I saw Much Ado About Nothing at the Classic Stages Company as produced by their Young Company. It was a 90 min romp through the land of Beatrice and Benedict et al, full of great physical acting and strong character choices. Set in the roaring 20’s, this highly entertaining show was, I’m sure, a hit with the high school kids that were the target audience for it.
I mean, as I type this, it sounds like I didn’t like the show very much, I did actually, very much enjoy it. However, it isn’t what I actually want to talk about today. Mostly because it brought up some questions that I have been circling around in my “real” life for a few weeks now. And I want to talk about those instead.
So, off to the races.
The nights watchmen were played by two wonderful actress, Danielle Faitelson and Natalia Miranda-Guzmán, while the priest was played by the lovely Sarah Eismann. Now, bare in mind, these women did WONDERFUL work in their respective rolls, that isn’t the point of this blog. The point is that all three women were cast in traditionally male rolls.
I know that Shakes gets a little iffy talking about “traditional” rolls, because, really, all Shakes’s rolls are traditionally male (actresses being both illegal and so scandalous for he time in which the plays were written that it just wouldn’t have been done ever!), there are some parts that are more “male” than others. To be honest, the cross gender casting in this show isn’t especially crazy. There was not cross casting in a part that was “sexed”. But even that raises the question – is cross gender casting ok?
First, some thoughts on how cross gender casting as it stands right now. (Just to be clear, for the moment, I am talking about Shakes and the other early moderns. I am not talking about plays that were written after the acceptance actresses) I feel like cross-gender casting means that women can be cast as anything and men can be cast as "funny parts" (like Nurse in R&J). The only time men are cast as "serious" rolls are when the show is either single sex, or the opposite part is also cross gendered - ie a male Juliet with a female Romeo.
Now, I posed this question on the most academic of places, facebook, to find out what others think. And I got some answers I hadn’t really thought about, among others: I” think part of the issue is that most of his plays feature few female characters. So, every time you cast a male Juliet, etc. a woman is out of a prime role in a play where there were few prime roles for them to begin with. I remember someone at a conference (I can't remember her name) saying that men dressing as women is automatically funny in our culture, but women dressing as men is not. She chalked this up to the fact that we very often see women wearing men's tailored clothing in public, but not the other way around. For instance, you see women wearing blue jeans everyday. You almost never see men wearing dresses, unless they are trying to be amusing or otherwise provocative.”
To me, this brings up several valid points about cross gender casting, and demonstrates how complicated an issue it actually is… to cast females as males denies wonderful actresses the opportunity to do great work in some great parts (for instance Caitlin Simkovich’s Pisano was some of the best work I’ve seen in that roll). But on top of that, to cast male in significant female parts (like Juliet or Lady McB), would be to break the social taboo that currently exists in our society. The short, harsh form - it is ok to be a boy, it is not ok to be a girl. I mean, I don’t think it’s on purpose, but I do think that our current culture is so strongly gender-ized as far as males are concerned that it makes true cross gender casting difficult.
Recently, I have gotten into two debates about author’s intent vs story debate on Twitter of all places. And then today I got into the gender casting in Shakes. Both of the conversation, I think, are actually the same conversation – how much does author’s intent matter in the telling of a story?
Shakes has an interesting thing here – not only is there cross gender casting, but also there is single sex casting (of both sexes). If you are cross gender casting with a single sex to - how does this effect the show? Maybe there are more historical questions that get brought up with an all male cast, but the heart of the question is the same – how does a single sex cast tell the story? What story does it tell? How important is it to tell the exact story that the author told, or is our job to tell the basis of the same story?
The Twitter part of this argument was actually about the Broadway version of Streetcar Named Desire that is currently in rehearsals. The show that Tennessee Williams wrote contains an all white cast. Blair Underwood leads the current cast on Broadway.
Personally, I can’t wait. I want to know how twisting the race of the cast of characters affects the Williams’ story. I want to know in what ways it is the same story I have seen before and in what ways it is different.
I do not believe in the supremacy of the playwright. I do not believe that stories cannot and should not change overtime. In fact, I believe that is one of the reasons Shakes has remained so successful – because his work is constantly changing – because it is just as easy to set Much Ado in Early Modern England as it is to set it in 1920’s America.
I do believe in supremacy of the story. The thing is, I’m not sure that the playwrights always tell the only story that can be told through their play. For instance, Shakes did not. If all Shakes was still done the way Shakes wrote them, they would be boring so quickly that the probably would not be read or performed quite quickly. In fact, I believe this is one of the reason that plays like Waiting for Godot do very well in a classroom to read, but not as well on a stage to perform. (The Beckett Society is known for being kind of anal about the way his shows are performed… just ask any producer who has ever had to deal with them… we all have stories. I think I actually think the Beckett Society is slowly strangling the life out of some great work.)
Look this is not to say that setting isn’t important. For instance, setting Streetcar Named Desire, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in, say, Boston, would no longer tell any story close to what Williams wrote. However, cross race casting a show that is set in a city that historically has a large African American population could tell, maybe not Williams’ original story, but a close enough facsimile that it, hopefully, will bring new light into the depth of a wonderful story. In the same way that a female Hamlet or a female Pisano can bring depth to those very human rolls.
I mean, there are some facts that matter, that need to be played the way the author wrote them. I talked about some of them while talking about Blood Knot. Others involve the setting of Tennessee Williams, the race of August Wilson, the sex of Boston Marriage or the time of Fifth of July. These things cannot be changed without losing the story entirely.
But where is that line? Where is the line that you cross in which you are no longer telling the same story? I guess it’s like porn, I’ll know it when I see it? Maybe we should all just live by the rule that anytime we do something that wasn't intended to a script, I think the ultimate question becomes - how does this help me tell the story better?
In fact, maybe anytime we do anything we should ask ourselves – how does this help me tell the story better?