Did you miss Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue on The Impact of Toxic Masculinity in Society, tied to our production of Othello? Read this reflection from our panelist Anthony J. Williams on coming to un-learn gender myths, bringing questions of power and privilege to a 400-year old text, and making these conversations accessible to broad audiences:
When a nonbinary trans woman named Lauren told her fellow audience members that she felt “like masculinity wasted so much of [her] life,” there was a definitive weight to her words. The conversation began as part of a post-show panel following director Eric Ting’s well-executed #LoveHateOthello at California Shakespeare Theatre. I was one of the panelists for “The Construction of Gender: The Impact of Toxic Masculinity in Society,” a free civic dialogue with folks in the community and theatre-goers. Sikander Iqbal (cis heterosexual man of color), Ariel Luckey (cis heterosexual white man), Michal “MJ” Jones (non-binary Black trans person) and I brought our very different, but complementary voices to discuss masculinities with a small audience after the Saturday matinée of this theatrical production of Othello. Eric Ting, Cal Shakes’ artistic director, moderated the conversation.
The conversation didn’t start with such powerful words, however. Lauren’s contribution was juxtaposed by a comment from an older white man who said the equivalent of “not all men” and a white woman who grew up in Puerto Rico wishing that she was Black. In meeting the audience where they were in regards to vocabulary for this conversation, I asked the audience what words they associated with masculinity. Many folks used words like “destruction,” “power,” “war,” and “strength.” I also explained the difference between cis and trans.However, the audience was already primed by the subject of discussion: toxic masculinity. A few folks in the audience took issue with the negative framing of masculinities that we took from the start.
However, when discussing a play written by a prolific white man in the 1600s about a Black man who kills his white wife, discussing toxic masculinities is important. We must question what it means that “Othello the Moor” is portrayed as a violent Black warlord, and his white wife as a battered woman. Add to that an election season where a cis heterosexual white supremacist has awakened deplorable Americans to incite violence against migrants, Muslims, and many more groups of human beings. #LoveHateOthello’s Brechtian directing style of speaking directly to the audience and agitating them connected the snippets of Trump speeches interspersed throughout the production to the Islamophobia that is old as the tale of Othello “the Moor.” The 400 year old story about race, Islamophobia, and empire addresses what we are still facing today. These circumstances require a focus on how we address the negative aspects of masculinity that are literally killing us.
Anthony J. Williams (he/him/his pronouns) is from Vacaville, CA and currently lives in Oakland, CA. He graduated from UC Berkeley in Spring 2016 as a Mellon Mays Fellow (Sociology major, Theatre & Performance Studies minor). His senior honors thesis examined the relationship between #BlackLivesMatter organizers, self care, collective care, and liberation. He is a writer, researcher, and organizer and intends to obtain a PhD in Sociology & Africana Studies. Anthony’s work has been published in The Independent, East Bay Express, Black Girl Dangerous, Masculinities 101, and more. He is also an actor/director and has worked with Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre, Playground-SF, and BrickaBrack. Anthony is a proud Black queer man whose lifetime goal is to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression such as heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. You can follow him on twitter (@anthoknees), where he popularized the hashtags #MasculinitySoFragile and #BlackWomenDidThat.
Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series seeks to explore the intersections between theater and civic practice. Through facilitated dialogues with community organizations and presentations of work by community-based and Cal Shakes Artists, we hope to explore how theater can be a tool for highlighting voices of marginalized communities and for igniting change.
Check out recaps of our other 2016 Civic Dialogues:
A patron wrote to us saying they’d enjoyed the first show in our 2016 season, Much Ado About Nothing—but a friend who had also attended found real harm in a portrayal that many in the audience took for a laugh.
What followed was an examination of impact, intent, transphobia, cis privilege, gender stereotypes, and the responsibility of the audience, the artist, and the arts institution in responding to and representing identities on the margins.
It started with an email, but continued with a conversation. Stream, download, or read the transcript below to join in.
For clarity on gender-related terminology used in the conversation (i.e. “pronoun,” “cisgender,” “transition”), we recommend GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide.
“Blindness” is used later in the conversation to refer to gaps in knowledge and to nontraditional casting around race and gender. Use of this term these ways is considered ableist by many disability rights advocates.
Would you like to hear similar conversations about audience reactions and artistic choices through our 2017 season? Let us know!
ERIC: Hi everyone.
ERIC: We are here in part because—oh, this is Eric. Let’s go ahead and introduce ourselves. So I’m going to say my name. I’m gonna, so I’ll just, I’ll set it up: name, sort of, preferred personal pronoun, and, I guess, I don’t know, affiliated, what is your, like if you are here—what is your affiliation with Much Ado About Nothing? How about we put it that way?
CORDELIA: That works, cool.
ERIC: So my name is Eric. I am the Artistic Director of California Shakespeare Theatre. We have recently produced Much Ado About Nothing as the opening show of our season.
ERIC: Oh! Preferred personal pronoun: he, him, his.
CORDELIA: My name is Cordelia. I’m a patron of Cal Shakes and saw Much Ado About Nothing. Pronoun: she, her, hers.
LANCE: I’m Lance Gardner. I was an actor in the production of MuchAdo About Nothing. He. Him. His.
LISA: I’m Lisa. I’m the Associate Director of Artistic Engagement at California Shakespeare Theater and pronouns are they, them, and theirs.
ERIC: Great. So we’re here as part of, as a pilot of a new idea that we’d like to do here at Cal Shakes, which is an effort to, sort of, continue conversations around issues that arise around plays that we produce at the California Shakespeare Theater. We think of this as an opportunity to kind of create a learning experience for our audiences, especially in situations where we institutionally are also sort of experiencing our own learning processes, as well.
I’m relatively new. I’m just gonna give some background information, then I’m gonna shut up for a while. [GROUP LAUGHS] I’m relatively new to Cal Shakes. And to be quite frank I’m relatively new to this work that we’re surfacing here this morning. It’s something that—it was not something that we encountered a great deal at my old theater, Long Wharf Theatre.
But it’s something that I’ve grown, sort of, have grown to be a great supporter of but I am also very aware that I am personally, as noted just a moment ago, I’m still trying to, just trying to figure out, sort of—I’m learning, I’m still learning. So, one of the things that we’re here to do is in part because this is an issue that was raised.
So the background information, you all know this—or I think to a greater or lesser degree—but the background to this is that we, in our previous production of Much Ado About Nothing, there were some casting choices made in effort to put forward a theme of Much Ado About Nothing, which is specifically that we, we wear many faces in front of people that we don’t know versus the people that we do know. And that part of the thing that I know the director was trying to explore was not just the question of gender fluidity, but also just the question of identity and how do we perform identity, which is a theme I think that we’re encountering as we’re moving through this season.
And so choices were made specifically in the production to change gender, to change, I guess, how else would you put it? The big choices revolved around specific gender choices of actors playing characters and the sort of most immediate and obvious one in the production, was the choice to put, have a male actor play Beatrice and a female actor play Benedick.
And then because of the conceit of the production, which was essentially a small company of caterers retelling the story of Much Ado About Nothing, there was a kind of theatrical convention of actors playing multiple roles. And then what’s, what’s come up in the last, what came up sort of moving into the preview process was a concern centering around one specific portrayal, but I’m hoping that we’ll expand that conversation beyond just that particular role and actually to have a conversation around the play as a whole. I’m hoping.
But questions of intention and impact. Sort of like, what is the intention of the artist and the choice, on some level, and then similarly and equally, what was the impact of that choice on some audiences? And as a result, we felt the need to explore how we could institutionally engage in a discourse around this issue. And I’ve invited you all to come here to the office to have a conversation today about it in the hopes that we can just sort of like be in a room and talk about this thing. Cuz I think you wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case or if that wasn’t the hope. Certainly for me as well. And I wanna see this as an opportunity to just, again to learn and to engage in a true discourse about, sort of, and this is a question that comes up a lot for me, I think, around artistic choices.
It’s something that I, you know, I’ve dealt with to a lesser degree as a producer. And I imagine I will be dealing more with, now that I am an artistic director. [GROUP LAUGHS]
So Lisa had some prompt questions that I thought were fantastic, but I don’t know if we want to start from there, do you feel? Or if we want to just dive into the conversation.
LISA: Yeah, so, kind of, I think for me—kind of where I wanted to start in general was like to actually just name in the room what kind of depictions of gender and gender presentation and gender identity that folks read on stage. Cuz I think, even in conversations that I had with Eric and conversations with a friend who is a transfeminine person, when we went to see the show, and then was debriefing with Eric, he was like, that is literally something I never would have saw in this show. Which was very much from like a queer and trans and non-binary perspective of like, gender things! And so I kind of actually want to just start from there and actually talk about what depictions folks saw on stage. If that makes sense as a prompt.
LANCE: Sure. Yeah. I don’t—I would be interested to hear your perspectives since I did not have an outside perspective. [GROUP LAUGHS]
LISA: Fair, fair!
CORDELIA: Yeah, and I think that, I mean, of the four of us I was the one who has seen it the least. I hope I’m the one who has seen it the least. And a little while back, so I’m just working off of that memory. I thought it was—I liked the premise, I liked the set up for it. I really liked the set up where—and I felt that that worked very well. You know it’s the sort of thing that you see happen with caterers, you know, you get bored at work, you have friends, you do things and you talk, you play, and that’s—that worked very well. And I liked the set up that, particularly that, that people were reluctant about some of their roles, or some of the characters played reluctant. I think Beatrice in particular if I recall played reluctant. Not Beatrice, I’m sorry, Benedick.
CORDELIA: And I felt that that worked really well because once, they, people kind of were assigned the role by the group, they took it. They didn’t—it wasn’t over played. It was played as, you would kind of expect a group of caterers to play this. You know? A little bit of ham but not, but it wasn’t crossing any lines. It was, Beatrice was played as Beatrice. Benedick was played as Benedick. And it kind of rotated around. It worked well. There wasn’t—Beatrice’s character wasn’t a man playing Beatrice. You know, it wasn’t—it wasn’t a man in drag. It wasn’t a man playing the part. It was just Beatrice, and the casting decision was almost incidental. And that’s the way that I saw, that’s the way I read most of the play.
I felt—if I was gonna criticize that side of it, I would say that it came across as slightly contrived. Because the gender roles were so constantly swapped. It came off as very intentional. As opposed to, if there had been a little less swapping, it could have, it would have come off a little bit more within the, within the caterer kind of overarching theme there, with caterers behind the scenes. I deviate slightly into personal artistic—[GROUP LAUGHS]—step on your toes—[GROUP LAUGHS]…
LANCE: I think it’s a good point. I can see how it could be more fluid if there was less deviation, sometimes, seemingly just for the sake of deviation.
