Photo by Jaclyn Thomas.

UCF graduate student revamps Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ with all-female cast

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When the Shakespearean comedy “Twelfth Night” was first performed in 1602, it had an all-male cast.

Now, more than 400 years later, a UCF graduate student is turning the tables by producing the same play with an all-female cast and a 70’s flair.

Mandi Lee, a Master of Fine Arts student at UCF, said she got the inspiration to stage her own all-female production after the Orlando Shakespeare Theater (OST) announced its plans in February 2017 to stage an all-male production of the same play.

“Twelfth Night” is a comedy written by William Shakespeare. The play follows twins Viola and Sebastian who are each shipwrecked on separate islands and believe the other is dead. Viola, who becomes smitten with Duke Orsino, dresses as a man to get closer to him. However, the Duke is in love with Countess Olivia. High jinks ensue with the love triangle as Viola’s true identity is threatened, according to the Shakespeare Resource Center.

Alex Pica and Danielle Glenn receive directions from director Chris Rushing. Photo by Caroline Jackson.

Lee has a history with all-female Shakespeare plays, beginning with The Fern Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. While taking a five-year break between her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Lee worked as a professional actress, taking part in an all-female production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“It was cool to be in a room with all women, trying roles [women] don’t usually get to do,” Lee said.

The all-female “Twelfth Night” is her senior thesis project. Not only is she producing the show, but she acts in it as well, playing the role of the heroine Viola. 

Lee approached Jim Helsinger, the creative director of OST, with an idea to stage an all-female show. He offered to help her develop the feminine counterpart. 

“I was really curious as to how the story is different when you have all men telling it versus all women telling the story,” Lee said.

Megan Murphy as Sir Toby Belch, left, and Hayley Platt as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Photo by Caroline Jackson.

This was the first time Jaclyn Thomas, a UCF student portraying the fool Feste, acted in one of Shakespeare’s play. She said she was attracted to the prospect of an all-female cast. 

“Any time an opportunity is presented to work with all females in theater, in film, in anything, I clear my schedule,” Thomas said.

Though Lee is keeping the original Shakespearean language of the play, she said she took the liberty to use contemporary music and costumes to create a more relatable atmosphere.

The costumes and music are inspired by the 1970s, and the play features folk music from the same era such as “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor and “Love The One You’re With” by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

“It’s music that everyone knows,” Lee said. “You know, back in Shakespeare’s day [there] would have been songs the audience knew and would be singing along to.”

Lee said she hopes this show serves as a part of the grassroots movement to allow for more representation in theater and film for women and minorities.

From 2009 to 2015, 78 percent of all theater acting roles went to Caucasians, while only 15 percent went to blacks and 3 percent to Latinos and Asian Americans, according to a study conducted by The Asian American Performers Action Coalition.

During casting, it was important to Lee and her husband Chris Rushing, who is the play’s director, to have the most diverse cast possible, she said.

“We wanted this to be a colorful show,” Lee said.

Malvolio, played by Alex Foultin, left, and Feste, played by Jaclyn Thomas, right, listen in on a conversation. Photo by Caroline Jackson.

All 12 parts of the show were given to women; the only man involved in the show was Rushing.

“I think there’s something that’s so refreshing about having that supportive environment and supportive atmosphere with an all-female cast,” Danielle Glenn, a UCF student playing Antonio, said. “Not saying you can’t have that without [an all-female cast], but you get this opportunity to reinforce that women have voices, and we can be heard, and we can make a difference in this world.”

Lee said intersectionality was important, so she wanted to include women of color and women of different ages, backgrounds and professional experience levels into the show to bring their personal touch to the characters they played.

Intersectionality is described as the way that multiple forms of discrimination — such as racism, sexism, and classism — combine, overlap or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups, according to Merriam-Webster.

“I think that diversity —  which is something we have in this cast — is so beautiful,” Glenn said. “Because, not only do we get the perspective of so many people, but we also get this wonderful collaboration that not a lot of people get to partake in because of lack of opportunity.”

Alex Pica as Sebastian, left, and Mandi Lee as Viola, right, sing the opening number, “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. Photo by Caroline Jackson.

Lee said she hopes her production will break down the “high-brow and elitist connotations” associated with Shakespeare and encourage those who don’t know much about Shakespeare to come watch the show.

“I hope women — young women, old women, women everywhere in between —  are going to say ‘I feel empowered, and I want to fight for the roles that I want and to ask for what I need,’ ” Lee said. 

Lee will become a resident at OST next year, and she hopes this production will inspire the company to pursue more untraditional casting in the future.

“I think a lot about art is making your own opportunities,” Lee said. “And if they don’t exist out there, you have to make them yourself.

“I hope to continue to create spaces that provide opportunities for people who look like me, people who don’t look like me, people who say ‘I want to try something new and different.’ “

The show runs from March 16 to 18 at the Santos Dantin Theatre in the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Orlando. Tickets start at $10.