Gender-Bending on Stage: The Power of Play

 By now, Judith Butler’s idea of  “gender performativity” is well established in feminist parlance and the idea that gender is constructed by repetitive acting–as opposed to being predetermined by biological sex–seems almost intuitive. But we are far from ending the conversation about how various kinds of performance can operate, and feminist and queer theorists and activists continually strive to find language to better express the diversity of gender identities that we claim.


These conversations about gender performativity have long found a home in the theatre, which functions as a literal stage for exploring aspects of gender performance. Sometimes, these issues are taken head-on, like in the rousing revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Trask/Mitchell) that won the Tony for Best Musical Revival in 2014. On stage, the audience watches and listens as Hedwig tells her life story (including her love affair with a soldier, her botched sex change operation, and her killer rock band). They also meet her husband, Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen who is also Hedwig’s much-abused assistant and back-up singer. To further reiterate the theme of gender performativity, Yitzhak is always played by a female actor.


Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch

So a woman plays a man, who then plays a woman? If you read that and thought “that sounds oddly Shakespearean,” give yourself a point.


Shakespearean drama has been especially amenable to gender play, in part because cross-playing is often written into the scripts themselves: Twelfth Night and As You Like it both have cross-dressing protagonists, and many of the Bard’s plays take up questions about performing masculinity and kingship. Furthermore, historical staging practices added an extra level of gender-bending to the mix. As any introduction to Shakespeare’s stage will note, all of the female roles were originally played by young boys because women did not appear on stage in Elizabethan England. Over the next couple hundred years it became acceptable (and more common) for women to be seen on stage and some fiesty lady actors began to take on some of Shakespeare’s most famous–and most stereotypically masculine– roles. For example, observe Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in the late 1800s:


Sarah Bernhardt staring down a skull, like a boss: #ladymafia original
Sarah Bernhardt staring down a skull, like a boss: #ladymafia original


Today, cross-gender casting remains a huge component of Shakespeare in performance. There are many explanations for why this may be. Perhaps the fact that Shakespeare is open-source and free to perform licenses gender-playfulness–no one is holding directors and actors accountable to performing the play exactly as Shakespeare wrote it (as is the case with modern plays that you must purchase rights to perform). Furthermore, historical distance has not dulled the performative content of the plays. Whatever the reason, recent productions of Shakespearean drama provide a window into how gender-bending functions on stage, and what kind of work it can perform.


Gender-bending usually happens in one of two ways: 1. a role that has been labeled “male” or “female” is changed to suit the gender of the actor that is cast or 2. An actor plays the opposite gender. Both choices have potential strengths and contributions to the discourse surrounding gender performativity.


The first way—changing a character’s gender to match that of the casted actor—relies on the fact that women can hold power in modern governmental and societal institutions as justification for having female actors play roles typically designated as “male.” Female actors can believably play the various Scottish lords in Macbeth, Hamlet’s compatriots Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the various grumpy dukes and wayward sons scattered throughout the Shakespearean canon. Casting women in roles traditionally written for men can redistribute authority in the world of the play and work towards normalizing a vision of society that includes women as powerful agents of political action.


A recent example of this kind of gender-play occurs in the lively film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing by Joss Whedon that features Riki Lindholme as the typically male role “Conrade”, one of Don John’s cronies. In this instance, Whedon does not ask Lindholme to cross-play; instead he reimagines the character as a woman without changing her words or motivations.


Riki Lindholme as Conrade and Sean Maher as Don Juan
Riki Lindholme as Conrade and Sean Maher as Don Juan


When practitioners like Whedon change a character’s gender without also changing his/her intentions or language, they contend that there is no essential difference between the genders.


The second way—when the actors are asked to cross-play a different gender—is a fairly common practice across the board in theatre because often you don’t have corresponding numbers of male and female actors and male and female roles. One fascinating iteration of this kind of gender play is the occasional return to the Elizabethan practice of the all-male production, where men play both the male and female roles in a given play.


Though all-male productions, much less all-male companies, are still relatively rare, the few that do exist are touted as paragons of Shakespearean virtue. For example, Mark Rylance (of Royal Shakespeare Company fame) recently earned huge critical acclaim for his all-male productions of Twelfth Night (where he played Olivia) and Richard III (where he played the title role). Of  Rylance and company, theatre critic Ben Brantely writes that “This is how Shakespeare was meant to be done.” Most likely, his compliment was intended to simply applaud the performances of Rylance and company. However, putting his praise in those terms opens the possibility of reading Brantley’s comment as a suggestion Shakespeare is ideally performed without female actors.


Stephen Frye and Mark Rylance in the RSC's Twelfth Night
Stephen Frye and Mark Rylance in the RSC’s Twelfth Night


Propeller, an all-male company based in England, has gotten a lot of attention for its well- reviewed productions of Shakespeare; however, the way director Edward Hall describes his artistic decision to cast only men is worrisome. In an interview by Mark Ravenhill (“Surely this is a bit poofy?’) Hall claims his interest in all male casting “started because I directed a production of Othello with a mixed cast and I couldn’t help them to get to the level of metaphor that a poetic play like that demanded. So when the opportunity came to direct Henry V, I was looking around for some new way of really being true to the text, but also giving it our contemporary response. The all-male cast unlocked that for me.”


