Fort Worth — The Taming, a timely political satire by Lauren Gunderson, opens this Saturday at Circle Theatre, with Robin Armstrong handling the play’s direction and its costume design. Last year, she directed Lovers and Executioners at Circle Theatre and again took control of the costume design.
The Taming is a comic reaction to Shakespeare’s misogynistic The Taming of the Shrew. Gunderson has written several plays inspired by/in response to Shakespeare’s works, including Exit, Pursued by a Bear, inspired by The Winter’s Tale, which Circle produced in 2013. Her other Shakes shows are Toil & Trouble, riffing on Macbeth; and We Are Denmark, on Hamlet.
TheaterJones spoke to Armstrong, and during our conversation she was frantically putting last-minute touches on a costume or two while speaking thoughtfully about a range of issues, from her approach to directing farce with an overabundance of seriousness to her thoughts about the phrase “power-play” when used to describe an all-female cast.
Editor’s note: Circle Theatre’s co-founder, Rose Pearson, died on Friday, Aug. 19 after a battle with cancer. You can read our obit here; and read Mark Lowry’s obit in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram here.
TheaterJones: How are things going a few days before previews begin?
Robin Armstrong: I’m on the last leg of getting this show built and put together, because I’m costuming it as well as directing it. I’ve got one last costume to build, which is a last minute, “Oh my God! I have to get this done,” kind of thing. And then everything is great and smooth.
The show opens this Saturday. Are you excited?
Very! Very, very, very excited. I’m really enjoying this show.
What are you enjoying most about it?
I think mostly I’m just enjoying the cast and the crew because they’re just a whole slew of women. And the energy is way too much fun, especially since I was raised around a large amount of boys. I have nothing but brothers. A lot of them. And it’s odd to me to be around so many vibrant, fun, you know…chicks… [laughs] for lack of a better word. It’s really swell.
You have been referred to as “The Queen of Farce” quite often.
For you, what is the key to directing a quality farce?
For me, the biggest key is taking it 100 percent seriously. Comedies have to be played more seriously than dramas because when you start winking and nodding and telling the audience how funny you are, you’re no longer funny, you know. You’re like that sad drunk guy at the party who’s convinced he’s hysterical and everybody just sort of keeps waiting for him to fall down or something. So comedy has to be taken 120,000 times more seriously in order for it to be funny at all. That’s my main thing about comedy.
And what about timing within an absurd play or a play with absurd moments? How important do you think timing is and how do you go about getting it just right?
Well, it’s one of those things where I don’t superimpose a lot of my own desires. It’s like music, or singing, or dancing. There are some people who are born with a natural gift for understanding how the rhythm of a joke should work and there are some people that you have to teach that to. And the people who get it, naturally, you don’t really have to explain, “if you pause here, you’ll get a laugh,” or, “if you stop there, the laughter will be bigger.” And people who aren’t born into it, well, they can get the mechanics of it pretty well but it’s not instinctual. So, for me, timing is one of those things that [I get]...I’m tall, I have red hair, and I understand comedic timing. It’s just what Mother Nature gave me.
It sounds like you rely a lot on your actors’ abilities to understand comedic timing.
So what do you do when an actor doesn’t understand it?
You try really, really patiently to get them to a place where they might understand what you’re going for and if not, then you basically just work out the mechanics of it and hope for the best. That doesn’t sound like a great answer, but often times if they can get at least the mechanics of what is going on, then the comedy arises from the situation that the show has created and you shouldn’t…it’s like…you never ask for the joke, you just ask for whatever it is your character wants from the other person and hopefully the writing is good enough that that item is very funny, or that thing, goal, desire, or whatever is funny.
How did you get into directing?
I acted, and did improvisation, and did stage combat for a very long time, and then an instructor at a college I went to looked at me and said, “Hey, did you know that you’re a director?” And I reacted like the cartoon character of the little buzzard in the Warner Brother’s cartoons. I basically said “No, no, no, no…” but I thought, “Really?” It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. All of the little pieces of my life that I had been dealing with up until then fell into place, and it just made sense, you know? Yeah, it was never one of those things where I just woke up with a beret on my head and the glasses on my eyes at whatever years old and thought, “I’m a director!” It took me a little bit of time to convince myself that, “Hey, I think I can do this.”
