Gender-Flipping Shakespeare: Joys, Challenges, and the Bottom Line

On October 6, 2018, Hadley Kamminga-Peck and Wendy Franz presented a breakout session called “Gender-Flipping Shakespeare” at Statera’s National Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. StateraArts is proud to publish a text version of their session below.

  Hamlet:  Lenne Klingaman as Hamlet, Mare Trevathan as Gertrude, Rodney Lizcano as Polonius. (Photo credit Jennifer Koskinen)

Hamlet: Lenne Klingaman as Hamlet, Mare Trevathan as Gertrude, Rodney Lizcano as Polonius. (Photo credit Jennifer Koskinen)

Gender-flipping Shakespeare: Joys, Challenges, and the Bottom Line

by Hadley Kamminga-Peck, Ph.D. and Wendy Franz

 

From 2015 – 2017, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival engaged in an increasingly audacious interrogation of gender-flipping Shakespeare.  What started with small roles and minor edits turned into the decision to cast Hamlet as a woman.  Following is an account of what worked, challenges encountered, and the bottom line.  By sharing the how, what, and why, we hope to demonstrate that gender parity on stage can be improved without sacrificing financial success.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is a small professional theatre company associated with the University of Colorado Boulder.  We have 5.5 year-round employees, and expand to over 200 for our summer season.  We produce four plays and one Original Practices production per season, as well as an outreach tour each school year.  Our aim is to serve the story, engage our audiences, and create productions that answer the question “why is it essential to tell this story here and now?”  CSF holds great respect for understanding the text while finding new ways to express it.

For us, gender-flipping specifically refers to the practice of changing the gender of the character to match that presented by the actor, not just casting a female-identifying actor in a traditionally male role.  CSF has engaged in both practices, but here we are focusing on the former, as it has resulted in many revelations in the rehearsal room and in performance, allowing us to reinvestigate old texts with more clarity and contemporary social awareness.  Of course, there are many ways to increase the female presence on stage—Lisa Wolpe does wonderful cross-gender work in Shakespeare, for example.  We are also seeing more and more non-binary actors in auditions and callbacks, and look forward to exploring the potential of non-binary characters in our concepts in the future.  This case study is focused on past productions that created more opportunities for female-identifying actors, one way of approaching gender parity on the Shakespearean stage.  We have no delusions of this approach being a panacea, but we want to share our experiences in order to encourage solution-oriented conversation.

 Vanessa Morosco as Westmoreland in  Henry V . (Photo credit Jennifer Koskinen)

Vanessa Morosco as Westmoreland in Henry V. (Photo credit Jennifer Koskinen)

Why gender-flip Shakespeare?  The answer is manifold: men’s parts in the canon number in the double digits while there are at most four lead females in any given play. And then there’s the quality of the roles – a Hamlet compared to a Rosalind, and the number of Hamlets compared to the number of Rosalinds.  Shakespeare was writing for an all-male cast, so he wrote women as the exception to the rule.  But as Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin point out in Engendering a Nation, “Political systems affect who is or is not empowered as a citizen or subject and policies on matters as diverse as how reproduction is regulated and how access to law courts and education is determined.  Cultural productions, such as plays, circulate and naturalize contesting ideologies of gender” (40).  Just because Shakespeare reflected the empowerment of the male actors in a male-dominated world does not mean we need to perpetuate the myth of woman as only witch, virgin, or whore.  We want to offer equal representation and encourage the portrayal of complex humans.

We must acknowledge the privilege and limitations inherent in where we are and what we are.  We recognize that being located in Boulder, CO means we operate in a predominantly liberal bubble.  While we have pockets of traditional patrons who get miffed when we deviate from what they consider “traditional Shakespeare,” on the whole, our audiences are pretty game. On the other hand, by virtue of being a repertory company, we are limited by the need to ensure casting works across the whole season, not just for one show. It is particularly difficult for us to attempt all-female or all-male plays. 

 

Our Goals

  1. To debunk the myth about strong women and ticket sales. A 2009 article by Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post noted multiple instances of studio execs opining that female leads don’t sell and “women don’t go to the movies.”  Cara Buckley eloquently called out “The Five Lies Hollywood Tells Itself” in a May 2017 article in the New York Times,  “Myth #2: Female-driven movies have a weaker box-office haul,” and “Myth #5: Female-driven comedies are risky bets.”  These misconceptions transfer to theatre, particularly classical theatre which has been traditionally performed by a predominantly male cast. 

