Further thoughts on gender-blind casting from advocates and practitioners

from Harriet Walter
Harriet Walter, actor
on the Donmar all-female cast productions of Henry IV and Julius Caesar:

Shakespeare is tantalising to the female actor. He gives us the most wonderful words to say, the most dramatic situations to re-create. We have to stretch wider and higher and dig deeper than our standard selves in order to reach those words and those situations. In that sense, the challenge to the female and the male actor is the same. However, and this is the big however, there is on average only one female role to every four male roles in the canon of his plays.
This is not just a pity in that it gives women less of a voice and consequence in his plays; it also gives female actors less employment and less chance to practise their craft, while women in the audience get fewer chances to identify with the characters on stage. As for any meaty roles for older women, I can name six: Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Volumnia, Paulina, the Nurse and Queen Margaret.
So what does an ageing Shakespearean actress do?’

To read the full article, click here.


from Lisa Wolpe
Lisa Wolpe, actor
on playing male characters:

Playing Shakespeare’s great roles is an alchemical process about unpacking the vulnerability of a villain or a man in order to understand why men do what they do. I am poised between victim and villain, comparing without despair, having a kind of perspective on both. To do that, I have to build a bridge between my own vulnerability as a female victim of various kinds of behavior (like being molested, or being physically hurt or frightened, being paid less as a grown-up and an artist than other people, or being confronted with a glass ceiling). I have to flip the story—inhabit my vision of being strong and capable and a person of potential, walk my talk. If I select something to play like Hamlet or Richard III or Iago, then I have to step up to the level of Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey, say, on even footing about the seriousness of approaching the role. There are no excuses as to why one might not make one’s mark—certainly not gender questions. Once you have the role, you get to stretch, to gain the power and resilience to be present, moment-to-moment, for the world’s great poetry to flow through you. Stoppages are self-created and indicate fear or a lack of understanding. Not stopping means the Hamlet or Iago or Richard experience will run right through you and change you. It’s surprising to find out how many people and worlds one can create to inhabit, and how compelling it is to take on different worldviews.

To read the full article, click here.


from Mark Rylance
Mark Rylance
on Shakespeare Globe’s all-female cast productions in 2003:

Shakespeare and his fellow actors were not limited by the gender of the parts they played. They enjoyed a theatre of the imagination, where commoner played king, man played woman, and, within the plays, woman, man. In Shakespeare the disguise and revelation of everything, including gender, is central. Is it more difficult to accept a woman playing a cold-blooded murder (Richard) or a hot-tempered egoist (Petruchio) than it is to accept a man playing Viola or Katherine? I don’t think so. The four classic archetypes of Warrior, Magician, Lover and King are just as apparent in the lives of women as men.

To read the full article, click here.


from Natalie Lebert

nateActor Natalie Lebert
from “I Enjoy Being a Guy: A few thoughts on the nature and craft of cross-gender acting” *

As an actress who finds herself for better or worse often playing men in theater, I am frequently questioned on the ”how” of it. How do I manage to play male roles so convincingly? Do I do endless research? Do I spend my days and nights observing and obsessing over the physical characteristics of the male of the species? A hushed pause generally follows while the inquiring mind waits for me to spill my well-honed secrets.

Are you ready? Hang on to your hats. The answer is…no. To all of it. There is no endless research; there is no feverish examination of men (at least not for a job). As it happens, I am one of those women who are ‘blessed’ with a speaking voice that settles in the lower registers. I also tend to be overweight and my largeness apparently gives me a certain brute presence onstage that can read as male. Sorry to disappoint, dear reader, but that&rsuo;s the extent of my mystery. But do not fear…years of masquerading as the not-so-fair-sex have taught me a thing or two. Allow me to share what I like to call:

A Drive-By Guide to Playing Men Onstage.

