Originally published on HowlRound on May 26, 2017

Johnny Saldaña, author and Professor Emeritus of Theatre in the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts’ School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at Arizona State University (ASU), began his plenary speech on the second day of the NYU Steinhardt Program in Educational Theatre’s Forum on Ethnodrama by asking what role ethnodrama has to play in a “post-truth” world. He identified President Trump’s personal driver as “the art of fabrication,” a description frightfully similar to the definition of theatre. Yet while Trump’s lies are fabricated with the purpose of deceiving, theatre lies to the audience in order to tell the truth.

Ethnodrama is, roughly speaking, the dramatization of data. It is theatre that is made out of research, often conducted in the form of interviews but also including primary sources like journal entries, field notes, and media artifacts. Saldaña calls it “reality theatre,” the ultimate goal of which is understanding.

In his speech, he urged ethnodramatists to blur genres and embrace aesthetics—to think theatrically even as they attempt to parse reality. The artistic offerings I saw in the course of merely the second day of the forum reflected the vast range of subgenres within ethnodrama. (In his seminal book on the subject, Ethnodrama: An Anthology of Reality Theatre Saldaña identifies more than eighty terms that can be applied.) I spoke with the chair of the forum, Joe Salvatore, clinical associate professor of educational theatre at New York University’s Steinhardt School, who said the performances along with papers and workshops digging into the what, how, and why of ethnodrama, ultimately raised a larger question for him: “What is ‘a play’?”

Salvatore’s own most recent ethnodrama, Her Opponent, just closed at the Jerry Orbach Theater at the Snapple Theater Center in New York. An early staging was presented at NYU in February, and for that event Salvatore embraced the term ethnodrama. Yet when moving Off-Broadway, he found that “documentary theatre” made more sense to theatregoers than the more academic term. Her Opponent is, regardless of what the press release says, ethnodrama. It restages excerpts of the 2016 presidential debates with gender-reversed casting in an attempt to understand how reception of the two major candidates was influenced by gender. Salvatore and his partner-in-creation, Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD, discovered that their experiment reveals as much about politics in general as it does about gender.

Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one thirty-five-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s technique, in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. Trump’s character is known as Brenda King, and Clinton’s as Jonathan Gordon. A twenty-five-minute post-show discussion follows the performance, in which Guadalupe and Salvatore have been continually amazed to find that even as a woman, the Trump character still comes out the favorite.

Audiences are finding King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they find Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacks, Gordon doesn’t fight back; she just nods and smiles. In the body of a man, this response is disconcerting at best and, at worst, at least one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”

NC_H Derr_photo 1

Rachel Tuggle Whorton as Brenda King and Daryl Embry as Jonathan Gordon. Photo by Justin Rogers / One March Photography.

At the performance of the off-Broadway production that I saw, audience responses largely repeated these same tropes: Gordon was received as too wonky and phony, while King was easier to understand and more emotionally appealing.

Emotions ran strong in everyone’s responses, with one audience member going so far as to call the performance a “horror show” that felt like a “slow-motion replay of a murder.” Guadalupe, who moderated the discussion, noted that these emotional responses might stem from the fact that this is a theatrical performance and not a real debate. In other words, there are no real world consequences for policy or governance for an audience watching Her Opponent, only the space and time to revisit the election with a little distance, with that distance being provided not only by the passage of time but also by the gender-flipped casting. As with Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect, the emotions of Her Opponent’s audiences are not removed from the equation by this distance, but are, rather, heightened.

Audience members note that King, not being a man, is less threatening than Trump, which allows them to see Trump’s pacing less as stalking and more like a toddler on the verge of a tantrum. The fact that he simply exercised much more ownership of the space than she did also becomes more apparent when the threat is removed. Audiences also note Gordon’s tendency to use uptalk—a feminine tendency to use an upward inflection at the end of a sentence, a tactic we use in order to invite a response from our listener—when they had never noticed it in Clinton before. It was always there, but only once embodied in a man did it come into stark relief.

In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that some audience members assume that the actor playing Gordon has been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. In reality he has not been directed that way; that impression arises purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.

All of these responses reveal that we are so programmed to see femininity as weak and masculinity as strong that even when masculine behaviors are embodied in a woman, she comes across as authoritative and confident. Feminine behaviors on the other hand, make even men read as subordinate and even a little laughable.

