Kalliope Bessler, a 21-year-old junior at Loyola studying theater, was taking a Shakespeare class when she was tasked with a monologue from Titania, the queen of the fairies in William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which she describes her relationship with the mother of a young Indian prince.
The monologue paints the two women sitting on “Neptune’s yellow sands,” the mother “with pretty and with swimming gait,” and “her womb then rich with my young squire.” Bessler felt the piece may have been romantic, but stifled her impressions and told herself she was projecting herself on the character.
Soon enough, her professor, Ross Lehman, suggested, “This feels romantic, don’t you think?”
So rather than continue struggling with the traditional interpretation of Titania, she spirited the monologue with a romantic perspective, and suddenly it came to life.
“It just felt like the piece really clicked for me both personally and as an actor,” Bessler said. “It was a great feeling because at the time I had never played a queer character before. It felt really special to be able to take a part of my lived experience and apply it to the character.”
Inspired by this experience, Bessler said she wanted to share the special feeling of playing a queer character and decided to pitch the idea of Queering Shakespeare to Loyola’s Department of Fine Arts for its Second Stage Series, a semester-long workshop where students can apply methods they learn in class to new experimentations.
According to Bessler, the idea of Queering Shakespeare is to reimagine Shakesperean roles by applying queer themes to the work of the actors choice. All the actors will work their own scene and perform it individually in the showcase.
“It gives people the opportunity to explore,” Bessler said. “It varies from role to role how queerness shows up in your performance. People like to pretend that Shakespeare is meant for a certain kind of people. And it’s not. You can’t keep teaching Shakespeare to kids of 14 years to college age and erase the part of it where they can relate.”
Lehman, the Loyola theatre instructor who encouraged Bessler to embrace the idea, heads the project.
“He’s guiding them through this exploration,” Bessler said of her professor. “It’s amazing to have someone in my toolbox that is really experienced with all this, who is also a queer actor.”
Aware of the large diversity of LGBTQ+ individuals, Bessler wanted to make sure everyone in the workshop felt represented. She invited Will Wilhelm (they/them), a non-binary actor and educator based in Chicago with experience marrying queerness and theater.
“I can’t speak to those experiences so I wanted to bring someone in who could,” Bessler said. “I wanted to give them something extra someone else who could speak to the specific experience of being trans or non-binary in theater.”
Wilhelm is experienced in this area having previously brought their queer identity into their roles in plays such as “Oklahoma!,” “RENT,” and “Macbeth.”
But why choose Shakespeare, a 400-year-old playwright with a history of traditional performance?
“Every Shakespeare character is fluid, it’s inherent in all the characters,” Lehman said. “I can’t think of a role that I wouldn’t feel has a complex sexuality. Every decade, sexuality has been evolving in the minds of people. There have been points that people think they land upon the answer. And it’s always restrictive because you can’t nail down something that is fluid.”
After her own personal experience with Shakespeare’s works, Bessler read up on other performers’ similar experiences.
Her prime document was the book “Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare,” a compilation of essays by different Shakespeare theorists on queer themes in his work. She provided her actors with examples of scenes from “Twelfth Night” and “Romeo and Juliet,” setting them on their way and allowing them creative freedom to pick and shape any piece they wanted.
As with most productions, COVID-19 has pushed the workshop into the virtual setting of Zoom. Though most theater majors have now become familiar with the environment, there is still a missing component of connection.
“It was hard to be there and see their faces and know they were sharing something very vulnerable and I couldn’t give them a hug,” Bessler said. “It’s very meaningful.”
According to Bessler, despite the interest in “Queering Shakespeare,” anti-queerness and heteronormativity still exist in theater. She hopes the workshop will serve as a jumping off point for change.
“I wanted to use it as a way to show my peers that there is absolutely a place for your whole self, and that you do not have to act straight or act like you are a man or a woman,” Bessler said. “You shouldn’t have to conform to heteronormativity to have a place in theater. The more people that do that the more we open up the world of the arts.”
The “Queering Shakespeare” showcase will take place Feb. 28 at 11 a.m. Advanced registration is required.