Shakespeare's Strand Debut: Interview with Shrew Director Stephen Buescher

By Elspeth Sweatman

Between voice coaching sessions, country-music rehearsals, and fight calls involving horseshoes, we caught up with Stephen Buescher, the director of A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s classic comedy about the battle of the sexes will open with a cowboy twist at The Strand Theater on October 20.

Poster for 2016 M.F.A. Production of The Taming of the Shrew.
This is the first Shakespeare production at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater.
Yes! Part of A.C.T.’s mission is reinventing classics. We hope that The Strand can be somewhere where we can help people see classics in a new light.

It seems like you’re really reinventing The Taming of the Shrew—you’re setting it in the Wild West.
I recently came back from a trip to Mexico where I saw lots of Vaqueros (cowboys). I started to listen to country music from the States and thought, “This country-music scene is about breaking hearts and ‘he hurt me, but I still love him.’” That’s the hook. I was also trying to figure out the voice of Kate, an intelligent and headstrong woman who is “tamed” by Petruchio. Who is this person who can go through something like this and then want to stay with her husband? And I saw that in the Wild West, there were strong women—who were not the pretty, docile Biancas of this world—who were running things.

Did the cross-gender casting pose any interesting challenges?
Something that I did that sent a ripple through the cast was having Lucentio dress as a woman when he disguises himself as a lecturer in order to secretly woo Bianca. In the Wild West, the women were the schoolteachers. Now that Bianca is flirting with a woman, what does that mean? I think it is interesting that this idea ruffled feathers in 2016.

How does this production fit in with the M.F.A. Program course of study?
The Taming of the Shrew is a collision of everything they’re studying: physical theater, Shakespearean text, and acting work. Juggling these aspects is part of the struggle but also part of the excitement when they finally get all these pieces working together. The third-year actors are a great ensemble; they’re able to riff off of each other and play.

Why did you want to do this play in particular?
One of the reasons I really wanted to do this play was to celebrate A.C.T.’s 50th anniversary. My teacher, Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, was the movement director on that famous A.C.T. production in 1974. He’s the one that brought commedia dell’arte—a sixteenth-century form of improvised theater—over from Italy. So directing this play, it’s like I’ve come full circle.

Is there anything about this production that might surprise audiences?
Something that surprised me was how funny it is. You only ever hear about Kate and Petruchio, but so many of the side characters in this play are just so funny. I’m also trying to infuse this production with the spirit of commedia dell’arte, so I’m staging the show to give the actors room to improvise. The whole production is going to feel very alive and immediate. I want the audience to think “Whoa, this is happening right now in front of us,” rather than “It’s Shakespeare so we know it’s ‘good’ for us.”

The Taming of the Shrew is playing October 20–22 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets.

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