'Criminal Minds' star Kirsten Vangsness on her new feminist play and exploring gender roles
In her latest endeavor as a part of Theatre of Note is a gender bender play called 'Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood'. Get this - she plays both Marian and Robin Hood.
We've known and loved her as the quirky and tech-savvy Penelope Garcia on the popular crime drama 'Criminal Minds', but did you know that Kirsten Vangsness was also super into feminist theatre? Long before she got found fame as the bespectacled and bright Garcia, she was performing with a Los Angeles based theatre company Theatre of Note. "I'm so proud to be a part of this theatre company that has existed for more than 35 years and it's such a joy!" she tells Meaww. "It's a tiny 40-ish seater theatre in Hollywood and its intimate in a lovely way to watch some art," she says clearly thrilled to be associated with such a prestigious troupe. "It's really cool," she adds. In her latest endeavor as a part of Theatre of Note is a gender bender play called 'Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood'. Get this - she plays both Marian and Robin Hood.
Set in 1191 in Nottingham, England, the play is a simple retelling of the story of Robin Hood - while smashing some patriarchy along the way. The story goes that Robin Hood is (and has always been) Maid Marian in disguise, and leads a motley group of Merry Men (few of whom are actually men) against the greedy Prince John. "It is a very simple retelling of the story that has been around forever," she says, "But this time it's coupled with exploring gender expression and identity. Marian is a woman and the Merrymen are women pretending to be men," she explains. Here's where it gets interesting - two of the women fall in love with each other but they think they are both men. "We have a non-binary character on the show and it explores what it means to be he and she or they," she says.
The subject of gender identity may have given rise to active conversations in the recent times around the globe but there is still a large portion of the population that is jittery when the subject comes up. What better way to address it than art believes Kirsten. "It's a subject that makes people a little nervous," she says knowingly, "and this is a very sweet way to explore it." However, she doesn't claim to be an expert - one of the qualities that make her such a delight to chat with. "It is nice for people - me included, who didn't know a whole lot about gender exploration."
She notes that the role taught her so much - not just about gender roles, but also about herself. She found that she had so many judgments of her own. "The play is almost like a Disney retelling. It's such a sweet story," she says, "There's sword fighting and rolling around and wrestling and its been really interesting to do. When I looked at photos I realized that when a character plays a man, you expect the character to look like a man. We make that assumption and what is interesting to me was how much judgment I had - about how that kind of body shouldn't be doing those things."
The play, written by Adam Szymkowitz and directed by Christopher Johnson, features some David Bowie tracks she says excitedly and has actors singing the songs live on stage. While you'd think she is perfect for the role, now that she looks like she was meant to be Marian, she was actually not the first choice. After her audition, she just happened to get it, she says. The first choice had other engagements, but it looks like it was fate!
Being a star, however, isn't the only thing Kirsten is interested in. "I'm only as good as the work I continue to do," she tells me in a matter of fact tone. She has been working with the local theaters to make a donation in the community from the proceeds of her show. She has given quite a lot to help support public schools in these areas as well. "Theatre is where I come from and I don't think I'd be here without that. I come from a public school, I know what it's like to not be able to pay rent, to decide you can't do your dreams anymore and get a day job and pay money," she says gratefully, "I was lucky enough to have it for 5 minutes."
She explains why reaching out to the community is so important to her and why it's so important to remember that she is an artist first. "Any of us when we live in a certain world, you limit your circles and scope of mindfulness. Some of the best actors I have worked with, they don't work as actors, they work as artists. Are you an actor on a crime show that airs in every station or are you an artist who dedicated their life to make things better even if you had three days jobs?" she asks passionately. "The only thing that separates me from every person with a dream is that I have had some lucky breaks and I want to be around those people because they are my people!" she exclaims fondly, "and so it's important for me to give back because I get so much from that."
She continues, "It isn't just on the ulterior when you take care of your animals, people, the environment, and kids - it is in alignment with how I want to be treated. It is an upgrade because it's not fun for me unless I can share it." Recalling the 2014 GLSEN's Respect Awards where actress Julia Roberts had called herself a "finger pointer", Kirsten says, " I watched it and I was like, that! totally feeling that! If I can help, be like a finger pointer to something that's important and be trustworthy, it is good enough."
She is also in the middle of writing a play called 'Cleo, Theo and Wu' that premieres this fall and it is as interesting as it sounds. The play revolves around three historical queens - Cleopatra, Theodora and Wu Zhao of the Shanghai dynasty. Now add to this powerful concoction a girl from the future who knows nothing about being a woman. "It sort of explores this concept that I think about a lot. The names of women go down in history typically because they either supported a man or were bloodthirsty. If you look at men in history - well, men are ambitious and I found that really curious," she says.
Citing an example, she says, "If you took Hillary Clinton, our current president and Obama side by side and put it on mute and if you just watch them - you can get a clear message from Obama, our current president but you can't really get a clear message from Hilary. You know why? because as a woman, any woman, you're working so hard to be not too smart, not too pretty, not too approachable," she says explaining.
"We go through life trying to be skinny but not too skinny, smart but not too smart - if you're too smart you're a brainiac, if you're not smart, you're a bimbo..." she says out of breath, "like there is so much information being given to females and I feel like I participate in it too," she says, once again gently reminding me why she's so good at what she does. "I'm fascinated by what we are told about the value in feminity so often yet I find myself sexually appropriating how guys act just so I can go to work."
'Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood' runs every Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 7 pm through September 22nd at the Theatre of Note. Click here for ticket information.