DUE TO LICENSING ISSUES, ‘STEEL MAGNOLIAS’ HAS BEEN CANCELLED. STAY TUNED TO ENCORE FOR MORE INFO SHOULD CHANGES OCCUR.
City Stage • 21 N. Front St.
7/21-24, 29-31, 8/5-7, 8 p.m.
$15-$18 • www.citystagenc.com
Typically, theater-goers willingly adopt a suspension of disbelief before seeing a play. However, with his take on “Steel Magnolias,” Steve Vernon is stretching that liberty a little further. The director’s version of Robert Harling’s beloved story of six tight-knit Louisianan women keeps all of its elements intact. Only, Vernon adds more testosterone to the mix. encore sat down with the director after his recent closing of Shakespeare on the Green’s “Much Ado About Nothing”—another play in which he bended gender roles significantly—to find out about the show’s transformation.
encore: How did the concept of doing an all-male version of ‘Steel Magnolias’ originate?
Steve Vernon: Actually, 10 years ago me and [my theater company partner] were joking around, and I said, ‘Let’s do an all-male drag version of ‘Steel Magnolias.’’ For the next couple of days, we kept thinking about it and said, ‘Why not give it a try?’ That’s how it came about: a drunken dare.
e: Are you a fan of the movie, and did you have to tinker with the script to adapt it to your vision?
SV: To be honest with you, at the time I had not seen the movie (I still haven’t seen the movie)! I knew the gist of it. When I read the script for the first time, I was very blown away by how well written [it] was, how wonderful of a story it is, and how strong those characters are. We have followed the script 100 percent. We haven’t changed dialogue, location or the gender of the characters—the characters are all still women. It just happens to be men who are playing them.
e: The story has a few tear-jerking scenes. Was it hard to convey the dramatic elements while adhering to the obvious tongue-in-cheek quality of your version?
SV: This is my third time directing the show. I did it 10 years ago at City Stage, five years ago in Chicago and this time [again] at City Stage. Each time, I tell the actors from the get-go that the only way to do it right is to follow the emotional path that the script takes. There are some very funny moments in the show that become funnier because the audience’s awareness of the fact that it’s men in drag, but the emotional depth and the emotional satisfaction that one should get from the show is still intact. We play them as honest and truthfully as possible.
e: Is there a shift in dynamic, directing an all-male cast versus directing both genders? Are there other plays of which you’d like to pursue an all-male or -female version?
SV: It’s kind of weird. At times I find myself talking to them as men and other times, during the rehearsals, I find myself talking to them as women.
I think for my next project [I’d like to do] “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and make the inmates all women, but keep [Nurse] Ratched a woman to explore the mother-daughter dynamic, and the dominating female and inferior female dynamic.
e: What is your fascination with switching gender roles in plays, a la Shakespeare’s recent run. Are you trying to pander to the audience’s views/ideas on sexuality and sexism?
SV: I don’t think it is so much as ‘pandering’ as it is an exploration of what gender roles have been and are becoming in our society. There has always been an assumption of what male and female roles exist, both onstage and off, especially emotionally. Both men and women are at times constrained as to what they are allowed to feel (or at least to show what they feel). In neither show have I been interested in sexuality being a theme, but more so the idea of gender (which is a physical state to be sure, but also in some cases a psychological and emotional state that has nothing to do with sexual orientation) and how gender affects the ways that we behave (both positively and negatively). So in that respect, sexuality is not really an important driving force behind the two productions.
Sexism, however, is an underlying element, whether directed at men or women. If you think about it, all these guys are doing is playing characters, which actors do all the time. They’ve done their homework as far as how to portray women in these situations. It’s actually kind of stunning to see men be able to reach the emotional depth that we usually associate with women—because men stereotypically aren’t very emotional or don’t show their emotion.
As a director, I am interested in providing actors and actresses an opportunity to broaden their range . . . and by extension emotional qualities that may be alien to them to some extent due to gender roles that society places them into. Personally, my fascination with exploring the theme as an artist is just a desire to evolve and explore my creative growth. I have been anchored to other themes in the past for periods of time, and this just happens to be the most current.
e: What do you expect of your audience?
SV: Hopefully, audiences are entertained (that is the most important aspect of presenting most theatre after all)! I found from the past two productions so many people told me that after two minutes, they completely forgot they were watching women onstage because we’re not camping it out; it’s not a drag show. It really is six actors playing complex roles. You can’t look at any of the characters in ‘Steel Magnolias’ and say, ‘Oh, she’s just a woman!’ or ‘She’s one-dimensional.’ They all have very complex arcs. Audiences tend to walk away pretty amazed at how quickly they forget they’re watching men.
e: Was it difficult to find actors to take on these gender-reversed roles?
SV: I don’t know what it says about actors in general in this town, but you offer them a chance to put on a dress, and they don’t bat an eye. [Laughs.] They’ve all been real champs about it. It’s a very layered performance for all these actors.
e: I imagine it’s pretty liberating.
SV: It is. At one point I’ve heard all of the six actors make that very comment. I’ve had people in the past tell me, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, you’re taking roles away from women.’ I respect those opinions, but how often do men get to explore these emotions onstage? It’s very rare. It gives each of us a chance to explore women and pay tribute to them. The story behind ‘Steel Magnolias’ is that Robert Harling wrote it because his sister died young; it’s about his sister and his mother and their friends going through this tragedy. He wrote it as a tribute to the women in his life, and we look at it as this is our way in the same spirit to pay tribute to our mothers, grandmothers, sisters and significant others.