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Open-Gender Casting

Does it ever happen to you that you learn a new word or meet a new person and suddenly that person or word is everywhere? This happens to me all the time—I’m sure it does to you, too. Recently, I started on a new script that involves a couple that I’m writing as heterosexual, but as I was creating the character list I thought to myself, “well, I guess they don’t really have to be a man and a woman.” So I made a note that while I’m telling a story about a man and woman, it could be a same-sex couple as well. Then my friend Chris Garza, a director and writer in the Twin Cities, posted on Facebook (the origin of all great artistic conversations) that he started reading a new play with the understanding that the main couple was homosexual but realized halfway through that it in fact might be a straight couple. And if that were true, was he allowed to cast it same-gendered anyway? Most responses he got were to contact that playwright (which he did, and he’s keeping his choice a secret until you go see it), but it got me to thinking: is it time for us to start a real conversation about open-gender casting?

I’m not just talking about cross-gender casting here—for a long time Shakespeare has been the playground for all kinds of gender experiments. I’m talking about the modern canon of plays from the past century (which comprises most of our theater-going experience): is there a place at the table to talk about roles originally written for one gender being opened to the other? Now I know that I don’t need to cite recent casting controversies at major regional theaters to note that the debate over casting people of different races is far from over. We as a profession can’t seem to get it together when it comes to “nontraditional” casting issues, so I’m hesitant to even bring another loaded topic to the conversation. But, I have to bring this up because of the excitement generated by this simple change—a character shifting from one gender to another—such a change could bring about such a monumental shift in meaning for any play that may have been explored thoroughly over the decades. What amazing things could we find if a character (or multiple characters in one play) shifted from a man to a woman or vice versa? If a couple shifted from straight to gay? In plays where gender is not the “main” issue (or they’re not historical characters), is there a real reason why characters have to be one gender or the other? I do not have the answers to any of this. I don’t really work inside the regional theater system.

What amazing things could we find if a character (or multiple characters in one play) shifted from a man to a woman or vice versa? If a couple shifted from straight to gay?

I know a lot more about creating nonconventional, original pieces of theatre than about producing a season at an Equity house, where I believe this discussion would stir up the most dust. But as a frequent audience member at regional theatres, I do know that every time someone makes a simple but intentionally noticeable change to a story I know well—like Molly Smith’s recent production of Oklahoma! at Arena or Richard Garner’s The Tempest at Georgia Shakespeare (wherein a woman played Prospera many years before it was a movie)—I lean forward in my seat, and I find meanings in that story that were unavailable before. The idea of open-gender casting excites me. As a woman, that roles unquestionably reserved for men could be available to actresses gets my wheels turning quickly. It makes me want to return to “the canon,” because what could it do for our Williams, Millers, Wilders, Wilsons, Pinters, Becketts, and Albees? Is it sacrilegious or progressive? Would it bring in new audiences who haven’t seen their stories being told? Would writers of new plays make more of their characters available for it? What plays could this work really well for? How could playwrights indicate the green light for open-gender casting in their scripts? Is it already happening or being discussed and I don’t know about it?

Helen Mirren as Prospera.
Helen Mirren as Prospera in The Tempest directed by Julie Taymor

I have no answers, obviously. Mostly questions. And I want to hear as many opinions as possible. There is only one rule: you can’t use the words “pro” or “con.” This is not a staff meeting. If you have problems with it, great. What are they? If you love it, tell me the first play that you would stage with open-gender casting. Or what you think could happen if someone turned a well-known straight couple in a play into a gay one. Or if you know of theatre artists who already doing this. Or something else that excites you about it. Just join the conversation.

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I'm currently a graduate student of theatre studies and am about to write a paper about this very subject. I'm glad you wrote an article about your interest in it because that's what got me interested in the subject in the beginning - that perhaps now is the time to be looking at open gender casting. Roles can become the opposite of the heteronormative - women can play men and men can play women. These changes can bring a whole new level to plays that perhaps wasn't originally intended, but might bring a whole new audience to the theatre and bring a new understanding of many playwright's works. This has already semi-begun in various theatres here in the US and Britain, but as you said, the Equity scene shakes their head and points to their season budget. But I'm so glad you wrote about this! Now I know that my research won't be in vain, the theatre community is beginning to get interested!

Years ago, I remember reading that Jean Genet had originally wanted the roles of Solange and Claire to be played by young men in his play, "The Maids." The original casting featured women in the roles. The role of Madame could be played by a drag queen--so obviously written for one with all her outrageousness. I heard that Charles Busch produced a production of "The Maids" several years ago. I wish I had gotten a chance to see it. I'll bet it was faaaaabulous.

I was one of several people involved in an advisory capacity with a 24-hour play project in an educational theater setting; the director for one piece cast a woman in a male role and a man in a female role. The play went on to be the crowd favorite and to win its writer the award for best play -- but the playwright was furious. (Part of her anger was completely understandable, as she hadn't been involved in the casting decision. All the advisors were unanimous in our dutifully pedantic scolding that the playwright not having a voice in that process was unacceptable (though the fact that the playwright had in fact made herself unreachable during the last 12 hours of the process did not go entirely unremarked upon by some of the players).)