  2. To interrogate the constraints of the Elizabethan stage. We all know that Shakespeare was writing for an all-male cast.  But when we have adapted so much of Shakespeare’s staging constraints, why shouldn’t the casting evolve as well? Changing the gender of a character allows us to approach an old text with fresh eyes, and also allows us to avoid gendered stereotypes in order to find the complex human.

  3. To inspire others to attempt similar endeavors.  We have nearly twice as many women as men audition for us each year, so why not create more opportunities to utilize that talent?? It is possible to increase gender parity in Shakespearean productions and succeed financially! 

Overall Challenges

We hope to share the challenges we encountered and solutions we discovered, to demonstrate how gender-flipping can work.  In a repertory company, it creates a ripple effect—one show’s casting affects the other and must work for both concepts.  There’s also what we call the experience conundrum.  Our productions require high skill levels in stage combat, clowning, classical text work, and modern acting.  As we have cast more women in gender-flipped leading roles, we have found that a large number of very talented female-identifying actors have little experience or training in specialty areas simply because they have not had opportunities to do this work.  Our response has been to offer a fair amount of in-rehearsal training, which allows us to increase our gender parity and continue to develop our talent pool.  There will always be the naysayers. We find it’s best to accept that some people are just determined to hate the idea of gender-flipped roles and are uncomfortable with confronting their biases.

By far, the most frequent question we are asked when it comes to gender-flipping is “What do you do with the text?  Change all the ‘hes’ to ‘shes’?”  In a word, yes.  When gender-flipping a character, as in life, it is important to use the correct pronouns.  Sometimes we decide to keep titles the same (like “General” or “Prince”), sometimes we change “my lord” to “my lady.”  We attempt to keep the same scansion, so often “son” will change to “child” rather than “daughter.”  But changing the text to reflect the new gender is quite a small endeavor compared to the rest of the work we do on the script, cutting lines, dissolving whole characters, etc.  This work happens on most professional Shakespearean productions and changing a few pronouns is minor in comparison.

  Othello : Peter Macon as Othello, Anne Sandoe as the Duchess of Venice. (Photo credit Jennifer Koskinen)

Othello: Peter Macon as Othello, Anne Sandoe as the Duchess of Venice. (Photo credit Jennifer Koskinen)

 

2015 – Testing the Waters

In the summer of 2015, CSF produced Othello directed by Lisa Wolpe, Much Ado About Nothing directed by Jim Helsinger, and Henry V directed by Carolyn Howarth. The presence of prominent female roles in Much Ado… created a casting challenge with the rep for Othello and Henry V. As a result, Othello cast Anne Sandoe as the Duchess (previously Duke) of Milan, and Henry V had a female Westmoreland (Vanessa Morosco) and Governor of Harfleur (Laura Baranik).

Othello director Lisa Wolpe focused in rehearsals on empowering all of the female characters within the play, looking for subtle ways to subvert assumptions about men, women, and power.  By casting Anne Sandoe as the Duchess, the image of a powerful woman giving the orders, conferring the honors, and calling the shots in the opening scene represented a palpable change in the gender dynamics of the story while not distracting from the primary plot. With the play set in the Elizabethan era, it was easy for audiences to accept a strong female leader in the mold of Elizabeth I. 

In Henry V, Vanessa Morosco’s Westmoreland was still a warrior, but now she was a female warrior inhabiting a traditionally male space.  Her presence on the battlefield was no more or less remarkable than anything else that happened in the play.  Director Carolyn Howarth’s decision to gender-flip the Governor of Harfleur ended up reinforcing the play’s concept, focusing on the domestic toll of war.  Harfleur’s surrender was no longer enacted by a distanced statesman.  Lines such as “Therefore, dread king,/We yield our town and lives to thy soft mercy./Enter our gates; dispose of us and ours;/For we no longer are defensible” became much more poignant, demonstrating the powerlessness that those considered “collateral damage” in war experience.

