports team, a company would tout the names of its players and compete to sign on a favorite guest actor as a shareholder. Of course, having a talented playwright among the players was also crucial – great actors required great words to speak.

Lord Chamberlain's Men

The modern-day British company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

In the two centuries after Shakespeare, when audience members like Samuel Pepys wrote about the plays they saw, they hardly mentioned the scenery or the costumes. They wrote about the text, the acting, and the actors. Companies were managed by actors up until the Victorian era, which saw the rise of spectacle and design and the building of gorgeous new theatres – and the hiring of administrators to manage them. The age of stuff had begun.

Victorian theatre

A Victorian theatre. Stuff galore.

Today, we’re surrounded by stuff. The acquisition of stuff has become a national pastime. Movies are filmed entirely about stuff, with people as supporting players to heaps and lashings of toys and gizmos and stuff. Our experience of a play has become intrinsically tied to the number of women’s toilets in the restroom and the color of the carpet in the lobby. Broadway productions advertise their special effects before the names of their leading actors, and we refer to musicals as “the one with the helicopter” or “the one with the chandelier.”

All this stuff comes at a cost, to our companies and to our society. Just as we should examine the effect of rampant consumption on our world, we should try to get back to an age when art wasn’t all about spectacle. This means a major shift in the way audiences experience plays. As many of our theatre history professors taught us, audiences used to go to “hear” a play. Now we go to “see” one. But audiences still crave great words spoken by great actors – today’s “golden age of television” features thoughtful writing and powerful performances. Even while stuff-driven films and plays dominate Hollywood and Broadway, audiences are turning to television for more people-driven story-telling – and that’s the kind of story-telling theatre does best.

So let’s spend our precious pennies on the people at the heart of the art. To do that, we’re going to have to spend less on stuff. How? Here are some ideas from Shakespeare’s company:


Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Use a unit set. Shakespeare is about language and the actor-audience connection, not elaborate concepts or fancy scenery. Shakespeare’s company did their shows on a simple wooden framework with many useful elements that worked for a number of shows. Several modern companies have gone the same route. Some site-specific companies get rid of scenery altogether.

Instead of hiring scenic designers to create endless expendable backdrops, let’s hire them to build functional pieces that can be used creatively season after season. In 2014, SF Shakes will use the same basic unit set for the third year in a row – the designer’s task is to adapt it from the bleakness of Macbeth to the comic lushness of The Taming of the Shrew. Designers often thrive on limitations, imagining creative solutions inside the confines of existing parameters.

f8 20130531_grey_2039

SF Shakes’ unit set changes from Henry V to Macbeth with a coat of paint.

Re-use and Recycle. Back in 1598, Richard Burbage and his father, the owners of the Theatre (one of the first early modern performance spaces) had a rental dispute with Giles Allen, who owned the land their theatre sat on. After the lease on the land expired, Allen claimed the theatre building was his as well. Burbage was able to lease a new package of land in Southwark, across the river, but couldn’t afford the timber for a new theatre. In the middle of the night of December 28, 1598, Burbage, carpenter Peter Street, and the other players took apart the entire building piece by piece and carried the lumber across the river from Shoreditch to the new site. In the spring, they re-built it as the Globe. Now that’s recycling!


Shakespeare’s company had a stock of basic props and a wardrobe of expensive, well-maintained costumes, donated by their upper-class patrons. These costumes were highly valued by the companies of the time and represented a significant part of their net worth. Rather than buying and building new props and costumes for every show, let’s value and maintain what we’ve already got.

Re-using the same old things may not sound very satisfying, but let’s think about evolving the role of guest designer into something more like what the Elizabethans had – a full-time paid wardrobe master. Small and medium-sized companies like SF Shakes usually can’t afford to put designers on staff, but if we were to combine all of our costume design budgets into one position, it would be closer to a reality, providing a designer with a steady source of employment and an artistic home.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Do it with the lights on. I’m stealing this one from the American Shakespeare Center, where all performances are done with early modern lighting – general lighting with no specific lighting design for each show. Shakespeare’s Globe in London also does this, and their new indoor space will be lit only by candlelight. Yes, lighting design can be incredibly cool, but daylight brings its own beauty, and it sure is cheaper.

Design is a beautiful part of the art of theatre, but it’s a relatively new idea, and not one that existed in Shakespeare’s time. If budgets are tight, rather than sacrifice artists, we should sacrifice new scenery, new props, and new costumes, and invite designers to create the whole aesthetic of the company rather than just one show. This does mean audiences will need to adjust to not seeing shiny new visuals every time they attend a show. I’m hoping that in time, seeing a familiar prop or costume might become as fun as seeing a familiar actor.


Skull (Skull of Yorick). Four seasons with SF Shakes, including Shakespeare on Tour (Yorick, Hamlet, 2010; Cauldron ingredient, Macbeth, 2012), plus numerous Shakespeare Camp productions (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013). Skull is thrilled to make its Free Shakespeare in the Park debut this season. Thanks to Cauldron and Swords for all the fun times on the prop shelves.

With any luck, less money spent on stuff gives us more to spend on people. So how would Shakespeare’s company spend it frugally and effectively?


The cast of Henry V (2012) – a cast of 14 actors.