CORDELIA: Right, right. And I think that, I think that sort of format, that sort of premise for Shakespeare…I don’t know if you saw Shot—it was—not Shotgun—Impact Players?
CORDELIA: Who was it? I forget which one they did recently. I mean, do you know Impact?
ERIC: I do. Impact is the theater that just recently closed, right?
CORDELIA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, if you don’t know them already—
ERIC: I met the artistic director.
CORDELIA: —you’re not going to. [GROUP LAUGHS]
CORDELIA: But they, they did this very—I mean they’re a tiny, tiny company. Just, I mean, it’s not much more than what we’ve got in the room. And they pulled it off where the character wasn’t the actor, the character was the costume. And so this character was—
CORDELIA: Whoever is wearing this hat is this character, is wearing this scarf is this character.
CORDELIA: And what that did, it worked for them cuz they kinda had this kind of comical setup in the play, but it worked very well because people swapped mid-role. And so if you had two people arguing, and one was on the losing side, they might take their hat off and put on another actor, who then has to bear the brunt of it. And when you have this kind of setup, where if you’re premising with a group of friends, a group of caterers kind of getting into this, it lends itself to that.
And so I don’t think it’s necessary, talking about fluidity, I don’t think it’s necessary that everyone stays in a single role. That each role is played by an actor of the same gender throughout the play, or the same actor.
CORDELIA: It can go back and forth.
CORDELIA: I think that it would have been interesting to see Beatrice and Benedick swap, the actors swap midway through, partway through. Or even just for a little bit. It would have been a really interesting setup.
ERIC: It was an interesting idea that was floated, I mean—[GROUP LAUGHS]
LISA: I remember hearing that as part of the—
LANCE: Yeah, I think it was potentially part of the original conceit. I don’t know where the conversation was that landed it in the form—
ERIC: I suspect you all ran out of time, a little bit.
LANCE: Yeah, we did. There was writing happening in the room in the first, well I guess through all, through the entire process there was writing happening to build around the Shakespeare and that took up a significant amount of time and so I think there was less conversation than everybody would have liked there to have been around, around broader themes.
The conversation in the room I think rarely landed on gender. I think, I think there were casting choices that were made, before the actors got into the room, that may or may not have had a basis in ideas of gender and gender roles. But once we were in the room the conversation was mostly about the conceit of the caterers, about how class influences, influences the way that these people are seen, that the people in Much Ado are seen by the caterers and by the world in general. And the conversations about, about gender may have happened with, with individual artists. I didn’t have any conversations about gender—
LANCE: With the director. And it wasn’t a broader theme being explored as a group.
LANCE: I think. In some ways those choices were almost incidental to the idea, to the idea of class, to the idea of outsiders looking in, and I think that if, if there were gender portrayals that were, that were perceived as, as insensitive, that, that those, that, that could be simply—because there wasn’t a lot of conversation. I don’t think that, that the idea that anything was being portrayed in any specific way really came into the conversation.
CORDELIA: Yeah. I mean I think that, I think that, I like the idea of—but I think that’s unfortunately something that happens a lot. You know, is if, is if you’re not somebody who has something of a forced awareness…you know, and I don’t want to say I have a forced awareness but I’m certainly very aware of gender….that a lot of these things aren’t considered because they’re not an issue to the people involved. You know. And whether, and I don’t mean that in any way that there’s an insensitivity, it’s more just that there’s an unawareness.
LISA: It becomes like, what’s invisible to you that you don’t experience, right?
CORDELIA: Right. Right.
LISA: Like I know for me, I move in the world as like a black femme person, femme non-binary person, and so all of those things are markers, like that I, like that I see, like even without trying to see. Cuz like I saw the show twice at the student matinee which was really freakin’—there were some really cute moments actually. [LAUGH] I was like, I love y’all kids! And then once when I went with my friend. And there was actually a moment with the character of Cordelia, which was actually really beautiful, cuz I forgot what school—
LANCE: The character of Ursula.
LISA: Ursula, gawd dang it y’all. [LAUGH] The first coffee. The first coffee of the day. [GROUP LAUGHS]
ERIC: This is gonna be a rule for these conversations from now on is that they should be very early in the morning. [GROUP LAUGHS]
LISA: But the character of Ursula. And like, I will name that I had very mixed reactions, because I did have something where I was like, especially for young folks I think, like, when folks are still figuring out how to be comfortable in their own skins and folks are figuring out what gender, whether they’re cisgender or transgender or still figuring out what their gender and gender presentation and gender identity means to them, that I have very mixed feelings about—but on the flip side I saw a young black person who was like, male-assigned at birth who had been in one of the groups I was in who’s like, the way that he moved through the activities and the warm-up activities was in a way that was like, like very fluid in terms of like, just the body language, the ways that would not be assumed for a young, like, black male-assigned-at-birth person. And seeing that young person and their friends when they saw Ursula on stage, and their friends are like, yeah! And then they’re like, yeah! There was a moment of seeing themselves on stage that was really beautiful.
And I think I felt very similar about Beatrice and Benedick. When I was with my friend, we were talking about it afterwards and like this moment of like the things you read, right? So, the unintentional gender story in a way is like, somebody who is male-assigned at birth, who is female-identified, and is validated as female by every single person that they interact with. It’s never a question, it’s never—and also like a love story in the middle of that. My friend and I were sitting up in the back, and they were like, this is getting—they were just like, I’m having so many feelings, and they were just like, this is beautiful.
And so I think I agree. I think there’s moments where it’s like, where does intentionality come in? And I think yeah, that gender becomes one of those things that, like, if nobody, like, consciously thinks about it, can, like—there’s ways that I think gender is something that we’re comfortable with which tends to be like, in terms of like a feminine or masculine, like, discussion of presentation. Because my friend also pointed out, like, that Ursula, like of, in comparison with Beatrice was much more high femme, and so like they started talking about, they’re like—transfeminine person of color, so like, the policing of transfeminine folks of color on their presentation, in a way that I hadn’t thought about. So I’m rambling. [GROUP LAUGHS]
LANCE: I can speak specifically because I played Ursula. I can speak to what went through my head.
LANCE: So in approaching that role, there were, I’ll say there were, well, there were more than three layers but I don’t know how many we’ll get into. [GROUP LAUGHS] So the idea behind the presentation of the play was that there were caterers recounting the events of Much Ado About Nothing. So in one sense, it’s a play within a play, right? So I was playing a cisgendered male caterer. And I portrayed the prince. And I portrayed Ursula. And, in my scene—
ERIC: Don’t forget—
LANCE: —and Conrad. So in my first scene as Ursula, you have a, it’s a play within a play, where there is a cisgendered male playing a woman in this play. But you also have in that scene two women conspiring to trick a third woman. And so there’s a play within a play where you have to show that you are putting on a mask. And then there’s the conspiracy where those two are acting—it’s almost another layer of a play within a play where you’re playing for the other character on stage.
My idea is that that required some camp. You know that it’s a, a play, within a play, within a play and for the other character on stage that the heightened, the heightened reality of it lent itself to the humor of the play as it was written. Lent itself to the honesty of the, of the character having fun with what they were doing. A cisgendered man and being allowed the freedom to put on a dress and step outside the boundaries that have been set for him.
I think when you say that not everybody is forced to consider gender, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that we all consider it in different ways.
CORDELIA: That’s right.
LANCE: So I think, I feel, you know, that there are ideas of masculinity that are being forced on me. Societal ideas of masculinity and frankly as both an actor and a character I felt a freedom. Putting on a dress and a bow and going out there and being, and being campy. It was fun for me as an actor. It was fun in the character. And I think that it was true to—true to the idea of, of the scene where you’re trying to trick a third person on stage and your character is maybe not a great actor and maybe goes overboard.
I think there are probably cultural examples of cisgender women playing a similar maid-type role in a similar campy fashion and that’s what I was attempting to be true to. The idea of, of offending or representing the trans community was never, never entered my mind. And I don’t know, I guess I would be interested to know your take on that aspect.
CORDELIA: I mean I think the, I mean I really, really would love for society to get to a point where camp is seen as camp regardless of who’s camping, you know what I mean?
LANCE: Oh yeah.
CORDELIA: Yeah. It’s not the reality that we’re in, at least not yet and I think that, I think that unfortunately, as freeing as it is, and I understand your motivation with this character but, from the audience perspective there’s none of that background. There’s, none of the audience members know you as Lance. None of the audience members know any of your motivation, know kind of your thought of it. You know. You’re gonna get, you have the kind of a play within a play, you know, shows up pretty obviously as a large theme. But that third layer of play within a play within a play, it’s while watching the action and while watching this and while watching the presentation, the interpretation, and everything else. It muddies a little bit. And so you lose—there’s a little bit of a distance as an audience member.
And I mean I don’t, and going back to something I think I said earlier, I don’t know if we were recording at that time. But it’s not, the issues that a lot of people in the trans community have with kind of cis portrayals, not necessarily of trans people directly, but of these kind of gender swap situations. It’s not a matter of malice—and there is certainly a lot of malice as well, don’t get me wrong—but it’s when there’s good intentions, but they come from a place where they aren’t informed, or they’re not aware of the way it plays.
CORDELIA: And I think, and that was, it kind of plays into how I viewed it. I felt that, while the role called for camp, kind of, your particular casting in it, it muddied that line. It made it muddy whether, you know, is the camp part of the character, or is the camp being played to kind of distract from the casting versus the role? You know, to kind of separate that to go, to play that man in the dress. There’s a big difference between allowing a man to be in a dress or to be—and I don’t wanna say “allowing,” because it should be. You know what I mean? It’s the difference between a man being in a dress and a trans woman in a dress.
CORDLEIA: And playing a man in a dress. And I think that all three of those things are very distinct. You know. A man in a dress is a man in a dress. There’s nothing that’s played beyond that. You know. And playing a man in a dress, this is where, that you start to see a lot of those tropes intersect.
And I think that’s where the root of, kind of my issue with Ursula came in was that while, even though it wasn’t your intention to kind of portray these tropes, to portray Ursula, kind of in the, in the sense that is in any way offensive or commenting on the trans community, it was so close to a lot of stuff that is, that it’s very, very hard to distinguish for people between that.
CORDELIA: And that’s where the good intentions, and—kind of can cause problems. And going back to what Lisa said about, kind of the youth seeing themselves on stage, you know, that’s something that, you know, I struggle with, too. You know, seeing myself in places.
CORDELIA: And because there’s so many popular culture portrayals a trans woman has—the man in the dress, with a lot of stubble, with the giant Adam’s apple—because trans women have been played by cis men far more than trans women have played trans women in popular culture, media, there are very, very—and we’re a very small percentage of the population and very under-represented, there are very, very few portrayals of trans women in positive roles. There are very few portrayals in general. And when, speaking for myself, I guess, before, before I knew I was trans, while I was still kind of in that in-between, figuring a lot of stuff—I’m still figuring a lot of stuff out—you see roles, you see trans people portrayed, and it’s, that’s not me. You know, there, you know, this is a character, this is a person, that’s in a role and I think I might feel some identity towards, the role is something I have some identity towards, but the portrayal is so not me that it can push away.
