"That’s all that theatre is, and that’s all that all performance and all art is, is just hoping that somebody notices."
Marina Greenfeld: Ok, so, once you were cast as Puck, what was the process of developing your interpretation of Puck and Puck’s gender?
Ellie Black: Puck is different with a capital D than anybody else in this play, even the other fairies, like he’s confusing to them. And I’m going to use "he" pronouns for Puck because that’s what’s used in the play, but there’s a lot to be said about Puck’s gender situation. So, he is a different thing than everybody else in the play, and that is part of what drew me to him. And I knew that that needed to be indicated somehow, and actually this is something that I frequently feel in my life, and that’s, you know, that’s what acting is, is taking things from your life, and being like, how does this apply to this guy? But, I frequently feel like I walk into a room, and everybody’s like, “Whoa, what’s that?” And so that was a big part of my draw to Puck, and my interpretation of Puck’s character from the very beginning. There’s something slightly off about him, and it is ineffable and indeterminable and undefinable. It is something that’s just like other with a capital O, like that’s something else, and you can’t tell exactly why or what it is, but it’s not a human, and it’s not a fairy, and it’s a little bit upsetting, but also compelling, and you kind of want to be near it, but you also kind of want to be far away from it, because, again, that’s something that people have told me that they experience with me, which I’ve always found very confusing. So, I was like, I want to draw from that, and I want to make Puck a really complexly drawn, and yet indescribable, character.
MG: Alright, so we mentioned a little bit this gender swapping that’s happening in this particular production, so I just want to get your take on what you think the gender swapping, the considerations of gender are doing in this particular production?
EB: In this, it’s more of a role swap. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is already a play about gender, and about subverting gender roles, and this kind of undoes it, and makes it less about gender. Especially, like there’s one line I always cringed at when I would hear Diego read it— not because his delivery was bad; it was wonderful— but it was like, “Men are not made to woo. Women are made to woo.” And when you’re doing something like a gender swap in a production like this, lines like that can be effective places to note how things are being subverted or changed, but instead it just makes me think, what is the world that this play is happening in? What are the circumstances? Because none of the other roles being swapped, or any of the other lines really make me feel like this is happening in a matriarchal world.
MG: Because, traditionally, Helena would be saying that, and she would be saying, “Women are not made to woo. Men are made to woo?”
MG: So, she’s traditionally saying, “men should come to us,” or something?
EB: Yes, she would traditionally be saying, tongue in cheek I think, well, and not the character tongue in cheek, but the play pointing to tongue in cheek, “Oh, but like, women aren’t supposed to go out there in the world and talk to men. Men are supposed to come to us,” and that’s the whole joke of that line.
MG: What is it doing now?
EB: What is it doing now is the question. It’s like, so OK, we’ve established that this is a bizarro world where women have the societal power, and? Like it’s not adding a rich layer to the text or the world of the production. Does that make sense?
MG: Yeah, I think it does. You said at the beginning of your answer to this question that A Midsummer Night’s Dream without this alteration is already a play about gender and subverting gender roles. Could you unpack that a little bit?
EB: Yeah, absolutely. To me, when you’re talking about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you’re usually talking about the lovers, and you’re talking about four people chasing after each other in various heterosexual couplings. One of the most famous lines from this play is, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” So, that’s a commentary on a trait coded as feminine, smallness, delicate physical nature, and subverting, and being like, “Oh don’t be deceived by how little she is.” She actually has the masculine trait of a warrior’s mindset or whatever. She has fierceness. She has a personality, whatever. Or she is loud, or brash, whatever. That is a line that a lot of people have latched onto, like I know people with tattoos of that line. That is a big commentary on what is expected of women, and has been expected of women since western society, because, again this is a Shakespearean play. It traces a lineage of expectations of women that have kind of been there since our western society has been developed.
MG: I love your read of that line. I always think of that line, you know, now it’s so passé, girlboss feminist, but the subversion makes it so much more interesting.
EB: And it is a girlboss line. It super is. When I meet people who have tattoos of that line, I’m annoyed. I find it annoying, but it also is true that there’s a reason that that line has resonated so much, and part of the reason that it’s annoying is just over saturation. It’s just that so many people became interested in this interesting thing, that it is no longer interesting. So, Midsummer is already a play about subverting expectations of gender and gender roles. And, at the end of the play, right, it’s Demetrius, in the original rendition, who is still under the potion forever, for the rest of his life.
MG: Yeah, he’s been tricked into a marriage.
