Here Come The Tempest Ladies!

An Interview with Stella Berg & Katherine Elliot

By Frances McGarry

In 2008, six Syracuse University Acting students imagined a novel approach to presenting Shakespeare.  Inspired by a semester abroad program at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, Stella Berg,  a co-founder/producer/actor of the company, experienced Shakespeare in an entirely different light. “I saw what it was like to really witness a Shakespeare performance done the way that he would have done it; full of music, dancing, humor, life — and it was electric.” Growing up in Istanbul, Stella was taught to dissect and analyze Shakespeare’s plays line-by-line: “I hated Shakespeare in school; it was so boring and I couldn’t understand anything.” Everything changed the moment she saw her first Globe production.  For their final assignment, their class performed a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Globe stage. The founding members were all paired in the same group and since there were no men in their troupe, the women assumed all the roles.  Having a mutual affinity towards the Bard and playing roles they never would ordinarily be cast in, the ladies decided to continue working together as an ensemble.  Being a group of only six, they developed a unique way to cast their shows.  “We switch roles constantly throughout the play.  So no one is cast in any given part, but rather we share the roles and switch often throughout each play.”  The switches happen at very deliberate points – whenever there is a change in the status quo of a character.  Because of this, each actress is given the opportunity to play a wide variety of characters, both male and female.  Thus, became the creation of The Tempest Ladies.

Stella envisions a three-fold approach to achieve this undertaking:  first, to strip away gender stereotypes; second, to embolden young people to access Shakespeare’s plays in real and practical ways, and finally have these aspirations coalesce to be a source of entertainment for their audiences.  Katherine Elliot who recently joined the ensemble this past year was surprised at how audiences embraced this gender-friendly presentation of Shakespeare.  As Producer for The Taming of The Shrew, Katherine was concerned that a 3-hour performance would have audiences streaming out during intermission; in fact, “People were blown away!  The audience was entertained and very active the whole time. They wanted to come again.  They were upset that there wasn’t a longer run.”  As performers, both Stella and Katherine spoke of the dynamic nature of switching roles as well as gender onstage.  “Every actress brings her own idiosyncrasies to that character,” says Katherine, “it’s also fun to have the opportunity to play male roles and to get into their heads.  You learn that men and women are very similar in a lot of ways.”  “These stereotypical elements that we attribute to the male versus the female actually become irrelevant,” Stella explains, “because at the end of the day we’re all human beings [thereby bringing a transparency to] human sexuality. . . It doesn’t matter if it’s a female character or male character; they have the same wheel of emotions. For instance, there’ so much strength and so much murderous and treacherous energy in Lady Macbeth – qualities typically attributed to men. Simultaneously there are moments of intense vulnerability and childlike behavior, of dread and fear from Macbeth – emotions usually attributed to women.  When I play Lysander and play opposite of another who’s playing Hermia, we’re two people in love, regardless of their gender of who’s playing what.  You feel the same jitter and excitement for someone you adore – an element of fear.”  Katherine interjects, “Kate [The Taming of the Shrew] is written as a very masculine character, she’s tough and won’t submit, so she’s seen as this “shrew”. . . and watching actresses in our company play her is interesting.  She is psychologically masculine and biologically feminine, and since we are an all-female ensemble, she tends to be played as a male character would be.  It was a lot of fun for me to watch every night.”  No matter which female is playing which role—audiences suspend their belief and their perceptions are altered by this artistic invention.

The arts can transform people’s lives and this is why The Tempest Ladies are intent on making this accessible to students.  “It can be a bit intimidating to play Shakespeare in English for Turkish students attending a French school in Istanbul,” reported Teaching Artist Laura Borgwardt in her testimonial:

The idea of a language barrier begins to creep into your subconscious. The key is remembering that movement is a universal language. It can convey feeling, story; meaning. Using our bodies to express is innately human. We ‘jump for joy,’ we ‘tremble with fear’. There is a shared understanding of the way we use physicality to communicate. It no longer matters if the audience comprehends every single word that we were saying – they follow the meaning through the movement.

Our workshops in Istanbul focused on ensemble-building and using movement to help tell a story. As a companion to seeing the play performed, they allowed different access points to the material and to the experience. To delve into the themes and physical vocabulary beforehand left the students more prepared for what they were going to see. It gave them ownership over their own experience and allowed them to take part in the process.

I was impressed by how willingly the students jumped into exercises, trusting us and trusting their peers – their fellow ensemble members – and in doing so, creating something so beautiful together. The joy of self-expression, and of working together to accomplish a task, permeated the classroom. It is the same joy we have as an ensemble when we rehearse together and create. It was incredible to be able to share that passion with future storytellers.

After raising $10,000, The Tempest Ladies are readying for their Off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this April.  Looking to the future, they would like to take A Midsummer’s Night Dream back to Turkey, but for now, The Tempest Ladies will set the NYC theater world afire with their talent, their passion, and their tempestuous tale of comedy and gender subterfuge.

For more information about The Tempest Ladies visit: http://www.tempestladies.com, http://www.facebook.com/TempestLadies

To purchase tickets to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream visit: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1382019

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