“We’ve been talking about doing it since our first year,” said Erin Merritt of Woman’s Will’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. Merritt, the all-female Shakespeare company’s founder, will direct the show at John Hinkel Park to kick off its free summer season in parks around the Bay Area.
“It’s not a modern Feminist play! Not with all that perceived sexism. But there’s so much fun in it, so much mixed in about the relationship between two people. Is it just about a man putting a woman down? If so, where’s the dramatic pay-off for the audience? Yet this play still really speaks to us. I think there’s a real connection between these two people.”
It will also be Merritt’s farewell as artistic director to the Oakland-based company she founded in 1998. Victoria Evans Erville, who has served as managing director for the past year while Merritt has shuttled back and forth from Los Angeles, where her husband works, is succeeding Merritt in the artistic chair. There will be a celebration for both and for the company from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, July 11, after the opening show.
Evans Erville, who has worked as education director for Marin Theatre Company, as well as artistic director for San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company, said she was “super-excited, having just walked into a different door, somehow. I’ve wanted to do something different, more diverse. It’s still Shakespeare, of course, but the second show of the year isn’t. The next will be Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House. I’m looking for ways to expand on the company and what it does. I have lots of ideas.”
“It’s been lucky for us,” Merritt commented. “She knows about niche markets, has not only Shakespeare, but educational background, the same I came in with. She gets why we were the way we were, originally, but will be a fresh eye. I first heard about her many years before I founded the company, when I was teaching tons and tons of Shakespeare classes. When I had to drop them for Woman’s Will, she often picked them up. Then I really got to know her after we both had kids a few years ago, and it clicked: someone I know, like, trust. So I was trying to find ways to pull her into the company anyway.”
Evans Erville discussed some of her plans for the company: “The idea before was gender-bending. We all know how many roles for women there are in Shakespeare: very nice—and very few. So Woman’s Will had women playing men’s roles. It got to that level, but not much beyond. There’s more to being a woman in theater.”
Evans Erville recalled a New York Times article that tracked the acceptance or rejection by artistic directors around the country of plays submitted under masculine and feminine names. “It showed even female directors tending to choose plays with men’s names as author. For me, that was the call to arms. That’s where we have to go.”
Evans Erville mentioned bringing more female artists and technicians into the company. “Right now, it’s pretty much all actors. We need to invite more female musicians, techs, directors, not just have everybody say goodbye at the end of a production. The second production should be written by a woman, directed by a woman. The Playfest [where playwrights and performers create short shows quickly, moving fast from writing to performance] has been successful—but do people come to see us flying by the seat of our pants or to see good plays? Modifying the idea might give a better opportunity for women to write better plays, to actually think about the process. I love the idea of it, but it doesn’t move women forward. We need more transparency, to be more open to the public, to be seen by everybody. It’s an opportunity for voices to be heard beyond 10 minutes. Shakespeare can be limiting for an audience if you’re concentrating so hard on being a guy that you lose track of the character, the relationship.”
Merritt talked more of her reading of Shrew for this production. “It’s so much about words, how language defines reality, how people see themselves. You can read it that they have both been fighting against the world, but if they have each other, there’s no need to fight. Petrucchio doesn’t abuse her; he mirrors her bad behavior. She gains empathy for those she’s treated that way. And there are all these little, little lines scattered throughout the play that get lost; some I’d never heard before.”
Merritt called Shrew “a sexy, sassy play,” and reminded that “kids, babies are welcome.” She called the show and the Passing of the Torch party afterwards “a great opportunity to meet the new artistic director—to meet a group of women working together.”
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
1 p.m. July 11, 12, 18, 19 at John Hinkel Park in Berkeley; July 25 at Mosswood Park in Oakland; July 26 at Dimond Park in Oakland; and through Aug. 2 at other Bay Area parks. Free admission. www.womanswill.org.