Gender Role Reversal in Theatre, ugh

shakespear in loveI’ve recently been taking more of an interest in the world of theatre beyond the scope of my acting. This has included an attempt at writing a play and being part of another show in which puppets will be used to portray the characters. It should be a humbling experience to not be the object of attention, but to control the object of attention instead, to some how use the puppet as an extension of my performance. This is all well and good because the nude scene that is required will be less embarrassing for me and more so for the puppet. The fact that I’m in Los Angeles doing this and not New York City is probably a mistake, but it’s keeping my skills sharp. Which is what a lot of actors here in LA need to do, and while I don’t think scene work is bad, it’s a lot better for an actor to bite into a role that they can fully develop. There are dozens upon dozens of local 99-seat theatres in LA working with actors that just want to be noticed and there are a bevy of artistic directors that want to be taken seriously. In a city where film and television is the medium of choice it makes it that much more difficult to get recognized.

Taking all of these detractors into account theatres will try anything to get attention. One of the things I hate the most in this scurry for minor fame is the ease and lack of creativity it takes to mount a production in which all of the male characters…will be played by female characters.

I did some reading up on the historical importance of such reversals and at one point it seems this actually meant something politically and socially. (An excerpt from a book goes over some of the more important things here.) It mattered when women weren’t being treated with any dignity at all, when politicians would have scoffed at the idea of a woman running for president. But, now a woman is running for president and women have just as much to do with us being at war in Iraq than men do, so I wonder at the relevance of mounting say an all female version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. Which is actually being done in Los Angeles as we speak. Nothing about this role reversal makes me curious. Imagining such an event in my head allows me to see nothing new about the story. Yes, it’s still about betrayal of trust, regardless of whether a man or woman is in charge. On the post card they don’t even try to do anything other than use titillation that might come from an all woman cast: Women take the lead roles. Women spill the blood. Brutus suddenly became a lot more dangerous. But doesn’t this plays into exactly how women typically don’t want to be seen, fury from hell and what not?

Even at my own theatre company there was once talk about putting up an all female version of Glengarry Glenn Ross and it seemed that the main reason for it was to see women using the language men do. It’s so adolescent. It’s so shallow. It’s so contrived! Why can’t we put up a version of an all male Steel Magnolias? It seems like it might say a lot more about women than women taking over an all male show (I’m sure I’ll get into some sort of trouble for cracking that joke, though such a production might say more about men as well.)

Or maybe write a play that might accurately depict women who control politics or perhaps one in which women salesmen have to deal with declining revenues. Why does it have to be taking a work that’s already in play and trying to make something out of it that it’s not? It’s pure exhibitionism, pure easy money, pure laziness.

It reminds me of that other terrible premise. The idea of race reversal. I remember the John Travolta/Harry Belafonte film in which whites were the enslaved, hated ones and blacks were in power. I don’t remember the title and it’s not worth looking up. (Oh, crap, reading through this again, I remembered the title. I think it was, White Man’s Burden. Which that in itself should be a slap across the face for anyone who was actually a slave.) But it’s the same idea, someone wants to make a point without actually thinking about the idea of race in a clever or creative way, in a way which might actually connect or relate to people and what they go through. What if native americans were the ones who ran the white people out of Europe? Oh, what a lesson could be learned from this rather than just telling it the way it happened. And isn’t the way it happened much more of a reminder that it shouldn’t have happened, and the same goes for the enslavement of blacks? But they want us to think about it. What if we were in their shoes. What if the the Jews sent the Germans to concentration camps, it might really make those Germans feel guilty, non? Or perhaps men can fight for their right to vote because women won’t let them.

It’s this Hollywood way of thinking that’s crept into the world of theatre, where profit and a tagline means more than the meaning of the piece being presented.

Please someone disagree with me. I’d like to think the world of theatre in Los Angeles still has something to offer (other than my current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which I’ve been told by audience members that this is the best production of said show they’ve ever seen!) And if someone sees this female version of Julius Caesar at the Knightsbridgetheatre.com in Los Angeles, please let me know how it is. I’ll be readying my puppet hand.

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3 Responses to “Gender Role Reversal in Theatre, ugh”

  1. rapid weight loss Says:

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  2. Charis Luke Says:

    Did you write a play accurately depicting women? It’s easy to criticise but there is so much gender bias and sexism that there needs to be material in the theatre challenging it and at least by reversing rolls writers/companies are making an attempt at doing that. I think you should write a non-sexist play. You seem very intelligent and are more than capable.

    • Phillip Kelly Says:

      I appreciate that. Looking back at this blog that I wrote in…2007, I still feel the same way about gimmicks. I loathe theatrical gimmicks, and I think companies can fall back on a weak concept just to draw crowds. On the other hand, I’ve seen LA Womens Shakes put up one of the best productions of Hamlet I’ve seen on stage, and seen both women – lead and understudy – give two of the best performances of Hamlet I’ve seen. But they didn’t feel the need to put it in an all womens’ prison. They played men, and did it brilliantly. It takes a certain level of skill to pull something like that off.

      I have written plays that accurately depict women since writing this.

      And in my continued experience in the theatre world, working as artistic director, theatre reviewer, producer, writer, actor and director – no, it isn’t difficult to criticize, I’m sorry to say, and when something is done poorly it should be criticized. Positive criticism.

      Thanks for the comment and feedback. I haven’t posted anything on this blog in a couple years. I’m considering starting a new one.

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