This post originally appeared at tcg.org and received several reader comments.
Suppose that there were a fine acting company made up of white actors and black actors and Hispanic actors and Asian-American actors; women and men; young actors, older, and old; deaf actors and the hearing; actors with other special characteristics. And suppose that one assigned roles freely, without prediction from history or from one’s old habits of thought. What if one took nontraditional casting as far as one could?
—Zelda Fichandler, American Theatre, May ’88
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.
At present, in the Western repertory from the Greeks through to Elizabethan and Renaissance theatre and on to the modern classics such as Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Pinter and Mamet, the preponderance of great roles—of all roles—are male characters. And remember that in ancient Greece and Elizabethan England, all roles went to boys and men. The playing field has been tilted for centuries. So is it too much to advocate strongly for truly open casting? Meryl Streep as Willy Loman, Judi Dench as Juliet, Morgan Freeman as Blanche DuBois? Or maybe even companies like Japan’s Takarazuka Revue, where all roles, men and women alike, are played by women?
Here I am speaking of gender. But a very strong argument can also be made, I believe, for open casting with regard to age, race and body type. That’s the kind of assigning roles freely that Zelda Fichandler was writing about. If the deeply ingrained conventions of casting to type were set aside, what then would the criteria be for playing a character? Is it utopian to insist that training plus insight into a role is sufficient? Can critics educate spectators and producers alike to at least look at and listen to casts where the gender, race, age and body type of the performers are, as it were, not perceived—that is, to see a white actor as a black Othello (without “blacking up”) or an actress, or actor, of 60 or older as Juliet? I remember butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, at 71, dancing as a young woman, or rather as both young-and-old, in the onnagata tradition, in Admiring La Argentina—for which Ohno won Japan’s Dance Critics’ Circle Award in 1977.
Of course, this is not going to happen, at least not right away. At first, such “blind casting” would be a new kind of avant-garde, encoding its own social and aesthetic comment. It would be attacked by both orthodox theatregoers and critics who are attached to realism of one kind or another, and by those who insist that gender cannot simply be wished away. And what does it mean to assert that the gender, race, age and body type of the performers would be “not perceived”? With regard to gender, essentialists will claim that “women are women, men men,” while constructionists will argue that gender neutrality does not exist—that every look and move is a performative indicator.
But, perhaps, in the long run, gender-blind casting will become ordinary. Audiences care less and less who is in a symphony orchestra, once exclusively the domain of white men. (Not that classical music is out of the woods: Virtually no major orchestras are conducted or managed by women; and classical music does not present the same “character problem” as theatre because classical music is not performed by artists enacting specific roles with particular characteristics. Of course, pop music is full of role-playing and gender ambiguity.) 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—or whatever is called for—without recourse to realistic disguises (though there is nothing wrong with disguising, especially in theatre, with its varied and complex traditions of masquerading). And, also, when the dictates of a particular production ask for it (depending on the actor’s and/or director’s interpretation), as a way to play against or to play with the gender, race, class, body type, etc. Lots of queer theatre already does this with regard to gender. Such practices as these, I contend, ought to go mainstream.
Of course one can, and must, call for more new plays with more and better roles for women. Over the centuries, many writers have answered that call, including in our own time Paula Vogel, Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Kane, Saviana Stanescu, Ntozake Shange, Sarah Ruhl and many others. 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 reconceiving 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. Slowly, race-blindness is overtaking race-consciousness.
Not so with gender. Gender is more resistant, sexism being so deeply, almost “naturally,” encoded in Western culture, and in many non-Western cultures, too. Progressives and radical thinkers as well as sex bigots are always ready to note, mark and problemitize gender and sexual orientation. In English, in addition to the default designations “woman,” “man,” “girl” and “boy,” there is a profusion of carefully parsed gender and sexual-orientation terms: lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual, queer, straight, femme, butch, top, bottom, drag queen, drag king, and so on. People’s practices, choices and pleasures are conceived as discourses, translated into ongoing political-aesthetic debates.
It was not always this way. “Breeches” or “travesty” (literally, “in disguise”) performance is a centuries-old tradition in European and American theatre. During the Restoration period in England (1660–1770), according to scholar Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix (in Wearing the Breeches: Gender on the Antebellum Stage), “Almost every actress appeared at one time or another as a youth, page, a gentleman, a soldier, a shepherd, or what you will—and some became famous for their elegant appearance in breeches or pantaloons.” In France, from the 1830 July Revolution to past mid-century, notes dance critic Lynn Garafola, men were banished from the ballet—stepping “into roles previously filled by men, women impersonated the sailors, hussars and toreadors who made up the ‘masculine’ contingents of the corps de ballet, even as they displaced men as romantic leads.”
But make no mistake about it: Cross-gender performing was not progressive. Dressing in tight-fitting men’s clothes showed women’s bodies to men in more revealing ways than billowy, many-layered women’s garments did. Restoration stages and Romantic-era ballet theatres were often sex-markets where women were displayed. The chance to dance or act the “powerful male” did not translate into power for the women performers. As theatre and dance went public and an increasingly rich and powerful mercantile class emerged, market values determined what happened. With few exceptions, theatre managers were men who profited by granting male spectators of a certain class voyeuristic and sexual access to actresses and dancers.