The 2015 season gender-flipping created almost no challenges, and in fact solved some of the repertory casting.  Henry V typically only has three small female roles. By casting a female Westmoreland and Governor in Henry V, we created prominent roles for some of the female leads from other shows. 

In the end, there was no negative impact on Othello, either conceptually or financially.  Henry V became our best-selling show in the indoor space at the time, selling out some performances.  And in both productions, gender-flipped characters enhanced the storytelling in subtle ways while presenting more visible gender parity on stage.

 

2016 - Committing

After the minor successes of 2015, CSF decided to commit to gender-flipping in 2016.  With The Comedy of Errors, director Geoffrey Kent and Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr ultimately decided to make both sets of twins female. Antipholus became Antiphola, and Dromio, Dromia.  By changing the men to women, the women were then changed to men in order to maintain the same relationships on stage, so we had Adriano, Luciano, and Neil.

The decision to gender-flip Comedy led to female warriors in Troilus and Cressida.  In this production, set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic landscape, the presence of female warriors helped to desexualize war.  When Cressida arrives in the Greek camp and is accosted by a group of opposition warriors comprised of women and men, the focus is on the cruelties of war instead of yet another instance of the gendered subjugation of a woman by male warriors.  It created a better way into the play.

The main joy of the 2016 season was seeing women be hilarious and fierce in such widely differing shows.  We don’t see women portrayed as clowns or warriors often enough in classical theatre and mainstream media.  By setting Comedy in 1930s Paris, a time when women were developing more independence, the production flipped the clichés of the stay-at-home wife and the sexually aggressive man.  It was enlightening to watch the female Antiphola of Syracuse seduce the male Luciano and find the scene funny again, not uncomfortably domineering.  Antiphola of Ephesus fights, chases, and brawls with Dr. Pinch’s minions, which few women get to do on stage.  For Troilus and Cressida, we relished the representation of women in war – they were determined, focused, and incredibly powerful. The casting of women allowed the play to refocus on humanity, not just toxic masculinity.  We were also reminded of the importance of representation onstage: after seeing this production, all of the girls in our teenage Camp Shakespeare wanted to audition to play the women in charge, Agamemnon and Ulysses; no one was interested in playing the damsel, Cressida.

Both Comedy and T&C presented unique challenges when women led the casts.  We had to ask ourselves how to use violence responsibly to tell the stories without glorifying it or imposing the male gaze. We had to think very deliberately about each image created as we navigated the beatings in Comedy and the moments of intimidation in T&C.  When it came to clowning, many of these women had never played clown roles.  Actor Lindsay Kyler said, “I’m paid to cry and fall in love.” But ultimately, these female actors presented a whole new style of whimsy, which proved it isn’t that women can’t be funny, but that they hadn’t had as many opportunities to explore physical humor, to find their inner clowns.

While body-shaming should never be a source for humor, the section in which Dromio describes Nell as “spherical, like a globe” is well-known to Shakespeare audiences.  We found that by changing the character from female Nell to male Neil, the humor was refocused on the wordplay and physical comedy from Dromia and Antiphola, not on Neil’s physical body.

The main challenge we encountered on Troilus and Cressida was the iconic nature of Greek mythic characters like Agamemnon and Ulysses.  Few people know this play, but many have strong ideas about the Greek heroes.  Interestingly, Shakespeare doesn’t write them as heroes; he subverts their mythic qualities to suit the intrigues of the Elizabethan world, paving the way for future companies to continue to adapt the characters for contemporary audiences. 

The 2016 season was one of CSF’s highest-selling seasons to date in both tickets sold as well as dollar total.  This occurred after our record-breaking 2014 season, which included juggernaut titles and was wildly successful.  To outsell that season with off-brand titles like Troilus and Cressida was extraordinary.  And while the changes we made were significant, the plays remained largely the same.  The casting deepened our understanding of the text, widened the available talent pool of brilliant actors, and created critically and financially successful productions.

