Theatre: Female Roles

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore Collection/REX (1596346a) Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh Film and Television

Hi! It’s Annie!

Now that we have this category for our blog, there’s a lot that I really wanted to talk about in regards to theatre. Especially because this is actually what I majored in in college. Majoring in this is part of what opened my eyes to how badly women have been treated in media and also behind the scenes in this industry. So in the hopes of shedding light on some of these situations, I’m actually going to share some of my own experiences in working with the material that I have. Unfortunately, this will not be as happy and light hearted as some of my other posts. If that does not appeal to you right now, I completely understand. So hold onto your hats, and here we go.

Smart Female Roles:

The first acting class I ever took was with a female professor who was extremely feminist just like I was. I spent some time discussing things like the ‘He For She’ organization as well as Emma Watson’s hand in it with her. Because of this she decided that she was going to assign me a monologue featuring a smart woman. She had told me in this class that my typecast was the love interest and warned me that I would be cast as a lot of girlfriends throughout my acting career. In telling me this, she also let me know that most love interests are written around men and don’t often have minds of their own. Especially because most acting classes revolve around classic work, which could often be sexist. Because of this she would only cast me as smart women throughout that class, saying that the trend would not start with her. I’m not sure I quite understood the significance of what she had done for me then, but I had the most fun playing women in her class. If I was assigned a female character it was because it was a character written to have her own thoughts and storylines.

The Trend:

As soon as I transferred to university, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I played a lot of girlfriends and most of them didn’t have much in the way of a brain. I ended up attracting jealousy for my typecast, which didn’t make sense to me because I wasn’t a favorite student and wasn’t cast in many shows because of that. I guess this is just a case of the grass is greener on the other side. People who were typecast as supporting characters envied me for having more lines while I envied them for playing characters that didn’t revolve around the leading man. Then again, I didn’t care as much about casting as most other people did probably because I discovered that I didn’t actually want to be an actress. Maybe if I had, I would have had a bigger reaction to cast lists. Typecasting is a completely different type of awful the industry has to offer that often pits people against each other. But I won’t dive into that here.

Taming of the Shrew:

This was the class that put the nail in the coffin of me considering an acting career. My Shakespeare class. The professor who taught this class was extremely sexist and his favorite Shakespeare production was ‘Taming of the Shrew’, which was very in character for him. Because of this, we had to do a lot of scenes from this play. If you aren’t completely familiar with this one, it’s about an independent woman who doesn’t want to get married but a bunch of people in her family want her to. They basically sell her off to this man who teaches her obedience by making her sleep on the floor, do a bunch of chores, starving her, and otherwise mistreating her. She comes back to her family at the end to give a large speech about how women should be obedient to their husbands. While this is happening her little sister is dealing with two suitors who are fighting over her. The suitor who wins her over eventually hears the speech at the end and realizes that women are not worth being fought over and feels she also needs to learn to be obedient. I had the misfortune of having to play both of the demeaning main female roles at different points during this class. The professor would not refer to me by name, instead choosing to refer to me as “she”. He also blamed most of the problems for the scene on me and would only give me notes through my male colleagues. I spent most of this class angry and frustrated and ruminating on the words of my first female acting teacher.

The point in telling you all of that is to tell you that theatre is not any better with representation or in the way it treats women. How can it when women are still being forced to play these roles in their acting training? The simple fact that I had a female teacher warn me about this also means that this has gone on for a while and it probably isn’t going away any time soon. Some modern theatre has been doing better, but until this material also shows up in classes, many professors will still think it’s ok to treat women like this or use these materials. I’m not saying this to destroy your love of theatre, but I am saying this because lately I’ve heard a lot of people say that theatre has become the most progressive brand of media. I’m not going to dispute that, but that doesn’t mean that theatre doesn’t still have a lot of problems. This isn’t something we should be stagnant on. I just graduated from college last year. This stuff is recent and needs to be looked at. If this is happening in a school that is acclaimed for being progressive in California, you can bet this is happening everywhere else in the world.

In other words, what I’m trying to say is that women need to be written to be their own characters and not to revolve around the men in their story. And women portraying these characters need to be treated like actual human beings. Until all of this happens, theatre can’t be as progressive as we make it seem.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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