20 years of button-pushing

Judith Shakespeare – a New York tradition

We’ve been painfully aware throughout this trip of all the great work we haven’t been able to see and are always happy when companies share new information with us. Below, JOANNE ZIPAY, Founder and Artistic Director of JUDITH SHAKESPEARE (based here in NYC) describes the company’s history and ethos…

Judith Shakespeare 2010 Proteus (Sheila Joon) -Valentine (Rachael Hip-Flores) - photographer Deborah Failla

(Judith Shakespeare 2010 Proteus (Sheila Joon) – Valentine (Rachael Hip-Flores) – photographer Deborah Failla)

When I was in my 20s I decided that acting Shakespeare was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When I was in my 30s and finished with grad school and well-taught in acting Shakespeare, I started going on auditions in NYC. I was soon heartily discouraged by the lack of imagination which directors had for casting women non-traditionally in Shakespeare roles. All of us fantastically-passionate trained women’s voices and bodies out there wandering around looking for work that was exciting and challenging, yet coming up against weak hearts and minds, unreceptive to all the talent going to waste right before their very eyes and ears.

So, I started Judith Shakespeare Company. This was the 90’s in NYC, and there wasn’t at that time very much Shakespeare in the Off-Broadway scene, so we were bringing strong text- and actor- based work to the community, and we were also giving women opportunities. This brought new perspective to the work, causing us to think about Shakespeare differently. We were conservative at first, and then got bolder as we went along and saw the possibilities.

From several women playing men’s roles in Comedy of Errors and Macbeth, to completely reversing genders in Julius Caesar, to recreating Prospero as a woman and mother in a man’s world but on a woman’s island – These plays began to speak in different ways to us. Our audiences saw that women playing men in the history plays didn’t make the stories any less bloody or necessarily any softer. A gender-blind History Cycle culminating with a gender-bending sex-drugs-rock-and-roll Richard 3 was just as ugly, violent, and fun with women playing many of the men’s roles (and men playing women’s roles too). From moment-to-moment the plays changed before our eyes, but they didn’t lose their essence. Why hadn’t this been done before?

Now hitting the 20-year mark, some of our dreams are coming true: More and more theatre companies world-over are casting women in roles traditionally played by men. Each day we have to ask ourselves if we still need to exist. One thing we’ve discovered is that we’re aging, so now we’re looking not just for more roles for women to do, but for more roles for older women to do.

Almost ten years ago, we began our new play program, RESURGENCE, focused on finding and producing contemporary plays written in verse and other forms of heightened language. These plays are required to have significant roles for women, and interestingly, many of them also do have roles for older women. These plays, unlike Shakespeare’s, won’t go back on the shelves with the roles we played reverting back to men’s roles. These plays have roles for women firmly in place, written in the poetic, heightened styles we love and long to play. And so we continue our work.

We’ve been called radical – and sometimes it seems we’re tamely conventional. I guess it all depends on who’s looking at us and listening to us. But people believe in what we’re doing and follow our work, and we’re always trying to bring what we do to new kinds of audiences. I know we have opened some eyes and some minds, and helped people to see and hear Shakespeare’s language more clearly. We have a deep commitment to bringing the language to life by taking the time to really understand it on a deep level. Dramaturgy, physical training, vocal training, cross-gender work (for both men and women), text work, stage combat – these are all a part of how we train ourselves on an ongoing basis to dig into the work and understand it better.

One of the most interesting things to me is discovering why Shakespeare wrote a character as a male or as a female – What did he want to reveal about human behavior by making that person one gender or the other? When we ask this question and factor our observations into the work, we learn about the play and we learn about ourselves and our world. And more questions pop up.

Interestingly and predictably, there are varying reactions to the work. Perspective and life experience have an awful lot to do with how an audience member will react. When we did our reverse-gender Julius Caesar in 1999 and again in 2000, we asked audiences what they thought of the men playing women and the women playing men. Older men seemed to become obsessed with the Brutus-Portia scene because what they SAW was a man kneeling to a woman, but the male actor was actually playing a woman. The submissiveness was disturbing when demonstrated by a man. Women actors pointed out that they had always thought of Portia as a strong woman, but when they saw a man kneeling in that way they realized she was not as strong as they thought. Kneeling by a man to a woman: not at all the same as a woman kneeling to a man. By reversing the genders we can SEE what we take for granted in the gender-specific behaviors of men and women. What’s so fascinating is that it is often the little things that turn out to be huge button-pushers, because we don’t notice them from day to day.

On the other hand, when we asked high school audiences about the gender-reversed casting, they seemed surprised that we even asked the question. It didn’t matter to them, and it didn’t change the play so drastically for them that they couldn’t follow the story and the emotional journeys of the characters. “What was the big deal,” they wanted to know, “about this cross-gender thing?” Over the years, people have reacted less and less extremely. I think the questions around gender have been asked now for several decades and our newer generations are not as worked up about it.

In 2001, before we did The Tempest, we produced an event called The Tempest Project, in which we presented various scenes from the play which centered on power and authority (master/servant, parent/child), cast in a variety of ways with regard to gender, race, and age. Then we asked the audience to tell us honestly how it affected them. It was a fascinating experiment, we learned a lot, and we’ve taken what we’ve learned and incorporated it into our work. Once again, school audiences reacted differently than the older audiences, in this case quite passionately – about race especially.

And the constant “cross-training” our company members are doing – playing men in one show, women in another – brings information from one experience directly into another. In The Tempest Project we learned a lot watching one of our male actors play Miranda – she was more dynamic, more demanding, even angry about being denied her birthright – something we had somehow missed as women, learning we can be caught in many of the same gender-expectations as men. Humbling. And so eye-opening.

Shakespeare always played with gender and gender-disguises, so his plays are wonderful opportunities for continuing a centuries-long conversation about gender politics – how gender restricts us and how it frees us. What we enjoy continuing to do is placing these questions into bas relief so they can be seen and heard – recognition and awareness are the beginning of change of any kind. I think, in our small way, we are changing some things, and we’re having a blast doing it.

Read On
Photo Recaps

Images from the Road


Read On
Notes from the Road

'In Shakespeare's Steps'

In posting this last poem from the Road, written while we were towards the...

Read On
Notes from the Road

What would Shakespeare do?

In this interview with the Co-Founder of the American Shakespeare Center and its Artistic...

Read On
Notes from the Road

Infectious Enthusiasm

The American Shakespeare Center has a flourishing education programme which is based at the...

Read On
Notes from the Road


It was pleasure to meet with Glenn and Sara, Residential and Touring Troupe Managers...

Read On
Actor Insights

Actors’ Voices from the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Greg Vinkler on Falstaff’s self-awareness and on being visited by the fat knight in...

Read On
Notes from the Road

Life at the Blackfriars

Our time with the last of our fourteen partners, The American Shakespeare Center at...

Read On
Notes from the Road

Energetic, Connecting Shakespeare

Denice Hicks is the Artistic Director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. It was our...

Read On
Notes from the Road

Eddie George and David Olney among the Stars of Nashville Shakes

Well, we’re back in Stratford-upon-Avon after our Shakespeare road-trip adventure. But in some ways...

Read On
Notes from the Road

The Song of the Bluegrass Bard

In this land of musician and poet, Through our Country, our Blues, and our...


Follow our journey across North America in search of Shakespeare