Women: How We Perceive Casting

By Trisha Mahoney, Editor-in-Chief

“Is there such a thing as a woman’s story?”

It was just a discussion in a class. Nothing that I should have gotten worked up over but it was a discussion that got me thinking.

We were reading Mike Bartlett’s Contractions which features two women and it is about the way in which people interact with their workplace. It was about the way that women interact with their workplace.

The question gave me pause. My gut reaction was to say that of course there was such a thing as a woman’s story. But then I realized that I might be reading into the play a biased perspective because I believed that a story containing two women had to be about women. Though this was an immediate reaction, I began to notice how the perceptions of casting influenced the audience’s perspective in every show.

How many plays do we see regularly that feature a cast of entirely women that is not, at its heart, about a woman’s experience?  The same could be said for most plays though. What plays featuring an entirely African American cast are not about being African American? Plays that feature a primarily diverse cast always make a statement about what it is like to be in this specific category of people.

There is an exception to this rule. This would be for plays with a “standard” cast that doesn’t seem to identify with race or gender. For example, Waiting for Godot, though featuring two men, is not about a man’s story. No one sees the play and says that this is a play through a man’s perspective. However, if the show was cast with two women, then would it become about a woman’s story? How much do we read into cast decisions based on what is not the “standard”?

A woman’s story is a story that is about a unique experience that pertains specifically to women. This is different from the standard which is usually a representation of a man’s experience. It does not need to be labeled as such because it is everything that we see. The world around us is based on the assumption that we are a white male. We have to have a special category for women because they supposedly do not fit into this generalized category.

This is not only seen in theatre but everywhere. Think of the DePaul University community that we are currently in. There is literature and then there is female literature. You don’t need to categorize literature as man’s literature even though it primarily consists of white male authors. We don’t need to explain it because it is what we know. It is the standard.

Can a play still be a woman’s story if the main issues it’s discussing are not specific to a gender? By looking back at Contractions, we can see this question in play. The main issue in the story is about the totalitarian nature of businesses. However, by having two women as the only characters in the show, it adds another dimension. As the play takes turns into discussions of sexual relations with other coworkers and having children during work, it is impossible to not read into the casting of two women in these roles.

With the recent discussions of how women are treated in the workplace, the wage gap, and regulations on maternity leave, is it really possible to view this story without that lens? Can it ever just be a play about the totalitarian nature of businesses or are we always going to read into the gender relations?

A similar example of this was Mary Zimmerman’s production of the Jungle Book  in 2013. One of the many complaints was the casting of a black man in the role of King Louis, therefore reinforcing the stereotype that Disney had originally portrayed. Zimmerman defended her choice by stating that he was truly the best man for the part, which may have been true. But, as Dani Snyder-Young states in her Howlround article, “ Race Representation in The Jungle Book”, “‘I want to be a man like you,’ when sung by a black actor, has inevitable, historic and racist undertones.”

To ignore these undertones would be to dishonor them. To pretend that they don’t exist or are not problematic is to ignore a deep history of discrimination. The solution is not to pretend that these prejudices do not exist. We are not at a point in our history where we can do that because we are too close to the turmoil that once was. Now the question then becomes, what are we going to do about it?

It begins with an awareness of the way that people are going to read into the people that we put on the stage. Then it must take the form of conscious actions when casting people. It involves looking at a show and asking yourself, what does casting a female here say? Because it will say something. People will read into any choice you make whether it is conscious or not. The solution? Make it a conscious choice. Make the casting reflect the values that you have and the message that you want to send.

This was reflected in the process of Krissy Vanderwarker’s production of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross as an  Intro last year. Working with a cast of three women and four men, she recognized that she had to make a conscious choice about the placement of the women in the production. She asserted that since people were going to read into the casting choices anyway, the production should use this as a way to spread a message about female empowerment in the office. The story became an intricate battle for the men to triumph over the successful women running the office. In the end, it was the women who maintained the power.

This is the kind of conscious casting that needs to be seen in our theatre more often. As theatre practitioners, we need to be aware of the perceptions that the audience will place onto a show. It is because of this that we want to make sure that we are telling the right story. If the audience will read a story featuring women as a “woman’s” story, then we need to make sure that we are spreading the right message about a woman’s perspective.

In an ideal world, we would not need a “woman’s” story but sadly we do not live in this world yet. We live in a world that sees race and gender. We live in a world fraught with historical backgrounds where these issues are still prevalent today. The awareness of this does not have to hold us back but rather it can be a way to send a message about our representation on the stage. We live in a world where these stories still need to be told and they should. To spread the messages that we want to send, we need to have an awareness of the way in which these casting choices are being perceived. These stories illuminate a perspective that we do not yet understand.

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