Oct. 11 – Nov. 11
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson
- Make Believe
- A Lesson from Aloes
- The Age of Innocence
- Murder on the Orient Express
- Feeding the Dragon
- A Christmas Carol (2017)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Our Great Tchaikovsky
- Heartbreak House
- The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
- Cloud 9
- The Comedy of Errors
- A Christmas Carol
- The Piano Lesson
- Queens for a Year
- Having Our Say
- Romeo & Juliet
- The Body of an American
- A Christmas Carol (2015)
- Rear Window
- An Opening in Time
- Kiss Me, Kate
- The Pianist of Willesden Lane
- Private Lives
- A Christmas Carol (2014)
- Ether Dome
The Path to Gender Parity on Shakespearean Stages
By Yan Chen, Artistic Apprentice
When Shakespeare first wrote his plays in late Elizabethan England, all professional actors were male. In the centuries since, theatre artists have challenged tradition and opened up the Shakespearean canon for actors of all genders to claim in diverse ways, enabling audiences to see Shakespeare with ever-fresh eyes.
In Elizabethan England, social convention frowned upon the idea of women appearing onstage. Adolescent “boy” actors played female roles in the professional theatre, and Shakespeare riffed on this fact in his plays. For example, he would surely have gotten a knowing laugh out of his audiences when Cleopatra lamented,
“…The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore.”
(Anthony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene II)
Women first appeared on the English stage after the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, which lifted an 18-year ban on theatre imposed by Parliament during Puritan rule. That same year, a production of Othelloat the Vere Street Theatre in London marked the entrance of female actors into Shakespeare’s world.
But women were not content with performing only Shakespeare’s women, who accounted for just 16% of all roles in Shakespeare. Starting from the 18th century, noted female actors began taking on male lead roles in Shakespeare. Hamlet alone has been played by more than two hundred female actors, a list that started with Fanny Furnival as Hamlet in Dublin in 1741, includes figures such as Sarah Siddons (1775), Charlotte Cushman (1851), Sarah Bernhardt (1899) and Asta Nielsen (1920), and continues to this day with Frances de la Tour (1979), Maxine Peake (2014), and Ruth Negga (2018).
Female star actors have also claimed other leading male roles elsewhere in Shakespeare’s oeuvre as their own. Besides Hamlet, Cushman, a stage legend of 19th century America, also famously played Romeo to her sister Susan’s Juliet in 1847. More recently, Fiona Shaw played Richard II at the National Theatre in London in 1995, Helen Mirren played a female Prospero (named Prospera) in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version of The Tempest, and Glenda Jackson made her return to the stage by playing King Lear in the West End in 2016, a role she will play again in 2019 on Broadway.
The late 20th century saw a resurgence in all-male Shakespeare productions. At the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe in London, which opened its doors in 1997, “original practices” productions with all-male casts aimed to restore the production values of Shakespeare’s work as they were first performed. The British Propeller Theatre Company, also founded in 1997, exclusively performs Shakespeare with its all-male troupe under the leadership of founder Edward Hall.
At the same time, all-female productions have also blazed a trail onstage. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company (LAWSC), founded by actor Lisa Wolpe, staged all-female Shakespeares from 1993 to 2013. Since premiering at the Donmar Warehouse in London between 2012 and 2016, British director Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy (Julius Caesar, Henry IV, The Tempest), set in a women’s prison, has taken both sides of the Atlantic by storm. For Lloyd, an all-female production speaks powerfully to the gender imbalance in work across the theatre industry. She remarks, “For every one job given to a girl in the London theatre, three jobs go to a boy, and I just felt the time had come to make some reparation.”
Lloyd’s concern is felt by many other progressive figures in the industry, and artistic leaders have attempted to promote gender parity onstage through gender-blind casting policies. At Shakespeare’s Globe in April 2018, new Artistic Director Michelle Terry announced a 50/50 split on gender across her inaugural season:
“The whole season will be 50/50, and that is not just small parts played by women or small parts played by men. Across the season the body of work will be equal amounts for male or female, it will be gender-blind, race-blind, disability-blind. If our job is to hold a mirror up to nature then we’ve got to truly reflect the society in which we live.”
The Globe’s initiative has been adopted for productions at other theatres around the world including Julius Caesar at the 2018 Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming production of Troilus and Cressida. Joining their company will be Hartford Stage’s production of Henry V, with aprofessional company of actors also composed of 50% men and 50% women, providing a fresh look at a story about men going to war and a reflection of the contemporary America in which we live.