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TBA Online: News & Features: February 2014

Say Thou Art a Man: A Look at All-Female Casting

Friday, January 17, 2014  
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By Alicia Coombes



For several seasons, gender diversity in theatre leadership and onstage roles has been a hot topic of late. Women are poorly represented in Congress and business, in Hollywood films, and on local and national stages as actors, writers, and directors. Nationwide, people are using various tactics and approaches to highlight this fact and lobby for change. Here in the Bay Area, organizations like Symmetry Theatre, the "Yeah, I Said Feminist" salons, Counting Actors and Works by Women SF have placed gender parity at the forefront of this discussion. Beyond simple 50/50 parity, however, is another tactic: place women in all onstage roles, regardless of the original casting intent.



Erin Carter as the Professor and Lisa Hori-Garcia as Baby Face in the 2005 Woman’s Will production of Brecht’s "Happy End.” Photo: Rick Silva


Casting a play with all female actors (playing both men and women) has several effects. The most obvious is that it provides women with chances to play historically juicy roles not previously available to them. It also highlights gender as performance; allowing a character's motives and actions to stand separate from, and even at odds with, the actor's performative "feminine" or "masculine" gender presentation; and gives audiences and actors alike a chance to rethink their perspectives. 

For over a decade, this work was being done by all-female Shakespeare company Woman's Will. Many women in the Bay Area have worked with Woman's Will, which produced 24 shows over 12 seasons. For founder Erin Merritt, the company was an idea borne out of frustration. During a six-month audition season, she would repeatedly find herself in auditions and callbacks with the same several dozen women. "There was a wealth of talent but such competition; the casting seemed almost arbitrary after a certain point. I kept saying, 'someone ought to do an all-female Shakespeare so that we can all work together! Not me, but someone!'—and finally decided to go for it."  

Woman's Will produced mostly Shakespeare, who was writing both female and male roles knowing men (or boys) would play them. But what happens when you take arguably one of the most macho contemporary plays written specifically for an all-male cast and recast it with women? In 2009, Shotgun Cabaret presented First Person Singular's Stealing the Leads: A Reading of Glengarry Glen Ross. Directed by Joe Christiano and featuring Mary Baird, Theresa Kelly, Gwen Loeb, Julia McNeal, Cathleen Riddley, Stacy Ross and Patricia Silver, the reading was so successful they added a second night. "The approach was that these are males and we would play that essence," Stacy Ross shared of the experience. "Essence meaning no overt masculine apery, but being true to the way this set of males moves through a very particular world. That said, the fact that we are women necessarily made a change in the scenes...we approached playing men's essences the only way we could—as women."

For Cathy Casetta, artistic director of Tabard Theatre, providing opportunities for women is less about giving them a chance over men and more about working with her best resources: "It is a growing challenge to find men who are talented, trained and available to be in productions. Therefore, I search for and explore ideas, projects and existing works that can be done with few or no men." She approached Diane Milo about producing an all-female version of 1776

Casetta feels that their casting for 1776 is perfect for a play about revolution and changing the status quo. "The text and lyrics came alive in a new and exciting way! To hear these words come out of the mouths of women elevated them to a new level and perspective of understanding. A new light was shining on them. I am very much looking forward to sharing this production with our audiences," she says. Milo stresses that the women in her production are storytellers first. "In that regard, it does not matter if they are male or female" she says. I do not want them to try to pretend to be men but, rather, I want them to tell the story of these men by summoning the male energy that makes these characters so interesting."

Anecdotally, audience response to all-female casts has been favorable. Ross says of the Stealing the Leads reading, "I think it was a combination of novelty and hearing the text in a new way. The text spoken from an innately different perspective." Merritt maintains that gendered casting for Shakespeare actually makes more sense than contemporary casting: "Shakespeare was writing for a single gender! So seeing an all-female version of his plays brings back the gender commentary that he wrote in there."  When asked about her hopes for 1776, Milo says, "I believe that, once the audience accepts the construct that we are using, they will quickly move away from even thinking about the fact that they are watching and listening to female actors. They will simply be drawn into the story."

Merritt in particular feels that Woman's Will did a lot to change hearts and minds in the theatregoing community. She was once approached by a male fight choreographer who told her that watching her all-female fight scenes changed his ideas about gendered reactions to violence, and has changed the way he choreographs ever since. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of this type of casting is the widened classical range of the actors themselves, broadened by the chance to play the gamut of Shakespeare's characters.

While Woman's Will is no longer producing, other theatres have taken up the mantle. Coming up in February, California Shakespeare Theatre/Intersection for the Arts' Triangle Lab will partner with Minnesota-based Ten Thousand Things Theater to produce an all-female Twelfth Night, directed by TTT founder and artistic director Michelle Hensley. TTT's production model seeks to bring work to diverse community settings and offer high quality work for free and paying audiences alike. This particular production will be staged at a variety of places in the Bay Area, for a limited audience, with no sets or lights, and with minimal props and costumes. 

Beyond Shakespeare and classics, all-female casting may signal a growing trend: playwrights' willingness to see their characters played by many different types of people. Many new plays feature roles that are open-gendered, genderqueer, or nonspecified. Perhaps the Bay Area will see a new spate of favorites revisited from the feminine perspective. If the reading of Glengarry Glen Ross provided a peek into a male-dominated macho world, playwright Kristoffer Diaz has that beat with his play about pro wrestling: he recently kicked off a dream-casting session on Twitter by posting "I've been saying it for months, if not years: I'd love to do an all-female Chad Deity. If you run a theater, make it happen." Who's up for the task?

Late-breaking news—there's another all-female show in town! Three women will perform all roles in the Contra Costa Civic Theatre production of fast-paced comedy The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Runs Jan. 31-Feb. 23.

Alicia Coombes is a freelance dramaturg.