Saturday, April 14, 2007

Question of Numbers

I went to a play the other night with a couple of friends. There, I saw a couple of students I know, including one who's a theater type, in the audience.

The play was so-so. Another play by a famous living white guy, supposed to be terribly existentially meaningful. But the play felt so slow that I kept imagining if Shakespeare had written it. First, there'd have been a fair bit of murder or mayhem. And, I realized, there'd be more than the very small cast.

How irritating was the play, you ask? The people behind and next to me needed to consult their programs and explain to each other what the heck was happening, not because things were confusing, but because so little was happening that they couldn't quite believe that nothing was happening. (Now I'm just being mean.)

The theater was lit and small enough, and semi-in-the-round, so that I could see the audience, and I couldn't help looking over at the theater student I know.

The play has one female role, and a couple of male roles. That's it.

For the modern playwright who probably thinks about getting his play produced professionally in expensive venues, a small cast must seem like a very good idea, fewer people to pay and all that.

But even so, I want to kick the playwright where it counts and ask, why ONE female role? I don't know the playwright's work well enough to make broad assertions, but my vague sense is that he usually writes plays with one or two female roles and several more male roles, or no women's roles at all.

And I can understand that imbalance when I think about how Shakespeare's theater companies were organized, but nowadays, we have, you know, women and they act and all professionally. So why the continued imbalance?

Thinking in terms of the modern collegiate theater department, I can't imagine why anyone would choose to produce this play. The theater department has more female than male majors. The theater department has an abundance of students who want to be involved and audition for productions.

Why the heck would one choose to produce a play with so few parts, and only one female part?

I can hear a certain backlash from the folks who think that kids who try out for little league shouldn't get on a team if they're not "good enough." Disappointment does build character. But what's the point here?

If little league is intended to develop future professional ball players, then I don't want my taxes paying for the local fields, because it's a waste of money. (Professional sports could disappear tomorrow and the world would not be adversely affected; heck, if half the couch quarterbacks got out and threw the ball around themselves, at least they'd be making less of a mess.) If, on the other hand, it's intended to get kids out in the sunshine playing, learning to work cooperatively, having fun, etc, then I'm happy for my taxes to contribute.

At the collegiate level, what's the point of theater? Is it to develop actors who will become professionals? Maybe at Julliard it is, but out here in the Northwoods, not so much, I hope.

I think we do theater productions so that our students can learn teamwork, learn drama and theater, learn skills at presentation and performance, learn management and balancing skills, learn about culture and the arts, and yes, have fun. Some students learn a lot by going to plays. I'm one of those learners. Some will have a life enriched by years of community theater.

The opportunity to be in plays is special, and we should be extending that opportunity more rather than less widely, encouraging more students from across the campus community to be involved.

I'm sure the theater folks choose the plays they do carefully and thoughtfully. Their choices just don't often make much sense to me (well, except when they choose Shakespeare, as one did this year). I don't think it's that I don't like modern plays, either; I enjoy modern plays a fair bit, and teach them when I teach our intro to drama class. I can think of a dozen modern plays that would really be great to see here, that would challenge and entertain the student actors and the audience members.

There's an easy solution to the gender imbalance in this play, of course. They could have just gone with gender blind casting.

A decade or so ago now, I saw a fabulous performance of Richard the Third by the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. A female actor played Richard, and she was stunningly good in the part. It wasn't about her gender, it was about her acting.

I've never seen our theater department use gender blind casting for any but the spear-carrier type roles, and then the extra women always do the parts. (My colleague in the department DID use a female actor to play a male role in the high school summer production last year, though; so it's not impossible.)

I would be thrilled beyond belief to see them try gender blind casting where it counts.

But, I've heard it said that the two most conservative institutions are the academy and the theater. I have medieval robes in my office, so I know the one is true. The other seems pretty true from where I sit.


  1. What a great post. (and I love love love Shenandoah Shakespeare Express.) I hope theater and music and other such things don't go the way of sports, where kids have to train and specialize earlier and earlier to have any hope of participating even at the high school level. I think that both sports and the fine arts in high school and college ought to be a place for experimentation and fun, where you can dabble in something without needing to have chosen and trained for it since the age of five.

  2. I've wondered a bit why casts seem to be getting ever smaller. I've decided that it's one of two things: the playwright is trying to do the modern minimalist painting with the fewest possible colors thing, and/or it's a reaction against the giant Broadway Andrew Lloyd Weber *productions.* Geez, I hate that guy. My $0.02.

    However, it would be interesting to see productions wherein casting rules were cast aside. The closest I think I've seen to that is a man singing the line "Could I bury my rage with a boy half your age in the grass? Bet your ass." Which was 'radical,' in New York, in a Sondheim production, in the 1990's (eyeroll).

  3. pilgrim/heretic, SSE just rocks!

    HeoCwaeth, Playing with gender in casting and such can be incredibly powerful. I saw a version of The Tempest one time where Ferdinand ended up with Caliban. It worked! But in general, it would give women lots more opportunities to play some great roles. And it would give men some opportunities for different challenges. BUT, I think we have to think hard about the *Tootsie* type effect, wherein it takes a man to teach women how to be women and such (same sort of thing in *To Wong Foo...*