Through the Looking Glass: 'Feminist Shakespeare' at Dartmouth

by Kelly Gaudet | 5/3/17 2:55am

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I wrote and directed “Feminist Shakespeare (or, Unsex Me Here),” which ran in the Bentley Theater on April 29 and 30 after three weeks of exciting and chaotic rehearsals.

I have always been fascinated by women’s voices — what they say, how they sound, to whom they belong. As a child, I listened to the different tones of my female family members’ conversations as they chattered over morning coffees, the deep, strong timbre of my aunt’s voice mixing with my mother’s bubbly laughter and my grandmother’s thoughtful recounting of stories about so-and-so’s son (you know, Uncle Andy’s daughter’s ex-boyfriend). Women’s voices carry so much power, so much unity, such a legacy of struggle and of companionship. I found women’s voices and experiences to be sources of inspiration as I began writing short stories, and later as I moved into screenwriting for part of my film and media studies major at Dartmouth.

As I grew older, I became enchanted by the works of Shakespeare. I stuffed my suitcase for middle school vacations with swimsuits, baseball hats and four or five paperbacks of “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and the like, eagerly eschewing space allotted for such trivialities as sunblock and flip-flops (thanks, Mom and Dad, for telling me this wasn’t weird). The poetic language, the wordplay and the liveliness of the characters drew me in, and I remained a lover of Shakespeare throughout my time at Dartmouth.

As I read more and became increasingly critical of texts, I found that, while Shakespeare’s works were filled with powerful feminist moments, he often obscured them by forcing his female characters to deviate from their moments of power. In doing so, he redirected the attention back to the male protagonist, who was, without fail, driving the plot. Consider Juliet’s musing, “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?” — a nod toward a deeply-rooted fear of upsetting social norms by criticizing one’s husband, and a statement that she immediately dilutes with a (somewhat viciously self-deprecating) reminder of her love for him when she sighs, “Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name, / When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?” As I began to take note of these occurrences, I imagined a text in which Shakespearean women’s problems, concerns, moments of pain and moments of power could be presented as phenomena worthy of the stage in their own right, not bound to any narrative driven by the male force.

Drinking coffee early in the morning and late at night, holing up in my dorm room or hastily jotting down phrases from an enormous anthology of Shakespeare’s works my brother gifted me, I compiled monologues and excerpts from 23 of Shakespeare’s plays. I created something that was half spoken-word performance and half modern play; I envisioned women speaking the most powerful female lines I could find in his works, voices mingling, repeating and occasionally speaking in unison. I relied on the incredible instruction I’ve received from professor Bill Phillips, my screenwriting professor, and professor Tommy O’Malley, my fiction writing professor, as I attempted to create a narrative by compiling these excerpts from Shakespeare’s works into something that was neither screenplay nor prose, but rather a story to be performed live, something ephemeral, something intangible.

During the “writing” process (really, I was compiling, rearranging and decontextualizing the writings of Shakespeare), I found it most difficult to decide when to stop editing. Between auditions, I would rework the final scene, change interactions between characters, scrap entire scenes. When I realized my only editor was myself, that I was answering only to my own sense of the finished product, it became incredibly difficult to be satisfied with the script. I felt I always needed to improve it or change things, and more than once I sat up late at night staring at the script, wondering if I should just start over. Perfectionism is, I think, many artists’ and writers’ biggest flaw. Finally, the day of my first rehearsal, I forced myself to finish editing the script and pressed “send” on the email to the cast containing the PDF of the script. I was terrified.

When rehearsals started, I found the words I had compiled and the moments I had strung together took on new lives as actors brought their own interpretations to the characters, who were amalgams of female characters from many works. I didn’t know much about directing, but I relied on the work I had seen Tazewell Thompson produce, a visiting professor who directed performances at Dartmouth during the fall of 2013 and 2016 (in which I was an assistant stage manager and an actor, respectively). He has been a mentor and friend to me throughout my Dartmouth career, and I am certain that, had I not been exposed to his work, I would never have gained the skills necessary to begin directing actors. I tried to guide the actors, but was continually blown away by the cast’s (Justine Goggin ’18, Angelina DiPaolo ’17, Alexis Wallace ’17, Mimi Fiertz ’18, Virginia Cook ’18, Lucia McGloin ’17 and Maddie Dunn ’17) talent, enthusiasm and dedication. It gave me goosebumps to watch something I had written come alive and change shape before me.

When we moved from rehearsals in various classrooms and rehearsal rooms into the Bentley Theater, we began to explore and play with space rather than strictly language. I asked actors to enter from behind the audience, to jump into the orchestra pit as though it were a sunken grave, to storm off the stage and pound on the wall just below the lighting designer (Will Maresco ’19) and yell their lines at him. The play took on new meanings as we explored the spatial aspects of the show, and we were able to discuss not only women’s moments involving domestic abuse, sexual violence, neglect and resilience in Shakespeare, but also the relationship between female tragedy and spectatorship. The play now aimed also to criticize itself and the audience for the fascination with the spectacle of weeping women. I was thrilled.

My entire life, I’ve loved writing. I have said more than once that I will write anything — poems, short stories, plays, screenplays. Storytelling is a beautiful art across its many forms. It’s easy to tell yourself you’re not good enough or allow the fears of rejection, humiliation and criticism to sink in and bar you from submitting that application, finishing that play or even showing that short story to your friend for feedback. Half of producing art is ignoring that voice, finishing the story and hitting “send” on the email.