Whereas people who have met Clinton up close find her easy to connect to and personable, her debate performances and speeches are so heavily coached that she comes across a bit stale. Like most women, she likely has been told all of her life to smile more. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it doesn’t make her any more likable than she would have been had she fought back. In fact, the audience response to King—a woman who speaks and behaves with all the bravado, aggression, and sweeping masculinity of Trump—may imply that women have far more freedom to behave that way than they think without being thought of as bitches.

Aside from the performance of gender, what becomes crushingly clear from this experiment is that even when the debate has real-world consequences in terms of policies and governing, voters are swayed as much by their emotions as by which candidate’s positions they agree with. In a fascinating twist, Salvatore told me that multiple female audience members have been shocked by their dislike of Gordon and their like of King and have realized as a result that perhaps they give women candidates a free pass because they want to have more elected women in government. Indeed, I heard this very comment the night I attended the performance.

One other audience response has fascinated Salvatore: On Show-Score the audience reviews have been largely positive, but even the people who liked it the most have said, “But…it’s not a play.”

What, then, is a play? Does everything have to be entirely made up for the show to be a play? Under that rubric, even Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by Lynn Nottage and the Broadway hit Indecent by Paula Vogel would not count as plays, as they are firmly based in research.

Just as the term ethnodrama includes at least eighty subgenres, the idea of “a play” needs to be thought of as broadly containing many types of performance. In today’s post-truth world, no doubt we need as many of them as we can collectively muster. In fact, I would argue that ethnodrama, as a kind of play, might be the perfect mode of theatre to meet the moment. If the excitement around Sweat and Indecent tells us anything, it’s that audiences are hungry for theatre that tells them the truth about our past and our present, and this is exactly what ethnodrama aims to do.

Originally published on HowlRound on September 14, 2016

It’s a fascinating time to be a feminist in the theatre. Thanks to The Kilroys, The Count, and women like Sumru Erkut and Ineke Ceder, we’ve made incredible progress in raising awareness of the lack of equity for women in our field. Actual change has been slower than we might like, but change takes time because for many people, becoming aware of a social problem doesn’t necessarily come with the knowledge of what to do about it. Simply being “woke” isn’t enough; a newly raised consciousness requires that you also put in time and work educating yourself about ways to create change. Catherine Castellani and The League of Professional Theatre Women are curating a series asking what a feminist play is, and I’d love to build on that important conversation by also addressing how to direct a feminist production.

First, I must offer my definition of feminist theatre. It is heavily inspired by post-structural analyses, which built off earlier feminist film theory by Laura Mulvey, who argued that the camera “constructs a specifically male viewing position by aligning or suturing the male’s gaze to that of the fictional hero, and by inviting him thereby both to identify narcissistically with that hero and to fetishize the female (turning her into an object of sexual stimulation).” Feminist theatre theory, accordingly, identified ways to disrupt the male gaze and avoid objectifying women by making the female characters subjects rather than objects: In order for the audience to see the world from their point of view, women characters have to act rather than simply be acted upon.

These feminist theatre theories were also shaped by the prevailing feminist thought of the time that there are more than two sexes of people and no one, normative way to combine sex, gendered behavior, and sexuality exists. Accordingly, feminist theatre has long sought to disrupt the male gaze by dismantling the binary of man vs. woman itself as well as the associated binaries of masculine/feminine and gay/straight, acknowledging instead that there are more than two possible identities.

My first feminist theatre theory book, edited by Helene Keyssar, includes essays such as “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright,” by Jeanie Forte, and “Frame Up: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Theatre,” by Barbara Freedman.

During the same period, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins were postulating the intersectional theory that issues of sex, gender, and sexuality cannot ever be completely separated from issues of class, race, ethnicity, and all of the other identities that overlap with that of gender. In fact, due to the intersection of gender with other aspects of identity, equality among the genders cannot be achieved without also addressing racial, class-based, and other forms of inequality. To that end, my feminism seeks to dismantle not just sex and gender binaries but also the uber-binary of normative (male, straight, cis, white, Judeo-Christian, upper-class, abled, etc.) vs. other.

