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Gender Politics in Staging Shakespeare

From Gretchen McBeath, Oct. 25, 2016

I would enjoy your take on gender politics in art as discussed in The Wall Street Journal article from Saturday, Oct. 22, titled "Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful: Contemporary Art Is Obsessed with the Politics of Race, Gender, and Sexuality."

Specifically, I thought you might discuss this particular paragraph from the article:

"Start with theater. At the Globe, built near the site of the original theater cofounded by Shakespeare, new Artistic Director Emma Rice is rewriting the Bard to fit her trendy politics. Among her rules: All productions must feature 50–50 sex parity among actors, regardless of the ramifications for narrative and meaning. 'It's the next stage for feminism and it's the next stage for society to smash down the pillars that are against us,' Ms. Rice said in a recent interview."

Will the Globe audience put up with a female Brutus or Cassius or female Dromios? I know you touched on this subject in your review of the female Taming of the Shrew, but I wonder how you react to the "all productions must feature 50–50 sex parity" manifesto.

I have no particular quarrel with men assuming women's roles or vice versa so long as the character remains true to its sex: i.e., Mark Rylance as Olivia. I prefer characters to remain true to their intended sex (regardless of the sex of the actor/actress) at least for the major characters. I have always believed that Shakespeare was very careful with his characterizations and that he would have written Hamlet different if Hamlet had been Hamletta. Likewise, I think Shakespeare would have a female Petruchia act differently in the relationship than does the male Petruchio. On the other hand, I saw a female Jaques in As You Like It at Stratford, Ontario, and although the play itself was dismal, the gender switch in that case seemed appropriate as Jaques was not a character who was integral to the plot or to the major relationships.


From Eric Minton, October 26, 2016

The article, written by Sohrab Ahmari, a Journal editorial writer in London, is adapted from his book, The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts (Biteback Publishing). Before addressing his concerns with Rice, I want to point to Ahmari's summary paragraph. “It is inconceivable that so many directors, painters, filmmakers, dancers, and performance artists could be inspired by nothing but the politics of race, gender, and sexuality. ... Free societies need art that aspires to timeless ideals like truth and beauty, and that grapples with the transcendent things about what it means to be human.” He concludes with his fear that “tyranny is around the corner” because of the current trend he outlines.

Menas in flack jacket, black pants and shoes, no socks sits on the carpeted floor fingering a bottle opposite Enobarbus stretched out beside her and sitting up on his elbows, whearing a flak vest.
In Brave Spirits Theatre's recent production of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Hilary Kelly, left, played the pirate Menas as a woman, here talking with Enobarbus (John Stange). Remaining text-centric, the two characters continued their own party in her cabin. Photo by Claire Kimball, Brave Spirits Theatre.

However, art has always mirrored political trends and, to varying degrees, race, gender, and sexual identities—including Shakespeare's plays, at the time he wrote them and throughout the 400 subsequent years that they have been staged. I would ask Mr. Ahmari, whose “truth and beauty” is a timeless ideal? Accompanying his article on the Web page is a photograph of Michelangelo's David; you could argue that Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling mirrors an ideal of white male supremacy.

That brings me to Rice's 50–50 standard. (Ironically, even as I write this comes word that she will be leaving her position as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe after next season: the issue leading to her departure was reported to be her circumventing universal lighting, though the news set off a debate of double standards for men and women directors). Rice's edict was an affirmative action tenet, to be sure, but the purpose of affirmative action always has been to neutralize innate institutional discrimination—a counter to the good ol' boys' connections that continue to deny most women and minorities the opportunities afforded many white males.

Innate institutional discrimination is especially prevalent in theater because the bulk of repertoires comprise Shakespeare and other early-modern English plays and 20th century American and English masterpieces, plays that predominately feature male roles. While that's changing with more modern works, most provincial companies—and even Broadway, lately—shy away from the financial risks of mounting new plays. A 50-50 standard as Rice has instituted is a means of providing equal employment opportunity for actresses.

She's not alone in such a diversity initiative. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), among many, proactively builds its acting companies to represent a palette of physically manifested qualities in its cast. We saw a medieval-costumed Henry V at OSF with actors of African, Asian, European, Latin, and Middle Eastern origins, and one who is Deaf. It was a band of brothers the original Henry V could never have imagined. Shakespeare himself probably couldn't have conceived of such a cast—one that included women, too.

Two issues are at play here. One is the casting of women to play roles other than women's roles in Shakespeare's (and others') plays. I've addressed this in my commentary “A Woman's Place: Shakespeare Understood Women Better Than Modern Men Do,” which includes an example of a woman playing Cassius in a mixed-gender-casted Julius Caesar. Shakespeare asked his 1599 audience to “let us, ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work” to turn actors into kings, a stage into the “vasty fields of France,” and (unspoken by Chorus) boys and men into women. I see no reason that 2016 audiences can't use their imaginations (if such is even needed) to see women playing men. Women playing men is a tradition dating to the Restoration period, and women count among the greatest Hamlets, Richards (II and III), Prosperos, and even Petruchios ever played.

