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Women of Note: Female Spies You Should Know

April 20th, 2012 by Seattle Repertory Theatre

Kirsten Potter as Aphra Behn in Seattle Rep's production of Or,. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Ever heard of Aphra Behn—the first professional female playwright who was also a spy? She’s the protagonist of our current production of Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, which has it’s final performance this Sunday afternoon. 

As Adams explains it, Aphra Behn came from a modest background, but formed bonds with the aristocratic family for which her mother served as a wet nurse. Behn educated herself by using their extensive library and later developed connections that would land her a job spying for the English crown in the 1660s. Her life, by modern day standards, was certainly unique. She was widowed in 1667, ended up in debtor’s prison during her espionage career, and wrote over a dozen successful plays, as well as verse and fiction.

But Aphra Behn is not the only female spy who’s made her mark on history. Here’s a brief list of these notable women, including a link to find out more about their stories:

Belle Boyd (aka “La Belle Rebelle”):

Belle Boyd helped spy for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. While living in Martinsburg, Virginia, Belle mingled with the Union officers who were occupying the city and relayed the information she learned to the Confederates. She is best known for warning Confederate General Stonewall Jackson about the Union’s intention to blow up all of Martinsburg’s bridges, which allowed Jackson and his troops to drive out the Union soldiers before they could carry out their plan.

Mata Hari: 

Born in the Netherlands, Mata Hari posed as an Indian exotic dancer during World War I. While well-known during her time, doubt has been cast on the extent of her espionage career. Statements supposedly made by Mata Hari herself insinuate that she agreed to serve as a French spy in German-occupied Belgium, but didn’t mention her conflict of interest to the French government (a.k.a She was already spying for Germany). The French suspected her double-dealing and arrested Hari in February of 1917 and convicted her of espionage; she was executed shortly thereafter. Later in 1930, the German government publicly exonerated Mata Hari and French documents revealed that she was probably innocent. 

Mata Hari: Exotic dancer, courtesan, and spy.

Noor Inayat Khan:

Considered an Allied heroine of World War II, Noor Inayat Khan worked in England’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and became a spy for Britain’s Special Operations unit based out of Paris, France. She was eventually arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo who sent her to a German prison and later to to the Dachau concentration camp when she refused to speak. She was executed by the Nazi SS in 1944. She was awarded the George Cross medal posthumously in 1949. 

Julia Child:

Bet you weren’t expecting to see this name on the list! But Ms. Child, best known as the chef, author, and TV personality who introduced French cooking to the American populace, was also a top secret researcher for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA). One effort of her research involved helping reduce the threat of Nazi Germany’s deadly submarines, the U-Boats. 

Want to know about more female spies throughout history? Other notables to check out are Elizabeth Van Lew and Sarah Emma Edmonds (a.k.a. Frank Thompson). 

And while you’re at it, come see Or, for an inventive and delightful spin on Aphra Behn’s life. Only four performances left! Friday, 4/20 @ 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 4/21 @ 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, 4/22 @ 2 p.m. Click here to buy tickets. 

Seattle Repertory Theatre

Q&A with Actor Basil Harris: Mastering the Costume Quick Change

March 30th, 2012 by Seattle Repertory Theatre

Basil Harris as Lady Davenant in Or, at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Basil Harris is a very funny guy. He’s also a very busy one in our current production of Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, playing no less than three different characters in a three-person cast. This involves a series of lightning-quick costume changes for Harris and his dressers, not to mention the challenge of switching back and forth between royalty, revolutionary, and the widow Davenant, the woman who produced playwright Aphra Behn’s first play.

REP: Your quick changes must be somewhat nerve-wracking. How do you remain calm?

Basil: I don’t really have a choice: I stay focused and trust the backstage crew to do their work or I freak out, miss my entrance and screw up the show. Besides, I truly believe that if you rehearse drunk you need to do the show drunk. I think most actors would agree with me there. (Rep note: He’s kidding. Honestly.)

What’s the experience of working with dressers like?

It’s very very humbling. I now know what my 4-year-old daughter must feel like when we’re trying to get her out of the house quickly. There’s a lot of urgent, whispered instructions for me to turn around, put my arms out, take that off, put this on, hold still for wig adjustment—it’s like a NASCAR pit crew back there. The dressers and backstage crew are incredible. This show would actually fall apart without them. And not in a funny way.

Basil hams it up for Seattle Rep both on stage and off!

What’s it like switching not just characters but genders in this show?

I wish I could say I spent a lot of time studying rich, widowed arts patrons of the 17th century… the truth is that in this show, playing a woman uses the same acting muscles as playing any other character—using gesture, posture, vocal style, and other very simple triggers that help me drop into character very quickly. I don’t have a lot of time to get very deep into character between changes and luckily she’s not a particularly deep

character. It’s still important, though, not to just make her a caricature or the standard dude-in-a-dress gag. Allison’s been very vigilant about keeping us honest with our choices, even if some of them are a bit ridiculous.

Have you ever played a character of the opposite gender before?

I played an Italian transvestite in a short film a couple of years ago. It was… educational.

What’s the biggest challenge?

In that case, learning Italian. And walking in 4-inch heels.

Seattle Repertory Theatre

Creating the Perfect Costume Cocktail for Or,

March 22nd, 2012 by Seattle Repertory Theatre

Click "Play Video" to hear Costume Designer Catherine Hunt describe the costumes for Or,.

What happens when you take fashion cues from 1660s Restoration England, 1960s & 1970s Glam Rock, and a little bit of high fashion and shake them all together? One heck of a Costume Cocktail. (And some elaborate and sexy costumes to boot!)

Hear Costume Designer Catherine Hunt talk about creating the perfect “Costume Recipe” for our upcoming production of Or, which is a Restoration Comedy with a twist. It’s a playful farce about England’s first female professional playwright (and spy!), Aphra Behn, and is a rush of mad-cap antics, gender bending, and rollicking intrigue. It runs March 23 – April 22, 2012 in our Leo K. Theatre.

We’ve been pumped about the costumes for this show for months now given it’s eclectic mixing of styles and the demanding “quick changes” it poses for its actors. So now let’s hear the expert talk…on to Catherine Hunt!

Seattle Repertory Theatre

What did you think of Or,?

March 15th, 2012 by Seattle Repertory Theatre

No really, what'd you think? We'd love to know!

The opening night of Or, is right around the corner! Preview performances start next week on Friday, March 23, and opening night takes place Wednesday, March 28, and we’d like to give you a place to share your thoughts about the show. So what’d you think? Leave a comment on this post and let us know how you feel.

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