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BWW Interviews: British Propeller's TAMING OF THE SHREW Actors Dish on Shakespeare and Minneapolis (Part One)


British theatre troupe Propeller is presenting Taming of the Shrew in repertory with Twelfth Night at the Guthrie Theater through April 6. While the company is traveling around the world for 10 months performing in such spots as Spain, Germany, Italy and France, they came to their longest run of any city in Minneapolis via a stop in Michigan and will return to England before heading to Italy next month.

Propeller seeks to find a more engaging way of expressing Shakespeare and to more completely explore the relationship between text and performance. The company mixes a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic. Both productions are directed by Edward Hall.

Two of the 14 actors in the company sat down with me one recent afternoon to talk about Minneapolis, Shrew and Shakespeare. Vince Leigh plays Christopher Sly/Petruchio and Dan Wheeler plays Katherine in this all-male production.

What do you think of Minneapolis now that you've been here a few weeks?

Dan: The food is fantastic.

Vince: We're big foodies.

Dan: We get one night off a week -- Monday night -- we make sure that every Monday night we book a table somewhere different, somewhere nice to eat. We've had some amazing meals. J.D. Hoyt's, Sea Change downstairs, obviously. And everyone's been really welcoming, which is good because the cold has been a challenge.

Have you been here before?

Dan: No, I've never been here. This is the first time I've been to this part of America, actually. We had a week in Ann Arbor before we came here but apart from that it's my first time in the Midwest.

Vince: I'd love to get up and see the lakes in the summer because I'm big into water sports. I was very disappointed when I went out there and found they were all frozen.

Dan: Very impressed by the skyway network. It's a nice way of staying in out of the cold.

Vince: We actually went and walked around the lakes.

Dan: Yeah, that was really lovely, despite it being cold. And not being able to see the lakes. It's really lovely out there. Yesterday I spent some time at the MIA (Minneapolis Institute of Arts) but not nearly long enough. I have to go back. It's an amazing collection. There's an amazing photography exhibition there at the moment. Since we work every night, we have not had a chance to go out to the other theatres, sadly -- there's a lot going on, theatre-wise.

Vince: We managed to see "Other Desert Cities."

Dan: Yeah, which is great.

What do you think of the Guthrie?

Vince: It's an incredible building. Spectacular. The views. And, the theatres are wonderful. The Guthrie's thrust is a great space to play. And it's the first time we've done the shows on a thrust. And it's really nice and intimate, even though it's large. You can speak to everyone in the auditorium.

Do you find you can connect more to the audience here?

Vince: Much more intimate. You can see everyone's expressions. Which is very unusual. Because normally in a proscenium you have all the lights and you sort of lose it.

Dan: It's a very different relationship with the audience that you have here. They find some of the violence harder to take here because it's very real and you're right next to them. You can see 360 degrees, actually. Whereas with a proscenium arch, they can sort of remove themselves from the action a bit. So it's just much more intimate and real, I think, here, which is another challenge for us to try and make that work.

What kind of difference is there with audiences when you play to different countries?

Vince: What's really weird are the receptions we get abroad are often far bigger than they are in Britain. We'll get rock star-like standing ovations... It's great; we love traveling. And especially in different languages. When we get supertitles, in Cantonese, and you realize, actually, what you're doing is not as important as what the surtitlers do, cause you can do something and think it's the funniest thing but if they haven't translated it in a funny way...

Dan: We had an excellent translator and surtitle guy in Paris. We got extraordinary reactions in Paris and we think at least half of it was what they were reading. That just shows you how great these stories are, how great the text is.

How did Propeller start?

Vince: I did the first one, which wasn't actually Propeller... and we did Othello and it had girls in it. But that was the start; it was the first Shakespeare. The following year, because that worked, the artistic director said, "Let's have another go at Shakespeare,what do you want to do?" and he had an idea of doing Henry, Henry the Fifth. He thought to have a chorus -- the chorus of Henry the Fifth would be soldiers. So he split up the chorus, which is normally one actor, and all of the 10 actors would be, and he decided to have all men playing and so that's when men playing women came about. And it was almost a joke because Chris Niles had a mustache. It wasn't attempting to portray women; it was soldiers playing women. And it was so successful that Ed thought, alright, why don't we try and do another one? The follow up, they decided, rather than thinking about gender, they'd think about how to tell the story from a choric perspective. So when we did our version of Henry the Sixth, we had a chorus of butchers, with butcher's masks and cleavers and real meat. So it became about groups of people telling stories as opposed to gender. And it sort of continued. We never set out to be an all-male cast, it just was a curiosity that seemed to really work.

