Futuristic Flamenco Females and Shakespeare's Caesar: An Interview with Vinetta Strombergs
CASP Research Associate Marissa McHugh interviewed Vinetta Strombergs in June 2003, and talked about her all-female, futuristic, flamenco-dancing production of Caesar.
I met with Vinetta Strombergs in June of 2003 to discuss her adaptation of Shakespeare's Caesar. In 1985-86, Strombergs marked her directorial debut with an unforgettable all-female version of Caesar at Theatre Workshop Productions. Though Strombergs maintained 99% of the classical Shakespearean text, she altered the premise by setting the play in an all-female future. In this futuristic version of Caesar, female senators attempt to build a democratic political system by eliminating Caesar, the nation's singular ruler. Though Shakespeare's linear plot structure and classical text remain almost intact throughout this adaptation, the battle scenes were eliminated and replaced with elaborate sequences of competitive flamenco dancing.
Strombergs denies that the staging choices of her adaptation intended to make a feminist statement. In the following interview, Strombergs explains that the idea to create an all-female Shakespeare production was initiated by her own desire and the desire of fellow female actors to perform challenging Shakespearean roles, rather than to make a feminist statement. For Strombergs, Caesar was the obvious text choice for this all-female production, as it is one of Shakespeare's only plays that lacks referents to gender issues. Rather, Shakespeare's Caesar concentrates on issues of political power and violence, which Strombergs believes to be universal themes that resonate regardless of gender, time, or place. Strombergs' Caesar stresses the importance of staging practises and demonstrates how the simple staging choice of using an all-female cast drastically re-conceptualises Shakespeare words to suit a contemporary reality.
The following interview with Strombergs reflects the ongoing academic debate of how to define a Shakespearean adaptation. In the case of Strombergs' Caesar, gender was the primary factor, which prompted reviewers to initially label this production as being a "feminist" adaptation of Shakepeare's Caesar despite the fact that Strombergs repeatedly stated that it was not. Nevertheless, Strombergs Caesar is primarily remembered because of its all-female cast - though Shakespeare's plays were rarely remembered for their all-male casts. Why were the Canadian reviewers that witnessed Stromberg's Caesar obsessed with labelling it as a "feminist" adaptation? That is the question that remains to be answered almost a decade after the closing of this production.
After the completion of her widely discussed all-female production of Caesar, Strombergs continued to work as an actor and a director. She has directed a variety of Shakespeare adaptations including a clown version of Measure for Measure entitled Tit for Tat and a multi-cultural rendition of Pericles. Strombergs has also done a considerable amount of work in Aboriginal theatre: directing and dramaturging for Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto and De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group on Manitoulin Island. Strombergs currently lives in Toronto, Ontario and holds the position of Professional Theatre Coordinator for Theatre Ontario.
Interview With Vinetta Strombergs:
MM: As a director, what attracts you to Shakespeare's plays?
VS: Well, it's the best. It's the best words. The richness of the language. The images. You hear it again and again from people that have worked in Shakespeare. The longer they work with it, the more they discover. It's something that's for a lifetime. It's not just for one year in school where you learn three plays and that's that. You keep going back again and again.
And actors verify that. Every time they redo a part - a great role in Shakespeare - they find that it means different things at different times in their lives and it reflects the context that they are in. There have been so many interpretations of the plays depending on the time frame, the geographical location it is taking place in, and the people that are doing it. It just reveals so much over and over and over again. Every time.
MM: There has been a debate in our Shakespeare office as to what constitutes an adaptation. How would you define a Shakespearean adaptation?
