Casting Women and “Breaking Form”

On Twitter at #2amt, theater artists have asked about developing audiences and about “breaking form” away from “linear” theater pieces. By “linear” theater pieces they mean plays and musical that focus on a single story line and a single theme. By “breaking form” they mean getting away from the commercial standard of focusing on a single storyline and a single theme. I think the term of “break form” can be more embracive than just creating the new. Breaking form can, or at least should, include changing techniques to better serve the production value and the audience. These questions of audience development and breaking form arise because audiences are small for avant guarde works (works that break form), but big for commercial works. The problem so many theater artists have is that when they satisfy their artistic vision by doing avant guarde works, their theater companies fail for lack of ticket sales.

In answer to these three questions, how to develop audiences, how to break form, and how to have a financially successful show while breaking form, I respond with two workable solutions. First playwrights must create more female roles. Since most playwrights and directors are men, they do not break form with their world view—they think of men first. If directors and artistic directors would do a simple head count of who is in their audience, they will find that most audiences consist of a majority of women. If the directors and artistic directors would then do a simple count of the resumes of the actors auditioning for roles, they will find that the majority of aspirants for roles are women. The directors and artistic directors will also find that the women have, by and large, much more training than the men do. For instance, girls are sent to dance classes from an early age, while boys are not, so this important skill, dance, is something many more actresses have than actors. When the majority of the audience is composed of women and the majority of applicants for roles are women, it makes no sense to continue creating a majority of roles for men. Break your own form, gentlemen. How can you ask an audience to accept a new or at least different artistic viewpoint if you do not?

My second answer is to take a page from behavior analysis. Pair what an audience enjoys easily with what a difficult enjoyment. I think that theater artists tend to forget that we are trained “to stretch.” We go through a lengthy and expensive training program to learn to take artistic risks and open ourselves to new techniques and views of reality. Our audiences, for the most part, are not so trained. They can grow; they can stretch, but behavior analysis warns us, not by much in one sitting. We can not expect of our audiences what we ourselves can do. They are not trained for stretching; we are.

I live in Miami, and last night I saw a production of Henry V at the New Theatre directed by seasoned actor and director Ronald Mangravite that proves both my points. The New Theatre has a tiny stage, but it was used very well, not feeling cramped which could easily have happened with a script that was written for a huge cast. Set and costumes were low budget, but the set, by Ronald Mangravite, served very well and the costuming, by K. Blair Brown, was excellent. The cast had been paired down to nine actors. Since there was much doubling of roles, the costuming effectively communicated the actor was a different guy in this scene than he was in the scene before. The blocking of the show was also very good, with excellent fight choreography and some really fine effects. Women played men’s roles. Henry was played by the well trained and charismatic Sipiwe Moyo. However, her performance was tense as she struggled to move as a man. The other women playing male roles suffered from the same problem of struggling to carry off male movement in a believable way. None of the women were completely believable as men, and one of them was so bad at it that it affected the delivery of her lines. I could not understand what she said at all when she played a male, and I have been on international television as a Shakespeare expert. Nevertheless, when she played a female role she was very good and completely understandable.

The show is toward the end of its run as I write this, and last night when I saw it, the audience consisted entirely of theater people–all eleven or twelve of us. We, as theater artists, could well appreciate the many fine aspects of this production, such as much fine acting, but obviously the usually-loving-Shakespeare-audience could not. If the director had “broken form” with his understanding of gender roles I think the audience would have showed. The director should have let the women play their roles as women. There are today and always have been women soldiers. History is dotted with great queens. Allowing the women to play their roles as women soldiers, a woman monarch would have removed the one salient weakness of the show, the inability of the women to portray men. There is no reason that the conquering queen of England could not have married the defeated French crown prince. The anti-war theme (hooray!) the director expressed with his in many ways fine production of Henry the Fifth does not rely at all on women portraying men. The French lesson scene would have been fresh and avant guarde if played by a prince who knows he must marry his enemy. Consider the gesture of holding up the forearm and touching the elbow. In the context of a man doing it, it is a gesture of defiance and so would have fit the theme the director presented much better than the cute scene of a silly girl learning English. The humor would have been biting if the princess were a prince.

The New Theater always does “non-tradtional casting.” We are in Miami, non-traditional casting reflects our city’s demographics, so this was not the stretch that was impossible for the Miami audience to do. The failure of stretch was the director’s—he did not accept that women can be, have been, and are soldiers and leaders. Had he done, his otherwise fine work would have made an evening of great theater and a filled house.


About Cynthia Clay

I was judged to be a computer program on Shakespeare at the First Loebner Prize Competition of The Turing Test—a truly science fictional experience. I'm an author who likes to write sf, fantasy, updated versions of old myths.
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