Thus, for Hall, excluding women from the cast apparently allowed him to unlock some kind of deeper hermeneutic level of the play. The poetry of Shakespeare is better left to men—according to him, that’s being “true to the text”. From my vantage point as a director, I would diagnose “Not being able to get them to the level of of metaphor” as a problem with the director’s ability to communicate with his actors rather than a problem rooted in those actors’ genders. Thus to me, the reasons behind Hall’s all-male methodology read as a cop out, meant to hide his weaknesses as a director under the blanket of textual fidelity.


On the other hand, all-female productions of Shakespeare have not been given the same critical acclaim as their male counterparts.One recent attempt was a production of Julius Caesar staged directed by Phyllida Lloyd who reimagined the play as taking place in a women’s prison. In one of the more heinous reviews in the Telegraph , Charles Spencer described the production like this:


“This is an all female production of Julius Caesar, one of the most masculine of Shakespeare’s plays, with just two small parts for women. I was rather hoping that the wives of Brutus and Caesar would be played by men in drag but this is a feminist closed shop and chaps aren’t allowed…This is a production that is resolutely determined to be as edgy and uncomfortable as possible, including noisy outbreaks of live punk rock that are evidently meant to remind us of Russia’s Pussy Riot….Having given so much uncomplicated pleasure with her production of Mamma Mia! Lloyd now appears hell-bent on making the audience suffer for their art.”


Photo from the NYT (Helen Maybanks)
Photo from the NYT (Helen Maybanks)


The tone of Spencer’s critique suggests that he finds art which does not strive to be beautiful as stuck in a sophomoric paradigm of the avant-garde, raging against the hegemonic machine, so completely caught up its own desire to be edgy that it makes itself completely unpalatable to any sensible audience. Though, I would bet that a reviewer who above all admires “uncomplicated pleasure” was doomed to dislike an all-female, punk rock rendition of a canonical tragedy from the start. Also, just to be clear: any comparison to Pussy Riot is a compliment in my book.


However, even the most troubling voices cited here cannot deny the powerful way that cross-gender casting accentuates the way that the gender of a particular character in a certain script doesn’t have to matter. Edward Hall goes on to say that  “on the whole, it’s amazing how little the gender of these characters matter. You just play them as people.” Even though he concludes that the all-female Julius Caesar suffered from “crass, attention-seeking staging,” that makes one begin “to feel that its not just Caesar who has been murdered but the play itself” Spencer admits that “Watching this pair [of female actors]  at their best, you genuinely forget their gender and simply admire their acting, and the truth of their response to Shakespeare’s richly drawn characters”. So hidden within otherwise troubling reviews, we can find evidence of  what I find to be the most important quality of cross-gender casting: it reminds us that playing a gender, is really playing a role.


“So wait, I get to play a woman, but my name is still Malcolm”, uttered one of my female actors, mostly in relief, upon learning that though we weren’t changing her character’s name in our production of Macbeth, we saw no need for her to pretend to be male. This moment is emblematic of my experience directing Shakespeare at a small, self-funded college theater group.


For us,  cross-gender or gender-blind casting wasn’t a luxurious artistic choice meant to foreground issues of gender performativity; it was the best way to address the sheer fact that we just had more women than men who wanted to be on stage. This speaks to perhaps the most important hidden power of cross-gender casting: we can use it to reclaim rich, diverse roles for female actors.


As a company, we (and I say we, because these discoveries resulted from the communion of director, designer, actor and audience) found that so many of our most beloved plays are written by and about white, heterosexual males and that if we were to give women a place to play on stage, we had to find a way around that. I refused to not cast talented female actors  just because the role in question was technically a male one. In order to work around the lack of female roles in the we made choices about whether or not the women playing “male” roles were going to play men (and thus cross-dress) or whether or not we were going to be willfully blind to the intended gender of the character, and just let the actor play the character however s/he wished.

These practices leads to whole host of complications: How do we costume cross-played characters in a way that makes them believable, not farcical?  How do we protect homosocial or homosexual dynamics within the text when we cast the play? When is it necessary to cast certain characters as the script dictates?


Though I have some ideas on how to address these important questions, I prefer to keep them open and unresolved because the discussion of gender performativity in general is still very much alive. That theatrical practice intersects with discussions of gender and sexuality in meaningful ways proves that the stage is still a relevant site for transgression and experimentation. I have learned to never underestimate the power of (a) play.


In the spirit of playfulness, here is picture that is very dear to me. In the center we have Danielle Hillanbrand bringing down the house as the Player King in our production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in mascara and a goatee.
In the spirit of playfulness, here is picture that is very dear to me. In the center we have Danielle Hillanbrand bringing down the house as the Player King in our production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in mascara and a goatee.
%d bloggers like this: