Friday, March 31, 2017

The Gender of Shakespeare

“Oh, that I were a man for his sake! . . . I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.”
Much Ado About Nothing IV. 1
Shakespeare wrote for a company of men. Though he did pen many dynamic, intelligent, magnetic women, these female characters are few in number. Many current Shakespeare companies are beginning to alter, cross, and/or neutralize the intended gender of Shakespeare’s characters to give female actors the opportunity to play any part throughout the canon. 

To wrap up Women’s History Month, I sat down with the directors for this season's Shakespeare On The Green to talk about women in Shakespeare and the agenda of gender. 

BA in Theatre from UNO,
MA in British Literature from UNO (May 2017)

18 years

Artistic Director for Nebraska Shakespeare
Resident Fight Director for Nebraska Shakespeare

A Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing On Tour, Julius Caesar On Tour, Twelfth Night On Tour, Hamlet On Tour.

B.S. in Theatre: East Tennessee State University;
MFA in Directing: The University of Alabama;
Ph.D. in Playwriting: Texas Tech University




Freelance Director, Actor.

Recently worked at: The Barter Players; The Omaha Theatre Company; Nebraska Shakespeare; The Duke City Repertory Theatre; touring original or adapted one-man plays, Rattlesnake and A Christmas Carol.

What part does gender play in storytelling? 

"Gender can play as big a part as it needs to. It can be as prominent and foregrounded as a production sets it up to be. With Shakespeare, I think, that becomes a put-on quality, which is not necessarily a bad thing, only that it is an idea not intrinsic to the text. But with Shakespeare, the plays can bring a lot of interpretive opportunity to any idea, gender attention included. 

Conversely, I don't think gender can yet play as small as some may want. I think theatre is still trying to figure out what gender, and age, and race mean onstage. There are different viewpoints on gender and casting, and what that means for storytelling. Some directors are thinking about these qualities in terms of being "blind" in casting. They say that it doesn't matter if someone is old or young, black, brown, or white, female, male, something else, tall or short- if the idea fits the role, go for it. 

However, I think there is always some discriminatory look at actor and role. When you cast someone for a performance, everything that that person is, is brought onstage and can be read, whether you intend it or not. We have to remember that an audience may not have the same blindness as you. So I think actually 'awareness' or 'agenda' casting is more accurate or appropriate. If I want more diversity, whether in terms of age or race or gender, then I have to set out to do that. And then my choices are read and judged and analyzed. 

So, for me, it's important to set out rules of the world, and they don't necessarily have to be the rules of the real world. But they have to be believable within your given context, and they have to be consistent. A white character and a black character can have a son who is neither, and it can be played by an elderly female for that matter, as long as it is understood by the production to be what it is- and a major part of that understanding is the audience's reception. Clarity for the audience is paramount. Do you acknowledge race and gender, state it, ignore it, assume it to be understood? Whatever you decide to do- those choices affect a rendering that should be as intentional as the lines spoken. I think this issue is a particularly Shakespearean or Classic Drama contention, where newer plays are (or should be) written with intentional diversity and/or explicitly stated openness about casting."

"Gender and, therefore, sexuality play as big a part in the human experience as anything and, therefore, it plays an equally large part in storytelling. Here is a little-known fact about telling a story in a dramatic work (theatre, film, television): 'story,' that is to say, 'a series of events' is always compelled by a character making a choice; choosing to do one thing rather than another. When a character makes a choice, that choice compels a change of direction, which is also known as an 'event.' A series of events is a 'story.' Therefore, in its most basic form, 'story' is compelled by character. 'Character,' in the best sense of the word, is only known to an audience by way of what that character 'does;' what 'action' they engage in. The more an audience knows about a character, the more involved in the action they become. It is my belief that 'character' is primarily compelled by the inner life.

In other words, what they 'do' is generated by the deepest part of that character. The deepest part of a character always has to do with gender and sexuality. And therefore, gender and sexuality have everything to do with telling a 'story.'”

