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  • On Queering Twelfth Night
  • Chad Allen Thomas (bio)

First encounters with new approaches to theatre practice have a way of staying with the young performer. For example, I clearly remember my own introduction to queer Shakespeare. In 1990, as part of an acting-class exercise in Ridiculous Theatre, I played Saturninus, doubled as Aaron, and stood in for Lavinia in a studio production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Our director, Kestutis Nakas, had previously produced a Ridiculous Titus at Manhattan's Pyramid Club in 1980; in restaging it at the University of New Mexico, he hoped to release his students from "institutional" Shakespeare. Instead of playing the verse as we had been taught in acting and voice classes (namely, by stressing active verbs and colorful descriptors, carefully mapping stops at the ends of lines, and pausing an appropriate amount of time for different punctuation marks), Nakas wanted us to simply speak Shakespeare's words. Employing the strategies of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre, our Titus heightened dramatic situations by emphasizing the comedic elements of the tragedy, but Nakas also insisted that we play our parts with sincerity and honesty.

Dramaturgically, many roles were double-cast, with only a costume piece to indicate character. As Aaron the Moor, for example, I wore a brown polyester vest and matching trousers stuffed with an enormous codpiece, while as Saturninus I donned a Burger King crown. In addition to the double-casting, many roles were also cross-gender cast. Female actors playing Demetrius and Chiron in the rape scene chased a female Lavinia off stage and dragged me back on (wearing Lavinia's long, blond wig to demarcate character). I suffered their cruel attack (as a sort of stunt-doubling) and afterwards crawled back off stage, to be replaced once again by the original actress. Nakas encouraged us to enjoy ourselves, to make bold physical choices, and to proceed fearlessly at breakneck speed. It was a moment of first contact with cross-gender casting and, more importantly, with queer Shakespeare.

That production of Titus challenged my conception of performing Shakespeare in several important ways. By creating queer moments, it enabled a drama with specific cultural significance to reflect my experiences, interests, and desires. I learned that cross-dressing was more than just a function of disguise in romantic comedy; as a theatrical practice, it drastically affected how we acted in our Titus, and how the audience reacted to it. Crossing actors' genders created unexpected erotic situations, such as when I played a love scene as Aaron with a male Tamora, presenting it as shocking, illicit, transgressive, and exciting. Nakas insisted on a moment of silence before the show started to commemorate the actors from his previous Titus who had since died from AIDS. In that moment, we felt connected to the queer political movement through Shakespeare. While not explicitly linked with the text of Titus Andronicus, that moment nonetheless related our Shakespearean performance to Nakas's previous production, and in doing so, also connected Shakespeare to late-twentieth-century queer political practices. Perhaps most important for me initially, queer theatre connoted my experiences as part of a nonnormative minority, even when that identity was not part of the text. Queer theatre reflects the sorrow, anger, and fear of a community responding to patriarchal heterosexism, homophobia, AIDS, and threats of violence; yet at the same time, queer theatre can provide joy, pleasure, and fulfillment by questioning the concept of normal and celebrating difference. These two objectives quite often work in unison, with the intention that, as Nakas later described, "[a]s an audience member, you laughed your ass off and cried your eyes out at the same time" (Nakas 2008). [End Page 101]

In this article, I propose a reconsideration of queer theatre to include Shakespeare by looking at productions of Twelfth Night by Shakespeare's Globe (directed by Tim Carroll, 2003) and Cheek by Jowl (directed by Declan Donnellan, 2006). By focusing on cross-gender casting, which is the most obvious aesthetic shared by Nakas's Titus and Carroll's and Donnellan's productions of Twelfth Night, I hope to connect theatre practice and pedagogy; that is, I analyze performances that draw on the...


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