Finding the Male Character in the Female Actor
Rachel Pineiro on creating Benvolio for Romeo and Juliet.
When I accepted the role of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, I naturally assumed the part would be changed to Benvolia. Obviously, I was not well acquainted with Pigeon Creek’s practices: e.g. embracing the traditional tragi-comical gender-bending of the Renaissance era with the unabashed use of drag. In the 21st century, of course, the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company has the wit to employ this ploy by casting women as men in addition to men as women. Had I perceived the magnanimous task I was agreeing to espouse at its inception, I might have hesitated for a moment and raised an eyebrow.
It wasn’t until the read-through that I realized what was about to happen. I had contracted myself to delve into the mysterious and daunting realm of the male world, to unsex myself (as they say), and sacrifice my femininity on the alter of the theatre gods. I could not (and would not) look pretty on stage. Nay. I would steep myself in a culture of shoulder punching, loogie spitting, rough-housing male adolescence, peppered indiscriminately with early modern locker-room talk.
Something deep down inside told me to run away. I ignored that voice and chose instead to sink my imagination into the vast and daunting mystery of masculinity.
I discovered many things. The first was an epiphany that I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never been around a group of guys when there were no women present, and there was no way for me to determine how men behave under the influence of unadulterated, pure testosterone. Trying to imagine the situation nearly caused me to seize up, and I promptly sought out fresh air. While strolling the streets of Grand Rapids, I considered what lengths I would go to in order to achieve the resemblance of cross-gendered truth. Could I infiltrate male-dominated spaces, in disguise, and note the untainted distinctiveness of males in their natural habitats? Certainly not. The idea was deviant, and amusing at most. Could I adopt masculine social attributes, attempt to create Benvolio as a contemporary in West Michigan, and try out my alter-ego in public places? Again, no. I realized that hitting on women at the bar or engaging in street fights would not assist my character development so much as it would get me into trouble.
At some point, I came to the conclusion that boys are not alien creatures. They are human beings much like women are, and furthermore, I’d been studying males all of my life, being surrounded with them and communicating regularly. Letting the culture-shock wear off, I decided that I did not have to worry so much about “putting on a boy character” as much as stripping away my own mannerisms that were specifically feminine. I practiced holding a stance with weight equally distributed on both feet, and walking without turning my hips. I tapped into my athletic side and pumped out 50 push-ups every rehearsal in order to focus on the existence of arm muscles; and to experience tautness in my gestures, since I realized that it was feminine to have superfluous arm or hand movements. I wanted to achieve an energetic sturdiness, capable of climbing a tree or drawing a sword at a second’s notice.
With all of my focus on physicality, I certainly had a masculine image of myself painted in my head. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the reality of my appearance did not match up with my imagination. Benvolio’s embodiment within myself had no facial hair, stood only 5′2” high, and weighed about 1/3rd of the nurse. Thus, at age 23, I realized the most I could pull off was a prepubescent, 13-year-old version of Romeo’s friend. Barely a pin-prick of a man. But I began to fall in love with the idea that Benvolio has a big heart, and that he is more than he seems. I decided to play Benvolio in an in-between phase, moving toward manhood with his perception of social responsibility, but still possessing all the wiliness of boyhood and the awkwardness of adolescence.
It has been quite the adventure exploring the idiosyncrasies of Benvolio’s character, moment by moment, and working with and learning from the dynamic cast of the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company. I am infinitely grateful for the opportunity the company has given me to experience Shakespeare beyond the bodice and on the side of sword-wielding wilderness. Thank you to the company for giving me this experience!