Lisa: But even when we collaborated on Othello, the first thing we wanted was the padded bed, the first thing we wanted to negotiate is, “How does Desdemona struggle against Othello? What is the story here?” And Geoff not only played Iago, but he helped Desdemona find her trap: within the range of physical resistance that is possible here, can we do ten out of ten? Do you know what I mean? Where’s the intelligence of this female?
Sam: And it’s just great fun. On a lighter note, it’s just great fun to do. Our Macduff was a woman, and just seeing her, ponytail swinging, fighting, it really was empowering for me, and I’m the artistic director, and I’m staring at the audience staring at her, and you could just see them thinking “Wow. I would never imagine a woman - and she was a woman playing a man - that would have brought this head out at the end of the play.” The audience reaction was just...fun.
Geoffrey: Wouldn’t it be great, if in our casting processes - and in rep there’s the challenge that they have to bridge multiple plays - to just start by: “Well, let’s have auditions first and see who the good actors are, who shows up, and cast them. That’s not impossible.
We were auditioning Act of God at the Denver Center, and when we were putting out the character list... We had several women come audition, and our breakdown wasn’t that open yet, we had not found the language - we had the standard Equity language, so it was there, but I had not seen an actor challenge that, in a good way until these auditions. To go, “I’m gonna come in and read for you.” And she did; she had a great audition. She didn’t work for that part, but I was so thrilled by the fact that she came in that I then went home and and asked myself, “How can we make casting breakdowns more open-ended?” That is, if I’m going to do a six person Christmas Carol, I just do the best six actors.
"Wouldn’t it be great, if in our casting processes... [we] just start by: “Well, let’s have auditions first and see who the good actors are, who shows up, and cast them. That’s not impossible."
- Geoffrey Kent
And then when we get into Shakespeare, what becomes interesting, is then you have to decide: Are they going to play the gender as it was coded by the playwright? Are you going to swap the pronouns and make the role a feminine role? Are you going to have a woman play the role, keep the pronouns as they are and move them to neutral? And the great thing is that you can do all of them, and you can do all of them within the same production. You don’t even have to pick “the rule” that applies to the whole play, because audiences...In the theatre, we create rules, so if we’re going to break them in front of an audience, they’ll watch it, and they’ll embrace it, so that’s why these classical pieces lend themselves to open-gendered casting so beautifully. Once you’ve decided your cast, meaning your group of actors, then you can decide with that group of actors and your designers how best to use them to tell that story. And, man, are there a lot of ways to tell them.
Sam: And how beautiful for the next generation, too. I remember being caught listening to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It,” and having to read the Complete Works. I didn’t want to play Kate in Henry V, I wanted to be Henry V. “When the blast of war sounds in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger” - I wanted to say that line. So, how beautiful that a little girl can come, see Shakespeare, and imagine - not imagine - see herself up there saying those beautiful words as Henry V.
Jack: I’m feeling the impulse now, to actually open it up, because we do have some time. So, having heard all this wonderful, inspirational talk, are there questions from the group?
Caitlin Morrison: I’m an actor, and if I’m deciding to audition for you and I’m choosing to take in a traditionally male role, do I take that in as male with the male pronouns, or do I change it?
Lisa: In an audition? I’d hope you’d make an attempt to look at the thing we’re trying to do, and break your habit of putting on the heels and short dress and makeup and earrings, because then I just have to call you back and say, “Can you take all that off?” At NYU, I auditioned 130 kids and they all did the stupid letter speech from Two Gents. You couldn’t pick a worse monologue for me. I’m looking for empowered male characters to be played by women and you’re going, [high voice] “Oh wait, wait, I don’t know. Oh wait, oh wait. I’m a mess” Why would you do that? You could play Hamlet. You could play Henry V. You could play Petruchio, which I actually need. I mean, unless you’re going to nail Kate or Bianca, why are you doing this for me? Can’t you differentiate this from, the musical theatre audition. So if I go in for Taming of the Shrew at Central, that hallway is filled with women who are trying to be direct and strong and get in that show as a man. You can’t come to that audition as a girl auditioning for a girl part.
In a commercial audition, they just want to look at your face, but in a classical audition, you need to move as the character, bring something direct. And so, young women are all learning a male monologue for their grad school auditions, because they need something to contrast with their ingenues. In an actual season, now, you will be playing a man and a woman, because economics don’t allow us to put twenty-five people in a Shakespeare play, and have the rest of you playing poker downstairs while a few men work. You’ll play five characters in Pericles, you know, from the Bawd to Thaliart, from ripping off a beard to putting on a push-up bra. It’s a thing; you play the character you’re going for. So, yeah, come with a male monologue.
Sam: I just want to add to that - I don’t actually care what pronouns you chose to use. Is masculinity integral to the character? Because masculinity is not the gender. Women can be masculine. So you can be a woman and be masculine. So I think, to Lisa’s point about what are you auditioning for, that’s the thing I want to see. And if you have a strong point of view about that and how you want to embody that, then that’s what you should bring to the thing you’re auditioning for.