Hire enough actors to do the plays justice. Shakespeare’s company had about eight share-holder actors (the core company members), another eight hired guns, plus several apprentices and paid technicians such as the wardrobe master. Casts were about 14-18 actors. For many smaller union houses in America today, a cast that size is impossible. Seen a lot of productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged or one-man Hamlets lately? There’s a reason – fewer actors to pay. Modern playwrights are told to write for casts of 2-4 actors in order to have the best chance of being produced.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel’s article about SSC’s closing mentions Actors’ Equity salaries and how they’re a large part of the budget. Yes, that’s true – actor salaries and benefits make up a huge percentage of our Free Shakespeare in the Park budget as well. But that makes sense. We’re doing theatre! Paying actors, the heart and soul of theatre from its beginnings, should be the top priority.

In order to produce Shakespeare, I spend a lot of time with a spreadsheet figuring out how few actors we can get away with and still have a production that makes sense and honors the playwright’s intentions. Yes, there have been great 3-person productions of Shakespeare, but I like my Shakespeare with lots of people in it. I like there to be room for interns, apprentices, and masters, so that it’s possible for an actor to start as a spear-carrier and end up as King Lear. That means larger casts, and paying actors.

Ian McKellan King Lear

Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear. He started as an apprentice at the RSC.

In no other profession do highly-trained, multiple-degree-carrying professionals get asked regularly whether this is just our hobby or if we get paid. Nobody assumes that anyone can walk off the street and become a doctor or a firefighter or a pastry chef. But we get asked that almost every weekend. And it’s not like we’re asking for much – a highly successful and respected local union actor, one who works steadily for most of the weeks of the year, might in a very good year make about $30-40k from acting. Should we resent providing the people at the heart of our art with that small sum? I don’t think so. That’s where the money should be spent.

1250 Henry-violin

Doyle Ott plays the violin as Craig Marker (Henry V) looks on.

Hire virtuosic actors. The actors in Shakespeare’s company could act, dance, sing, fight, play instruments, mentor apprentice actors, write, improvise, and learn lines for 6 different shows a week. Yes, actors are a big line item in the budget, but hiring the right actors brings enormous benefits. Well-trained actors save us money on microphones because they know how to project their voices. They save us money on understudies because they take care of themselves. They save us time in rehearsal because they arrive prepared and ready to work hard. They save us money on musicians because they know how to play music. They save us money on teachers because they also know how to teach. They save us money on therapy because they are generous, humble, hard-working, and love our companies as much as we do.


Definitely don’t model your business decisions on The Merchant of Venice.

Be financially transparent – and not just to the board of directors. Shakespeare’s actors WERE the board of directors – the shareholders in his company. They were completely responsible for the financial decisions, and since Shakespeare himself made a nice chunk of cash, they were obviously good at it.

Actors get a bad rap for being arrogant, greedy, self-centered, and lacking in basic life skills. And yes, some actors, just like some people in general, are divas who complain constantly and require special treatment. So let’s not hire those actors – if we do, we’re encouraging that behavior. And let’s stop treating the rest of them like irresponsible, wasteful children who can’t read a spreadsheet. Actors are some of the smartest people I know – and they have to do really, really complicated tax returns. Let’s have open conversations with the artists about where the money is going.

An actor recently asked me if he could get a $500 travel stipend on top of his Equity salary. It was not a ridiculous request – he makes about $250-$550 a week before taxes, depending on the number of days he works, and he travels from a long way away. But $500 was simply not in the budget. In fact, our apprentice actors (non-union, post-college actors in their 20s) only make $500 for an entire 4-month run. I explained this to him, and he was shocked  – and quite satisfied to drop the issue. A lot of people, including those working in the company, don’t know the realities of a theatre company budget and what we’re doing with how little. Sometimes we’re told “Just replace it” or “Just write a check.” Knowledge of the real numbers can help everyone in the organization to understand why choices have been made.

Training 2013

SF Shakes Teaching Artists.

Create a core company. Shakespeare’s actors worked with one another 6 days a week for every week of the year. These guys knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses and had the kind of intimate chemistry that creates stage magic. We know from Shakespeare’s will that they thought of each other as family even when dividing up their possessions.

One way today’s theatre companies are cutting back on actor salaries is by having much shorter rehearsal processes. This is tough on everyone involved in the production, and particularly difficult with a two and a half hour Shakespeare play. A few years ago, we cut a week out of our rehearsal period, meaning that we put the show together in just 3 ½ weeks. Working with actors who teach and train together year-round can help make this achievable. SF Shakes has a core company of 20 Resident Artists – casting these actors, who already know each other so well, saves rehearsal time and builds on already-existing relationships.

That said, we shouldn’t stop refreshing our company with new talent – the King’s Men brought in hired players (non-shareholders) for every production. Readings are inexpensive ways to meet new artists, and at minimal financial risk, since AEA stipends for readings are $25-40 plus travel.  We use our Free Shakespeare in the Parklet readings to get to know actors we haven’t worked with before or not in a long while. We only have 5 Equity contracts for Free Shakespeare in the Park, but by inviting artists to participate in readings, they know they’re in our thoughts. We can see what skills they have to offer and how they fit with our developing company aesthetic.


Kids watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Children’s Fairyland, Oakland.

Produce new plays, but keep the old. Shakespeare’s audiences apparently liked seeing the same plays done again and again. Sometimes a new writer would spruce up an old favorite with some new material – Thomas Middleton probably added some witch scenes to Macbeth, for example – but the focus was more on having a rotating repertory of different plays every week than on re-imagining new versions of successful productions.

