17th century ‘Rover’ resonates with modern feminists

Dawn Monique Williams directed “The Rover,” now playing in the Main Stage Theatre in Southern Oregon University’s Theatre Building. Last season, Williams directed the “Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

With exuberant performances by a cast of 20, a revolving set, flashy sword play and saucy plot twists, “The Rover” is as alive and vital as it was when it was written in 1677 by Aphra Behn. I chatted with Williams at Mix Bakeshop in Ashland.

EH: “The Rover” is a huge undertaking, where do you start?

DMW: My process varies, from show to show, but I start any play with the script: reading the script, reading the script, reading the script. And then, most times, there is one character that will stand out for me, to be my guide through the world. It is the character that opens the door and says, “Come inside.” Usually, I’m able to anchor onto that character. Then I’m moving through the play again, re-reading it, thinking about that character: What they want; what they’re doing; and how the other characters relate to that character. And then, simultaneous to that, I usually create a mental play list of what I think the world sounds like, not just in terms of the ambient sounds, but (if this character had an iPod) what would that character be listening to? Then I always ask myself: “What would the play look like if it were a dance?”

EH: How do you sort it all out?

DMW: I start with a scene, “Who has words in the scene? Who has action?” And then we build out from there. In terms of storytelling: “What kind of heightened moment do we want to capture?”

In working with actors (usually the first time through) I let them do whatever they want in any given scene, so that no impulse goes unexplored. We should explore every hunch, and then edit.

EH: How do you work with the actors to bring out the authenticity of the moment?

DMW: It varies, depending on the group of actors that I’m working with. With this show, we did a lot of exercises. A lot of them were movement, based around bodies in space and kinesthetic response to one another. I always want to pursue the truth. I do some exercises around that. I challenge them to be in the moment. It’s easy to go for the laugh or go for the comedy, but I tell actors, “I don’t buy it yet. I’m not convinced yet. And the whole rest of the play hangs on this moment being true. If it’s not true, we don’t get to move forward in the play.” And I challenge them as to: “What do you want, and what’s stopping you?” I ask each actor all of the time, “Are you winning or are you losing?”

EH: How does “The Rover” relate to today?

DMW: If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that women have wills. We have desire and wants, and we go in pursuit of them. When you think of Aphra Behn as being the first woman to earn a living by writing, and who worked as a spy for the King: We’re not property, we’re not docile — a lesson we should have learned a long time ago. We are independent, free-thinking beings, and we want to be recognized. We want to be treated equitably, and we don’t want our bodies or minds governed by anyone other than ourselves.

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