Performer Cessalee Stovall is relishing the chance to play an Elizabethan woman who might have been the real Shakespeare. By Ruby Hamad.

Actor Cessalee Stovall

Cessalee Stovall.
Cessalee Stovall.
Credit: Pia Johnson

Is it possible that – in an era so restrictive that women could not even play themselves on stage – a brown-skinned, Italian–Moroccan, probably Jewish woman could be the true genius behind the most celebrated playwright of all time?

English playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s award-winning play Emilia, a fierce comic portrayal of Elizabethan poet Emilia Bassano Lanier, certainly suggests so. The historian A. L. Rowse argued that Bassano was the “Dark Lady” to whom Shakespeare addressed his sonnets, in which he describes her as “dark-coloured” with “wiry” hair. Lloyd Malcolm goes further, positing that Bassano may have been the author behind many – if not all – of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

“There is so much at stake if you know [Bassano’s] story,” Cessalee Stovall says on the phone from Melbourne, amid rehearsals for the upcoming Arts Centre Melbourne production of Emilia. Stovall is one of three actors playing the titular role, which tackles this thorn in the side of the lucrative Shakespeare industry: if the Bard didn’t write all of his plays, who did?

“There are tens of thousands of theatres around the world dedicated to Shakespeare’s words,” Stovall says. “If Shakespeare didn’t write them and there is a woman – a dark woman at that – behind any of it, that would be devastating to egos and board structures all around the world.” She pauses to laugh at the thought.

The authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has been contested for more than two centuries. Until recently, the leading contenders – Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby – have mostly been noblemen, reflecting assumptions that genius can belong only to men of a certain class and education.

“It’s interesting to think about how many power dynamics were at play in Emilia’s time,” Stovall says. “And how little she could say in order to take up space and to get her words out. I still don’t know that we are ready for a radical idea that Emilia Bassano was Shakespeare.” Lloyd Malcolm’s script has no qualms in stating its position: her Shakespeare is an uncouth plagiarist. One scene sees an incensed Emilia scandalise the all-male cast by storming the stage mid-performance of Othello, furious that Shakespeare – her ex – is putting her words into his characters’ mouths.

“Our play is a historical fiction about real people and what may or may not really have been,” Stovall cautions. “But considering the co-opting of ideas, the silencing of perspectives and the minimisation of identity that happens so often today, I don’t think it’s a far stretch to imagine that Emilia was certainly represented in a large part of the work attributed to Shakespeare.”

Bassano’s champions argue there’s some compelling circumstantial evidence, but at the centre is the fact that Shakespeare writes so vividly and passionately of women’s experiences, with a startling empathy for female characters who rail against the limitations of their gender. The historical Bassano has the feminist and literary credentials. In 1611, she published a book of poetry in which she took aim at men who “do like vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred”.

“She is certainly a feminist, a wrecking ball, loud and proud,” Stovall agrees. She is quick to point out, however, that whatever Emilia’s ties to Shakespeare, there are other aspects that draw Stovall to her character. “Emilia is curious and quite clever,” she says. “She’s never mean or nasty but she knows how to use her words to make places and spaces better – not just to get what she wants but to get what she knows the world probably needs. Those are the things that I like a lot about her.

“Emilia [in the play] has these three representations of her life and they are almost like these seasons.” At 40, Stovall plays Emilia in her “second season” (Manali Datar and Lisa Maza play the younger and older versions, respectively). “What I think is beautiful about there being three Emilias is that we get to see so many different versions of who she is manifest in so many different ways,” says Stovall. “I love that she is a mother. I’m a mother too, so I certainly love being able to play someone who does so much for her child and the world she wants her children to live in.”

Stovall applies the idea of seasons to her own life. Born and raised in middle America, she found solace in the theatre in the fourth grade after moving to a new school and feeling out of place. “I didn’t have a ton of friends at the school but the teacher said I would talk too much in class … I’m pretty sure he didn’t like me,” she says, without bitterness. “It must have been an outlet for my energy. I must have been talking because I was just trying to make friends.”

That teacher advised her mother to find an outlet for Stovall’s pent-up energy, and nine-year-old Cessalee was enrolled in an acting class. “From day one I walked into this class and suddenly everything was okay,” she says. “You get to play and talk and pretend and explore and be things outside of your everyday life … my mum has this joke that she really wanted me to go into gymnastics, but every time she would pick me up from gymnastics, I would be down poking my head at what the other acting classes were doing, because that was really all I cared about.”

