This was going to be an essay about trains.
When I was ten years old, I saw the Robert Preston and Shirley Jones version of The Music Man for the first time. I was enthralled. I would march around the backyard with a tree branch conducing 76 trombones. I would bellow “W-w-w-w-ell, you got Trouble my friends!”
This was well before my household had a personal computer or the internet, so I couldn’t look up the lyrics of songs. I wanted to memorize all of the different parts to Rock Island, which is spoken word piece that opens The Music Man. Several salesman are sitting on a train and talking about their products and the scourge Harold Hill who is giving all other salesman a bad name by swindling towns out of money. The lyrics, performed percussively, mimic the sounds of a train leaving the station, picking up speed and slowing down at the next stop.
I used the interlibrary loan system to the libretto from another branch. Once it arrived, I set up chairs in my living room, switching seats as I learned all of the different parts. I was a quick study, and learned the entire number by the end of the week.
I shared this story at a rehearsal for The 39 Steps earlier this week. The 39 Steps isn’t a musical—it’s a play based on the Hitchcock film. It’s written for four characters: the handsome leading man, his three love interests (all played by the same woman) and two clowns, who play over 100 roles, ranging from policemen, to spies to underwear salesman on a train. The two clowns are traditionally played by two men.
(I’m going to warn you right now, this essay it not going to be told in linear fashion. We are going to jump back and forward multiple times, and that’s ok. If I were telling you this story in person, there would likely be moments of me saying “Well, wait, we have to go back ten years…but then remember the thing I said five minutes ago? Let’s go back there, now!” I thank you in advance for your patience.)
The reason that this essay was going to be about trains is that while we were blocking the train scene, it reminded me of memorizing Rock Island when I was a kid. One of the other actors looked at me and said, “Now, that’s a blog post.” And I added it to my to-do list without much thought.
It’s New Year’s day as I write this and I’ve spent the last couple of hours thinking that this needs to be more than a piece about trains and salesman. It needs to be about how my relationship to performing gender both onstage and off has changed. So here we go.
As I said before, the roles of the two clowns in The 39 Steps are usually played by two men. I want to unpack why this wasn’t the case for this show, why that’s a good thing and express my sincere hope that modern theatre starts/continues considering/putting into practice gender neutral/gender queer casting on a wider scale.
I’m going to use my personal journey with gender expression and performance as a (mostly) linear through line to demonstrate how many twists and turns I’ve experienced. And by doing that, we’ll eventually get to why I was cast as a man in The 39 Steps. (I promise!)
Back to ten year old me. I displayed the attributes of a tomboy (for lack of a better word), using the definition of tomboy as “a girl who enjoys rough, noisy activities traditionally associated with boys.” My best friend and I played with sticks as swords and chased each other around the backyard. We played Power Rangers, astronauts and aliens and when we learned and sang song from Disney movies, we stayed away from the princess songs and opted for the funny sidekick’s songs or the villain’s songs.
I am reminded here of a line from Sarah Galvin’s fantastic essay, My Whole Life I’ve Been Asked If I’m a Girl or a Boy: “I became Captain Hook as a child because Captain Hook was powerful—he could do things I had no evidence little girls could.”
I remember my mother preparing me for a video audition for a summer repertory theatre and saying I should audition for both Mary in The Secret Garden and Winthrop in The Music Man. The suggestion confused me: I was a girl, but I could pretend to be a boy?
At another audition, I insisted on singing Mister Mistoffelees from Cats. The folks sitting behind the audition table looked perplexed.
I began to look at the musical theatre cannon with a beautiful lens where I could go far any part I wanted to, regardless of gender. I watched Little Shop of Horrors and decided to memorize the Dentist’s song.
And then the big 12 came around. The summer I turned twelve, I went through puberty. I shot up several inches and it changed the way I felt in my body and how directors saw my body and how it fit into their vision of casting. That summer, I wanted to be the villain in the musical of Aladdin, but I got cast as the villain’s sister.
Spring of 1998. Sleeping Beauty. This was when the shit really hit the fan.
For the first time, I was cast as a romantic lead. I played the serving woman of the princess, who in this particular fairy tale version ends up with the prince. It was uncomfortable. I was having a hard time adjusting to my newfound height and breasts and periods…I felt lost. I looked to the older high school girls and their actions to see if I could mimic them for survival.
