Gender Parity and the Classical Canon


"Gender Parity and the Classical Canon", was a panel discussion at Statera Foundation's 2016 National Conference at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The discussion covered a wide range of issues pertaining to gender balance and casting concerns for Shakespeare festivals and theaters that specialize in producing the classics.

The panel included Geoffrey Kent (Director, Actor and Fight Choreographer), Sam White (Artistic Director of Shakespeare in Detroit and Paul Nicholson Arts Management Fellow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Dawn Monique Williams (Artistic Associate and Director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Lisa Wolpe (Artistic Director of Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company), and Frank Honts (Casting Director at Milwaukee Rep and Dramaturg at the Utah Shakespeare Festival).

The discussion was moderated byJack Greenman (Associate Professor of Voice & Speech at Southern Methodist University and Associate Teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework). The transcript has been provided by Dr. Sarah McCarroll (Associate Professor of Costume Design and Theatre History at Georgia Southern University).

From left to right: Geoffrey Kent, Dawn Monique Williams, Frank Honts, Sam White, Lisa Wolpe, and Jack Greenman. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

From left to right: Geoffrey Kent, Dawn Monique Williams, Frank Honts, Sam White, Lisa Wolpe, and Jack Greenman. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jack: Where I’d like to start is: In your experience, how is Shakespeare’s work enlivened, invigorated, and/or challenged by the presence of women or trans actors in traditionally male roles?

Lisa: [We're missing a chunk here right at the beginning of the recording.] Lisa led in with saying that of course, this form was written for gender bending, and that in the modern context, the use of women/trans actors is an economic issue.

Picking up from the recording here:
I did the first all-female Shakespeare in Canada, and I went up there and it was this group of thirty-somethings who had all these parts, and I said you’re all white women. Where are the indigenous people, where are the black people, where are the Chinese people? I’m not going to direct this unless you diversify. So they reached out, and we found a tremendous cast easily, in a couple of days. They said they couldn’t be found; they could easily be found. There’s an international system for finding people. You can find people. You can find people. But the thing about that production was, in the Globe and Mail, which is their New York Times, it was one of the five top art events in all of Canada – it was in a 99 seat theatre – that can only tell you how empowered they felt by seeing something excellent onstage. 

"We need to see artists living and breathing and being excellent in this form which was written for gender bending."

- Lisa Wolpe

So, Bard on the Beach, which has millions of dollars and no roles for women…do you know what I mean? So, you know, for me it’s an economic thing. I think, whenever you see yourself onstage, whether you’re a young woman…of color, not of color, you see someone onstage, who’s a woman of color playing Hamlet, you’re going to get a pipeline to empowerment faster than any kind of panel discussion. We need to see artists living and breathing and being excellent in this form which was written for gender bending. And I’ve been talking about this for thirty years, but now it’s trending internationally, and the question is really economic parity now. How many of the actresses are having this experience as a non-Equity person, when the Equity person is a man who’s playing old-school and being played a living wage, you know what I mean? And how many university institutions that are taking sixty thousand dollars a year from every student – was it NYU? They allowed 1200 undergraduate acting students...900 of which were women. There were no roles for those people. They were paying $60,000 a year, and it creates an imbalance in the psychology. 

So, you know, how does it thrill? It thrills through language and experience. How is it difficult? There are roadblocks all the way for us. We can’t quit, we can’t fail. Well, we fail all the time and many people quit because it’s too hard. So, you know, for me, the thrill is seeing how many amazing people succeed, how many people start something amazing and the community showing up. How different it was – when I first went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and talked to Lue Douthit in 1994 on my way back from the Shakespeare Theatre Association Conference: “Why aren’t you doing all-female Shakespeare?” And now it’s 50% women directors, 51% actors of color, more than 50% female playwrights. So, you know, I’m thrilled when artistic leaders step up and make change.

Pictured: Sam White, Lisa Wolpe, and Jack Greenman. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Pictured: Sam White, Lisa Wolpe, and Jack Greenman. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Sam: When you practice non-traditional casting, for me that’s the first step in access. And me being from Detroit… Luckily, I had a mother who forced me to read Shakespeare when I got caught listening to rap music. If she hadn’t done that, there would have been absolutely no access to Shakespeare in the city for me, and so, I find that when I practice non-traditional casting as a producer and as a director, it opens up Shakespeare for people who otherwise, I’m telling you, would not come to the theatre. They would not show up. And so, for example, this past summer, our Shylock was a black woman, and I did that because, oftentimes – I love Shylock, I felt like I was living on the fringe, being a double minority, and I didn’t expect that lot of people would come to see The Merchant of Venice, because it’s not Hamlet, it’s not Romeo and Juliet, it’s not one of those shows that people traditionally, whether they’re Shakespeare connoisseurs or not, are familiar with. But we did it, and I found that the audience was filled with black women. Because I cast Shylock as a black woman, and it served as a mirror and a window because they were able to see themselves in this character that they otherwise would not, even have taken the time to get to know, and they were able to see outside of themselves, because they had some similarities with Shylock, but he was still very different, and that’s what theatre should be: a mirror and a window.

