This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. It’s Tori here with the latest in Shakespeare news from Toronto.
Thought for Food Productions has assembled an all female cast to tackle Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays, setting it in Weimar era Germany and driving home the parallels between Shakespeare’s time, 1930s Germany, and our current political climate. I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to that cast and crew of what is sure to be a thought provoking and powerful production.
Tori: Measure for Measure is such a sexually fraught play, what motivated the choice of an all female cast?
Tyler Seguin- Director: It’s funny you ask that – the process was the other way around. The all-female approach was suggested by Toni Ellwand who initiated this project, although she had to leave us for another commitment. Her reason was to give women access to a great text that is typically male-dominated in casting. I decided that if I’m going to direct this project, there needs to also be an artistic rationale for the all-female approach. So, when we were choosing the play we honed in on Measure for Measure because it deals so directly with gender politics and sexuality. By casting it all-female, you immediately get a different take on the play.
This play is called a “problem play” and I’ve certainly found it problematic in many ways: the language is some of the densest I’ve ever encountered; the tone bounces between comedy and tragedy; the plot revolves around some morally questionable actions (bed trick, anyone?); the ending is ambiguous and leaves us feeling ambivalent about these characters. There are no easy answers in Measure for Measure and whether it’s performed by men or women, that doesn’t change. What is illuminated by this casting, is the role of women in this narrative and in this society – even Isabella is only a tool of her brother, and then the Duke; Mariana pines for a man who wronged her, Juliet is asked to repent her sin. The only woman who profits is the brothel owner, Mistress Overdone, but her livelihood is built on the exploitation of women!
The Duke says to Mariana near the end, “Why you are nothing then. Neither maid, widow, nor wife” and then Lucio suggests that she could be a “punk” and that pretty much sums up what a woman could be at that time. It’s horrifying but there’s something delightful hearing that line when the stage is full of women being so much more than those prescribed roles.
Tori: What has it been like to be the only male voice in the making of this production?
Tyler: No different at all from any other project I’ve worked on. We’re a collective of artists striving to make the best work we can and our gender doesn’t change that at all.
Tori: Why set the play in the last days of the Weimar Republic?
Tyler: When I was deciding on my approach to the play I went looking for a setting that evoked a sense of unbridled hedonism overshadowed by a looming spectre of fascism. Helen suggested that the Weimar era might be a good option and after a little research, I realized that it fit perfectly politically and socially.
In Weimar Germany, there was an incredible surge of energy to challenge existing notions about everything – politics, sexuality, gender, morals. We hear this in the music and see it in the art of that era. Weimar Berlin was one of the most liberal places in the world and while cross-dressing and homosexuality were still technically illegal, these laws were unenforced until the Nazis took power.
Tori: Choosing to set the stage so to speak with a cabaret is also an interesting choice, what was your thinking behind it and how do you think it parallels the action of the play?
Tyler: We’re using the Weimar cabaret as a framing device for the play itself. The concept is that when you enter the theatre you’ve entered a woman’s cabaret in Weimar-era Germany. And it’s the women of that cabaret who are presenting Measure for Measure. This allows us to explore the staging in a creative way – incorporating live music, a shadow screen, using only a few basic costumes for character changes – but it also helps the audience set aside the question of a character’s gender. We’re keeping all the pronouns and titles as is – “he” “lord” “sir” all remain intact. That way the audience can determine for themselves which characters are masculine, which are feminine and which ones are somewhere in between. When we tell people, we’re doing an all-female version they often ask “how’s that going to work? Are they playing men? Are they going to use male voices, or walk differently?” and my hope is that the frame will allow our audience to let go of those questions and just enjoy great actors doing great work.
Tori: You say that the subject matter of the play could be ripped from our current headlines, what parallels do you see between our time, Weimar Germany, and 17th century England?
Tyler: We live in a time and place of unprecedented liberty – and yet as we can see from recent political events around the world – The Middle East, Europe, and the USA in particular – there’s an equally strong pushback against personal freedoms that is typically framed as a moral objection. The political uncertainty, the economic instability, and the social upheavals we’re experiencing right now are a strong echo of Weimar Germany. Jacobean England was also experiencing similar conditions with a rich intellectual and artistic flourishing overshadowed by the rising power of the ultra-conservative Puritans. I think these alternating periods of liberalism and conservatism are a common cycle throughout human history and that the times of upheaval as we transition from one to the other sparks a lot of creative expressions. I just hope we learned the lessons from the last cycle so we can move into this one with more compassion.