Shake What Yo’ Mama Gave You: This is to say, examine your day-to-day behavior for untapped maleness. Check out your physical bearing when you get really angry. Do you try to make yourself bigger and taller? Do you stand with your legs farther apart to give yourself a wider base of support? Guess what? You are being guy-ish! Listen to yourself when you are explaining a subject you know really well. See how your voice lowers? OK, you don’t sound like James Earl Jones or anything, but truth to tell, most guys don’t either. Rather than beginning by observing men, begin by observing yourself for signs that Mars is far closer to Venus than previously thought.

Pick a Guy, Any Guy: Now that you’ve mined your own behavior for “the man inside”, let’s take a look at some men outside. Watch what body part they lead with when walking (take a guess). Watch how they walk and give it a descriptor. Would you call it purposeful? Striding? Describe it and see if you can embody it. How do their arms hang at their sides? How do they sit? Describe it. Wide? Loose? Describe and then embody it. A director I greatly respect, Rebecca Patterson of The Queen’s Company, says that gender is based in role playing. You are an actor and it’s a role, play it!

Take It To The Text: What we learn as actors is that what characters say indicates who they are. This holds as true for gender as any other trait. Examine what you have to say as a male and see if there is muscle in it. If you find it, relish it when you have to speak those words. Look for strong sounds, consonants and imagery. See if you find yourself thinking “a girl would never say that!” You are probably right.

There you have it. My three steps to being a man onstage. Look inside, look outside, look at your words. Be willing to play and give yourself over to being the guy YOU can be. Nobody swaggers like you. Flaunt it!

* orginally published by Actors Shakespeare Company at NJCU


from Richard Schechneron

Richard Schechner
Casting Without Limits

There are more great roles in the theatre for men than for women. For every Ophelia and Gertrude there are Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gravediggers, the Ghost; for every Mother Courage and Kattrin, there are a Chaplain, Cook, Swiss Cheese, Eilif, Sergeant, Colonel and General. In most other areas of political, professional and aesthetic life, women are claiming their place, but not as much in theatre. No one raises an eyebrow about a woman prime minister, but there would still be a to-do about a woman on Broadway playing, say, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Not playing Willy “as a woman,” but as the male character Miller wrote…

What I am probing is the possibility of detaching role-characteristics from actor-characteristics. I am not arguing that Juliet’s gender or age or Othello“s color, or the servant Jean’s class (in Miss Julie) does not matter. Of course these things matter—they are at the core of the roles. What I am arguing for is the ability of a skilled performer to play the needed class, gender, race…

Of course one can, and must, call for more new plays with more and better roles for women… But no matter how many worthy new plays are written, the classic Western repertory continues to be played, and this repertory is hugely over-balanced in favor of men’s roles. This imbalance will always be with us, because the repertory is just that: works that are produced again and again.

It is an imbalance that can be redressed only by re-conceiving what performing on the stage is. There is progress in this direction when it comes to ethnicity, and even, up to a point, with race. Who demands that only Russians act Chekhov, Norwegians Ibsen, Scots the Scottish Play? Slowly but steadily, some of the racism embedded in theatre casting is being overcome. On the American stage, people of color increasingly perform roles beyond those designated as “black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian.” Increasingly, when non-whites perform roles written with whites in mind, the roles are played color-blindly—Mercutio is “played by” a black actor or a South Asian actor, rather than being a “black Mercutio” or a “South Asian Mercutio.” The difference in word placement signifies a change in attitude….

Meyerhold said nearly 100 years ago: “Women should take over men’s roles on stage as well as in real life, by acting parts written for male actors. Give me the actresses, and I’ll make a Khlestakov and Hamlet of them, a Don Juan or a Chatsky!” What I am unequivocally advocating here is for women to perform in any and all kinds of roles, in order to help women achieve in theatre what they are achieving in business, law, politics and medicine. If 19th-century critics helped slaughter the open casting of their epoch, let 21st-century critics lead a renaissance of open casting.

To read the full article, click here