Frailty thy name is woman? | Gendered Voices in Performance

By September 12, 2014 One Comment

This summer has brought a multitude of Shakespearean productions that seek to step out of the box and bring to the forefront discussions of gendered voices, gender politics, disability, and advocacy. And this investment into queering performances continues into the fall, at least in the GTA that is. I hope that this interest becomes a profitable ongoing conversation that scholars, theatre-goers, and public alike can continue to debate.

Allow me to introduce myself a little then. I’m Lauren, and I’m thrilled to be joining The Shakespeare Standard in the area of Voices. It has been my personal experience that personal voices are so very often misheard, or indeed not heard at all – particularly in the social sphere. My own research delves into the early modern language of “madness” as it was both performed on stages, and diagnosed in hospitals such as Bethlem and Bridewell. What was said about mental instability? What did those suffering from instabilities actually say? Did anyone write that down? Has the “mad” voice been archived? In questioning, and somewhat queering, this notion my theatre company (The Shakespearience Group) created a production entitled Fortunes Fools with the goal of invigorating our audience; to bring the misheard interpretations of madness to the audience, and allow them the opportunity to recognize our inabilities to actually cope with illness an even help other’s cope in some cases. This production centred around 3 women, and was therefore only performed by 3 women though they each spoke Shakespearean lines traditionally attributed to male characters. In one sense we questioned, perhaps queered, the voice of these women. However, their strongest moments occurred when speaking lines traditionally attributed to female characters though, of course, the original context for those female characters had been skewed in order to achieve this feat.

But we weren’t the first to try this, and I’m certain we won’t be the last. There is a true art in gender-bending, as proved by Shakespeare’s Globe’s recent touring productions that graced NYC: Twelfth Night and Richard III, starring Mark Rylance. I was fortunate enough to sit on stage for Rylance’s performance of Olivia in Twelfthe Night. It was a privilege to watch all of the cross-gender cast roles perform. There was an essence of grace and beauty, that funnily enough isn’t usually captured when women play the role. And that essence, whatever it is, is worthy of an investigation and couple thousand word paper on its own. The idea that I, as a woman who performs Shakespeare, can feel that way is mind boggling and awesome all at the same time. I’m continually fascinated when I can experience a role in a new way, particularly a role written as a specific gender, intended to be played by the opposite gender in costume, but a role which I would/have play/ed. And I’m thoroughly delighted when I see it performed so well that I don’t want to play it any longer because it clearly wasn’t written for my gender after all. But are enough conversations being had about such experiences?

Perhaps they are… This past spring-summer season The Manhattan Shakespeare Project produced an all female Romeo & Juliet. I was unable to see their production, but according to a review in the New York Daily News it was received well, as many of their productions are. They focus on the text. They cast all women. I see an inherent digestion of gendered voices for the audience as they eat up the meal of words laid out on the table before them. Interestingly, their website comments that it’s not a lesbian story. If it isn’t one, do we need to articulate that it isn’t? When we say something is or is not, either before or after an audience member views it, do we challenge their view of our gendered piece? By simply casting all women, gender is at the centre of the performance whether that be the intention or not. So, what happens when we do make it our intention? How provocative can we be?

Well this season at The Stratford Festival in Stratford Ontario, certainly pushed a few boundaries and brought current social concerns to the forefront. Even more exciting, they were very clear and reinforced gender equality, sexual equality, really equality any which way you look at it. I’m speaking here of their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the MainStage. If you visit their website for information about the play, you aren’t overtly aware that Lysander and Hermia are a lesbian couple in this production. Or that Titania and Oberon are both played by men, who have learned both roles, and alternate their performances (you have to specifically visit the cast page to infer this yourself). Nor are you told until you enter the theatre and read the program notes that the performance style is reminiscent of Victorian parlour performances (though set in modern dress) where the guests entertain one another with their scenes and song renditions. Why, you may ask? We were celebrating a marriage of course, between two men to balance the love interest between the female Lysander and Hermia. This performance also displayed the disabled voice alongside the unheard voices of gender/sexual inequality. Hermia’s father, Egeus, was deaf and mute – he corresponded through American Sign Language and a translator – which presented all dimensions of social injustice as characters interacted between the disabled community, the LGBTQ community, and stereotypical “traditional” communities on stage. It was fascinating to watch these negotiations on stage, which ultimately all culminated in one common stronghold: Love.

What if we love our voice, as women, as gendered beings, as scholars, as theatre fanatics, as different, as the same, as anything and everything? I’m hoping that love of experience, gender, voice, body, mind, and more is what I experience on Friday September 19, 2014 as I sit in the audience of Headstrong Collective’s production, in association with Urban Bard, of Romeo and (her) Juliet. From the title alone, I presume somewhat of an adaptation – however, their website indicates nothing out of the ordinary, except that there are many more female actors than male and that this is a “queer take on a classic love story”. Somehow I hope it isn’t all that queer – I hope it is what we should all be considering “normal”. Love is love. Text is text. The actor’s body might affect the audience’s reception of gendered voice, but it also might not. I think that we can certainly begin to embrace both options and present the story that Shakespeare wrote. I’m looking forward to experiencing Headstrong Collective’s production as well as for a day when cross-gendered casting, or playing up the gendered body/voice won’t be considered “bold” choices, because those elements were written into the works themselves. They are natural now, and were natural then. Let’s embrace choice, and love.

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