Gender Neutral Playwriting

As my first one-act play, Scenic Reality, is getting its’ first performance next month, I thought I’d write a bit about something that was very important to me when writing the play; that is, making sure that the characters could be played by as many different kinds of people as possible. This naturally led to questions about gender, and how I could give people the option to change a characters gender without affecting the story or the text itself. I was a bit wary about not giving the characters any gender at all, as I felt that would make the characters too hard to picture on paper, and writing ‘he/she/they’ every time it came up in the script would be a nightmare to read.

As theatre has grown, we started getting some plays which focused less on characters and more on abstract concepts. Plays such as Rainbow’s Ending by Neil Greig have found ways to look beyond a characters gender. Every line of dialogue is labelled with a letter of the alphabet, meaning the play can be performed by any actor and any number of actors as well. (The Samuel French website says it can be played by 1 to 50 people of any gender.) This is a promising start, but I wanted to look further. I wanted to learn how to tell a story with characters that different people could connect with and different actors could create.

I started to look at how other theatre shows have subverted traditional gender casting. The place I naturally came to was Shakespeare, where subversion of gender has been present in one way or another since the very beginning. Many different companies have moulded the texts to fit contemporary concepts and society, allowing it to be reborn again and again. This has lead to a great number of interesting interpretations of traditionally male roles, being played by women. (Sometimes by changing the gender of the character, sometimes having the actor play the opposite gender.) And isn’t that one of the greatest things about theatre? That every actor who plays a role can bring something completely different, and that no one actor can own a character. Perhaps they own their performance, but the stories and the characters of Shakespeare, belong to us all.

But there is one thing that saddens me. You may have noticed that almost all the examples I’ve used, have been women playing parts typically reserved for men. While there are a lot of men who have played parts written for women, they seem to be far less common and almost never given as much praise as the other way round. This could be partly because there are so few lead roles written for women in the first place that it would seem arrogant to have them played by men, which I don’t blame companies for. But I do think there’s also a bias against men that allow themselves to be seen as feminine. We laud women who portray characters that are masculine because we see masculinity as inherently stronger than femininity, and turn our stomachs at a man who acts what we perceive as feminine. I hope that, in the future, we can see more female characters that we respect and revere being portrayed by men; and that I can do better at writing male characters who are gentle and kind and are better people because of it. Lord knows we know what masculinity can do to some men when it’s their only means of expression.

In the end I decided to give the characters a ‘default’ name and gender, with the express permission to change any of the genders along with an alternative name. I had to admit that I was a little bit afraid that I was settling on a soft solution for this problem. Would directors simply stick to the default names and genders and ignore any opportunity to try different combinations? Would writing the characters as a particular gender cement them as that gender in the readers mind? Would actors just not want to bother crossing out ‘hers’ and ‘shes’ in their scripts? Thankfully, most of these fears went away just a few months ago when I heard the first and second private readings.

Samantha Wright, my director, and I managed to gather together 11 different actors to read through the script for us. There are only 4 characters in the play so we switched the actors around a lot; and I was blown away by how different actors were able to play the same character in completely different ways. How when two actors played a scene together, they would play a completely different relationship to how another pair of actors played it an hour earlier. In my opinion it’s one of the main reasons that theatre has continued to be a great artistic force since the beginning of time. Because no matter how many times we see Hamlet on stage or on screen, a brilliant actor can make it seem like its the first time you’re watching it. And I can only dream that my plays could inspire a fraction of the interpretations as the theatre greats before me.

We now have four wonderful actors for our reading of Scenic Reality at the end of this month, including a majority female cast and a gender non-conforming lead character. All four of them were chosen based on how well they connected to the roles and the story and I’m very happy with everyone we have cast. I can’t wait to see how they work together. So when I tell people that I make an effort to keep my casting gender neutral, and they ask me why I’m limiting myself artistically; I say it’s not a limitation, but a strength

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