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It Starts in the Classroom

Approaching Gender Parity through Actor Training

“Do you know any good scenes for two women?” Colleagues and peers have asked me for suggestions at the start of every semester since I’ve been teaching. Yes, I know plenty, but that’s not the point.

While I’m always glad to talk about compelling female characters, I have to admit that the question seems out of step with an awareness of gender disparity that I see elsewhere in professional and academic theatre. Calls for women’s equality are sounding loudly in the industry right now, from coverage of the Hollywood gender pay gap, to listings of LORT theatres with “playwriting parity,” to outcry against critical bias in the wake of early Broadway closings for Sweat and Indecent. In academia, unmet demand for women’s roles in production prompted the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s commission of plays by and about women beginning in 2014—and the New York Times’ coverage of it. There seems to be a growing understanding that the representation of women, in all disciplines of theatre, matters to their equal treatment. Yet in the classroom—where we not only encounter but commit to shaping young voices and visions—we still rely on plays in which women are underrepresented.

In the spring of 2014, when I was a directing student at Yale School of Drama, I spent an afternoon around a table with a group of frustrated and unoccupied female acting students who were currently without roles in a production, while their male classmates (who paid the same tuition) had had no break all year. The following summer, we gathered with recent female graduates from other programs and heard similar stories from them. In discussing why these actresses felt underserved in school, the point was made that they hardly ever worked on female playwrights in scene study classes. One woman hadn’t been assigned a single scene by a female playwright in her entire training experience; several did no more than two, out of at least a dozen. Curious, I talked to alumnae from a wider range of schools (Yale, Juilliard, NYU, Syracuse, CMU, ACT, Brown, and UNC). All had spent somewhere between a half-semester and a full year on Chekhov and a minimum of one semester on Shakespeare; most had done a Miller scene as well. Unsurprisingly, but notably, there was no single female playwright who appeared consistently across assignments from multiple programs the way Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Miller did.

The representation of women, in all disciplines of theatre, matters to their equal treatment. Yet in the classroom—where we not only encounter but commit to shaping young voices and visions—we still rely on plays in which women are underrepresented.

four performers onstage
 Adam Coy, Jesse O'Brien, Adele Fish, and Dominic Martello in Laura and the Sea. Photo Credit: Mike Davis

It’s important to acknowledge that class work is not the same as production work, and that plays do not have to be written by women in order to offer them good or numerous roles. It’s worth noting, as well, that production opportunities in many programs are dependent on plays chosen by student directors and/or written by student playwrights. Still, the coexistence of these phenomena—the paucity of plays by women in the classroom and the narrow selection of roles for women in production—begs the exploration of a connection.  Are members of an artistic community less likely to put gender parity onstage if it is not presented to them offstage as artistically valuable? For what it’s worth, by the time I and the other two directors in my class proposed plays for thesis productions, one of us had done no scenes by women in class and two had done one; our six proposals included one play by a female playwright, and it wasn’t selected for production.

Binary, cisgender parity has improved in admissions to highly-competitive actor training programs in the last few decades. For instance, programs at Yale, Juilliard, and CMU now admit, on average, equal numbers of men and women. By comparison, the class admitted to Juilliard in 1981 had fifteen men and nine women; the classes of actors that entered Yale between 2007 and 2011 also average out to a three-to-two men-to-women ratio. In undergraduate programs at large, “women often outnumber men,” according to a New York Times piece from 2016.  At Syracuse, where I teach, the current graduating class of BFA performance majors is 83 percent female, and the previous four average out to be 60 percent female. The reason for the old three-to-two ratio of men to women, some teachers tell me, was to match the character breakdown of plays that would be used in class and in the seasons of repertory companies. Shakespeare’s characters are 18 percent female, according to research commissioned by the Guardian; by my count, Chekhov’s five major plays have 38 percent female characters, as do Miller’s commonly-assigned plays for scene study classes (The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, A View from the Bridge).

Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Miller are inextricably linked to the methods of actor training that dominate English-language schools: Chekhov, for his relationship to Stanislavski; Miller, for his connection to the Group Theatre; Shakespeare, as the basis for so many voice and text training methods. The endurance of their plays also suggests that we find valuable universality in them; that they portray human experience in ways that make them still interesting to audiences and useful in learning how to act. The move towards a 50 percent female student body in highly selective training programs suggests a desire for gender parity. But when educators can’t offer women enough roles in production, or struggle to find them scenes for class, it’s like inviting them to dinner and serving them no food. In fact, with a curriculum built around Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Miller, gender parity in admissions actually worsens disparity in the power dynamic: fewer men are available for more and more substantial characters. In class, I’ve seen men assigned to multiple scenes in order to give each woman a chance to work. I spoke to one young woman who spent half a semester working on a Miller scene with two men in which she had only a couple lines. And I’ve heard my students joke that the “highest-class citizens” of our department are men who can populate the leads in musicals so that women can be in the chorus.

In my conversations with current female students and recent female graduates of actor training programs, a parity problem was palpable; to elucidate this problem with hard evidence, though, is surprisingly hard. For one thing, conservatory programs often don’t use syllabi; I, for one, never got one in an acting class in graduate school. The teachers I spoke to were also reticent to share unpublished information about gender breakdowns in admissions or list scenes they typically assign—perhaps in fear of being portrayed as biased; perhaps to avoid having curricula borrowed without credit. Students tended to be more willing to share, but their answers still don’t present clear or verifiable data. For instance, it would hypothetically be possible for a single student not to work on any plays by female writers but for that student’s instructors still to be assigning a fifty-fifty ratio of female to male playwrights overall. After failing a few times to assemble a more complete picture of scene study curricula, I’ve now come to think the most important questions to ask are: How do we actually measure gender disparity in the material we teach? Why does it persist? Is it worth changing? And how does it intersect with other disparity issues that also prevail in training programs? It’s quite notable, for instance, that on the lists of scene study assignments I did gather, writers of color appeared less frequently than women, and transgender writers did not appear at all.

In the case of the first two questions, the fact that gender disparity is hard to measure may actually be one of the reasons it persists. There are good reasons that, in scene study classes, we often don’t distribute syllabi or, if we do, don’t predetermine what plays will be assigned. At Syracuse, for instance, we are required to submit syllabi to our college; many instructors print course goals and schedules but don’t commit in writing to using specific plays. In classes designed to support the development of individual artists, it’s useful to be able to get to know students in order to discern specific needs and be able to adapt to students’ progress throughout the semester. It’s also common to let students choose their own scenes, in order to develop their tastes and senses of self.  But does the undocumented nature of scene study course content allow its bias to be obscured from teachers and students, or prevent future teachers from building on their predecessors’ work?

Another potential reason for the persistence of plays by and about men in scene study classes, particularly introductory ones, is that the rise of feminist theatre generally corresponded in time to the rise of nonrealistic theatre. The same cultural forces that gave way in the profession to more plays by women gave way, stylistically, to a less singular idea of truth and a less linear idea of story. In action- and text-based actor training, introductory work lends itself best to scenes with relatable given circumstances (i.e., worlds that follow the same “rules” as ours) and teleological action towards an objective. The majority of well-known plays with these features were written at a time when the industry was even more dominated by men than it is now. The skewing towards male writers and roles written for men gets even worse for classes on classical drama. Numbers of assigned female playwrights grow when contemporary material used: Herzog, Baker, Parks, Norman, Wasserstein, Nottage, and Son appeared on more than one list shared with me; Churchill, Fornés, and Vogel sometimes appeared in classes where style was introduced. But some teachers feel that the contemporary material doesn’t completely serve their pedagogical needs. One teacher at a highly-ranked program said to me that to find a certain level of stakes and muscularity, she prefers plays written before television became so pervasive; she likes to use Shepard and Williams. While she helped ensure the fifty-fifty admission rate for men and women in her program, she also said that she didn’t feel obligated to choose scenes by women writers as long as the women in her acting class learn what they need to learn.

So many of the women in Chekhov, Miller, Shakespeare—and Shepard and Williams too—are defined by circumstances that have only to do with men and play for objectives that relate only to heterosexual love. If we include more characters not processed through a male perspective, do we offer female students the chance to develop and tune a wider range of their instruments?

two performers onstage
Ashton Heyl and Mitchell Winter in Hedda Gabler.  Photo Credit: Joey Moro.

