Our US Staff Writer breaks the gender wall and takes to the stage as Grumio in her college’s ambitious production of Shakespeare’s most boisterous comedy

After putting on my jacket and straightening my hat, I turned to my sister with an air of expectancy. “You look like an asshole,” she said, laughing.
I smiled. That was exactly the look I was going for.
I was wearing leather pants, black kicks (that’s what the kids call those shoes, right?), a T-shirt two sizes too large, and a hoodie to match. The ensemble was topped off with a grey beanie on my head, and a bruise around my eye. The final touch was an oversized gold watch on my wrist. The wardrobe was inspired in part by Justin Bieber and Kanye West, so not my normal style.
Over the next three hours, I got into fights (losing most of them), made crude jokes, drove go-karts and fought with lightsabres, all in the name of William Shakespeare. I was playing Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.

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This adventure began three months ago when I decided to audition. The fact that it’d been seven years since my last acting experience didn’t deter me. Nor did the fact that this play features hardly any female roles. Knowing that Messiah College, my small liberal arts school would have an abundance of girls competing to play Katherina and Bianca, I decided that in true Shakespearean fashion I’d try to “suit me all points like a man”.
Looking at the array of men’s parts, I considered my petite frame and artsy demeanor, and settled on auditioning for Petruchio’s hot-headed companion Grumio. To my disappointment, I was only called back for the female roles, but when the director, Tom Ryan, was short of someone to read Grumio, I was on stage before he could finish asking for volunteers. One anxious week later, the cast list was up and I was on my way to checking one more item off my bucket list.

With the anxiety of auditions removed, though, I found myself beginning to worry about the fate of this beloved text. The first read-through, which took six hours, did little to boost my confidence in the capabilities of this cast (myself included) to tackle one of the Bard’s most nuanced comedies.
Much to my chagrin, my college had not performed Shakespeare in four years, so for most of us this was the first Shakespeare play we had been involved in. But I was not exactly enthralled by the director’s vision – a modern-day Shrew where the Minola family owned a pizza shop in Little Italy, NYC, while Lucentio travelled from Texas and Petruchio came from New Jersey. However, what unfolded over the month-and-a-half of rehearsals astounded me.
Tom set the tone from the beginning. “These characters are stereotypical,” he said at the first rehearsal, “but their relationships with each other are complicated.” My anxiety subsided a little.

I won’t say we did something with Shakespeare that was unheard of, or unique – I’ve seen too many productions to think that – but it was impressive.
Part of Shakespeare’s genius, perhaps the main part, is that he does not tell the story of one, two or even three characters. Every person in his cast has the potential to be the main character of the action. Not only did Ryan know this, but so did each of my fellow cast members.
Over and over, Ryan encouraged us to decide on who our character was, figure out the stereotype, discover ways to go bigger. Gremio (Bob Colbert) became a washed-up mobster who had seen better days. Biondello (Cheyenne Shupp) turned into an over-zealous and hilariously naive stable hand. Vincentio (Tim Spirk) was a Texan oil baron. Even the Pedant (Austin Blair) became his own character – in this production, a drunkard who spent most of his time passed out on stage.

Beyond the hours of rehearsal at night, Ryan encouraged all the actors to study the text on their own time. Since poring over Shakespeare encapsulates most of my free time, it was far from a tedious assignment. For other cast members, who didn’t share this passion, it was more of a chore.
Nevertheless, they tackled the challenge with relish and it enlivened their performances. Actors previously unaware of the power of Shakespeare’s words and rhythm were finding it on their own.
“It was really exciting to make discoveries as we did that homework,” says Michael Hardenberg (Tranio). “The metre gives you everything you need, even the character at times.”
Tobias Nordlund played Petruchio and struggled with the text before it came good in the end. “My experience with this show and with Shakespeare,” he says, “completely took me by surprise.”

When opening night arrived, we were abuzz with nervous energy. Hell Week of rehearsals lived up to its name, but the production far exceeded our expectations.
The audience roared when Kate (Rachel Ballasy) duct taped the hands of Bianca (Chrisanna Rock), trapping her on a speeding-up treadmill during the interrogation scene. In the wedding scene, I successfully manoeuvred a golf cart on and off the stage to gasps of surprise. And at the end of the road trip scene, when a member of the college faculty came out of the port-a-potty with toilet paper trailing from his feet, the audience erupted with laughter.

Playing Grumio let me fall in love with Shakespeare and theatre in new ways. Above all, it cemented my belief that anyone, truly anyone, can do Shakespeare – and do it phenomenally – and that is the reason he is still being performed today. Not necessarily because his ideas were that great or his poetry so complex. But because he created characters that can be understood by all people, as long as the proper amount of work and energy is invested into the production.

This feature originally appeared in Issue 6 of Shakespeare Magazine. Go here to see the original version.