And it makes, you know I think that, I mean I…you know I think that if society, if it was different, if either you had a positive portrayal… it changes things. It’s like, oh, this is, that could be me. You know, you can see that. And I know I get really excited when I see positive portrayal of trans women in the media.
And so even though you weren’t, or even if Ursula was not meant to be that portrayal, it was so close to so many portrayals that are meant to be that portrayal, that it, that it invoked the same feelings, and I don’t know that a lot of audience, I don’t even think our audience was in on that. You know what I mean? I think that because that’s the stereotypical portrayal of a trans woman at the moment and historically even more so, that, that’s kind of, I feel like that’s where a lot of people’s minds get pushed. Whether it’s explicit or implicit it’s kind of where they, that thought kinda comes in or reinforces and so that was the root of my discomfort with it. You know?
LISA: I think it’s—yeah, I think it’s the larger societal thing, which was actually going to be the next thing I was going to bring up, so that worked out well! But I think it’s that moment specifically with theater, and I think with engaging with performance art in a way that’s very different than things like a book or things that are a little more solitary. It’s in community, you’re in community with the other people in the audience with you. I know for me what felt hard—because I think what I loved, and slightly halfway through the coffee so we’ll see if I can get it more succinct this time—what I appreciated so much about the gender fluidity and the gender swapping of the characters was this moment of just, of seeing specifically with the depiction of Beatrice, seeing somebody who would not, because of cissexism in society, and the assumption of physical body equals gender, like seeing somebody who in many places in this world would not be read as woman, like, being woman.
And I think for me it just was kind of a jarring moment. Not necessarily because of your depiction but because of the reaction of the audience. And on both nights I was there, like, having you come on stage and having everyone laugh, and I come from a youth worker background, and some of the things, like with some of the young trans women I was working with, we watched movies. We watched the most ridiculous, like, Netflix has terrible, terrible, terrible queer movies. [GROUP LAUGHS] But I was like, this is all we have, so we’re gonna find one. We’re gonna talk about it. And like, I had a young person, and it always strikes me now, every time we watched a piece they’d be like, and they saw somebody who was like designated male-assigned-at-birth presenting in a way that was more feminine-of-center regardless of gender identity, and it was a comedic moment, they would always be like are they laughing at them cuz they’re trans?
And so that moment of like not, one, like, I think hearing you talk about it because I also agree with that. There’s an organization whose work I love that’s local, like, Gender Spectrum, their whole slogan is like, “everybody has a gender story and if we can break open gender for everybody, creating more inclusivity for everybody.” But not knowing that and seeing the depiction on stage and really, it was like, being in the audience and having everyone laugh at that and knowing that there were people that were laughing because it was like, it’s a man in a dress, look at how ridiculous that is! That was the moment for me that was like, ooh. And I think just because of the journey of the story I hadn’t felt that way at all and I think that’s what, it was like a jarring moment, and then specifically with the young people I was like ohh, there’s a kid here who’s figuring out their gender, and they’re in group, and they’re in an audience of 300 kids and 150 of them just laughed, very loudly.
And so I just, and that’s the hard part I think is, which I think is the challenge of theater at a certain point, especially with some of these classical works. You only have the text to show what’s on stage. So I think that’s why I very much appreciate this moment and being able to have this conversation and being able to share this as a resource.
Because I think it is that thing of like the subtleties. What are the like, what are the moments that can get missed or, it’s a limitation I think a little bit too of like, where it’s like we have what’s on stage and we can’t know how the audience is gonna interpret it or react, but I think both times I saw the show that was the thing that did stand out, that made it a little bit rough.
CORDELIA: And I think that, there are two very distinct roles of the theater. Theater is such a sanctuary for people, particularly for people who don’t conform to the rest of societal norms, who don’t fit into the mold, theater is such a freeing sanctuary.
But the other side of that is the consumption side of that. The audience side that doesn’t get to participate in that same kind of sanctuary, that same kind of freedom of general expression, whether you’re playing a gender or not. You know, in that stepping outside of who you are in your day to day role. They don’t get to participate in that. And so, you get a very, very different, there’s a very different feel between being in these characters, and playing these characters, and how that affects the person whose playing them, and what’s read by the person who is watching it. You know?
And like you said when you were describing with the, you know there’s a kid here who’s figuring out their identity and then, I was thinking along the same lines. How are they feeling? You know they’re on that, they’re just figuring something out or they’re just questioning something, and they just had a ton of their peers laugh. And regardless of whether or not their peers didn’t pick up on Ursula and the way it was portrayed or had any association with Ursula and trans women or men in a dress or any of that, I guarantee the kid who is questioning himself did. They saw that immediately and whether, regardless of why everyone else is laughing they’re going, it’s going to be interpreted that way.
LANCE: I wanted to ask a question and temper it with a story. So I wonder what the artist’s responsibility is and by the artist I mean the actor, the director, the arts organization. And I want to temper it with this story which is that I understudied a show years ago which had a very honest, sweet, kind, and humorous portrayal of a, of a male homosexual relationship, and I think there was a kiss. And at least one of the men on stage was a gay man, and there was a student matinee of this play. And it was a tender moment. I loved this play. My whole heart was in this play and I was understudying and I was watching.
I was in the audience watching and it came to the moment, this tender moment of self-realization and love and the kiss, and these students exploded into laughter. They started screaming “ew, oh, gross, oh, nasty, nasty.” And I cried because I knew that in this audience, that there were young gay men who were not out, who were not only being laughed at and mocked, but felt unsafe, and it probably kept them in the closet for years because of that, and the moment on stage, and I thought, what, what—maybe art isn’t enough, I thought at that moment. If this moment that I find so wonderful and beautiful and humorous and touching can’t move these kids to see the humanity and the reality of it, then maybe nothing can. Maybe for them it’s too late.
And so I wonder what the arts organization’s role ought to be. Because I don’t see any reason that you should take something like that off stage because of the reaction to it. So, and I’m not saying that my portrayal of Ursula was a moving, heart-warming [GROUP LAUGHS] portrayal. But what I’m saying is that as an artist I was doing something honest that I thought was truthful to the play. I had good intentions and as a person I have, I have no negative feelings toward the trans community, toward the gay community, toward anybody as a community. And so I wonder if those two things, if that play with the gay male relationship, and this play with, you know, me in a dress, I wonder if those two things live in the same world, and, and if we have a responsibility, or if the responsibility is on the audience. And just how you feel about that.
CORDELIA: Well I mean, I feel that there’s, there’s always going to be something of a shared responsibility.
CORDELIA: And your number, it comes, it goes back to that you’re never going to convince 100% of the people 100% of the time. And so you’re, to a certain extend you can’t control what the audience is going to do when it comes to that. I think that as far as responsibility of art and of theater specifically. That’s kind of what needs to be decided on by the company. That’s something that’s the responsibility of the company to decide what they want their responsibility to be.
I mean there’s, and I’m not a, I strongly believe that art is not something that should be, I believe that art is something that should be very open and very free and very broad. And that it’s okay to be offended at things and it’s okay if your work offends, but that you need to know where your intent is.
CORDELIA: And you need to know, and if you’re operating with something that could offend or might offend, that needs to be considered. I mean, cuz if you try and make a play that absolutely nobody is offended by, I mean, nobody will, ‘cuz nobody will come. [GROUP LAUGHS] You know, I mean, you’re left with nothing. It is possible, particularly because you’re gonna get people who are offended by this and people who are offended by that not being there. So, and that’s the choice. That’s the choice and the responsibility of the company and of the artist to decide, here’s a potential issue, or this is something that we’re exploring. This could offend these people, how do we feel about that?
CORDELIA: And that’s also one of the most difficult things in art or a presentation, whether it’s a play or a lecture or a class or any of that kind of thing, book, where, is to understand that, because people don’t make art that offends themselves, you know? And so you’re necessarily dealing with, you’re trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You know, people’s, other people’s perspectives and people who necessarily are not really in that community, whether you’re not viewing things the same way. And that’s a really, really hard thing to do, for anybody. And so I think, I mean I’d be interested to hear what your kind of perspectives are on what the responsibility of the artist is.
ERIC: I’m just going to offer, this is, because I think this is a fascinating conversation in part because I hear a great deal of resonance in this conversation and other conversations that I’ve been through in my life. But like that story that you bring up about the young audience’s response to a kiss between two men, right, I mean, to me, that has a lot to do with taboos, with social taboos, right, or the perception of social taboos. Because it wasn’t so long ago that a response would have been similar when it was a black person kissing a white person.
ERIC: Right? And then when we talk about the evolution of our society and the nature of the inclusiveness of it. You know. It’s fascinating because some of the themes that I’m hearing in this conversation are themes that I’ve heard sort of shared in conversations around colorblind casting versus color-conscious casting. There’s a similar situation where the intentions are such that we should as artists be able to compel an audience to see the world in a way where the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter and yet at the heart of that that’s a kind of, I mean I think today we think of it as a quixotic idea. That there’s no way that we ever get away with presenting race on stage where race isn’t visible to an audience. Because the audience as a whole is not blind to that.
There’s something about this conversation for me that is just about sort of the spaces that we have to go still as a culture and as an art form and as human beings, right? Sort of how do we—and I think, I will also offer, right, that I don’t know that we, there’s no, hopefully the institution, the institution is always gonna make, we’re always gonna have blind spots. I think one thing that we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to have a lot of different perspectives on our staff. So that when we are sort of forging work on stage there’s points of view that will bring their specific gazes and their specific experiences to the work to be able to highlight the questions of the work. You know, and then we can as an institution leave it to the artist to make a choice.
Why this for me was so important to have a conversation about—because I feel like as an institution we missed that moment. And some of it is on me, like some of it is on me. So this is, you should know, this is not the first time. You are not the first time that we heard this concern. This concern actually came to me through a staff member, another person on my staff in the preview process. We were in the preview process. This was my first time producing a play here and the tech preview process was a challenging tech preview process for the show and I made the producorial choice in that moment not to bring that question to the creative team.
That may well have been a mistake on my part. I think that’s the sort of thing where it’s sort of like, oh, I really wanna bring this up. I should just let the artist decide. And this is sort of the thing that I’m coming to right now, is that. And then once the artists make the choice, because I think there’s a lot of reasons why choices get made. And I’m like, I’m never, I’m not one in general for absolutism, right? I think absolutism is a dangerous thing.