Geoffrey: I’ll also say, Caitlin, we’ll all pound our heads into the wall trying to guess what a director wants, and I remind myself, since I switch to the other side of that table so often, that I’m auditioning you, too. It doesn’t feel like that when you’re auditioning, because you want a job, but I’m auditioning you. So, if switching gender pronouns is something you want to do and feel strongly about, I would say do what you do that feels strong, because you won’t be able to find out before you go in which pronoun they’d like. You pick, and if they didn’t like it, well, that’s what you liked and that’s part of the game, too, committing to your strong choice. And that’s what makes the best audition.
Question 2 (Amanda ?): Frank, you said that you want to open up the idea that Shakespeare is for everyone, that anyone can play these roles, and I want to challenge that a little bit. I think women bring specific things to many of these roles that men cannot bring, and so I’m curious if each of you have specific examples of when you’ve made a change like this, when women have played more roles, what insights does that bring to a production? When casting a woman in a traditionally male role in a Shakespeare play, what does that do to the production? What new thing does that bring that you couldn’t get if a male were in that role?
Lisa: Well, what does it do to cast a woman in a traditionally male production by putting them in Shakespeare at all? Women were not allowed to be on Shakespeare’s stage. What is it as artists that we don’t think we can bring, in soul, body, and spirit, as shape-shifters, that we could never play. We already know that we can play everything. If you’re looking for economic models, did the Colorado Shakespeare Festival take a hit when Geoff directed a gender-reversed Comedy of Errors? Looked to me like that sucker sold out. So what’s the down side? Has there ever been a down side? No. It’s just that Mark Rylance plays Olivia for six years, and the all-female Henry V has to have a framing device and they’re in a prison, and they get six weeks.
It’s kind of like when they keep asking us to evaluate what is the value of the arts. To spend time on that survey. We have answered that question. There is value to the arts. There is a trend in crossing gender, but we’re at a place where you have to influence boards, to tell them they’re not going to lose money, they’re going to gain allies. We’re at a place where you have to redo the marketing and celebrate the female aesthetic. We can compare Helen Mirren’s Prospero to Harriet Walter’s Henry V to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet; these are world leaders in the theatre industry. In fact, what Charlotte Cushman, who was the greatest actress in the world, who played Hamlet and Romeo back in the day, and was the richest woman in the world, who just helped other women out so that they could create without male husbands or fathers paying and censoring...What we need are producers, I think. Producers to stand for our work and to ally. There are lots of individual stories about success; what I’m worried about is that people aren’t heeding that in terms of economic trending. That it should take this long, this is stunning to me, to realize the kind of success these productions have had, and that audiences are loving them.
Geoffrey: And when they gender-swapped and did Queen Lear at the University of Northern Colorado, and they set it very feudal and it was rooted way back in history - they didn’t feel like they had to move it to a business office or do a prison - they were just able to do it as basically a traditional production, it blew open the play for me. Because one of the things that happens, or at least my experience with gender swapping on major roles, is that there becomes an anticipation that I’ve also made that character heroic as a result. It’s like, “Isn’t that great that a woman gets to play that role,” but also I get to cast her in roles that have all the words and all the ugliness that all human beings have. So to watch Shelly Gaza’s Queen Lear make all those terrible mistakes as part of that tragedy was what opened it up. So it’s not just that they get to do this awesome speech, they’re also having an affair over here, and they’re murdering people over here, and you get to see that as human beings. So that Queen Lear blew that play open for me in a way that I would have never thought.
Sam: With me being a woman producer, I find, especially with it being such a young Shakespeare company, and I’m still building this young Shakespeare company, I have very fulfilled women artists, because they know that when it’s time for us to have a season, they can play any role. There are no limitations, there are no boxes; there’s an opportunity for them to play a male role, a female role, it does not matter. And especially when you’re producing site-specific work, where I might be sticking them in the middle of a recycling center, it’s the give and take, and me really respecting my artists, and in turn, they’re giving me what I need back as someone who is building a Shakespeare company. When you know when you go into an audition that you can play any role in this play, it’s tremendous what it does for these artists. It breaks down the barriers that sometimes we give ourselves, because society tells us one thing, and then we have boxes maybe our family or media tells us, then there’s the lies that we tell ourselves, that we can’t play a role. And when I take a black woman and make her Shylock, she goes, “Woah. I can play this role. Okay, Sam, what we doing next season.” And then I invite another woman into my company and do the same with her, and we’re building a Shakespeare company with empowered women.
Sarah Greenman: And that reverberates out. I’m in Dallas; I feel what you’re doing in Detroit. I don’t have to see it; I haven’t seen your Merchant, but I feel it because if that’s available, then when I go into an audition, I’m thinking about getting there. We feel the reverberations of these productions all around the country, and it widens my ability to reach out and grab what I need on the way into an audition, regardless of whether that role was made for me and my genitalia, or whether it was made for everybody.