During a talk back after a puppet performance, one of the audience members referred to the puppet in it as “he.” As in, “when he spreads his wings.” I was intrigued by this because the puppet, in addition to spreading its wings, had also laid an egg and sat upon it. It would seem to me that if this puppet had a gender, it must, by virtue of the way childbirth works, be female.
But I understood the audience member’s interpretation of this puppet’s gender. It did seem male. Even, and perhaps especially, when it found a pair of breasts, put them on and did a sexy dance. But I think, more than anything, given the way our culture runs, when we don’t’ know for sure, we tend to assume maleness. That is, male is the default gender. Female is the deviation.
I’ve seen this in puppetry a lot. A gender neutral puppet is usually perceived as male until someone puts a bow on it or a little dress. Male puppets can just be a body. Female ones need accessories.
And as ever, puppets do tend to reveal a bit about being human beings. Our perceptions of objects can tell us a lot about our perceptions of people. The fact that a puppet could give BIRTH and still be thought of as male points to a tenaciousness of a perception that lives in so many of us. It reveals a strong default switch that may take some time to dismantle.
Is this body male or female?
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Filed under: art, Gender politics, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: Gender, Shakespeare, Women's roles
At the Women’s History event at Equity a little while ago, an audience member asked all three of the participating Artistic Directors why we’d started our companies. There are a dozen ways to frame the start of my company but after thinking about the event and the discussion that followed, I realized there was one I’d never considered before. This is it: I ended up on this path because I got mad at Shakespeare.
Now, I want it understood that I love Shakespeare. A lot. Obsessively sometimes. I got mad at Shakespeare the way people get mad at God. You know, you’re in awe of all he created but you wish he’d do a few things better. Wars and plagues and stuff for God. Women’s roles for Shakespeare.
Don’t get me wrong. Shakespeare wrote some of the best roles for women ever written by anyone ever. He was a product of his time and given the context of his time, it is a flat out miracle that we have the women that we do. But I got mad at him anyway and that anger is one of the most productive feelings I have ever had.
It’s 1996. I’m working as an actor at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival. It’s my third job in the professional theatre. I’m pretty psyched. I’m 22. I’m playing Maria in 12th Night and the musician in Troilus and Cressida. I am also the understudy for ALL of the women in Troilus and Cressida. I think this is where the anger starts. The fact is, understudying all of the women in Troilus and Cressida is not an impossible task. It is a task that is manageable for even a green 22 year old actor. And it would be impossible for any actor to play all the men.
I watched this production closely (because I had to, see?) and I watched my friend Erin play Helen every night. Erin is a vibrant, funny, complex and skilled performer but you’d never know it because all she got to do in that play was look pretty and ask for music. Shakespeare let my friend Erin down and it pissed me off.
“Really Shakespeare?” I thought, “This character is meant to have started a war and all you could do was write a bimbo? That’s all you’ve got? Really?! Oh, and you just give Cassandra two scenes and send her off again? Come ON, Shakespeare, you’re better than this!”
So day after day, night after night, I got more and more frustrated and more and more interested in the underwritten women of Troy. So I started writing. At first I just wrote a monologue for Helen (for my friend, really) then it expanded and got bigger and bigger. That expanding play came with me to my next classical theatre job, where I once again got mad at Shakespeare. In the company I was a part of, men outnumbered women 2 to 1. In the close quarters of touring, it was like living in a locker room. That was the start of it, but then, too, listening to Henry IV, part 1 so often, I started to get fed up with hearing “woman” used as an insult day after day, for a year. “Come on, Shakespeare! You’re the insult king! All you’ve got is “Woman!?” By the time I’d sat through our two hundredth show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream began to feel like a series of ways to humiliate women. I started to think I might need a break from acting.
So I kept writing until what I’d started from anger was a hefty two act play. It took me years to muscle it into shape. But one day, I showed this play, this product of my anger at Shakespeare, to my friend Shannon and it prompted her to move to New York and start a theatre company with me. Getting mad at Shakespeare led me directly to writing and then directing and to my company. And like many people I get mad at, I ignored Shakespeare for a while before I came back to him.
It was 2005 before my company returned to Shakespeare and 2011 before I re-engaged with him anew, this time on my own terms. This time I wasn’t mad at Shakespeare, I just decided not to treat him like gospel anymore. We explored the text and arranged it to make the play we wish Shakespeare had written, not to replace the one he did, but to talk with it, to be a point of comparison, to say things about it and to it.
I’m not mad at Shakespeare anymore. But I also don’t expect him to be perfect. It’s like a real relationship. I love him. I acknowledge his foibles and limitations. I listen very closely to what he has to say. And I get to say my piece too.