Feminist theatre, then, according to my definition of feminism, is theatre that provides an alternative not just to the male gaze but also to the normative gaze by intervening in cultural assumptions about identity, dismantling binaries, and creating equality.

I emphasize what feminist theatre does over what it is because even the most feminist play may not do the work of feminism—creating equality—if the process is authoritarian. Most theatres still operate along the patriarchal model in which a single person sits at the top of a hierarchy and controls, if not all of the decision making, then at least who gets to be involved in the decision-making. But presenting the world from a non-normative perspective requires the inclusion in decision-making of non-normative perspectives.

Jill Dolan’s Feminist Spectator as Critic was my Bible when I began teaching feminist theatre. Her distinctions between liberal, cultural, and materialist feminism and her strategies for reading the politics of performance have deeply informed my understanding of the difference between a subject and an object.

This is why feminist directing begins with the process of casting and selecting the rest of the artists for the production. Working with as many women as possible is obviously key, but so is creating diversity and avoiding casting that reinforces inequality. A feminist director, for example, cannot choose to do a Latinx play and then not cast Latinx actors or hire any Latinx artistic staff, as that would result in a production in which the world is presented only from the perspective of a white gaze that fetishizes, rather than represents, Latinx culture.

To be inclusive, a feminist director’s vision has to be more malleable and permeable than some artists are used to. In What’s the Story: Essays About Art, Theatre, and Storytelling, Anne Bogart talks about the difference between the director’s job and the actor’s job: The director’s job is to direct the play; the actor’s job is to direct the role. This means that just as the director must have a vision of the whole, the actor must have a vision of how her role can be played. (I would add that the designers must also direct the design.) The director’s vision, therefore, must be strong but flexible enough to encompass to the actors’ and designers’ ideas.

A vision that adapts to the ideas brought to the table by each member of the team exists in a state of “dynamic equilibrium” in which balance (equilibrium) is maintained through the ability of the director to shift (be dynamic) in relation to the constantly shifting circumstances in which she is working. Fear of destabilization can often make directors say no to the ideas of others, but a vision built on the idea of dynamic equilibrium can adapt and expand to include big ideas that come from actors and a designers without losing its center.

Elin Diamond appeals to my love of Brecht by using his theories to postulate a feminist theatre that makes familiar gender norms seem strange and strange ideas about gender seem familiar.

Maintaining dynamic equilibrium is difficult. In reaction to an overwhelming number of vastly different viewpoints, a director might understandably compensate by going too far in the direction of fidelity to her original idea. Or, in response to a plethora of great ideas, a director may lose sight of an original vision that would have been worth maintaining.

Dynamic equilibrium is also a challenge when not every artist responds well to having to “direct their role.” Young artists in particular might feel less inspired by the freedom to try their own ideas than terrified of the abyss that has thereby opened up in front of them. In the excitement of not only coming up with my own ideas but also being inspired by everyone else’s, I sometimes fail to notice the team member who is not excited, not coming up with her own ideas, and/or not feeling that her ideas would be accepted should she try them. An ability to hear that person despite her silence, to see her despite her fear that she is invisible, is a difficult to develop but important skill for a feminist director to have.

Rosemary Malague’s more recent An Actress Prepares: Women and “the Method” details the historical and contemporary ways the Method puts women in the control of dominating directors and turns them into over-sexualized hysterics. 

To that end, the most useful manual for directing I have read recently is not a theatre book at all: It is Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, recommended to me by playwright Jami Brandli. Brown’s research into shame identifies the defenses that people commonly employ when they find themselves in a vulnerable position, such as being asked to try their own artistic ideas out in front of other people, helps readers get beyond their own defenses, and teaches them to identify and empathize with other people who use them. Now that I can tell when a collaborator is having a hard time jumping into the abyss, I hope that I can be more present to her in the moment and more willing to be vulnerable myself.

Because the overall mode of the feminist director is to empower artists to make their own choices, when dealing with scenes that include violence, sex, or nudity, a feminist director has a responsibility to get consent from participants at every step of the process. The human body sometimes does not know the difference between real violence or sex and the mimesis of violence or sex, meaning that staging those moments requires particular attention to the safety, both physical and psychological, of everyone in the room. Using trained fight choreographers, mindfully choreographing sexual moments while repeatedly seeking renewed consent as the ideas evolve, and checking in with actors about how they are doing are tools directors can use to make theatre in a feminist way.