And so, speaking from my lens which is often a lens of race, right? I mean, I think it’s—like an interesting story that we’ve been telling is that when I first saw Ursula on stage, I was like, in the first iteration of Ursula’s costume I went up to Lance and I was like Lance, do you think, and Ursula was in the dress but instead of the kind of hair piece that Ursula had it was like a head wrap.
LANCE: Yeah, it looked like Aunt Jemima.
ERIC: Yeah, that’s what I said. I was like is that like—because that’s my lens and that’s my gaze. So my gaze is one that comes historically from one of race because that’s the way that I pass through the world, right?
And the moment for me that turned when I said, this is why, this is something that I miss, that I really genuinely regret missing at this moment in time, and regret not dealing with more, in a different way. Cuz again this is not about a critique of artists for me, nor is it—in some way it’s a critique of audience, it’s a social critique that we’re engaging in right now. Because we’re saying why is it that the audience laughs? That’s a question that comes up all the time, right? Like, artists can make choices and we can put tropes on stage with the intention of creating the laughter because we know it’ll make an audience laugh because we know that’s what is funny to an audience. And yet sometimes the more challenging choice is to put something on stage that isn’t gonna get you the biggest laugh in part because, you’re presenting something that doesn’t fall into that trope.
But the moment for me was when I simply projected another question on him which was, what would have happened had you been directed to play a Chinese character coming out on stage and to what extent would that have been okay? And to what degree of authentic, invested, grounded performance would it have had to have been in order for me to be even remotely okay with it and that’s where it becomes this really—
LANCE: But I just want to, to step away from this play for a moment, we were doing the design run of Fences yesterday and we’re standing there, downstage, right? And you’re right there and there’s a line where I invite my father Troy to come see me play jazz, and he says, “I don’t wanna hear that Chinese music.” And I had never heard that line in that way before. I’d always heard it as a dismissive line. But I’m standing next to a Chinese American, and suddenly I go, huh, this is a very insensitive moment from this man and it changed my perspective, not from a character perspective because I don’t think that character would pick up on that, but just from an actor’s perspective. Personally, I heard something that I hadn’t heard before, because I was standing next to a certain person and as an artist, this is a very interesting conversation to me because I had not considered the trans community in my portrayal, simply because I never saw myself as a representative of the trans community. I never intended to be a representative of the trans community, and so it’s enlightened me. In light of that, in retrospect, I don’t think that I would have changed anything about my performance because I felt that I was being truthful to the world of the play and I was, and I was attempting to honor a tradition that did not, that did not represent that community.
But it would have changed, my, the way that I felt about it every night, it would have. When it was brought to my attention that people felt a certain way about it, it changed, it didn’t change my performance but it changed the way that I felt about it. It made me aware that there could be people in the audience who felt offended, who felt unsafe, and, and I don’t know what that did to me but I didn’t see it. It was in my blind spot as well. And in retrospect I don’t think I would have changed it. Moving forward I don’t know how that will change for me.
CORDELIA: Well, and I think this goes back to what I was saying earlier about, it’s the responsibility of the company to decide. Like I say, you can’t make a piece of artwork that’s gonna offend nobody. Can’t make a play that’s gonna offend nobody, particularly with Shakespeare. There are so many issues at play.
CORDELIA: But is it the responsibility of the company to decide to try to make a strong effort to be as aware of as many of those as they can and to decide are they okay with it? You know? Am I okay with this level of intentional offense? Or am I okay with this level of portrayal? And I think that some of that can be mitigated. I think it was very interesting to hear your perspective and your kind of internal motivation for Ursula’s character. And I think that it would be really interesting to see some of that in the notes, in the program, right?
LANCE: Mm-hm. Yeah.
CORDELIA: To say, this is, kind of, as the actor, this is how I approach my roles. This is why I felt like this character and you know, particularly if there’s something you feel like might cross those lines it’s always a good idea to consult the people who are part of a community that you’re not a part of. And if you have these motivations for it, a play within a play within a play within a play, and every level of play you have to kind of up the emotional character, kind of become more campy with every level, cuz how do you know you’re in the first play if you’re not doing that, but the audience isn’t always going to be that savvy or isn’t always going to see that first.
CORDELIA: And I think that seeing an explanation of that somewhere—
CORDELIA: —you know, and it doesn’t need to be a justification, it doesn’t need to be an essay—
CORDELIA: But I think it’s generally interesting for people to see people’s motivation behind these decisions.
LISA: I think it’s something where, I think it’s like what Eric brought up at the beginning, which I think, we’ve had so many internal conversations about this! But the difference, but, like the connection of intention and impact and I think also a very key difference between “offensive” and “harm.”
LISA: Cuz I think, being offended because something that you’re like, I am seeing something I don’t like about somebody on stage and that’s resonating with me, that feels different versus the example we’ve been talking about of sitting in an audience and seeing somebody you resonate with being the brunt of a joke.
I think what you’re bringing up, like—and I don’t think the responsibility is entirely on the artist or on the production. I think, exactly, what we’ve been talking about, and I think that’s something we’re talking about moving forward. I think that’s an example of what this is, is to think about, how do we hold discussions that—like, I think for me it’s like, trying to mitigate harm or at least letting people know, we see you. We see you. We see how this might impact you and we want to name it.
LISA: Not only so you feel seen, but so other people can learn something that they might not learn in the production, in engaging with the production. And so I think that kind of comes back to what I was saying earlier, the limitations of just seeing what’s on stage versus being able to have exposure to kind of the deeper dive of what builds into the process I think allows for both opportunities, for the learning and the like holding space for people. Which I think, to Eric’s point, cuz I know I didn’t see previews, I didn’t see dress, and so the first time I had saw it was at the student matinees, which, again, in hindsight, it was like, well damn. [LAUGH] I wish I had been much earlier in the process because there’s things that I would have, I was like, yeah, probably would have named that during dress rehearsal that this was something that I saw. Or during previews. And then thought about what are things we can do to like hold space around it and around an artistic choice?
So yeah, I think what many people have been saying, like, how do we create space within the organization that doesn’t force and doesn’t expect the production and the piece itself to tell the whole story.
CORDELIA: Right. [CROSSTALK]
ERIC: Sorry, go ahead.
CORDELIA: And I think just, we’ve been leapfrogging off of “offensive” versus “harm.” I think that the line, and that’s a tough line to find sometimes, where that is. But I, and part of it is based off of the community and society of the time. Whether and how much misinformation is out there about it.
CORDELIA: If we’re dealing with a community where people are generally very well understood, playing something in an offensive manner that’s like, somewhat along those lines, can be read as funny, can be seen as funny, because there isn’t the question of—there isn’t the misinformation. When you’re dealing with a very marginalized community, or any marginalized community where there is a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, from society at large or from a large segment of it, playing those, playing to those tropes can reinforce that. It’s not always seen as, as making fun of that situation, it’s seen as representing it.
And so that’s, and it’s like I said, it’s a very difficult, it’s not an easy thing to suss out. And that’s, and it goes back to the responsibility, to the company to decide how much we’re gonna do this. I mean, you could take Much Ado About Nothing, and you could spend the entire year teching and rehearsing and rewriting and altering and playing with character and doing all these things, and still not put it on. You know, and still not have it right, you know. So, we’re all dealing with limited resources, and there are, and you have to decide where to stop, but it’s important to know where you’re stopping and why. To have that reason, and if there’s, I think it’s important that if you feel, if there’s that question, if there’s that kind of, maybe there’s not the awareness you would have or you would like for it, but you’re not as confident as you would like about it, to acknowledge that and to justify, not so much justify but to communicate to your audience why these decisions were made.
I mean, it’s—going to Fences that you were talking about, with your character’s father saying “what are you listening to that Chinese music for,” there’s a difference between a representation of you playing a Chinese person and someone in a character that is racist against Chinese people.
LANCE: Sure, yup.
CORDELIA: You know, and just like there’s a difference between, you know, somebody who’s playing, Beatrice being played by a male and Benedick being played by an assigned-female-at-birth and somebody representing a trans woman that way. And Ursula’s not a trans woman and that mitigates things somewhat cuz there were all these others roles but because Ursula’s character was also played so differently from the others—and I understand the motivation it was a play within a play within a play—and so I don’t honestly know how you represent that camp with [LAUGH] you in that role.
LANCE: I think it’s a good question because, say, I think if I had worn the same costume and walked out reluctantly that would have been more offensive.
CORDELIA: It would be very different, yeah.
LANCE: I would find it, I would find it, I would think it was offensive—I would think it was harmful to say I’m a man and I don’t want to wear this dress.
LANCE: I think if I had worn the same costume and been more, and not played a woman, had just come out and, and made choices that didn’t involve my hips, that didn’t involve my hands and wrists, that the scene, that would have been less humorous. And I think that would have hurt what I was trying to do. I wanted to be humorous, not because I was a man playing a woman. But I would like to think that if I were a woman, a cis woman, assigned woman at birth, and I went out and made those same choices, that it would still be funny. Maybe it would be 15% less funny to the audience because their perception. But I would like to think that my choices were still funny. And that’s kind of how I was looking at it.
And then there’s the third choice of, not choice, but the other idea that the costume alone does something. If you had given me as an actor the name of Ursula, and put me on stage in what I’m wearing now, in jeans and the hooded sweatshirt with a goatee, what would that do?
And so, like I said, I didn’t, I never considered the trans community at, when I was choosing how I was going to portray Ursula, and maybe that was blind or maybe—I mean I suppose it is blind but I’m not sure how much involvement there is, in the trans community, in the mind of others in that portrayal. But no matter what choice you make I think you’re making a specific choice when you’re considering everything and I think that each one is going to have its problems. I’m not sure that today in 2016 with all the conversation that’s happening that you can make any choice without, without running into some sort of snag. And I think, I agree 100% that intention is, is everything in art. You can’t go at anything artistic without an intention. But at the same time, you know, you don’t, even with the best intentions you can still offend—
LANCE: And harm. Right. I think it’s interesting, too, to go beyond the idea, beyond the trans community and just talk about gender for a moment, because I know that Stacy, for example, who played Benedick in the opening scene, she’s a caterer and she made gender-specific choices to try to be more femme in that opening scene in the way that she stood and the way that she used her hands, that I think were really subtle and were mostly for her and not for anyone outside. There was also a moment in rehearsal when Denmo who played Claudio touched my arm. And the direction that she got from Jackson, the director, was to not touch me in such a feminine way. So I think a lot of what we were looking at as artists were gender, were ideas of gender stereotype, and I think that’s a broader conversation, because I think we’re all bound by, by societal gender stereotypes that we each play into to our own degree including, you know. As a trans woman there are gender stereotypes that you, are, uh, maybe you agree with. There are aesthetic choices that you make based on gender stereotypes, I would assume—I’m asking as much as I’m saying—just as there are gender-specific stereotypes and aesthetic choices that I, that I latch on to, at times, as a man. And so I think that the issue of what happens on stage has impact on a community, but it also has impact on a broader conversation about, about aesthetics, about what it means to make gender choices and how that affects perception.
