What happens when a woman steps into the role of Julius Caesar?

It might be that when you picture Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there are no women in the starring roles. (To refresh your memory, this is the one with the “Friends, Romans, countrymen...” speech and the famous reminder by Cassius: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”) In a play where male characters insult each other by pointing to “womanish” traits or youthful inexperience, these mighty words are almost always reserved for strong-jawed, middle-aged male politician-types.

But it’s seven women in their early 20s who bring the bloody story of power and betrayal to life for Gallatin’s Roman Tragedies Festival, which also features a dramatization of the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare’s retelling of the brutal assault on the matron Lucretia by the Roman king’s son Sextus Tarquin.

“It’s interesting that Shakespeare bookends his examination of the Roman republic with the deaths of two women,” says Gallatin professor, festival producer, and Rape of Lucrece director Kristin Horton, referring to both Lucretia’s suicide—which incited a revolt that led to the founding of the Roman republic—and that of Cleopatra, which marked its end.

Kristin Horton, director of "Rape of Lucrece"

Moreover, this production of The Rape of Lucrece comes in the midst of a national conversation about the crisis of sexual assault on college campuses and on the heels of NYU’s own revised Sexual Misconduct, Relationship Violence, and Stalking policy—something that “definitely made its way into rehearsal every day,” Horton says. As part of the festival, Gallatin’s Urban Democracy Lab will present “I Am Lucrece: Rethinking Sexual Violence,” a panel discussion on the connections between Shakespeare’s poem and the continued efforts of 21st-century women to speak out against rape.

Shakespeare indeed gave voice to a victim in a style that was ahead of its time. Whereas Ovid told the story of the rape in less than 200 lines, Shakespeare “expands the story to almost 1,800 and gives Lucrece a significant amount of the text—so she has a lot to say in the poem,” Horton notes. “I’m hopeful that the themes we’re exploring in our production will come up in the conversation about how we’re talking about sexual assault on campus today.”

Likewise, Julius Caesar, a play about the transition from democracy to empire—performed in this case by the directorless, all-female theater collective Show Us Womanish—also offers an opportunity to reflect on contemporary politics and power dynamics.

“The Roman tragedies are some of Shakespeare’s most deeply political plays,” Horton says, and “they raise some great, timely questions for us right now, about early ideas of democracy, leadership, and the power of friendship. What does it mean to be a leader versus a politician? Can you be both?”

A reading of Antony and Cleopatra by the Fiasco Theater company (whose members Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld are adjunct instructors at Gallatin) and a National Theatre Live broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Coriolanus round out the festival program. See the full schedule of festival events, catch a sneak peek of Rape of Lucrece and Julius Caesar rehearsals in the slideshow above, and read a Q&A with student actors below.


Q&A with Show Us Womanish Actors Ashley Thaxton and Kelsey Burns

Actress in "Julius Caesar"

 

The seven women of Show Us Womanish came together in October 2013 with the goal of approaching Shakespeare through a collective rehearsal process. After participating in a Gallatin tutorial (a small, student-designed course) with mentorship from Fiasco’s Austrian and Steinfeld, they presented the first three acts of Julius Caesar at the Gallatin Arts Festival in April 2014. They’ll perform the whole play in this month’s Roman Tragedies Festival and at the Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, California, in January.

A week before opening night, NYU Stories caught up with exhausted but enthusiastic company members Ashley Thaxton (Gallatin ’14) and Kelsey Burns (a Gallatin junior), who offered their thoughts Shakespeare, feminism, and collaboration. 

On rehearsing without a director:
Kelsey Burns: It's been this crazy journey, especially working without a director on a play that is about democracy versus tyranny—and then zooming out and thinking about that question, say, in a place like Syria. And then of course there are tons of references to Julius Caesar in the political scene—both Obama’s and Bush’s speechwriters quoted it many times, and Nelson Mandela had it smuggled into his prison, along with the Bible.

A.T.: Our rehearsals can get really intense—we’re all shouting and going after each other, but then the minute rehearsal ends we’re friends again. That’s something we’ve really worked to develop, and I appreciate that this has been a priority for us—creating a safe space, and then when it’s not always safe, talking about it and dealing with that.

Actress in "Julius Caesar"

On confronting life’s big questions (at age 22):
K.B.: Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies can come across as heavy and distant, so part of the challenge is making them intimate again. And that means risking questions of death, love, and loss—which are big questions to be asking when you’re 22 and don’t know anything! So it's been nice to have this group of six other women who I know I can trust if I go into the room saying, "I have a really hard time, as Julius Caesar, in this moment, just accepting that I may die today."

A.T.: We're such Gallatin people that we could sit and talk about the play forever, but we’ve gotten better about taking an idea and then, instead of just talking about it, actually getting on our feet and instinctually trying it out, and then debriefing later. Personally I run into the trap of wanting to talk about everything, and analyze it, but at the end of the day we're not going to invite people to just come and talk about Julius Caesar. They're coming to see a show.

On tackling traditionally male roles:
K.B.: This is the question we get all the time. As seven women, we're exploring what it is like to step into the role of power that is traditionally and arbitrarily assigned to a male figure. For me, stepping into the role of Caesar, that translates to having an incredible amount of power that all gets taken away from me. It’s not that I’m going to dress like a man, or look like a man. At its birth this is not a feminist production of Julius Caesar, but we happen to all be feminists.

A.T.: There's no way [feminism] doesn't influence the work that we create, but we didn't sit down and say, "We're going to say something about the state of women by doing this play." Still, as Ashley Renee Thaxton, I'm probably never going to go out into the world and get cast as Brutus, or as Octavius, the soldier, so it’s been great to get a chance to work on these amazing speeches. What does it mean to hear “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in a woman's voice? I’ve seen this play multiple times before, and yet I hear a completely different story from a woman's voice.