These days, it’s very rare for a regional Shakespeare Theatre to keep a show in the repertory after a season is over. Even if a production is a hit, it disappears never to return – and when the same play does return, it’s staged completely differently by a different director.

At Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s The Taming of the Shrew this season, I sat between a woman who was seeing the production for the third time, and a family who was seeing it for the second – in the same summer. At Free Shakespeare in the Park, I frequently meet people who are seeing the play for the second or third time. I wonder if we’re underestimating our audience’s desire to see – and hear – productions again and again. Of course, we should do new productions – Shakespeare’s company added new plays to the repertory regularly – but with a few exceptions, like Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern or beloved productions of A Christmas Carol that return every year, today’s non-profit theatres no longer have a repertory they can return to again and again. Re-mounts save money and make money – they’re worth exploring.


Hamlet is a pretty good play, I hear. (Carl Holvick-Thomas in the title role.)

Trust the plays. I might be putting myself out of a job by saying this, but in Shakespeare’s time, there were no directors. The playwright gave each actor a “roll,” or rolled-up piece of parchment, on which were copied just their lines and cues. There was very little rehearsal. Actors relied on implied stage directions (“I embrace thee” for example), indications of status, and the relationships they already had with each other to “stage” the plays.

With the rise of spectacle in the Victorian era came the rise of directors. By the 20th century, directors had become the all-powerful decision-makers for every production, and actors, who had been managing theatres and working collectively for centuries, were required to perform according to their preferences. Now each Shakespeare director is expected to put their unique stamp on the play – productions are now called “Taymor’s Titus” and “Zeffirelli’s R&J” rather than Shakespeare’s. It sometimes seems like Shakespeare directors don’t trust the plays for their own merits – they have to propose a unique “concept” for every production. We’re told by marketing studies that our audiences have very short attention spans and might start checking their Twitter feeds if we don’t have enough shiny things to engage them. And maybe deep down we’re afraid we’re a bunch of weird and crazy nerds, nobody except us actually likes Shakespeare, and we have to put a bunch of stuff on stage for people to look at when they can’t understand the words.

We directors can’t lose track of the reason we fell in love with Shakespeare in the first place –  words, words, words. If the audience can’t hear the words, if we direct an actor not to stand when the script says “I stand” because we’ve decided that’s not a unique enough choice, if we’re not there to facilitate the actor-audience connection and getting the heck out of the way the rest of the time, then we’re not serving the art. Besides, stuff costs money – words are free.

AL 2

Actor Alex Lenarsky working in the SF Shakes office.

In defense of stuff: Some kinds of stuff makes it easier for people to do their jobs. It’s always nice to have a computer that isn’t 20 years old. It’s great not to stand in line at the restrooms at intermission, and we all like clean, safe facilities to work in. We can’t build scenery without hammers and screw guns, and we can’t make costumes without sewing machines. Stuff will always be with us, and that’s a good thing.

But if you – may heaven bless you – are planning to make a major contribution to a theatre company, please consider contributing to a salary for an actual person. There are a lot of capital campaigns for buildings, lobbies, bathrooms, and all those tangible material things. Fund-raisers know that it’s easier to get people to donate to solid bricks and mortar than to general operating costs, including the amorphous magic that makes an effective artist. If you want to give to something specific, consider endowing a fellowship for an Equity actor for four months of summer employment – that’s about $12,650 including insurance, benefits, workers comp, payroll taxes, etc. Sure, that actor’s performance won’t be around when you’re gone. It won’t stand there as a monument to your love of the arts forever. But it will provide a lot of people with some wonderful experiences and memories, and you’ll know an artist was compensated for helping to create them. Doesn’t that matter more than a bunch of stuff?

“Good my lord, will you see the players well bestow’d? Do you hear? Let them be well us’d; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” – Hamlet

HOLDING THE MIRROR UP TO NATURE: Casting Shakespeare for Today’s Audiences

A few weeks ago, in our weekly intern company meeting, I did a session about casting. After we went over the basics of headshots, resumes, cover letters, and interview etiquette, I set them a task – cast the 9 major roles of Romeo and Juliet (Romeo, Juliet, Nurse, Friar, Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio) from a large pile of headshots and resumes. The only parameters were that 5 of the actors had to be Equity, 4 non-Equity. I had carefully selected a stack of about 50 of the Bay Area’s top actors. Half were actors of color, and there were equal numbers of men and women.

The 15 students were divided into three groups of 5. Each had to present their choices, then explain them to the rest of the group.

The first group consisted of 5 bright, talented young people – 4 female, one male, all white. The cast they chose was also all white. They cast men in every role except Juliet, Lady Capulet, and the Nurse. When I questioned them why they didn’t think about more racial diversity, or about casting women in some of the men’s roles, they looked startled, then a little sheepish. The young man said, “Oh. Well, we didn’t have much time, so we just did the easy thing.”


