Rosa Joshi (KUOW Photo/ Megan Farmer, 2018)

Interviewing Rosa Joshi: Women in Shakespeare

Written by Sadie Gingold | April 29th, 2021

Rosa Joshi is a director, producer, and educator who has been living and working in Seattle since 1994. Rosa’s directing work spans from Shakespeare to modern classics to contemporary plays.  Throughout her career, she has been committed to creating work independently through self-producing, and in 2006 she co-founded the Upstart Crow Collective, a company committed to presenting classical plays with diverse all-female/non-binary casts.  Having directed four major productions, Richard III, Bring Down the House, Titus Andronicus, and ​King John, she is committed to continuing to create ambitious productions of classical work featuring all-female/nonbinary casts.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Sadie: I’m really excited to talk with you because I’m such a big fan.

Rosa Joshi: That’s so sweet! I’m excited to talk to you because the reason I do the work is to inspire a new generation of artists. I don’t want to make it sound like I know everything but the fact that you are so inspired by the work and that you want to continue that –  it’s like we’re starting a new tradition. A new tradition and a new convention and a new way of doing this work. And that to me is super exciting. So I’m just as thrilled.

Sadie: What changes in a Shakespeare play when a woman plays a man’s role? Or when the cast is all female?

Rosa Joshi: Each circumstance is different. Depending on the context and depending on the approach, different things change. Like, if you have an all-female cast, I think it has a different impact than if you take some characters and make them female, or if you have some women playing men in the show. 

What I saw more when I was coming up in theater – when I was your age – was that women would play men. That’s how they had access to more roles, was that ‘Ok you’re gonna be a small role as a woman or a large role as a man’ in a cast that was otherwise cast according to gender; men are playing men, women are playing women. We didn’t recognize non-binary back then. We didn’t have that awareness consciously.

And then you would see male characters turned into women and women playing them as women. That’s a completely different circumstance. I don’t know if you saw King Lear when Sheila Daniels did it, and Kent was played by Amy Thone as a woman, who then disguised herself as a man. Or I’ve seen, you know, Lear played by a woman. Prospero played by a woman as a woman but everyone else stays in their gendered roles and the rest of the roles don’t switch. That’s very different from all the roles played by women. Because then we’re talking about a convention. Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet; she was one of the first women in the 19th century to play Hamlet. And then you’re looking at that role as interpreted by a woman as a man in an otherwise… regularly – for lack of a better word – cast play.

With Upstart Crow, we’re taking the convention of all the roles having to be played by men and turning it on its head. So initially when we started we were all female. But as we grew, we decided we needed to be more inclusive because our main goal was to create a space for people who had been marginalized from the canon. Who didn’t have opportunities to play these roles, specifically centering on the experiences of women in the world? So we opened up that definition. But the whole idea was that ‘Oh we’re gonna take that whole Elizabethan convention and reverse it.’ So when we have non-binary people or women in these roles we don’t change the gender of the character. And that’s often one of the first questions I get. Because people assume that we’re changing the gender of the characters. And then suddenly everyone in the world is gonna be female. Which I’ve also seen done! And then that’s very different. I saw a Corialanus some years ago that Nike Imoru, she played Coriolanus, and the whole world was female. All the characters were female. So I think what changes depends on what has changed.

Sadie: Do you feel a difference when you direct an all-female cast, versus a cast of people of all different genders? Or does it feel the same?

Rosa Joshi: I’m still doing the work, I’m still telling the story. So I’m not necessarily changing any of what I’m doing in terms of storytelling or directing a play. We cast women and nonbinary people and then we do the play. Certain things definitely come up differently to me as I’m interpreting the play with the idea of a woman being in that role. And definitely, the experience of being in a room of women, or women and nonbinary people, the space is different for me. I hadn’t realized how much time I’d spend in rooms with men primarily. I just hadn’t realized it because it was the water I swam in, it was normal. And then I did Richard II some years ago, and there were two women in the cast. It was all men. And because I like to do history plays, I’m often in that kind of room. So I found working in a room full of women and nonbinary people liberating I love working with men. I always feel like I need to say, ‘I love working with men!’ It’s not like I’m never going to work with men again. But I found it liberating because I found I was able to relax in a way I wasn’t even aware I hadn’t been able to. I didn’t have to have armor on to protect myself or prove myself in a way that I wasn’t even conscious I had been doing until I wasn’t doing it. 

 I found that when you’re in a room of women and then you’re asking them ‘Well what do you want? What do you think?’ –  a lot of them aren’t asked those questions in these rooms! I heard women say, for instance, if they were one of three women in a Shakespeare play, they knew so many women had auditioned for that role. And they were lucky to get it. ‘You better just keep your head down. Don’t make any waves. Do your job. Don’t be DIFFICULT.But when you’re in that conversation and you’re saying ‘Let’s all talk about this.’ It’s liberating for all of us. I’ve also had women say ‘Oh, I’ve never gotten to be in this part of the play. And talk about these things.’ Like politics and power! They don’t get to be in that part of the play so they don’t get to have those conversations. When we’re talking about political strategy and power plays, they don’t get to be a part of it. I had one actress say to me ‘I usually get to play the whore. That’s where I’ve been.’ 

