When I first heard about Breath of Kings at Stratford, an adapted six-hour epic of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, I looked up all the female roles and asked to audition for Lady Percy. Not surprisingly, the part was already booked, but I was offered an audition for Katharine the Princess of France. My French was in unusually good shape having recently spent hours on the phone arguing with the Quebec government tax department, and I got the job. I knew this would be an ambitious ensemble project with actors wearing multiple hats, but what I did not anticipate was that the female actors would also be playing male roles. Out of the fourteen parts I was assigned, six were male, including Katharine’s brother, the Dauphin. I was immediately hit with all kind of insecurities. This wasn’t a high school production. I couldn’t just put on a moustache and hope for the best. I was having my professional Shakespeare debut as the Dauphin of France at the fucking Stratford Festival of Canada.
I wasn’t alone though. I soon found out Carly Street would be playing the Archbishop of York, Mowbray, and the fierce Scottish warrior the Douglas. Irene Poole would be playing the Lord Chief Justice, Stephen Scroop, and Sir Walter Blunt. Michelle Giroux would be playing Montjoy and would understudy Richard the Second. Anusree Roy would be playing Sir John Bushy and Hastings. And Kate Hennig would be playing the Bishop of Carlisle and Gower. A powerhouse cast of women to walk with on this journey.
On our first day of rehearsal we talked about what it meant for women to be playing male roles. Our directors were adamant that we not try to pass as men, there would be no walking around with our imaginary cocks (RIP the cock swinging walks I developed in my living room). “These plays are so much from a male perspective and inhabited by men,” actor, adaptor, and associate director Graham Abbey had explained. “I am interested in seeing several of these characters played by women. Not played by women trying to be men but simply inhabiting the soul of the character and seeing what that does.” With female actors inhabiting male roles, this raised the question of pronouns. Were we changing these male characters to women? “I’m way more interested in having women play Kings,” Kate Hennig weighed in. “Call them Kings, call them ‘him.’ It’s fine. You’re pulled out of the play for about thirty seconds and then you get it and go back into the play.”
In the end this was the decision our directors (Weyni Mengesha, Mitchell Cushman, and Graham Abbey) made for this project. We were women playing male parts without trying to be men.
This was new territory for me, so I was curious to see how my female colleagues were interpreting this direction. Thank God we share a dressing room. Kate offered that gender doesn’t play a significant part in the way she approaches a character. “I don’t know what it’s like to live inside a male psyche.” she said. “All I do is play the part. If the part happens to be male, so be it. If it happens to be female, so be it. If it happens to be neutral, so be it.” Irene Poole felt similarly. “In some cases I found the character’s gender to be irrelevant. Like with the Lord Chief Justice. That’s a person who represents law and authority. Male, female, doesn’t matter. Gender had nothing to do with how I approached the role.”
The notion of gender-neutral roles was intriguing to me. There are many supporting characters in plays usually played by men where gender isn’t in the character’s narrative. This felt like accessible territory for women to participate in. But what about leading male roles? I asked Michelle Giroux about her understudy work for Richard the Second. “The entry point for me was graceful and open. The text seemed very accessible, partly because the story of Richard is about the soul of a person,” she said. “The struggles we face as humans when fantasy and reality come crashing together—denial, hubris, regret, letting go of something, stages of acceptance, these are ideas we can all relate to.”
Like Kate and Irene, the fact that Richard was a man wasn’t an obstacle for Michelle in identifying with the character’s arc. What I had first perceived as a massive hurdle was getting smaller and smaller. “What are you trying to get? What’s in your way? Approach it with that exact same lens,” Anusree Roy told me. Point taken. I began to dive into text work. I was immediately struck by how self-assured my male characters were. They knew what they wanted and weren’t afraid to disagree with confidence and strength. They didn’t have to navigate the boundaries of society or tackle internal obstacles of self-doubt and fear to speak their mind. Although these characters were actually closer to how I conduct myself in real life, they were completely foreign to my acting repertoire. For the first time on stage I was getting to be bold, competitive, outspoken, and unsexualized.
I wasn’t alone in noticing differences. Anusree noted that the female roles she’s inhabited often have very different obstacles from her male roles. “The women I have played are struggling with morality. The male parts I have played are struggling to win,” she said. “I’ve played a lot of women who are trying to achieve things where their souls and their hearts are not in line. Why am I not playing women who are fighting to win?”
