Talking Titus: A Conversation With KCST
Written by Julia
This semester, the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe, better known by their acronym KCST, is putting on one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest works, Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare scholars Julia Goodman and Maud Rozee met with the production’s dramaturg, Jo Chiang, to discuss the show. Titus Andronicus will be in the Glicker-Milstein Theater this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are free and can be reserved in advance at the TIC.
Bwog: What’s the play about?
JC: Titus Andronicus is, first and foremost, in its original interpretation, a revenge play—or arguably, a satire on revenge plays. It can be argued that Shakespeare was making fun of the revenge plays of his time by making this revenge play so sensational. Someone kills someone that’s the family member of someone else, that person gets mad, and there’s a lot of killing and things in between to make up for it, and in the end everyone dies. So, that’s kind of the story. But there’s a lot of nuance about institutional violence, and there’s racism, and misogyny. There’s things besides just killing, and that’s what we’re trying to highlight.
Bwog: How did you choose this show?
JC: Every single year KCST has an advisory board meeting before the next semester—so in this case, it was last semester—where people present proposals for plays they want to do, their reasons why, and their vision. Sometimes they have people who are going to do design to come up with, like, “Here’s our aesthetic vision.” So Becca [Meyer, the show’s director] proposed Titus Andronicus. I was actually on the advisory board. You have to do two shows before you can be on the advisory board, but after that everyone’s welcome to sit in there. So I was in attendance to discuss it and decide. The general climate was that everyone realized how relevant this play was to this campus at this time, because it deals with sexual assault. Not just sexual assault, but the aftermath of sexual assault, the way women’s voices and stories are silenced or ignored, and the role that greater institutions play in perpetuating environments where these kinds of violences occur and legitimizing them. Because we found that so relevant, we thought this was a great way of showing that we can combine both politics and art. Sometimes people perceive theater as existing in a vacuum and we wanted to challenge that. So we almost unanimously decided on this play.
Bwog: Can you talk a little bit about what Becca’s vision was and how she presented it that got everyone in KCST behind the idea?
JC: It was tying it to current events, basically. One of the draws was that historically, Titus Andronicus has not been well received, so that’s part of the challenge as well. People either love it or they hate it. It is incredibly bloody, it’s very sensational. A lot of people think it’s overblown, over the top, and impossible to do well. Definitely in Shakespeare’s time, people just could not stand it. It’s part of that challenge, to take a play that is quite obscure, and not one of his major canonical works, and present it in front of an audience. And hopefully it can resonate.
Bwog: And since it’s so bloody and disgusting, how are you handling that onstage?
JC: We will have prop blood onstage, and we have crafted a content warning to ensure that anyone who feels that the content of the play will be triggering will be prepared, and can decide whether or not they want to engage with it. The content warning itself talks about the fact that there are very graphic references to sexual assault, very graphic pictures of violence, and there’s prop blood. Hopefully that can keep people informed enough that they can make a decision whether or not they want to engage with the piece.
Bwog: What are the challenges you’ve had with presenting this in conversation with current events on campus, and making sure it’s still a safe space for survivors?
JC: There is a difference between an uncomfortable space and a harmful space. The people we’re trying to reach are not the people who have experienced sexual assault. All the most challenging things to watch in here, we’re not doing this with the intent to make people who have experienced sexual assault uncomfortable. We’re here to challenge people who do not engage with the conversation to feel uncomfortable—the people who are more comfortable with pushing the discussion under the rug, with making rape culture invisible. This is more of a confronting of them. That is why we have the trigger warning, because it should be up to the choice of our audience whether or not they want to engage with it with their personal history.
Bwog: What are you hoping for people like that to get out of it, people who haven’t been engaging with the debate on campus?
JC: There are a number of things in the play, one of which occurs after the famous sexual assault scene. What happens there is that the men in Lavinia’s family sort of try to construct a narrative of what happened to her, which she can’t agree with or not agree with. Essentially they’re telling her story. What does that mean in terms of the way we valorize women’s emotions and their experiences versus how we like to put our emotions upon theirs? It’s trying to challenge that idea of how we like to ascribe narratives that are not necessarily experienced by people who are living the reality of what happened to them. How do we construct what we would like to think, or our emotions? How do we make it about us, essentially, and why is that so harmful? That’s one thing that we’re trying to put forward, And the other thing is to talk about how institutions legitimize these situations. It’s a bloody play, and the sexual assault happens, but that’s not the only violence that happens. There are different kinds of violence that happen and some of them are legitimized by the state, and some of them are not. What does that mean in terms of our community, whether it’s Columbia or the United States, or within our families? Any kind of organized unit that can legitimize certain things that can be harmful, while pushing aside other things that are harmful, and saying, “Well, we don’t do that.”
Bwog: What are you most excited for people to see in this show?
JC: I’m personally very interested to watch audience reactions in certain scenes, to see whether or not following scenes can make them examine their reactions. We want people to examine their reactions to what happens onstage, and maybe unpack why they react in certain ways.
Bwog: Did you all partner with No Red Tape?
JC: We sort of partnered with Carrying That Weight. I knew Allie Rickard from class, and I knew she was organizing Carrying That Weight. After the first or second collective carry, I came up to her and said, “Hey, this is really relevant to us. We want to show our solidarity as a theater troupe and community, as a politicized piece, with the issues on campus. And to do so we would love to sponsor a collective carry, and have a group carry it.” And she said, “That’s great, that’s what I had in mind, too.” And so we were the second one to do it—the first one was Take Back the Night. So we did that. And then Carrying That Weight and No Red Tape reached out to us afterwards for the Day of Action saying, “Would you like to sponsor one of the 28 mattresses that we have?” And we said, “Yes, we would love to do that.”
Besides that, we are organizing talkbacks to happen at the end of each play, for anyone who’s interested in discussing it further. We’re also organizing a larger conversation that’s happening on Sunday for people who want to specifically unpack the staging of sexual assault, Shakespeare and rape culture. For that, we’re hoping to collaborate with V-Day and the Coalition Against Sexual Violence. Stay for the talkbacks! We sincerely want the talkbacks to be a conversation. We want to bring it into a greater discussion of people who are there to be like, “What does this mean to me? How does this affect me? When I watch this, how do I feel?” Because that happened to us in the process of rehearsal. We are unpacking so many feelings as we watch our actors stage these scenes, that we want to be able to talk about them with everyone. We are welcoming criticism and critical eyes. This is not us setting a play and saying, “This is what we think is the right way.” This is more of us saying, “This is what we’ve come up with; what do you think?”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Image via KCST’s Titus Andronicus Facebook page