A University of Saskatchewan (USask) graduate student studying genderbending in Shakespeare’s work had an opportunity to put her research into action this summer as an assistant director at Saskatoon’s annual Shakespeare festival.
Emily Pickett, who is currently completing a Master of Arts degree in the Department of English in USask’s College of Arts and Science, made her assistant directorial debut with the play Cymbeline at this year’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan festival. The show runs until Aug. 14.
Picket said it’s been “an amazing experience” working on Cymbeline.
“All our cast and crew members are incredible, and I love working with them. I even got to act with them once, when one of the performers got sick and I had to go on,” said Pickett, who previously earned a Bachelor of Arts double honours degree in English and drama at USask in 2020.
“I’ve also been very grateful for the opportunity to learn more about how professional theatre works, especially on the design side of things,” she added. “That’s something I’ve never had much of a chance to focus on before, because I was an acting student during my undergrad at USask.”
As a master’s student, Pickett has just completed a paper titled “ ‘I Dare Do All That May Become a Man’: Establishing a Textual Case for an All-female Macbeth.” Her research, which was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), focuses on a theatrical practice called genderbending that involves changing a character’s pronouns in a script to present them with a gender identity different from the one originally assigned by the playwright.
“It’s becoming a lot more common in Shakespearean theatre because there aren’t enough female roles in those plays for the modern ratio of male to female actors—but, in some cases, it’s still seen as controversial,” said Pickett, whose research was supervised by Dr. Brent Nelson (PhD) and underwent a second reading by Dr. Kathleen James-Cavan (PhD) in the Department of English.
Pickett’s paper advocates for the practice of genderbending by examining what happens to Shakespeare’s infamous play Macbeth in an all-female environment. Pickett began her work by creating her own “genderbent” version of the script, changing the male pronouns and some other gendered identifiers into female equivalents.
“I was able to compare it to the original to show that making all the characters women doesn’t disrupt the essential integrity of the play—which is saying something, because Macbeth is basically a play about gender,” she said. “Plus, it also brings new meaning and value out of the story, because it creates a really cool feminist statement about internalized misogyny and the residual patriarchal ideologies that we still need to overcome in our fight for gender equality.”
As the assistant director for Cymbeline, Pickett had the opportunity to apply some of the skills she learned through her research on Macbeth. For example, the dramaturgical process she undertook for her master’s project prepared her well for the initial editing work she did for the script for Cymbeline.
Working on Cymbeline also offered Pickett an opportunity to see firsthand how genderbending can enhance Shakespeare’s plays. She genderbent the character Pisanio, the friend of the character Imogen, in Cymbeline.
“In our production, Imogen’s servant/best friend is a Pisania instead of the original Pisanio,” Pickett said. “That choice has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this experience for me; I got to direct one of the scenes where Pisania really comes through for Imogen, and it was wonderful to explore how their relationship gets so much deeper and more meaningful when it’s between two women. That’s exactly the kind of value I argue genderbending can bring out of Shakespeare in my paper, so it was awesome to put my theories into practice.”
Pickett now plans to move to Ontario to pursue a PhD in English language and literature at Queen’s University, where she will expand her current research on Shakespeare and all-female genderbending and look at it in terms of genre. She noted that when play producers are choosing a Shakespearean work for an all-female production, they generally tend to select one of his tragedies or histories. While those plays are great, Pickett said, she also wonders why the comedies and romances aren’t genderbent as often.
“I feel like there might be some feminist potential hiding in them that we could unlock by looking at the plays from an all-female perspective,” she said.
As Pickett wraps up her master’s degree and prepares for the next step in her post-secondary journey, she is reflecting on her work with Cymbeline and all that she has learned at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan.
“I’d like to say how grateful I am to the Heather and David Foundation and to RBC for supporting the Emerging Artist Program with Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan,” she said. “I also want to thank Skye Brandon and Yvette Nolan, the co-interim festival curators; Jennifer Brewin, our director and my mentor; Liz King, our stage manager; our amazing cast; and everyone else who welcomed me into the festival community and gave so much of their time and knowledge to help me make my assistant-directorial debut. Theatre is the ultimate team sport, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Pickett believes everyone benefits when students are invited to participate in festivals such as Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan.
“For the students, it’s an amazing opportunity to learn new skills, grow as artists and create good relationships with the people in their field,” she said. “And for the companies, I think it’s valuable to invest in the new generations of artists—not just because they’re eventually going to be the ones carrying these institutions forward, but also because it’s a great chance to hear and incorporate new perspectives on the work that’s being done now.”