VS: I don't think I would because ultimately to me it doesn't matter. What matters to me is communicating with an audience. So therefore whenever I have worked on Shakespeare I look at what is relevant to the audience that I am trying to reach. That can be a lot of different things. First and foremost, all the work I have done in Shakespeare has taken place in Canada. In Toronto. So, it depends on what part of the Toronto audience I am trying to reach. Is it a young audience? Is it a middle class audience? Or is it a school show? Because I have done a lot of just straight on Shakespeare in a school context. Trying to bring it to life to people that have never been exposed to it. Actors who are in their first or second year of training and they have never done Shakespeare and they're terrified of it. Well, I totally understand that. I hated it in school. I didn't get it and I didn't want to do that memory work. It was meaningless stuff, weird words, strange sentence construction. Teachers didn't exactly bring it life either.
As an actor taking acting classes and voice classes, I discovered how that language opens you up emotionally. How you have to be in your body and on your breath to do that work. The amazing immense challenge of the language and making sense of it. How your mind has to work. It has to be so agile to connect all the thoughts in the sequences to make the arguments. It's like being a lawyer. The more I worked on it, the more exciting it got. And then I went, "How do I now take this experience and communicate it to an audience that is not used to listening to this stuff? How do they make sense of it?" We just don't have that training anymore that they had in the Elizabethan times. They were good at playing with language because they did it all the time. Now society is far more visually engaged rather than orally.
With my limited knowledge of hip-hop and rap, I am really excited to see what is going to come out of this generation of people who work with words in an interesting and dynamic fresh way. How are they going to interpret Shakespeare?
I didn't answer the adaptation question at all. I just don't believe in museum theatre. I don't think you can recreate the way it was originally done. So to some degree it is always an adaptation of the original intent and yet you can be true to the original intent. But, I guess really an adaptation means that you are starting with the words as the source and then you're changing the words. Certainly there is a lot of discussion around when you are translating, that it's automatically an adaptation because you can't just translate word by word. That doesn't work. But, if the words are exactly the same, I don't know that it can really be called an adaptation.
I know that when I've done some of my Shakespeare, it has been experienced completely differently than the usual productions, even though I don't think of it as an adaptation. I do think that it is quite a different interpretation than ... Oh. It's so hard to define! Every time you do a show you're interpreting the text, but somehow there seems to be another stage when you go further away from the original or usual interpretation. Gender is the obvious thing and certainly with Caesar we found that it had a tremendous impact on the women who played it. And we actually had a Jungian psychologist come in, Marianne Woodman. She was just blown away. She said, "Do you know how difficult what you are doing is? To inhabit a male psyche in such a male play?" And it was tough. It had very definite psychological and emotional ramifications for the actresses, just saying those words. Somehow that seems more than just an interpretation, but is it an adaptation?
I think that the notion of adaptation is much more for the writer. Or if you're switching media, so it's "adapted for the stage from the novel" or "adapted from the musical for the movie," which seems to be very popular right now. That "adapted" - fitting into a new context. I don't know .
MM: What is your background training in theatre and how does this training influence your work with Shakespeare?
VS: My training? I never went formally to a theatre school. I came out of the crazy early seventies in Toronto with alternative theatre. And the theatre that I was associated primarily with was Global Village Theatre, which did a lot of strange dance dramas and new musicals, which were quite successful, but the company only lasted about five years. But it was right in there from seventy to seventy-five with the Tarragon, Passe Muraille, The Factory Theatre, and The Free Theatre. I had a dance and music background and then the acting was kind of learned on the fly. I had a natural flair for comedy and clown. There weren't a lot of opportunities in the seventies for training. Then Equity Showcase came to be and they offered classes in a lot of different things. So in the late seventies, I got very serious about learning Shakespeare and voice and movement and connecting all three. And it was through people like David Smukler - who is "the voice guru", Paula Thompson who often worked with him for movement and Neil Freeman who did First Folio text approach. It was a good length of time taking classes before I started the Caesar project in eighty-four. I was always exploring other training and I came from a strong musical theatre background. And dance and music.
