Gender- Blind Shakespeare: An interview with Kerren Garner

Kerren Garner is an actor who has stepped up to the role of Associate Director for the Brighton Shakespeare Company. Starring in a gender-swapped production of The Merchant of Venice and having enjoyed a recent, successful run at Brighton Open Air Theatre, Kerren spoke to City Girl about how she landed the job as AD, why Shakespeare is still relevant on modern stages, and how gender-swapped productions has enhanced one of the world’s best known plays.

Explain a little about your role as Associate Director and how you came into this job.

As Associate Director of Brighton Shakespeare Company, I work with both Artistic Director Mark Brailsford and Sarah Mann, another Associate Director. We decide together on the shows we want to do and think about the casting for the coming period. We always do a summer season; our first season was also with the first Brighton Open Air Theatre season, so we have a special relationship with them. But, we also play other outdoor venues like Lewes Castle. Another area I am looking to develop is building on our church touring. In 2016, we did a tour of Macbeth in Medieval churches.

I come from a qualified teacher background and this means I also take on the role of Education Officer within the company. I contact all the schools in the Sussex area about our productions, write and deliver workshops (sometimes with members of the cast) and organise school matinees. I also do a lot of the social media marketing and of course am often the Assistant Director on the productions (Sarah and I tend to take turns working with Mark) as well as performing in them, so my role is pretty varied!


Merchant of Venice: Brighton Shakespeare Company.

Merchant of Venice: Brighton Shakespeare Company.

How did you get involved with the Brighton Shakespeare Company?

I got involved with the company by sending Mark an email introducing myself as a passionate Shakespeare lover who would love to both act and direct alongside him. He jokes about reading the email and thinking, “Well, she's not backwards in coming forwards!” We met up, discovered we felt very similarly about how and why Shakespeare should be done, and so it began!

Why do you think Shakespeare is still relevant and enjoyed by so many today?

I have always loved Shakespeare, but during my actor training it was made even more apparent to me about why Shakespeare is still relevant. It’s because all of his plays have universal and enduring themes. I particularly remember this when I explored Anthony and Cleopatra, and Michael Armstrong (our inspirational teacher at The London Repertory Company) said when approaching the text, don't do it as an Egyptian Queen or Roman Leader as you don't have experience of those lives to draw on.

Instead, draw on the fact that they are people who are passionately in love with each other but have other duties and responsibilities that get in the way. We can all relate to loving someone and not being able to be with them and feeling jealousy. In the end, Shakespeare's plays are about our humanity and when this is shown on stage, people relate to it.


Brighton Shakespeare Company

Brighton Shakespeare Company

What made you decide to pursue a gender-swapped version of the play?

The Brighton Shakespeare Company ethos is that we want to make Shakespeare fun and entertaining. The company members largely come from comedy backgrounds and we always highlight comedy wherever it is to be found as that in turn allows us to make any drama in a play even more tense and exciting.

Mark is very clear that (despite a history of people saying differently) women are very funny and that often there are strong female actors who give funny, strong and interesting performances. Of course, historically, men played all the parts in Shakespeare. So, we often look at the character rather than the gender and see who we think would be best to play that "personality". We have had gender-blind casting for witches, soldiers, police, gaolers, and mechanicals, for instance, but I think Shylock is the biggest gender swap we have done yet.

How do you think casting a female Shylock in The Merchant of Venice changed the play?

We decided to make Shylock, traditionally a male, Jewish moneylender, a woman (and I played a female version of Shylock’s Jewish friend Tubal) because it added another layer to the character’s victimisation. With Jules Craig, who played our Shylock, we searched for reasons why she wants her "pound of flesh" instead of the money Antonio owes her; the sense of loss at her daughter leaving her and the hatred thrown at her by the Christian men was made all the more poignant by her being female. This gave us a reason for her overriding desire for getting some justice in a world where she receives none.

We expected some negative feedback on our decision to cast a female Shylock, but in fact it has been quite the opposite. One thing that sticks in my mind from a Q&A we did following a matinee at Brighton Open Air Theatre was that a male member of the audience stated "I didn't think a female Shylock would work, but it did in spades". Other official reviews have also been very positive, calling Craig's Shylock as "a revelation".

Drawing on your recent (and successful!) run at the BOAT, is there something special about performing Shakespeare outdoors as it would have been originally?

Performing Shakespeare outdoors is my favourite time of year every year! It's everything I love about theatre as it is a more relaxed atmosphere than a "traditional" theatre space, with people arriving with food and drinks; prosecco corks popping during shows is a beautiful sound and sometimes happens at the perfect moment for some added comedy!

It also allows us as performers to blur the lines between actor and audience and we always make a point of being "part of the audience", whether that be in the court scene in The Merchant of Venice where we made the audience part of the court, or if we just want to start inspecting the picnics for a bit of actorly thieving!

Here's where you have the last word! Tell us about any projects you have coming up that you would like City Girl readers to know about.

As we develop the company further we are on the look-out for sponsors and patrons, and we’re aiming to set up a Friends of Brighton Shakespeare Company scheme. In the meantime, we have a GoFundMe page that people can contribute to here.

If any readers would like to get in touch with us regarding sponsorship, please contact me at kerren@brightonshakespearecompany.co.uk or mark@brightonshakespearecompany.co.uk. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter to find out what we are up to and what our next play will be.

There are two more performances of The Merchant of Venice at Lewes Castle on the 9th and 10th of August with tickets selling well, so do book and join us for some fun and drama! Tickets can be bought here.

Written By Lois Zoppi