We talked a little bit about your method with directing farce, or farcical moments. Do you have any directors, theories, methodologies, influences or techniques that drive your work?
Well, I was once asked what my philosophy of directing was, which sounded very hoity-toity to me. Right?
That seems a little hard to sum up in an interview.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And it was right in the middle of my thesis defense. He’s like “What is your philosophy…” and I’m already scared to death anyway. And I literally yanked out of my backside the sentence, “If you can make them laugh, you can make them cry.” And I realized, that’s actually an extremely useful philosophy because basically what it says is if you can tap into the basic emotion of happiness then you’ve hooked them and you can go on to any other emotion that you want after that. Because once you get them on your side with joy and happiness, everything else after that is just cake. So, yeah, I actually was really surprised to find out, “Oh! I have a philosophy of directing.” Cool! Who knew that?
Sounds like it was a great question after all.
Yeah, and I did have to think about it. It was one of those questions where you just sit there going, “Ummm…uhhhhh…here’s an answer. Is this useful? Please say yes.” And it turns out it was useful to me.
Give me some goods on The Taming.
All right, well here’s the basic way I describe it to people, because people have been asking me, “What’s it about?” And my response is: a raging Republican and a raging liberal are kidnapped by the reigning Miss Georgia, and she locks them in a hotel room, and refuses to release them until they help her rewrite the constitution.
Right? So, it’s a political satire and it’s very, very gently inspired by The Taming of the Shrew. To say that it derived from Taming of the Shrew is…yeah, no. It has the word “shrew” in it periodically, it has the names Katherine and Bianca and Patricia in it as Petruchio, but that’s as far as it goes because it’s really hard, this day in age, to do Taming of the Shrew with a straight face, because it’s amazingly sexist.
And so this was Gunderson’s, “Hey I’m going to deal with this show in my way,” kind of reaction to it. So, it is an equal-opportunity offender. And I have expanded that. So I take pot shots at every political demographic out there…no one person can come away going, “Oh she only picked on this kind of person,” or “She only picked on my kind of people.” No actually, I’ve picked on everyone. I’m an equal-opportunity bully. But the cast is very funny and the Miss Georgia character, I’ve been having way too much fun with her costume, because she is an extreme example of the pageant world and so I’ve taken that idea and just have gone to an extreme with it.
That sounds like a lot of fun.
Oh my gosh! Way too much fun! And I’ve also cast a human being who is not built like the stereotypical pageant girl. She’s actually built like a wholesome, healthy human female, and so I know I’m going to catch crap for having a non-scrawny pageant girl. But I think this woman is stunningly beautiful, so you guys can just…go away!
Does The Taming address the sexism in Shakespeare’s play?
No, not really. The only sexism it deals with is that it talks about the difficulties of trying to fight through a boy’s club, like politics, or being a reporter, or things like that. It briefly touches on the fact that those are male-dominated places, but not enough to feel like you’re being hit with a 2-by-4 lecture of politics or political correctness. It’s pretty fun. I like it!
Just the idea of three people locked in a room together reminds me of Sartre's No Exit.
No Exit. Yes. “Hell is other people.”
Exactly. Do you see a connection between these two satires?
I can, yes, because before the beauty queen enters, the raging liberal and the raging Republican are locked in by themselves, and because there’s a little bit of trauma involved with that. They’re not real thrilled with their present company, at all.
Now I’m picturing myself locked in a room with a specific person who happens to be the polar opposite of me regarding politics. It’s certainly not pleasant.
No, it’s not.
The press release refers to The Taming as an “all female ‘power-play.’” What exactly does that mean? And, in what way have you developed that concept into this work?