I think Shakespeare was easier to approach because of that. I think that when you approach it intellectually, it just becomes hard work. But when you can find the music in it, which of course Shakespeare talked about all the time - the villains don't hear music; the villains don't sing; it's missing in their beings. Think of the whole iambic pentameter - you set up a regular rhythm and then what happens when you break that rhythm - when it lives in your body. Dancers understand that. And musicians understand that. That alarming effect it has when you are shaken up. You understand it emotionally inside your body. I think that was part of the thing that started to excite me. Embodying Shakespeare was so exciting. In voice classes, I remember "big drama." There were all these people standing around in a circle doing these sounds and then you started speaking Shakespeare text and suddenly you were laughing hysterically or hyperventilating or weeping. You weren't acting. You were just saying words. Openly in your body and breathing and it had this extraordinary effect on you. The sounds in Shakespeare's words are very powerful and emotional.
MM: I'd like to take a closer look at Caesar and ask a few questions about its development and meaning. As the adapter of Caesar, how was this production ideologically and stylistic your own?
VS: I worked on it for such a long time - over two years. Originally the production was created so that I could have a chance to perform. The more I worked on it - the more I couldn't let go of my ideas. I had to own the production as a director. I did not want to be in it. And also when I auditioned, I saw over two hundred women and I just went, "You know what? They're better than I am. And I would just rather direct this thing." And that was kind of the beginning of my directing career.
So, as I was working through the ideas ... I went back to the text and it was all about finding what the imagery in the text was, what the words were saying, and what the rhythms were saying, and then how? And then the problem and the challenge was how to justify the choices that I was making, which was to do it with women?
The original idea was that it was all women except the person playing Caesar and that role was going to be given to a man. And so everybody got on this feminist notion, you know, the women kill the man and take over the power and I just thought, "That's not why I want to do this. It's not to make that kind of political statement." It was more about celebrating the talent of the women and then making sure that it was accurate to what was actually in the play. And I thought you could justify that if there was a world where there were no men, then women would do it all. Well, all those thoughts didn't come from anyone else. It was my studying the text. My thinking about the story. So, I had to own it. So, that's why it is mine.
Then there were things like the battle scenes. I always hated those tedious battle scenes on stage because you can't really do justice to battle scenes onstage the way you can on film. So, I went, "Oh man, I do not want to do bad battle scenes." So what would be a metaphor in a female context? And then I saw the flamenco Carmen, a film by this flamenco company in Spain and it made me crazy. And I went, "That's it. That is it. That is so feminine and it is so powerful and it's so strong." And again it's the rhythm and that worked a treat. Everybody responded to it.MM: Could you describe the flamenco battle scenes?
VS: They were purely metaphorical. They were set up as encounters. You would have a rhythm set up coming in from one side of the stage and then it would answer from the other side. I mean these people were coming from the same background so it made sense that they speak the same language. They just disagree. So, it was like one-upsmanship. You could liken it to West Side Story and the dance in the gym. The gangs were dancing and trying to outdo each other.MM: How was the dancing symbolic of violence?
VS: It really wasn't. It was more about attitude and intimidation. The only violent act was the stabbing of Caesar. For the battle scenes, you didn't really need to see the deaths. It was more about the struggle. It is the same thing when you do romance. It's not all that important to see all the kissing. It's the desire to kiss. So, in the battle scenes you want to see the tension and the conflict rather than just the death. Also, I was going for what was theatrical as opposed to what was realistic.
The theatricality of the stabbing of Caesar I really liked. And that was actually the central image I worked from. It was like one of those things that come to you in a dream and you go, "Oh yeah that's how it is going to work." 'Cause again I thought, "Oh man do we have to deal with blood? It's so messy. And how are we going to clean the costumes if we get blood all over them?" Because we had these amazing costumes. Malibar was one of our sponsors and they gave us all this stuff to use as raw material, which our designer Linda Muir then recombined brilliantly. Caesar's outfit was built from scratch and she had a quilted gold lamé jacket, which looked very "spacy" and it had little pockets with tabs. So when the stabbing of Caesar took place, Casca was up behind on a step and stabbed down and it went into slow motion with a very brilliant white light and this sound effect that just sort of froze everything in air. And it was slow slow slow slow coming down. And then she [Casca] would pull a tab that you didn't notice in the costume. But when it pulled out, it was red silk. So you had this huge shard of red silk. And then as soon as that came out everyone started stabbing and just went for these tabs and started pulling them out, so it was just red silk coming out all over.