Frank: Shakespeare has been an inspiration to me, it’s been a lifeline, it’s – and I think for many of us in this room that’s been the case – and so… I wear a lot of different hats in my work, and I’m going to talk about one example, because I think it, for me, is the thing that maybe answers this question most directly about about invigoration, and enlivening, and our understanding of Shakespeare. So, earlier this year, I had an opportunity to direct a touring production of Hamlet for Utah Shakespeare Festival, and when we approached this, started very much with the conversation about audience. Who’s in the audience for these plays? And this is a tour that goes to Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Idaho, and it’s about 25,000 students who see these shows. And so very much thinking about that audience, wondering what they would be making of Shakespeare, in many cases for the very first time hearing those words, and made some very conscious decisions in the casting process to cast a woman in the role of Gertrude, the Ghost, and the Gravedigger (ed: one actor played all three of these roles), and also made the decision to cast Hamlet as a woman, and I think what fundamentally was at play in that decision, and that conversation, was opening up the idea that anyone at all can play these roles, that these stories, if they are truly universal, can be something that as we tell stories in our backyards as kids, as we play with our friends, we should begin to see ourselves in all of these roles, and the transformational power of beginning to do that, I think, was really a fundamental piece of what we did in telling that story, and I think, for me, speaks to why I think gender parity and thinking about cross-gender casting, non-traditional casting, or whatever we want to call it, is such an important part of how we need to approach the classical canon.

"[Shakespeare's] plays were already written with gender as performative. I just don’t even understand why it’s a question. Yes, women can play these roles. Yes, trans actors can play these roles. Yes, people of color can play these roles."  

- Dawn Monique Williams

Dawn: I hated Shakespeare when I was a young person, and then when I was a young actor and I hated how I was being cast, and I thought I will only ever be the sidekick, the fat best friend, the welfare mom, I had a great acting teaching who said, “What about Shakespeare?” And I was like, “Uh-uh. I don’t do that stuff.” And he really unlocked it for me, and it gave me a career as a young actor, and then when I changed my focus to being a director, I thought, I want to be a really good ambassador for this work. I don’t believe Shakespeare is universal. That is not a word that I will say, because a lot of people feel distanced from the work, because it’s been used as a tool for oppression for many, many people, so I want to be a good ambassador for the work, and I want to show people that if they are looking for themselves, they can find themselves in the work. The only way that that is possible is if we crack it wide open and as Lisa said, the plays were already written with gender as performative, already written that way. So, for me, it’s just like – why the heck not? I just don’t even understand why it’s a question. Yes, women can play these roles. Yes, trans actors can play these roles. Yes, people of color can play these roles. Next season at OSF I’m directing The Merry Wives of Windsor and my Falstaff is being played by a woman, and for me it wasn’t why, but why not?

Geoffrey: That’s hard to top. I just won’t. So, I look around this room, with so many friends in it, and I wouldn’t even have an opportunity to be here if it wasn’t for the women who gave me a chance to do what I do. So, you have to pay that forward. And when we came around… The question being how does that enliven, and also how does it challenge as we process this. For years at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival auditions, we always had more talented actresses than we had roles for. It just happens year in and year out at so many Shakespeare festivals, and yet sometimes with the men we’d start to scrape a little bit because we’d just run out of enough that we needed to fill it out…and that’s just silly. We’re turning away great actors at the door because Shakespeare didn’t decide 450 years ago that they were supposed to be a traditionally male role. 

So, we took a play that we do a lot, The Comedy of Errors, a common mainstay of Shakespeare festivals in America, and looked at that as an opportunity to explore that option for us. So, by making the Antipholas and the Dromias into women, we gender-swapped, then, making the wives into husbands, and so much of our discussion was our about concerns about would they buy a husband that would stay home. And I know that sounds terrible, but it was us going will that challenge work? Is it true? Meaning the “I’m not allowed outside but they are,” so we have to create a futuristic world so that…It was silly. It was silly all around. And in the end, it opened up so many comic options in the play that were not available with men playing them. But it does change the dynamic of the play, and I think changes it for the better in the sense that I think watching women get to play these leading comic roles, and get to do the slapstick, and all the things that I’ve watched guys do – I’ve seen Comedy of Errors five times in the last fifteen years – and it was just so wonderful to challenge that flip, and make it… There’s that great scene in Comedy of Errors where they talk about the disgusting Nell in the kitchen, and it’s very funny, and these are 450 year old jokes about disgusting wives, and it was time to swap it. And it was hilarious to watch them talk about the skeevy guy in the kitchen, and it was kind of equally so – it opened up their relationship, they had a cool dynamic that was different than other productions, but it also meant that when at the end of the play Antipholus – Antiphola in our production – comes forward and talks about her terrible day and how terribly she’s been treated it changed the comedy of that speech. It was harder to crack, because the audience wasn’t as willing to be fluid with it as we were yet. They were challenged a little bit. Having Dromia come down center and talk about how I’ve been beaten and how terrible my life is – it was hard to crack the comedy of that, because the audience was…the sympathy came out. It was hard to then bridge the sympathy into the comedy. But then it opened up comedy in whole other places.

So if we’re going to move the jokes around, then why aren’t we doing it? And as a result, then it rolled through our whole season. So we had a gender-parity production of Troilus and Cressida, and a gender-parity production of Cymbeline, so when you apply that to an entire rep cycle, you open up so many options for your audience in accessibility. Participation in talk-backs was huge. We know when we do it, it is going to change the play, the question is, isn’t that great, though? We’ve done these plays for so long, to open up for us, to look through different lenses, and change those relationships is fantastic, and our audiences… It got just as many laughs as it was supposed to get, but it got a lot more people at talk-backs that wanted to talk about what they saw.

