If you’re not familiar with the musical, Pirelli is an Italian barber who Sweeney challenges to a shaving duel. It’s a male role. I cut my hair shorter, bound my chest with Ace Wrap and used makeup to make my features read as more masculine. It’s higher tenor role, so I was able to sing most of the score as written, only transposing the lowest of notes. I had a pair of bright orange pants custom-made by the costumer. The experience was incredibly freeing as a performer. I got to simultaneously disappear and yet feel more like myself than I ever had before onstage.
Before season auditions in August, Deana and I were sitting at our good friend Matthew’s wedding talking about The Addams Family. I really wanted the role of Wednesday, which was written as 18-30 in the script. I felt confident that I could sing and act the role as strongly as anyone who came to audition, but acknowledged that the director might want to go with a more petite Wednesday (more about my experiences being a plus-sized actress here). I also expressed interest in playing Gomez, saying, “I mean, Pirelli…Gomez…they’re kind of the same guy.” We both laughed.
I went on to say that I wanted to list on the audition form that I was interested in/had experience playing male roles, but didn’t know how that would sit with a director who didn’t know me. And Deana’s eyes lit up. “You know, the two clowns in The 39 Steps, they’re traditionally played by men, but they wouldn’t have to be.”
I smiled and nodded politely. When I got a callback for the clowns in The 39 Steps, I was surprised by how much fun I had in the callback, rapidly shifting between different male characters. And by the end of the callback, I really wanted to be one of the clowns. I wanted to be one of the clowns more than I wanted to be Wednesday in The Addams Family. By the time I got home, there was already a voicemail from Deana offering me the role.
Deana recently visited the Off-Broadway run of The 39 Steps and took a backstage tour. When she told the producer that she had cast a woman in one of the clown roles, he raised an eyebrow.
“Are you sure you can do that?” He asked.
She replied that she checked with the licensing company that held the rights for the show and they had given her the go-ahead.
“I went with talent,” she explained.
I went with talent. I love those words. What wonderful words.
This is why I applaud this particular casting decision. Yes, it means I get to be a part of an amazing production. But what it also means is that she looked outside of what tradition casting was for this show—she expanded her vision of what the play was and chose actors who best served that vision, instead of locking herself into the way casting had traditionally been done for this show.
I’m delighted to be seeing more decisions like this one. The hit musical Hamilton tells the story of America’s Founding Fathers with a show-stopping group of multiracial actors. Creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda was quoted recently as being open to having women play the leading roles:
“I’m totally open to women playing founding fathers once this goes into the world. I can’t wait to see kick-ass women Jeffersons and kickass women Hamiltons once this gets to schools.”
Gender blind casting is sometimes a necessity in education settings—they’re simply aren’t enough men or boys to play the male roles, so girls get cast in those roles. How fantastic if what was once a necessity became more of a casting convention.
This past summer, I saw an all-female cast of 1776 on the Seattle Musical Theatre stage. 1776 is one of my favorite musicals, but it’s a show that only has two roles for women. I was deeply moved by this production, because the story didn’t lose anything for making the choice of having an all-female cast. The highly-committed performances of all the actors elevated the musical to new a new artistic level for me.
At most auditions I’ve been to post-college, there have been at least twice as many (if not three times) female actresses auditioning than male actors. In the script itself, the ratio is often reversed: two male speaking roles for every one speaking role for women. In a 2012 study conducted by The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins found that “…there is a stubborn 2:1 male-to-female problem in English theatre, which runs from boards of directors through to actors.”
Groups like The Kilroys are making great strides to increase awareness of female and trans* playwrights and challenge theatres to create gender parity in the plays they choose for their seasons. But what if theatres started to make decisions like “Regardless of the season we pick, we commit to hiring the same amount of male and female actors.”
I want to see more female Hamlets. An all-female cast of The Importance of Being Earnest. If we continue to produce theatre by dead white men, I want to see more and more gender blind casting and what that casting does to the story. Does it uncover other themes? Does it challenge what the original author meant? Does it inspire audiences to see gender in a completely different way?
In my recent interview with theatre artist Ada Karamanyan, we discussed what it means for casting directors to have gender neutral or gender queer actors come into the audition room.