So it wasn't that Propeller set out to do Shakespeare the way it was done in Shakespeare's time?

Dan: I always say, when people ask this question, that Shakespeare wrote amazing women, absolutely incredible women. He would be so delighted, if he was alive, to see women play roles like Juliet. and Beatrice. Yet, however, when he was writing, he was writing for men and so there's a lot of little in jokes and lines about people not being what they are. In Twelfth Night, Viola says, "I am not what I am. I am not that I play." So many of his plays are about people adopting another gender, so you've got to ask why did he write this play where a girl appears in the first scene and for the whole of the play she disguises herself as a boy. And that happens in Twelfth Night and that happens in As You Like It. And he was, I think, very, very interested in adopting another role and especially another gender. And I think as a result, the play tells you some really interesting things about love and relationships, and how love certainly transcends gender.

Vince: It elevates romantic love above gender. It makes gender non-specific and unimportant.

Dan: It must have been a point he was making in some sort of subtle, illegal way.

So, do you think in terms of what you'd do if you were a woman or just play the text?

Dan: Yeah, I approach Katherine like I do any character, so what does the text say about the character? If Petruchio says, "Do not stamp," she's probably stamping. If someone says, "I cannot blame you now to cry," she's probably crying. And so there's also some clues like that. I think about how she moves, how she speaks but I'm not trying to trick anyone to thinking that I'm a woman. If that was what we were doing, we'd just have women in the company.

Vince: You work out what your goals are, then work out what the obstacles are because you are a woman and so it's not about trying to pretend to be a woman, it's "what situation am I in because I'm a woman."

Dan: Why can't I get what I want because I'm a woman, especially in the Taming of the Shrew. Why can't I get the things I want. The obstacle is the fact that Katherine is a woman, so society doesn't give her any rights really. And everyone ignores what she wants. She's just sold off and treated as commodity. Then, I guess, how would I feel if that was me? There's no real difference between men and women except physically. I think anyone would be incredibly angry, upset and distressed and broken if what happened to Katherine happened to them.

Vince: Politically, it's not about the subjugation of women, it's about the subjugation of anyone. And it's about why should anyone have the power because of something man has created.

Dan: It's what happens in society when one person has all the power and the other person has none. It doesn't necessarily have to be about gender. It could be about anything.

Is what happens to Christopher Sly parallel?

Vince: I see it as the Taming of Christopher Sly, not Taming of the Shrew at all. I really do. That's the way we framed it. With the induction.

Dan: You could say the induction is about this man being taught a lesson; about how wrong it is to behave this way and what the natural conclusion of that is. And you get to the end of the play and...

Vince: And he's marrying into it for money, so at the end of it, he's the one who will have no power at all. He's married to the one with the money. At least that's what I think. Ed likes to leave it more ambiguous than that.

Dan: I don't necessarily think the framing device is important; I think it helps the audience get some element of relief because it's gotten quite traumatic. But I think the story that is told is quite clear when we get to the end of the play of the Taming of the Shrew, the play within the play, it's quite clear that we're not saying this is the way the world should be. We're saying, "This happens and it's terrible." I hope that it makes people think a little bit about the world that we live in, in society, in this country as well as less developed parts of the world.

Director Edward Hall says in the playbill that Shakespeare takes traditions -- the aggressive tamer, the tamed shrew, the commercial society with its marriages for money -- and exposes them for what they are.

Vince: So many people say it's a misogynistic play; it's absolutely not. It's only misogynistic if ... there's a sort of modern way to try to change it, to make it more acceptable. We actually think that's more...

Dan: That makes you complicit in the violence that takes place. If you try to give it a happy ending and people say, "Oh, no, it's not about violence, it's about two people...

Vince: It's exposing men. Behavior of men. Because I agree to marry her before I've even met her. It's financial. It's legal. It's religious. The leaders of religion are as guilty as any; and they're all the men in that society. And it's all just about bartering.

Dan: If you want to see a Shakespeare play about a man and a woman who are equals, who argue and fight and reach a conclusion where they're happily married, then see Much Ado About Nothing. This is a different play. It doesn't have that ending and I think the fact that Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing and plays like that shows that he knew what a happy, equal relationship was. So clearly this isn't. This is him saying this is wrong, in Shrew, this is the wrong way for a relationship to work.

Watch for the completion of the interview with Vince Leigh and Dan Wheeler, coming soon!

Photo by Manuel Harlan. Vince Leigh (Petrucio) and Dan Wheeler (Katherine) in Propeller's The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. Directed by Edward Hall, design by Michael Pavelka, lighting design by Ben Ormerod. February 27- April 6, 2012 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis.

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