Shakespeare's Women: Under the Corset

No Holds Barred: Women Using Shakespeare to Forge New Works
By Leonard Jacobs of BACKSTAGE
March 21, 2006

In an age when self-developed theatrical projects are great ways for young performers to make their mark, women are increasingly turning to Shakespeare for inspiration. From solo plays to plays using music, dance and original monologues and dialogues, women are freely appropriating almost anything relating to the Bard-his plays, his sonnets, even his biography—to forge highly original works that showcase female sensibilities, perspectives and talent…

“Shakespeare’s Women: Under the Corset,” running at the American Theatre of Actors through March 29th, is an eight character work that removes Shakespeare’s Women from the context of his plays in order to see them in a new light.
Writer-choreographer-director Jessica Lanius’ idea for “Under the Corset” was formed during her undergraduate years. “ I had just played Ophelia, and while she had a rich, full life on stage, I wondered if audiences could see more—what if that ‘more’ could, say, be it’s own scene?” Now fast-forward a few years-Lanius is at graduate school at Rutgers University, playing Isabella in “Measure for Measure”—and again she asks herself such questions. After graduation, Lanius began “making lists of Shakespeare’s Women I cared about—and began to explore, for the contemporary woman, how these timeless women could be presented ina different way, using Shakespeare’s text as a starting point.”
The finished piece, she says, is 50% Shakespeare, including the usage of parts of his plays and sonnets, and 50% contemporary text, original songs, and choreography.” In her vision for the piece, the stories of Helena, Isabella, Julia, Juliet, Kate, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, and Rosalind are all “relived, expanded, continued, or completely departed from” in a variety of ways—such as Ophelia performing Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. By releasing the characters from the world of Elizabethans-in effect, removing their “corsets”—Lanius could set about tying them to contemporary times, a process she calls “relocation.”
Another example, Lanius says, is Juliet. “You see her in purgatory, after her death, and you see her wondering where in the world is this Romeo that she died for-wondering if she died for any good reason.”
Ultimately, Lanius believes that what makes “Under the Corset” compelling is the use of Shakespeare’s female characters who, despite being ‘very filled out’ in the original works, can still be “made more active through the use of language of the plays, as well as music, dance, relocation, and interpretation.”
As for the underlying reason for the growing trend of appropriating Shakespeare to form new women-focused pieces, Lanius believes that “women make choices that are different from men, which is obvious, yet what’s intriguing is how the choices we make today are similar to those that these women made 500 years ago. You don’t know what the choice is going to lead to; maybe there’s no definitive choice. Yet each choice—in the lives of these characters, in these new works we’re creating—does lead to a definitive path. Lady Macbeth breaking through the glass ceiling—that makes great theatre.”

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