Dim the lights. Cue the music. Act I Scene I of “The Tempest” commences on the stage of Spanos Theater. Easily recognizable are the scenes, the famous soliloquies and the characters that have prevailed since Shakespeare, himself, watched his work performed on stage. But there is one major difference— this time there is no Prospero, the great sorcerer. Prospera, a powerful sorceress and duchess, stands in his place. It is the twenty-first century and women are now allowed to perform on stage, so the role has been cast to statistics sophomore Mira Talwalker. Talwalker stands confident and tall. She commands the stage, attention and respect as if the lines had always been written for a Duchess of Milan.
The popularized term “gender-blind casting” depicts a new mentality in the theatre world. Following in the footsteps of the color-blind casting movement, is a mindset taken on by directors who choose not to discriminate or distinguish based on gender. Instead actors and actresses are cast to roles regardless of the gender originally assigned by the playwright.
“The Tempest’s” renowned status and important themes led director Josh Machamer to choose the play for this quarter’s main stage production. The one problem? Shakespeare only wrote one female character into a cast of eleven.
For much of history, this lone female character would have been played by a male in drag. But today, the tables have turned. At Cal Poly there is an abundance of female actresses vying for a role in each quarter’s production, so for this play Machamer decided to simply switch the gender of four originally male roles. The only differences in the script itself are pronouns and the characters’ names. The role of Alonso, the King of Naples, for example, has become Alonsa— a Queen.
“There has to be a new interpretation of Shakespeare,” Machamer said. “For the longest time, it’s been looked at by older scholars who want to preserve what has been handed down to us. And in the end we don’t really know how he wrote it; should this be taken as gospel or is it open to interpretation as our times change? Women weren’t allowed on stage when Shakespeare was writing, so it wasn’t as if it was a cognizant choice for him to have all men do it. That’s all he had at his disposal. My guess is that if he did have women, there would be more roles for women.”
Theatre arts senior Cassidy Cagney is cast as Alonsa and believes that the real value in Machamer’s creative direction is found when comparing it to Shakespeare’s original version. While Shakespeare’s original looks at many male-male relationships, this version explores mother-daughter, mother-son and sister-brother relationships.
“We [do not look] at those types of relationships in our literature and media as much as we should,” Cagney said. “I believe that the more we explore female relationships, there is so much that can be affected by that.”
BEHIND THE SCENES OF A MODERN ADAPTATION
Michelle Terry is the Artistic Director for The Globe Theatre in London, England. She has become a leader in the philosophy that evolving times should allow acting companies liberty to explore traditional casting and help it mature. In The Globe’s 2018 production of “Hamlet,” Terry played the lead.
“Shakespeare gives us no character descriptions but gives us the note to ‘hold the mirror up to nature.’ I think this binary way of looking at gender, looking at the world, has reached a tipping point. We’re doing a gender-blind, race-blind, disability-blind production,” Terry said in an interview with TimeOut.
The adaptation of “The Tempest,” seen on Cal Poly’s stage, is similar to gender-blind casting, yet it is not exactly the same.
“Gender-blind casting is when you look for someone who fulfills the role the best regardless of gender. So, gender doesn’t matter,” Cagney said. “However, in ‘The Tempest’ we specifically chose which roles were going to be female and which roles were going to be male. So, that decision was made before auditions and before anybody was cast. That’s what it makes it not gender-blind. I would say a better term is gender-swap.”
In a “gender-swap” like the one seen in Cal Poly’s “The Tempest,” actresses must uncover what it means to portray a woman while using a script that contains male lines, describes male relationships and paints a male perspective of the world. This can prove more complicated than it might sound.
“What I am trying to do to the best of my ability is tell a woman’s story. But that’s really difficult because the part is written for a man,” Cagney said. “Technically it is still a male story. So, in exploring my part [Alonsa] has become a very masculine-type woman.”
Cagney feels that although Alonsa’s character is powerful regardless of gender, her lines do not always capture the essence of female relationships.
“I have one line in particular that says ‘I prithee peace. Thou dost talk nothing to me.’ Basically I’m telling my advisor to be quiet,” Cagney said. “The way I used to approach that line was with a little bit more tenderness. In saying, like, ‘Please I love you so much, but you need to stop now.’ But as we were working it, that line has become a lot more like ‘Shut up. I can’t stand you anymore.’ [It’s] really harsh. And that’s just developed as we’ve played with it but it’s not exactly what I [think] a woman coming into the situation would be like.”
Talwalker, as Prospera, describes her relationship with the script as an experience in which she tries to keep gender off her mind to reach the true core of the character.
“I treat the character as if it were gender-blind. I feel like a lot of my intentions and my relationships are still the same,” Talwalker said. “[In the original script], I still have a very loving, caring relationship with my daughter and since women are seen as more compassionate, it might [even] help with my relationship with her.”
Overall, the idea behind gender-fluid casting is that actors, directors and audience members see past the construct of gender, and approach an age-old script with a new lens that reveals fundamentals of the characters. If there is no gender barrier, actors can find a way to relate any character to their own experiences.
“As an actor up on stage, you’re going to have to find some kind of connection with the character in some way, shape or form. That’s your job,” Machamer said. “If a woman [is able to play] a woman then right away there might be an easier path to help navigate some of the more difficult things about who this character is.
STRIVING FOR EQUAL OPPORTUNITY IN THEATRE
From the upper echelons of the London Globe all the way to the college town of San Luis Obispo, gender-blind casting and “gender-swapping” in plays feels new to many. But others are asking, is it enough? Does this really make things equal?
There is always going to be a place for Shakespeare, especially since we’re in an academic setting… but we need real, authentic female representation. And not just female, but all the genders. – Cassidy Cagney
From Shakespeare to Marvel Movies and everything in between, heroes are classically male. Slating these parts to females, writes Bustle, is not a means of equality and should be seen as merely exploration.
“It’s promoting the idea that in order to level the eons of playwriting that favored men, women should assume a male-centric role, when it’s more likely that equality would come out of creating more heroic roles that celebrate women without asking them to crawl into the box male heroes have drawn for them…It hardly seems constructive to simply have women play these roles meant for men when literally rewriting (for stage, screen, and the page) the idea of what it means to be a hero is is so much more powerful,” writes Bustle journalist Kelsea Stahler.
Talwalker believes that the future of theatre must look more female than this.
“I feel like [female heroes] are just going to be the next norm, and after that it is going to be the sensitive male roles. We are growing and I feel like we’re being more self-aware and socially aware of these things. It’s going to move forward, I already know,” said Talwalker.
Similarly, Cagney expressed her deep-rooted desire for progress.
“We have thousands and thousands of writings and materials and poems and movies and songs about the white male experience and, in comparison, we have hardly any material about the female experience, or people of color or any kind of minority experience,” Cagney said. “There is always going to be a place for Shakespeare, especially since we’re in an academic setting… but we need real, authentic female representation. And not just female, but all the genders.”
An hour and a half after Prospera’s first line, “The Tempest” is coming to a close, the audience watches as the strong and wise sorceress lies down for her final resting. She has seen her daughter love, forgiven old enemies, set free her loyal slave and tied up all loose ends. As the lights rise one more time for final bows, the cast lines up along the stage. Five women and six men beam to the sound of the audience’s cheers. The play is a hit.
The Tempest is currently being performed in Spanos Theatre through Saturday, March 9. Tickets can be purchased here.