I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts on the inevitability of gender politics being at play in our all-female production of Romeo & Juliet.
First thing I’m going to say straight up: I am (at least) as ignorant as your average person on the intricacies of gender issues, sexism, and discrimination. I have opinions, but they’re probably hopelessly simplistic and shamefully underdeveloped. I’d welcome anyone to pick apart any of the following ideas, and show me all the ways I’m wrong. Please offer your response in the comments. (Also, these are my thoughts, which might not necessarily reflect the specifics of everyone in the company.)
Context: there is a production of Romeo & Juliet happening with an all-female cast. The show was conceived by two guys and two girls, and is being made happen by three guys and one girl. The three guys are directing, and the girl is producing and acting. The name Smooth Faced Gentlemen is being used to describe the people involved and the subsequent company that might emerge from the idea. The three guys are known as Three’s Company and I’m one of them (despite my girly name). The relationship between the entities known as “Three’s Company” and “Smooth Faced Gentlemen” is undefined.
Right. Got that? Good.
Now, some people are gonna ask what a theatre company run by men is doing setting up an all female Shakespeare troupe. I always thought it might seem paradoxical – or worse, paternalistic – that an all female company is formed by a group that are mostly male, but
- the concept is an all female cast, not company – it’s about telling the same stories using a different paintbrush
- it’s a great idea, (and it’s working really well), so who cares what percentage of the founders have what percentage of chromosones or what gender they identify themselves as, and
- we have done, so there.
Obviously the third argument is silly, and though there’s logic in it, it’s doesn’t allow for much discussion. The second argument makes sense, but personally I think it’s even more problematic, logically.
But the first point is what the company stands on (in my perception of it).
I talked briefly about our intention to create shows that aren’t all labelled as a comment on gender.
Sure, you can’t avoid making a comment on something inadvertenly if you interact with it. Your views seep through and soak into the work. Your preconceptions are revealed and baked into the finished product. And even if you’re a robot with any underlying unconscious beliefs, the precise social context in which you live and work imbues even the most innocuous ideas with the potential to say something to others.
But we reckon that being a company that exists outside the show means an audience can judge a show and its potential politicism on its individual merits – rather than expecting it to be there. I can’t satisfactorily explain why, but consider the difference between a company saying “this time, I’m going to do a production of Julius Caesar using only female actors” and “we create shows using only female actors and this time we’re doing Julius Ceasar”. It just feels different, right?
This way, the company get the option to explicitly choose to say something explicit about gender – or any other issue or idea – or not.
That choice would lead, and be led by, the team and choice of play for any given production. Some shows could and should be asking questions about gender and sexism in the world today; others would and could be nothing more than a different lens to tell a well-loved story.
A different lens. A different brush. Literally, a different voice. It gives a starting point for a director to approach a show, and it gives a fresh angle for an audience to look from. Maybe the actors find new insights into male characters with the benefit of objectivity. Maybe the challenges it poses lead to interesting solutions that bring something new. Maybe the dynamic or relationships are changed subtly or dramatically and it helps us see a different emphasis, balance, or subplot we’d never caught in a story we know inside out. Or maybe it’s as inconsequential as casting a show using only people with ginger hair, or people who grew up in the North East, or people who have cousins in the armed forces, or choosing actors by a roll of the dice.
What excites me is that it doesn’t matter much. This is the amazing thing; as soon as we got rehearsing, I forgot that most of the characters don’t share their gender with the people that portray them. I think an audience will just get swept into one of the greatest stories ever written.
And personally, if I (personally) was trying to say anything with this show, it’s that – it’s not important. A story is a story, an actor is an actor. If you’re seeing something political, whether you find it resonant, interesting, or wrong, it’s your interpretation. I wanna hear it, because it’s marvellous how works can output meanings that were never put in – like a magician’s hat, or the library at the Unseen University.
But a character transcends the body of the actor that channels it, and lives in your mind. If we show an audience a shiny new studio with a fire exit sign showing, and they see a street in the dusty heat of Verona, we can ask them to believe that Leila Sykes is a lovesick young man. And if we can’t do the first thing then it really doesn’t matter what gender the actors are.
So. Reigning in the ramble.
Question: Is it paradoxical or paternalistic for a guy to have those views? Is it, as someone said, chauvanistic for three guys to direct an all-female cast?
(Disclaimer: I want the answer to be ‘no’ because I want to keep working on the show.)
Even if it were an idea that just a group of guys had had, choosing female actors in thsi case is not chauvanistic. It’s an aesthetic choice. We’re neither revering nor disrespecting any gender because we aren’t thinking about it in those terms. We’ve chosen a colour from our palette, an instrument from the orchestra, and there’s nothing wrong with that, whoever we are.
You might argue that a show with only women in won’t work as well. You might argue that a woman could do a better job of directing a show with only women in. But anyone who says we’re somehow morally questionable for choosing that medium, seems to me, to be the ones who have issues with their perception of gender.
So if you’re going to call us chauvanistic, or think we’re behaving unethically, I’d like to you to one of five things:
- Remember that we are eight women and three men, and everyone has input into the project.
- Explain why we’re wrong to our faces (or using a psuedonym on the internet) and we’ll take it on board
- Set up your own all-female Shakespeare theatre company.
- Come join us and help us make the company better (my favourite option). Seriously, the more the merrier. Help us change if you think we’re wrong.
- Go away and watch something else (my least favourite option). You can’t please everyone.
Chauvanistic? No. Opportunistic, maybe. We saw a great idea, and we wanted to be a part of it. And now we see an opportunity to create something amazing, with a great group of actors, and we see something special happening before us, and heck, I’m not gonna pass up on that.