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Director's Notes: The Taming of the Shrew

On my first attempt to sit down and write some “director’s notes” I wrote about 500 words about the process of directing, my education and inclination as a director, and whether or not Shakespeare needs a director at all (that may end being publish as a separate blog entry).

I think the reason my “director’s notes” turned into Notes On Directing rather than Notes On the Play is because I conscientiously avoided imposing any sort of personal interpretation on this production. The Taming of the Shrew in particular is a play that seems to compel directors (and especially, for obvious reasons, female directors) to add some sort of “spin” or “concept,” to “fix” the play or to make some kind of political point. I happen to believe that Shakespeare doesn’t need our help to make his points (Shakespeare doesn’t need a director, I always maintain, especially when I'm the one in the chair). I think after 400-and-a-bit years these plays are perfectly able to stand or fall on their own merit, and audiences are just as capable now as they were in Early Modern London of watching and listening and drawing their own conclusions.

My directorial impositions on this production were stylistic or aesthetic, and were made with the goal of keeping the audience on their toes, if you will; thinking about and interpreting the character’s actions rather than identifying with them (Brechtian alienation, to get theater-geeky about it). Unsurprisingly, my cue for this approach was the framing device Shakespeare wrote into this play, more elaborate than any other Chorus or Prologue. In fact, the “Induction” scenes are about 15 minutes of stage time devoted to reminding the audience that they are about to watch a play.

Working with costume designer Kate Bode, I chose to set the Inductions in a non-specific historical era that could be anywhere in the 17th or 18th century, while the actors who come to perform are dressed in a more modern mid-20th century style, so the Padua of the play exists somewhere between the 1920s and 1950s. In both cases, I chose the period that instinctively felt “right” for both of the different “worlds” of the play: the Inductions, with the effete lord and his hunting party, brawling wenches and jovial drunks, feel like farcical comedy of manners to me, while combination of sharp wit and slapstick humor we get in the play proper reminds me of Old Hollywood. The fact that those two things make no logical sense shoved together that way is part of the point.

I made a couple of alterations to the usual Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company performance style with the same goal in mind. The blue-grey curtains audiences have seen backing every production for the last 5 (maybe 6?) years have been replaced with a motley assortment of other fabrics, specifically intended not to disappear into the background the way the blue curtains so effectively do. The usual pre-show speech introducing the audience to Original Practices Shakespeare has been moved to intermission, both to remind us that what we are watching is still a play being performed for Sly and his cohorts, and so that as the audience goes into the second half their most recent association with the characters is not as characters but as Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company Actors (who just asked them for money).

Other than lightly steering the actors towards choices that were more presentational than naturalistic (except in certain specific moments), that was it. New curtains, surprising costumes and moving the pre-show speech. My directing goals were what they always are 1) to help every actor in the production create the best and clearest possible version of their interpretation of their character and 2) to look after the text and story of play as a whole so the cast is free to focus solely on their individual parts.

As a woman who is, in my personal life, well-known for being an outspoken if not downright “shrewish” feminist, I have frequently been asked “Why do this play at all?” Especially, the implication is, why do it if I’m pointedly not making a point about feminism? Aren’t I then, by omission, actually making a point in the opposite direction?

What that question is really asking is “Can this play, in fact, speak for itself?” and that is one that I, honestly, have been continually asking myself throughout this process.

It has some excellent comic moments, certainly, but just as certainly it is far from one of Shakespeare’s best. Nor is it as incisive a critique of patriarchal power and privilege as Measure for Measure or All’s Well The Ends Well. Kate never get’s a moment like Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew hands?” speech. Emilia in Othello, Adriana in The Comedy of Errors and both the Merry Wives of Windsor all have the chance to offer better arguments on behalf of mistreated wives than poor Katharina. Yet this is a play that prompted John Fletcher, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and his successor as playwright for the King’s Men, to write his own play in which Petruchio gets his comeuppance and is “tamed” by his second wife (Katharina’s death is implied, though never stated, to be the result of Petruchio’s rough treatment). It is not merely a couple of centuries of social advancement for women that makes audiences uncomfortable with Petruchio’s behavior towards Kate. The play is not just an occasionally-quite-funny relic from a more misogynistic era, and writing it off as such, or taking the to opportunity to fix the ending to line up with our supposedly more enlightened modern ideals, is a way of letting ourselves off the hook, of not dealing with the content at all.

So, “Why do this play?”

Because it can stand on it’s own, and because it still shows us something about ourselves and our society. Women like Kate are still treated more harshly than men like Petruchio, despite both characters displaying the same level of headstrong disregard for social niceties. On any given night, in any bar in Grand Rapids, you can see young men engaging in the same sort of predatory courting we see the characters use on Bianca, with the same disregard of the woman’s opinions or preferences. The division of responsibility Kate describes in her final speech, in which one spouse takes care of the worldly labor and the other the emotional labor only becomes inherently oppressive when the labor is divided by gender rather than inclination, and there are still plenty of modern marriages in which that gender-based division is taken at face value.

Finally, I think a play is always worth doing if it asks the audience at least one question worth discussing over drinks after the show, and The Taming of the Shrew asks a big one: to what extend is it the individual’s responsibility to adapt their behavior to fit smoothly into society, as opposed to society’s responsibility to allow for individual expression? And in a society where the answer is different for women than it is for men (as it was in Shakespeare’s England, as it is in modern America), is it society that needs to be fixed, or is it women? There is a reason this play was so effectively re-interpreted as a high-school romantic comedy; if you change Petruchio’s methods, his intentions suddenly become much more palatable. Most people would automatically reject the idea of taming a potential romantic partner like an animal, but if you change the method, if it becomes teaching her to open her heart to love or helping her let down her defenses, then is it acceptable? I mean, isn’t Kate happier, isn’t everyone happier at the end?

Feel free to turn in your answers at the bar after the performance.

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