Bringing new voices to theater Theater: The Company of Women works on scripting a new play at the same time as it stages an all-female 'King Lear' and conducts workshops for women and girls.

August 11, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

They call themselves the Company of Women. But they're girls at heart.

Founded six years ago in Boston, the Company of Women is based on the combined principles of Kristin Linklater, a nationally recognized vocal coach, and Carol Gilligan, a research psychologist whose work focuses on studies of women and girls.

The company, which was in residence at Goucher College last month and returns there to perform in September, has a twofold mission: 1) It produces all-female productions of Shakespeare's plays, and 2) it conducts workshops to free the voices of adult women and girls between the ages of 9 and 12.

In addition, during its residency at Goucher, the Company of Women began work on its first original play, a collaborative piece with the working title "What If?" derived in part from the workshops.

During a lunch break between a morning rehearsal of Shakespeare's "King Lear" and an afternoon rehearsal of the new play, Linklater and Gilligan, who serve as co-artistic directors, discussed the company's philosophy.

And, though they both celebrate 60th birthdays this year, they are noted professors (Gilligan at Harvard University and Linklater at Emerson College) and authors of groundbreaking books (Gilligan's "In a Different Voice" and Linklater's "Freeing the Natural Voice"), they speak about the Company of Women with the enthusiasm of, well, young girls.

Explaining the rationale behind all-women's Shakespeare, Linklater says, with zeal, "Shakespeare is the mainstream culture. As Carol calls it, 'The cathedral of mainstream culture.' If we feel that our culture could use some changes within it, then if we enter the cathedral of the culture and change the harmonics -- the resonance within that particular sounding house -- then that's one way that we can perhaps change some perceptions, some ways of listening to the culture, and effect some shift in consciousness."

Among those changes is the chance to hear women's voices. Gilligan -- who in June was named one of Time magazine's 25 most influential Americans -- made a startling discovery when she began doing research at Harvard more than two decades ago. She found that, in her words, "Women's voices were missing" from psychological studies.

"We find all these private places where women speak," Gilligan explained at a seminar at Goucher last month. "The Company of Women is trying to find a place in public where that conversation can be heard."

Shakespeare's plays seemed a fitting public place to start, not only for the political reasons Linklater expressed, but also because, with a few rare exceptions -- Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet, Fiona Shaw's Richard II in London last season, or Pat Carroll's 1990 Falstaff at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre -- women have been denied some of the Bard's meatiest roles.

"Powerful energies"

"You get to stretch your boundaries like mad and to play in areas of power that very often are not so readily there when you're playing women in a conventional play," Linklater says. "I find that I'm pulling powerful energies up from parts of myself that I don't ++ usually get to exercise."

All-female casting may also illuminate new shadings in Shakespeare, or, as Gilligan puts it, "show how these stories shift as women take on the telling of them."

A rehearsal of the famous mad scene from "King Lear" quickly dispelled any sense of oddity or gimmickry that might be connected to women playing men's roles.

The effect wasn't merely the flip side of the practice in Shakespeare's day, when men played all the roles. The goal is acting in its purest form, i.e., transformation. And even without the appropriate masculine costumes, it was apparent that the Company of Women achieves much more than cross-dressing.

In commanding tones, Linklater, who plays Lear, came on warring against a mouse. She then imitated a buzzing insect at Lear's reference to "a small gilded fly," and, at the line, "Down from the waist they are centaurs," she grabbed her crotch in an unmistakably masculine gesture. A few lines later this raging Lear was cradling his dear, now blind, friend Gloucester, intensely played by Fran Bennett.

When the actresses broke apart and director Maureen Shea approached them, Bennett wiped tears from her eyes.

"There's so much in here, the more I hear this -- not only about the king, but about life, about seeing," she said, still visibly shaken.

First effort in 1994

"King Lear" -- which debuts Sept. 3-6 at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and will be performed at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., after its Goucher engagement -- is the Company of Women's second production. Its premiere effort was an anti-war interpretation of "Henry V" in 1994.

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