We like to think ourselves somehow above these issues here in Toronto, but the recent closure of marijuana dispensaries is an example of Measure for Measure’s set-up: an illegal, but socially acceptable activity is suddenly cracked down on. Who is being harmed? Are the laws just? These are questions that can fly out the window when a leader deems him or herself the arbiter of public morality. But as Shakespeare shows us again and again, even the most powerful among us are, after all, merely human.
Tori: You plan to ‘transport the Red Sandcastle back in time and place to an underground café in Weimar Berlin,’ how do you plan to achieve this vision?
Holly Meyer-Dymny – Production Design: The plan is to turn the Red Sandcastle space into a dive bar. Living in the red and black tones and dim lighting of all our favourite bars, the space will feature a cabaret stage, a repurposed bar, and small tables. The audience must enter the performance space and move through the bar to reach their seating. The audience seating blends with the theatrical space and incorporates some of the audience into the set and some of the set into the audience.
Tori: How do you think the new setting enhances the text and or the production?
Holly: A story about tyrannical rule vs. freedom resonates so strongly in the current socio-political environment. We also see the Weimar era mirrored in our current world. In an environment where minority groups are trying to tell their stories and have them be heard it makes sense to me for a group of women to take control of this text. It tells the story through a different lens and lends an extra layer of seriousness, but also comedy, to the story. Shakespeare has the advantage of being played in so many different eras but I do think that Tyler has found a resonant parallel and an incredible cast to bring this vision to light.
Tori: Turning now to Melissa Morris who composed and original score for the production. What can you tell us about the original score you are composing for the show? What do you think it adds to the production?
Melissa Morris – Music: Since I was out of the country while writing in the music, I was writing for Tyler and what he wanted, as well as what the text/play steered me towards. I was trying to write for the time period and the characters and the mood and the feel of the moments of the scenes and I was aiming to add depth and tension and stakes by musicalizing some moments.
Tori: I also have a few questions for the cast. Firstly, what do you believe is achieved by having and all female cast? Are there any extra layers or subtexts that can be added by having an exclusively female cast?
Genevieve Adam – Lucio: I believe an all-female cast gives talented female actors a chance to have a crack at amazing roles they would never otherwise be able to access. Shakespeare wrote excellent female roles, but they almost always exist in relation to the men in their lives, whereas the male characters are independent in the world, and are dealing with a wider sphere. It also allows women watching the show to identify with the characters and see their own experience more fully represented there.
Jacklyn Francis – Duke of Vienna: Men rule Vienna. While we were in the early stages of rehearsals, the “grab her by the pussy” video of the President elect came out, and that brought home to me the misogyny that the female characters must face in Measure for Measure. Not that this wouldn’t be apparent to me if men were playing the male characters, but it resonated with me on a deeper level. Isabella’s line “To Whom should I complain” became my favourite line of the play. The Duke’s plan to trap Angelo is as elaborate as it is because he knows that if it came down to Isabella’s word against Angelo’s no one would believe her. We still see this today. (Pretty much Any rape trial). I have also noticed, in this, and other Shakespeare plays (All’s Well, for example) when the women get married, they lose their voices. We don’t hear much from Isabella once the Duke is unveiled in the final scene, and I think the fact that we are all women releases the production from having to find a way to make that palatable. We can highlight it. They don’t have to be a happily married couple at the end… We can leave it more open. (I don’t want to say more…. Spoiler alert)
Catherine McNally – Escalus: The opportunity for amazingly talented women to play more Shakespearean parts. Particularly roles that are not defined by their relationship to a man, like so many female roles are. We can simply play a person whose objectives maybe political, administrative, decision making based on the world in which they live not based on who they want to marry.
The masculine and the feminine are not defined solely by appearance, that we as humans possess these qualities vibrating back and forth depending on our relationships, our environment and what we want, not solely our gender.
Tori: I couldn’t agree more! Have there been any obstacles in preparing for your role?