Pictured: Jack Greenman. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Pictured: Jack Greenman. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Jack: So, what do you feel are the essential considerations as we pursue the goal of gender parity in producing classical work? We’ve already heard some of them. You’re considering ways in which non-traditional casting shifts the meaning of part of the play, we’ve heard considerations about equity in pay. What are some of the other considerations that you think about? We’ve also heard about ways in which casting, for example, Shylock as a black woman, brings new audience, so there’s a consideration there. Can you talk a little bit more about either those considerations or other considerations that occur to you in this discussion?

Lisa: My new global initiative is called Trans-Shakespeare, so last summer I was in London, and I got the Young Vic and King’s College to give free space, and I brought two Linklater teachers, one, Daron Oram from Central School [the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – ed.] in London, and one, Christine Adaire, from Roosevelt [University – ed.] in Chicago, and we all went and taught for free for a few weeks in London while I was doing my solo show at the Rose Playhouse. And we had eight dramaturgs, eleven directors, and twenty-two actors who were trans, straight, gay, black, Asian, Italian, white. We had bearded Mirandas, and black female Hamlets, and trans Volumnias and a really interesting exploration with the young directors of London who are all starting new companies for gender-reversal, all-female, certainly all-male – that’s been going on for a long time – there’s a new trans Shakespeare company, and so the challenge for me is… You know, I’ve always started with the binary: this will be the female, this will be the male, and we’re going to change the silhouette because I want to play Hamlet as a male, or I want to play Caliban as a male, because to me the story is about Miranda’s fear of him as a rapist. But without a binary… Last year I was at NYU directing an all-female Taming of the Shrew and the woman that I cast as Petruchio, by the time I opened the show had transitioned. 

I’m working with eighteen undergraduates doing an all-female Twelfth Night, and the woman that I cast as Viola was Sarah, now she’s Calvin. So, things are moving all the time, and I have to stay abreast of, can I even base a contemporary production of Shakespeare on a binary? What am I having to learn, even while I’m trying to block, for a community that’s fifty percent suicide right now, based on the bullying? Even while I’m trying to pipeline into casting consciousness trans actors for trans projects? So Duncan Tucker, who lives in Boulder, I was dining with him, and I met him in New York. He’s a female to male trans, and he wrote the film Transamerica, he’s bring that to Broadway. He’s talking about Audra McDonald, and I’m like, “Wait, she has a career. Let it be a trans actor.” 

But then, at the same time, I want to play Hamlet, do you know what I mean, and I’m basing that on saying, well this was written for gender play anyway, and it’s my time. But when do you say, like with these kids that are coming up saying “I’m a trans actor, do you approve, o mentor?” and I’m like, well, I don’t know, it’s been so hard for me being a gay actor, I can’t imagine the doors that’ll be shut to you. And then here’s this kid I’m working with and she becomes valedictorian as Luke and starts working at the Public Theatre immediately, with Paulie Carl, Dr. Carl, who just turned into Carl Carl. All I’m saying is, there’s a fluid gender spectrum that’s not reflected in the mainstream Shakespeare. But when I go to the Stratford Festival in Ontario, they’re doing it. They have it. They’ve lost some subscriptions over it, but they include it in every play. That’s happening more and more. We saw Emma Rice support such a production at the Globe Theatre, which was revolutionary, with Helenus being a guy, all sorts of inspiration. But for the trans people, who are literally not included anywhere, that’s, I think, our next level of attention and support.

Sam: I think, speaking of considerations when casting, for me I’m always considering my community. I think about them all the time, even when I’m not producing theatre, and for some of the young women who live in Detroit - and some of the young men - getting to school is dangerous, so if they can’t go to school and be at home and be safe, they’re surely not going to try to come see Shakespeare. That’s beyond their scope of life. 

I’ll give a personal example, and please don’t cry, Sam - there was a little boy this summer who was from Detroit, and I’m from Detroit - 7 Mile - and he was thirteen years old, and he went to the liquor store to buy a treat for himself, and he got kidnapped and pulled in the woods and strangled to death and killed by a stranger. I had a really bad day that day thinking about this kid and I walked in and saw one of of the kids I had cast from a neighborhood in Detroit, who was also thirteen, like that little boy who I had been thinking about from my community, and he wasn’t out in the street. He wasn’t going to a liquor store to buy snacks, he was in rehearsals for The Merchant of Venice playing Leonardo. And he was there because his mother told me she had never seen a director who looked like me directing Shakespeare, and that’s why she wanted him to be part of The Merchant of Venice. 

And so it’s not just that I love seeing non-traditional casting or women who look like me in these roles, we have to do it. We have to do it. We have to do it. That little boy was in rehearsal when he could have been anywhere else in the city or in the world, and when kids know that there are people that look like them creating this thing - because there’s a lot of stigma that comes with Shakespeare - and people think it’s over their heads, they don’t understand the language, people don’t look like them - when they can see somebody who looks like them, it changes everything. And that’s such a blessing for me; it’s such a blessing that when people come to see our shows, they see women playing Shylock, they see people of color in the shows; trans, young, old, from Detroit, from outside Detroit. It’s powerful, powerful stuff.

