Cross-Gender Casting

Since this is Women’s Month, there are a lot of events going on. As would happen, I planned a round-table discussion on the topic of “How To Create More Opportunities for Women Working In Shakespeare.” No sooner did I, and some colleagues, set that up, then some other colleagues announced they were doing a presentation on part of the topic, namely Cross-Gender Casting. That happens next week, on the 19th, at the Equity Offices. It’s sold out.

This is interesting to me and I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, in my work as a director. One of the reasons I got into directing was that I saw how uneven the field was, and I wanted to do something about it. I saw how many parts there were for men, and how few for women.

The result of this is that the women have to be so much better, to beat out their competition, that they end up being much better than most of the men in a production. I experienced, first hand, acting with men in leading parts who had no business being on stage. I once asked a director why she cast a particularly bad actor in a leading part and she replied: “He was the only man who auditioned.” That made me very sad. He had gotten the part based on what was between his legs, not talent, ability or training.

I decided something must be done. I started my own company. But it wasn’t that easy to remedy. Plays, both contemporary and classic, are very uneven in their gender ratio, for the most part. I saw two possibilities to consider: 1.) change the gender of some characters to female. 2.) have women play men. Contemporary plays, by living playwrights, are difficult to adapt because of restrictions on the rights. Classical plays are the best place to start while waiting for contemporary writers to get with the program.

As I started my own company back in the 1990, I looked at the experiments other women were doing to tackle this problem. They tried both of the possible answers that I came up with. The idea of women playing men seemed to only work if it was an “all-female cast.” This was experimented with. I went to see it. My impression was that it sort-of worked at times, but was lacking because:
1.) some actresses were so busy PLAYING MEN that they forgot to PLAY THE CHARACTER.
2.) Realistic romance or sexual scenes had a way of either not being realistic or making the audience squirm.
3.) The productions were seen as a self-indulgent experiment with weak storytelling, more for the benefit of the performers than the audience. Audiences were left confused.
4.) The productions were not well attended, they lost money.

So, for my own work for the next decade, I chose the route of changing the gender of the characters whenever it did not change the story. Yet, I still ended up in trouble as my supporters out in average America (as opposed to the city) had a hard time dealing with a female Rozencrantz or when Prince John became Princess Joan. I was amazed at the resistance I confronted. This discouraged me.

Therefore, I was very interested in the discussions going on this March – Women’s Month. I learned of a program called “On Her Shoulders” which is celebrating women playwrights by presenting readings of plays written by women. The first reading was presented last Sunday. The play was Aphra Behn’s “Sir Patient Fancy.”

In case you have not heard of Aphra Behn, she was an English playwright who wrote comedies during the Restoration. The play was typical Restoration fare, light, funny, bawdy and farcical. It was read by members of the Queen’s Company, an all-female troupe. And, it was great!

It showed me that cross-gender casting can work if the actresses are good and the play is light and unrealistic, without making too strong a demand on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. As far as deeper, more realistic plays go, I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve known actresses to have played Hamlet successfully, but I have not personally seen it, so I cannot say if it was successful on all fronts – like did they sell tickets. (We have to be practical!) I saw an enjoyable reading of Julius Caesar where the genders were completely crossed – men played the female parts, women the male – and it was pretty good. But it was a reading, not a full production. It still had the air of an experiment for the players’ benefit, not the audience’s.

My question is still whether the public is ready for this yet and how do we get them to be ready? Shakespeare is a tough sell as it is!

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