Bring Down the House, 2017, Directed by Rosa Joshi (The Seattle Times, 2017)

The other part of it is generations. I realized how rare it is for younger women to be in a play with older women who have done Shakespeare for a long time. Because those kinds of roles are few and far between for older women. It’s sexism and it’s also ageism. And when you cross the intersectionality of that, where are the roles for older women? You know, men can keep working their way through the canon and making their way through all those Shakespeare plays until they hit (King) Lear. And women, if they’re not playing against gender, sort of hit their peak when they get to roles like Cleopatra. But who is the female Lear in the canon? Sometimes Rosalind is talked about as the female Hamlet because of how much text she has, you know, and her brilliance with language. But it’s rare for young women to be in a company with older women consistently. It might happen, but you’re more likely to be a young Actress with older male actors if you do a lot of Shakespeare. Young men have older male role models. Young women don’t have those older female role models consistently. So that kind of experience and mentorship and community is also very different.

Sadie: I am assistant directing for the first time this summer. I’m working on a production of the Tempest. So I’m curious for you- what is the process of any show you direct? Are there elements you enjoy having in shows?

Rosa Joshi: Starting with the text. I read the play. A LOT. And I start with a lot of deep text analysis. It’s really kind of nerdy geeky work that I love. Where I just spend a lot of time making sure that I understand everything that’s going on, even though I’ve been doing these plays for a long time. And then usually something about the play hits me at the core of why I need to do this play now. What is an audience today going to get out of this play? Because it’s not a historical artifact. ‘Why do I need to do this play today? What is the play about that really hits an audience today?

I just did Twelfth Night on Zoom with Seattle University. I’ve done that play three times. Once inside, once outside, and once on Zoom. But I felt very differently every time I did that play. This time I think I was thinking a lot about the separation and reunion. Viola and Sebastian being separated at sea and then coming together. That part of the story really hit me; grief and reunion. Because I was just thinking about how many people are separated. Are going through grief and loss. And this sort of hopefulness of reunion at the end. And how that might sort of hit us today. And I was thinking about past productions I’d done centered on the ideas of madness and love. Revenge was really very much in my mind. The chaos that exists in that play. So I think about ‘Who is the audience that I am making the play for? And what does this play have to say to that audience at this time?’

Sadie: Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?

Rosa Joshi: That is such a good question. I don’t have a very favorite play. I just really love so many of them. I think Twelfth Night is beautiful. I really want to do King Lear. I don’t know if I’m ready to do King Lear yet. I think I might need some more time to really tackle that play. But that’s a play I’ve really been thinking about a lot. Really, I don’t have a favorite. I LOVE the history plays. I’ve grown to really love them. I think when I was your age I did not love the history plays. I couldn’t figure them out. You know, they’re difficult, and working on them with Upstart Crow… I LOVED the history plays. (And I don’t like calling them the history plays so I’m surprised that I did that!) Kate Wisnewski, who’s part of Upstart Crow, taught me to call them the political war plays. Because they’re about politics and war. And especially for an American audience, they’re not our history. They’re the history of England and Great Britain. The plays are about politics and war and power. And when you start to think of them that way, then they’re not necessarily just a history play and I’m not like “snore”. They’re action thrillers! They’re political thrillers. And I think that makes them much more exciting and engaging.

Sadie: Do you have any stories from rehearsals that stuck with you?

Rosa Joshi: There are so many good things that happened! Things that stayed with me… I remember what Sarah Harlett said to me during one of the first few rehearsals for King John. We were doing a big scene. You know one of those big Shakespeare scenes where everybody is onstage so you have to make sure that the focus is clear and who’s speaking. She said to me in a lull,  ‘I’m just looking around this room, and I’m thinking, I’m onstage with her and her and her and her’  –  all these incredible actors that she had never gotten to work with because they were always competing for the same roles. The opportunity to be in the room and work with her peers and with other women was so rare. 

Doing the work taught me about the inequities.  I think I was blind to the inequities –  not blind but not consciously thinking about it as an artist just trying to get by and just trying to do my work. Kate and Betsy were like ‘we’re gonna do this because we’re tired of waiting for the roles to come.’ And I was like ‘that is great.’ I think knowing that intellectually and really feeling and experiencing how the work we were doing… there was so much hunger for it. That really surprised me. How hungry these women were. And it shouldn’t have surprised me how these women were really willing to work for little to no money so then you really start thinking of equity in different ways. Because I was thinking ‘Well if we can do this in this way, then women will continue running to these productions because they want this opportunity. And then we all have to be like ‘Oh we’re so grateful for the opportunity again’ that we’re willing to do it for no money. 

And so at some point, we decided, we are not going to not pay. That’s when we started pairing up with places like Seattle Shakespeare Company and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Because we didn’t have the funds and the resources to pay artists. But by partnering with larger institutions, they can pay women and nonbinary people for their labor! That’s an equity issue. 

And probably a good thing to end on!

Sadie Gingold is a Seattle-based actor and high school student. She was most recently seen as Meg in A Wrinkle in Time (Shoreline Community College) and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (Penguin Productions). She is a member of the Penguin Advisory Council, where she got the opportunity for this interview. She’s been acting her whole life and has performed most recently at 18th and Union, White Rabbits inc. Bainbridge Performing Arts, Edmonds Driftwood Players, Seattle Public Theatre, and Kitsap Forest Theater. 

Film Credits: Cockadoodle Doom (Seattle 48 Hour Film Festival) Upcoming Projects: Much Ado about Nothing (Shattered Glass Project) and The Tempest with Penguin Productions (Assistant Directing).

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