Pictured: Sam White. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Pictured: Sam White. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Jack: A question that occurs to me just from hearing the two of you [Lisa and Sam]: So, why Shakespeare, particularly? As opposed to something else. Is there a particular power, a particular thing? Is it because you, personally, as an artist are invested in it? What are your thoughts about why Shakespeare as material in particular?

Lisa: Well, it certainly passes the Bechdel test. You talk about getting beyond my boyfriend, and how do I feel about my husband…I mean, you talk about politics, scope, the relationship of us to the universe, nature, that which is divine, that which is evil, what are the consequences of your behavior, and such classical political power struggles. I mean, the language is so good. I just was in the Pericles that was translated - it’s not the same experience. And I get it, you want to make it accessible to everybody, but there are other plays for people who don’t want to have an explosion in your mind of lifeblood, who don’t want to have that. If you don’t want to have that, this may not be the playwright. But if you do, this is a really great playwright. With limitations; there are people who say we should never do Taming of the Shrew, never do Henry V, these are horrible plays, but life is difficult and complex, so if you go through a difficult and complex play, you’re going to find so much light and rainbows. I mean, I’m not tired of it, but you have to love it. It’s a niche thing. That doesn’t make it an elitist white person niche thing, it makes it a thinkology thing. You have to be able to shift and move and be humble in the face of that which is truly awesome.

Geoffrey: It’s also so produced, right? I mean, it’s a great place to start, because this playwright’s on stages everywhere, from Shakespeare festivals, to professional theatres, so it’s a great place to attack. And, also, we’re not dealing with a living playwright, where they have defined gender roles, and they’ve made a decision about the play which you then have to challenge, and in some cases, almost legally challenge, your right to do that. Waiting for Godot comes with a rider about the gender assignment to that play, that you would need to legally challenge. And there are companies that have done so, and in fact, the Denver Center did so, and won that legal challenge, but it’s that heavily defined. But when you get back to Shakespeare, because we don’t have a playwright we have to enter with into a legal contract, to argue with, it opens up. There’s no one that says we can’t do it. Those are just technical, but those are classic reasons why that’s a great front for us to attack this on, I think. 

Dawn: To your second question first: the complexity of what Shakespeare has written is so fabulous and rich, and it will be a lifetime’s work to really unpack and mine everything that exists in all these plays. So for me, it’s a great place to start into the functional thing. I directed a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; I had eighty women audition for essentially two roles - this is not counting the women that came in for Big Mama, just for Maggie and Mae - and we had to extend our search to find a Brick and Big Daddy. This is ridiculous to me. So, I am the Shakespeare Estate. We are the Shakespeare Estate. We get to say who’s going to go on in these plays. 

And then to your first question: I lean real heavy into my political correctness; it’s a point of pride for me. So a big consideration for me is representation, and how do I avoid re-injury? So, how do we get trans actors, and gender non-conforming and gender fluid folk into the room? How are we dealing with Shakespeare’s xenophobia - or the xenophobia of the time - that we find in these plays? The sexism of the time that we find in these plays. How are we wrestling with those issues that are inherent in the text and trying to open the circle of people who can participate? So for me it’s always kind of like - to your [Geoffrey’s] point about  - okay, well now we’re looking about domestic abuse in a different way, and how are we handling that? And do we want to lean into that? Or are we trying to make a point with that? Or are we trying to subvert it? So, for me those are always the big questions around the issues of representation.

Pictured: Frank Honts. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Pictured: Frank Honts. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Frank: I think Shakespeare challenges us as artists to imagine specificity in a way that is often outlined for us in contemporary theatre, in which we’re told where this play takes place, who the people are that are in it, how old they’re supposed to be, sometimes what they’re supposed to look like. And I think that with Shakespeare, we’re forced as artists to think about those questions. I’m not sure that we always do, and I’m not sure that we always do service to particular questions. I think that historically in this country, and in the last hundred years around the world, we have locked ourselves into particular ways of thinking about who should be playing the roles in Shakespeare, and there are lots and lots of reasons for that. As I’m starting to work in casting very deeply, just the language we use around how we cast actors, the types that we quickly assign to people: oh, you’re an ingenue, you’re a leading man - become very limiting in how we do that. And so I think that what Shakespeare does is force us back to the elemental pieces of how we compose a story, and how we start to tell it for an audience, and for a group of people who are going to be coming together for this ephemeral experience one time.

Lisa: There’s also a really old tradition, let’s say in England, of men playing women for comedy. So, I could put these coconut shells on my hairy chest and shimmy around and add interest to myself. Which is different from a woman playing a life and death situation where they say, “die.” So, sometimes the women taking on the male roles want to go into the depth and the seriousness of it - not that they don’t have comic skills - but it’s actually not a joke to take on power. So, that can dictate what a non-profit wants to focus on, in working with the public. 