I understand where these kids were coming from. As a member of the privileged white upper-middle-class, I know it is all too easy not to examine my choices. It’s way easier to go with my culturally programmed, default mental image of a character than cast someone whose face may not immediately come to mind when I think “Romeo.” But those of us in that privileged position have to stop doing the easy thing. We must pause and reflect. We must say “what if.” We must do this about race, about gender, about body type, about sexual orientation – about everything that makes us different from one another. There’s nowhere that I go in my community where all the people are white, or male, or slender, or straight.  But we all know how many films, TV shows, and plays feature mostly people of that description. This homogenization has affected how we all think – Juliet is forever white and lithe with long flowing hair in many of our minds, regardless of our cultural background. But only a very small number of real 14-year-old girls fit that description. How much more fresh and illuminating can it be to see her portrayed differently?


Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in the new Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet.

At SF Shakes, we feel incredibly lucky to have the audiences we do. Most theatres are dying to attract the kind of age, economic, and racial diversity that we get in our “theatre” every night at Free Shakespeare in the Park. But the diversity of our audience makes it even more critical, and even more urgent, that we start doing a better job of reflecting that audience on stage.

I’ve heard several arguments over the years to explain why theatre companies in general, and Shakespeare companies specifically, don’t cast more diversely. Here are some of the most common:

1. Shakespeare didn’t write enough roles for women/actors of color/deaf actors/you name it. You’re right. He wrote roles for able-bodied white men only, because those were the people allowed to perform on stage while he was alive. At that time, scores of people also died from the plague and thought everyone in the Southern Hemisphere walked upside down. We’ve learned some useful things since then. Besides, I believe Shakespeare wrote great CHARACTERS, to be played by the best actors at his disposal, and if we were alive today, he’d cast differently.

f 20120724_MuchAdo_2250

B. Chico Purdiman as Benedick and Rebecca Kemper as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2012.

There is a core challenge to running a classical theatre – no matter how diversely we cast, at the end of the day, Shakespeare is a dead white guy. As much as I believe that his stories and characters have universal significance and appeal, I know the word “universal” itself is problematic, because it’s usually the white cultural elite who decide what that means.

Let’s be real, there’s some horrible racism in Shakespeare, and some heinous sexism, and we can’t do the plays without tackling that. But here’s the thing – Shakespeare’s dead, but his plays are living texts. There’s a reason they weren’t published at the time they were first performed – they were constantly changing even then. So I feel just as great about casting a female Hamlet as I do about cutting the line “liver of blaspheming Jew” out of Macbeth.

Sarah B

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in 1899. You go, girl.

When I was in high school, I read Hamlet, and something happened. I didn’t relate to Gertrude. I sure as heck didn’t relate to Ophelia. I GOT Hamlet, and if you’d said to me, “but you can’t understand Hamlet, you’re not a guy,” I would have said “yeah, and I’m not Danish either, nor did my uncle kill my dad and marry my mom.” My 16-year-old soul was Hamlet, and that was the role I wanted to play. I think Shakespeare’s words belong to me, and to anyone else who wants to claim them.

2. The audience won’t follow the story if you cast women/actors of color/etc. We have been casting non-traditionally for SF Shakes’ Shakespeare On Tour school and library touring program for 25 years. The kids in the audience, many of whom have never seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare, don’t have any problem figuring out who’s who. I recently saw Beli Sullivan, a female actor of color, play Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Company, utterly convincingly. Audiences want to see well-performed, well-told stories. Directors and producers should not project their own biases on the audience, or assign them prejudices they may not possess. And if they do possess these prejudices, the play becomes a forum in which to confront them.

Beli Sullivan

Safiya Fredericks, Beli Sullivan, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Festival.

3. There aren’t any well-trained classical actors of color/women/etc. I’ve heard this one a lot from white directors – “I’d cast diversely if there were any actors of color with Shakespeare experience.” Where do people get experience? From being cast. Besides, who is judging the talent in this situation? Usually a white director or producer, with that cultural bias I mentioned earlier. “Good classical acting” is in the eye of the privileged. Diversity must be embraced on all levels of the organization – if we’re really going to fight bias, the decision-makers can’t be all from the dominant culture either.

There’s an unspoken, insidious feeling in the Shakespeare community that if you have to cast a woman, it’s because you weren’t able to get a man to play the role- and therefore the show won’t be as good. The fact is, there are dozens of talented, well-trained female actors available for work at any given time in the Bay Area – 50% of the casting pool (see the Counting Actors Project for some statistics of how many are working every month). All creative directors have to do is what players in Shakespeare’s time did in reverse – assume that women can play men’s roles, as much as men can play women’s.

Lisa Wolpe Iago

Lisa Wolpe as Iago in Othello at LA Women’s Shakespeare Company.

4. There just aren’t enough actors of color in the Bay Area. I’ve often heard “I want to cast diversely, so why don’t actors of color come to our auditions?” I’ve felt this often myself. According to the 2011-12 annual report, Actors’ Equity Association’s national membership is approximately 85% white – pretty discouraging if you’re a casting director.

There are a lot of class-related reasons for this disparity – whites are still at the top of the income bracket, and when upper- and upper-middle-class kids go to college, their parents can house and feed them while they take unpaid internships at non-profit arts organizations, or support them through the early desperate years as young performers. The result is an artistic elite – largely white, largely college-educated, often subsidized by mom and dad – and fewer actors of color in the casting pool. There are cultural reasons as well – if there are no actors of color on stage, non-white audience members don’t see themselves represented, and it may never occur to talented young people that this is something they can really do.

Hi-Rez-postcard photo

Armando McClain as Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare on Tour 2010.