The point, though: some of the playwright's defenders were livid that the director had changed the sex of the characters. I had to keep clarifying that, for what it was worth, the director had not, in fact, changed the sex of the characters; the characters' sex was the same, but the actors playing them were unconventionally cast. The result could have been totally distracting burlesque, and I have no idea what the director's intention was, but the result in performance did inject the play with an added layer of salience about sex roles and gendered expectations, illuminating rather than obscuring the script.

Hi Susan. Fancy meeting you here! :-)

I would say that the issue of "the classics" brought up by you and then by someone else around the Godot/Beckett question is a rather major one, and shows the complex ways in which conservatism in American Theatre also has a great deal to do with the question of playwrights' "intentions" v. directorial "interpretations." I know from my own frustrated directorial desires to do a gender-f---d version of Ionesco's The Lesson that it would be a major transgression of Sam French's licensing to do so. I'd be willing to bet it is true for most of our favorite classics -- the ones we would most like to gender bend, queer, etc.

What this says, in part, is that "new interpretations" are not what people in the playwrighting, or play publishing business are interested in. A sad state of affairs when talking about a play that has already been successfully produced around the world for over sixty years... What harm could a single production do to a "classic" like "Godot?"Unless of course you're a playwright like Chuck Mee, who makes his plays available for free download on his website, and is open to the gender of characters being changed.

I'm not sure how much can be done towards winning the first battle. But it's certainly worth making waves in communities of current playwrights to consider the question: to what degree is gender itself shaping the kind of story I can tell? What would it to do the art of playwriting, and to my story to consider gender more flexibly, at least in what permissions I give about casting.

In an increasingly gender-conscious (and also gender f---d-up) world, it seems important to breech this subject more and more. I know and work with men and women theatre artists, gay, straight, and in-between, who strongly disidentify with the gender binary, and with their own perceived, assigned, gender, which is a personal, a social, AND an artistic issue we still have to grapple with.

Thanks for posting!
Michele Minnick

Although I am not giving legal advice here, as a starting point, you will need some type of a license agreement to produce a copyrighted play. All of the licenses that I have seen from the major play-licensing agencies do include provisions, worded in a variety of ways, that state that you cannot make any changes in the characters or characterizations. Some also include provisions that state that you need to follow the playwright's intent. So, in general, it will be a breach of contract to change the gender. That said, some playwrights will, when asked, grant permission to change the gender. Michele makes an interesting comment: "What harm could a single production do to a 'classic' . . . ?" I have, for several years thought that the copyright laws, as they relate to plays, should be tweaked to allow derivative works (i.e. changes in the scripts) to be made after a much shorter time period than; allowing enough time for a play and playwright to become a "classic" or established. The playwright, under such a scheme would still be getting royalties and perhaps the credit line would have to reflect that the production made changes from the original text.

You also raise some non-legal issues too, of course. While all of us humans are the same in many ways, we are also different! Changing the gender of a character might not necessitate changing the text, but the backstory of the characters changes. It would certainly be fun to explore those changes, because it would probably help us all understand eachother better!

I've always wanted to see a production of "All My Sons" with a woman playing Joe Keller, making it a married lesbian couple at the heart of the play. I think it would make a great case study, to take something out of the era where the head of the house hold, the working man who makes all the tough decisions, was presented modernly with a strong leading lady. What sympathies are inherent when it's now a mother making those decisions and not the father. And then seeing how the other actress portrays a character designed to be submissive to the male part of the relationship, trying to figure out that character as someone from "today".

I think it would be even better if a company presented a play, like "All My Sons" or "Streetcar" or "The Birthday Party", as it was written in the time it was written, then have a modern production with open-gendered casting in the same season.

Years ago, in ACT's summer training congress program, during the final presentations of the program, two female students set up their scene - beachwear, towels, tote bags, etc, and then played 'Didi' and 'Gogo' from Waiting for Godot. It was fantastic, but I'm sure the Becket estate would never allow a full production with this interpretation. I feel like this is one of the difficulties w/open-gender casting.

I have played a female Toby Belch in a 21st century 12th Night set in Hollywood (think celebrity hanger-on family members like Dina Lohan), and a female Solicitor Mayhew in Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution. I feel strongly that open-gender should be considered for Shakespeare when the time/place is moved to the 20th or 21st century - it reflects contemporary society where women participate in more arenas (gov't, military) than they might have in the past. In the case of the Agatha Christie piece - some cared, some didn't - there was historical precedent - England's first female solicitors happened in the 1940's and Witness is set in the mid-50's.

You're exactly right about one of the difficulties being limitations by playwrights' estates. Godot is the famous play for difficulties in any kind of interpretation, but I wonder what the actual rules say for other major playwrights' estates? I guess it would be a case-by-case basis?

I would love to see a gender flipped Streetcar, but we are well aware that the Williams Estate does not allow it. I think that is a shame because Williams was experimental and the people making decisions about his canon today might not reflect how Williams himself may or may not be open to gender open casting. The Estates policies may actually might dampen some incredible opportunities for the work to be seen.

Years ago, when I was first starting out as a playwright, I had actor friends over to read a short play of mine. The two characters were women, so the two women actors there read the play.

Then someone had the idea to have the two men read the play. I was fascinated! I learned a lot about the characters and my assumptions about what they were like, just from hearing men read the parts.

Of course that's a far cry from casting in performances.

There was an all-female production of "Long Day's Journey into Night" here in Seattle recently. I didn't get a chance to see it, but I heard many good things about it.