RECLAIMING THE PAST...
I have been a professional actor and theatre practitioner for over ten years, both in Canada and the UK. I use the term actor, as many of my female colleagues do- a doctor is a doctor and a lawyer is a lawyer, regardless of their gender. And yet I am constantly challenged on my use of that term- “Don’t you mean actress”? In order to avoid a lengthy debate in an awkward social/professional situation, I usually respond that I can be either as long as you pay me for the job.
This obsession with identifying a performer’s ability with their gender is most prevalent in the world of classical theatre. Recently, the bulk of my work has been in Shakespeare and classical performance (check out OUR definition of the term "Classical Performance" on our Diversity page). Though I relate to the material on many levels that have nothing to do with gender, I find it increasingly frustrating to be a woman in a predominantly white-male milieu. Contemporary playwrights are revolutionising theatre, pushing every boundary towards shattering the glass ceiling and diversifying our stages. However, I do not believe we should leave our classical stories in the dust as relics and reminders of our patriarchal, colonial past. We must take charge of them towards reconciliation and reclamation. These are the stories that have shaped our world and we have as much right to tell them as anyone else.
I have been fortunate enough to play many of Shakespeare’s great female roles and I have by no means exhausted the canon (yet), but despite my wealth of experience in the genre, I’ve hit a casting wall that is almost entirely because of my gender. As a female actor in classical theatre, it gets to a point where you’ve played the Queen or the Princess or the Young Lover over and over, and once you’ve played Lady Macbeth, there are one or two parts to fill the vast age gap before Cleopatra. Then, your little life is rounded with the Agèd Duchess roles.
Compare that trajectory with what a male actor can expect from a life in classical theatre. His great roles –Hamlet, Macbeth, Brutus, Shylock, Prospero, Lear- will see him through decades of performance with each role offering a new and thrilling challenge. Even the so-called “secondary” male roles offer extraordinary opportunities for growth and exploration of the human condition. If we were so bold as to disregard the imbalance of female to male role ratios, the quality of those roles still doesn’t stand a chance of passing the Bechdel-Wallace test as most female characters only talk about love, motherhood, piety, and men. It is not a secret that Shakespeare’s male roles are more complex than his female roles. There are many perfectly sound logistical reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that it was illegal for women to appear on stage. He had an audience to please and censors to satisfy and budgets to balance. We cannot lay blame solely on Shakespeare and his contemporaries if, from our vantage point 500 years on, we have failed to bring these timeless plays closer towards gender equality.
It took nearly 400 years for us to see the first female actor play Hamlet. Sarah Bernhardt’s portrayal in 1899 has come down to us through the ages as a victory for gender equality on stage, but we often forget that she was only ever allowed to play Hamlet because the character was effeminate. Weak. Contrary. Melancholy. Cowardly. Women were represented within a confined series of characteristics, though Shakespeare often flew in the face of these type-casting adjectives. Our evolution away from these ridiculously restrictive portrayals of women has been snail-slow and even modern sensibilities struggle to see women as persons capable of a wide range of emotion, thought, characteristics and experiences.
Of course, it has to be said that when it comes to female performers in the classical theatre, we’re only talking about women of a certain size, shape, age and cultural background. The accepted “norms” of the classical world, being built and enforced by patriarchal and colonial forces, privilege only certain women to appear on stage. Classical actresses must be seen as attractive enough, demure enough, non-threatening enough to realistically embody these archetypal roles. This rigid cookie-cutter has been shaping both our female actors and our ideas of what women should look and sound like since the very birth of theatrical performance.
Whilst trying to fit within the confines of this “ideal female actor”, we are also competing for the smallest piece of the classical theatre pie. The statistical probability of a woman (once she’s deemed “ideal”) getting work in a classical production is incredibly slim. In Shakespeare’s canon, only 16% of roles are written as female. What is perhaps most upsetting is the trickle-down effect this has on our training systems. Despite her interest in or inclination towards classical theatre, any woman who is different or “other” in some way will likely be told that there are not enough opportunities for “her casting” in classical theatre, thereby eliminating any possibility of building skills in classical performance. If she is visibly different (ie not white, slim, 5’8 and hetero-normative) she is doubly marginalized by the industry before she even has a chance to try, purportedly for reasons of career sustainability.
As an actor, I have very little agency in this battle. I need the support of a director to give me a soapbox to stand on in order to share these stories with an audience. Although this frustrates me to no end, I eventually rallied to the decision that I could be that director. I could offer this platform for women. I have the experience, the drive, a plan to hone my skills, and the support of female artists I admire in our community. I propose that the best way I can contribute to the diversification and evolution of the classical theatre tradition is to build an all-female company, dedicated to creating more opportunities for women of all backgrounds to tell the stories from which we have been barred.
I came to this initially from an actor’s perspective, but we must also acknowledge the impact classical theatre has on our audience and society’s view on classical theatre. Most audiences are terrified of the antiquated world of the classics, partially because of the language, but also because it has garnered a reputation as highbrow material fit only for the educated. Shakespeare’s universal stories have fallen far from their initially broad scope, intended to be as relatable for the Groundlings as for the Queen herself. They have become elitist, white-washed, and almost completely inaccessible for the majority of modern theatre-goers. Despite the buzz surrounding a handful of recent gender-balanced projects, a lack of gall in modern productions has left these precedents unchecked and unchallenged.
I believe that our efforts towards gender equality go hand in hand with the fight for diversity across the genre. As an all-female classical theatre company, By creating more jobs for women in the sector, the Tiger's Hearts Collective is opening the floodgates to acceptance and visibility of “otherness” in classical theatre, welcoming new audiences to old stories long withheld, and rewriting classical theatre traditions to be inclusive and accessible for all of us.