Acting in a Gender-Swapped Role: 3 Steps to Success!

Non gender-specific casting is not a new convention in theatre by any means. Certainly there was a time when all roles were traditionally played by men–end of story. These days men and women swap in and out of each other’s roles primarily for artistic purposes. Non-traditional casting can be exciting and thought-provoking for an audience, but what
does that mean for you as an actor? Aside from getting to play a part normally off the table (actors’ catnip), how does one honor the text and deliver a compelling performance in a role that was written for someone else? Let’s figure it out:

** Note: while this article refers primarily to a gender binary that is unfortunately largely assumed a given in traditional theatre and film, these strategies can be applied to any non-traditional casting!**

Step 1: Ask “Why?” “Why” is almost always the first and most repeated question when approaching any character, but when gender-bending, we have to ask it a little more broadly. The first thing to do is figure out why you were cast. Ideally this would be made clear at the time of auditions, or at the very least upon first read-through. In a perfect reality, your director would have a compelling and logical concept that used non-traditional casting as a tool to accentuate and explore deeper themes in the text. If the gods of theatre had their way, that concept would never include reasons like, “because we figured it would sell tickets,” “because it’s sexier,” or “because so-and-so always wanted to play such-and-such, so congratulations, you are all a vehicle for that.”  Yet we live in a cruel and confusing world, my ducklings. Sometimes you have to ask, answer, and justify all the questions yourself.

So. Assess the environment. Chances are, you are in one of three situations:

  1. Everyone’s role is reversed. In this situation, all men and women swap traditional roles, as in Romeo, Mercutio, Tybalt, et al, are played by women, while Juliet, Lady Capulet and the Nurse are played by men. In a sense, you lucked out, because everyone in the cast is in the same boat. If one isn’t started already (hopefully by your director), open a dialogue about how your production is exploring societal circumstance and gender roles. Figure out what your perspective is. Make sure everyone knows the message you are trying to convey.
  2. You are in an All-Female or All-Male Cast. Concept aside, in this case, it is important to ascertain what that means for the relationships. Don’t let this meaning get ignored or vaguely defined. Using the example of Romeo and Juliet again, and assuming an all-male cast, does this mean that Romeo and Juliet are gay? Are any of the men playing their characters as women? Because you are imposing a concept on the text, it becomes doubly-important to be specific with the nature of each and every relationship and role in the show. Make sure you know why, in this case, some of the cast are traditional and some are not.
  3. You are Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray. (Or rather, as in this example, your character is the only gender-swapped role). This situation is usually a little more straightforward. If yours is the only gender-swapped role, it is generally done for comedic purposes, and/or to highlight the traits and circumstances of your character. In this case, examine what the casting says about how your character fits or doesn’t fit into socially-celebrated gender roles. Use it as a tool to amplify your character’s individuality, and play the contrast.

Step Two: Specify the Details Once you have figured out why your role is gender-swapped, you can get down to the nitty-gritty. Just as with any part, you have to be specific with each moment and intention. With non–traditional casting, however, you have the additional responsibility of justifying those specifics on a second level. If you are a woman playing Brutus in Julius Caesar, what backstory do you need to create to flesh out a woman rising through the ranks in a man’s world? Does it change the nature of your relationship with Caesar? If so, how? Does it change how you relate to the other men or women on stage? What does it say about status? You have to reexamine and restructure every question and detail about your character because you have added a layer to the text. For example, right now I am rehearsing a show that is normally played by two men. My scene partner and I are both women, playing the roles as women. Every aspect of the play has spawned fresh discussions and analysis. Even costuming takes on new meaning—if we dress traditionally male, what does that say about the societal roles we are assuming? If we introduce female fashion, how does that describe self-acceptance? What aspects of femininity are acceptable and advantageous? Language and plot elements have to be scrutinized, and implications aired. Were we playing the roles as men, that would be a whole new can of worms.

Step Three: Play the Intention At the end of the day, you can relax. No matter how unconventional the casting, you were still hired to portray a person with objectives, tactics, and obstacles. Fight for what you want. React to your scene partner. Approach your character as you would any other. It’s all acting in the end.

 

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