EB: He’s been tricked into a marriage. And, I’m not saying that Shakespeare was sitting at his fucking pen and paper, his fucking quill, being like, “I’m gonna write about consent,” but it is an interesting commentary on like— I’m sure audiences back then were like, “Oh, usually the man gets to decide who he marries. That’s interesting.” That’s one of the things that has resonated with people about this play since it was first written and put on, that it subverts what a woman is supposed to do and be like and what a man is supposed to do and be like.
MG: So, I want to ask you about, while you were rehearsing with us, how your choices about Puck’s queerness, Puck’s gender, interacted with other folks in the play who were making choices about gender?
EB: Like you were saying, Puck is a really solitary character, yeah, but Puck also meets more of the characters than anybody else does. He spends a lot of time flitting between worlds and realms and what have you. So, Puck’s relationship to the lovers is one of observation and seeing, and, again, in the traditional play, in the regular version, is one of like, “What the fuck is wrong with these straight people? What is happening here?”
MG: Yeah, no, you’re right.
EB: Which seems like an element of Puck’s queerness that is kind of always there, but is so delighted by like, “What is wrong with y’all? What is happening? I know that I caused some of this, but also, get your shit together.” But the one close relationship that Puck does have, in this particular production, is with Titania, and, traditionally, that would be Oberon, but here it’s Titania. And since Titania was obviously being played by a woman, and since Puck was being played by a woman or someone who is easily read as a woman, that relationship became the nexus for a lot of my interpretation of Puck’s character, which I was really excited about and interested in. Jules and I, Jules who played Titania, Jules and I would joke from early, early rehearsal that it felt like we were two drunk bitches at the club just causing chaos, and that felt correct, but it also felt like one of those kind of one-sided, queer, Sapphic relationships.
MG: Because you had this subservience to Titania.
EB: Yeah, the power dynamic was crazy, and it felt like— have you seen Jennifer’s Body?
EB: It felt like Needy and Jennifer. It felt like it was kind of that situation where there’s a hot girl in charge, and then a beleaguered personal assistant. And so, instead of a court jester character, Puck becomes someone who is doing something to get Titania’s interpersonal approval, not just professional approval, and then the question becomes, well, why would Puck want that? And the answer to that question feels very queer. But also, Puck is deeply frustrated with Titania for continually telling him what to do and for being mad at him the whole time, and, again, the power dynamic is very toxic and weird and unbalanced, but also Titania doesn’t hold all the power. Puck holds a great deal of the power, but doesn’t show his cards ever at all. And so, that becomes a large part of the dynamic. But other than that, Puck doesn’t really associate with anybody when they’re awake and can see him. Then, the gender and sexuality kind of becomes about the solitude, becomes about that observation. It’s what I was saying about that maniacal observation earlier, that’s a mixture of an extreme masculine and an extreme feminine energy. It’s like the role of the observer can be masculinized in the sense of above it all, or it can be feminized in the sense of person whose job it is to look out for everyone else, and those are interesting levels to play with.
MG: Or even manipulation, which I think is feminized sometimes.
EB: Manipulation is definitely feminized, but when men do it, it’s called tactics, you know, like war tactics. And so, it’s interesting to just play with those levels, and when the character doesn’t have a defined gender, that’s really fun to mess with. Now, another issue with my relationship with the director was that I could not be ungendered for her. I am too feminine in my appearance and presentation to have appeared to her as anything other than a girl. Specifically the word girl, we’ll come back to the use of that word. I feel that a big part of the director’s issue with my performance was not with my performance, but with my physical appearance and the fact that I have a “woman’s body” and large breasts. I don’t think that she could get past the fact that I wasn’t a perfect, stick-thin, flat chest, androgynous little fairy that she could project whatever she wanted to onto, that I wasn’t literally a blank slate for her paint onto. The fact that I came in with interpretations and came in with a body that is shaped in a way, you know, she had a lot of trouble with that, I think. And so, I was playing not even an androgynous character, but an excessively gendered character, a character who is working every extreme of gender presentation and experience, but she could not abide by that because I look like a girl, and she frequently told me that. She was like, “I need you to be less human,” and I think what she meant when she said that was, “I need you to be less of a woman, and I need you to seem less like a woman to me,” which I can’t do anything about because that seems like a personal problem. On one occasion, she stopped me in the middle of rehearsal and was like, “I need you to be less human,” which is a thing she said to me all the time, and I was like, “OK.” And she was like, “When I look at you, I still see a girl, a pretty girl. A very pretty girl.” But the words “pretty” and “girl” there are both incredibly loaded, and they’re infantilizing.