The other issue, switching the gender of roles in Shakespeare plays, is a contextual matter depending on one's degree of allegiance to a notion of Shakespearean purity. Going back to that OSF Henry V, some extreme purists would take exception to any of its casting choices; on the other hand, original-practice, all-male versions of plays (such as Rylance's Twelfth Night), as edutaining as they may be, have caused their own outcries. I, personally, find it all interesting. I appreciate the insights that come with original-practice pieces, and I am not bothered by anachronisms in casting: after all, Shakespeare's plays are already full of anachronisms, so making, say, a Duke of Bedford the Duchess of Bedford for me doesn't deter from the play (as long as the actress plays the part well). In modern stagings, I see no reason why you shouldn't change the gender of many roles, whether in Henry V's army (any or all of the captains, including Fluellen, would be equally viable as a woman or man) or a lead character. I've seen an Othella in a lesbian marriage, a fitting depiction of the post–“Don't Ask, Don't Tell” world of America's military.

Shakespeare was a genius of a playwright, so I prefer productions of his plays to be text-centric—I think they are generally better in quality and entertainment value when they are. Shakespeare also had keen, poetic insights into the human condition, so my text-centric preference of performance doesn't extend to casting (quality of talent aside) or gender identification of roles. I've seen Romeo and Juliet as a lesbian couple, and the next time I read the play I may turn it into Juliet and Romeo and hear how she pines for “Ross” in the first scene, and how he anticipates the coming night. That's part of exploring all the truths and beauties of Shakespeare's works.

Actually, my most longed-for “stunt casting” isn't gender but generational: a production of Macbeth with two actors, one in his (or her) 60s and the other no older than 30, and with each performance switching them in playing Macbeth and either Banquo or Macduff, each playing their age in each role. Then we might see a universal truth that could be the real root of Mr. Ahmari's criticism of today's artists.


From Jean Quinlan, Oct. 26, 2016

After eight years of seeing males/females playing as the other in various roles at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, (and in Macbeth at the Globe in London last month), it just seems perfectly normal and makes no difference to the play, in my opinion. Given that happens already, the idea of hiring an equal number of men/women for a play seems reasonable if the idea is to practice equal opportunity.

In fact having lesbian/gay couples cast in, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream would be quite interesting without changing anything else.

But to change Hamlet or Henry V is to make changes incompatible with a "history" play. A story's characters can only change gender without changing the entire focus when it really doesn't matter.

At least that's my take. Emma Rice's attempt at 50/50 hiring is laudable, if it could be done without altering a play otherwise. It's too bad the people running the Globe didn't think more about her views before hiring her, but, then again, it's got to be a huge chance for her just to be there for two years, and certainly now an even wider audience for the gender discussion.


From Jeffrey Chips, Oct. 31, 2016

This is a fascinating topic, one that has become central to my work in the last year and a half both directing King Lear with Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks (PSIP) and as artistic director of Steel City Shakespeare Center (SC2). I started Steel City Shakespeare Center in 2012, and we produced our first show in 2014, with the goal of reaching new audiences with an approach that enabled an intimate, fast-paced, and interactive performance that could be employed virtually anywhere a captive audience can be found.

Our first two productions with SC2 experimented with gender-conscious casting to a small degree, but both ensembles consisted of about 60 percent men, and the major roles in each track fell along traditional gender lines (our shows cast between four and six actors). It was not until casting King Lear with PSIP in the summer of 2015 that I fully understood the potential of gender-conscious casting (alongside race-conscious, age-conscious, ability-conscious, etc.). The company determined we would cast eight actors with an equal breakdown of men and women. I had an idea which roles would be cross-gendered, but in the auditions, Artistic Director Jennifer Tober challenged me to simply cast the best actor to each role. I had a strong feeling about casting a male as Regan to create a sense of irony in the moment when Regan plucks the hairs of Gloucester's beard, but after reading several young women for the more pivotal role of Cordelia, it became apparent that Nick Benninger brought a sense of sincerity to the role that no one else could match, and he was far and away the most obvious choice to play Lear's Fool. That conversation forced me to re-examine my whole approach to casting because, inevitably, casting Nick as Cordelia and the Fool proved to be one of the most rewarding decisions I'd made in that entire process.

Applying this principle to my own company, Steel City Shakespeare, has proven more challenging and even more rewarding. Earlier this year, upon being acquired by fiscal sponsor New Sun Rising, we laid out our long-term plans, and in doing so, built in quotas to ensure representation and inclusion. We believed that being more representative in our casting and repertoire choices should, in effect, diversify our audience, but also, we simply felt that giving opportunity to underrepresented groups was the right thing to do. We set out to build an ensemble comprising of 50 percent men and 50 percentwomen. We also built in quotas for hiring non-Caucasian actors (more on that in a future discussion) and then extended quotas into our repertoire, ensuring that by 2018, 20 percent of our productions would be plays by female authors, and 20 percent of our productions would be non-Western plays.

