Call it serendipity: Chickspeare’s artistic director Joanna Gerdy had reimagined a version of “Twelfth Night” that she’d recently directed at Davidson Day School. Rife with merriment and festivity, it is the only Shakespeare play set in the Christmas season, which is when the stage at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte became available. Finally, Chickspeare’s first full-length performance in seven years opens on the twelfth day of the twelfth month, after they returned to Charlotte’s cultural arts scene in 2012.
Chickspeare, Charlotte’s only Shakespearean company to fill all the roles with women, performed in alternative venues – from the old Johnson Brewery to warehouse theaters – from 1998 to 2006. It was fittingly reborn at a craft beer brewery.
Executive director Sheila Snow Proctor, one of Chickspeare’s founders, was often approached by fans who expressed fondness for the company: “I was talking to Suzie Ford at NoDa Brewing Company about Chickspeare, and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I would love to do something here!’” So Proctor called Gerdy and, in September 2012, they performed a mini-“Quickspeare,” The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s version of “Hamlet.”
Next came a quickie “Romeo and Juliet,” followed by “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot,” where people brought lawn chairs to watch an abridged version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Chickspeare was a perfect addition to NoDa Brewing Company’s community-oriented offerings of local music and art. In continued collaboration, the troupe’s specialty “Santa Baby” beer will be available at performances.
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte had always been supportive of the Chicks, and Proctor asked artistic director Chip Decker to let her know if the stage had any availability. When he offered the December slot, “All the worlds came together,” said Proctor.
Chickspeare’s goals are the same as before: to engage the audience with Shakespeare and provide a creative, provocative environment for female actors to explore and experience his plays. Proctor and Gerdy share a lifelong love of the playwright. “I’ve learned so much from Joanna; everything you need is right there in the words,” said Proctor.
“I’m such a geek that if someone asks me what turns me on it’s Shakespeare,” Gerdy said. She grew up watching his plays at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, and honed her craft in the Professional Actor Training Program at Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts. “His text asks what it means to be human. Everyone feels lust, love, jealousy, anger. If the actor can find it in those words, the audience will feel it. They need to walk away saying, ‘I laughed,’ or ‘That guy reminds me of my dad.’”
Gerdy’s “Twelfth Night” is set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Orsino’s court is a speakeasy; tables and chairs replace tiered seating; original music was composed by pianist-vocalist-arranger Noel Freidline.
“For me the whole Twelfth Night celebration is about busting out of the doldrums,” Gerdy said. “Malvolio feels very puritanical, and then there is this crowd of people who are the opposite. It reminds me of the Jazz Age coming out of the (Edwardian) era.”
The cast includes original Chicks, newcomers and high school students. The Chicks hope the interactive production conveys to the audience what Gerdy learned from a wise instructor: Shakespeare was a guy, just like anyone else.
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