CPP Shakespeare festival launches female-empowering ‘King Lear’ series

By Sarah Han, Jan. 26, 2021

Just as William Shakespeare churned out one of his greatest works, “King Lear,” while recovering from a bubonic plague that killed nearly one-fifth of the London population in 1603, Cal Poly Pomona’s Southern California Shakespeare Festival is pushing through with virtual performances amid a global pandemic as it kicks off the year with an all-female production.

As part of its “A Year with Lear” series, the festival welcomed the campus community to “Are Our Souls Our Own?,” a virtual international event that live-streamed on YouTube on Jan. 17.

Directed by Stephanie Courtney, “Are Our Soul Our Own?” explores the monologues of female characters in various Shakespeare plays, including “King Lear,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “Henry IV.” The innovative production offers a refreshing perspective to the traditional Shakespeare plays as it focuses on the female characters often overshadowed by more prominent male roles.

While working on the “Henry V” production last summer, Courtney shared that she was intrigued by a line claiming that “every subject’s soul is his own” and wondered if the concept applied to the female characters who were burdened with extensive duties to serve men.

“When looking at ‘King Lear’ specifically, each of the daughters … follows their duties the way they believe their duties are meant to be followed, and all of them die, even Cordelia who we think is the virtuous one and doing all the right things,” Courtney explained during a Jan. 7 Instagram interview with Theatre Lecturer Richard Pluim. “So, is the fault with the women or is the fault with the world?”

Revolving around the central question of whether women’s souls were their own during the Elizabethan era, the virtual production aimed to highlight the strength of the female characters who possessed the courage to demand their rights despite the risk of being denied by society’s standards. The themes of sexism and social hierarchy were further explored through a live discussion with the cast and director after the performance.

Director Stephanie Courtney joined the cast of “Are Our Souls Are Own?” on a live-streamed discussion and performance via YouTube on Jan. 17. (Courtesy of Southern California Shakespeare Festival)

Following the event’s objective to promote inclusivity and female empowerment, the actresses were allowed to choose the roles they wished to perform.

“Most women don’t get to choose the roles they get to play,” Courtney said. “They are typed based on what they look like and how they fill in a space in a cast or a space in a story, so I wanted the actresses to have a choice. I wanted them to have the ability to be as creative as they wanted to be.”

The festival’s artistic director, Linda Bisesti, who is also a professor and head of acting and voice at the Department of Theatre and New Dance, took part as one of the actresses, performing as Goneril from “King Lear.”

After immersing herself in the role, Bisesti noted that her character is originally portrayed to be a villain who treats her elderly father with callousness — a viewpoint that fails to grasp the full scope of the dysfunctional family. According to Bisesti, this “simplistic view” neglects Goneril’s strong-willingness and ability to ask for what she needs — a quality she encourages her students to acquire.

“It’s challenging to have a sense of community and to ask for what you need and to move forward during these times, so for me, it’s all about that awareness,” Bisesti said. “People need the ability to have hope and move forward.”

Unlike some of the earlier productions, Courtney and Bisesti invited professional actresses to complete the all-female cast.

Each performer was responsible for filming her own scenes while the final clips were edited by Courtney. Though the crew prides themselves on operating as a collaborative team in the virtual environment, the challenge was to work in three time zones with some actresses in California and New York, and Courtney in Ireland.

Despite the time difference and the unfamiliar virtual set, the team successfully produced a thought-provoking performance which was reflected by the positive turnout, attracting more than 45 live viewers joining from various locations — including London, Seattle, California, Scotland and Ireland. The audience further expressed their appreciation through showers of praise during the event, describing the performance as “wonderfully creative” and “inspiring.” The production has now generated over 230 views on YouTube.

Through the monologues and the upcoming “King Lear” productions, Bisesti hopes for the audience to understand the relevance and connection between Shakespeare’s narratives and the modern world.

Even for students new to the theatre scene, Courtney suggests that Shakespeare’s plays can be approachable and compared to modern-day rap music. “If you can listen to rap music, you can get Shakespeare,” Courtney said. “All rappers do is play with language, and that’s all Shakespeare was doing.”

To stream the free virtual performance, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhbCzrnq-DQ&feature=youtu.be.

(Feature image courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

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