Does that let producers off the hook? No. I spoke to a few Bay Area actors of color who feel discouraged to audition for many companies, ours included, based on what they’ve seen us produce. As one actor said, many actors of color feel they can work more if they head to LA or New York, instead of waiting around for the obligatory August Wilson or David Henry Hwang piece.

We have a responsibility as cultural leaders to make sure our stages represent the population of the Bay Area – not only to reflect our audience, but to demonstrate that artistic expression is a basic human right, and that careers in the arts are open to all.


Mia Tagano as Olivia, Stephen Klum as Feste in Twelfth Night, Free Shakespeare in the Park 2004.

So enough excuses –  besides reflecting our audience and pursuing social justice, here’s the most important reason to cast diversely:

1. It’s better for the art. As Hamlet says, “holding the mirror up to nature” is the right thing to do. It’s also essential to the work itself. Actors with varied life experiences bring different perspectives on the text, stories and characters. We’ve been performing Shakespeare’s plays for over 400 years. Would we still be performing them if we insisted on all-male casts, if they were only allowed to be performed on London’s South Bank with a permit from the Queen, or if they were never translated into other languages? I doubt it. Constantly looking at the plays from new angles has kept them alive and flexible.

JuliusC_007 RSC Julius Caesar

Top: Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar. Bottom: The RSC’s African Julius Caesar.

When I consider an actor for a role, I’m looking at so many things – the timbre of their voice, the way they move, the way their face expresses emotion, the way the atmosphere changes when they make a choice, the way they engage with the other actors on stage. Race, gender, size, and physical ability are all a part of this. There is no such thing as “race and gender-blind” casting. ALL casting means something, and one must always be mindful of what it means. Actors, as soon as they get up on stage, acquire a set of quotation marks – they are symbols. Their physicalities, their voices, their mannerisms all become a set of signals that the audience responds to, as each member of that audience projects his or her experience onto that actor. It is “easier” to identify with someone who looks, sounds, and acts like you. But it expands your humanity and deepens your empathy to identify with someone who looks nothing like you. (Bitter Gertrude has a great blog post on this topic.)

Can a person of color identify with a white actor? Of course. Can a woman identify with a man? Sure. They do it all the time. But let’s ALL try doing it, say 50% of the time.


Alex Lenarsky as Celia and Maria Giere Marquis as Rosalind in Impact Theatre’s As You Like It.

Here’s the thing – if we really believe that Shakespeare is for everyone (and at SF Shakes we do, passionately), white directors and producers like myself can’t stand up on stage as privileged arbiters of taste, passing down wisdom from our enlightened perch like beneficial medicine. This will only contribute to the perception of Shakespeare as elite and difficult to understand – a problem that certainly didn’t exist 150 years ago, when even the most illiterate prospector in the West knew a bit of Shakespeare by heart. If we want a better world with more equality for all, we must show women in positions of power. We must show people of color as fully developed, multi-faceted humans instead of stereotypes. We must hire actors of all shapes, sizes, and physical abilities, representing all the great diversity we see around us in the real world. Staging Shakespeare as living texts, constantly evolving over 400 years of history, gives us that opportunity.

Richard 12

Radhika Rao as Brakenbury, Ryan Tasker as Clarence in Richard III, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

We’re practicing some mindful casting with the Free Shakespeare in the Parklet program this summer. We have 50% men and 50% women in the Parklet shows, and 40% actors of color – up from 30% last year. Our upcoming Shakespeare On Tour production of “Julius Caesar” has a rotating cast of 12, 58% women and 42% actors of color. And we’re making a commitment to build on this for all our productions to come. We will strive to improve gender parity and diversity on stage in future seasons, with the goal of 50% men, 50% women, and 50% actors of color in our casts. And we’ll embrace diversity offstage as well – I’ll get off this soapbox regularly to make way for our Resident Artists, who have varied backgrounds and nuanced ideas of their own about Shakespeare, social justice, and theatre.

Julius Caesar 1

Maryssa Wanlass as Casca and Melissa Keith as Cassius in Julius Caesar, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

Remember that casting exercise I did with the intern company? The next two groups took a good look at their “Romeo and Juliet” casts. When they presented their nine actors, they had women playing roles like Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Mercutio and actors of color playing Romeo and Lord Capulet. They explained their casting in thoughtful ways – instead of “She just looks like a Juliet. She’s so pretty,” or “He was the only old guy we could find, so he has to be the Friar,” they said things like “I had a class with her and she’s so wise. She’d be a great Friar Laurence,” and “His cover letter is so passionate about Shakespeare and he’s done stage combat – he’d be a perfect Romeo.” They were looking harder, thinking creatively, and moving past what was “easy.”

“Put not yourself into amazement how these things should be: all difficulties are but easy when they are known.” – Measure for Measure


Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest.

Rogues and Vagabonds: Pop-up Shakespeare and the history of performance

Over the last two weekends, we’ve been performing “pop-up Shakespeare” in unexpected locations in Cupertino and San Francisco, as part of the Free Shakespeare in the Parklet project. This is the first time we’ve performed pop-ups anywhere but SF, and I had some trepidation about moving outside the “only in San Francisco” bubble. I imagined suburban police officers with little else to do arresting us all in front of the library, for “vagrancy and incendiary speech-making.”

