The Gender Act

Being a man is difficult if you’ve never tried it before. Dressing up as the opposite sex is never enough to accurately reproduce the mindset of your character, and generations of actors who have switched genders on stage have had to deal with this conundrum. There is a wide spectrum of intention behind cross-dressing in theater: the actor has to decide whether they want to actually portray a member of the opposite sex, or just appear to be a man in a woman’s clothing. So much of our culture is tied up in stark delineations between the two sexes, and successful juggling of genders of the actor and of the role is difficult without a very distinct artistic motive.

As I learned rehearsing for an all-female production of “The Taming of the Shrew,”the only thing harder than learning to walk like a man is learning to stand still like a man. When walking, you can focus on stiffening your shoulders or taking the rotation out of your hips: those are only for ladies and Latin dancers. Standing still, however, especially for long periods of time, is more of a challenge. “I think it honestly is a lot about having a penis,” says Olivia L. Ball ’14, who plays Petruchio in “Shrew However, it is also very tempting to rely on this anatomical novelty and swagger around with your pelvis stuck out, scratching and spitting. The propensity to fall into stereotype is one of the pitfalls of acting the opposite sex; most men—thankfully—don’t behave in the way that it’s easiest to portray them. Some of the aspects of male competitiveness were explained during “sock penis” rehearsals for the production as cast members produced a range of socks from anklets to knee-highs. “It makes a huge difference in how you act physically and emotionally,” says Ball of the prop penis. It changes the walk, the stance, and more nuanced body language, and therefore redefines the way an actor interacts with other characters. A deal of extraneous awkwardness is of course derived from the lack of attachment, which can at times change the new gait from swagger to limp.

“Another interesting thing that you need to keep in mind as a man is how you interact with women,” says director Simone E. Polanen ’14. A great deal of gender identity is centered in interactions with the opposite sex, and so this informs the characterization of male roles and often other actors’ portrayal of the female characters. “What often happens in a show that becomes all-female specifically is that the female characters, the people who should be female, become heightened,” says student director Josh R. McTaggart ’13, a Crimson arts editor. Indeed this is a potential danger to an all-female cast, as actors may be inclined to increase their femininity in a kind of arms race with female performers in male roles.

Certainly in Shakespeare’s time all roles were written for male actors, and women were usually portrayed by younger boys in female clothing. As a result, the gender of characters—particularly female character—can be a significant feature of their lines and interactions. “A lot of what you can use is in the language, because Shakespeare was writing for men even when it was a female part.” says Morgan Goldstein, an MFA candidate in Dramaturgy and Teaching Fellow for Dramatic Arts 115: Acting Shakespeare. Changing the gender of the performer but not the role—which Goldstein calls “real disguise”—has become less common in contemporary theatre and usually only occurs in productions with a single sex cast. For example, shows put on by Shakespeare’s Globe in London, which aims to give a realistic portrayal of the Elizabethan theatrical experience, frequently puts on plays with exclusively male casts.

It is the instinctive identification of the sexes that makes gender swap such an effective theatrical device. However, to successfully achieve this effect, actors must suppress the gender identity they have been conditioned to have normally, and in the process convincingly challenge the audience’s own preconceptions of gender.