Rachel Ben-Menachem rehearses a scene from “The Tempest” (Photo Credit: Jennifer Cho)
Rachel Ben-Menachem rehearses a scene from “The Tempest” (Photo Credit: Jennifer Cho)

An old classic is being given new life with the help of the innovative group, Artemis—USC's new "feminist creative community." This feminine tour de force will be bringing to life the magic and mystique of the Shakespearean classic, The Tempest, with a staged reading of the play this December.

This production will be "the launch event of a new student-organization called Artemis at USC, which is a feminist creative community that will produce a number of artistic projects across a whole range of disciplines every semester," states the production's director, Kathy Stocker. The goal of this new group "is to encourage more dialogue between the different artistic schools, as well as provide a platform for underrepresented communities on campus."

Director Kathy Stocker discusses her fresh take on this classic tale.

Why this show, why now?

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, an event which has brought all sorts of reincarnations of his work, to celebrate his apparent timelessness and universality. Shakespeare's legacy pervades every corner of modern Western culture—from literature, to language, to ideas and thoughts; the magnitude of his influence is vast. But with that, comes the realization that here was a man who was writing over four centuries ago, and who was undoubtedly conditioned by the social prejudices of his time. Not only this, but also these plays were written to be performed in racially homogenized male mimesis. Every actor was a white man. By taking a show such as The Tempest, which famously only has one female character and confronts topics such as colonialism, and then subverting who gets to play those roles— it is a demonstration of how these texts can be modernized, and relevant, today.

The Tempest felt particularly topical given its conversations about power, and who has the right to power. We chose to do this show before the election, and the results of that have had quite a marked effect on the production. Originally we conceived the show to be set slightly in the future, in a world where the vicious rhetoric (the kind we have recently witnessed in political discourse) has become commonplace. Unfortunately that future now seems to be a reality. The great thing about The Tempest, is that (unlike many of the histories or the tragedies) we witness a harmonious ending that comes not as the result of punishment, justice, or battle, but of forgiveness. We felt this was a particularly important and optimistic message to disperse in the current climate, which continues to be suffocating and, oftentimes, feel hopeless.

Why an all-female cast?

All-women plays are nothing new. And we don't want this to feel like an isolated experiment. We want this kind of production to multiply and grow on USC that it can no longer be dismissed as some sort of special sub-category of "feminist theatre", rather than just "theatre". Many of Shakespearean plays toy with, and are fundamentally about, gender. Every play examines the power imbalance in a gendered society—and an all-women production keeps this notion at the front of audience's minds. There are many things brought to light in Shakespeare's plays when performed in such a manner.

During auditions for my last show we were pretty amazed with how many women showed up. It was probably around 80% women auditioning. And the standard was incredibly high. It made us realize that doing this production would provide a platform for so many talented voices, as well as provide an important bend on the show. USC theatre is amazing, but because of that, it is incredibly competitive. There is an abundance of female talent which is so underused. There are a finite number of roles for women, and this gets worse the further back in history you go with the plays you put on. Unless the director is open to gender-blind casting, women rarely have their chance to sink their teeth into a substantial historical role. Even in modern drama, this is only just being addressed. Of course, the problem is even worse in film.

I went to a talk at my old university by Dame Harriet Walter, an English stage actress who has notably played Hamlet, Macbeth and Henry IV in the West End. She said that she had a love/hate relationship with Shakespeare – she loves him because he is an amazing playwright, but she hates him because he didn't write for women, or with women in mind. Historically, "women have not been, on the whole, central to the function of the story. I am more interested in Hamlet's thoughts than Ophelia's, because he's at the centre of thinking." She went on to say that by doing that with women, it's a statement that "what they think matters". The irony is that Hamlet, who is supposed to hold a mirror up to the world, would never imagine actual women playing the women in that play.

How has having an all-female cast changed or enhanced the story?

To cast entirely women in male roles, in a play which is, fundamentally, about power, forces us to question why women have been professionally, economically, and politically disempowered for so long. In adopting these roles, the actors are examining masculine notions of power, and questioning why this is seen as the only kind of power that matters. Status, wealth, dominance, influence—these are qualities that are widely regarded as the major signifiers of what it means to be powerful. While it's important that we continue to rise to these traditional markers of power, and claim these platforms, we also need to realize that such traditions rely on fragile foundations. Masculine power is often built on the disempowerment and exploitation of others. This is most notably seen with the characters Ariel, Caliban, and even Miranda. It is why Prospero is such a flawed protagonist. He is not a benevolent ruler, nor an omniscient being. He is an old bitter man seeking revenge, and questioning his own judgment as he does. If we valorize such power, we become advocates for perpetuating a system which is built on the disempowerment of others.

The challenge with this production is in reevaluating how power prevails, not only in the world of the play, but at large. By putting this on display, with an all-women cast, we become aware of our own power. And we can take a stand against letting ourselves be disempowered by those who want to exploit our vulnerabilities. The notion of a woman in power is one that is still difficult for people to digest—something which is unfortunately as true today as in the 17th century. In Shakespeare, the female characters are mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. Mothers are famously absent, and (unless you're watching a comedy), women are sidelined.

The notion of having an all-women island in the middle of the ocean, as a sort of safe-haven from a larger destructive world, is exactly what we want to create with the atmosphere of the play. We want this to provide some sort of escapism. It also feeds into this amazing tradition that has existed for thousands of years in literature and life— all women spaces. From the Isle of Lesbos in Sappho's poetry, to the Amazonian tribe, to witch covens, to feminist separatist circles of the 70s, it is an evocative image to reconstruct on stage. It was also an important aspect of the rehearsal process— following the election it was really helpful having an all-women space where we could openly discuss our thoughts and process the result.

What can audiences expect from a staged reading?

Rehearsed readings are typically used to try out new material, and The Tempest is anything but new. We chose to do a rehearsed reading as opposed to a full-on production because it re-emphasizes the language in Shakespeare, and also we also wanted this to be a low-commitment show, particularly because for a lot of students this was their first time working with Shakespeare. However, everyone's enthusiasm over the past few weeks has made it grow into something much larger— so now some of the scenes will be off-book, and people have really delved into their characterization. Sarah Hahm, the co-director, is truly to thank for this— she really encouraged character discussion and brought on a dramaturge (Taylor Kass) so that people could dig deep into their roles. There will be set design (by Taylor Kass and Stephanie Elmir), lighting design (by Derek Christianson), make-up and costumes (by Morgan Chen) and blocking. The blocking is fairly minimal, the costumes will be modern, and the lighting is predominantly to help the audience see the actors at night in an outdoor space. We are also having harp music throughout the show, which will be performed by Tamzin Elliott— a graduate MFA composer in Thornton. So there will be a lot of visual and aural elements at play, and the production will occupy a liminal space between a reading and a production.

Don't miss out on your chance to see this one-night-only performance of The Tempest, playing December 2nd.

"The Tempest" will be playing December 2nd at 7:30 in the Bogardus Courtyard. There is a suggested $5 donation at the door. For updates on tickets and shows, visit https://www.facebook.com/ArtemisatUSC

Contact Staff Reporter Julia Stier here.