For example, I had this brilliant fight choreographer, James Day, I put a playground up in an all-female production of The Pirates of Penzance, we had rope swings and crash pads, and trapezes and lots of swords, and these eighteen young women are doing stuff, so what I had to negotiate with him was, so the Pirate King comes in [swinging on a rope and falling] and it’s a joke entrance, and I had to say, “no, I actually want Helen to come in and land and be a swashbuckling, awesome pirate.” We’re doing this landing, not that one - there are two - but if Geoff was playing it, because he’s a master comedian, and he’s already known to them, I’d ask, “what’s the coolest entrance he can do that’s both pirate and funny.” But for Helen, who’s nineteen, let’s nail a comment first. Let her take three officers down with a sword; teach her how. ‘Cause she’s totally willing to do it. But she’s also at an age where she will accept whatever story I give her as a director, so then it’s my job to say, “no, we’re doing direct power.”

Geoffrey: And in terms of action, I mean for years, teaching here at the National Theatre Conservatory, where I have an equal mix of men and women, sword fighting, I had so many of them come to me and go, “Can I skip this and go work on my music class? ‘Cause I’m never going to get to use this.” And it just kills me, because they’re to a certain extent right, that until Shakespeare starts to get fluid they’re not going to get to do it. They get to be victims of abuse. So they want to take the unarmed class, so they know how to fall and take a punch. And that goes home with you; that is terrible. So we have a responsibility to create theatrical experiences where they can show the range of what they can do, not limited by what the playwright predisposed or did fifty years ago, necessarily, so what you say about them landing and being strong - they want nothing more than that opportunity.

Pictured: Geoffrey Kent. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Pictured: Geoffrey Kent. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill. 

Lisa: But even when we collaborated on Othello, the first thing we wanted was the padded bed, the first thing we wanted to negotiate is, “How does Desdemona struggle against Othello? What is the story here?” And Geoff not only played Iago, but he helped Desdemona find her trap: within the range of physical resistance that is possible here, can we do ten out of ten? Do you know what I mean? Where’s the intelligence of this female? 

Sam: And it’s just great fun. On a lighter note, it’s just great fun to do. Our Macduff was a woman, and just seeing her, ponytail swinging, fighting, it really was empowering for me, and I’m the artistic director, and I’m staring at the audience staring at her, and you could just see them thinking “Wow. I would never imagine a woman - and she was a woman playing a man - that would have brought this head out at the end of the play.” The audience reaction was

Geoffrey: Wouldn’t it be great, if in our casting processes - and in rep there’s the challenge that they have to bridge multiple plays - to just start by: “Well, let’s have auditions first and see who the good actors are, who shows up, and cast them. That’s not impossible. 

We were auditioning Act of God at the Denver Center, and when we were putting out the character list... We had several women come audition, and our breakdown wasn’t that open yet, we had not found the language - we had the standard Equity language, so it was there, but I had not seen an actor challenge that, in a good way until these auditions. To go, “I’m gonna come in and read for you.” And she did; she had a great audition. She didn’t work for that part, but I was so thrilled by the fact that she came in that I then went home and and asked myself, “How can we make casting breakdowns more open-ended?” That is, if I’m going to do a six person Christmas Carol, I just do the best six actors. 

"Wouldn’t it be great, if in our casting processes... [we] just start by: “Well, let’s have auditions first and see who the good actors are, who shows up, and cast them. That’s not impossible."

- Geoffrey Kent

And then when we get into Shakespeare, what becomes interesting, is then you have to decide: Are they going to play the gender as it was coded by the playwright? Are you going to swap the pronouns and make the role a feminine role? Are you going to have a woman play the role, keep the pronouns as they are and move them to neutral? And the great thing is that you can do all of them, and you can do all of them within the same production. You don’t even have to pick “the rule” that applies to the whole play, because audiences...In the theatre, we create rules, so if we’re going to break them in front of an audience, they’ll watch it, and they’ll embrace it, so that’s why these classical pieces lend themselves to open-gendered casting so beautifully. Once you’ve decided your cast, meaning your group of actors, then you can decide with that group of actors and your designers how best to use them to tell that story. And, man, are there a lot of ways to tell them.

Sam: And how beautiful for the next generation, too. I remember being caught listening to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It,” and having to read the Complete Works. I didn’t want to play Kate in Henry V, I wanted to be Henry V. “When the blast of war sounds in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger” - I wanted to say that line. So, how beautiful that a little girl can come, see Shakespeare, and imagine - not imagine - see herself up there saying those beautiful words as Henry V.

Jack: I’m feeling the impulse now, to actually open it up, because we do have some time. So, having heard all this wonderful, inspirational talk, are there questions from the group?

Caitlin Morrison: I’m an actor, and if I’m deciding to audition for you and I’m choosing to take in a traditionally male role, do I take that in as male with the male pronouns, or do I change it?

Lisa: In an audition? I’d hope you’d make an attempt to look at the thing we’re trying to do, and break your habit of putting on the heels and short dress and makeup and earrings, because then I just have to call you back and say, “Can you take all that off?” At NYU, I auditioned 130 kids and they all did the stupid letter speech from Two Gents. You couldn’t pick a worse monologue for me. I’m looking for empowered male characters to be played by women and you’re going, [high voice] “Oh wait, wait, I don’t know. Oh wait, oh wait. I’m a mess” Why would you do that? You could play Hamlet. You could play Henry V. You could play Petruchio, which I actually need. I mean, unless you’re going to nail Kate or Bianca, why are you doing this for me? Can’t you differentiate this from, the musical theatre audition. So if I go in for Taming of the Shrew at Central, that hallway is filled with women who are trying to be direct and strong and get in that show as a man. You can’t come to that audition as a girl auditioning for a girl part. 

