Marina Greenfeld: I want to start off just by asking you what originally drew you to the role of Bottom. I remember at the auditions you were gung ho on Bottom already, so I want to know what that attraction was.
Kate Lechler: Well, so, when the director talked to me about the project months ago, she wanted me to play Puck. She basically told me that I had the role, and I was like, “OK cool, but, you know, if there’s somebody better who shows up, then it’s totally fine if you cast them, but I do want to be in the play.” But she just kept saying, “No, you’re Puck. You’re Puck. You’re Puck.” And I was like, “Alright, I get it.” And then, when I auditioned— I mean, I’ve read the play many times. I’ve taught the play. And, I just kind of think Puck is a little boring, mostly because I don’t understand fairies. And so, I don’t know what Puck’s motivation is. And Puck has beautiful poetry, and does sort of interesting, mischievous things, but I felt like, for me anyways, to play that role I would be a cliché in my own mind. I would be playing it like, “Oooh I’m a weird fairy oooh.” And it just wasn’t as interesting as this character who was really funny, and who I felt like whose motivations I could understand. I can understand the motivation of wanting to be the center of attention, and needing people to think you’re talented and amazing, even if you’re not. And also, Bottom just has jokes. And Puck, while Puck is mischievous, he doesn’t really have jokes. And I’ve never played a comic role, so I was just really drawn to it.
MG: I’m surprised you’ve never played a comic role before. It felt very natural for you coming to Bottom, as an outsider.
KL: Yeah, well, so, you know, I grew up very concerned with femininity, and I wanted to be attractive to men. And I never would have bought the line that women aren’t funny, and I never would have said that to anybody, but I think there was a part of me that had kind of just taken on that, had been socialized into that knowledge or that understanding. And so, I didn’t really let myself be funny, and then what I noticed is that now that I’m no longer identifying as a woman and have kind of divested from wanting to be seen as a woman and to be attractive as a woman, that I feel much more free to be gross, and loud, and annoying, and big, and demanding, and all of these things are what Bottom is, and they’re also what a lot of comedy is about, and it’s so joyful for me to be able to do this and realize that I can be good at this.
MG: Well, that sort of leads me to the next question, which is about your process of developing who Bottom is to you, and how that worked out.
KL: Yeah, well, so I’m a genderqueer person, who grew up as a woman, and I have a feminine body. I have not transitioned medically in any way, and really, socially, I haven’t transitioned much except for my pronouns, and I dress less overtly femininely than I used to. But I think a lot about transness, and I think a lot about what my identity is, and how I want to be seen, and what qualities I want to have other people see in me, and that’s hard in Mississippi because I’m a small, thin, blonde, pretty person, and so I get read as a woman all the time— constantly ma’amed, constantly darlinged and sweethearted. And that’s fine; I’m not upset by that, but it does feel like people don’t read me the way I would like to be read, with the same kind of power and brashness and I don’t know, a kind of devil-may-care rogueness? I don’t know; now I’m just brainstorming about gender. But so I think when I was thinking about Bottom— he wants so badly to be seen. He wants so badly to be validated, and that made sense to me. And then I sort of saw the relationship between him and Flute as a kind of romance, even if it’s a one-sided romance, that it’s a kind of romance, or that there was the potential there for that. And so I thought about how fun it would be if he was a transman, and somebody who wanted to be seen as a man. And the role of Pyramus is this very kind of manly, swaggering role, almost too swaggering. That’s the comedy of it, is that he’s over the top with his chivalry and whatever else. So I was like, if this is how he wants to be seen, then maybe he’s somebody who isn’t that, or who other people don’t see that way. Once that clicked, all this other stuff started clicking. First of all, the director told me I could play the role however I wanted. And I asked her; I said, “I’m not a woman, but do you want me to play this as a woman? Do you want me to play it as a man?” And she was like, “You can play it however you want.” And so, I just decided to run with that, and once that had clicked that I can play it as whatever gender I wanted, then I thought about the part where Bottom is transformed— “Bottom, thou art translated”— as being a kind of transition where Bottom gets to experience what it’s like to be in a different body. And, granted, that body is part animal, and I think there is something about, I don’t know, animality and masculinity? The idea of, even just, to be crass, being hung like a donkey is a phrase. And so for Bottom to have this part-donkey body, I was like, well maybe he has a dick too, and that’s part of this, and he’s experiencing for the first time what it means to have a body that’s more closely related, in some ways, to what he’s wanted. He’s hairier, right? He’s hairier. He’s grosser. He has a tail, which could stand in for a dick. Maybe he actually has a dick; I don’t know. And then also, because of the way the director gender swapped it, now Bottom is in this romantic relationship with Oberon, who is being played by Jonathan, who is a very attractive man, and a very muscular, just stereotypically hot guy.