And then when they had to do the bloody hands, Caesar is lying there and there was a pocket inside her coat, and the senators were standing all around her and they pulled out these bloodied gynaecological gloves and put them on. So there was a direct female reaction to the medical gloves all painted brilliant red. It had a stronger impact than trying to do all that annoying real/fake blood stuff.MM: Did the production refute gender stereotypes associated with power, violence, and the female body?
VS: I was really clear from the very beginning that I didn't want them impersonating men. And it was an interesting challenge for that reason. The material kept driving you towards this very male thing. Consequently there was psychic conflict with it for the actresses. And we had a lot of discussion around it. We discussed how women don't operate that way. The natural female way is the circle as opposed to the male way, which is the more linear. So we kept trying to incorporate that circular thing. And it was the same in the flamenco. It would circle. It came in straight on and then it would circle and then break into smaller circles.
There seems to be something that supports gender differences and therefore if there is a difference there is going to be stereotypes. That isn't going to be true across the board, but ... With the play what we tried to take on was: why do all these senators go against Caesar? Why does his best friend go against him? Because he wanted to be king rather than staying with the form of being all together. So in fact, we defined the female Caesar as breaking away from the female way and becoming the male way of wanting to be the single ruler instead of the group power. And all our choices were done that way. Again it was about redefining it so that the women could own it, so that they could understand it. There was a lot of that. When you create this fictional world that we know doesn't exist, you have to do a lot of background to layer it in and to put it in the future, but ultimately it worked.
It was important also that they were wearing dresses largely. And the flamenco really added to that. That there was a very feminine look to it - with Elizabethan collars and beautiful fabrics. And there were only a few women that wore pants in it or wore pantaloon type pants, which were even more feminine somehow.MM: Was the plot linear?
VS: Yes, it was exactly as written. There is a character of a fool or a jester that we cut. There were those minimal cuts in the text. The only word changed was "man" to "Roman." The rest was absolutely regular text. The challenge for the women was owning the text.
MM: What took focus - the futuristic design or the Shakesperean language? Did these two elements clash at all?
VS: No, not at all. I think in the same way Star Trek uses a lot of very classically trained actors and often quotes Shakespeare. Christopher Plummer did it. He did part of the Hamlet "to be or not to be" in Klingon. [Please see our page on Canadian Shakespeareans in Space.]
I think there is an association between futuristic things and very old things. I think it is harder to be in contemporary clothes and do Shakespeare than it is to be in exotic costumes of any sort. It seems to work.
MM: In the article, "Caesar's director's expects 'a lot of flak'," Ray Conlogue quotes you saying, "I'm not making a feminist statement." Reflecting back, do you think that Caesar was more political than you originally intended it to be?
VS: Well, yeah. But, so what? You put your work out there. You do what you need to do to say what you have to say. I wanted to work on Shakespeare and I thought that this was a play that gender didn't matter. So therefore I didn't want to engage in the discussion of gender. I just wanted people to come and see the play. Did they get the story? Did they understand the characters? Did they get the conflict? And that worked a treat.
I loved watching people during intermission in the lobby talking about the show. And nobody was having arguments about, "Why are women doing this?" They were talking about the play. Or specific characters and what the characters were doing. And I went, "That's great." That to me was the success of it.
Yeah, it looked pretty spectacular too. But that's just frills and frippery - that's fun! No, people didn't waste too much time talking about gender. And certainly the flamenco had a huge impact on people. They loved it and really responded to it.MM: Where was the show produced?
It was only produced in one place - Toronto Workshop Productions, which is now Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. 12 Alexander Street. That was the only space we did it in.MM: How did the space affect the meaning? Was it still considered a new theatre at this time?
