Culture | Playing a different role

Gender-neutral casting is becoming common in McGill theatre, but not everyone is down

Last November, Tuesday Night Café (TNC) Theatre’s restaging of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker starred Joy Ross-Jones, Amanda McQueen, and Melissa Keogh as two brothers and an elderly male vagabond who find themselves in close quarters. The three female actors embodied the male roles with style; The Daily’s own Johanu Botha declared director Laura Freitag’s cross-gendered casting decision “a success,” and the Tribune called the play “completely engaging.” Caretaker was not the only production last year to employ gender-neutral casting – TNC’s The Secretaries, The Bald Soprano, Players’ Henry VI: The Rise of York, and the Theatre Laboratory’s The Good Person of Sichuan also followed suit.

While Freitag’s gender-neutral casting served to heighten the theme of muddled identity underlying Pinter’s work, in an interview with The Daily, she identified two primary factors in her decision: the predominance of male roles in theatre, and the abundance of female dramatic talent at McGill. “The best characters – the most complex, the most interesting – were always written for men,” said Freitag, commenting on a patriarchal practice that is only slowly beginning to fade.

The dramatic arts, after all, are generally geared toward a male audience – it is uncommon for works to feature more than two female characters who not only speak to each other, but speak to each other about something other than the men in the play. Gender-neutral casting offers girls the chance to try their hand at embodying a wider range of characters than they would otherwise be restricted to, often forcing them, and their audiences, to abandon their conceptions of the beautified actor. “I cast women [in The Caretaker] who weren’t afraid to look ugly,” said Freitag.

Not only does gender-neutral casting sit well with the student body’s general belief in the principle that students deserve equal rights and opportunities, but directors are loath to turn away skilled actors on account of their gender. Jordana Weiss, executive director of Players’ Theatre, said “gender-neutral casting begins with equity in the casting process. After auditioning talented female after talented female, directors are more willing to explore the artistic results [of cross-gendered casting] when faced with these numbers.”

Freitag agreed, claiming “there are slightly more female actors at McGill than males, and females tend to be quite a bit more talented.” James Thorton, TNC’s executive director, attributes this phenomenon to the fact that girls, on average, begin performing at a younger age than their male counterparts, resulting in a deeper talent pool of female actors. A quick survey through the play listings of recent McGill productions lends credence to Freitag’s view that “there is greater repetition in male casting at McGill.”

This is not to say that gender-neutral casting only runs one-way. Mr. Thorton played Mrs. Smith in TNC’s production of The Bald Soprano last spring. Recounting his role in Eugene Ionesco’s surrealist masterpiece, which challenges the language and conformity ingrained within modern society, Thorton said there was “a deliberate ambiguity involved in casting me as a female. It called attention to the fact that ‘Mrs. Smith’ is merely two conjoined words that refer to something, which, in this case, was someone dressed as a man behaving with more effeminate gestures.” Cross-gendered acting does not necessarily entail dressing as a member of the opposite sex: Mrs. Smith was decked out in plaid slacks, a vest, and a tie. As Freitag put it, cross-gendered acting is “an exploration of the ambiguities of gender rather than sexuality.”

Despite broad support, however, the practice is definitely not ubiquitous in McGill theatre productions. Players’ production of 12 Angry Men, which runs until November 20, features an all-male cast. “I never knew that I wasn’t going to cast girls,” Natalie Gershtein, the play’s director, claimed. “It was ultimately a stylistic and logistical choice.” The play’s auditions attracted nearly fifty females, and roughly the same number of men, all reading for male parts. Although a handful made call backs, every female actor was eventually turned down (the entire crew, funnily enough, is female). “Unfortunately, few females could properly embody a man, with one exception,” said Gershtein, “So I considered the idea of one female and eleven males…but I realized that if I cast a woman, I would have to spend additional time helping her to fully embody a male, in addition to layering on the character, and I barely had enough time to work with the guys as it is.”

Perhaps McGill theatre is not as blind to gender as many might wish. Directors appear, for the most part, to employ gender-neutral casting either when it leaves the main underlying themes of their plays untouched, or serves to enhance them. Freitag, for example, intends to have actors cross genders in the upcoming Attempts on Her Life, written by Martin Crimp, with which she intends “to criticize the social construction of a singular identity and the absurdity of it.” Gershtein was acutely aware that casting a lone female in 12 Angry Men* was “a statement that I didn’t want to make…I didn’t want to pin women up against men.” Gender-neutral casting remains a thematic, or even a political, commitment, and not always one that a director believes to be in their play’s best interests.