Ask Philippa: Much Ado About Nothing Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

Much Ado About Nothing, written at the end of the 16th century adjacent to Hamlet and Twelfth Night, is a fascinating concoction of merriment and betrayal, sorrow and surprise. Under the leadership of our new Artistic Director, Eric Ting, classical works become new works, seen on our stage as if for the first time. In her evocation of Shakespeare’s busy port town of Messina, where the classes jostle, everyone eavesdrops, and nothing is as it seems, Director Jackson Gay has created a special frame for our Cal Shakes production. Much Ado, in her hands, provokes intriguing questions about the roles that are assigned to us, the roles that others think we should play, the roles that are taken away from us, and those that we might hold as dreams deep inside. Come join us – and when you get home, write and tell me what you think!


Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at, or post below to ask her a question.


21 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: Much Ado About Nothing Edition

  1. Think I just erased my comments so trying again – sorry for duplication.

    Season ticket holder with Dorothy Henson. Attended 3rd preview 5/27 of “Much Ado”
    Found the set too bare, almost boring, needing something to pump it up.
    No problem with cast genders but costumes more gender-specific to the role being played would have been helpful to us. Spent too much time trying to identify character and losing dialogue
    The acting, as usual, was superb – they really are fabulous and we are so fortunate too be able to enjoy their work. Thank you, Nancy Dill

  2. Dear Philippa,

    I was wondering about Messina in this version of the play. In Shakespeare’s original, Messina was a busy port city, a place for people of all classes and cultures to meet and live together. In this interpretation, Messina was a catering company, a specific group of people and therefore not as open or inclusive. I’m interested to know if this was a conscious choice and if so what was the director’s intention. If it was not intentional, I’d like to know what you think about how this choice changes the meaning of Shakespeare’s work and what it might be saying about our world today?

    • Hello Hannah,
      It’s quite an inventive switch to have ‘Messina Catering Company’, isn’t it!! Did you feel that the setting wasn’t as open or busy as a port town would be? I think it provided a way in so that the frame – the highlighting of roles and role-playing – could allow the caterers to take on roles from the wedding that has gone on in the background. So the busyness is all going on in the cries and shouts and music you hear faintly going on in the background as the play begins.

  3. Dear Philippa,

    I just watched the film version directed by Joss Whedon with my daughter before seeing this play. I thought it was interesting how different the two interpretations were but both felt overwhelmingly claustrophobic to me. Both interpretations kept the sets limited to a house and its backyard. All the players seemed to constantly pop up as if they all live in the same house. I felt like they really couldn’t escape. It seems like a strange mood/tone for a comedy about wealthy people in love. Is this feeling of claustrophobia reflected in the original play? Was this Shakespeare’s intention? I’ve never read the play myself so I’d be thrilled to know!

    • Hello Page,
      The idea of the close-set relationships – people spying on each other and eavesdropping – is very much in keeping with Shakespeare’s play. The irony is that no matter how closely we watch and how intently we listen, we humans so often miscommunicate with each other. Because, so often, we are watching and listening for WHAT WE WANT TO SEE OR HEAR!

  4. Hi Philippa,
    Do you think the frame of the play (where all the “characters” are played by waiters) changes the class dynamics of the play? To me, it could be read an an interpretation of lower class discontent as they retell the story while cleaning up the results of upper class frivolity. Thanks!

    • Yes, Kyle, I think this is true, and a lovely, observant comment. Why DO rich people get to play on the world stage just because they are born wealthy? For example, why does (or did) Paris Hilton fill The News of the World? Is there anything special about her – or Tori Spelling – that makes them worthy of being seen aside from their money? It’s also ironic that wealth is not a meritocracy in terms of sheer ability: the wealthy and even the talented (Claudio is clearly a talented soldier) don’t seem to understand themselves or each other any better by virtue of their privilege.

  5. Hello Philippa,

    There seemed to be a lot of music in the play. Were all the songs in the original play or were they created for this performance?

  6. The play is full of songs, Emily, but some new ones were written for this show. Did you like the mix? (Also, verse is a kind-of song – another kind of musicality)

  7. Hi Philippa!
    Can you tell me why Dogberry was cut do much? He’s my favorite character and I kind of missed him on stage?