In a commercial audition, they just want to look at your face, but in a classical audition, you need to move as the character, bring something direct. And so, young women are all learning a male monologue for their grad school auditions, because they need something to contrast with their ingenues. In an actual season, now, you will be playing a man and a woman, because economics don’t allow us to put twenty-five people in a Shakespeare play, and have the rest of you playing poker downstairs while a few men work. You’ll play five characters in Pericles, you know, from the Bawd to Thaliart, from ripping off a beard to putting on a push-up bra. It’s a thing; you play the character you’re going for. So, yeah, come with a male monologue.

Sam: I just want to add to that - I don’t actually care what pronouns you chose to use. Is masculinity integral to the character? Because masculinity is not the gender. Women can be masculine. So you can be a woman and be masculine. So I think, to Lisa’s point about what are you auditioning for, that’s the thing I want to see. And if you have a strong point of view about that and how you want to embody that, then that’s what you should bring to the thing you’re auditioning for.

Geoffrey: I’ll also say, Caitlin, we’ll all pound our heads into the wall trying to guess what a director wants, and I remind myself, since I switch to the other side of that table so often, that I’m auditioning you, too. It doesn’t feel like that when you’re auditioning, because you want a job, but I’m auditioning you. So, if switching gender pronouns is something you want to do and feel strongly about, I would say do what you do that feels strong, because you won’t be able to find out before you go in which pronoun they’d like. You pick, and if they didn’t like it, well, that’s what you liked and that’s part of the game, too, committing to your strong choice. And that’s what makes the best audition.

Question 2 (Amanda ?): Frank, you said that you want to open up the idea that Shakespeare is for everyone, that anyone can play these roles, and I want to challenge that a little bit. I think women bring specific things to many of these roles that men cannot bring, and so I’m curious if each of you have specific examples of when you’ve made a change like this, when women have played more roles, what insights does that bring to a production? When casting a woman in a traditionally male role in a Shakespeare play, what does that do to the production? What new thing does that bring that you couldn’t get if a male were in that role?

Lisa: Well, what does it do to cast a woman in a traditionally male production by putting them in Shakespeare at all? Women were not allowed to be on Shakespeare’s stage. What is it as artists that we don’t think we can bring, in soul, body, and spirit, as shape-shifters, that we could never play. We already know that we can play everything. If you’re looking for economic models, did the Colorado Shakespeare Festival take a hit when Geoff directed a gender-reversed Comedy of Errors? Looked to me like that sucker sold out. So what’s the down side? Has there ever been a down side? No. It’s just that Mark Rylance plays Olivia for six years, and the all-female Henry V has to have a framing device and they’re in a prison, and they get six weeks. 

It’s kind of like when they keep asking us to evaluate what is the value of the arts. To spend time on that survey. We have answered that question. There is value to the arts. There is a trend in crossing gender, but we’re at a place where you have to influence boards, to tell them they’re not going to lose money, they’re going to gain allies. We’re at a place where you have to redo the marketing and celebrate the female aesthetic. We can compare Helen Mirren’s Prospero to Harriet Walter’s Henry V to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet; these are world leaders in the theatre industry. In fact, what Charlotte Cushman, who was the greatest actress in the world, who played Hamlet and Romeo back in the day, and was the richest woman in the world, who just helped other women out so that they could create without male husbands or fathers paying and censoring...What we need are producers, I think. Producers to stand for our work and to ally. There are lots of individual stories about success; what I’m worried about is that people aren’t heeding that in terms of economic trending. That it should take this long, this is stunning to me, to realize the kind of success these productions have had, and that audiences are loving them. 

Geoffrey: And when they gender-swapped and did Queen Lear at the University of Northern Colorado, and they set it very feudal and it was rooted way back in history - they didn’t feel like they had to move it to a business office or do a prison - they were just able to do it as basically a traditional production, it blew open the play for me. Because one of the things that happens, or at least my experience with gender swapping on major roles, is that there becomes an anticipation that I’ve also made that character heroic as a result. It’s like, “Isn’t that great that a woman gets to play that role,” but also I get to cast her in roles that have all the words and all the ugliness that all human beings have. So to watch Shelly Gaza’s Queen Lear make all those terrible mistakes as part of that tragedy was what opened it up. So it’s not just that they get to do this awesome speech, they’re also having an affair over here, and they’re murdering people over here, and you get to see that as human beings. So that Queen Lear blew that play open for me in a way that I would have never thought. 

Sam: With me being a woman producer, I find, especially with it being such a young Shakespeare company, and I’m still building this young Shakespeare company, I have very fulfilled women artists, because they know that when it’s time for us to have a season, they can play any role. There are no limitations, there are no boxes; there’s an opportunity for them to play a male role, a female role, it does not matter. And especially when you’re producing site-specific work, where I might be sticking them in the middle of a recycling center, it’s the give and take, and me really respecting my artists, and in turn, they’re giving me what I need back as someone who is building a Shakespeare company. When you know when you go into an audition that you can play any role in this play, it’s tremendous what it does for these artists. It breaks down the barriers that sometimes we give ourselves, because society tells us one thing, and then we have boxes maybe our family or media tells us, then there’s the lies that we tell ourselves, that we can’t play a role. And when I take a black woman and make her Shylock, she goes, “Woah. I can play this role. Okay, Sam, what we doing next season.” And then I invite another woman into my company and do the same with her, and we’re building a Shakespeare company with empowered women.