CORDELIA: I’d like to jump and just go back to one thing real quick about making aesthetic choices based on some stereotypes. I mean I certainly do, and there’s definitely stereotypes within society, society’s understanding of gender, of women, of men, but they’re not always as a matter of identity. They’re—sometimes they’re also a matter of safety, you know? It’s not, you know sometimes it’s a matter of, behaving this way, dressing this way, doing make-up this way, speaking in a way and a kind of body language in a way, codes this “woman” in a way that would draw less attention from people who have issue particularly with trans people. And so, so it’s not always by choice, so to speak.
CORDELIA: I certainly have my aesthetic, but one of the things that was very much on my mind when I was studying this meet-up with Eric, and in conversations, was the timing.
CORDELIA: And is this going to be on video? Is it going to be on audio? Because it makes a difference, you know?
LANCE: I hope that didn’t come off as a judgment
CORDELIA: No no no, no no no, no no. It just, I’m not taking it as a judgment.
CORDELIA: But it’s, it’s one of those things that you’re not aware of unless you’re in it, you know what I mean?
CORDELIA: And so—because some of the considerations that I had, you know. I’m aware that I’m acting as a representative of the trans community, whether or not I’m in an ideal space for it, you know, personally. You know, as I said earlier I’m still very early in my transition. You know, only about a year in, and it’s a very difficult time. There’s a lot of learning that happens all the time and I’m certain that my perspectives, some of my perspectives may change, or will change.
And so it’s this very, it’s a difficult thing to explain to people who don’t experience it. I was told at one point that trans people are really obsessed with gender. And it took me a little bit of thinking, but I came to realize that no, trans people are not obsessed with gender. The majority of trans people that I know, that I talk to, would really like to ignore it, and really like it if it just was not a thing at all. But I think, speaking personally, I’m very aware of gender.
LANCE: I think that’s where I was coming from, that idea that the preference that it were just ignored, and the societal imposition that kind of forces us to make choices based on that in order to be perceived in a certain way, or in order to avoid a certain sort of treatment or perception.
CORDELIA: Yeah, and I mean, and—it’s remarkable how gendered society is, you know? You can go—and it’s really impossible to escape. It’s a really, it feels so free and so relaxing to be in a space where it’s not considered, where it’s not talked about, where it’s not in my face. Because you can’t go to the supermarket, you know? You have men’s shaving cream, women’s shaving cream, you have, you know, I think I’ve seen, yeah, “man soap.” You know, you have, and you have all these things that get very segmented and regulated and gendered.
And the people—I think for a lot of people who are not as aware of gender and who are not as aware of gender, or not super aware of gender, the idea of what is gender gets kinda parred down. You know, a lot of cisgendered people, their view of what is gender stops at genitals. This is what gender is, and so if you’re not getting a surgery, how can you be—if you’re not getting a surgery, how can you be a woman? I don’t understand how that works, because that’s where the understanding stops. A lot of cisgendered people also have a much, have a deeper understanding—and depending on which community you are in that varies very, very widely—but even people, even my sister and her friends who are extremely supportive, who are part of the queer community, don’t understand a lot of those subtleties. And I say “subtleties”—they don’t feel like subtleties from my end, but I understand that from somebody else’s perspective they can be seen as very subtle, because society is so inundated with gender. Because society is so kind of filled to the brim with it, that how can you…? It’s easy to become blind to it. And it’s easy to walk down the aisle and not see everything that’s been gendered. You know what I mean?
LANCE: Yeah, I have a three-year old and we went to the Nike store the other day and he walked down the aisle and he goes, “those are boys’ shoes, those are girls’ shoes, those are men’s shoes, those are women’s shoes.” And I go, oh my gawd, and I said, “why?” “Well, those ones are pink, and those ones are purple.” And then he identified a food truck as a female food truck because it was black. I said, “why is, why is black a girl color?” He goes, “I don’t know, it just is.” And I don’t know where these have come from. I have a pink sparkle drum set. I have pink Converse. I don’t, I’ve never told him that anything is anything specific, and I—he goes to daycare and I assume that’s where he got it—but, but yes. And this was not even in a section where things were divided by gender. But from such a young age he’s already making divisions that are not based on body, that are not based on voice, on pronoun, he’s making, he’s made decisions, that he’s gotten from somewhere in society based on color, and those, I know that those apply—I know that he has formed other ideas based on, hair, based on eyes, based on shape and form, and at his age not yet genitals, but, because I don’t think children his age understand—like when you tell a boy—no, he said, he saw a girl, “where’s her penis?” And I said, “she doesn’t have a penis, she has a vagina.” “But where’s her penis?” Like, he doesn’t get—
LISA: That’s not a marker of gender for him yet.
LANCE: No, it’s not. Not at all. Things like pink and purple and, in his mind, black and gray are. So yeah, I see that as well and I struggle not to, not to fight it because I don’t want it to become a point of contention, but to, but, with my children I try to share my perspective—
LANCE: —hoping that, hoping that they will develop their own independent perspectives. I would like them to be close to mine, but I think if you, with them, if you try to force the issue, children are often so contrary that they, they’ll just go against whatever you say for awhile.
LISA: On the flip side, I’ve also seen little kids that are just like, “oh, okay. Like, that’s fine.”
LISA: Yeah, which is like—
LANCE: That’s my other son. Yeah.
LISA: —which I think, when you’re talking about young ages, though, I think, on a macro level then, bringing that back out to like, what is the world: I was having a conversation, we were at the Theater Communications Group Conference last week, and me and two friends did a conversation on, on like transgender, non-conforming, and non-binary inclusion. And the three of us and the facilitators were having a conversation afterwards, and we were just talking about, there’s this thing that you’re taught from a really young age that the worst thing you can—which is ironic, right?—cuz you’re taught from a very young age that the worst thing you can do is misgender a cis person as not cis.
LISA: Which is, like the more I think about it, the more I’m like, that’s so weird! That like from like very young ages like, you’ll see adults correct like, “no, no, no, no, that’s this.” And you’re like, “you didn’t ask that person, you made”—
CORDELIA: It’s, you know and it’s, you say it’s the worst thing, being told it’s the worst thing you can do to a cis person—but it’s the worst thing you can do to a trans person, too.
LISA: But I, it’s—
CORDELIA: In that, in that realm. I should say, it’s not any better.
LISA: Yeah. But it’s just interesting the disconnect for that, cuz I’m just like, it feels like this shouldn’t be that weird for people, because—I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about that more and more lately, like, like how much gendered markers are taught and so as we get older people don’t unlearn that. Like.
CORDELIA: I mean, and you can speak cuz I don’t have any children, but, when your child is very young and people who you’re meeting or introducing your child to, I mean, how often do they ask, “is it a boy or a girl?” And it’s something that gets asked so—even before the child is born—
ERIC: Of the child.
CORDELIA: Yeah. Do you know if the child is—are you having a boy or a girl? I don’t know. Wait until they’re 12 or 13. We’ll ask. [GROUP LAUGHS]
CORDELIA: But, you know, and it’s, you know, it starts immediately, you know. And you see, you know, you see, here’re the cards for a boy, here’re the cards for a girl, here’s the—oh, are you having a girl? Let me get you a bunch of pink baby stuff. And so it happens just from the get-go. And the more, kind of, aware of all of this I become, the more places I see it. You know? And I’m talking pretty overt displays. We’re not talking about, this sign is masculine because of x, y, z. There’s not a lot of interpretation. It’s just, this is what they’re doing.
CORDELIA: They introduced loofahs marketed to men.
LISA: That’s what I was gonna talk about! [LAUGH]
CORDELIA: They introduced them more than once.
CORDELIA: And the first time they did I think they changed the color and that was it.
CORDELIA: And maybe they got somebody who’s called a Latherizer, but, and it disappeared. It never went anywhere. And if you look at what they’ve got as loofahs for men that they market to men now, it’s like the Scrubifier 9000.
LISA: It looks like a tire around the edge of it.
CORDELIA: It’s kind of like the idea of, we’re going to take something that a lot of people view as feminine and we’re going to remove as much as we can. We’re going to make you as comfortable, make this feel as much of a man thing as possible. And I think that that, a lot of discomfort starts at such an early age for people because it’s, this is man, this is what man does, this is women, this is what women do. And for the vast majority of people who are viewed consistently and from the get-go and their entire lives as the gender that they feel, you know, it’s clearly a jarring thing for them, too. Because you give a lot of men a pink, fluffy, rose-scented loofah and a lot of people, a lot of men have trouble with that. And I don’t know whether that’s a homophobia thing, a transphobia thing, or whether that’s feeling like this is, this is a woman thing, this isn’t me. I’m not a woman. This is a woman thing.
LANCE: And I think in that there’s, those people who would say that have an idea that, that “woman” is a bad thing. That, there’s this perception that, that oh, don’t do that cuz women do that and when you say that the implication is that, somehow, 50% of the world is bad and something that you don’t want to be.
CORDLEIA: Yeah, well.
LANCE: Which I think is a fundamental problem.
CORDELIA: And I think it’s interesting that you see a lot more—I’ve noticed a lot more products being masculinized—
CORDELIA: —than I see being feminized. And it’s not to say you don’t see a lot of products being feminized, and I often see them being derided after, you know, what the hell is this girl’s tool kit? This is a useless piece of crap. And I don’t know—and that maybe, I think that you might have hit on a good point there.
ERIC: I think we’re bringing this down to a close now. [GROUP LAUGHS] Yes, here we go. So.
LANCE: Steer the ship.
ERIC: Yeah, I know. Let me make a directorial decision right now. You know, I think, that—this has been amazing. This is exactly what—maybe not exactly, because I don’t know what I was expecting—but, this is great, this is fantastic. This is gonna, this has been our very first Continuing Conversation of what we hope will be many, many, many more. And I just wanna say that, you know, I think partly, I’m just inspired by all of you. I’m inspired by your willingness to participate in this conversation, and I’m inspired by your willingness to interrogate the kind of, the world that we live in and to really sort of put out there and be unafraid in putting out there that there are choices that we make that can be harmful and can be complicated, and that even in those choices, like—we can make choices that are harmful or complicated but that we should be responsible for those choices that we make. So Cordelia, Lance, Lisa, thank you so very, very much. Do you have anything you want to add?
