What does Shakespeare have to say about women? In an era when women weren’t afforded the right to own property, important duties, or even their own power (despite what Gwyneth Paltrow would have you believe) Shakespeare did the subtle job of presenting women as the stronger sex. By giving his female characters incredible complexity and things to do or say that the men of his narratives couldn’t bear the weight of, he consistently created female characters with richer inner lives than most of their male counterparts.
Follow-up question: What do women have to say about Shakespeare? Ask Emily Ernst and Sara Romersberger of Fair Assembly, a Dallas-based actor-led ensemble theatre company, and they’ll set the record straight:
“He’s exquisite in the way he writes women,” says Romersberger.
“I go to the theater looking for something real and surprising and complicated, and I think that’s what Shakespeare does best,” Ernst adds.
This May, after a two-year, pandemic-imposed pause since their award-winning take on Romeo and Juliet in January 2020, Fair Assembly will stage its second production, The Tragedy of Macbeth, at Arts Mission Oak Cliff. We sat down with Emily, one of the company’s three co-founders (along with Christopher Rutherford and Joshua Peugh) and Sara, a member of the original ensemble and Macbeth’s fight choreographer, movement coach, and physical dramaturg, to get their take on the changing role of women in classical theater, striving to get Shakespeare right for Dallas audiences, and how their bond as women artists makes their work shine.
&: What motivated you to launch a Shakespeare-focused company for Dallas audiences?
EE: Lecoq was very influential. I went for one year, and Sara for two years. Since I first worked with Sara as a student, I knew I wanted to attend the school. I admired how she worked in class – with just bodies in space – which is what I wanted theater to be and informs the staging of our upcoming production of Macbeth. I want it to be simple, and specific, which is the memorable part of any performance to me. It’s never about expensive sets or even gorgeous costumes. Fair Assembly is doing something that’s different for Dallas audiences: no mics, our sound is live. We work in an intimate space. The spectacle is between the characters. There’s a lot of glitz in Dallas – and we’re the opposite of that. I go to the theater looking for something real, surprising, and complicated, and I think that’s what Shakespeare does best. Another benefit of minimizing set costs is we can pay our actors more.
SR: As it pertains to me, I serve as an outside eye – I really see the story and want the audience to be drawn in. If it’s a little thing, it should be big for the audience. We are sparse but full of action and passion. If we use a prop, you’ll see the significance of it. I enjoy watching the audience and seeing their reaction to our work. It’s important for Dallas audiences to go and become a voyeur sometimes. I want people to experience and feel. Some shows are so busy trying to create their central concept that they stop telling the story. Shakespeare was a storyteller.
&: What productions are you planning to mount next and why?
EE: We chose Macbeth as our next production because it’s so different from Romeo and Juliet – and a good showcase for our company. We often start by asking ourselves what our dream roles are, and we don’t determine which play we’ll stage next until we have our lead.
SR: Macbeth is loaded with great female characters, with fights, movement, and women who are weird but complex. It has real relationships. We’ve seen other Macbeth stagings where there’s no chemistry or it’s overtly passionate. In ours, you’ll see intense love and power – Lady Macbeth’s drive and their journey into insanity. We’ll present the extremes in their characters, and audiences will see it and identify with it.
EE: Unlike Romeo and Juliet, which starts with a bang, Macbeth creeps into your psyche, and that’s how the play moves. A little more mature and confined psychologically. Now it’s on Broadway and film and resonates with people who have been alone with their thoughts quite a bit for the last two years. I think Macbeth is part of the Zeitgeist.
&: As women artists of different generations, how do your perspectives on Shakespeare differ?
SR: I am twice as old as Emily. It’s not important that I’m older but it is important that Emily is my colleague who happens to be younger. We are so much alike and talk all over each other and play off each other’s ideas. I have a youth about me even though I’m older, and Emily and I are grounded in the same work and common body of knowledge learned at Lecoq. I’m an active partner, doing fights and movement. I’m not just an advisor, and though I’m older, I never assume I know more.
EE: I was a late bloomer at SMU. I got cast late and felt like I was running to catch up with the performing arts high school kids. Sara never stopped believing in what I could do. She came to every project, including when I played Romeo in a student production – and she sat in the rain to watch me perform, with a sleeping bag over her to stay dry. I remember Sara telling me “We’re colleagues now” after I graduated from SMU.
&: How do you see the influence of women artists in the classical theater space changing?
EE: I think it’s getting better and better. More women are directing Shakespeare and focusing on the female characters. Women didn’t perform in Shakespeare’s day, yet we have beautiful characters like Beatrice, Juliet, and Cleopatra. I think a female perspective has only revealed how three-dimensional these characters have always been.
SR: I think a lot of Shakespeare directors have directed from a male point of view. In the past, they sometimes saw women as they saw his clowns – any character that isn’t a nobleman or high character – being less important and roles that could be played by less-skilled actors. Shakespeare articulated important things for women to say – things women in Elizabethan England weren’t able to say on the street.
&: Both of you have trained extensively in movement. How does that impact Fair Assembly’s work, and how has it informed the way the two of you work together?
EE: Lecoq training has affected our work profoundly. Having a common language is important. At Lecoq, we learned how to take criticism. We learned about audience response and why that’s important. Creative struggle is difficult in a polite society like Dallas. But not struggling can limit creative success if you think criticizing a performance is tantamount to criticizing a person’s ability. I want to invite critics to be honest. Someone told me last time that one of our costumes was weird. I would rather hear that than, “It was boring.” But that criticism was useful to me.
SR: We strive for simplicity, specificity, and struggle – all important in performance. Emily was my student at SMU, and over the years, we continued talking about Lecoq. I wrote her recommendation and was so thrilled when she was accepted.
&: Last question, what do you think we can learn from Shakespeare by the way he writes female roles?
SR: I think for the most part he’s exquisite in the way he writes women, even if it’s not super blatant in the text. Clowns are important. They can’t turn the plot, but they have intense relationships with or expose the folly of the high characters. You learn about the high characters from these low characters.
EE: Exactly right. The clowns say what no one else can say. In Macbeth, I think we experience a lot of his descent through Lady Macbeth’s eyes. He speaks to us more than she does, but she is witnessing his hallucinations alongside us. And when he pulls away from her, nothing matters anymore. Feeling with Lady Macbeth is essential to understanding why this play is a tragedy. That an otherwise kind person has become a person who is willing to kill children. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tells Romeo how to love her. Can you imagine Juliet saying, “I’m fortune’s fool?” We expect it from Romeo, but Juliet is too focused, too smart, too independent to despair when things don’t work out for her. She jumps immediately into action while Romeo sobs on the ground. How brilliant and unexpected in 1598.