A Sister, You Are She

Playing women in Shakespeare, by Ben Allen

Being part of Propeller, you often get asked, “What’s it like playing a woman?” or “How do you approach playing a woman?” It seems to be a subject that many people are interested in, whether from an acting perspective, from a political perspective, or simply out of curiosity. In post-show discussions we are able to give brief answers to these questions but I thought it would be interesting to go into a bit more detail.

It is worth mentioning that the idea of Propeller being an all male company is not something our artistic director Ed Hall deliberately set out to do. It all started with a production of Henry V at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury in the nineties, where Ed had the idea of telling the story through a chorus of twentieth century male soldiers – an idea that was revisited in our production of Henry last year. This initial production was a huge success and so Ed asked that company if they wanted to do another one, naturally they said they did and so the company began the process of being formed. All actors who were in that first production were asked back to do the next production, something which Propeller continue to do to this day. It wasn’t until some years later when Ed decided the company should have a name, so he asked the current company to come up with ideas and Propeller was the one that stuck. A lot of people I speak to about Propeller say, “Oh, so you’re doing it the traditional way” by this referring to the fact that in Shakespeare’s time, all the parts were played by men. While I can see what they mean, we’re not aiming to replicate that, as anyway, from what we know the female parts would have been played by teenaged boys, whose voices had not yet broken, rather than fully grown men. By having men playing women we are making the audience complicit in the theatricality of the piece and the storytelling, rather than trying to make them believe what they are seeing is “real”. In doing this we encourage our audiences to take an imaginative leap right from the start, to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” and “make imaginary puissance” (to quote Henry V). This high jump of the imagination makes for a highly rewarding experience, both for the audience and indeed the actors.

I am in my second year with Propeller now and have played two women over the four plays I have done: Perdita in The Winter’s Tale last year and Olivia in Twelfth Night this year. These are both extremely different characters: Perdita a princess who is cast out as a baby into the wild and brought up by shepherds, not knowing her true identity until the end of the play, quite a mild character who speaks when she is spoken to and is admired by everyone for her beauty and gracious behaviour; on the other hand, Olivia is a grieving countess, having recently lost her brother and father, yet arguably the highest status person in the play, who ruthlessly speaks her mind and commands attention, frequently demanding what she wants and putting down those around her in the blink of an eye. As you might imagine, the difference between playing these characters is huge, which is why one can’t generally talk about playing women, just as I couldn’t talk generally about playing Shakespearean characters, or Chekhovian characters, or male characters. My motivations, vocal language and physical language are usually very different depending on who it is I am playing.

If I’m to be specific then, I can share a bit of my ongoing experience creating the character of Olivia, since this is the part I am currently playing. It is fair to say that my process of creating this character is roughly the same as with any character, be it male or female, though the resulting character will be different depending on the demands of the piece. I started before rehearsals began by reading the play two or three times in its entirety, including anything that Ed and Roger Warren had edited out for the Propeller version. I then began to look more closely at the scenes relevant to Olivia. These are not just the scenes in which she appears, but also scenes where she is spoken about. I carried on to make four lists: the facts about my character; things she says about herself; things she says about other people, and things other people say about her. For example, we can safely assume that it is a fact that her brother and father have both recently died, we also know she is a woman, and that she is a countess. She says Malvolio is “sick of self love”, yet also says “I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry”. She is called “cruelty” by both Viola and Orsino, and Maria says Olivia will hang Feste for his absence from the house. These are just a few examples of clues within the text, which one ends up weaving together to create the basic foundations of the character.

One can also look at the form of Olivia’s words as they are on the page; she starts off the play speaking in prose, indicating perhaps a rational and emotionally disconnected state of mind. It is only towards the end of her first meeting with Viola, disguised as Cesario when she starts speaking in verse, which tells us something has changed within her: her emotional cogs begin to be set in motion and by the end of the scene she’s even got a rhyming couplet! By looking closely at the text and mining out the clues within it, one can create a basic skeletal structure, which helps to plot the character’s journey through the play.

