Matthew Lewis Johnson went into auditions for SummerFest’s production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It intending to cast a traditional production.
“Then, at auditions, we didn’t have many men show up for a show that has 16 male parts and a plethora of wonderful women,” the director says. “So halfway through the first day of auditions, I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is a lot of ladies coming through, and they’re good.’ So it started growing.”
The second night of auditions, he had actor Julie McCluskey read the role of Orlando opposite Rachel Rogers as Rosalind, and the idea of an all-female cast for the Shakespeare comedy, which includes a gender-bending plot, started to take hold.
Single-gender casts are nothing new to Shakespeare’s plays, which were originally performed by all-male casts. Since then, there have been all-female productions, even in Shakespeare’s home, as Rogers points out.
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“It’s been my bag since I was training,” Rogers says. “I remember being over in London at The Globe and seeing their all-female productions ... they did an all-female Taming (of the Shrew) and it was the wildest, sexiest, most passionate show I had ever seen. I also saw an all-female Richard III that was really incredible.”
In 2003, Transylvania University Theatre presented Hamlet with alternating all-male and female casts, and there was a time SummerFest’s precursor organization, the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, contemplated staging an all-female King Lear, driven in part by a strong core of veteran female actors who could easily have been seen carrying the show off.
The Woodford Theatre director Trish Clark, who was artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival at the time, said the idea came from director Bo List and would have been done as part of an indoor, studio season in addition to the summer outdoor productions, then at the Arboretum. At the time it was not a project they would have considered for the summer season, which was drawing several thousand patrons on its biggest nights, she said.
But times have changed, and while she still thinks a heavy project like an all-female Lear would be best presented in a smaller, indoor space, she says she loves the idea for a comedy like As You Like It.
SummerFest director Wesley Nelson says he had no concerns about green lighting the all-female show, in which the gender discrepancies are never acknowledged.
“Everybody I’ve talked to has been so excited,” Rogers says. “They say, ‘That’s such a good idea. I love it.’”
Johnson says, “20 years ago, I would have felt like I needed to justify this, but now, not at all; not even a little bit.”
And Johnson will be taking this production back to his day job at Eastern Kentucky University, where he’s part of the theater department faculty.
After it finishes its Woodland Park run, Thursday through next Sunday, it will be presented at The Ravine, an amphitheater on campus, July 22 and 23, as part of EKU’s Shakespeare celebration, capping off the week’s high school summer theater intensive. The show is a co-production between SummerFest and EKU, with several EKU students involved in the production.
Johnson points out that younger audiences and artists are much more open to alternative takes on classic material.
“The younger generation is so much more comfortable with gender fluidity, and gender as a concept as part of identity, not necessarily tied to biology,” Johnson says. “Art is a great way to ease that transition, too, as we all pretend together and see the possibility of a woman pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman, kissing another woman.”
It is a concept that also gives female actors access to some parts that were out of their reach before.
“It’s been great to hear some of these iconic speeches that were written for a male coming out of these powerful female actresses,” Rogers says, noting in particular poet Bianca Spriggs who has the famous “All the world’s a stage ... ” monologue as Jaques.
What is most satisfying to the As You Like It cast and crew is this was not an activist decision. It came naturally.
“After we read, I was like, ‘Wow, we had good chemistry,’” says McCluskey, who also gets to wear some cool boots, as Orlando.
Rogers says, “And that’s what’s so neat is to not contain it to who has the appropriate genitalia, but who is appropriate for the role.”
If you go
Jesus Christ Superstar July 10, 21-24
As You Like It July 14-17
Showtimes: 8:45 p.m.
Where: Woodland Park, 601 E. High St.
Tickets: $10 general admission, $15 with chair rental.
‘As You Like It’ in Richmond
When: 8 p.m. July 22 and 23
Where: The Ravine, Eastern Kentucky University