    • Hi Carolina,

      It was an interesting process with Dogberry. Basically when we first started rehearsing he was cut to the bone – we then brought him back so that he has the chance for the run-up to his glorious revelation of the mistakes of the higher-ups. But I think the main reason for not having much of the exposition in which he acts like his own director of the action is that Anthony Fusco, who plays Dogberry, plays an organizational/directorial role in the initial scene with the caterers (he does it AS a caterer). BTW one thing I love about Dogberry is that he is one of those marvelous Shakespeare fools/clowns, who tip the action sideways so that we see ‘truth’ in new and unexpected ways. I hope it is not too self-advertize-y to say that in my book, THE KING AND I I have a whole chapter on the role of the fool in Lear and in society, including families.

  8. Hi Katie,

    Cross gender casting is such an intriging concept as we use it today. In Shakespeare’s time, actors ran around cross-gendered all the time for the purposes of stagecraft. (No women were permitted on his stage). But today we are asking the question quite directly: why must I play the role I am assigned by birth? Who says that this is who I am inside just because my organs group me on one side of the binary or the other? So I think cross-gender casting can beautifully highlight the artifice of some of the features of our humanness that we otherwise think are transparent or ‘natural’.

  9. Hi Phillipa ! A little off-topic but when are the Fences Grove Talks ? wanna buy my tix on the right day.

    • Hello Lee,

      The Fences grove talks will as usual be right before the show – so they’ll begin 45 minutes prior to curtain.

      • Yes—I meant which nights are you giving the talks? We always make sure to buy tix to the show’s you’re speaking at.

        • hello Lee,
          Artistic Director Eric Ting will be giving all the grove talks for Fences – so you’ll have a chance to meet him!

  10. I saw Much Ado About Nothing last night (June 12, 2016) and really enjoyed the performance and production. With respect to the cross gender casting, I found that the women playing men generally believable, and I had no problem reading them as masculine. I think the cross gender casting illuminated the roles in a unique way.

    Maybe this is just me, but I perceived the men playing women as homosexual / gay and not feminine, which I found ultimately confusing and detracted from the experience. While it was interesting for me to consider the implications of a gay character in the play, my guess is that this is not what the director or actors had in mind (especially since no one else mentioned it in the Q&A sessions). Was this just me?

  11. Hello David,

    You might remember that at the talkback last night, actor Lance Gardner said that actors aren’t there to tell audiences ‘the right way’ to think – actors are there to evoke, to inspire, to provoke complex and sometimes baffling thoughts and feelings. Then I added, ‘to make audiences swim in the murky pool of ambiguity.’ And I love that you had the thoughtfulness to write in about your swim in the pool, and that you have mentioned your understandings about what ‘looks/sounds/feels gay’ and what ‘looks/sounds/feels believably feminine’, and how this affected the way you responded to the portrayal of the female characters by men. As humans, we are such an intricately orchestrated compilation of reactions and responses, formed over years and years and years. We shift and change – but we build our understandings or impressions on top of layers and layers of ingrained ‘schooling’ about what the various aspects of our humanness look like and how to interpret them. I gather that the cross-gender acting by Jim and Lance shifted your understanding of what the roles can be: and that it confused you somewhat. Is this a good thing? You took away enough perplexity to write – to answer impression/reaction with more thought about what ‘gay’ means to you and what ‘feminine’ means to you. I see this as a good thing. I’d love to get your further thoughts if you feel moved to write further.

    • Thank you so much for such a thoughtful reply. I was wondering last night about whether the actors could achieve a more clearly feminine and not gay affect. And I wondered about how hard this was to do without any make up or similar effects to help with the illusion. Then I started wondering: “But wait, is this just me perceiving the acting this way? Is this saying more about me than the acting or direction?” And so I wondered if it was just me perceiving the ambiguity there. It’s dark down here in the murky pool.

      I know there is this “thing” about not asking an artist “What does it mean?” Maybe that is a thing because it destroys the creative freedom we each have in the audience to find unique meaning for ourselves in that ambiguity. But still, I can’t help wondering – was the director intentionally going for a gay affectation, or at least some level of ambiguity there, or was that something I was uniquely bringing to this? I guess I wonder because that would help illuminate something about me. Not that there must be an answer.

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