CORDELIA: There was one thing, going back aways—we kind of got into a few side conversations and tangents and spirals and etcetera. It’s when you were talking about race and you brought up, there’s kind of the idea of race blindness. And, there was some conversation early on before that, too, about gender blindness, about making the audience kind of, getting to the point where the audience doesn’t see gender, and, I mean, there’s—that can be very erasing, too. Speaking personally, as a trans woman, there’s a lot of history there. Personally, historically, community-wise, societally, there’s a lot of history there. And I’m always a little bit hesitant when people say, you know…To completely ignore that gender is also to ignore that history.
CORDELIA: And to ignore the part of me and the person—the identity and the part of me that is that history and is everything that’s been built upon and everything that has been experienced, and it’s, I don’t, I’m not always comfortable with the idea of trying to completely erase. I think that it’s—it’s a very different thing I think to kind of provoke thought on the topic, or provoke, you know, why is this gender this way? Why do we think of this as a masculine thing and that as a feminine thing? Why is it that when we talk about a surgeon, people assume male and when we talk about a nurse, people assume female? And all of that. But to compl—to erase it, is—it’s got to deny that identity too.
ERIC: I mean, I think—I mean, I think—I mean that’s, you’re right. I mean, I think—I rebel against all erasure and I rebel against blindness. I mean, I think blindness is, I mean I think it’s important to acknowledge the blindness that we have, individually and independently, because we all have our own personal, like, we’re blind in our own ways.
ERIC: Not intentionally but because of how we’re raised, because of what, where our sensitivities lie, because of what our gaze is, right? Because our gaze is—but I am also, but I also believe fervently that this idea of large containers is past. That we’re not in a space anymore where like the male gaze is enough of a container to actually explain the world, that there are many small containers within that container, and many small containers without that container, and how do we, as an organization, as an institution, as an art form, and as, you know, a civic organization, right, acknowledge that?
I mean “breaking the binary” is the phrase that we’ve been using around here, but I’ve always been… in love with the… kind of diaspora of the world. That there is sort of—I am so many different pieces of an identity, and I come from so many different places, and I’ve never felt like an insider anywhere, in part because even the things that are overtly who I am place me on the outside of many, many communities.
And so to the extent that this action here even is an effort to do the very opposite of what you’re talking about, which is—this is our response to erasure, this is our response to blindness. A small effort even like this, do you know? But hopefully it’s an impulse that—hopefully it’s an impulse that will be reflected in all of our work. You know, even and perhaps most importantly when we come upon those really, really challenging choices that lie ahead. They’re easy choices that we can make, there are many of them, but I think as a classical theater, as a classical theater, as you said, right, that like our work at least the work we are currently doing, right, you know, has lots of problematic images and lots of problematic sort of manifestations in his work that feel dated, that feel old, that feel from a different time, that feel blunt, that feel coarse, that feel ignorant. We don’t as an institution, and I suspect we don’t as artists—I know few artists that work with malice of intention. I think there are artists who provoke and I think provocation is important. Like I think provocation is part of how our craft has had impact historically, do you know, that the craft of theater has been unafraid to make dangerous choices to force an audience to see something in themselves. To really force an audience to ask the question, why are we laughing at this moment?
Cal Shakes’ teaching artists not only teach to students around the Bay Area—they learn how to be better teachers themselves. We strive to create a team of teaching artists that are culturally competent and well equipped to encounter the populations of students we serve, we hold trainings around the following issues/topics:
Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Teaching Children on the Autism Spectrum Child Development and Psychology Teaching Shakespeare to Elementary and early Middle School students Teaching Shakespeare to upper Middle and High School students
According to our teaching artists, the training:
“…really put into perspective a lot of tactics I had already been using in my teaching and helped show me the mechanics of the methods.”
“…[provided] learning techniques to create equitable classroom environments. Thank you for this training.”
“…[gave me] SO MUCH insight into the Autism Spectrum. The trainer made the content very accessible and hands on.”
“…provided a safe space in which to re-assess my teaching approaches. I really appreciate the excellent trainings.”
We are so proud of our teaching artists’ continual dedication to expanding their knowledge and skills with kids in classrooms and in our Summer Conservatories! Artistic Learning professional development and mentorship programs are part of a two-year initiative funded by the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation.
House manager Jane Eisner joined the crew of Othello on the community tour, and has been keeping notes during every performance. She has written previously about her unique perspective on the audience response to Othello—read on to see how the final performances of the tour went.
Excerpt from House Report 6: Larkin Street Youth Services 10/26/16
Hello all, yesterday we held a performance at Larkin Street Youth Services, a community center that helps at-risk youth with housing, education, employment, health. The space appears to be a converted warehouse with exposed brick and large piping which run across the ceiling.
A combination of twenty-eight youth and adults who worked at the center were in attendance. At first, there were a lot of people getting up and down—but as we got further into the heart of the play people became more attentive and engrossed in the material. By the second act folks were totally hooked and engaged with focus and intensity.
There were a few interesting responses throughout the show. There was clapping at Cassio’s line about not wanting Othello to see him “womaned”—for me, as a woman in the audience and someone who has seen the show upwards of 30 times(!), I finally understood that line: to be seen as “womaned” was to be seen as weak, vulnerable, sensitive. It was an interesting moment to observe.
Yesterday was Lance’s last performance as Cassio. Congratulations Lance and thank you for all of your hard work—it has been a pleasure working with you!
Thoughts: “Intense.” “Twisty.” “There was no way to prove her innocence.”
“It is [interesting] that Shakespeare wrote about this random act of violence. He could have been writing about any violence we see on the streets here, today.”
“I have a complicated relationship with Shakespeare because of this play. It’s like I’m an actor and this is a play I wish I could enjoy.”
“I feel that you have to learn how to enjoy it. You probably wouldn’t go to see Shakespeare if you didn’t know who he was. I liked how you guys put little bits in the middle. I like the description of the person getting choked out.”
“It’s a lot.” “It’s hard to be same once you watch it.”
“There’s a play Red Velvet that I saw—I was a zombie after. It was really well done and so is this—this is everything that theater is and it’s a story about someone like me, who isn’t, because the decision that he is about to make is one that the character Othello is about to make but indirectly.”
“It makes me think a little bit about this election. How much have we changed in 500 years?”
“Trickery!” “Iago is a scapegoat and we’re kinda complacent.” Jim: “Iago wasn’t born evil. He was led to evil.” Lance: “What would you do if baby Hitler were in the room? I would hold baby Hitler and kiss baby Hitler and maybe baby Hitler wouldn’t be the Hitler we know today.”
Excerpt from House Report 7: Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California 10/28/16
Hello everyone, last night we held a performance at the Islamic Cultural Center in Oakland, free and open to the public. The venue was gorgeous and felt sacred with stained glass windows and high ceilings with intricate carvings. With 125 people in attendance there was a large crowd waiting outside of the doors before opening, and they filled nearly all of the seats inside. The feeling in the room felt urgent—folks were ready to see the show and commit to its intensity.
One woman, a teacher, shared her experience of reading Othello in school as a student twenty years ago. She explained that as a student, the play wasn’t taught to her in a way that acknowledged the main themes she noticed during our performance—it opened her eyes to the racism, jealousy, and white supremacy laced throughout the play.
Kaiso replaced Lance last night as Cassio. He did a wonderful job all around and received many laughs when he crushed an empty water bottle against his head after chugging it during the party scene. Kaiso did not perform pre-show standup. Cassio’s jokes during Act 1 sat heavier in the room in comparison to other performances.
The audience was eager to share what was on their minds during the talkback. In fact, we had a 16-minute talkback as opposed to our regular ten minutes. Many folks acknowledged the white supremacy they saw in the show, a term that hadn’t come up too much for previous audiences.
The night was powerful and many actors remarked on how special it felt to perform in space that held so much beauty.
“Hyper masculinity and honor killings—theme of men and women relationships.” “Manipulations playing on someone fears and doing their will.” “Pride and you can’t see past it.”
“There’s so many different ways during the play the white and the black racial issue [surfaces]—there was so much anger around his position and Othello’s position—all of that came from a high level of anger and racism—he’s living in the white supremacist world and its just tears him apart.”
“Cal Shakes opened the season with Much Ado and I [love how] this echoes it between a comedy and tragedy: the book ends is such a powerful ending to the season.”
“I hated that Iago used the system to do all of that. The fact that it wasn’t a tragedy that Desdemona dies but it became a tragedy when we see that she was wronged. That makes me so angry.”
“What does it mean for intergenerational lives to exist?”
“What struck me the most is the matter-of-fact nature of the racism. It’s only [mentioned] a few times by the racist characters themselves and then it’s just an every day thing that’s going on. And Othello doesn’t acknowledge it. The dichotomy within him; here he is a general and at the same time he is helpless in love and has no control.”
Excerpt from House Report 8:
Rainbow Community Center at Olympic High School 10/29/16
Hi everyone, we wrapped up the Othello community tour with a show in partnership with the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County (RCC) at Olympic High School. RCC seeks to build community and promote well-being within the LGBTQA community.
With 32 people in attendance, we had a personal show with an engaged audience, many of whom were moved to tears by the end of the performance. One man, a long-time Bruns patron, proclaimed:
“This was the 6th time I’ve seen Othello—I am over 90—I was never as moved as I was today. I have never seen this strong a performance. I have come to Cal Shakes before and this time I missed Othello, so I came here and I am so glad I did because this small group made it much more powerful and intimate…I am so moved, I hope you realize how much of an impact you have.”
This comment was greatly appreciated by the cast. Aldo thanked the man and called him a “godsend,” and explained that on the very first night of Othello at the Bruns, one patron stated during the talkback that this was the “worst Othello” he’d ever seen. Since that opening night, the cast reflected on this negative comment and discussed it during many pre-show moments. Aldo explained the poetic justice of this perfectly timed comment. It was definitely an uplifting and special way to end the final show. The cast brought everything to the table on Saturday and were received by an audience who left inspired.
“Painful.” “Sad.” “Horrified.” “Sad what men can do to each other.” “Powerful.”
“It’s confusing how easily Othello changed his mind about Desdemona.” “Why do you think he did that?” “Because women are discounted.” “Because he was insecure.”
“You know the old saying: power corrupts: well it’s true as hell today.”
“Hella intense. It was awesome. At first my brain was thinking abut little political things about how it’s disturbing — and it’s disturbing because any of us can be influenced, anyone can be blinded. Humans are emotional creatures, and I think its so disturbing because anyone can manipulate anyone. If someone loves and trusts you, you can manipulate them. We choose not to because we care—but you can. This can happen to anyone.”
Thank you everyone. It has been a joy to work with you all!
House manager Jane Eisner joined the crew of Othello on the community tour, and has been keeping notes during every performance. She has written previously about her unique perspective on the audience response to Othello—read on to see how the tour is faring, and join us for one our final public tour today in Concord.