Furthermore, for the most part the roles women played were “soft,” “adolescent,” “androgynous” or “post-sexual” and “grotesque”—Romeo, Hamlet, Lear and Shylock, rather than Claudius, Caesar, Orsino or Macbeth. Even today, when women play male roles they frequently feminize them or turn them into women—as with Ruth Maleczech, who played Lear in the Mabou Mines 1990 production. Or gender-bending becomes the subject, as in the Bloolips/Split Britches 1991 Belle Reprieve, a parodic lesbian-gay takeoff on A Streetcar Named Desire.
Hamlet is different. Over the centuries, at least 200 women have performed the Danish Prince—in a wild profusion of styles and interpretations—from Charlotte Charke and Sarah Siddons (18th century) through Charlotte Cushman and Sarah Bernhardt (19th century) on to Teresa Budzisz-Krzyzanowska (1989) and Angela Winkler(1999). Why Hamlet? Because he is androgynous and neurotic; his identity and sexuality are in question; he loves Horatio more than he loves Ophelia; his “resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”; he cannot murder to avenge a murder; he is obsessed by the theatre. Manly men such as Claudius consider Hamlet a girly man, driven by feelings, indecisive, politically powerless, ironic, vacillating, poetic: a being of “words, words, words.” Hamlet is Western theatre’s most ambiguous and ambivalent figure—for these very reasons.
In 19th-century America, Cushman (1816–76)—a “monumental Lady Macbeth,” “white marble suffused with fire”—played over 30 male roles. As Tony Howard wrote in Women as Hamlet:
Cushman won her way into literary elites and progressive circles. Her admirers included Lincoln and Disraeli; Whitman […] called her the greatest actor “in any hemisphere” and a pointer to the intellectual future. […] Cushman became the visible hub of a subculture where her public transvestism—and her long exploration of “male” tragic passions—became inseparable from her role as model and resource for women of talent.
But despite Cushman’s popularity and artistry, critics denigrated or ignored her when she played male roles that did not conform to expectations of the androgynous boy-man, romantic hero or vacillating Hamlet. In 1860 Cushman performed Wolsey from Henry VIII as part of her New York program—no actress had ever before played this role. New York’s leading theatre publication, The Albion, reviewed Cushman’s other roles but didn’t mention her Wolsey. As Mullenix writes,
This critical silence can perhaps be explained by the actress’s unorthodox choice in selecting Wolsey […]. The role of the Cardinal was thought to be out of the breeches performer’s line: the character was not a youth or a romantic hero but a man—authoritative and cunning—and was currently being played by many of Cushman’s male contemporaries. Such an undertaking could not be sanctioned by critics.
Several reasons have been put forward to explain the swift decline of breeches performances after 1870. Decisive was the rise of “objective science” in culture, and realism/naturalism in literature and theatre. By the late 19th century, Mullenix notes, audiences “could neither imagine nor tolerate displays of incongruous gender play amidst actual tables, chairs and tea services.” Also important were the emerging popular entertainments such as burlesque and circus that put women’s bodies on display without the patina of art. Photography also opened a vast opportunity of visual sexual pleasure for men (and women, too, but for the most part, pornography was, and mostly is, made for male eyes). Critics, wanting to be “modern” in their thinking while also defending “high art,” attacked or ignored women who over-stepped the boundaries, calling them “mongrels” who “mocked masculinity” and “belittled the drama.” Therefore, instead of leading to a period where Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov and the other modern masters were open-casted, critics led the way in establishing a limiting “gender conformist” practice still in place today. Isn’t it time for today’s critics to work toward undoing that restrictive practice?
There are some glimmers of change. In 1995 at London’s National Theatre, Fiona Shaw played Richard II; both Budzisz-Krzyzanowska’s and Winkler’s Hamlets were anything but effeminate. In 2005, at Italy’sCompagnia Laboratorio di Pontedera, over the objections of the Beckett estate (which lost its case in court), Roberto Bacci directed a Waiting for Godot with Estragon and Vladimir played by sisters Luisa and Silvia Pasello. For 20 years, Anna Deavere Smith has made powerful performances in which she embodies with great conviction and verisimilitude both women and men. In Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, Helen Mirren plays a female Prospero. Taymor explained: “I wanted to do it because there are actresses like Helen Mirren who never get to play these fantastic parts because they were not written for women.”