When auditioning our first production under New Sun Rising's sponsorship, Much Ado About Nothing, we encountered our first hurdle when only two females auditioned for a five-actor production. We went back to the advice of Jennifer Tober to cast the best actor for the role, and while our Much Ado comprised three men and two women, our audiences were treated to a female Benedick and a male Beatrice. So even if this production hired more men than women in its cast (and with an odd number of tracks, this is bound to happen sometimes), we made a choice that communicated to our audiences that we are willing and eager to experiment with gender in the work we produce.

Fast-forward a few months to our production of Pride and Prejudice that closed this past weekend. We'd set out to cast three men and three women in tracks that allowed a great deal of cross-gendered performance. We ended up attracting a large number of talented women to the auditions, and after much consideration, the director, Alan Irvine, determined that the best actors suited to each role were all women and staged an all-female production on that justification. There is no way to know for certain if this choice alone boosted local interest in the production or increased ticket sales, but we enjoyed our most successful production to date in our short tenure, with two-thirds of our performances playing to over-sold audiences. Even if this decision did not drive ticket sales, people are seeing our work and talking about it.

I should mention that, as a rule, SC2 doesn't change the gender of the characters as written, nor do we try to obscure the gender of the actor performing the role. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, our Mr. Darcy, played by Elizabeth Glyptis, stands a whole head shorter than Marsha Mayhak's Elizabeth Bennet, and yet the production chose to include several references to Mr. Darcy's tall figure, even when she stands next to an actress of higher stature. In moments like this, we recognize the irony of the choice while being reminded that these are actors representing an iconic role, not the literal embodiment of an 18th century English gentleman. We view gender as yet another variable in constructing a performance, such as height or ethnicity. Audiences will often take many of these variables for granted due to our preconceived notions based on our personal experiences. We don't question Ian McKellen or Laurence Olivier as appropriate casting for Richard III, even though neither were physically disabled, and I'm aware of no performance of Richard III played by an actual 15th century British tyrant. When bearing these factors in mind, it shouldn't pose too great a challenge to cast a female in the role of Richard III. We simply aren't accustomed to seeing the role performed that way.

In having this discussion on cross-gendered performance of Shakespeare, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Ronald Harwood's recent comments, calling "gender-blind" casting in Shakespeare "stupid." On a side note, our community really ought to move away from the term "gender-blind" in favor of "gender-conscious" because we are generally not blind to a person's gender. We're actually making an audience conscious of gender as a political element of a play when cross-gendering roles. Mr. Harwood's ill-chosen words speak to a larger performance tradition that has excluded female actors from sharing in the same opportunities as their male counterparts for centuries. 85 percent of speaking characters in the Shakespeare canon are male, and even after women began performing Shakespeare alongside men, productions have typically cast along gender lines. Scholars will often point out that all of the roles were originally performed by men and will view famous productions like the Globe's Twelfth Night featuring Mark Rylance as Olivia as an attempt to restore Shakespeare's original conditions. As fascinating as this production was (which I had the privilege to see in Pittsburgh in 2003), the casting of adult men in female roles is not historically accurate, as roles like Olivia, Cleopatra, or Rosalind were actually originated by teenage boys, a performance dynamic that would prove highly problematic in the 21st century.

As to the question of believability, which I believe is the crux of Mr. Harwood's point, I would posit that if we're willing to applaud Mr. Rylance for his cross-gendered work, which in my opinion is justified, then we should be equally willing to applaud committed, nuanced performances by masters like Vanessa Redgrave as Lear or Cate Blanchett as Hamlet. Sure, the dynamic of these individual performances will change with someone in the role playing against a major expectation of the performance. Perhaps Ms. Redgrave doesn't possess the power of someone like James Earl Jones, but she may also uncover different aspects of the play we haven't previously considered.

I look at a role like Kent in King Lear, played with fierceness and loving devotion by my good friend Tonya Lynn in the 2015 PSIP production. To me, casting a female in this role seemed like a relatively apolitical choice compared to casting Nick Benninger as Cordelia or Jennifer Tober as Edmund, since Kent is seemingly the least sexualized character in the play. Tonya's Kent was an adept fighter (as Tonya is one of the most skilled stage combatants I've ever met) and approached every conflict without trepidation; but being the shortest member of the company, the other characters (notably Oswald) typically scoffed at Kent's threats before being schooled. This past summer, I had the privilege of seeing Lear presented by the American Shakespeare Center, and I was treated to a very different Kent portrayed by David Lewis. His Kent boiled over with masculinity with a ruffled beard and a hulking presence onstage compared to Tonya Lynn's much shorter frame. When characters in this production dismissed or insulted Kent, they did so in response to his perceived status as opposed to his stature.

Of course, an audience's preference of one choice over another is completely subjective, but it's important to acknowledge that all art functions as part of a larger cultural conversation. We ought not to allow our personal prejudices limit our appreciation of something different, especially when a director or company makes a choice to advance the conversation. If a theatergoer feels strongly that a choice is "supposed to be" a certain way, this is an opportunity for another production. Make more art. Advance the conversation.



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