Excerpt from House Report 4: Oakland International School 10/25/16
Hello all, this evening we performed in the multi-purpose room at Oakland International High School. The room was large and open but when the show started the space felt intimate. When we arrived we were informed by one of the teachers that many students would have to leave before the end of the show and would need to exit and reenter the room to use cell phones or communicate with family members. Since the performance was after school hours, many students were picked up by their parents well before the end of the show.
Despite the early departures and frequent breaks, many students were captivated and sat wide-eyed on the edge of their chairs with their chins wedged between their palms.
During the scene where the actors chant “A Sail”, some of the students joined in by chanting along with them.
Many of the students were Muslim or African-American and as one teacher explained, for some, this was their first time seeing live actors. Even for the students who could only experience 30 minutes of the show, the experience of seeing just a segment of live theater alone, was enriching.
To this end, there were points where students would pass by the room and watch from outside by peering in through the windows. They would call their friends over and spectate from afar. During the slapping scene, one student who was watching through the window, mouthed to their friend “is this real?”
At intermission a teacher who was thoroughly loving the performance stood up to take a break and said, “excuse me, I have to go wipe Othello’s fiery off my glasses.” (Hands down the best line of the night!)
Although the talkback was small and shorter than normal, we still got insightful feedback. One person mentioned how powerful it was to have the slapping scene be involved with so many people—making the point that domestic violence is not only a personal act—but rather is influenced by many people and also impacts those not directly involved.
Talkback: initial thoughts and impressions
“[I was under the impression], that the play was going to be about racism. For me the domestic violence is so much more prominent—maybe because it’s more physical and the racism is more in the words.”
“It was areally cool thing for the kids who were in and out.” (commenting on the fact that even though some kids had to leave early or take breaks during the show, they still enjoyed it).
“We got to have a very intimate performance.”
“Many of the students here are Muslim or African and may have never seen people act before.”
“Lots of students watched through the window.”
“We are talking about healthy relationships and tribalism and racism [in the classroom] and a lot of those themes are in here.”
Excerpt from House Report 5: Allen Temple Arms 10/26/16
Hello all, yesterday we held a performance at Allen Temple Arms, a community that provides affordable housing and social services to low income seniors in Oakland, CA. The audience consisted of mostly seniors who lived in at Allen Temple as well as a few friends or family members of the residents. The audience was very focused and followed along with seriousness and attention, taking everything in.
The group was happy to have us there, repeating over and over how much they love Cal Shakes and enjoy our plays. Ms. Alma from the Fences Story Circle was in attendance along with some of her friends who came to see Fences at the Bruns. Ms. Alma was all smiles and after being recognized as a Cal Shakes star, jokingly offered her autograph for $10 a pop. It was lovely seeing her again.
The slapping scene was very intense and the energy of the room changed at this point; people looked away or flinched and seemed startled when Othello chased Desdemona away.
Right before the strangulation scene, after Othello says “one more kiss, now this is the last” the crowd burst out into laughter. When Othello was holding the pillow, toying with the idea of suffocating Desdemona, an audience member shouted, “Don’t do it Othello!”
Energy was very high during the strangulation — some people put their hands over their mouth and tensed up. Many people looked like the wind was knocked out of them.
During the talkback, one woman felt strongly that Othello did the right thing in killing Desdemona, and another audience member countered the opinion. The talkback was very lively and engaged, with a wide range of opinions and this group was more vocal and forthright in sharing their thoughts than other tour audiences.
The day was all around positive and the actors brought a high-energy show which was received with an equal level of attention.
Talkback: initial thoughts and impressions
“Takes a lot of energy to be the bad guy.” “The unfortunate tragedy of this love brings me to tears always.” “Betrayal.” “Confession.” “The acting was superb too—I’ve never seen Othello before.” “I wanted to say something to make Othello stop—but I didn’t want to interrupt the dialogue.”
“She was a conniving bitch—she wasn’t too bad at first but then I felt she wasn’t all that—when you do wrong stuff happens. I don’t know how other people perceive it but to me she wasn’t innocent, she could have been dumb and stupid, a lot of women really are like that. Men will be men and it seemed like she…I wasn’t sorry for what happened.”
Lance: “Do you think women have to be that because men will be men?”
(Same person)“Women have minds too. Maybe the life she lived made her like that. I mean she had a mind, she could think for herself.”
(Another audience member) “I think it was sad of him to listen to all of the negativity. We all have choices. No one can make you do anything. You choice. If you hang around negative people you’re gonna do negative things. If you hang around positive people you’re gonna do positive things.”
“If you been around a person for a long time you know a person—if you love a person then…I have a trust issue I am never gonna take anything at face value. I’m going to research it.”
“None of us is perfect. Nobody. We are all going to do some wrong. We must remember that.”
House manager Jane Eisner joined the crew of Othello on the community tour, and has been keeping notes during every performance. She has written previously about her unique perspective on the audience response to Othello—read on to see how the tour is faring, and join us for one of our public tours, tonight in Oakland or Saturday in Concord.
Excerpt from House Report 3: Federal Correctional Insitute Dublin 10/24/16
Hello all, last night’s performance took place inside of the Federal Correctional Institute—Dublin, a women’s prison in Dublin, CA. The performance was held on a basketball court inside of a dome shaped rec center. It was a special night full of emotion, love, and deep gratitude. The folks of the prison were deeply engaged and brimming with insights. We were greeted with cupcakes and potato chips upon arrival (thanks Dublin!), rain could be heard pit-patting on the tin roof throughout the show which added to the warmth of the night.
The night started with Lance’s pre-show comedy routine, which was received with much laughter. At the start of the show, after each actor introduced themselves, the audience members clapped and cheered loudly—their immediate support for the cast set the tone for the evening.
There were many moments throughout the show that revved up laughter, cheers, distress, and loud sighs. There was big applause when Othello and Desdemona united and kissed— a lot of people spoke on how much they enjoyed seeing the love and chemistry between D&O—beyond everything else, the crowd was rooting for their love.
Bianca’s character got so much support from this audience—more love than Bianca has ever gotten from a crowd, Elizabeth remarked. It was interesting to see how much these women of Dublin embraced each character for who they were and were able to see all parts of them.
Roderigo got lots of laughs throughout—he was the laughter catalyst and smiles came up instantly whenever he entered a scene.
The crowd was fighting for Othello and Desdemona’s love. When Othello showed his rage against Desdemona and then sat down in the audience, the woman next to him whispered to him, “calm down, calm down, she didn’t do it.” After the slapping scene, when it seemed as if O&D were going to make up, there was huge cheering, when Othello then turned against Desdemona, the audience was shocked.
Unfortunately, we had to end early because the women needed to be out of the theater by 8:40pm for count. We ended right after the strangulation scene and had a small talk back with a select group of women. It was heartbreaking having to end early. Needless to say, the cast received a complete standing ovation and cheers.
“Chemistry between O&D” “When you cried, I cried” “You really touched me” “I didn’t like you” (Iago) “I can’t believe you choked her!” “Your connection—how you had such a love for this person and then you could believe the deceit “ “Blinded by love” “The contemporary clothing made it translate better for me.” “Thank you—it opened my eyes to something new.”
Lance: “As an artist this feels like the safest space—So giving.” Elizabeth: “I’ve never had Bianca have so much love.”
“We waited a year for you to come back.” (referring to the time between now and The Tempest)
“I can’t wait to see you on the outside one day.”
Tierra [Allen, Artistic Engagement Associate] adds the following:
(Was there a moment that stood out to you?) “All of it, because it’s life.” “Thank you so much for bringing it to us.” “You (Desdemona & Othello) had such a love, but you could go so easily off someone else’s word.” “That showed Othello’s insecurities. He didn’t think he deserved Desdemona’s love.” (When Iago & Desdemona hug) “That was your one redeeming moment for me. That moment where he had a human moment. Because you (Iago) look like my family…”
(About Emilia) “When a woman is not getting attention from her husband…it eats her up.”
(When Desdemona is begging Othello to believe her) “That’s every young woman who sees she’s not good enough. To plead for affection and to be forgiven but to not be believed—that was worse than the slap.”
(Aldo noticed one woman nodded strongly during Cassio’s ‘reputation’ moment and asked her to say more about how she connected with that moment.) “I was 33 before I got arrested, and my family said “oh my gosh, you’re a drug dealer, you got arrested.”You (Cassio) had merit behind your reputation. I related to it. There’s a lot of my world, my reputation, that I have to build again on merit.”
“That’s what’s sad—so little has changed. A presidency, a lieutenancy, one thing can tarnish a reputation.” (This was the woman who connected Cassio to Obama, described what it would be like if Obama had made many of the remarks that Trump has made.)
(Liz talked about appreciating getting to tell the story for a crowd of all women and that she wanted to do it right) “You did. You did us so well.”
“That disconnect in the slap—the whole world froze, and you think ‘this is not happening.’”
(About Cal Shakes coming back) “We could not wait. I’ve been waiting a year for the workshop and for you to come back. I hope you keep coming back because we really appreciate it.”
House manager Jane Eisner joined the crew of Othello on the community tour, and has been keeping notes during every performance. She has written previously about her unique perspective on the audience response to Othello—read on to see how the tour is faring, and join us for one of our public tours, Friday in Oakland or Saturday in Concord.
Excerpt from House Report 1: Ygnacio Valley High 10/18/16
Hello all, congratulations on opening the tour! Ygnacio Valley High school had a pretty good turn out with 75 people in attendance. Many students seemed to be captivated and were eager to engage during the talk back. Some students seemed fidgety and lost their attention, while others were misty eyed and on the edge of their seats. A large group stayed after to meet the cast and take a picture with them.
Right before the start of the show a group of students performed a devised piece they had written in their drama class about immigration. It was lovely and set the tone for the night.
Talk Back: Initial thoughts and feelings
“Omg! You have me on my toes!” “Gunshot!” “Woah!” “So Intense.” “Messed up.” “Betrayal.” “Passion.” “Overwhelming.” “Anger.” “Sad.” “Jealousy.” “Why?” “Treachery.”
Student: “I don’t believe a man should hit a woman and I believe he crossed that line.” Adult: “I think Iago is the king of conspiracy theories.” Adult: “I am thinking of the word “honest” Iago — and I believe it—I look at him so sweetly.”
Liz’s question: “Were the women always honest?” Student: “The women’s words weren’t taken as true, only the men’s words were.”
Liz’s question: “How did it feel to be a part of it?” Student: “You’re here — he hit you in front of me.” (Referring to the slap) “You’re in front of me, you’re human. Even though it was fake, I could feel it. It hit me.” Student: “There was definitely emotion because you guys were all crying. I started crying cause you started crying.”
Student: “I liked the part when the truth came out – when she found the handkerchief the truth came out — all that happened was because of lies — it was good when the truth came out.” Adult: “No one is completely honest during the whole thing, that adds to the tragedy.”
