What if you were a young woman of a certain age, say 20/30 something, and you were tired of talking over the same issues about the shortage of opportunities for women in the theatre? Would you dare to take your career into your own hands and form a theatre company whose aim, as well as creating ‘dynamic, thought-provoking theatre’, was to ‘address the shortage of great and interesting roles for women by producing plays where at least half of the actors on stage are women’? And, would your choice for your first production be an all-female version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus?
Well, two Shakespeare-loving actors have done just this; Elisa Armstrong and Joanne Booth founded Heartstring only this year and their all-female production of Coriolanus opened on 28 April at the Mechanics Institute’s Metanoia Theatre in Brunswick.
Elisa and Joanne met while performing in a reading of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and hit it off immediately. Sharing a love of theatre and especially Shakespeare they took themselves on a weekend trip to Sydney to catch Hamlet at the Opera House, along with some other productions. As they chatted about their experiences they noticed that their conversations tended to focus on the time-worn issues of what they wanted to be doing, how few roles there were for women in theatre, and how often they were just sitting around waiting for others to create an opportunity for them. So, why not take their careers into their own hands and set about creating their own works, in their own way? Returning to Melbourne they set about creating a new independent theatre company, Heartstring.
Asked about the company’s name Elisa admits that she really likes one-word names that aren’t necessarily related to theatre, such as ‘punchdrunk, kneehigh, headlong’. She and Joanne brainstormed words; Walkingshadow was too Shakespearean but Heartstring seemed to sum up what they were about. Says Joanne, ‘I really liked headstrong or head something, and then I thought it’s not actually about the head it’s about the heart…you step onto the stage and you have to leave your heart on the stage in order to affect the audience and I think we’re all connected by our heart as well’.
But why select a Shakespeare play for your very first production? Joanne laughingly suggests that they just wanted to give themselves an easy start. What they did want was to be provocative, without being obviously so, and they wanted an all female cast. Given that they wanted to do a Shakespeare play, ‘why not pick the most aggressive, angry, masculine play’, Coriolanus. The audience would not expect such a play to feature women, and they would be able to explore what it is to be a woman in a world of war and politics. Playing the role Coriolanus has convinced Elisa that nothing is really masculine or feminine, ‘any woman can have the attributes that a man has’.
Another advantage is that Coriolanus is less well known than, say, Hamlet. Far fewer people have studied the play at school so they are less likely to know the soliloquies; at a production of Hamlet it’s not unusual to see audience members mouthing along with the better known speeches. As Joanne says, ‘I think there’s going to be some real audience suprises’.
Their first step in adapting the text was to change all the ‘hes’ to ‘shes’. Next they needed to shorten the play – it is now around 90 minutes in length – while making sure that every actor was given ‘a good chunk to deal with’. They’ve set the action in a future world, not sci-fi or post apocalyptic, but one which has no men. A world where, as Joanne says, ‘shit has happened’ and the women are faced with rebuilding a society. They have avoided being too explicit about how this world has come to be because they don’t want any design to be in conflict with the text. They want to support Shakespeare’s text while leaving something to the imaginations of the audience.
An all-female cast meant that one of the important challenges during the rehearsal process was for them to redefine the different relationships in the play. Should Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia be portrayed as a pushy stage mum, or maybe a mum who wants her daughter to be the warrior she wasn’t able to be? Anger is another key element; they needed to explore all the different levels of anger and the different ways it can be expressed. Elisa talks about playing an angry wife and only being allowed to shriek ‘for a little bit’. But anger is more than screaming, it can also be cold and cutting; it has levels within levels. They make no attempt to shy away from the fact that the women are fighting to survive in a brutal world and the actors are finding it really empowering to, for once, be playing characters who drive the scenes and instigate the action.
Directing all these women is a lone male, Grant Watson, and I have to ask, as apparently everyone else has, how this is working for them. Elisa and Joanne respond with undisguised enthusiasm. They’ve known Grant for some time and tell me that he has Shakespeare in his blood. When they asked him how he’d feel about directing an all female Coriolanus his response was ‘I would direct the shit out of that’; and theirs, ‘OK’.
Elisa couldn’t resist expanding on the topic of women in the theatre. Women remain a minority in the arts and ‘to expect women to just change things is kind of ridiculous…Men should [also] be encouraged to tell stories with women at the centre…[then] we can start having more women on stage and [more] men will be writing plays with women in them…We’re quite happy having a male director.’
One of Heartstring’s aims is that every play they do will have 50% women on stage and behind the scenes, ‘but we’re certainly not excluding the men…I want to see women, I want to see men’.
As actors neither Elisa nor Joanne had produced theatre before this and they’ve learned a great deal from the experience. In fact it has been ‘eye-opening’ to discover that, as a producer, your work never really ends; once an actor has done her preparation and learned all her lines, she can stop worrying – not so the producer. They find that they work well together and cheerfully quip that Joanne brings the jokes and swear words while Elisa brings the intelligence. They are already thinking of what they might do next. The challenge will be to find something that inspires as much passion as Coriolanus has. ‘You can’t do something that seems to have got quite a reaction so far and then drop down and do something a little pedestrian.’
For now it’s all Shakespeare and they are happy with their choice, which was not driven by the fact that it’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s the language they love; in fact there were times when an actor stood firm and refused a suggested cut because it meant that she would lose the chance to speak such beautiful lines. Also the themes of the play remain totally relevant in today’s world. ‘The parallels are stunningly obvious, particularly in the political world,’ explains Elisa.
There are characters who never show their true selves and others who are completely open and honest. ‘Coriolanus believes that everyone has her place and should stay there. She is not a diplomat but she is true to her nature.’
You may not agree with her but you have to admire her openness in a world that doesn’t support that. They expect that the audience will leave the performance thinking ‘that’s so much like today’.