VS: No, it was pretty close to the end of TWP. They closed down at the end of that season or the next. They were in huge financial difficulties at the time. George Luscombe [the artistic director] was hugely supportive of the project. He was great. We were going to be rehearsing in the regular rehearsal space, which was the Elm Street Arts and Letters Club. They lost that space because they couldn't afford it anymore. But he also had to close the show before ours, so we actually got to rehearse in the theatre for five weeks, which was astonishing. There were days when there was no heat and it was winter and that was tough, but to actually work in the space you're going to be performing in. It's like a dream come true.
And it was almost like a Stratford amphitheatre. It wasn't quite 180 degrees, but the configuration was very much that thrust. And the stairs coming down! It felt like the senate. We used the audience stairways for entrances and exits through it and included the audience, so that the audience was part of the spectators within the story. So when you get the big speech of Mark Antony's - the reporters, the so-called reporters that were flinging questions were in the house, so there was a very inclusive feeling. It was a great relationship between performer and audience in that space and I loved that. So the space informed choices of staging. Absolutely.MM: Are there plans to restage Caesar?
VS: I would love to do it again! But I am not willing to go through the headache of producing it. Too hard. It's really hard.MM: Right now are you working on any Shakespeare projects?
VS: Actually, the Tit For Tat or Measure for Measure. I am really looking at adapting that into a musical. So then the question would be: do you stay with the Shakespearean language and just incorporate music or do you change it completely? So that is just something that is in the beginning stages right now and I have to talk to a number of people.
I like Measure for Measure. I like the so called "problem plays." Because you go, "Wait a minute, it wasn't a problem for Shakespeare, so why is it a problem for us? Why don't we get it?" There mustn't be a problem because he writes too well for it to be a problem. So it's just finding a hook that gets you in and then you have to play. Always go back to the text and find the stuff that turns you on and then charge on through.
MM: You did a clown version of Measure for Measure. Could you describe that production?
VS: Yes, it was a ton of fun. It was part training project and workshop production. It was very rough and ready. It was in collaboration with Theatre Resource Centre, which gave clown workshops. And so that was what we did. It was eleven actors and over a four-month period they got clown training. Plus, we worked gradually on the text aspects one-on-one and then gradually brought that into scene work. There was a two-week rehearsal at the end and then we did it. And everybody literally created their own costumes out of the big bin of stuff in the studio. And we went for "Rococo-Baroque-o" clowns. It was quite outrageous looking, slightly white faced. It was set in Louis XIV. Literally, I just went through art books and I went, "Okay what is the period that is the most ridiculous? The most fru-fru? The most over the top?" And so that was what I picked because it was totally decadent and to me that's the core of what's going on in Measure for Measure. It's about decadence and who gets away with what.
Originally, I wanted to do Measure for Measure when the whole Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings happened in the States. It was a huge sexual harassment case. Clarence Thomas was going to be put in as one of the Supreme-Court Justices and suddenly Anita Hill, who had been his assistant, complained that he had harassed her sexually. And then suddenly there was this huge hearing with all these senators sitting around and vilifying her as misinterpreting him and it became this huge case that was on all of the American stations. And watching that I went, "Is that like Isabella having to say I went to Angelo and he did this to me." And then I thought, "Well how the hell can this smart man be so stupid? He's running the country - why would he do this?"
And again it was that thing - go back to the text and read it. What is he saying? What is the moment where it changes? And I looked at Angelo's speech after he meets with Isabella and what does he say the minute Isabella walks out of the room? He goes, "What's this? What's this? Is it her or is it me? Whose sin is more?" and that kind of a speech. But it was, "What's this? What's this?" And I went, "What going on?" And I went ... (Vinetta drums her fingers on the table contemplatively) He's gotten turned on. He's got the biggest erection of his life and he doesn't understand what's happening to him and it completely changed him. So what makes a man go berserk? When does the dick start thinking and the brain stop? Girls fall in love they put their brain on the shelf and off they go. So it's that same thing from a male perspective. All right, that would mean Angelo has no experience with sex because to do what he now goes on to do is quite outrageous. And yet at a certain point when he's about to rape her he stops. Why does he stop? So I went, "Okay it's got to be someone who's completely sexually inexperienced." So that means he's younger, rather than older and maybe a bit of a nerd type.