Stovall credits her love of acting to her first drama teacher. “Her name was Charlotte Kaufman and I certainly think my entire career is what it is because Charlotte gave me the ability to believe in pretending, to believe that imagination was worth something,” she says. “Maybe she didn’t think she was going to change people’s lives, but she loved to be a performer and she realised that working with children was her way of being able to create a spark.”

That season of her life lasted until Stovall moved to Florida at 17 for college. Shortly after graduation things started moving really fast, as Stovall embarked on a life lived largely on the road. “I feel very much like travelling was a big season in my life, from when I graduated college until I started Book of Mormon,” she says. Stovall toured with The Book of Mormon in the ensemble cast for almost a decade.

“That season of my life was me just going anywhere, taking any job, always saying ‘yes’,” she says. “Work on a cruise ship for a year? Sure, I’ll do it! Move to New Orleans? Absolutely, I’ll do it! Travel to live in Utah for a year? Okay, sounds good! I loved everything that I did then, and then it was sort of Mormon season, which took me from 2010 to 2018. That was such a big chunk of my life to dedicate to just doing one show.”

The Book of Mormon led Stovall to her current season. She met her husband, Scott, with whom she shares three-year-old daughter Alula, while performing in the musical in Australia. “I thought, he has a nice, kind smile, he can be my tour guide for a few months,” she says. She didn’t expect the relationship to lead to love or to permanent residency in Australia. “Six years and a kid later…” she trails off with a laugh. “He is still probably my tour guide more than he would like to admit, but he is certainly filling a few more roles than that now.”

It was also during that time Stovall began thinking of life beyond the stage. “Mormon gave me the space – and frankly the privilege – to be able to think about what else I wanted to do and what impact I wanted to make.” She says this was her “thinking phase”, even though she was working around the clock.

“I don’t want to say I’ve gotten travelling out of my system – I certainly haven’t – but, you know, I did all the travelling, I did all the running around. I got work on small projects, fun projects, the passion projects, the dream projects. And now I get to figure out how to take the experience that I had as an artist, and the things that I’ve learnt that I know are important, and figure out what I want to do with them.”

Stovall holds a special affection for Melbourne. “In a lot of ways, this time here in Melbourne has been really great because I actually did get to do the things that I’ve always said,” she says. “What I’m actually getting to now do and share is what I think is important, and that is create access. I couldn’t do [that] when I was travelling around the country.”

Stovall founded the non-profit Stage A Change about four years ago and was this year awarded a Betty Amsden Scholarship  and a Westpac Foundation Social Change Fellowship. “Our mission is about helping to build more professional opportunities for artists of colour,” she says. “We support equity and inclusion across the performing and visual arts sectors.” She describes Stage A Change as working across three interrelated spokes: artist training, community engagement and changing industry standards.

“Specifically, we train artists of colour to get skills to be able to hold face in industry,” she says. “We [also] help artists, their communities and the theatre community be better at being led by community, as opposed to always doing outreach where we tell the community what ‘good art’ is and how to make it. Instead, we make it so [the art] is being led by community.”

Stovall now spends the bulk of her working life in the final “spoke”. “Which is, helping arts organisations that want to further their own understanding and action in equity and inclusion and figuring out what that means and how they can actually do things as opposed to just thinking about things,” she says. “A lot of the work is really oftentimes about seeing a lot of people who are like, ‘So we’re good people, we must be doing good work, right?’ And so just learning how to be accountable for your practices and acknowledging the work that is left to be done, and then to do it.”

Somehow Stovall also finds the time to work as an intimacy director in the performing arts, a role she approaches in the same vein of advocacy. “Intimacy directors support the wellbeing and the boundaries of the artists with regard to any blocking, choreography or movement that could include physical touch,” she explains. “It could be sex scenes or any kind of intimate violence that might be depicted on stage or screen. It could be a mother who is breastfeeding, or a woman giving birth, or a cultural ceremony where people are cutting someone’s hair. It’s not just specifically sex … anything that requires vulnerability for an artist, an intimacy director is there to help that artist articulate and identify their boundaries.”

Stovall sees this as an extension of her work in equity and inclusion. “Intimacy direction is about, ‘How do we give back power and agency to the artist in these moments of such intense vulnerability while also supporting the perspective of the story?’ ” she says. “It’s acknowledging that these are human beings and not robots that are making art.”

Stovall isn’t ready to bid farewell to her travelling season just yet. She’s visited 37 countries – she would love to make it an even “40 while I’m 40” – but she still hears the call of the road. “Melbourne is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere consecutively,” she says. “I’ve lived here for almost six years now. It is a little weird [for me] and I’m getting a little itchy.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "Changing of the Bard".

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