Sarah Greenman: And that reverberates out. I’m in Dallas; I feel what you’re doing in Detroit. I don’t have to see it; I haven’t seen your Merchant, but I feel it because if that’s available, then when I go into an audition, I’m thinking about getting there. We feel the reverberations of these productions all around the country, and it widens my ability to reach out and grab what I need on the way into an audition, regardless of whether that role was made for me and my genitalia, or whether it was made for everybody.

Pictured: Teresa Thuman. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill.

Pictured: Teresa Thuman. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill.

Teresa Thuman: This is a comment - and I’m sure there’s a question in it - but I wanted to pick up on something Lisa mentioned the other day, and reminded me of a wonderful production I saw of Titus Andronicus, which was all women and directed by a woman, really one of my favorite Shakespeare’s ever in Dallas while I’ve been there. It was very exciting, and one of the things that really resonated for me was the rape scenes, and that it was directed by a woman, and was right when Sandra Fluke was being trashed by Rush Limbaugh... And I couldn’t help but imagine that women directing this, that women wanted this to be a brutal scene, whereas I think perhaps if men were directing it, if men were the fight choreographers, if men were the actors, there would have been a different relationship in terms of how to dramatize that violence, how to dramatize the impact of the violence on the entire community - the father, the family, and everybody. And it was shocking to watch women rape women that way, knowing that was in this setting, and in this story, and the power that it had at the end - the ending of that play made chilling sense to me in a beautiful, beautiful way. 

Lisa: I remember in 1994, I was directing Othello, and Fran Bennett was playing Othello - it was an all female production at the Odyssey Theatre in L.A. - and Fran was out in full regalia warming up her voice. O.J. Simpson drove right by in his white Bronco that day, right by our theatre. And at that time, we always did talkbacks after the show. Well, after that day, there was so much foment for the rest of that run. And oddly enough, people, because it was a black woman hitting a white girl, they somehow inferred in the talkback, not everybody, but some people, that somehow Othello should not hurt Desdemona because the story should be different because they were women, and they should somehow talk to each other. There was an expectation that this should not be that violent.

Geoffrey: There’s a desire to fix it. I had my Antipholus be like, “Well, I wouldn’t hit her.” And I’m like, “Well, she’s about to do a monologue about how bad her ears hurt from what you did, so we can self-define it - we can figure out what our version of it is, you don’t have to do what I would do - but you clearly do something, because that’s what it says.” So, there’s a desire, from, in my experience, some of the actors want to soften it and solve it, and I was shocked by that. I thought they’d just want to wail on each other. And, yes, we found solutions, but it is interesting. That was fascinating.

Dawn: So, this is actually out to everyone else. Every time someone in the crowd talks about a show that was gender reversed, are you having a moment in your mind, where it’s like someone is putting yeast into bread and it’s swelling up in your mind about “What would that look like?” or “Wonder if this…?” And that’s one of the reasons this conversation is so important, because every time you say another show or another example of gender reversal, my mind starts…I want to rip out a piece of paper and start writing the ideas that are popping into my head.

Pictured: Dawn Monique Williams. Photo: Malloree Delayne Hill.

Pictured: Dawn Monique Williams. Photo: Malloree Delayne Hill.

Lisa: It’s so powerful. All my friends who do Shakespeare in prisons, they’re feeling a life and death urgency to find their words, to express the conflict in their lives, to liberate their internal terrain from trappings of thoughts that make them unhappy and violent and made them where they are. We can find the corridors out of that through art for all of us. That’s the point. And so the Shakespeare plays are so violent and so difficult in terms of the power struggle, they give you a chance...It’s like that Australian walk-about...especially when you’re a teenager, something bigger than themselves to test themselves against. But also for those of us that are tired. I’m never not uplifted by opening up that book. I just love that book. It’s not that I don’t want to direct other things, or write other things, or do other things, but I love that book of words. There’s something for everyone. Mandela took it into prison and came out with that; the only book he brought. It’s a thick book. There’s a lot in there.

Shannon Ferrante Wojtas: Do you worry about this empowerment and opening up the casting being women just taking on traditionally male roles? How do you keep a feminine energy in Shakespeare?

Dawn: I always have a conversation with the actor. I mean, sometimes I Merry Wives I predetermined that Falstaff, the character, will remain a cis-gendered male and a woman will embody that. But Sir Hugh Evans, I’ve also cast a woman and she and I are having a conversation about how she wants to play the role, because in some cases...For example, I was Bill Rausch’s associate director on Richard II this season, and I said, “We need more women in this world, more women in this world.” So we changed the characters to it. And I think that’s a show-by-show, case-by-case, what are you holding up? I don’t like the word concept, but since we all understand what that means, what is the directorial concept? But for me, as much as you can involve the actor in that conversation, the better. And usually, what I’m doing is changing the character to a woman, but in some cases, not. So, I had a woman play Prospero as a woman, a woman play Leonato as a woman, but with Falstaff I thought it was a different thing I was going for.