Anusree’s thoughts made me take a closer look at the differences between classical male and female goals. Most of the women I have played are fighting to find happiness and peace with the men in their lives, be it their fathers, sons, or lovers. The male roles, however, have bigger agendas than their domestic relationships: they are fighting with a larger worldview. “For women, their identity is associated with the man they are married to or in love with, or with their child,” Carly Street succinctly put it. “The male roles are political, it’s about power, violence, or tomfoolery, it’s a singular identity.” Lady Percy, Katharine, and Richard’s Queen are all fantastic parts. But their journeys are completely tied up to the men in their lives. The Dauphin isn’t fighting for his girlfriend, he’s fighting for the throne of France. Young Mowbray isn’t fighting for his wife, he’s fighting to overthrow the current monarchy. How many classical plays allow female characters to fight for goals beyond men?
I asked Michelle, who has extensive classical acting experience, about the differences she notices between male and female classical roles. “In Shakespeare’s histories the women are peripheral,” she told me. “They are distanced from the main action of the story, they are being left behind, they are the last to know, they are the outsiders. In seeing my friends play male roles [in Breath of Kings], and the small thing I do with Montjoy, I find it kind of a relief because finally there is a real argument in the text, a real drive, and it’s easier to hook into.”
Carly also mentioned relief at playing parts that have more nuance than many of the female roles on offer. “I find the psychology much broader in male roles, much more complex. I have a pretty strong will to power, concept of God, and warrior instinct. Which is why most of the parts I’m interested in playing are the male roles, because I have more colours, more keys on my keyboard than what is offered in the female roles.” Even when people talk about Shakespeare’s profoundly complicated female characters, she says, those roles don’t have the same breadth that the male roles have. “People argue Lady Macbeth is really complex. Do you know how relatively tiny that part is?”
Anusree, who grew up in India, offered a fantastic perspective on her relationship to Shakespeare’s female characters. “I go back every year to India, so I see a thousand women who are similar to Shakespeare’s women. It’s a very patriarchal world Shakespeare has created where the women are in service a lot of the time. That’s not very different from what I see my aunts do. But they are extremely complicated, loving, beautiful human beings in their own right. It’s a different set of freedoms, it’s a different lens, it’s a different narrative.” What a fascinating concept to think the classics we perform in Canada are doing a more accurate job of representing women in developing countries than present-day North American women. I asked her how she identified with Shakespeare’s female characters being a woman born in India but living in Canada today. “As a feminist living in North America, some of it is not relatable. If I was ever in The Taming of the Shrew, I’d be interested to see how I would tackle the part of Kate. How do I access this? There’s a sense of submissiveness that comes with some of the parts. Men have the roles of world domination that women don’t have. I would love to play Hotspur, I would love to play Henry the Fourth. As an actor those are gift parts, parts that allow you to widen your wings, to grow.”
This really struck me. Shakespeare’s female characters are incredible parts. I love playing Katharine and it would be a dream to play Juliet, Beatrice, and Lady Macbeth. But I also want to play Hamlet, Brutus, and Romeo. I want access to more of what Anusree calls “gift parts.” This is hardly a new concept. There are examples of this cross-gender casting in this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park productions in Montreal (Repercussion Theatre) and in Toronto (Shakespeare in the Ruff and Shakespeare in High Park). But how do we get it to catch on at the main stages of our bigger theatrical institutions? “I think if more women are directing there will be more chances for women to play men,” Kate offered. “I think that women should always audition for male leads. If you want to audition for Mercutio, push for it. I auditioned for Iago before. I said I don’t think there’s any part for me but Iago.” Carly added, “Young actresses should take action to pursue those roles… Write the director and say, ‘I want to read for this.’ With that pressure, it will change for us and we will literally have more jobs than we’ve ever had before.”
It occurs to me that prior to this cross-gender casting experience I have been living a dual life with my work and politics. On a regular rehearsal for a company that isn’t producing a modern work, I grab a coffee with my colleagues, chat with the director about the scene, and then get up on stage and leave my rights as a Canadian woman behind. I go from being an equal collaborator in the room to pretending to be someone with considerably fewer rights for a living. Rehearsal ends, I return to my life, post on Facebook about feminism, and wonder why gender equality seems so far away. I’m wondering this every day as I go to work and contribute to narratives that reflect the opposite of the world I want to live in.
I love my work, I love so many of the parts I’ve been fortunate enough to play, and I absolutely love tackling Shakespeare’s incredibly rich and complex text, but it strikes me that there is something remarkably backwards about the narratives we are telling with traditional productions of classical plays. If these are the plays that have stood the test of time, the ones we look to to understand what it is to be human, shouldn’t women be reflected in the storytelling equally with men? In Carly’s words, “I think it’s important that if we agree we’re not just telling stories of things that have happened in the past, if we take on the idea that the stories we are telling are actually relevant today, they need to be relevant today. Today you have women in power positions, like Clinton, Merkel, and May, who are running three of the most influential countries in the Western world. Then you also have buffoons and sociopaths, like Sarah Palin and Marine Le Pen. We have all these examples in contemporary culture of women of all kinds and to exclude them from the theatre now is not just offensive but absurd. It renders our theatre making, our story making, our Shakespeare, culturally irrelevant.”
