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Theatre Topics 15.2 (2005) 185-200
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The Feminist Director in Rehearsal:
Several years ago I directed a production of Princess Ida, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta based on Tennyson's The Princess. The rather silly plot, which parodies women's education in the nineteenth century, concerns a Princess who has locked up all the women of the kingdom in the Castle Adamant, ostensibly to abjure the sight of men as they study classical philosophy, while unbeknownst to Ida, her betrothed Prince and his friends disguise themselves as women to steal into the fortress.
Late in the second act the Castle is stormed by soldiers trying to gain access to the women. In struggling to stage this complicated scene, which involves choruses of men and women, medieval armor and lances, three men in drag, and a large-scale battle—all on a stage that has a proscenium height of only nine feet—I was inspired to create a tableau resembling Pietro da Cortona's painting The Rape of the Sabine Women, a classical analogue for Princess Ida's plot about the abduction of a population of women. I did not discuss my goal with anyone in the rehearsal hall, nor did I bring a copy of the painting with me to show the actors the effect I desired. At one point, however, feeling some frustration with a group of noisy actors, I mentioned that I wanted them to stand still while I positioned this particular tableau. The minute I mentioned the title of the painting I had a mutiny on my hands. How dare I stage a rape? Who was I to use female students to further my murky agenda? Didn't I know what feminism was? The leader of the mutiny, the actor playing Ida, had recently taken a course in women's studies, and she recognized sexism when she saw it! I blanched: the students' response had taken me by surprise, and I felt my own status as a director and feminist threatened. After explaining the significance of the classical allusion and relating the origins of the painting's title and the etymology of the word "rape" (from the Latin for a forcible seizure), I managed to salve wounds and cajole actors into executing my staging. Nevertheless, this incident alerted me to the need to develop a different strategy for rehearsals—one that would allow all parties access to the ideas underlying the production and offer students the opportunity to learn from rehearsal in various ways. To succeed as an artist, I would have to re-examine my own practice and learn to approach the rehearsal process as a collaborative endeavor.
Like many women who have chosen theatre and education as a career, I have multiple identities: teacher, director, feminist. The intersection of these identities is important because it directly influences the plays and performance modes I choose. As a feminist, I am interested in the way social and political context shape one's sense of oneself, and how performance practices provide a framework for understanding the construction of gender, identity, and authority. As a teacher and director, I have learned from feminism to interrogate my [End Page 185] power in the classroom and rehearsal hall and to capitalize on my interest in making theatre political. All three roles intersect when I use the rehearsal process to raise questions about gender constructions for all students and to empower women students in particular. Yet I have discovered that relinquishing control in rehearsal is not always easy or wise, and that striving for a genuine collaboration can involve compromises that even a feminist director intent on decentering authority may be unwilling to make.
As the following pages attest, my multiple identities sometimes find themselves in conflict with one another; yet the awareness of such conflict—of the tension between my desire to empower others in the rehearsal process and my determination to make strong choices to challenge gender norms in performance—has made me a better, more confident educator. This essay traces the course of my development as a...