Author: Becca Vaclavik

Time’s Up, Me Too, and the women of “Richard III”

On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano wrote the tweet that launched a thousand voices (so to speak).

The hashtag #MeToo quickly spread across social media channels as people across the globe, women in particular, shared stories that ranged from everyday casual sexism to workplace harassment to horrific assaults and abuse. In fact, according to The Associated Press, the hashtag received 12 million reactions on Facebook alone within 24 hours.

Other calls to action would follow, notably Time’s Up, a movement largely driven by women in Hollywood and targeted at creating a more equal power structure across genders.

Over the weeks following these viral moments, as the voices of women rose and the movements grew—and simultaneously, as media outlets released detailed exposés on some of the more infamous accounts of workplace harassment—men in positions of unchecked power would feel the effects, perhaps most famously exemplified in the firing and eventual arrest of media mogul Harvey Weinstein.

With women at the forefront, conversations around gender politics and power disparities were finally taking place on a global stage.

And so it is on the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s stage. In “Richard III”, opening at the University Theatre on June 22, the title character will do anything to put himself in a position of power and control, including coerce women into marriage, imprison their children and murder anyone who gets in his way.

But the women around him unite and stand against his tyranny. “The women in ‘Richard III are the first characters in the play to speak truth to power when Richard claims the throne,” says Director Wendy Franz.

When viral moments become viral movements

It would be remiss to assume that Milano originated the idea of #MeToo. Unbeknownst to Milano at the time of her post, The Me Too Movement had been elevating the voices of victims and survivors for years. Founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, the movement provides an empathetic voice, support, resources and healing to those who have been traumatized by sexual violence, particularly young women of color in low-income communities.

As told by Burke herself, her Me Too Movement and Milano’s are not one in the same: “We want to be clear about what the Me Too Movement is about. There’s lots of conversation about it being about taking down powerful men or about targeting people, and it’s not about any of those things. This is a movement about giving people access to a healing journey.” (Listen to Burke’s full statement here or read more at metoomvmt.org.)

Time’s Up, on the other hand, is a movement to reclaim power across the gender spectrum. As reported by TIME, “While #MeToo explicitly deals with sexual violence of all kinds, Time’s Up is focused more so on workplace equity and creating equal economic opportunities for women and people of color—and combating sexual harassment and assault is just one of the many ways Time’s Up is working to end widespread employment disparities.”

The agency of women in Richard III

In a similar way, “Richard III” is a particularly timely exploration of gender and politics, as well as the different ways people pursue power. Betty Hart, playing Queen Elizabeth in her CSF debut, adds, “When the situations get bad, the men fracture, they fight, they form factions … [But] the women unite. They work together. They comfort and support. Ultimately that strategy leads to the downfall of Richard.”

It’s a different look at the script than audiences might have seen in other productions of the iconic Shakespeare play, says Franz. “Many stage productions and film versions of “Richard III” either omitted key women in the play altogether, or substantially cut their lines, reducing the female roles to shallow stereotypes of women defined by the men around them.

“But as written in Shakespeare’s play, the women in ‘Richard III’ are strong, complex, vocal and pivotal characters in the plot.”

For Anne Penner (as Margaret), it’s an empowering position for her character. “[Margaret] has lived enough and seen enough and been powerful enough to simply not care how people see her. And as a woman, it’s incredibly satisfying to stand up to the other people in the room and not be swayed by their opinions of you or the words they speak to you.”

A production for the times

Like with #MeToo and #TimesUp, the women in Richard III may not have an equal seat at the table politically, but together they raise their voices and use the greatest asset they have—the truth—to expose the injustices in front of them.

The connection is not accidental. It’s a particularly appropriate time to tell this story, says Franz. “Our story needs to speak to the lives we are living right now, and shed some light on the complexity of issues we are wrestling with as humans.

“As such, keeping up on what is happening in society, in cultural movements, in everyday people’s lives is a critical part of the process. [Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr] is always urging us as a company to examine why we are producing this play right here, right now—why is it essential to tell this story today at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival?”

It’s a lens that makes for thought-provoking character studies. Says Lindsay Ryan, who plays Lady Anne, an enemy of Richard who eventually becomes his betrothed, “As an artist who unfortunately can say ‘me too,’ it’s hard to approach [my scenes] with fresh eyes. Why should I, as Anne, want to save someone who has done horrible, unspeakable things?”

What’s more, it’s not the first time CSF has explored these themes. In 2012 it presented Tina Packer’s Women of Will, a five-play cycle about William Shakespeare’s female characters. That same summer, again in a production of Richard III, the women were a central focus of the play, going so far as to add new female roles: Jane Shore, Edward IV’s favorite mistress, and Princess Elizabeth, who marries Henry VII.

It is the audience who hears

Just as in real life, in this story sometimes the truth takes time to have its profound impact. Not everyone in Richard’s circle is ready to hear what these characters have to say. And not all justice is swift. Instead, it is the audience who knows the weight of these women’s words.

Says dramaturg Hadley Kamminga-Peck, “Just as we cannot live with a Harvey Weinstein in the world after women exposed what he has done, so too the audience won’t want to live with Richard in the world once the women have exposed what he has done.”

It’s a cautionary tale, and one audiences won’t want to miss.

“Richard III” begins June 22 at the University Theatre. Tickets start at $20.