Behind the scenes
At rehearsals for the Nevada Repertory Company’s production of Macbeth, the mood is casual but purposeful. Actresses in fleece jackets and sweatpants, hair pulled back in ponytails, prowl around the newly constructed set, finding their places and testing out the ramps. Swaggering across the bare, brightly lit stage, they boom their lines in deep voices and grip each other’s arms firmly in “man-shakes,” in imitation of the warriors and noblemen they’re playing. Crotches are grabbed. What’s a bunch of nice ladies like them doing in a place like this?
It’s all part of “A Gender Bender Semester” at the University of Nevada, Reno. The semester began with Epicene, or The Silent Woman, by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson. Epicene, a comedic battle of the sexes, was played by an all-male cast, so to balance things out, director Sue Klemp envisioned an all-female production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. The response was overwhelming: Actresses of all ages showed up for the auditions, from high school students to a woman who hadn’t acted for decades.
“People don’t take these roles and give them to women,” says Annie Scanlon, who plays Macbeth. “It’s juicy, it’s complex, there’s all this psychology, and you get to swordfight!” Friendly and enthusiastic, examining her script through square tortoise-shell glasses, she doesn’t look like a murderous Scottish warlord bent on seizing the throne with the help of an ambitious and ruthless wife. But over the next four weeks, that’s exactly who she’ll become, and the public is invited to watch the transformation.
“Macbeth is first and foremost a soldier, then a king, then a murderer,” says Scanlon of her infamous character. “Having a female play that, you get more of a sensitive approach to it.” The all-female cast will also create an opportunity for new readings of the relationships between the characters. “I think it’ll add to people’s understanding of, ‘Did Lady Macbeth make him do it?'” she adds.
“The way a woman’s mind works will give a whole different perspective on the characters,” comments Heather Marvel, assistant stage manager. “The dynamic between two females is so different from the way a woman and man work [together]. … Women think differently from men. We’re playing them as men—they’re not women in drag.”
And, in order to be convincing, the cast will need to learn to walk, talk and fight like men. To help with the process, fight choreographer Eric Hagen will be joining the actors in rehearsals to teach the finer points of swordplay. As the sessions progress, the actors will wean themselves from their scripts, and sets and costumes will help to create an authentic backdrop for the play.
“They can really start to explore the characters,” says Marvel. “Once they get the books out of their hands, they really just go.”
Back on stage, the actors go through another scene. Scanlon strikes a declamatory pose and belts out a monologue in a ringing voice. "This feels really good!" she finishes with a laugh. Now, is that any way for a lady to act? In this case, the answer is yes.