  Troilus and Cressida:  Mare Trevathan as Ulysses, Kelsey Didion as Agamemnon. (Photo credit Jennifer Koskinen)

Troilus and Cressida: Mare Trevathan as Ulysses, Kelsey Didion as Agamemnon. (Photo credit Jennifer Koskinen)

 

2017 – Betting the Farm

The 2017 season stood to be the biggest risk yet with the casting of a female Hamlet.  Hamlet ran in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the indoor University Theatre.  Respective directors Carolyn Howarth and Timothy Orr agreed that they were desperate to see something different from the typical angst-ridden, mopey young man as Hamlet. Inspired by watching everyone lose their minds about the potential of women in power during the 2016 election year, as well as watching women fencing in the summer Olympics, Howarth asked, “why not a woman?”  What would it stir up for the audience?  How might it refresh the jokes and revive a well-worn play?

 Hadley Kamminga-Peck presenting at StateraConIII. (Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill)

Hadley Kamminga-Peck presenting at StateraConIII. (Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill)

Howarth and Orr decided to keep their minds open throughout auditions, looking for the best possible person to play Hamlet, regardless of gender and at the end of extensive auditions and callbacks, Lenne Klingaman was the top choice.  Seeking to preserve Hamlet’s three parallel father-child relationships (Old Hamlet and Hamlet, Polonius and Laertes, and Old Fortinbras and Young Fortinbras), both Laertes and Fortinbras were also gender-flipped, played by Ava Kostia and Elise Collins, respectively. We also sought to avoid making additional commentary on gender, suggesting that Hamlet isn’t fit to rule Denmark because she was a woman. Making Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras all women allowed the gender-flipping to be a concept, a fully-developed conversation, not just tokenism or a publicity stunt.  It also meant that women had a near-equal presence onstage: they were ambassadors, ladies-in-waiting, queens, princes, fighters, soldiers, tragedians – everything the men were.

There is actually a long history of women playing Hamlet, starting in Ireland in 1741, carrying through the 19th century with actors like Charlotte Cushman, Sarah Siddons, and Sarah Bernhardt, who actually said “I cannot see Hamlet as a man.  The things he says, his impulses, his actions entirely indicate to me that he is a woman” (qtd. “Why Not a Woman as Hamlet” Bennets, NY Times).  It is only in the last century that productions have gone so far as to gender-flip the character, starting with a 1921 silent film starring Asta Nielsen that supposed Hamlet was actually a princess raised as a prince for reasons of political succession.  For us, casting a woman to play Hamlet was a breath of fresh air, keeping us (who have to live with it for a year) engaged and enthusiastic.  People said that this production was a revelation, this is what they wanted to be doing as actors, directors.  Klingaman as Hamlet was ferocious, with a take-no-prisoners intensity.  There was no draping oneself over things, nothing languid or lugubrious.  She was a woman on a mission, and she was either going to win or burn it down.

What interested us most about Hamlet as a woman was seeing the effect it had on the world of the play.  Much of the play’s misogyny was cut before rehearsals started, and lines such as “Man delights not me, nor woman neither” (II.ii.274-275) held more meaning and became much funnier. We also found a new explanation for Horatio’s devotion to Hamlet, and Claudius found it easier to dismiss his step-child as ridiculous, “going through a phase.”  Ophelia remained a woman. For some, the lesbian relationship was hard to swallow, but the text indicates the relationship is forbidden and doomed because Hamlet will have to marry for political alliance.  It was a brief conversation, and merely added to the list of things Hamlet could not have.

 Wendy Franz presenting at StateraConIII. (Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill)

Wendy Franz presenting at StateraConIII. (Photo by Malloree Delayne Hill)

Some of our audience members had trouble letting go of their preconceived notions regarding the Prince of Denmark.  Juliet Wittman of Westword wrote an article titled “Seriously, Should a Woman Play Hamlet?” one month before we opened.  A.H. Goldstein of the Daily Camera found it challenging that Polonius would treat his children differently, “Here, the gap between Polonius’ treatment of Laertes and Ophelia loses that [historical] context, and feels somewhat arbitrary….” These critiques seemed to have more to do with the writers’ gender biases and less to do with the production.  At one performance, an audience member stormed out of the theatre 20 minutes into the show, angrily stating “Hamlet has a penis!” to the staff before leaving.  For some, it is difficult to picture what could be instead of what has been.