So, who's doing the manipulating? The Duke is manipulating. So why doesn't he pick Escalus to run the country while he's off spying on everybody? Why does he pick Angelo? Oh well, because Angelo is a rubber-stamper civil servant. He's not going to ask questions and he's not going to cause problems. Right perfect! So it all went down like that and then I worked out the logic for Isabella. All right, so she's a nun. Well, no she's not a nun yet. She's actually probably living a very secluded life because Dad died and now she's got this brother who's carrying on and making women pregnant. But, she's kind of cocooned in this place. She's naïve, so she doesn't know that she has big tits and is very attractive. And because Dad died she has to go to the convent because that is what good girls do.
So again, it was working through a logic that was all based on sexuality. It was reading: "What's in the words? What is in the words?" So suddenly you start realising there's all this stuff about whips and flagellation for the priest. The language itself is very decadent and very sexual. And of course there's always a lot of that in Shakespeare all over the place. There was a certain sort of degenerate thing going on, I felt. So I defined all the characters I wanted to use, which was the eleven characters, in terms of sexuality and power politics. Well, this was a much more political piece that I wanted to do [compared to Caesar]. Then I started doing gender-switching. So Lucius was the woman that was trying to pass as a man. Escalus became Sexaless, the older woman who was no longer considered sexual and therefore has no power. Marianna was also the "bawd." She was the strumpet. It was a guy in drag who was doing it with the Duke. So, the Duke was just decadent. He just wanted sex in any which way - the weirder the better.
So, it was really looking at everything through sexuality. And I think that's in the play. I think that's totally the heart of the play. And so it was fun doing that. And then I thought, "Oh, people are just going to go nuts." So I went, "Clown! That'll be the answer." Clown you can get away with all that stuff because that's the essence of clown. They're in your face and challenging you and society's morés, but really it's fun too. So we did a lot of exploration. What kind of clown was it going to be? Was it going to be red nosed clown? Was it going to be more silly or was it going to be Joey and Auguste? Or was it going to be the bouffon? So we actually took bits and pieces of everything and then just put it out there. And I thought it worked great. And I loved it so much that I want to try it as musical.MM: Would you incorporate the clown style into the musical?
VS: I really like clown for a lot of things. We have such wonderful clown companies in Toronto who have all gone over and studied with Le Coq or Gaulier and then come back and made it their own. So, you look at the difference between what companies like Mump and Smoot are doing and what Theatre Columbus does. There is a huge range of possibilities. Or what Dean Gilmour does. There are wonderful things to be done, so clown is not just necessarily silly. But, I think it provides a freedom for the actor to do outrageous things and get away with them. It's a sense of play that I love and an incredible honesty.
Cahill, Linda. "Staging Shakespeare's Julius Caesar." Rev. of Caesar, dir. by Vinetta Strombergs. Toronto Star 21 Feb. 1986: D16.
Conlogue, Ray. "Caesar's director expects 'a lot of flak'." Globe and Mail 22 Feb. 1986: D12.
Kaplan, Jon. "Taking a bigger part in Shakespeare." Rev. of Caesar, directed by Vinetta Strombergs. NOW 5.24 (20-26 Feb. 1986): 13.
Manguel, Alberto. Rev. of Caesar, directed by Vinetta Strombergs. State of the Arts. CBC Radio. 2 Mar. 1986.
Pennington, Bob. "Come to praise, not bury Caesar". Rev. of Caesar, directed by Vinetta Strombergs. Toronto Sun 3 Mar. 1986.