One of the things I saw the older girls doing was kissing each other on each cheek to greet one another. So, I kissed one of my friends on her cheeks when she came to see the show. Another girl witnessed this and spread a rumor throughout our middle school that I was gay.
I grew up in the Midwest, and I’ll have to admit that at 12 years old, I didn’t have a good grasp of what “gay” meant. What I knew was that I was getting verbally and physically assaulted at school because kids thought I was gay. I don’t remember telling my mom and I don’t remember telling any teachers. I felt that I had done something wrong and now no one liked me. My middle school logic dictated that:
gay = finding girls attractive = getting bullied
not gay = finding boys attractive = being left alone
I didn’t stop to ask myself if I actually did find girls attractive. I just wanted to feel safe at school.
Since my family didn’t have a lot of money, I wasn’t able to make a huge overhaul of my wardrobe. But I found myself making choices to perform my femininity as much as possible, having dramatic infatuations with boys that I made sure I told everyone about except the boy. These crushes never worked out. They weren’t meant to. I just wanted to display/show/perform/prove that I didn’t like girls, so-can-the-bullying-stop-now-please?
In high school, I did show choir and participated in the big annual musical. I played Mrs. Paroo in The Music Man, Ruth in Pirates of Penzance and Fantine in Les Miserables. In the summers, I participated in programing with The Young Shakespeare Players. YSP produced un-cut versions of Shakespeare’s works with ages 8-18. I got to play the Earl of Northumberland in Richard II, Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure and Iago in Othello. The kids who participated in YSP were not from my high school. They came from more liberal areas of Madison and its suburbs and many were homeschooled. Performing male roles felt safe there. And many other young women were doing it as well.
College gave me the space to think and learn and start becoming more of an individual. I took a class on God and Gender and my world cracked open. I became fascinated with Judith Butler and Gender Performance theory. A central concept of the theory is that gender is constructed through one’s own repetitive performance of gender.
“…if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance (last 3 words italicized) is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which he mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief. If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.” (Performative Acts and Gender Constitution An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory by Judith Butler.)
Learning about this theory didn’t necessarily change anything immediately about the way in which I performed my gender, but I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. There was freedom in discovering there was an aspect of choice when it came to gender.
For my senior project, I directed Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy. The title of the project was “Beyond Therapy: Beyond Social Constructions of Gender and Sexuality.” In the end, I was extremely proud of production and the conversations we had about gender theory in the rehearsal room (although I may have not been the most qualified person to lead those discussions.)
I moved to Whidbey Island the summer after I graduated college. I had just turned 22 and packed my life in my Toyota Camry, driving from Minnesota to Whidbey in two days. I became involved with the vibrant theatre community, and that’s where I met Deana Duncan.
Deana is the Programming and Production Director at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. When I auditioned for Sweeney Todd in 2008, I had my eyes set on the role of Mrs. Lovett. As I came into the callback, she asked me “Would you be willing to audition for Pirelli?”
As actors, we’re trained to say yes whenever possible to directors. So I said yes to her without thinking. And I got the part.
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.
Ada responded: “To me, that’s just like putty in your hand from a casting perspective, if you have somebody come in and there’s a…not to put it in a box, but let’s say androgyny to it or a lack of a construct of ‘this is a very feminine person’ or ‘this a is a very masculine person’ but you have a blend..you could really do anything with it.”
I am heartened by local companies like Copious Love Productions who have added the following language to audition notices: “Copious Love STRONGLY encourages all ethnicities, actors of color, ages and gender identities to audition for any role that interests you!”
As a bisexual, genderqueer performer, I see audition notices like this and it makes my heart sing. I’m thirty years old, and I feel more like myself than I ever before. I am more comfortable in my own skin.
I saw my first Drag King show last weekend. It was fantastic and I can’t wait to get up on that same stage and perform. I want to start working my way through my new musical theatre bucket list as a performer. It includes Sweeney Todd, the Street Singer from ThreePenny Opera, Harold Hill, Pippin, Judas from Jesus Christ Superstar, the Dentist from Little Shop, and The American in Chess to name a few.
I woke up this morning to see that one of my favorite writers, Ijeoma Oluo, had posted this on Facebook: “Let’s emancipate gender this year.”
Reading her words lit the fire under my ass to write this essay. So let’s do it. Let’s emancipate gender in theatre.