The same was somewhat true for Klingaman.  She shared with us that she can usually visualize herself in every role she plays.  Before rehearsals even begin, she can see herself playing the role.  With Hamlet, there was no path to follow, no visualization to be had.  We had to figure it out in rehearsal as a team.  Howarth said, “Watching her step into the shoes of this human who expresses rage and grief and revenge and sadness and love and who can be funny and sassy and still likable – that range may be completely elusive for a female to get to play,” (qtd. Itzkoff “Summer is for Stretching”).  The company could not get enough of seeing Klingaman perform this role as a woman.  To be in the room as she grunted, sweat, cried, raged, fought, problem-solved, and gave it all was thrilling, empowering, and deeply satisfying.  Having a female Hamlet and Laertes also led to an explosive, beautiful sword fight, choreographed by fight director Christopher Duval.  In this situation, both women were experienced and skilled in the martial arts and/or stage combat.  DuVal was able to build a complex, challenging fight and put the naysayers to shame.  We were vindicated in our choices when Nicole Serratore of American Theatre Magazine reviewed the production, saying “These are all welcome changes.  Howarth and Klingaman managed to crack open the play in a new way for me by putting Shakespeare’s words, written for historically male characters, into the mouths of women and giving them a chance to speak.”

The decision proved lucrative as well.  CSF sold 90% of the ticket inventory to Hamlet before opening, and after opening weekend, before a single review had been published, the rest of the run sold out.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern nearly sold out its entire run as well, which was also a first. One highlight was hearing a woman before a Hamlet performance adamantly stating she had bought a ticket to opening night specifically so she could walk out in protest – but by intermission, she was raving about how much she loved it.

Conclusion

Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, says,

“Female identity on the stage had become [in the Elizabethan era] – like kingliness, madness, and exoticism – an aesthetically produced effect.  The actors were not themselves kings, madmen, Moors, or shepherds, but they were able to portray those archetypes convincingly.  This was not a matter of identity but of performance.  The advent of actresses, some of them celebrated for their powerful performances of Shakespearean roles, changed forever how female parts – and female dramatic characters – were interpreted and understood.  (Garber 7)

We are offering and investigating a performance of a character, of which gender is one facet.Shakespeare was not writing for a stage that allowed the presence of women. When we have altered so much else about his plays, it is absurd to limit ourselves to the originally-assigned gender of the characters.Alison Findlay, in A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama, also reminds us that “While women found it very difficult, if not impossible, to thrust themselves into ‘official’ histories, plays on the Renaissance stage could represent history in ways which problematized the relationship between gender and authority and opened doors to worlds elsewhere” (197).

By casting female-presenting actors in historically male roles, we are addressing this historical imbalance and reinvestigating the relationship between gender, authority, and representation on the stage.It is also simply a sound business practice to hire with equity in mind.Creating more opportunities, hiring more women in Shakespeare’s plays is a worthy, moral, right thing to do.We hope that sharing some of our experiences helps others envision possibilities for change-making while staying solvent.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

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Hadley Kamminga-Peck completed her PhD in theatre history and criticism at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2015. She currently serves as Assistant Professor of Theatre History and head of the MFA in Directing at Western Illinois University. She received her BA in drama and Italian from Colorado College and her master's degree in acting from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. She comes from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, where she worked for the Guthrie Theater. At CSF, she has served as dramaturg, assistant director, interim education manager, Shakespeare's Sprites counselor and onstage prompter for the original practices productions.

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Wendy Franz has produced and directed numerous theatrical productions in the Rocky Mountain region and currently serves as Managing Director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Producing credits include the Ubuntu African Dance Festival for the Dept. of Theatre & Dance at CU Boulder and over 20 productions for Denver's critically acclaimed Paragon Theatre. Directing credits include Richard III and Equivocation (Colorado Shakespeare Festival), Gidion's Knot (square product theatre and Goddess Here Productions), the 2010 Denver Post Ovation Award-winning production of The Real Thing, the regional premiere of Jez Butterworth's The Night Heron, the world premiere of Ellen K. Graham's How We May Know Him, the regional premieres of Sailor's Song and Buicks, as well as Look Back in Anger, and No Exit (Paragon Theatre). Wendy trained at the Santa Fe Opera, Little Theatre of the Rockies, and Curious Theatre and earned her degree in Directing and Design Technology from the University of Northern Colorado.