Of course, the situation is complex, both practically and theoretically. The correlation among sexual orientations, gender choices and theatrical performances, though at first blush obvious, is, in fact, anything but. Drag kings and queens, bi- and transsexuals, lesbians, gays and straights—these do not each correlate to theatrical performances of or by “men” and “women.” Also, in theatre itself, all kinds of orientations and genders operate both onstage and off. Only a stupid realism would argue that gays play gay, straights straight, bis bi, and so on. Nor can theorists definitively assign to one gender or another dramatic characters such as Shakespeare’s cross-dressers, Greek heroines, Chikamatsu’s onnagata, the heroes of the Takarazuka Kagekidan, or the characters of Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams. As Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed and Judith Butler explained, “On ne naît pas femme: on le deviant” (“One is not born a woman: one becomes it”). Becoming a woman (or a man, or any gender “position”), and then maintaining that position, is a performance.
In codified forms such as Chinese jingju, Japanese kabuki or Indian kathakali, it is comparatively easy to play across genders, if there are no aesthetic or social objections. In fact, in these forms men often play women, while the reverse is much less common. In October 2010 I saw an all-woman version of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea in the yueju style; the same yueju troupe has in its repertory an all-woman Hedda Gabler. Because the behavior (on Asian stages) of women and men is codified in detail, having women perform men involves a revision of expectations in these genres not accustomed to cross-over, not the development of new codes. In realism, crossing over is more difficult because the social codes of everyday life are deeply engraved in both spectators’ and performers’ expectations. However, in ordinary social life, dress codes are increasingly being revised so that it is no longer unusual to see persons dress across genders, though women in men’s clothing (felt as “upwardly mobile”) is more common than men in women’s clothes. I am not talking about drag here, but of the so-common-it-is-not-noticed blue jeans, running shoes, T-shirts, and so on. Soon enough, I think, men will take on more traditional women’s garb without being perceived as being in drag; ditto for men using cosmetics. Once two-way cross-dressing enters mainstream social life, the stage will follow suit.
Or will it? I ask because a change in dress codes will not necessarily signal a change in behavior. Women in men’s clothes and men in women’s clothes do not lead to “manly women” or “womanly men.” What has to happen is an adjustment at a deep level of what it means to enact gender in relation to social status. Western cultures are more gender dimorphic than some Asian cultures, where a sign of wealth and sophistication is a refinement of men’s behavior in the direction of feminine grace and delicacy. On the flip side, the emergence of world-class women athletes in golf, basketball, tennis, track, swimming and so on provides powerful models for physically strong, graceful, yet aggressive looks and behavior. Globally (thanks to world sports, the Internet and visual media) gender dimorphism is definitely on the wane.
To return to the stage: Why not actively promote a broad range of “impersonations” and “crossings”—from the parodic to serious drag kings and queens; from enacting lesbian and gay power to “just doing the role” in a variety of ways; from making gender differences visible in a conscious Brechtian verfremdungseffekt to effacing differences in order to project a universalist “we are all humans” transparency? Casting against gender and type is the stock-in-trade of parody and travesty—witness the many plays Charles Ludlam wrote, directed and starred in, or the men in tutus of the Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, or the gender play of Split Britches and WOW Cafe. Often the intention is political—as when Chicano farm laborers play white bosses at the Teatro Campesino. There are hundreds of particularist groups, formed according to gender, race, social class, disability, ideology, sexual orientation or age—lesbian, gay, black, Chicano, deaf, disabled, old, poor, Marxist, Jewish, Native American, and so on. In these groups, actors are cast within the determinants of the group, sometimes crossing one line but not others—race but not gender, gender but not age or body type. This kind of particularist performance serves an important purpose, and I am not arguing for curtailing it. What I am asking for is a wider application of cross-gender performance; for the practice to enter the mainstream; for open casting to become ordinary.
It is true that gender, race, age and body type signal specific sociopolitical meanings—but it is also true that these meanings are always shifting. Art, fashion and popular entertainment can lead the way. The categories themselves are definable only within specific contexts. That is, what constitutes a “black” or a “white” or an “Asian” or “Hispanic” or even an “old” or “young” person—you fill in the categories—are not fixed, objectively measurable entities, but evolving circumstances that have emerged over the centuries in a variety of cultures that are now more than ever interacting and affecting each other. When I am asked to specify to what group I belong, I often check “other.” That is because categories are continuing to change, and you cannot answer what or who you are without referring to changing criteria, responsive to changing social circumstances. No definition is an objective index; each reflects and also helps determine social privilege or lack thereof. Therefore, to confront spectators with casting against type is to ask audiences to wonder what such casting means—and to wonder about their own place in various social hierarchies and circumstances; maybe even to inquire into their own personal situations.
What would the benefits of open casting be? First, it would give actors the chance to play roles that have been off limits by virtue not of skills but because of gender, race, age or body type. Second, it would drive a wedge between actor and character, encouraging spectators and performers to critically examine interacting performance texts rather than assuming a simple-minded identification of the performer with the role. Third, it would further stress the already weakened link between theatre and realism. Fourth, performers and spectators alike would be more able to see gender, race, age and body type not as “biological destinies” but as flexible, historically conditioned performative circumstances.
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.
Richard Schechner is an author, director, theatre theorist and professor of performance studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He originally delivered these remarks upon accepting the Thalia Prize at the International Association of Theatre Critics meeting in Yerevan, Armenia, in June 2010.