MG: All of this dovetails beautifully with my final question, which is very open-ended, and it’s because this project is very much about the theory of gender performance, and whether or not it can exist on its own, whether it exists only in companion with its interpretation by the person perceiving it. So, I want to just get your, you know, very broad view of where you think that power and agency lies, whether it’s with the person performing a character’s gender, any kind of gender, or the person who, you know, perceives and interprets it in their own minds, whether that’s your castmate, another character, your director, the audience, you know, where that power of interpretation lies?
EB: My thought about this when it comes to performance not in a theatrical space, but in real life, is that it’s a constantly unbalanced, but somewhat equal, power dynamic where I get to decide what my whole gender deal is, but also, I don’t get to decide what other people decide my gender deal is. So, people will look at me and assume things, and I cannot prevent them from doing that, but also, people will look at me, as I was saying earlier, and kind of be confused by my whole deal. There have been many times in my life where, for instance, my mother will catch me doing something, and be like, “That was really masculine,” but not in the way of like, “Stop doing that. That’s masculine.” She’ll be like, “Your grandpa did that. That was a habit that your grandpa did. Where did you get that? Where did you even pick that up?” And the answer to that is it’s genetic, the reason that I walk around folding my hands behind my back like an old man walking down the street, or the reason that whenever I stand near a surface that is remotely near enough for me to put my foot onto, I put my foot on it. I stand like Captain Morgan.
MG: You do do that.
EB: I do. I do. That is always something that I’ve done, and it’s something that people are always confused by. It’s like, “Why do you do that?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” And they’re like, “That’s a masculine posture.” And I’m like, “Yeah it is, I guess.” But to me, it’s not masculine or feminine; it’s just something that I do. And so, I can’t stop people from looking at me and seeing girl, and I also can’t stop people from looking at me and being unsettled when I do things that don’t match up with them seeing me as girl. But I also do get to decide in myself, “girl?” And the answer to that question is, “I don’t know, maybe,” which I feel like is the best answer to that question because I’m not beholden to anybody’s rules. I’m not beholden to following rules about what kind of woman I should be or that I need to avoid certain pitfalls of femininity. I am very feminine, and I behave and dress and speak in ways that are very feminine, and I enjoy doing that, but a lot of that I don’t do on purpose as well. I do it partially because of social conditioning and training, but partially because it’s intrinsic to who I am, and I feel like I have a better sense of that because I also do these things that do not match up with my assigned and perceived gender.
MG: Right, you could only know by absence or know by alternative maybe.
EB: Yes, exactly, yes, and so I know that the things that I do naturally and that feel comfortable and right to me are the things that I should keep doing. And so, I feel like when it comes to the theatre, it should be a collaborative process. It needs to be a collaborative process, by which the actor comes in with a character perspective and then works with the other actors and works with the director to create a gender experience which will resonate with the audience whether or not it is obvious to them. And I don’t think that my interpretation of Puck would have been obvious or identifiable to the audience as being— I think what is queer about it is that people wouldn’t have been able to say what it was, and that is what I found the most interesting about that role. That’s also kind of how I feel about myself. What’s most interesting about my sexuality and gender experience is that people can’t quite figure it out, and that I have no interest in “figuring it out.” I’m not interested in getting to an end point. I’m just interested in kind of inhabiting a space where I feel good and comfortable and enjoy myself and like myself, you know? So, yeah, I feel like, again, the audience is going to make assumptions based on preconceived notions about gender, especially when you’re dealing with a character whose gender is kind of up in the air or who has been gender swapped in some way. The audience is going to come with preconceived notions that you can’t control, but you can do the thing that you were going to do, and hope that somebody notices. And that’s all that theatre is, and that’s all that all performance and all art is, is just hoping that somebody notices, or even that people emotionally catch on to things that they don’t consciously recognize. That it’s like, “Oh, there was something about that. There was something interesting about that that I’m going to think about for a long time.” To me, that’s the ideal reaction to my acting, is like, “There was really something to that that I can’t quite describe.” That’s ideal for me.
Ellie Black is a poet, editor, essayist, screenwriter, performer, and educator originally from Arkansas. She recently received an MFA in poetry from the University of Mississippi. Her poetry can be found in or is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Booth, Best New Poets, The Offing, and elsewhere.