Maybe I’ve just been reading too much. The latest entry on my summer book list is Nigel Cliff’s “The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America.” I absolutely love its vividly imagined descriptions of what it was like to be an actor and theatre-maker in the two and a half centuries after Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Riots

As Cliff tells it, two hundred years ago, theatre really mattered, and Shakespeare mattered the most. In defiance of the French and German dramas preferred by the upper classes of 18th-century London, middle-class theatrical entrepreneurs reclaimed Shakespeare as England’s native son, deeply populist, a playwright the man on the street could understand. Regular working-class and middle-class people filled the theatres every night. Theatres were part social club, part political gathering, part artistic entertainment. At Drury Lane or Covent Garden, audiences might encounter prostitutes roaming freely among the seats, picnics spread out in the galleries, and plenty of fist-fights. Many times, the tragedy on stage was drowned out completely by the noise from the audience. The next day, fights broke out in the streets about favorite actors, favorite plays, even favorite line readings.

Theatre riot 1763

Theatre riot, 1700s.

Actors and theatre-makers were so influential, so capable of inciting strong feelings, that they had to be stopped. Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s 1737 censorship law, the Licensing Act, reads:

…every person who shall, for hire, gain or reward, act, represent or perform, or cause to be acted, represented or performed any interlude, tragedy, comedy, opera, play, farce or other entertainment of the stage, or any part or parts therein, in case such person shall not have any legal settlement in the place where the same shall be acted, represented or performed without authority by virtue of letters patent from His Majesty, his heirs, successors or predecessors, or without license from the Lord Chamberlain… shall be deemed to be a rogue and a vagabond… and shall be liable and subject to all such penalties and punishments…

Actresses 1700s

Actresses preparing, 1700s.

Victorianism eventually managed to repress the audience’s boisterous behavior – according to Cliff, Queen Victoria herself chose spectacle over Shakespeare and preferred French melodramas to the native theatre – and the Shakespeare revival died out in England. However, in the 1830’s, Shakespeare was reclaimed and newly adored in America, and again the audiences were full of ordinary people relating to the all-too-human characters. African-Americans in particular embraced Shakespeare over other playwrights, with companies of Black actors performing the Bard to sold-out theatres like New York’s African Grove Theatre – where non-Blacks sat in a cordoned-off section in the back of the house. As Cliff puts it:

Every year, on the Fourth of July, America bonded around fiery rhetoric about its heroic struggle against the English tyrant, and every year Shakespeare was paraded, not as an example of England’s cultural dominance, but as an enlightened ally of the American dream.

Ira Aldridge

African-American star Ira Aldridge..

Being an actor in 18th and 19th century England and America was a dangerous profession – you were alternately celebrated and reviled, you lived on pennies per day, you might roam from town to town by covered wagon or steamship complete with all the hardships of the frontier. If you were an African-American actor, you were in danger of being attacked by a white mob after the show. There was nothing safe or comfortable about working in the theatre.  In some ways, this is still true – stereotypes of performers are alive and well, and lord knows we still survive on pennies per day (adjusted for inflation) – but thanks to Actors’ Equity Association and standards of ethics for theatre managers, there are at least comforts like travel stipends and health insurance.

But these days, theatre-goers in America have become a little bit like the Victorians. We spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to big-budget Broadway spectacles while neglecting the little theatre doing new plays just down the street. If a good play incites strong feelings, it would be very bad form to get into a fist fight at intermission – or even a passionate argument. When we enter one of the plush theatres downtown, we’re pleasantly enveloped in sotto voce conversation, greeted by courteous ushers, and given the hairy eyeball if we let loose with an unseemly guffaw. Thankfully, many theatres lately have relaxed enough to let us bring in a glass of wine and a cookie, but heaven forbid we arrive with a roast chicken and sausages. It’s a lot more civilized, but it’s kind of sterile. It’s a little too safe. It’s a little too comfortable.

Richard 2

Curious passers-by in Cupertino.

With Free Shakespeare in the Park, at least there’s no problem with the roast chicken. We remove as many barriers to attendance as possible, but I still see people stand at a distance, or sit at picnic tables far off to the side, as if what we’re doing isn’t for them. They didn’t know about it in advance, or they didn’t get there at 6 am to set up their blankets, or, like one woman I met in Cupertino last Sunday, they’re convinced that this MUST cost money that they won’t be able to pay.


Galen Murphy-Hoffman with Parklet audience members in San Francisco.

We started Free Shakespeare in the Parklet partially to remove those final barriers. You’re in the audience before you have time to worry about it. You can still walk away, but the stakes are low – you don’t have to find a seat, bring a picnic, plan anything at all. It just happens, and you happen to be there. It lasts 10-15 minutes, then it’s done and you move on. But hopefully you’ve heard something interesting – maybe it jogged a memory or created one, maybe it was just a little unexpected delight. Maybe you’ll come back for Macbeth, because hey, that was pretty easy to understand. Or maybe it was an annoyance! Maybe your day has been interrupted by stupid actors popping up and preventing you from getting your morning coffee unmolested. Maybe we aren’t doing it right unless there’s someone out there who calls us rogues and vagabonds and thinks we’re a terrible influence.


Galen Murphy-Hoffman and Leighland Hooks in Doctor Faustus.