What Shakespeare roles are the best candidates for cross-gendering?

"I am starting to explore roles in Shakespeare that could be played by either gender, the sex of the character is not germane to the story. So right now I like looking at female soldiers and warriors. Or female authority. What if the religious leader, typically male, is played by a female actor? What about mayor or King?  And it is not just for females. Cross-gendering should be open to males. I cast a play last fall where the female witch was played by a male, which was interesting."

"The more I open myself to this question, the more I find that there are far fewer boundaries in regard to this question than I had previously assumed.  The big discovery when trying to identify the best roles for cross-gendering is this:  All of the roles have the potential to reveal something that would have otherwise remained hidden if not for the cross-gender casting of that role.  In other words: I’ll bet that there isn’t a role in Shakespeare that would not be worth exploring from a cross-gender perspective. 

The obvious answer to this question is: roles that don’t require other roles to be cross-gendered; anything with a romantic angle or a marriage would require the director to address the mate of the cross-gendered role."

What are the challenges and benefits of cross-gendering in a production?

"There is something, thematically, to be said about certain gendered relationships. I think The Tempest is a play about a man and his daughter. Same with King Lear- a male King has three daughters. And Gloucester has two sons. If you change those genders, you change the dynamic of those relationships. But that is assuming that the gender of the actor matches the gender of the character. Which I don't think always needs to be the case, obviously. A female actor can play a male character as male. But when we change the gender of the character, it just needs to be thought through. What does that do for the character? For the relationships? For the play? Are you changing pronouns? What about titles? Does Duke become Duchess? Or can you have a female Duke? What are the rules of your world? And how is that clear and consistent for an audience?
The benefit is obvious to me. If you open up the casting to different genders than are written, you are not excluding great actors from great parts. And when you open up different ideas for the characters it changes the fabric of your play in numerous dramatic and subtle ways which can be very cool for these texts which we've heard about and read and seen so many times."

"I recently directed A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was a small cast of six so everyone had to play multiple roles. A young woman needed to play Puck, simply because of the way the roles fell out.  I have directed Midsummer five times and always had a male actor playing the role of Puck. I thought this was necessary because of the affection that Puck had for Hermia. I thought it was necessary for a male to be attracted to this female. I wanted the attraction to be robust and bursting with sexual desire. What happened was this: not only was this Puck attracted to Hermia, but she was also attracted to anything else that was pumping blood in the forest.  So… there was much, much more sexual desire permeating the forest. Which is exactly what I wanted. The lesson I learned was this:  assume that whatever you think you need, will be more robustly accomplished with cross-gender casting. Therefore, the big 'challenge' is this: releasing myself from pre-conceived notions about gender casting and sexual parameters of character; opening up to cross-gender casting explodes possibilities rather than restricting possibilities.

I also had a recent experience with a production of Julius Caesar that I directed. I wanted to have Brutus, the main character in the play, played by a woman, as a woman. The most interesting part of the cross-gender casting came in a way I had not anticipated. Since Brutus was a woman, I cast a man as her husband, Portia. The dynamic between the two of them revealed something about Brutus and Rome and the culture of Rome that would not have appeared if those roles had been cast traditionally. I won’t list the upside of cross-gender casting in this case because the benefits of it would take up too much space here but I can say that it was only beneficial; there was no downside to it. My big point is this: cross-gender casting compels the entire social and political environment of the play to investigate places that never would have been revealed otherwise. In this case it was not only the main character, Brutus, but rather the way the other characters were compelled to respond to Brutus that made the play more alive and vital than I had ever experienced with that particular play."

Are there any characters in Shakespeare's canon that you feel should not be explored by the opposite gender? (This is a real question, I am not trying to trap you.)

