In new Fresno State production, Brad Myers explores Shakespeare through the lens of LGBTQ perspectives
When the pandemic settled in with a long, hard chill that froze out live performance, Brad Myers turned to a familiar and dependable source to create a virtual alternative. But while the veteran Fresno State director knew he could depend on Shakespeare, he wanted to do something meaningful and different. The result is “To Thine Own Self Be True: Gender, Sexuality, and the Bard,” which streams online Feb. 19-27.
Pictured above: Jimmy Haynie plays Cleopatra in Fresno State’s ‘To Thine Own Self Be True.’ Photo: Fresno State
“Through the centuries. Shakespeare’s plays continue to bring modern insights into the human condition,” Myers says. “Why not push the envelope even further?”
The production explores modern-day LGBTQ perspectives and confronts gender stereotypes by presenting a series of scenes, monologues and sonnets.
“To Thine Own Self Be True” was filmed in a socially distant manner at the John Wright Theatre on campus. The theater department is presenting it in “appointment TV” style of release: Performances stream at the same time as if the production were live (7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23-27. Once those performances conclude, the title will not be available for streaming. Tickets are $15 general and $10 students.
I talked by phone and email with Myers to learn more about the production.
Q: You were originally going to direct “Dracula” and had to switch titles because of the pandemic. What factors went into your decision to go with “To Thine Own Self Be True” as a virtual Fresno State production?
A: For obvious reasons, we were facing technical limitations and pandemic protocols that made “Dracula” a difficult choice. The show is as sensual as it is dangerous, and I wanted to wait for another day when both aspects could be fully explored.
I wanted to figure out a way to have a large-cast show while adhering to the Covid-19 protocols required by the university. I landed on the idea of doing an array of small-cast scenes, but doing enough of them to allow for a large cast. Most of the scenes in this show involve two to four actors. The ensemble moments involved a maximum of nine actors on stage at any given time. Yet, the show has roles for 28 Theatre Arts students, one of the largest casts we’ve had in some time. I knew we wouldn’t have any royalty issues with Shakespearean material, but I didn’t just want to do a Shakespeare recital of scenes and monologues. I wanted to do a show that was fresh and current. I did a few readings with Zounds! Bardatine (the local group that performed all of Shakespeare’s plays via Zoom) this past summer, and the group’s non-traditional casting jogged my imagination. This led to me re-conceiving Shakespearean material that illuminated modern day perspectives on gender stereotypes and LGBTQ issues.
Q: It would seem a challenge to put together a show exploring LGBTQ sexuality and gender identity when you have to keep all your actors at least 6 feet apart during filming. Was it as hard as it sounds?
A: The need for social distancing was a crucial consideration when selecting the material. There’s only one scene in which the characters need to touch, and we achieved that through some editing manipulations. But in many ways, the social distancing was a benefit. It put a greater focus on the language and the characters.
We were all committed to staying safe–both onstage and off. I used a 6’X6’X6′ triangle which was placed on the floor as a constant reminder of necessary distancing. It was like a theatre game–if one actor felt the impulse to move toward another, the other actor would immediately adjust to maintain the social distance. And we did this within the context of the character relationships. It contributed to the physical dynamics and tension between the characters.
Offstage, each actor was assigned a specific seat in the audience where they were to be at all times when not onstage.
Movement from the house to the stage was carefully controlled so no one had even momentary contact with another individual. Actors arrived at the theatre in their own clothing and makeup when filming, so there was no need for them to be in the close confines of the dressing and makeup rooms. Additionally, surfaces were wiped down after every scene, and no two actors would touch the same surface during a scene. To be honest, I was terrified when we started the face-to-face rehearsals, but the adherence to the safety protocols soon became second nature.
Q: There’s always been a sense of going against gender norms in Shakespeare’s works, even from the beginning, when all-male casts trod the boards of the Globe Theatre. As early as 1796, a woman played Hamlet. And recently it became popular for directors to assemble all-female casts in some of the classic titles. But my understanding is that all these were examples of gender-blind casting, which implies that the gender of the character remains the same regardless of the gender of the actor. But with your new production, you aren’t being blind about gender; you’re purposefully exploring what happens when you mix it up — or throw in transgender or non-binary identities. Am I on the right track here?
A: You are absolutely on the right track. I wanted to explore with audience perceptions of non-traditional casting that brought into play LGBTQ characterizations and challenged gender stereotypes. It was important to include Non-binary and Transgender portrayals, and to do so with compassion and respect.
The production poses many questions: What happens when a famous love story is now between two same-sex people? Or, when politically powerful Shakespearean men are now played as female characters? How are the circumstances of the stories informed by these characterizations? What modern-day issues can be explored using words, characters and situations that were created centuries ago? Will the audience have a jarring discomfort, or celebrate how much we have culturally evolved? Or both?