For theatre to intervene in cultural assumptions about identity, the process must intervene in assumptions about who can lead and what kind of processes are considered leading. For theatre to dismantle binaries, the process must dismantle the binary of authority/follower. And for theatre to create equality, the process must empower all artists to take action—aka be subjects—in their own areas. In addition to the content of the play and the choices made about performance, feminist directors, in order to make feminist theatre, must engage in a feminist process.

I wrote this satirical piece the other night out of frustration with Chicago’s Porchlight Theatre, which is doing In the Heights with white actors playing leading characters of color. Companies like Porchlight have oversimplified what it means to do diversity, believing apparently that saying they “tried” is enough. This is an oversimplification because it is actually complicated, difficult, and time-consuming to build alliances and trust and find new people to work with. But since theaters that do this are being simplistic, I thought maybe they could use a similarly simplistic program to help them achieve diversity.

Welcome! If you’re reading this, you’re a white artist who has decided to do a show that has characters of color in it, and you’re wondering, “What do I do next?”

When you committed to producing a show that has characters of color in it, you committed to expending the resources – both financial and temporal – necessary to hiring artists of color to play those roles.

If you don’t already know a lot of artists of color, there’s no time to waste, so let’s get started! Just follow this simple 6-step technique, and you’ll not only find artists of color with whom to collaborate, you’ll also protect yourself from the media shit-storm that will happen if you don’t!

  1. Start by contacting the professionals of color in your community and letting them know you plan to produce this show. Ask them for advice, recommendations, thoughts, endorsements, warnings, and anything else they are willing to offer.
  1. Offer something in return.
  1. Do not cast white actors to play characters of color.
  1. Do not produce the show if you can’t “find” actors of color to play the roles.
  1. If you can’t “find” actors of color to play characters of color, ask yourself, “Where am I looking?” If you are looking in the same places you’ve always looked and only ever found white actors, you’re not looking in the right place.
  1. Look in different places.

Easy enough! But what about the artistic staff, you’re wondering?

  1. Interview directors, choreographers, designers, and stage managers of color.
  1. Hire them.
  1. Acknowledge their expertise.
  1. Do not produce the show if your entire artistic staff is white.
  1. If you can’t “find” any artists of color to work on your show, ask yourself, “Where am I looking?” If you are looking in the same places you’ve always looked and only ever found white artists, you’re not looking in the right place.
  1. Look in different places.

I know that’s a lot to do in a short period of time, so you better get started!

Godspeed, white ally!

Originally Published by HowlRound

Though Shakespeare created around 798 male characters, his dramatic corpus contains only about 149 female ones. That’s a ratio of roughly sixteen to three. Yet every year the best conservatories accept at least as many women as men—if not more—and every year they graduate both men and women trained to act in Shakespeare plays. The women are even trained to swordfight. Ninety nine percent of them never get to use that skill.

The difference undoubtedly accounts for why so many talented women create their own opportunities to play the full range of Shakespeare’s best roles, including male ones. This month two productions on opposite sides of the country are providing women with just that chance. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company is running Hamlet, directed by and starring Lisa Wolpe, and Taffety Punk in Washington, D.C., is producing Riot Grrrls: Titus Andronicus, directed by Lise Bruneau.

Titus is the fifth all-female Shakespeare production of Taffety Punk. Their first, Romeo and Juliet, was staged as a companion to/protest of an all-male production of the play at D.C.’s prominent The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Bruneau, inspired by Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, and Fiona Shaw’s Richard II, has always been interested in the performance of gender. However, with her Riot Grrrl productions, she’s interested less in staging a commentary than in staging good Shakespeare.

Lisa Wolpe has been running the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for 20 years. This is her second Hamlet. Like Bruneau, she doesn’t consider what she does a “concept.” She does it because the parts are great, because she loves it, and because she’s good at it. 