Student: “I thought that the strangling, gunshot, and slapping was so uncomfortable I was like, ‘I gotta go!’ It was right here!” Lance: “Thank you for sharing that and feeling that and staying.”
Excerpt from House Report 2: Berkeley Food & Housing Project 10/19/16
Hello all, yesterday we held a performance through Berkeley Food & Housing Project at the First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. Many of the audience was comprised of folks who came with Berkeley Food & Housing and others were long time Bruns attendees who missed the main stage production.
The performance space was small and intimate. The wooden floors and natural light that peeked through the glass doors alongside the noise from the busy street, transformed the performance to something very real. The space itself created a living room vibe—making it even easier to draw connections between the play and our own lives. The intimacy between the actors and audience members was palpable.
The audience was comprised of people from many walks of life and exuded an energy of both excitement and caution in being there. On one hand, there was a genuine desire to be in attendance and an eagerness for the show to start, while at the same time, a combat of the inner-dialogue, “proceed with caution.” This caution was expressed through hesitation in sitting in the front row as well as several moments where folks took breaks outside.
At first people were reluctant to participate during the talkback and stayed silent. At this point Lisa [Evans, Associate Director of Artistic Engagement] jumped in and helped moderate the dialogue. Lisa expressed their own reaction to the strangulation scene, sharing their anger towards it. This opened up the floor and others began sharing as well but were still hesitant. It was obvious that people had a lot of feelings and didn’t know how to interact during the talkback—at this moment Lisa led a group breathing exercise which was really amazing and allowed people to relax and share more comfortably. (Thank you, Lisa, way to read the room!) It has been suggested that we start each talkback with a group breathing exercise for the remainder of the tour.
It was clear that the story of Othello hit home with this audience. None of this story was perceived as trivial or small. No one picked apart the direction but rather focused on the story itself and how it related to them.
Question: “Do we see these things [in our lives]?” “Rasism, sexism.” “Domestic violence. Abuse.” “Shaming.”
Question: “How did seeing those images make folks feel?” “Took me way back to about 25 years ago.” (This woman later elaborated on her own domestic violence story)
Question: “Having that feeling, how do you feel about being taken back there?” “My stomach is in knots and I don’t normally disclose. Thank you the acting is amazing.”
Question: “How many people are feeling tender?” —Almost everyone raised their hands.
—Lisa then led a breathing exercise. The group all did several breaths in and out.
“I am struggling with my really strong desire to be able to empathize with Othello and I can’t right now. It’s a really difficult experience to be having.” Continuing, “In some ways he’s (Othello) a victim and we see that unfold. In some ways he’s responsible for the acts of violence.” Continuing, “I want to see the black man who is being manipulated and say I’m on your side, but I can’t do that.”
“I spoke about deception and the tangle way when you practice deceit. And then I see Othello being victimized since he was a war hero so his response was violence and I think he was preyed upon by the man who rejected him. Things happen.”
The work we do on our Main Stage in Orinda is just one facet of our programming: our Artistic Learning and Artistic Engagement programs also bring theater to local students, educators, and community members outside of the Bruns.
We received the following letter, quoted below, last month—in the final weeks of our most thought-provoking and passionately debated show in recent memory. As we embark on Othello‘s community tour, we reflect on last year’s community tour of TheTempest. We are reminded of our audiences everywhere, and our mission to bring classics into the 21st century that engage with the contemporary moment and help us learn about ourselves and each other.
There are two public Othello community tour dates for this year:
Register for these events for FREE at the links above.
Everyone is welcome.
September 24, 2016
Dearest friends at California Shakespeare Company:
You may not receive much correspondence from your local federal prison, but this one is long overdue. Appoximately 11 months ago an extremely talented group of actors, musicians, stage hands and even the director of your production of The Tempest performed for about 100 female inmates on our basketball court at FCI Dublin. My best friend and I were members of the audience and we were enthralled. We had the pleasure to meet you after the show and express our gratitude.
I loved the voice of the beautiful songbird who played Ariel. I am a singer as well and I was mesmerized. True to her character, she enchanted us.
My best friend “D” has been incarcerated for 23 1/2 years. She received a sentence of 3 life sentences for her 1st offense —a NON-VIOLENT drug charge. She had been married to a drug dealer and was considered part of his conspiracy.
There was a beautiful young African American ballerina who played the daughter of Prospero. From the moment she took the stage, D couldn’t take her eyes off her. She favors D’s daughter quite a bit. At one point this fine actor laid down at D’s feet and slept. D cried and said “I’ve never seen my daughter sleep.”
Finally, the actress who played Prospero was humble and strong. Not a single cast member made us feel judged or less than, and her final monologue was sent through time, from Shakespeare by her…to us.
“As you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free.”
She looked D and me in the eyes and reminded us that we matter and that we are still part of the world. I think about that actress often. I hope she continues to change lives with her amazing gift. I know she changed mine.
D and I have reminisced fondly since your performance. We joke, “we escaped that night.” We wanted to express this to you, but we never did. We didn’t think our words would do those feelings justice. But then, in a surprising “plot twist” of our own, President Obama granted D clemency a few weeks ago and she has been returned to her momma nearly 24 years later.
In December, I will be relocated to a half-way house, as my 5 1/2 year sentence is also almost over. I am also here for a non violent, 1st time drug offense, but I am white. I invite you to draw your own conclusions.
Since your performance we have celebrated with you every opening night and award listed in our local newspaper. You deserve all and more than the accolades you receive. Thank you for bringing this incredible production to us and for creating for us a magical and beautiful…freedom.
As the Cal Shakes House Manager, I’m at the Bruns for most performances. My job is to “host the party” for Cal Shakes—make sure people know where to go, where to sit, and that they have what they need to have a safe and enjoyable night at the theater. Therefore, I have the unusual experience of witnessing every single night of Othello. To some, this may sound like a nightmare (!); to others, a dream come true. For me, it tends to be the latter. Ultimately the best way I can describe my nightly experience at Othello is like being a tightrope walker: I carefully navigate each step of the line straddling two extremes: the lovers and the haters. Whichever way the wind blows, the House staff and I navigate the sea of polarizing opinions we’ve been cast into. No matter what happens during the show, one thing continuously stands true: no night is the same.
What sets Othello apart from any of our other shows this season is the involvement of the audience. The play is directed and designed with a Q&A, or “talkback,” between the audience and the actors during the show itself—in fact, right at a crucial moment. This allows, or rather, requires, the show to change each night. The audience responses are vital to the performance—arguably as important as the actors themselves. While many audience members at this point are already applauding or reeling from directorial choices, it is this factor in and of itself that seems to be the most major plot twist.
At every show I make a point to record the comments being said during the Q&A, as well as personal discussions I have with patrons, so I can report a few of them to staff. Each night, a slew of drastically different opinions creates a new dialogue between individuals in each audience and the actors:
“It was marvelous; like a string quartet of a symphony, sparse, clean, and beautiful.”
“I’ve been coming here for 20 years and I’ve never seen a worse play.”
“This transcends pretty much any production.”
“I have been coming to this theater for over 12 years and I have never been more uncomfortable in this predominately white space and I think it’s incredibly brave of you to take on this race issue.”
“I’m frustrated because I don’t want this interruption; I want to see the rest of the play.”
“The jokes were really inappropriate and distracting.”
“The jokes were chilling and daring—the audience reactions were maybe inappropriate.”
“To watch you interact as actors and then watch you sit and watch each other on the stage is something you never get and I loved seeing that—to see you as actors and as people.”
“This is a watershed moment for Cal Shakes.”
With each new insight that surfaces we, (as staff members, as theater-goers, as artists, and as people) see and hear a new perspective. We are challenged and put on the spot—there is no phone screen to hide behind to plot a reaction—we are in real time.
Just before the talkback, the audience experiences the climactic scene in which Othello strangles Desdemona. This scene in particular has been a topic of discussion for many audience members. Not only for the obvious reason—that a murder is performed on stage—but specifically because of the director’s portrayal of this violent act.
The onstage scene is shown concurrently through a video camera streaming live onto a screen in the background, while simultaneously the audience hears narration of a medical definition of strangulation. Audience members either love or hate this juxtaposition. Some state that the definition of strangulation is “too factual” while others comment that the definition makes the murder “more real.” To the same effect, patrons have adverse and complimentary reactions to the use of the video camera in this scene. Some find it distracting, while others believe it makes the murder “hard to ignore” and have compared it to videos of police shootings seen on social media. To that end, whatever the commentary may be, it is clear that the director’s choices are provoking thought. It is in these moments of truth, where our personal realities surface.
What the “naysayers” and “yaysayers” can’t convey in words is the palpable energy and emotion that lights them up, performance after performance. As a nightly observer, I’ve noticed that this work makes our audience feel vulnerable, challenged, and often, uncomfortable. It’s putting the personal into theater by forcing us to look at the hard stuff.
As a member of the frontline, I’ll take the good and the bad with a grain of salt and know that with each new night there is an opportunity to grow. #LoveHateOthello, and I’ll see you at the Bruns!
Jane Eisner has been Cal Shakes’ House Manager since the beginning of the 2016 Season. She joined us from The Playwrights Foundation where she was the Associate Producer. She is also a playwright and actor.
I been locked up 23 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. I came here at 22, and this was a blessing because I’ve never gotten to see theater before. You just blew my mind!
These are just a few of the comments from the 1,057 community members Cal Shakes engaged with last year’s All The Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest. With 8 actors and 1 musician, plus a van-load of props and costumes, The Tempest toured to 7 community sites in 5 Bay Area cities, before playing to the general public at the Oakland Museum of California.
We came to our neighbors at Allen Temple Arms, a housing complex for low-income seniors in East Oakland; DISH (Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing), which permanently houses formerly homeless San Franciscans with serious health problems; Civicorps, a West Oakland high-school diploma and job training program for 18-26 year olds; the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in downtown Oakland; the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin; the Hacienda assistant living facility for low-income seniors in Martinez; and Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which works to end homelessness in our community. As Cal Shakes wraps up Othello‘s run at the Bruns and preps to take it into this year’s community tour, we’re inspired, and guided, by their words:
(How did this production impact you?) The lesson of forgiveness running parallel in my own personal life presently.
Loved the actors interacting with the audience.
Wonderful combination of the traditional and the contemporary.
Thank you, because it is such a diverse group. Actors of color don’t always get featured in Shakespeare. I’ve never seen such a diverse group, with the gender bending y’all did, it was radical for me. I think many young people need to see this.
There’s so much we’ve been missing out on. You (Prospero) are such a powerful woman, we got to see you kick ass. We got to see our family fall in love and get married tonight.
Never been to a play before. Everything impacted me in a positive way.
I never was into plays or Shakespeare but I really enjoyed it. I’m a fan.