Written by Josh Orlando
When it comes to transgender rights, we live in a society on the cusp of a major epistemological shift. This leap moves away from binary gender norms, which position men as mutually exclusive to that of women. We are moving towards a culture that welcomes gender-nonconformity and fluidity, with more diverse ways of inhabiting the world. We just want people to be themselves. It is no surprise that break out stars, like Laverne Cox, have so quickly ascended to Hollywood royalty. But the entertainment industry has not always been forward-thinking when it comes to trans rights, visibility, or representation.
In the canon of western dramatic literature, notably trans and gender variant characters are few and far between. Sure, there’s the gender bending tropes riddled throughout Shakespeare, but these characters are often played by cis actors, and were originally only played by cis-male actors until cis-women were allowed on stage. Theater has come a long way with an ever-changing society. With an increased demand for diverse narratives, queer and trans artists are acting, directing, designing, and writing, now more than ever before. But plenty of theater companies are still booking the classics. So how can we include trans and gender-nonconforming actors? There are many ways to highlight gender diversity in the theater. Among the most obvious and my personal favorite, give opportunity to trans talent! There are countless trans and gender-nonconforming artists out there looking for work. Yet we still face disproportionately high rates of discrimination in the theater industry. Due to the tradition of casting gender-normative roles, we are not afforded the same opportunities as our cis-gender counterparts. Another option is to employ new casting practices entirely. In this article, I will outline two gender-conscious casting practices that revive the classics for a queer and trans community of artists: Gender-Swap casting and Cross-Gender casting. Though these casting practices directly represent LGBTQ+ artists and audiences, their impact reaches everyone.
“Gender-swap casting” is the conscientious decision to change the gender of a character written in to the text of the play. This includes all titles and pronouns in the text that refer to this character. This takes patience, time, and attention to detail on the director’s part, when revising the script. For example, when gender-swap casting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Lord Hamlet might become Lady Hamlet using She/Her/Hers pronouns. Now, one of Shakespeare’s most iconic roles is open to actors who might be cis-women or even trans-women. After editing every time the character’s name and pronouns are referred to, we have the same play evoking new meaning. The implications of practicing gender-swap casting are manifold. Returning to the example of Lady Hamlet, think about what happens in the world of the play. Is Lady Hamlet now a lesbian with her love interest Ophelia? Is Denmark homophobic? Has she seen a ghost or is she simply another defiant woman gone mad in the eyes of men? There are so many dramaturgical consequences when we gender-swap cast, directors should be critically prepared to tackle them.
The second casting technique is called “cross-gender casting”. Cross-gender casting is when an actor is cast to play a character of a different gender and or body type than themself. With this technique, no text in the script is modified, leaving the semiotics on stage up for audience interpretation. This means that the actor is of a different gender than the role that they are assigned to portray. This method gets utilized in Shakespeare more often, especially among the more traditional Shakespeare companies who refuse to alter the text, but who must also fill gender equity quotas. If we cross-gender cast the role of Macbeth, he might be portrayed by a cis-female, transgender, or nonbinary actor, but would still be referenced as He/Him/His and “King”. Recall that when gender-swap cast, the difference lies in the text. Both techniques offer new approaches for the audience to decipher the same classical characters.
Revitalizing the classics is the only way to stay relevant while appealing to new audiences, and these audiences are much more diverse than their predecessors. And plus, breaking from traditional casting methods makes for compelling story-telling. Trans and gender-nonconforming youth desperately need to see models of possibility in the world. And it is the responsibility of those with positional power when it comes to casting, to accurately represent a diverse society in the world of theater.