“the lion’s part”: Midsommer, Solstice, and Shakespeare Gender Parity

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about identity parity in Shakespeare performance. This is in part because of recent articles critiquing Hollywood whitewashing, which in actuality negatively affects box office numbers. (For recent coverage, see the Los Angeles Times and Business Insider.) This is in part because I have been seeing a great deal of theatre interested in the range of implications available when you might choose to play a character against their biological-gender identification. For example, when Hotspur is female-identifying in the Henry IV plays, as in the case at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer, the competing reports of her death at the start of part two resonates with a very different parental agony and pathos. Or, when Aeneas is played by and as a woman, such as is the case of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Troilus and Cressida, that rape is a necessary war strategy becomes newly apparent. But is this kind of parity necessarily true across the industry?

What spurs me to write today is a recent The Globe and Mail article reporting on the demonstrable lack of gender parity in Shakespeare-oriented companies in Canada and the Pacific northwest region. The argument of the piece is that significantly more male actors are performing in Shakespeare productions not necessarily because these plays are male-dominated or because they come from a time when women were prohibited from the profession; “These skewed numbers don’t necessarily attest to limitations of Shakespeare’s plays, but instead to the limitation of institutional imaginations when it comes to staging his work,” states J. Kelly Nestruck. All the companies surveyed comprise female-identifying members in the low thirty- to mid forty-percent range. Curious to expand the comparison, I graphed Nestruck’s data and included some additional companies for comparison: the American Shakespeare Center (i.e., Blackfriar’s), the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and my home company, the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (a.k.a. OPS Fest).

This visualization compares the percentage of members female-indentifying in PNW Shakespeare-oriented theatre companies. Key: blue for U.S. companies, orange for Canadian companies, and grey for U.K. companies (i.e., color-blind accessible). Data drawn from published cast lists and Nestruck. Click for a larger view.

A couple of interesting inferences jump to the fore. The size of the overall company does not affect gender parity. The Stratford Festival, in the middle of the pack, has 120 members. Utah has 62 but only manages 32%, the least balanced. Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (50%) and OPS Fest (60%), the two leaders, are of very different total company sizes: 12 and 47, respectively. In fact, it would seem that, broadly speaking, companies with perceived increased prestige and financial support have decreased relative gender parity. While region, directors, casting infrastructure, and Equity are all factors, one would still presume that measures toward parity onstage are part of each of these elements, especially for those troupes who are 501(c)3.

With only two of the ten major regional companies sampled meeting the half-way mark, does this imply that audiences are interested in male-driven performances? Or, perhaps they are interested in theatre where the actors perform characters that align with their perceived gender identification? That would be a plausible way to explain these numbers, if a recent performance of “A Midsommer nights dreame” didn’t so strongly suggest that Pacific northwest audiences are interested in just the opposite.

The two surviving title-pages from the quarto printings of “A Midsommer nights dreame” (1600). [STC 22302 and STC 22303, respectively]. Click for larger image.
OPS Fest formally opens their season with a late-night performance of “Midsommer” on the summer solstice (this year June 21) at the top of Mt. Tabor, an expansive park in the heart of Portland. Aside from the allusively significant date, the performance is exceptional in two other ways: it is one of their few non-kid friendly performances (in that the actors are given leeway to go a bit bluer than they might for families), and it is the only performance of the season where the audience has all the power in terms of casting. The first two casting picks were auctioned off earlier in the year at a fundraising gala, and the rest is determined by vote of applause. Actors and audiences know to arrive early as the half-hour before the performance is spent campaigning for parts.

Hailey Bachrach and Bryn Butler campaigned for a same-sex double bill for Lysander and Demetrius. And they succeeded.

The actors’ strategies were varied, appealing to a range of sympathies. Strategies this year included:

  • leaflets reading “#MakePromptingGayAgain. Vote Alec for Prompter.”
  • cupcakes, candy, and other food stuffs.
  • body paint on an actor’s stomach reading “Puck Me!”

