Queering the canon4:19, 22nd March 2018
When Ed Boulter-Comer realised that most plays are weighted towards male characters – despite the make-up of theatre audiences being primarily female – he decided to rebalance the scales. Here he shares his experiences with gender-blind casting
I didn’t set out to write a queer play. Last year, I was fishing around for our next main production; every other year it’s a musical, so it needed to be an actual play. A colleague had seen a Jacobean city comedy he half-remembered, of which the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) had done a remake. I read it. (The original, not the RSC one – we wouldn’t have acquired the rights.) It was fairly funny, rude in parts, and it was ‘old’ and therefore ‘real theatre’. That would go down well – perfect. Ah. It had only three women in the cast.
It wasn’t Thomas Middleton’s fault. He wrote A Mad World My Masters in 1605, a full 55 years before Margaret Hughes took to the stage as Britain’s first female actor. In that light, three female roles is quite generous. It did, however, feed into a depressing narrative about gender in British theatre and drama classrooms.
Of the almost 13,000 students who began AS/2 drama courses in 2013 when Ofsted last compiled the numbers, just over 4,000 were registered as male. Nearer 9,000 were identified as female (source: www.tinyurl.com/td-summer1-drama). Women make up 70% of our classroom cohorts and yet, when it comes to theatre prior to the 1980’s, we have precious little to offer them. (Try this game: ask a colleague to name a female-majority play. Give a point for any suggestion that isn’t The House of Bernarda Alba or Top Girls.)
The situation in professional theatre fuels inequality in the classroom. Only a third of acting roles, a third of directors and a third of playwrights identify as female. Women might buy 70% of tickets and form 67% of audiences but they shouldn’t expect to see themselves or their ideas on stage, it seems. People are working on it: Rufus Norris has committed to gender equality for directors and living writers at the National Theatre by 2021, while Tonic Theatre under Lucy Kerbel does impressive work and Kerbel’s guide 100 Great Plays for Women (Nick Hern Books) should be in every drama department. But I didn’t have time for a drip-down economic model to work. I needed a play for this academic year, so I decided to cast the play gender blind.
Similarly to many theatre companies, we’ve been casting plays race blind at Fettes College for years. If there is no significant exploration of race as a factor in a text, we cast purely on talent – and no one bats an eyelid. For genderblind casting, we considered what the significant elements of the characters were – cheeky, lovable, hapless – and cast the best people we could. We explained to the students that they might read a part in which the gender of the character was different to their own in the audition, but that the makeup of the play was not set and would be based on them, as much as the original text.
Once we had the cast, it became apparent that swapping the names of the characters around would not be enough. Our leading man had become a leading lady and our leading lady was still a lady. They were gay. Okay. My school, Fettes College, was the second School in Scotland to be awarded the Gold Charter Mark by LGBT Youth Scotland for its policies and support for LGBT+ pupils and staff. I had no concern about putting LGBT+ characters on stage. But our leading lady was a successful prostitute and had relations with male clients. So, she’s bi..? Focusing on a gender binary in casting had opened up the full rainbow of orientations and genders.
The play took on a new politics. The denouement of the main plot sees the leading man getting his comeuppance, when he discovers his new wife was a mistress to his uncle. All the uncomfortable connotations of the woman as tainted property being passed around with a total lack of agency makes it a tough sell for a modern audience. Watching a woman leave a past where she has been rented out for the pleasure of men to set up a stable life with another woman, suddenly makes a lot more sense. Middleton’s use of words like ‘whoreson’ in this context stopped working – though with access to a dictionary of Jacobean swearwords, we soon had a stunning palette of profanities which could be uttered with relish. The rewrite allowed us to retain Middleton’s dialogue while taking the setting to rationing-era 1946. We stole the RSC idea of having the final scene as a Jacobean fancy dress party and gave the piece a 95-minute running time, which fits with my personal philosophy that amateur theatre should always give its audience brevity and a well-stocked bar.
Ultimately, when the play closed, we had created a modern version of a canonical work, every bit as crude and subversive as the original but with a gender-balanced cast. It is my intention to root genderblind casting in my department for good. It forced us to look at material with new eyes. I have a feeling this is just my first step in queering the canon.