These last two weekends, we’ve brought scenes from Doctor Faustus and Richard III to Cupertino and San Francisco. In the first (on the theme of “Sorcery”), Faustus rejects philosophy, medicine, and religion in favor of magic, and makes his choice sound very appealing. Right in front of Cupertino Library and Grace Cathedral, he called on the powers of darkness to send him the demon Mephistophilis.


Galen Murphy-Hoffman as Faustus.

As the director of the scene, one of my goals was to reach kids who are deeply interested in the battle between good and evil, as in their beloved Harry Potter, and want to see plays with life and death at stake. I loved watching the kids in the audience in Cupertino suddenly notice Mephistophilis creeping up from far away down the street – they pointed, and squealed, and whispered amongst themselves.

Nobody got arrested.

Faustus 11

Cupertino Library audience.

In the Richard III scene (on the theme of “Skullduggery”), the Duke of Clarence has just had a terrible nightmare. He did some pretty awful things to put his brother Edward on the throne, and it’s payback time. Watching the scene on a Sunday morning, I was struck by its deep debate about sin and forgiveness. Like Macbeth, the scene struggles with the concept of Equivocation –  is it okay to do evil if you’re doing it under orders from someone higher up the food chain? Is it okay to commit murder in the name of a righteous cause? Is there a Heaven, and if so, who gets to go there?

Richard 11

Radhika Rao and Ryan Tasker in Richard III.

Richard III popped up in Cupertino right in front of a popular local brunch place. Some of the diners beat a hasty exit, dragging away spouses who looked back over their shoulders as long as possible. Others stayed, laughed, clapped, and asked us questions afterwards. The children especially watched wide-eyed and fascinated by the story unfolding in front of them, too young to know that this sort of thing is supposed to be an expensive indoor activity, observed safely from the dark in your comfy velvet seat.

Nobody got arrested.

Richard 15

Tristan Cunningham, Brian Herndon, and Radhika Rao in Richard III.

This coming Saturday, July 27 at noon in Cupertino’s Memorial Park, we’ll be performing another bit of Skullduggery, a delightful scene from Measure for Measure, in which the young criminal Pompey does some community service to work off his sentence. He’s apprenticed to the taciturn, intimidating executioner Abhorson, and the two of them are charged with a difficult task – behead the notorious Barnardine, who has decided that he is not in the mood to be executed today. Measure for Measure has a dark, edgy humor that anticipates Macbeth’s Porter scene, and will feature our production’s Porter, Bill Rogue, as Barnardine.


Bill Rogue as the Porter.

Look for us on the playground near the set of Macbeth. We’ll be the vagabonds, the roaming players, believing that theatre still matters, Shakespeare still matters, and that he’s still America’s playwright and the voice of the people.

Sorcery and Skullduggery: The Return of Free Shakespeare in the Parklet

In 2012, to commemorate SF Shakes’ 30th anniversary of performing Free Shakespeare in the Park in San Francisco, we devised a unique celebration – 30 separate performances of scenes from 30 of Shakespeare’s plays in small parks all over San Francisco– primarily “parklets,” green spaces devised from parking spaces in front of cafes and restaurants. The performances were designed to “pop up” – that is, they were announced only on Facebook and Twitter, and most of the people who encountered them weren’t aware they were about to happen. Suddenly, during the lunch hour, the afternoon commute, or weekend brunch hours, our performers would begin a scene from Shakespeare – about ten minutes long and designed to be self-contained, so that passers-by unfamiliar with the play could still understand what was going on.

At the end of each performance, we announced what had just happened and passed out flyers for Free Shakespeare in the Park. Then we dashed back to the office to post photos on Facebook – not only did we have fans seeing the performances live, we also had a virtual audience following the shows only through the on-line photographs.

JC 8

Gabriel McCulloch in Julius Caesar at City Hall.

From the end of July through the end of August, we performed almost daily, using about 75 performers of all ages and backgrounds, including Shakespeare campers, interns, and union professionals. We capped it all off on the 30th day with a community reading of “O for a Muse of Fire” around a bonfire on Ocean Beach, to which all were invited – performers, fans, audience, and a few refugees from another bonfire who happened upon our group.


Henry V Bonfire at Ocean Beach.

Speaking as the one person who attended every performance and directed a majority of them, it was glorious, it was thrilling, it was a little bit dangerous – everything live theatre should be. It was also exhausting. When asked whether Free Shakespeare in the Parklet will be back again this year, I’ve said yes – but not 30 of them!

How could we not repeat such an exciting and successful experience? And, while repeating it, how could we not attempt to build and improve upon what we’ve done before?

20120720_Shrew_MissionPlayground (3)

Jason Kapoor in The Taming of the Shrew at Mission Playground.

This year, we are in the process of planning a total of 15 performances of 9 scenes, plus a communal reading. Three scenes will appear only in San Francisco. Three scenes will appear in both SF and Cupertino. Three scenes will appear in both SF and Redwood City. “Thrice to thine and thrice to mine/And thrice again to make up nine,” as the Wayward Sisters chant in Macbeth. The scenes will revolve around the theme of “Sorcery and Skullduggery” in order to further explore the themes of witchcraft and crime in Macbeth. We will include two of the plays we didn’t get to perform last year – Titus Andronicus and Henry VI Part 1 – and also explore three plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, and The Witch by Thomas Middleton.

f 20120830_4184

Stephen Pawley* in Cymbeline at Cafe Seventy8.

