Dear GRSF: How do you determine when to tinker with the time, setting, character gender vs. when to leave it in the traditional setting?

Dear GRSF: How do you determine when to tinker with the time, setting, character gender vs. when to leave it in the traditional setting?

“Dear GRSF” is a new series for our newsletters where staff and company members at Great River Shakespeare Festival answer your questions about the “whys” and “hows” of our company. To submit a question, click here.

Recently, a GRSF patron asked our leadership team, How do you determine when to tinker with the time, setting, character gender vs. when to leave it in the traditional setting?

Answer by: Beth Gardiner, Director

The first task for anyone putting on a play is to understand what the story is about. This seems obvious, but two people reading the same script can come to understand the heart of a play in fundamentally different ways. I might read in Romeo and Juliet a story of children who suffer tragically for the misguided animus of their parents. Someone else might read a story of star-crossed love—destined to fail but also destined to remind us of the heart’s remarkable ability to overcome obstacles and heal vast divides between people. Part of the magic and joy of theatre-making is the fact that one play can contain many stories, depending on who is telling and who is hearing. In this way, our plays are continually renewed.

Directors harness time, setting and character gender (among other tools) to amplify or clarify the heart of the story as they understand it. Each of these tools can frame the narrative within a context that the audience already understands, and that context can point the audience towards the heart of the story.  Presenting Julius Caesar in modern dress in America, for example, might frame some of the play’s famous rhetorical moments as publicity stunts—“Friends, Romans, countrymen” meant to fire up the masses—which points to a story about how power is seized and maintained. London’s National Theatre recently featured Tamsin Greig as a female Malvolia in their production of Twelfth Night. This choice gave new context to Malvolia’s unspoken love for Olivia, her dedication to career and the brutality of her treatment in the “dark room” after her performance in yellow stockings. 

While historical, geographical and societal lenses can inspire and enrich our understanding of a play, those lenses are only part of the vast array of tools we bring to bear in our work. Makers also imagine worlds of texture, color, sound and space—sometimes wholly fantastical universes—which add meaning to a story because they evoke tastes and emotions we recognize in ourselves. All of this is a long way of saying that we tinker with time, setting and gender, or we dream up a never-before-seen landscape, when we believe it will help the audience see a fundamental truth about the play and relate to the story in a way that is personal and vital. 

Shakespeare did not live in and had not, perhaps, imagined a world with the technologies, cultures, landscapes, peoples and possibilities that we have encountered through history up to today. Yet, in his genius, he wrote stories that were robust enough to live and breathe through the eyes and imaginations of people 400 years in the future with vastly different human experiences.  When we’re doing our job well, we storytellers honor a play as it was understood in its own time and use all the tools we can imagine to build a bridge to the play as it rings out now.