Shakespeare? Suffragettes? Yes, please!

 Lucentio (Kate Smith) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of  The Taming of the Shrew , conceived and directed by Barbara Gaines with Columbia Women's Club scenes by Ron West, in CST's Courtyard Theatre, September 16 – November 12, 2017. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Lucentio (Kate Smith) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of The Taming of the Shrew, conceived and directed by Barbara Gaines with Columbia Women's Club scenes by Ron West, in CST's Courtyard Theatre, September 16 – November 12, 2017. Photo by Liz Lauren.

We're always looking for great Shakespeare shows to see in Chicago.  So we were delighted and intrigued to see that Chicago Shakespeare was doing an all female Taming of the Shrew set in a women's club in Chicago just before the 19th amendment is passed.  All women? Shakespeare? Suffragettes?  What could be more in line with The Viola Project's mission?

We sat down with actor Kate Smith who appears as Ms. Olivia Twist/Lucentio in the show to get the inside scoop!


TVP: Tell us a little about the new framework you guys are working with.

KS: Ron created a 1900's framework to go around Shrew. It focuses on a women's club that performs Shakespeare and is about to complete the canon. Our play catches them during their final dress rehearsal of Taming of The Shrew. In between scenes from the play, the club members discuss whether or not women should get the vote and deal with a few roadblocks that arise for the company. Ron is a Second City man, so even though the show deals with serious issues you will find a great deal of humor in his writing. Shrew was originally written with a framework that commented on the play as it happened, so I think our new frame fits in naturally. I also think it works because it shows us how far we have come as women, and how far we have yet to go. There are some issues these women in the 1900's are dealing with that we are still struggling to reconcile in 2017. 

...There are some issues these women in the 1900s are dealing with that we are still struggling to reconcile in 2017...

TVP: This production is unusual in that the cast is all women.  How do you think the casting supports or negates the play?

KS:  Taming of The Shrew is a sexist play in my opinion. While I do think that Shakespeare was standing up for women through the text, it is not in a way that is discernible to contemporary audiences. So, why do the play? I think having a group of all women "speak the speech" turns the play on its head and reclaims the text for the "fairer sex". It shows that women are just as strong and capable as men (both as actors and as humans), thereby disproving Kate's speech at the end; it highlights the sexist language in a way that is harder to ignore when you have a woman speaking it to another woman. I have had countless men come up to me at the end of the show and express, "I didn't know this play was so sexist before I heard a woman speak those words". The original play would have been put on by all men, so by flipping it to all women we are staying true to its original one gender casting. I think Shakespeare would have approved. Kate says the following during the production and it sticks out for me every night:

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart

Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,

And, rather than it shall, I will be free

Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.

I believe this speech shows Shakespeare's understanding for women being labeled as "Shrew" in his society. It is my hope that our translation will show that Women are equal and we have not been treated as such. I believe we must speak to this, or 'our heart's concealing it will break'.

...I think having a group of all women "speak the speech" turns the play on its head and reclaims the text for the "fairer sex"...

TVP: What kind of things are possible when you have a group of all women performing together that might not happen if you were working with a cast that included men?

KS:  We get to influence young audiences . We do this production for a great many school groups. I don't remember ever seeing a production that was all female identified growing up, the closest I got was Xenia Warrior Princess. Representation is important, and I think it is necessary that young women and men see that an all female cast of Shakespeare is not only possible, but is also well done. I think it shows the strength of women in a way that we don't get to experience often in our contemporary culture. 

...I have had countless men come up to me at the end of the show and express, "I didn't know this play was so sexist before I heard a woman speak those words"...

Also, with this particular play, I believe that we were able to have conversations about feminism and sexism that would not have been possible with men in the cast. This cast is full of women whose ages range from 26-62, we have diversity of race, back round, and religious thinking. I have NEVER been in a rehearsal room like that. The conversations were rich and we could be honest without fear of judgment because we were all women. I think if we would have had men in the cast we would have been less open. I love acting with men as well, but I wouldn't trade this experience for the world. I wish there were all female casts more often, it shows the strength of women in a way that you don't see often. My hope is that we will see more all female Shakespeare in years to come. Many of the women, myself included, expressed how nice it was that we didn't feel like we had to wear makeup to rehearsal everyday, because we felt like we had been hired for something more than our physical appearance and we wouldn't be judged by anyone in the room.

TVP: If you could give a piece of advice to young women in the arts, what would it be?

KS:  Be kind to yourself and others, and show empathy. The arts put you face to face with a great deal of rejection, so know that you are worthy and your work is of value. Find a happy life outside of the arts, so that you can create with more depth. If you aren't happy outside of your work you will not be happy within it. 

The Taming of the Shrew runs until November 12!  Don't miss it!