Over the last 12 months, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a woman in a leadership position who uses the word, “No.” As a director, I subscribe to Dexter Bullard’s philosophy of “three weeks of yes, one week of no.” I think it’s important that the director defines the world of the play for the whole team, and then allows room for her collaborators to play, test out ideas, and then edit with them as needed. Most of the time, that philosophy is successful – but every now and then I encounter a surprising amount of push back when it comes time to say “no.”
Lately I’ve been asking myself – would I encounter those same challenges if I were a man saying, “No”? The man who says “no” is usually described as firm, commanding, authoritative. Those same qualities, exhibited in a woman, are often described as pushy, bitchy, and (dare I say it) tyrannical?
The impulse to cast a female actor in the role of Caesar came from wanting to reframe Shakespeare’s use of the words “weak” and “womanish,” which are synonymous in this text. But in the last week of this process, I found myself hearing “this Caesar was a tyrant” in a new light. I tend to speak in terms of story (and per Katie Mitchell’s excellent advice, “make the text the mediator of any conflict”); but sometimes when I advocate for what the production demands, I feel like I come off as the demanding one. And again, I can’t help but wonder – would the man who speaks as matter-of-factly about the text or the process be perceived as demanding, or simply strong?
My negotiation professor at Carnegie Mellon, Linda Babcock (author of Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide), theorizes that masculine negotiators are able to separate their personal relationships from their business transactions, whereas for feminine negotiators, the two are inseparable. (Please note: “masculine” and “feminine,” not “male” and “female.”) I used to fall into the latter category, but these days it’s more the former. (Another Mitchell adage: “keep the boundaries between the actors’ private lives and the work clear.” Same goes for directors.) The advantage of this is that it makes professional decisions easier for me – less pathos, more ethos and logos, as it were. The downside is that this approach has been perceived as heartless or unsympathetic at times.
Simply put, we live in a culture where it’s unsettling when a woman takes up more space than a man. Amy Malcom is boldly exploring this idea as Caesar, and has inspired me personally to become braver, even unapologetic about my leadership style. “Do not worry about being liked,” is another Mitchell adage (though again – I wonder if she would think to include rule that if she were a man).
Dan Toot, as Cassius, has one of the hardest jobs in this play: sinking into the given that, in our version of this text, his character does not want to live in a world that’s run by a woman. Though this Caesar is ultimately a feminist production, it requires the whole team to explore some uncomfortable, anti-feminist behaviors. I said to the cast during table work, “If this production lives in the world we want to live in, as opposed to the world we do live in, the play ceases to be relevant.” They have all bravely risen to this challenge.
As we approach opening, I’m realizing that’s the takeaway for me personally as well. As a woman of color in a leadership position, my task is not to lament the fact that our society isn’t as progressive as it should be, but rather to acknowledge and address the unfairness I encounter with grace, generosity, and humor when possible. Abie Irabor (Casca, Messala, Citizen #1 – who she has named Athena) and I have found several moments in our production where her characters acknowledge a gender bias on stage. Those moments are the beginning of a conversation we hope you’ll continue after you leave the theater.
I’m reminded of a quote from a West Wing episode that I recently re-watched (this one’s for you, Dan Cobbler – S3E7): “How do you keep fighting the smaller injustices, when they're all from the mother of injustices?” The answer: “What’s the alternative?”
I hope you’ll come see Julius Caesar and engage with us about the framing of this play. When BPBCo. and I started talking about this project, it was inevitable that we’d be in conversation with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But for me today, this production is about so much more than that.
Julius Caesar, Director & Adaptor
Julius Caesar runs March 4 - April 3 at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. For tickets and information, please visit www.greenhousetheater.org/julius-caesar.
Brown Paper Blog
Making theatre. Writing about it. Maybe some hilarious Youtube cat videos in between.