Where women play the role in gender bent theatre

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 10:58pm

The future of the world is female. The future of art is female. The future of theatre is female.

When I was a naive eight-year-old interested in theatre and music, my parents enrolled me in a theatre program at a local dance studio. We were doing “Hairspray Jr.” and did not have enough boys in the cast. Because of this, I was cast as the charismatic, titular male host of the “Corny Collins Show,” Corny Collins. In the world of theatre, this is called “genderbending.” Genderbent casting occurs in one of two ways: Either the role is changed to suit the gender of the actor or the actor plays the opposite gender.

In my case, at eight years old, I was playing the opposite gender — slicked back hair, a tiny suit, converse high tops, and I looked like, well, a little boy. At this age, I didn’t have the mental capacity to really think about what genderbent casting meant and how conversations about gender have really made a home in the theatre. However, as I’ve grown up, thinking about that moment in my life — in which I took on a male role without a single comment or complaint — has led me to discover an interest with gender and casting in the theatre.

Genderbent theatre casting began in the time of Shakespeare, when women were not a part of theatre, which led to men dressing in women’s clothes and play the female roles. It is so intriguing to me, that one of the most liberating forms of expression, was once confined to the patriarchy in a completely nonsensical way.

As as kid, I was playing a male role because the director had no choice. But now, as an eighteen-year-old in a constantly progressing world, the choice to have a woman occupy a historically male role defies an array of norms. It provides for thought-provoking conversation; it is not just a choice made out of necessity, but for a myriad of other reasons.

Today, it is becoming more common to see women playing male roles as social criticism or artistic choice by the director of the piece. To me, it is stunning and important to see a female “Hamlet” (Diane Venora in Joseph Papp’s adaptation), a role originally created to be played by a male. Seeing a female as this strong leading character changes the message of the show and provides a new context to its well-known plot.  

There has been controversy surrounding genderbent casting for years. The best example of this can be found through the original 1954 Broadway production of the musical “Peter Pan.”

Ever since Mary Martin took the stage as the iconic lead role, women have been cast as Peter. This raises the debate whether the cross-gender casting of Peter Pan reflects the movement toward equality of women in society or if it reflects the old concept that suggests a boy who is effeminate and can't grow up has to be played by a female.

Due to these controversies, further than just the necessity for more gender bent casting in professional theatre is the necessity for more strong, resilient female lead roles. If the world sees an array of female characters in theatre holding important jobs, carrying big decisions and being the catalyst for action instead of timid stock characters or damsels in distress, there may be no need to bend male roles to make social statements.

Until the theatre community recognizes the power of a female driven plot or a female lead, directors must continue to look at casting in a way that seeks to inspire the female, not leave her to the same types of roles she is “expected” to play. This genderbent style of casting seeks to show the audience that women can do anything men can do.

I wonder constantly if seeing more women in roles like these will soften society to the idea of women in roles of power in reality. Because for some reason, unknown to me, that terrifies some people — women in power. At eight years old, I had no idea what kind of statement casting could make. But ten years later, looking back on photographs of myself from that performance, I see the endless statements gender-blind casting can and should be making.

In females, strength meets grace to create an irresistible dichotomy that only women can replicate. However women are often posed as more weak, vulnerable and delicate than their dominant male counterparts. Shows like “Anything Goes” and “Carousel” and quintessential examples of these stereotypical stock male and female characters. It’s intriguing to notice the endless possibilities that can manifest from making one simple switch in casting with so many of this world’s favorite pieces of theatre. And because the future looks female, the future of theatre should look that way too.