Gender Swapping in Theatre

Flipping male and female roles in plays isn’t something new to drama. But does the need for such character reversals show a side of creativity or is it masking a deeper problem?

In 2011 Lucy Kerbel, founder of Tonic Theatre, produced a report that focused on the opportunities for girls in youth drama.

The study, entitled Swimming in the Shallow End made for rather grim reading. Highlighting not only the lack of roles for young females, but what roles were available tended to be rather hollow: characters that were ‘silly’, ‘floaty’, ‘boring’ or ‘weak’. Words used by young girls who Kerbel spoke to as part of the study.

Progress has been made in the past decade with more conversations taking place at the right tables, yet male bias remains threaded throughout the industry, despite statistics telling us that more females are enrolling and opting to take part in drama study at youth level.

According to Kerbel’s report – of the 300 hundred teachers and youth theatre practitioners surveyed nationally – 75 per cent described their group as mainly female. Conversely, just 20 per cent had roughly equal numbers.

These statistics are borne out also by the National Youth Theatre’s (NYT) annual intake. This year, following its auditions, the NYT accepted 5,800, of which, 60 per cent were female.

Paul Roseby, the NYT’s Artistic Director, however, is adamant that their enrollment figures will not be skewed by the industry’s male bias.  “It would be ridiculous to reflect it [female representation] negatively and resign ourselves that there are more male orientated roles out there so we’ll take less women,” he says.

Roseby is well placed to talk about the problems that females face in the theatre. He enrolled as a student at the NYT in 1984, where the dearth of roles for female actors was evident. “I remember when I was a young actor in the company back in the early 80s,” he recalls, “where some of the most stand-out talent I met, were the women, but they had to work hard to get there, to get in the system, and they weren’t given very good roles.”

In an effort to curb the lack of modern day valid and fulfilling roles, Lucy Kerbel produced 100 Great Plays for Women, a collection of plays that focus on female-centric casts. Likewise, the NYT is soon to publish Monologues for Young People, published, according to Roseby, to erase the gender divide in drama. “We don’t mind what gender you choose,” he explains, “We want it to be appropriate to that person.”

Despite this, the NYT and Roseby have occasionally been forced to go back in time and seek out plays and novels that are powerful enough to represent modern day women, and in some cases gender swapping roles to achieve this. “We strive for positive stories at the heart of which are women’s stories and good storytelling but sometimes you have to flip the gender casting to do that,” he says.

In 2014, Josy Rourke directed all-female versions of Henry IV and Hamlet at the Donmar. Of course, debate raged to the advantages and disadvantages of gender reversal but Roseby believes that a bringing a female angle can create another dimension to two of drama’s most complex and flawed characters, as well as showcasing female talent on a mainly male stage. “Josy Rourke chooses Shakespeare,” he says, “but she has to choose an all-female cast to actually get the strength of some of these characters that are traditionally played by men, but to also give women the fair crack of the casting whip.”

In the same year of Rourke’s gender flipping Shakespeare, the NYT and Roseby flipped another classic, this time a modern take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, casting Kate Kennedy as Dorian with a selfie in the attic, instead of the portrait. Selfie was extremely well received, spring boarding Kennedy onto further success, most notably in Twelfth Night at the Royal Exchange.

This year, the NYT has continued their adaptation of classic novels, creating an all female lead cast of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale is noted for its famous mutating monster scenes, set against the backdrop of dark and foggy London streets and, when I studied the text at university, contained themes of identity, eugenics and homosexuality.

Evan Placey’s version with its complete gender swapping cast reversal will naturally explore issues of 19th-century femininity and how society at the time was coming to terms with the first, few shouts of females making their voice heard as the first wave of feminism – via the suffragette movement – was starting to appear.

“There is a female-led Jekyll and Hyde who are very much centre stage.” Roseby enthuses, “The Hyde part of Jekyll goes on a rampage to silence all the men who tried to silence here in terms of her professional development. She tried to join pressure groups to join the suffragettes but didn’t get anywhere so is forced to pick them off one by one.”

The piece is still very much rooted in Victorian times, however the narrative in places seems to share similarities – rather worryingly – with modern Britain, “It felt, politically, very timely.” Roseby says, “There’s some wonderful parallels and fun to be had, but we wanted to show all the paradoxes and contradictions that that (Victorian) era implies.”

Similarities with the Victorian ages leaves modern Britain, and unfortunately its theatre industry, in an odd place. Lucy Kerbal and Tonic Theatre, and Paul Roseby and the NYT, are voices pushing back against gender bias, but the fact that gender swapping for a role is seen as a solution, and as female enrollment numbers continue to rise it, could mean that female actors continue to tread water in the shallow end for some time to come.

Mark Glover

Mark is a freelance writer, contributing pieces across a range of subjects and industries including education and the arts. He studied English Literature and Creative Writing at London Metropolitan University. He enjoys good books, Scott Walker albums and admits following West Ham as a major weakness. He lives in Yorkshire with his girlfriend and his greyhound Bee.