If you want to audition for Mercutio, push for it. I auditioned for Iago before. I said I don’t think there’s any part for me but Iago.
In a talkback for Breath of Kings, a patron asked Kate about the cross-gender casting. Her answer is what inspired me to write this article. “I know for myself, and I’m speaking for myself only, if I had been a man I would have had a career in the middle roles. I would have been able to play Buckingham, I would have been able to play Worcester, and I could have had a career. If I had been a man I could have played way more Shakespeare. I love it so much. It feels wrong, it feels wrong to be kept from it just because of my gender.”
For the most part, the cross-gender casting in our show was received very positively by our major critics (The Globe & Mail, The Star, NOW) as a step forward in gender parity. But a couple reviewers didn’t see it that way, and they serve as effective examples of the enormous sexism that women face in this industry. (Emphasis added.)
The need to cast women in certain male roles stretches the viewer’s credulity. Despite the ecclesiastical robes and the pectoral cross and her skill with the poetry, Carly Street is not a persuasive Archbishop of York. She is even less persuasive when we see her in the quintessentially masculine conspiracy against the king, and in the feminine company of Mikaela Davies, an appealing actress but equally unbelievable as Lord Mowbray, and the obviously talented Anusree Roy struggling with the role of Lord Hastings. There are those who argue that gender-neutral casting is no different from colour-blind casting, of which there is a great deal in these productions, all of it successful, but a different dynamic is in fact at work, and it is perilous to disregard it.
— Jamie Portman, Capital Critics Circle
It doesn’t seem to be Carly or Anusree’s talent or skill in question, it is them engaging in the “quintessentially masculine conspiracy against the king” that Mr. Portman cannot accept. We may very well be on the verge of our first female president of the United States. But in Canada in 2016, a critic is disparaging the notion of women playing characters on stage with political power.
Even a great ensemble like Stratford’s would inevitably have some problems in casting these famous roles, and this eccentric experiment adds the inventive oddity of not just Nontraditional casting but inconsistent casting. (…) In what’s left of Richard II, the King’s supporters, the Duke of Norfolk, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Archbishop of York, the Earl of Salisbury, Sir John Bushy, and Sir Stephen Scroop are all played by women. So the questions about whether Richard might have been a tad effeminate seem here to be hilariously obtuse. And since I know some very, very gifted and versatile male Stratford actors who are feeling rather underused this season, the notion of limited resources causing these odd castings is unconvincing.
— Herbert M Simpson, Total Theatre
Oh Herbert. Where to begin?
In Irene’s words: “Does he not know that roles for men far outweigh roles for women in our business? And that those ‘underused’ male actors, in general, have a far greater chance of being employed, making a living, because there are so many more opportunities for them? With all the discussion around equality in the arts, and even in our parliament this year, I’m surprised that Mr. Simpson can’t find more to celebrate in the bold casting of these shows.” The notion that female actors need to be careful not to take jobs away from underused male actors is ‘hilariously obtuse.’
In India, Anusree says cross-gender casting is commonplace. “I come from a patriarchal society where oppression still exists—within religion, within culture, within the dynamics of society, within the infrastructure in the way it’s built. But art, especially from West Bengal where I’m from, is promoted as something everyone can do. In seventeen years of my life in India, I’ve seen so much theatre where it’s male playing female, female playing male. They’re not pretending to be anything other than the character. It’s only when I came to this country that I realized that it’s an actual issue. Back home I’ve just seen it, so why can’t I do it when other women have done it before me, many, many times? Why can’t I one day play Lear?”
If you grow up seeing traditional Shakespeare then your taste has probably developed to accept that as your standard. If you grow up seeing theatre where women and men switch genders without an issue, your taste has probably been developed to accept that as your standard. The more we do it, the more this “eccentric experiment” can be normalized. Anusree summed it up perfectly: “I want a society where a person of colour is playing a lead and it’s not a headline. Where a woman is playing a major role that was written for a man and it’s not a headline. Now I can vote, it’s not a headline, but once it used to be. So in that same vain, that’s why we fight. I strive for that society where mixed culture, mixed race, mixed gender is not something that needs to be on a press release. We’re not there, we’re not there yet, but that’s the goal.” While it’s still a rarity in big institutions, we need artists in positions of power who aren’t afraid to take the leap.
On that note, I want to thank Weyni Mengesha, Mitchell Cushman, Graham Abbey, and the Stratford Festival. And Irene Poole, Michelle Giroux, Carly Street, Kate Hennig, and Anusree Roy for contributing their thoughts.