MG: He’s charming and suave as Oberon too, yeah.
KL: Yes, yeah, he’s very suave. He’s very sweet. And so, I could see that if Bottom is a gay transman, as I’ve been playing him, then I was like, “Well, he’s probably delighted to be seen as a romantic object, even if it is magical.” And I don’t think he knows that he’s the butt of a magical joke, but he is. But he’s delighted to have this experience, and so then once he detransitions and becomes Bottom again, I don’t know, I just had this idea that he is now in the role of Pyramus, playing it with more swagger and with more confidence and with more conviction because he’s had the experience of like, “I know what it’s like to have the body I want. I know what it’s like to be looked at as an object of desire by the kind of person I desire, and so now I can play this super manly role with all the manly bravado I’ve ever wanted to." And for the audience, of course, they know that Bottom still isn’t a great actor. He’s not playing it with nuance, but he’s playing it with joy.
MG: So you mentioned some of the other gender swapping that’s happened that resulted in the relationship with Oberon. Could you speak to your thoughts on how gender is informing what we’ve done with the play as a whole?
KL: I think I would be interested to hear what the actors are thinking, who have been gender swapped. I don’t know what the director’s idea is. The director has chosen to gender swap the play, and I think there is the possibility for that to be really cool and kind of subversive, and as it’s being directed right now, I think it’s just almost like a gimmick, and it’s not saying much. It’s not doing anything. It’s just laying there, this gender swap. There’s this line that Puck has, which in the original is, “Jack shall have Jill. Not shall go ill. The man shall have his mare again,” which is just a gross line because it’s women as property and as breed stock, and it’s always icked me out. And so we’ve changed that, and it’s, “Woman shall have her stallion again.” But it’s still this very kind of, I don’t know, it feels like this kind of third-wave feminism. It’s like girl power, like, “Yeah! Men are stallions!” But I’m like, OK, but it’s still reinforcing this very deep gender binary, this idea that women and men are kind of intrinsically unable to understand each other and intrinsically unable to relate to each other as human beings, so we’re just objects to each other. And the play, nothing about that has changed, or is being questioned, or I don’t know. It’s not that interesting to me the way it’s being done, but, you know, it’s the director’s dream, and I’m glad she’s getting to realize her dream.
MG: I wanted to ask how you think your performance might change as we transition to having an audience, rather than performing for each other as castmates? I know you’ve been in plays before; it’s not new to you, but how do you feel that your relationship to performance changes once you’re doing it in a public way?
KL: This will be the first time that I will be performing as a genderqueer person who’s out, and performing a role that, even if the audience doesn’t know my backstory, I’m performing as a transperson, and certainly queering gender. I hope I’ll be able to be brave and commit to those choices and not femme it up. And I think I will, but I think there is also a little part of me that’s anxious about people seeing me, and wanting to be seen, and wanting to be praised, and admired for my performance, and not wanting people to— this is so unrealistic, the fantasies my mind comes up with— but not wanting people to go home and be like, oh, Kate is really weird, or wooh Kate’s doing something, or Kate is going through something, or whatever. I don’t know. So, I think, you know, I’ll be able to commit to it and even go harder. I do want to— I was working in front of you and Vinh on my walk, my masculine walk, and I do want to, even in the next week and a half, work on some more physical touches. I’ve been working a lot with my voice with my performance, but I want to start working with more physical touches to masculinize and sort of drag the character especially in my Pyramus role, and make it specifically draggy and masculine. But, yeah, I’m a little anxious about being perceived.
MG: Where do you feel like an interpretive power lies in what is being performed, whether it’s in the performer, or in the perceiver, or in one of these layers, or if it’s a collaboration?
KL: Oh man, I mean, I guess it’s a collaboration. It is a collaboration. Will the audience be aware of that? I think I’ve put a lot of thought in to my character that the audience isn’t privy to, and they will come to the show, and many of them are coming to the show very kind of casually, light-heartedly, just to have a good time. It’s not that deep for them. And so, for them, who knows what they will think or what they will pick up on? And I’m not in control of that, and I’m not really that concerned about being in control of that. There are certain things I would like to do that if you’re a careful viewer, you would notice, but if they don’t pick up on it, I’m not worried about it because— maybe it’s being a teacher that helps with that. Knowing that I’m going to lecture, and some of my students are not going to get what I talk about, but ultimately I’m still going to do my job and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, and the students who are out there who are listening will hopefully pick something up about it.