Yesterday, thestar.com reported on announcements from two prominent Canadian theatre companies that said they would be featuring female actors in lead Shakespearean roles - Why Not Theatre will have Christine Horne as Hamlet and Canadian Stage will have Diana D'Aquila will play King Lear in High Park. (See To she or not to she: Toronto stage productions reimagine Shakespeare.)
I've been thinking about the role of women and the roles FOR women in Shakespeare for many years.
When I was the artistic director of the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival, we would see so many exceptional women audition each season - and frustratingly were faced with limited opportunities for female-assigned roles as Shakespeare wrote them.
According to a blog post from the Oxford University Press entitled Five astonishing facts about women in Shakespeare, there are seven times as many roles for men as there are for women in Shakespeare’s plays. Of the total 981 characters, 826 are men while only 155 are women; that means that women account for less than 16% of all Shakespearean characters.
So each year I would try and gender-flip a role or two - Benvolio became Benvolia in 96's R & J, a female Flute in 98's Midsummer didn't ruffle any feathers, but it really wasn't until a decade later that I had "the balls" to produce an all-female Shakespeare production.
2008's Much Ado About Nothing was like nothing I had ever taken on before. Instead of gender-flipping roles, we asked the actors to embody the gender of the assigned role - and, "oh boy," did they ever!
I have never seen such immersive work as these women undertook to truly embody their male characters. Voice, makeup, gesture, and head-to-toe body work enthusiastically consumed the players - they even organized a penis-making party on an off-night to experiment to find the right weight and feel for their adopted appendages!
The show was a great success. Thanks to the pains that the actors took to truly become the male royalty, soldiers, lovers and comedians of the play, I like to think that the audiences quickly moved beyond "the gimmick" and reveled in the story purely on its own merits. It was truly a privilege to be a part of.
The success of that experience gave me more confidence to continue with more diverse gender casting moving forward - but it still didn't feel completely "right." Women playing male characters still produced stories led in the male "voice".
What would happen if the story itself was told in a female voice? Would it still stand up?
So when brainstorming the guidelines for Persistence over the last couple of months, I knew that I wanted the company to be able to take on the (re)telling of Shakespeare's stories as part of its mandate.
The persistent huddle challenged me: "Jenn, we can't just do Shakespeare because you want to - how to you envision justifying it within a feminist company?"
"Because Shakespeare is universal," I exclaimed. "Because, because, we just HAVE to!"
Well, we managed to wring a truth out of my ramblings after all. The applicable guideline that we came up with is:
So in some circumstances, that will mean we produce a Shakespeare production.
My first plan to to present a gender flipped Julius/Julia Caesar in the spring of 2018 - I have thought for many years that the power dynamics of that play will place itself well in a matriarchal environment.
But this guideline also gives Persistence the ability to look at the entirety of theatrical work and examine which stories hold up told in a female voice.
Glengarry Glen Ross? Twelve Angry (Wo)men? Waiting for Godot?
Who knows? It's a brave new world, and I'm excited to be a part of it.