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.


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.

The troupe's sporadic production schedule is dictated by the vicissitudes of funding and college residencies, which provide rehearsal space and housing as well as a place to perform. (For the Goucher residency, the company rehearsed at Center Stage and stayed in the theater's actor housing, which the college rented to take advantage of the exemplary downtown rehearsal space. The performances of "Lear," however, will take place in Goucher's Kraushaar Auditorium.)

All of the residencies include workshops. The Baltimore workshop was held July 12-14 at Loch Raven Academy, where Goucher has a student-run mentorship program. These workshops are inextricably related to the Shakespeare productions. "We couldn't do either without the other," Gilligan insists.

In the workshops, the Company of Women leads theater games and storytelling, writing and vocal exercises, many related to the Shakespeare play being rehearsed.

'This is a stupid game'

By focusing on 9-to-12-year-olds, the company tries to target girls at the point where Gilligan has found youthful confidence and self-assurance often give way to repression and loss of self-esteem.

Sometimes the girls provide valuable insights. For instance, director Shea recalls explaining the opening scene in which Lear decides to divide his land among his three daughters.

"I was describing Cordelia. I said, 'You're the youngest daughter, and your father has a gift of land, but first he wants you to tell him how much you love him,' " Shea says. She then read the effusive responses of Cordelia's older sisters from the script and asked one of the girls what she thought Cordelia would say.

The girl immediately replied, "Nothing" -- exactly what Cordelia says in the play.

When Shea asked why she said this, the girl explained: "Because I think this is a stupid game, and I'm not going to play this game and stand in front of everybody and tell him how much I love him." It was pure Cordelia -- in 1990s terminology.

"I can take that to the actress playing Cordelia, and all I have to do is tell her the story of this girl," Shea says. "That's part of what Carol [Gilligan] is talking about. If we listen to girls, what can they tell us about ourselves? There's something wonderful about girls. They're so clear about what they're seeing -- an attitude and opinion and sometimes a moral stance."

To reinforce this youthful clarity, Shea says in the Company of Women's production, Cordelia will be portrayed as a 15-year-old (although the actress playing her is actually 20).

And, the character of the Fool, whom Gilligan describes as "the truth-teller" in the play, will be played by a girl who just turned 13.

"The idea," she explains, "was who could get into that patriarchal world and speak truth to a powerful man and that no mother could get in, no woman could get in, only a girl could get in and do that. From a lot of the psychological work I've done, I think that's profoundly true."

Picking up on 'Lear'

The company's new work-in-progress, Gilligan says, also "picks up on a central theme in 'Lear,' which is about saying nothing as opposed to saying something. What can be said and what can be heard?"

This original play, which is still in the development phase, will receive a reading at Goucher Sept. 10.

"The company is creating this play out of our experience of working together as a company and our experience of doing the work with other women in our residencies and with girls," Gilligan says.

Although the piece is being created collaboratively in the rehearsal hall, the script is being co-written by Gilligan and the play's director, Daniela Varon, who founded the Company of Women along with Gilligan, Linklater and an actress named Frances West.

"The effect of girls' voices on women and men and the potential for women and men to encourage rather than discourage that voice, that's what the new piece is all about. So in this way, it's a perfect companion piece to 'Lear,' " Gilligan says.

Objective: repertory tour

Eventually, the Company of Women would like to tour "King Lear" and "Henry V" in repertory with the new play. For now, however, the company is limited to summer seasons, which fit around the academic schedules of professors Gilligan and Linklater and around the standard theatrical seasons of the more than one dozen actresses who eagerly await each summer residency.

Paula Langton, who teaches acting at Boston University and who is playing Edgar in "Lear," has participated in every one of the company's workshops and finds them useful when she teaches as well as when she performs.

The juxtaposition of workshops and productions "keeps me in the spirit of play," she says. "A lot of actor training is about getting back to suspension of disbelief, magic, what if?, let's make believe. Why do you think they call it a 'play'?"

For Linklater, that spirit of play may be one reason she says, "I feel as if I'm just at the edge of an ideal adolescence. I really feel that the world is opening up."

C7 If so, the Company of Women is helping pry it open.

Pub Date: 8/12/96

Company coming

Three related events involving the Company of Women are scheduled for early September.

What: Lecture by Carol Gilligan

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 8

Where: Mildred Dunnock Theatre, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road

Tickets: $2 donation requested; reservations required

What: 'King Lear'

When: 7: 30 p.m. Sept. 9-10

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher

Tickets: $20; reservations requested

What: Reading of original work-in-progress

When: 11: 30 a.m. Sept. 10

Where: Mildred Dunnock Theatre, Goucher

Tickets: Free, but reservations required

Call (410) 337-6311 about any of these events.

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