Unfortunately, when you have three strong females on a stage, people need to label it. OK? If you had three guys on a stage…if you had True West, where at one point they had three strong male characters on a stage, nobody would say, “Oh, it’s a power play for men.” They would just say, “It’s a play.” But because you got women, it has to get labeled. So, do I think it’s a “power-play?” Sure. But I also think, it’s just a play with three humans in it. And at some point—hopefully, maybe—we’ll no longer need to label things “power-plays” or “chick-plays” or anything of that nature, we’ll just say, they’re plays, because…well…humans is humans whether or not they can give birth or not. So it’s powerful in that there are three fantastic roles for women that have nothing to do with boys, other than the fact that they are trying to get a completely worthless human being elected or that kind of thing.
Does that sound familiar?
And…it’s just a joy to work with three strong, fantastic, smart people, who all just happen to also be women. There you go. That was me on a soap box. Did you like it?
I loved it.
Yeah? That’s as soapboxy as I get, babe.
Well, theater is a great soapbox.
It is, isn’t it?
You just mentioned attempting to get a “worthless human being elected,” which speaks to the obvious. And we talked about timing with farce. In what way do you feel that this play is timely?
Ummm…well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but there’s this thing called an election coming up. [Gunderson] wrote the show four to six years ago. I don’t remember off-hand. And it was pretty timely then. I think Obama was about to get into his second administration and so there was all kinds of newness going on. But we’re about to elect the first female president, which is huge, and this election is just chaos. It’s chaos in a big stewpot. And that’s kind of what the point of the show is, is that we should just have a chance to rewrite everything. And that’s what Bernie was telling people. Let’s just rewrite everything, and start again, and start new. And that’s kind of where this play is trying to take us, is let’s re-examine what we’re dealing with here. You know, instead of choosing the best of the worst, why not create the best of the best.
It seems so fun and crazy. It really seems like a good time.
It’s really great. And I’ve made two costumes that I’m just strutting about. I’ve made the biggest hat that I’ve ever made for this show.
You often design costumes for shows you direct.
It’s stressful, because at this point as we are going into tech rehearsals, as a director I should be done. I should be able to just sit back and look at the pretty thing that I’ve created and celebrate with my women, and just go, “Yay! We’re so great! Look at the great thing we did!” And instead I’m sitting in this costume shop going, “Oh my god. I have to create this tap dance outfit,” because, of course, you can’t have a beauty queen without a tap dance number.
And the tap dance outfit…I had my [favorite costume] on last night and I had a strut going on. I was like, “I’m so good. Look at me. I’m so great.” And then the first tap number outfit comes on and it was terrible. Oh my god. It was just like Mother Nature going, “And…ego in check!” So now I’m just like, “Okay, I’m humble again, I’ll make a new outfit. I suck.” So, that’s what you caught me doing today is making a new tap dance outfit. As a costumer, I’m under a little bit of stress, but as a director the show is in great shape. It’s totally ready for an audience.
Well that’s good.
Yeah, I’m excited. I can’t wait for an audience to actually start seeing it. I want to hear the reactions when they get offended, and their reactions when they like it when the other team gets offended. It’s going to be really, really interesting. I also, since I’m a theater person and I don’t spend a lot of time in the world of politics…it’s like a show I did once that had businesspeople in it, and I’ve never worked in an office environment, and some of the jokes that I just thought were, “Oh, OK, that’s funny.” The audience loved it, because they all work in offices. So I’ll be very curious to see what the Republicans versus what the liberals laugh at versus what the major conservatives laugh at versus what the major, major, major hippies laugh at. I mean everyone is going to find something different and so I’m really excited and curious about that.
Hopefully you’ll get a very diverse audience.
That's the goal. And I have to sit in the light booth because I have a very bad habit of getting caught staring at my audience. I do. I'm terrible. I look at them and try to figure out what their laughing at and then I get caught by someone looking at them. And I'm like, “I'm not looking at you,” when in fact I was. So, yeah.
I get that. You’re trying to learn.
Yeah, I'm just like, “What are you laughing at? Why was that funny? What are you laughing at? What are you laughing at?”
You have to learn from the audience reaction to your project, to the work that you did. I get that.
Yeah, that's exactly right. By gagging what they find funny then I get to learn what works better for the next time around. …But, you know, part of my paycheck is getting to hear the audience laugh. I’m excited.
It’s really been a joy to work on and I’m really excited for the audience to see it and come in and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh…or at least laugh.