Of course, these questions are never answered until the production is presented to an audience.
Q: Thus we have Romeo and Julius in your version. This isn’t a man and a woman playing these romantic roles — nor is it a man romancing a woman played by a man. This is two men in love. Tell us about these characters.
A: We interpret the famous balcony scene with modern day and local circumstances. Romeo Montoya is a migrant farm worker who has sneaked into a party hosted by a wealthy land owner. There Romeo meets Julius, the landowner’s son, and it is love at first sight. Later Romeo finds his way to a spot outside Julian’s balcony. Staying true to these circumstances, Romeo speaks his soliloquies in Spanish, while addressing Julius in English. Issues of classicism, racism and immigration are undertones in this gay love story.
Q: Another of your scenes involves Miranda from “The Tempest,” but in this production, Ferdinand becomes “Fernanda.” At one point, Miranda asks, “Do you love me?” What happens next?
A: After Miranda asks the risky question, Fernanda effusively declares her love. Because Miranda has grown up on a remote island, knowing no other human other than her father, in this interpretation Miranda is naive to gender differences, and asks “My husband then?” Fernanda is momentarily amused but soon realizes Miranda asks the question in earnest.
Q: One of Fresno State’s most talented actors, Jimmy Haynie, plays Cleopatra. Can you talk about your concept for this scene?
A: Jimmy plays Cleopatra as a non-binary character who is involved with a military officer from a conservative family. Jimmy portrays Cleopatra with fire and passion, and is never mocking the non-binary gender of the character. We changed some of the language to avoid female-specific terms (such as changing “goddess” to “deity,” etc.) But we kept one moment in the text when Mark Antony (played by Andrew Trevino) refers to Cleopatra as “Lady,” which he uses derisively, and which wounds Cleopatra.
Q: You have bent Shakespearean gender stereotypes yourself on stage as an actor. Three times you’ve given a rousing portrayal (in drag) of the Abbess in “The Comedy of Errors” at Shakespeare Santa Cruz. (In other words, you were a man playing a woman.) You first played that role in the late 1980s, and then you reprised it a couple of decades later. Did it “feel” different (in terms of audience reaction and your own experience) when you played it a second time, considering the time that had passed?
I will play the Abbess one more time in April in an online fundraiser that will include several of the original cast members. (I know; get a life, Brad!) The original version was one of the most successful productions ever mounted by Shakespeare Santa Cruz. The concept of the show was revisited in the subsequent two productions, all directed by the brilliant Danny Scheie. But the original production was so novel and we actors had the greatest artistic involvement. We ran the greatest risks, which allowed for the greatest rewards. Much of the audiences for the second and third productions had seen an earlier production or had heard of it, and did not discover the show with the same surprise as had the audiences to the first production. Danny had also directed a number of productions in which he utilized cross-gender casting (I played the Duke in “The Merchant of Venice” a la Margaret Thatcher) so the device had become expected of his shows. But it was always a blast to be in such madcap comedic mayhem.
Q: Think back to yourself as a young theater professor. Would that younger self have ever dreamed it would be possible to direct a university Shakespearean production dominated by LGBTQ and non-binary awareness?
A: Perhaps I would have — at least partially. Some of the earliest plays I directed in Fresno involved gay themes (for example, “Butley” and “Eastern Standard.”). But I don’t think I would have ever conceived of a production that gave a caring advocacy of a non-binary or trans character. Like so many of us, I too have evolved in my acceptance and compassion for “the other.”
The Munro Review has no paywall but is financially supported by readers who believe in its non-profit mission of bringing professional arts journalism to the central San Joaquin Valley. You can help by signing up for a monthly recurring paid membership or make a one-time donation of as little as $3. All memberships and donations are tax-deductible.
Q: Once filming of “To Thine Own Self Be True” was completed, it had to be edited. Tell us about that process.
A: Wow! What a lesson I have had in post-production. I’ve never directed a filmed production before, and I had such a limited appreciation of the editing process and the artistic opportunities once filming has concluded. But the brilliant Candace Egan, a professor in the Media, Communications and Journalism Department, has taken me on an expansive learning experience. Her technical talents, artistry and passion have made this production so much more than I had ever imagined. She was also aided by a devoted team of MCJ students who were involved in all phases of post-production work. Just when I thought I knew all I needed to know to finish out my years at Fresno State, this collaboration comes along, for which I will be forever grateful.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from this production?
A: I hope our stories are surprising and compelling. I hope the audience continues to embrace the ever-evolving insights from Shakespeare’s writing. Ultimately, I hope this is a celebration of our beautiful LGBTQ community and a Huzzah! for the endless possibilities of all genders.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A Shakespeare wrote three of his greatest plays while the bubonic plague was ravaging London. We draw inspiration from his example.