"I haven't yet explored cross-gendered casting in roles that are romantically or sexually involved with another character. I am ready to explore it, but the choice will say something (maybe, hopefully beautiful and tremendous) about a character's sexuality (and a community's reaction) that becomes, at least right now, a major point of the production, perhaps the only thing about that production. I have not found the right opportunity for what I feel would be a pretty strong agenda at this time. It's a risk, and one I am pushing myself to attempt... Soon, hopefully soon. How dynamic would a 2-boys or 2-girls Romeo and Juliet be? Maybe in tandem? Haha, that would get them talking."

"No. Any Shakespeare roles would benefit from cross-gender casting. I may not choose to cast a particular character as cross-gender but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be interesting possibilities if I had cast the role cross-gender. Whatever argument I can posit as to why a role should not be cast as cross-gender is exactly the same argument for why it would be worthwhile to cast the role as cross-gender.  In other words: the reasons for 'don’t do this' are the same reasons for 'do this.' "

What male role(s) would you love to see explored by a women? Why?

"Any of them, all of them. I have seen some Hamlet, but want to see more. Richard 3 sounds interesting. Timon of Athens, King Lear, Titus Andronicus, never seen an Othello or Iago. Macbeth would be fun. A lot of the Kings from the histories: Richard 2, King John, Prince Hal- Henry 5. Shakespeare has great roles. A lot of the men are heroes or warriors or tormented kings, or bastards, or clowns. There are some warrior women in Shakespeare, and mothers, and daughters, but obviously there is more range and diversity written for men, and I think it'd be fun to see women tackle these roles, these moments, these thoughts and actions and words."

"Any and all.  For all of the reasons that I have named in the above answers. It sheds an entirely new light on the play, the role."

What excites you about the cross-gendering for this summer's productions? 

"Some roles, Kent and the soldiers (in King Lear), are un-gendered. We are saying that the character's gender is not important to their story, although, as I've said- it is never meaningless. A lot of their actions are considered more masculine, but playing them as males is not the agenda. The actor's qualities, be they masculine or feminine (or both simultaneously) affect the role, and add to the diversity and flavor of the story. Edgar, however, is a male, and a female actor will be playing Edgar as a male. I am pretty sensitive to (read: aggravated by) 'acting a boy,' so again, it is the actor's individual traits and abilities and characterization that will motivate the choices, so I hope we don't see 'trying to perform boy-ness' onstage (this is me already directing). But that storyline, for me, is explicitly about sons and brothers, so let's see what that means when a female interprets the role."

"I love to see women being as disgusting and idiotic as the average man; scratching their crotch; spitting; being generally oblivious.  That is always fun. I love to see women doing stage combat. The women in my personal life are badass and I am afraid of them. So… it is not a stretch at all for them to have fighting capabilities. I love the adventure of discovery that happens when we cast cross-gender. I have no idea where the role is going to go and that is the fun of it. 

Also… I love making the play so involved, so consciously and sub-consciously engrossing that no one - not one single audience member - is bothered by the non-traditional, cross-gender casting."

“An actress can only play women. I am an actor, I can play anything.”  
–Whoopi Goldberg
Below are just a few of the cross-gendered roles from past Nebraska Shakespeare productions… 
many more to come.
Jill Zmolek as Warwick in A War of Roses: Fire Within in 2016
Ryann Woods as Mentieth in Macbeth 2016
Amy Lane as The Doge in Othello 2015
Mallory Freilich as Duke Senior in As You Like It On Tour 2015
Katlynn Yost as Stephano in The Tempest On Tour 2014

Sarah Carlson-Brown as Antony in Julius Caesar On Tour 2012
Sarah Carlson-Brown and Kersten Haile as Verges and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing On Tour 2011
Be sure to join us for the Shakespeare On The Green productions of King Lear and The Merry Wives of Winsdor this summer and the Shakespeare On Tour production of Romeo and Juliet to see how gender plays into the stories.

And check out the all-female reading of Richard 3, as part of our Juno's Swans program.

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