Rainbow reimagining: Senior Ella Jo Nguyen invents queer imagining of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”


When one thinks of Shakespeare, they probably imagine royal intrigue, dramatic betrayals and tragic love stories like that of Romeo and Juliet. His stories have been told time and again through various theater revivals and movie remakes. However, Ella Jo Nguyen ’24 is working to stage Shakespeare’s work in a new light: one that hones in on a queer perspective with her retelling of “Twelfth Night.”

Nguyen, a theater and English double major, first got the idea to write a retelling of one of Shakespeare’s plays while enrolled in Queer Shakespeare with professor Alicia Andrzejewski. Nguyen said the class helped them explore themes of gender and sexuality in various Shakespeare plays and drove them to ultimately make their own thesis a queer retelling. 

“Queer theory in general, especially applied to Shakespeare, it’s just disappointing. It’s a lot of hunting out and finding gay characters and then they ended up dying or married to someone of the opposite gender and you’re like, ‘Oh, well,’” Nguyen said. “It was a class really not focused on stagings, which I felt was a huge miss. For any study of Shakespeare, you can understand Shakespearean literature, but Shakespeare is theater. Just talking about what is on the page misses more than half of what’s going on.” 

Nguyen said they wanted to explore gender and sexuality in the context of Shakespeare’s work by putting on a production instead of through writing a paper. As a theater major, she had the option to create her senior thesis as a theater production, and her experience in the class solidified her choice to direct her own play. 

“I hadn’t always had it in my head as something that I was going to do, but it’s definitely always been something I saw as an option and it was about last year where I realized I wanted to do something, I want to write a play,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen first attempted an interpretation of Othello touching on themes of race, but they described abandoning this initial idea due to the personal sensitivity of the topic before devising a new and more joyful concept over this past summer. 

“I think what was valuable about the new direction was really that it had a story,” Nguyen said. “The first idea was more of a concept, but this was a plot.” 

Nguyen said that in addition to Shakespeare’s plays being some of the best, elements of staging choices at the time also fostered a setting that allowed characters to express their inner thoughts to the audience. They said these tactics allowed the audience to feel more integrated into the performance and for the actors to explore and connect with their character more. 

“I think Shakespearean work is a great medium for working with identities because you get asides, which are these moments in Shakespeare where the character turns to the audience and just speaks to them. They speak their pure truth as to what their intentions are, what they’re feeling,” Nguyen said. “You don’t really see that in modern theater anymore.” 

Their decision to rewrite “Twelfth Night” was inspired by their high school experience of writing an adaptation of the same Shakespeare play as an assignment for the visiting Shakespeare Theatre Company. Her first adaptation was inspired by her Vietnamese heritage. Nguyen said they have remained fascinated by “Twelfth Night” ever since.

“’Twelfth Night’ has been a through line and part of that is beyond it being a show I like. It’s something that I’ve worked on so many times, and I’ve become so familiar with it that I can really play with the ideas within,” Nguyen said.

“Twelfth Night” tells the story of twins Viola and Sebastian who are separated after a shipwreck in a new land. Presuming her twin is dead and in need of a way to support herself, Viola dresses as a man and begins working for the Duke Orsino, who she eventually falls in love with. When Sebatian reappears and falls in love with Countess Olivia, whom the Duke himself is in love with, a play full of mistaken identities and love triangles takes shape. 

Nguyen began writing the play, titled “One and the Same,” towards the end of the fall 2023 semester after brainstorming different twists they could make on the original story. They decided to have the retelling communicate a tale where characters are more free to explore their gender identities through crossdressing and to explore their sexualities through relationships with other characters in an accepting environment. 

She completed her first revision process over winter break, including getting feedback from professors and friends, and she began casting and production at the beginning of the spring semester. Nguyen emphasized that in casting the show, they were working towards a more gender inclusive cast. The final production had a cast of non-binary and female-identifying performers. They said they were interested in flipping traditional gender casting used in Shakspearean times. 

“They were all quote-unquote men. In my opinion, I think some of them were probably what we would today identify as transgender or non-binary, or would be drag performers, but that’s what was happening then,” Nguyen said. “It’s almost a joke that you see these crossdressed characters attract [to each other], but that’s really what was actually happening. Actually, Juliet was, quote-unquote, a boy and Romeo was really in love with her and they kiss. I just wanted to play with that.” 

Nguyen obtained funding to put on the production from the Charles Center, the Theatre and Dance departments and the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Creative Arts Showcase. 

The entire play was student produced, with consultation and input from professors. Professor David Garrett assisted with lighting the show and professor Abbie Cathcart provided intimacy work consultation. Nguyen directed the production and worked with a stage manager and assistant stage manager to put on the show in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall’s black box theater. They also costumed the show and, following one of their actors having a scheduling conflict, stepped in to play one of the lead roles in the final performance. 

Nguyen described the performance as the culmination of all of the work that the cast and crew had put into it over the course of the semester. She said the moment that meant the most was the reaction of her father, a Vietnamese refugee, to her work. 

“He has been with me on my Shakespeare journey, but it’s hard for him to understand,” Nguyen said. “But he saw this and he was like, ‘I loved it, I understood it,’ and that means a lot when you have an Asian parent and they like your art. That is a big deal.” 

Nguyen said they loved doing a senior thesis that afforded them the opportunity to explore the subject they were passionate about in a creative way. 

“If you’re doing a thesis, it’s really fun because you get to make your own space with your own people and work on your own thing that you care about and it’s been so fun,” Nguyen said. “It’s been the most satisfying experience that I’ve had since I’ve been here. It’s my work. I’m very responsible for it. I’ve worked with the most amazing people who brought everything to the table, and I just loved it.” 

Nguyen said they consider this play their child, but that they hope to write more plays that hone in on other parts of their identity or time periods that they are interested in. They also said that they want to continue writing plays that let directors have creative freedom with their production. 

“Hands off, somebody else directs it, casts it, all that stuff, that would just be really satisfying,” Nguyen said. “That’s what I see and I hope for my child. I hope there is a good future, a big future, in line for this show. I feel like I have to do everything I can to make that happen.”


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