By Amanda Sweger, Assistant Professor of Theatre PLU
When I introduced the panel discussion for “The Gender Politics of Kiss Me Kate” last week, I told the story of how the panel discussion came to be. It goes like this:
I’d heard about Kiss Me, Kate for years and assumed it was another “Golden Age” musical with a weak plot and great dancing, music and singing. I knew it had won the very first Tony for Musical Theatre in 1949 and I knew Cole Porter, who is a fantastic composer, wrote the music. I also knew it had won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical in 1999. While actually reading it, I threw the script across the room many times due to its overt misogynistic nature. The cherry picking of the most sexist parts of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew angered me as a woman and a feminist. Especially Lilli’s final speech where she, out of context, gives the final speech about how a woman is happiest when she submits to her husband, accompanied by the song “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.” I looked to my inventive theatre colleagues, who over the years have helped me update and re-contextualize difficult period theatre pieces–they all chuckled and wished me good luck.
However, I had deep faith in the amazing director, Jeff Clapp, who affectionately calls his wife “the boss.” He lived up to my expectations, by explaining in the first meeting how he planned to update the show and strengthen the female leads. We both agreed that learning to view a piece from a misogynistic time period was good for our students for multiple reasons.
Staging a play of this nature allows our students to see how far we’ve come, and as panelist Dana Anderson noted: it allows us to see how much things have also stayed the same. There are shocking parallels to the “overt misogyny” of the piece and the “invisible misogyny” of today. So we wondered, how do we then go and enjoy a raucous musical filled with singing and dancing with script built for comedy, (we want our audience to have a good time and laugh, of course) while also being mindful that these jokes have very real implications about the way women are viewed and treated in our society. We knew we needed to use this as a learning experience and use it as the impetuous for a very powerful discussion about gender politics. This was my intent from the start.
However, the demands placed on my colleagues and I were so enormous, that we barely finished the set on time and only had one full run-through of the show before its opening to the PLU community. I cannot express how difficult it was to deliver a giant, splashy musical in only four weeks, while also moving into and being trained on a new, state-of-the-art facility. The educational opportunities about gender politics were therefore limited to students working directly on the play. When Visiting Assistant Professor, Galen Ciscell, approached me, I was relieved to talk to a sociologist about the gender issues in the play. We quickly sprung into action to put together “The Gender Politics of Kiss Me, Kate Panel Discussion” in 36 hours. I did this with the support of Associate Professor, Jeff Clapp, the play’s director, my Department Chair Professor Michael Bartanen, and the entire Communications and Theatre Department.
The conversation at the panel discussion took a left turn from the gender politics discussion I was hoping to discuss, to the outrage of many students on why a misogynistic piece was chosen in the first place. I did my best to explain why Jeff made the directorial decisions he made, because I fully supported them—and still do. As he noted in the director’s notes of the program, the piece made excellent sense for the meta-theatrical nature of opening a new space. There is no better song that expresses the terror, excitement, and fatigue a theatre practitioner feels before the curtain rises on a show, than Another Openin,’ Another Show.
In theatre, we are always doing controversial work. However, the panel discussion touched on some important concerns about how we tried to diminish the controversial nature of the piece. It was asked whether this helped or hurt the educational experience for our students. Three students joined the panel, and their representation and input was invaluable. They were not attacked. But it’s also not fair to attack our administration that has worked so hard to showcase our theatre department in its new space. It’s also not far to attack our donors who are former students from years past who have given generously to build us a new space and who came to share in our joy at its completion.
The discussion should remain one of how to contextualize the “invisible discrimination” against women as it appears in both in past works and contemporary ones. Theatre is a very real record of the past. We remount plays to remember how things were and to hold up a mirror to our society today. We didn’t have time to schedule a talkback ahead of time, but we managed to find the time in three days to have one. Late is better than never. I’m glad we did Kiss Me, Kate. I’m glad we had the panel discussion. I’m glad 30 students found time to attend the discussion. I’m glad so many people are passionate about this conversation and all the conversations about the power of theatre. Let’s keep the conversation going. Not in terms of what we should have done, but what we should do in the future. Talkbacks for every show may be a good place to start. This is one of the most valuable ways we can engage our students and open our minds.
Thank you for keeping this conversation that started at that hastily arranged panel discussion going. Let’s spend our time talking about equality–how far we’ve come and how very far we have to go. Feminism needs to become a household word, not one with a negative connotation. If you believe in equality of the sexes you are a feminist, male or female. All of my colleagues are feminists; I hope you are one, too.