So, what then, would be the point of replacing some of the Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Miller in our curricula? I mentioned the value of creating a culture that values women’s voices, and the caveat that many substantive roles for women are written by men. Another consideration, from my perspective, is the range of roles that female students learn how to play. So many of the women in Chekhov, Miller, Shakespeare—and Shepard and Williams too—are defined by circumstances that have only to do with men and play for objectives that relate only to heterosexual love. If we include more characters not processed through a male perspective, do we offer female students the chance to develop and tune a wider range of their instruments? Many teachers spoke to me in favor of assigning male characters to female actors, to which I am not opposed; however, I worry that it absolves educators of an obligation to go looking for other material, and I wonder if gender-switching in only one direction again reinforces a gendered power disparity. I’ve seen many women assigned the tent scene in Julius Caesar, but have rarely seen men assigned the willow song scene in Othello.

With regard to the last question: binary, cisgender parity is most certainly not the only, or the most important, parity problem in academic or professional theatre; it happens to be the one about which I, as a cis white straight woman, am most often approached, and through which I am learning to be more conscientious about other types of parity in the material I assign. I expect that the same connection between representation in course content and in production can be drawn for writers and characters of color, and LGBTQIA writers and characters as well. By focusing on the representation of women, I do not mean to detract from these other disparities, but rather to use my point of access as an opportunity to learn to be a better teacher for all my students who are underrepresented.

I don’t have answers yet to the questions I posed. I know that since starting at Syracuse, I have assigned an average of 50 percent scenes by women in my scene study classes at lower and intermediate levels, I’ve used Amy Herzog and Diana Son to introduce objectives; Sarah Treem and Lorraine Hansberry for circumstances; Annie Baker for subtext; Maríe Irene Fornés and Caryl Churchill for style. In poetic drama scene study classes, I supplement Shakespeare with Sarah Ruhl, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Elizabeth Wyckoff’s iambic pentameter translation of Antigone. I have assigned scenes by writers of color and LGBTQIA writers in every class I have taught, but not in every section; this is where I need to do the most of my own homework. I can say that the assigned plays about which I get the most positive feedback from former students, and which I see them use the most for independent projects, are not the plays by straight white men. I also know that, while my love of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Miller inspired my pursuit of teaching and directing, I now question whether the training methods intertwined with them have reached a point of obsolescence; if plays from time periods with a greater number of known female playwrights don’t fit the aesthetic of our training model, then maybe we need a new model. If the plays that better reflect the makeup of our society reveal a different human experience, then maybe we need to teach to that. Most basically, I know that it’s on us as educators to take responsibility for the material we teach, to examine the disparities created by our curricula and be conscientious about their larger effect on the artistic community; to read more plays by and about underrepresented voices and commit, in writing, to using them in class.

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Excellent article. Part of my teaching/auditions/casting/directing both in tertiary institutions and in my own professional (usually unpaid, co-ops) is to consider the lesson from quantum physics that the observer can affect the observed. I will/have/do cast any actor to play any role. In 1992 I had a production of Henry V for 12 women. The play was uncut and there were only three props. In a professional acting course for one play with a male lead only one person was capable of taking on the size of that role, a woman. So I cast her. In my acting and Shakespeare classes any actor is welcome and supported to use any text. I will and have cast blacks to play whites; men to play women; ethnics to play Anglo and would cast anyone to play anything. In the commercial theatre productions financial considerations have to be accounted for. In other situations there is a huge open unlimited range of possibilities. www.iraseid.com

Katherine, what an important and under-considered issue you raise!
As a 2011 graduate of Syracuse and its Drama program, I'm proud to see its scene study classes headed in this direction. Keep up the good, difficult work!

Thank you! A worthwhile essay and an important topic.

I understand your concerns about gender-swapping roles in only one direction--and it's one that I hadn't thought of before--but I do think that that can be a valuable tool specifically for teaching classical theater. I don't think it's unreasonable to have a course that teaches actors how to work with Shakespeare, for example, but if you do that then it's also very reasonable to open up all of the roles to all actors. As you say, Shakespeare's roles for women are VERY limited--I think it's not even questionable to say that women may get hired to play male roles in Shakespeare, at least, professionally (and hopefully soon, men will be hired to play female roles when there's reason), so I don't think there's any doubt of the educational value there.