Genevieve: My obstacle has been avoiding the temptation to simply ape male behaviour i.e. give my impression of naughty teenage Keifer Sutherland, and go beyond that to find the truth of the character. Also, trying to find the real nastiness of Lucio has been hard – as I’m physically smaller than most of the people I threaten, I must find a way to project that menace without necessarily doing it physically.
Jacklyn: The independent discipline it is required as we, as of late, have been sporadically rehearsing for 2 months. We are now developing a full collaborative company as we are spending more time together. I think that is part of rehearsing with a large cast, that are doing other projects. It is like we are in rep.
Catherine: There is one particular decision that the Duke makes that I have had some trouble getting my head around. I understand why he does it, but it seems unnecessarily cruel. I think he makes the decision so that he can get what he wants, so I am able to motivate it, but I have had to work hard to get myself past judging him for it.
Stephanie Folkins – Abhornson/ Mariana: In playing Mariana, I struggled with finding the passion for Angelo despite the fact that he destroyed my heart. It is reaching deep to past feelings of loving the one who no longer loves you. It’s a wound with which we all are inflicted at some point and one we all learn to protect ourselves from. Instead of quieting that yearning, I had to learn to let it fuel me. It became an exciting and terrifying challenge. Also, I am working opposite the incredibly talented Deb Drakeford, and it’s impossible not to love her!
Tori: What in this production are you most excited for?
Genevieve: All of the music – there’s something incredibly special about music and singing as an ensemble that lifts up a show. And the filthy puppet show, of course 🙂
Jacklyn: Working in a small space is always challenging as far as focus goes, but it also enables us to explore intimacy. I am looking forward to letting people be a part of the world in such proximity. My goal is to be as simple and honest as possible. The audience will be right there with us. They are a part of our world. It’s both a terrifying and exhilarating thought.
Catherine: To share with the audience how this play resonates even deeper now after what has happened south of the border. It is our job to express what it is to be human. I will look forward to sharing this experience with my actors/artists and the audience.
I am quite honoured to be in the room with Tyler and Helen. Tyler is an ex-student of mine from UTM. He is an artist of clear vision, patience, and gentle/political heart. It is rewarding to see him find his voice and clearly defining himself. Helen is so clearly committed, intellectually and emotionally balanced in her work. Just simply, they are stupidly talented.
Stephanie: In the last few months, with what is happening in the world, I became so grateful to be sharing the stage with this cast of powerful females. At a time where, so publicly and so poisonously, our society’s view of women has come into question, I am so excited to use our voices, to light fires and poke fun at certain stereotypes and hopefully destroy others. I get to be a part of that, and that is so exhilarating.
Tori: What has it been like working with Thought for Food and what has it meant to you to be a part of this production?
Genevieve: It’s been amazing working with TFF – there’s an excellent balance of text work, experimentation, solo work, and collaboration. And at a time when many women around the world are still voiceless, and many of the advances we’ve made seem in danger of being lost, it seems that we need to see more women on stage now more than ever.
Jacklyn: I have really enjoyed the “can do” attitude of the whole group. We are all pulling together to make this happen with very few resources. People are raiding their closets for their own (and other people’s) costumes with Holly overseeing everything and keeping it all in the same world, adding her own pieces to pull it all together. It’s exciting to be a part of that process. Tyler and Helen chose not to crowdfund it, so it really is a labour of love. Ticket sales alone is going to be how they are going to pay for this production, so it’s a risk. A risk we all jumped on board to make. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sew the hem on my shorts and finish quick changing my shirt….
Stephanie: So many important issues have arisen through our exploration of Measure for Measure. The exploration of a woman’s right to decide her own future being one of them. (It kills me that that is still a topic of discussion in 2016.) I have had the best time listening to these women, these educated, beautiful, strong women voice their opinions in a time where it might be easy for a woman to feel small. I have been given a platform on which to safely and supportively articulate my own views and incorporate them into our work. I feel so blessed that I had the opportunity to work with the incredible team at Thought for Food, our two fabulous men included.
Tori: Thank you all for sharing your thoughts with me, I can’t wait to see the show!
Thought for Food’s Production of Measure for Measure runs from November 23 – December 4th at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. Tickets range from $15-$25 and can be purchased at Brown Paper Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2665978.