Sam: I agree with that. It’s a case-by-case situation. It depends on the play or what I’d like the season to look like, and I always ask the actors how they feel about the characters that they’re playing. For example, the actor who played Antony last season and who played Shylock, she came to me and said, “I’d like to play a girl this season, Sam.” There’s a journey in womanhood; sometimes I feel feminine, some days I feel a little bit more masculine, and so tapping into the energy of my artists, and supporting them in how they feel about the season, and how we can manifest how they see the characters while also respecting a concept, or whatever or whatever the show or season might be.

Lisa: It’s externalizing an aspect of yourself as your inner patriarch. I can play Richard III and then go home and try to not be Richard III, but if I’m in a run of Richard III, there’s a kind of a powerful “I’m gonna get this shit.” that might distance the people around me for a while, if I am really committing to a five-star performance.  That doesn’t go away in two hours, right? But over time, my empathy is grown by playing non-empathetic characters. You can take that and go, “This is what I don’t like about myself when I’m in that energy. That’s part of me, and here are all the obstacles that make me want to kill everybody in my way.” I can feel that fire, now I have to find my words, now I have to become a leader. Now I have to use that as an artistic director to go, this is that Richard III energy, I’m going to go canvas and get people to vote for Hillary. There are bigger questions than me as an actor, that’s just an aspect of myself, something I’m doing for a few months, a smaller part of myself, a character in a play. It’s not even real. Meanwhile, socio-political, how many people are being burned alive in cages? Some perspective. What’s this really about? Globally, how many women have been disappeared this year? It’s the bigger problem and you don’t hear about it. 

Pictured: Conference participants. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill.

Pictured: Conference participants. Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill.

Alina Burgos: As you’re all saying this, I’m automatically thinking in my head why I can’t do what you’re saying. As an almost-graduated student-actress, who’s still learning, I fashion myself to please whoever’s in front of me. And so I’m trying to look at the roles and see what type of woman I need to be playing - the stereotype - and so I’m wondering what part of that apologeticness that I bring to every single role, can I shed to be able to play a male role in Shakespeare? Do I bring that in because that’s part of my feminine experience? And do I play that as a man who’s being played by a woman who’s been impacted by the patriarchy? It’s weird. How do I shed those things?

Lisa: Well, I don’t know that Charlize Theron’s career was taken away by shaving her head for one film and doing Mad Max. She took on some transformational shifting there, and another role she gained fifty pounds for. The guys do it all the time. What does Branagh play? Anything he wants. Derek Jacobi’s playing Mercutio now. Why do we only think we can play what’s selected for us? That’s a pre-paved road, and a very successful road, but there are other roads as well, which is great.

Sam: Yeah, and along the lines of saying you want to please whoever you’re in front of, I think that comes with something Lisa said: seeing more women producers, because if the person you’re looking at looks like you, it adds this dynamic of comfort. I can tell the difference, especially when I’m not directing, and I have a male director with me, and if I have a woman auditioning for us, she always looks at me. And I always look right back at her: I’m here. He’s a director, yes, we know he’s here, but I’m with you. And so, it’s fantastic to see women onstage but we need more women in administration. When we see more diversity in administrations, we see more women onstage, that inspires more women, more people of color in the audience. The administrative parts of this business effect what we see onstage, what we see onstage impacts the audience. Equity all around. And so, more women in producer’s chairs, that’s absolutely something that has to happen.

Lisa: And that’s only reinforced in an all-female company. If you’re playing Ophelia to my Hamlet, being cute and looking up from under your eyebrows is not enough for me. I know those tricks. I can do those tricks, I can do them myself. I know what your fake eyelashes are doing, and I know what your body shaper is doing, but I’m looking for your mind and your resistance, and how you’re going to go mad over those things. Where does it start? Are you pregnant? Did you sleep with him? What’s your fault? What’s the difference between you and Laertes? These are good questions on an advanced level to ask each other if you don’t only have to fill the notion that you’re shorter than me, and sexually fetching, and easily fall down and look like you can’t handle the world. There are other Ophelias, to be asked for by other directors in other Hamlets. Relationships that are much more interesting than “I fall down and I can’t speak.”

Geoffrey: Actors, you can challenge us, too. Audition for the part you want, not the part we’ve defined as the one you can reach for. I can’t speak for every audition room in the world, but I know that I love watching actors gun for something, and the most playable action you can have is to chase something you really want. And if you want to play Hamlet, come in and give me Hamlet. Challenge their [directors, producers, casting directors] ideals, because you’d be surprised. I think there’s room to kick the door down, and you can wait for us to do it, but you can also come into the audition room and kick it down yourself.

Dawn: And I’m going to encourage you to work through the past. Shed any sort of limiting ideas that you might have about yourselves. But I also want to let you know that who you are today, how you showed up in this room - there are roles that have historically been played by men that you could play. Right now, today. There’s a feminine energy also in men. There’s something feminine about Hamlet. I think Benvolio should always be played by a woman. Always. So, yes, continue to grow, evolve, change in your thinking, but also know that the way you showed up today? There are parts you can play. You don’t have to apologize for your femininity. 

"Gender Parity and the Classical Canon" was a panel discussion at Statera Foundation's National Conference, which spanned October 14-16, 2016 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Statera Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to gender balance in the American theatre. To learn more, please visit