Shakespeare and Gender Relations: An Inside Look at “The Will to Fight”

Anthony J. Piccione

It goes without saying that throughout history, very few playwrights are as renowned, studied and frequently produced as William Shakespeare. Some of the most famous comedies, tragedies and love stories in theatre have been credited to his name. Even just over the past year, I’ve probably reviewed more plays by Shakespeare than by any other playwright.

However, a new production coming to Brooklyn this weekend seeks to get audiences to view his work in a very specific lens, in the hopes of starting a conversation on issues that have been getting more and more attention, specifically over the past couple of years.

 Holly Payne-Strange

Holly Payne-Strange

The production I am referring to is The Will to Fight, a new show conceived and directed by acclaimed director Holly Payne-Strange, who came up with the concept for this production – a compilation of scenes, sonnets and monologues from the works of William Shakespeare focused on the topic of gender and gender relations – in part from observing conversations on this topic without seeing it go anywhere. “I just got sick of seeing endless Facebook posts about the topic. I don’t find those very satisfying, and it turns into an echo chamber very quickly,” she said, in my interview with you this past week. “I wanted to actually do something, to really engage with the topic and conversation. I figured other people would too, and I was lucky enough to find a great cast and venue. So basically, I wanted to engage with current events surrounding gender in a meaningful, artistic way. I also wanted to open a space for people to talk to others that are not necessarily within their social circle. I’m a big believer in free speech and I think it’s important to listen to people you disagree with. There are some very harsh scenes in this production; it’s not all pro-women.”

“Every one of these scenes is a gem that asks something very specific. I’m really excited about the opportunity to use my art to engage with current events, to work on something that feels meaningful,” says Ms. Payne-Strange. “We are doing a really interesting Hamlet scene that touches on consent. Basically, Ophelia sings a song about how Hamlet came to her, pressured her into sleeping with him and then the next morning said that he could never be with her because she wasn’t a virgin. So, it’s not “jump out of the bushes” rape, but there was pressure and it was under false pretenses. That scene really highlights, for me, the grey area and confusion inherent in relationships.”

Collaborating with her on this production is a group of both male and female performers that illustrate very clearly how much of Shakespeare’s work is deeply connected to the topic of gender relations. As actress Madeleine Stevens puts it, “Shakespeare didn’t write one-dimensional characters – he wrote living, breathing beings,” before going on to say that “[i]t has been so exciting seeing these characters come off the page and spring to life. These women have real human struggles and joys. They fall for men they shouldn’t, they gossip with their girlfriends, they put up with abuse, they fight back, they question. They are just vibrant, strong beings, and I am proud to take part in this celebration of women.” When I spoke with actress Kendahl Light, she noted that “Shakespeare invented the cross dresser, and then the gender bender. He writes strong, vulnerable, and complex female characters that deal with issues of sexuality and acceptance. All super relatable in today’s society.”

Meanwhile, actress Ellie Gossage adds that “there is so much of Shakespeare that is still relevant today, and I love the way that shows like Twelfth Night talk about gender”, while also acknowledging how shows such as The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing “make comment on qualities that women have that are “undesirable” and allows men to get away with and often lauds them for treating women in ways that arguably abusive.” Meanwhile, actor Sean Hinckle notes that the production is also raising funds for a very good cause: “So often this industry can feel so self-serving. So, to perform in order to raise funds for a cause that makes a tangible difference is an incredible privilege. It is just so refreshing to perform in something that I believe so strongly in, and I relish the opportunity.”

The Will to Fight Poster.jpg

What Hinckle refers to is the fact that this production is also raising money for an organization called Bringing Up the House, an organization which Ms. Payne-Strange says is dedicated to changing the lives of those who are in desperate need through both theatre and housing. “Theatre changes lives in a radical and tangible way, art feeds the soul and stimulates the mind, giving meaning and hope,” she says. “Being housed in a respectful and honorable way is essential. This is the base that everyone’s lives are built upon. We call this the “nest step”. Step by step we combine art and homes to develop love, strength and stability. Change, one person at a time, one animal at a time, one story at a time. The goals are twofold, one is to build our first tiny house in Massachusetts, where it will become home to a person in need, services will be provided to that person, they must either have or be prepared to foster or adopt an animal from a shelter so lives change in real tangible ways.”

As I interviewed each of these artists, it was clear how passionate they are about these issues, as well as how enthusiastic they were about this production. I will admit that their answers made me think even more about how Shakespeare’s work can still be used to start conversations on topics that have been relevant throughout history, but are as relevant and important to be having as ever before. It only made me more and more excited to come and see how it will look, when it opens in Bushwick this coming weekend.

It sounds like a very intriguing and thought-provoking show, and that seems to be exactly what they are hoping it will be. As Ms. Gottage puts it, “I hope that it makes them think. I would like for them to reconsider that way that they view gender but also the way that they view gender in relation to Shakespeare.” Mr. Hinckle says “if we collectively lean into the gendering of these already-stimulating stories, then how much more fascinatingly specific does the conversation get? It’s definitely one worth having,” while Ms. Light says “My hope is that our audience enjoys the scenes, but then leaves with thoughts and ideas [and] questions],” and Ms. Stevens says “You just might make some discoveries about yourself and the world you live.”

“The Will to Fight” – presented by the Unruly Collective – runs on March 3rd and 4th. For more information and ticket reservations, please visit www.artery.is/showcases/the_will_to_fight_women_in_shakespeare.

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Anthony J. Piccione is a playwright, producer, screenwriter, critic, essayist, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His eclectic canon of plays have previously been presented in NYC at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the NYWinterfest, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as at regional venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theatre, the Windsor Art Center, and Windham Theatre Guild. His work as a playwright has been published at Heuer Publishing, and his columns and reviews are frequently published at On Stage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com to learn more.