There were also interesting rhetorical appeals. One actor, noting that she had been voted as Puck multiple years in a row, stated casually that many people would be upset if it happened again.  They, of course, still wanted the part. This appealed to newcomers who wanted to know what was so great about this Puck as well as others interested in creating friction amongst the cast. Another actor very much wanted to play the coveted role of Nick Bottom the Weaver because his parents were in town from Florida and his real name was Nick. A new member to the company stated she was interested in exploring Theseus because it “tickles [her] dyke sensibilities.” Another (male) actor campaigned for Ophelia, which planted the seed for an excellent running-gag throughout the performance as he mashed together Hamlet’s leading lady with Starveling. Most interesting was the female duo campaigning to be cast together as a same-sex interpretation of Hermia and Lysander.

Actors were given numbers (keyed in the program) to help with the voting process.

So what did the audiences’ eventual choices suggest? There were 17 total parts eligible for a vote. (The four fairy parts are pre-assigned to the apprentices, who are all women this year.) 16 of the eligible parts (i.e., not the Prompter) have pre-existing pronouns from the Shakespeare folio. The first two auctioned picks narrowed this further to 14 electable parts. The auction choices were interesting in and of themselves. The first assigned Jen Lanier, a respected drag king in the area, the feminine role of Titania, which could be understood as either against-type or hyper-literal. The second gave Nik Hoback the role of Nick Bottom, also quite literal and gender-matched. If we wanted to construe a trend from individual casting, audience members here tended toward the literal in name and perceived/presumed gender.

Oberon (Lauren Saville) and Pucke (Sarah JaneFridlich).

How did the audience vote under cover of a clapping collective? Of the 14 parts left, 43% (6) were played by actors who identified with the gender of the character. This did not mean that because they shared a gender identification that they were played as such. Of the total audience-elected parts, only 29% (4) were played as the gender assigned by the text and matched by the actor. In other words, 70% of the characters in this production, by will of the audience present, were challenging gender norms. If we include characters with demonstrable gender pronouns that the audience did not get to elect, that still meant 63% were not performed in the interest of heteronormativity. An added result: all four of the couples were either performed by actors of the same sex, or as characters of the same sex. This is to say, there were no couple whose heterosexuality was not challenged either by the performance or the fact of the actor’s body. Did I mention the audience numbered well over 200? On a weekday at nine at night?

The parts of the fairies (Peaseblossome, Cobweb, Mustardseede, Moth) were the only pre-arranged roles, set aside for the apprentices (Elise Dixon, Jurnee Neeko, Emma Whiteside, Megan Haynes).

These are just the numbers, just the facts. I don’t address here the polysemy—the range of multiple, coexisting meanings—produced by the new options these challenges to normative gender casting presented. What is important about the data from The Globe and Mail article in relation to this case is that, while OPS Fest has the greatest degree of gender parity of the Shakespeare-oriented troupes in the region, that parity is a product of audience/consumer demand rather than a product of a single artistic director’s vision. It is a difficult thing for a director to give over the privilege of casting, and especially so for a season opener. OPS Fest uses period rehearsal strategies prioritizing improv (and so are considered an “unrehearsed” company), making them ineligible for regional theatre awards. (Company members routinely win these awards, however, but for other shows in the community.) The effect is that a company whose performances are invested in giving voice to the marginalized are themselves marginalized.

In short, the lion’s share of Shakespeare roles are going to actors who male-identify, whether or not the part requires it. This trend, however, does not reflect the demands of Shakespeare-curious audiences and the troupes that listen to them. As a final example, consider Quince’s caution over the lion’s part in “Midsommer.” Bottom cannot also have that part because, Quince worries, if he “roar too ferociously, [he]’ll scare the duchess and the other ladies and make them scream. And that would get us all executed.” Moral: too literal and we’re all dead. Only time will tell whether this is as true for political entertainments as it is for theatre business models. My bet? Audiences will out.

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