The plays will be presented in roughly chronological order of the time of writing, beginning with Marlowe’s game-changing Doctor Faustus. Christopher Marlowe is an endlessly intriguing character, a sort of cross between Stephen Spielberg and James Bond. Unlike Shakespeare, he was a University man, a graduate of Cambridge. He went from there to London, where from 1587 to 1593, he turned out an incredible string of successful shows before he was killed at age twenty-nine, including The Jew of Malta, Edward II, Tamburlaine Parts 1 and 2, and Doctor Faustus.


Christopher Marlowe and his fabulous hair.

Not content merely to transform English playwriting, he seems to have also been a secret agent for the Crown, quite possibly spying on English Catholics abroad. While on the one hand he worked for the Queen, on the other he ran into trouble with the Privy Council for “seditious behavior” including atheism. Shortly after he received a visit from Sir Thomas Walsingham about these charges, he was “accidentally” killed in a tavern brawl. Historians have wondered ever since if this wasn’t a little too much of a coincidence.

Arguably, without Marlowe, there would have been no Shakespeare. My favorite kooky authorship theory asserts that in fact, they were the same person – Marlowe wasn’t murdered, but lived, only to disguise himself as the other playwright for the rest of his life.


Marlowe took the new iambic pentameter verse style that poets such as Sir Philip Sidney had explored in sonnets, and gave it to actors to speak on the stage. As it turned out, iambic pentameter suited the stage very well. In Marlowe’s hands, it had a muscular drive and structure that sounded as natural as a heartbeat. As Bernard Beckerman notes in his introduction to “Five Plays of the English Renaissance”:

Marlowe brought a stunning theatricality to the public playhouse. It was a theatricality that infused both language and action. In the few years leading to the appearance of Tamburlaine, English dramatic style became set, and Marlowe did much to set it. For more than thirty years before him, English playwrights and poets had experimented with stage speech… sometime in the mid-1580s Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd along with him, vitalized blank verse and stormed the stage with it. Whichever of these two men first showed the way, it was Marlowe with his mighty line who hypnotized the London audience.


Doctor Faustus at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.

Of the top four hits of the London stage between 1588 and 1593, two were by Marlowe – Faustus and the number one hit The Jew of Malta. With these plays and others, Marlowe not only transformed the language of playwriting, he also brought to the stage the Renaissance incarnation of the tragic hero, a man caught between the sacred and the secular. As Faustus sells his soul to the devil, we can see the temptation – he has mastered the other arts and sciences, why not the occult as well? Marlowe makes Faustus’ thirst for knowledge appealing and understandable – as Beckerman says, “That he succumbs to powers greater than his own does not demean his attempt.”

The connections to Macbeth, written a decade and a half later, are clear – not only in the two plays’ shared concern with the occult, but in their ambitious heroes. As with the witches in Macbeth, it’s easy to imagine Elizabethan audiences fearing that Faustus was really calling on dark powers. Even now, his spells send chills down the spine. As he gleefully enjoys the spoils of his new-found power, we feel, as we do with Macbeth, that his comeuppance will be as terrible as his power is glorious.

Macbeth 9

Phil Lowery in Macbeth at the Transamerica Redwood Park.

We will present a cutting of the first two scenes of Doctor Faustus this Saturday, July 13, at 12:30 pm in front of the Cupertino Library, and about a week later at an SF location to be announced, featuring Galen Murphy-Hoffman*, Leighland Hooks, Madeline Knutson, and Emily Nappi. (*Member, Actors’ Equity Association)


Our second scene is from Shakespeare’s early history play The Tragedy of Richard III. Taken from Act I, scene 4, it is an exquisite little one-act all by itself. In it, Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, has been imprisoned in the Tower – he thinks by their oldest brother King Edward, but it’s really due to Richard’s machinations. Clarence pours his heart out to the Master of the Tower, Brakenbury – he’s had a terrible nightmare and cannot sleep, he’s so guilt-ridden over the deaths of the people he killed to get Edward to the throne. It’s all very ominous – it reminds one of Macbeth’s “Sleep no more”– and sure enough, as soon as Clarence is asleep, two murderers appear. And here the play turns deftly from poetic lyricism to comic repartee. One murderer is reluctant, so the other must convince him. Just as Clarence has reflected on mortality, so do the two clowns, until Clarence wakes up and the deed must be done.

Richard III was written in approximately 1592, as a sequel of sorts to the Henry VI trilogy of blockbusters. (We in the 21st century like our superhero movies – for the Elizabethans, the Tudors and Plantagenets were the big box office draw.) Although Richard III is often compared unfavorably to the great tragedies that followed, it is full of delicious scenes and memorable characters.

Richard 9

Ryan Tasker* and Alexandra Creighton in Richard III at Pizzeria Delfina.

Richard III will be performed at the Oaks Shopping Center in Cupertino, by the big oak in front of Dance Academy USA, at 11:00 am on Sunday, July 14, and on Saturday, July 20 in San Francisco, location TBA. It will feature Ryan Tasker*, Radhika Rao, Tristan Cunningham*, and Brian Herndon*. (*Member, Actors’ Equity Association)

Watch this blog, follow us on Facebook or @sfshakes on Twitter for more information about upcoming Free Shakespeare in the Parklet scenes popping up near you – we hope to see you there!