Be or Not to Be a Woman: That Is the Question for Smith-Howard's
Photo: Fred LeBlanc
of The Lady Cavaliers, a New York City-based, nonprofit
action theatre company that was created to promote a stronger
female image through the art of stage combat, came to MHC
to train Hamlet actors in the art of using a sword.
name is woman!" laments Shakespeare's Hamlet. In traditional
productions of the famous tragedy, this criticism is Hamlet's
despair over the inability of the weaker sex" (his
mother Gertrude and all women) to honor their husbands with long
widowhood and mourning. In Alycia Smith-Howard's upcoming production,
the same lines can be heard as self-loathing, Hamlet's
own despair over her indecisiveness and seeming inability to avenge
her father's murder. The twist is one of many in Smith-Howard's
gender-bending Hamlet, in which Denmark's Prince Hamlet
is Princess Hamlet, a daughter denied her rightful throne and
caught in a web of corruption, intrigue, and sexual politics.
The production is scheduled to run at Rooke Theatre April 1820
and April 2627 at 8 pm, and April 28 at 2 pm.
has become so hackneyed," said Smith-Howard, visiting assistant
professor and departmental coordinator of first-year students
in the Department of Theatre Arts. Everyone has an opinion
on the play, regardless of whether they have actually read it
or not. I have even seen people mouthing the words along with
the actors, they know this play so well. So I began to ask, how
can we hear this play with new ears?"
new (female) voices might give us 'new ears'goes a step
beyond casting a woman in the role of Hamlet, a long-standing
tradition made popular by actresses such as Sarah Siddons (1776)
and Sarah Bernhardt (1899). Her answer enacts an idea first expressed
by nineteenth-century scholar Edward P. Vining in The Mystery
of Hamlet (1881), the idea that Hamlet actually is female.
The charms of Hamlet's mind are essentially feminine in
their nature," wrote Vining. The question may be asked,
whether Shakespeare had the thought dawn up on him that this womanly
man might be in very deed a woman."
of Hamlet will also present other new voices. Although
all characters except Hamlet will remain their original sex, all
will be played by women. This reversal of the Elizabethan stage
practice of casting only male actors will seize the play for female
actors, says Smith-Howard, who is amused when people ask whether
the all-female cast will be confusing. In Shakespeare's
own time, male actors played all the parts," she says. We
have no evidence to suggest that his audience was 'confused' by
this convention. In fact, looking at the plays, we can see Shakespeare
delightfully exploiting this convention and taking it to all sorts
of gender-bending limits. In Twelfth Night, for example,
there would have been a male actor playing a female character
(Viola), who then takes on the disguise of a boy (Cesario). So
we have a boy pretending to be a girl, who is pretending to be
a boy! And in As You Like It we have a boy (the actor)
pretending to be a girl (Rosalind) pretending to be a boy (Ganymede)
pretending to be a girl (Rosalind)! Somehow Shakespeare's audience
was able to watch this and not get lost. I would like to think
that we are just as sophisticated as the Elizabethans."
that her Hamlet isn't for playgoers interested in watching
the play on autopilot," but she is confident that MHC
student actors have the sophistication to pull it off. Jeanne
(Beth) Wienert '04 agrees. I wouldn't contend that Shakespeare
intended Hamlet to be a woman, but playing Hamlet as a woman seems
really clear and really simple," said Wienert, who will play
the role of Hamlet. I don't find myself struggling or 'working
around lines' at all. In fact, this gender switch brings to the
surface a lot of lines that I didn't hear or focus on before.
If Hamlet is a woman, lines such as 'This is the kind of foreboding
that would trouble a woman' emphasize Hamlet's self-doubt and
self-hatred. I can experiment with delivering them toward others
or toward myself."
Smith-Howard is confident
that her production of Hamlet would have pleased Mary Ann
Buzz" Goodbody (19471975), the founder and first
artistic director of The Other Place, Stratford's studio theater
for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Like Smith-Howard, Goodbody
wanted to present classical theater in new ways. Goodbody's approach
at The Other Place and that theater's productions between 1974
and 1989 are the subjects of Smith-Howard's forthcoming history
Shakespeare at The Other Place (Ashgate Publishing, 2003).
theater to be accessible and meaningful to a wide cross section
of society, not just the intelligentsia and middle classes,"
says Smith-Howard, whose research sources included Goodbody's
own director's notes, private papers, journal entries, and correspondence.
She wanted theater to be affordable, approachable, and accessible.
She wanted the young to experience it in a 'nonthreatening' environment."
Goodbody's idea was
to create an alternative to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and
the Swan Theater, the Stratford venues of the RSC, at which she
felt directors and actors were sacrificing substance for pageantry.
Small and simple, The Other Place forced a minimalist style devoid
of pageantry, says Smith-Howard. The Other Place did not
accommodate gimmickry, huge complicated sets, or other theatrical
pyrotechnics," she explains. It was basically a leaky
tin shed that was cold in the winter and blistering in the summer,
but actors and audiences loved it! It placed the audience in a
closer proximity to the action, actors, text, and words. There
was no pretense, just great acting and great directing and little
else." Sold out in its very first season in 1974, The Other
Place has been called the training ground for an entire
generation of Shakespeare actors and directors."
In addition to being
her major research subject and directing influence, Goodbody has
also provided teaching inspiration for Smith-Howard. Ben
Kingsley, who played Hamlet in Goodbody's production of Hamlet
at The Other Place in 1975, once said to me that Buzz's greatest
gift was her ability to free her actors creatively. She inspired
them to find in themselves things that they never dreamt existed,
giving them a sense that 'everything is possible.' This is my
goal in all the work that I do as a teacher and director, to free
my students imaginatively. Students come to Shakespeare with such
baggage! They are told it's too hard for them to understand, it's
out of their reach intellectually or artistically, or, worse,
that it's boring or dead. I know how they feel; at one point in
my life I was even told point-blank I was the 'wrong color' for
Shakespeare. Comments like these only served to make me more determined.
I have always been rather defiant, so, like Goodbody, it is my
mission to shatter obtacles and preconceptions about who can 'do'
Shakespeare and how Shakespeare 'should' be done."
Before coming to MHC
in 2000, Smith-Howard was director of the Berea College Theatre
Laboratory, in Berea, Kentucky. She has directed plays in Europe,
Canada, and the United States, including the premiere of The
Coffee Trees, Arthur Giron's Guatemalan revision of Anton
Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, at the Jelkyl Drama Center,
Berea, Kentucky. She has served as a dramaturg for London's Soho
Poly Theatre, for Aspect Theatre Company (London/Stockholm), and
for the Battersea Arts Centre's New Writers Project. Recently
she was the director of the International Dramaturgy Symposium,
held at the College in March, and was appointed to the Advisory
Committee of New WORLD Theatre in Amherst. She is also the MHC
representative to the Five College Multicultural Theatre Committee.
include various articles and papers on Shakespeare, feminist scholarship,
and performance, and (with Greta Heintzelman) Tennessee Williams
A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work (Facts
on File, 2003). She was recently appointed to the Editorial Advisory
Board for Theatre: Its Art and Craft (fourth edition).