Something that playing a woman often requires is great change in physicality. It is a refreshing challenge for me, especially in a world where typecasting is becoming more and more prevalent, to have to actively and constantly make different choices when it comes to physical movement and interaction with other characters. People often imagine it to be very difficult for men to inhabit more feminine qualities and vice versa, yet I think it mostly comes down to a question of the individual’s willingness to embrace the opposite sex within them. I am a firm believer that we are made up of both masculine and feminine aspects. As a man, I was brought up by my mother – a woman, all my primary school teachers were women, many of my secondary school teachers were women, I had many female friends as a child and continue to have them now, I lived with two women for five years, my two best friends are women… I could go on. People ask if we spend time observing the way women move and so on, but I don’t really feel the need to do that as I’ve been doing it my entire life! A big part of bringing that physicality on stage is simply embracing that part of you that intuitively knows what those qualities are, without commenting on it, sending it up (unless the part requires it!) or feeling embarrassed. I feel the key to really inhabiting this physicality is to root everything in the character’s inner life, history and desires and to try and be as specific as possible. Generalised “woman acting” would just be pretty crass I think, so one needs to be careful to think precisely about what kind of woman one is playing.

During the rehearsal process, with the help from Ed and our associate director Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, I developed a detailed mental picture of how Olivia would look, move, speak and so on. I used plenty of specific personal references to build up this picture. This could be anything from women I have randomly encountered to friends or colleagues to characters from films. Indeed a big inspiration for me was Goldie Hawn’s performance in the 1980s comedy film Overboard, where she plays a spoilt and bored woman living on a yacht. This might seem a little odd, especially in a production where the design is taken from an obscure existentialist French film from the 60s, but for me it’s just about what works for you personally. I made sure I had a rehearsal skirt to wear and I got my heels early in rehearsals, as wearing these things really do influence the way you move around, not only the manner of movement but also the tempo – it’s much harder to go fast in heels! Ed said to me in the final week of rehearsals; “Olivia is the sort of woman who would spend fifteen minutes in a restaurant making the waiter go through every item on the menu only to eventually order a green salad” (no dressing, obviously). These kinds of abstract character references are things that I find tremendously useful, references that allow your imagination to take you off somewhere you can find all sorts of new things to try out.

In terms of voice, I am not trying to exactly replicate a particular woman’s voice and I certainly don’t try anything like a falsetto voice, something which I think would only act as a barrier between myself and the character, and in turn the audience and my character. Instead I aim to suggest a female voice by shifting the resonance higher up in my body, that is from the stomach and solar plexus up towards the chest, face and head. As a consequence of this the voice does become generally higher, but I remain connected to it and it still has the potential to drop down in tone and resonate from different areas, should the moment require it. It is ultimately about finding a character voice that you can inhabit as fully as your own voice, once this happens you can go in any direction you want to go in and in turn make all sorts of discoveries.

All in all I find playing a woman extremely liberating. That might sound strange and many people would expect the opposite to be true, yet there is something so exciting about playing a character who is such a different entity to you. I remember a director at drama school once said that if you are playing something that is very close to you, you are likely to do a good job, but because you are so familiar with that world you may not fully explore and take many things for granted. On the other hand, if you are making a great jump imaginatively you have the capability to see things with fresh eyes and explore the character to its fullest potential. I think this is very true and I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to do this in such a wonderfully supportive company, especially in a world where many directors and casting directors understandably won’t cast you outside of your type because they can’t take the risk that you will be able to achieve the end result within the time frame of the project.

As I write this I am aware of that fact that men playing women in the theatre has been the cause of much debate, particularly recently, with many articles expressing the frustration of female actors having less opportunities than men due to there being more parts for men, particularly in classical work. Many might ask, what is the validity of having men playing women? Why not have women in this company? I personally cannot give formal answers to these questions but I hope that it is through such productions as ours, the recent all male productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III out of the Globe and the all female Julius Caesar at the Donmar, that audiences can grow to appreciate gender-blind casting. Surely by doing this we could potentially open up those hundreds of fantastic male parts in the classical repertoire for women to play. In addition to this we need to encourage more female (and male) playwrights and directors to create work about women and for women. Hopefully by gaining more female work we can gain some kind of gender balance and I would much rather that than preventing more male-orientated work from existing or policing the arts and telling people what they can and cannot do. As a company we should be free as artists to put on the work we feel compelled to make, and as long as there are audiences willing to come and see us, I think we will be doing it for quite some time to come.

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