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Inside the Arts: Jacob Leder ’20 on directing a gender-flipped version of “True West”


This semester at Grinnell, political science and theatre and dance major Jacob Leder ’20 is directing an innovative production of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” Premiered in 1980, “True West” explores themes of masculinity and brotherhood in one of the esteemed American playwright’s more realist plays. The show depicts the chaos that occurs upon the reunion of two formerly estranged brothers, Austin and Lee. However, in Leder’s production, Austin and Lee are sisters, played by Audrey Boyle ’21 and Nicole Rosengurt ’20.

“True West” is sponsored by the Grinnell Area Arts Council’s Open Space program, an opportunity that allows students to apply to direct a show of their choosing in the Loft Theatre in the Grinnell Arts Center.

Leder knew going into the project that he was interested in changing the genders of the main characters. While he praised the play, he also said that its major themes are rampant in other theatrical works of the 20th century.

“We can take … themes that I think are so much richer than the tensions of brotherhood, and then explore those through casting women and exploring new dynamics and also just bringing out [themes] that maybe [go] by the wayside in traditional versions of this play,” said Leder.

Award winning actor, director and writer Ethan Hawke, who currently plays Lee on Broadway, proposed the idea of directing the show with the main characters as women to Sam Shepard before the late playwright’s death. Shepard immediately disagreed with the idea. Leder’s production of “True West” is possibly the first genderflipped version of the play.

“He’s an incredible playwright, but I think as you take old texts that have been mired in the patriarchy, you can subvert them and do new things and that’s really exciting,” Leder said.

Leder, Boyle and Rosengurt all commented on how the change in casting definitively transforms the tone of the show and dynamics of the characters. Rehearsals only started the week of Feb. 17, but the modifications to the show have already provided some unique challenges.

“We’ve realized … that we need to be very vigilant about making sure these characters are women and we’re playing them as women, because we didn’t make the choice to be women playing men. … In the first rehearsal, we kept referring to them with he [pronouns] … and I [said] we need to make a decision to refer to them as she/her. Even when we’re not talking about me and Nicole, we need to talk about them as women.” said Boyle.

Rosengurt praised the new message and representation the show offers when Austin and Lee are played as women.

“We don’t see a lot of bad women characters, women who are just not likable, or violent, or do crazy dumb things, or aren’t nice to each other and aren’t victims. … [Austin and Lee] are not likable characters. … To give women the agency to be unlikable and awful and do nasty things without [the audience thinking,] ‘Oh, she’s acting like a man’ is a nice bit of power to have and a nice exploration of the different roles that women can take,” Rosengurt said.

While the gender dynamics certainly transform the show, Boyle and Rosengurt emphasized the excitement of the core of the show’s plot.

“There’s so many moments that are just surreal. … Some of those are in the script, and some of them we’re leaning into. … Get ready for the wacky, wild West.” Boyle said.

Other students involved in the production are actors Conner Stanfield ’21 and Harry Gale ’20, as well as technical designers Carlos Ventura ’20 and Ananya Munish ’20. Performances run the weekend of April 19 at the Loft Theatre. Tickets will be available the week of performances at the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts.

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