Though both directors are wary of doing anything in production to comment on the sex of the actors, they acknowledge that inevitably text about gender—and there is a great deal of it in Shakespeare—becomes especially loaded when the entire cast is made up of women: Just imagine Claudius as a woman in drag criticizing Hamlet for his “womanish” tears. Both directors have also dipped their toes into gender flipping. Bruneau’s Measure for Measure included a pregnant Provost, which I imagine highlighted the hypocrisy of punishing Juliet for something everyone is doing. Wolpe has made her Rosencrantz a woman and believes that doing so reveals something about the nature of the relationship between Rosencrantz and Hamlet.

“Rosencrantz is a player, a woman with an agenda, who wants certain things for herself. She is a player who then gets played by Hamlet,” said Wolpe, during our interview. “And there are women like that. There are women characters in Hamlet like that. Gertrude stands twenty feet away from Ophelia and watches her drown.”

Though the actors in these companies are in it for the opportunity to play great roles and not to study sociology, the fact that their characters are men means that acting the part is different than it is when they play characters of the same sex, and that involves understanding the ways behavior is gendered. Bruneau has interesting insights into the outside-in process of building a character, who has a different relationship to the world by virtue of his gender than the female actor.

“We have found that changing your physical stance changes the impulse,” she said. “Once you change that it can start opening doors to a different perception of information and a different way of responding. It leads to a lot of discoveries about the differences of the sexes, of which there are many.”

Bruneau volunteered an example. “One of the most basic differences we’ve found is that women tend to sort of reach their chin forward as they’re talking and listening, and really try to encourage the other person to speak. We reach forward with our whole face. Men tend to sort of sit back and to receive and they tend to not reach. So that’s a very simple physical difference that makes you realize that they are dealing with everything based on a completely different type of experience than you are.”

According to Wolpe, women tend to break the alignment and the angles in their bodies, their wrists, their elbows. “Usually they’re off their voices, their heads are tilted, their faces are going in one direction and their hips in another, their hands turned open in a helpless ‘what can I do?’ supinated position—not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because that’s what you’re trained to do as an American girl,” she said.

“You’re trained to disempower yourself, to make yourself look less strong, more delicate, more ‘oh push me off of my pumps and I’ll be unable to resist the rape’ type of a thing. It’s not believable in a man who doesn’t have any threats.”

Wolpe went on to elaborate,  “This is a crazy quick map through how to play a guy, but basically: it’s not your fault, you don’t take it on, and if you hurt somebody’s feelings, they’ll get over it or they won’t but it’s really not your problem. The thing about women is we usually anticipate having an apology before there’s even an event. Men don’t negotiate. They command.”

The end game for Wolpe is a production in which the quality of the text and the acting enable audience members to forget that most of the roles are men being played by women. However, when I saw Hamlet, I did not ever forget that the performers were all women. In fact, I yearned for the fact to be more foregrounded. Though Rosencrantz was a woman, no use was made of the possibility that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be a couple, which would have been logical and, given, the eroticism that pervades Shakespeare’s male-male pairs, not un-Shakespearean. Similarly, the revelation about Gertrude’s character did not result in her coming across as any more cold-hearted or self-serving than she usually does.

Bruneau reports similar responses from critics in D.C. who expect her productions to do more with gender, but the Riot Grrrl aspect of her shows represents a desire to be accepted as a serious artist and not be singled out for being a woman doing a man’s thing. Similarly, Wolpe repeatedly expressed frustration that people expect her to do anything other than what the greatest actors of their times have always done when playing these roles: Play them well. 

Unfortunately, productions that keep all the male characters male inadvertently preserve the gender status quo: In their play-worlds, the men still have all the power. On the other hand, flipping some of the male characters and gendering them female would reveal a world in which women can be powerful, violent, and vengeful, too. Women can woo their lovers, protect their families, and command armies. (They could in Shakespeare’s time, too, whether he represented them as such or not.) The practice also reinforces a false binary in which men are always masculine and women are always feminine, whereas in reality some men and women defy gendered norms of behavior.

As pleased as I am to watch well-trained women deliver fantastic performances of the kind they too rarely have an opportunity to give, I yearn for a production that reveals that behaviors defined as masculine can be embodied both by women playing men, and by women playing women. Changing gender pronouns does not disrupt the verse—he, she, her, and him are all monosyllabic. Though Anglo-Saxon names like John might require some tinkering, modern audiences are unused to Latin, so they can easily accept most character names as either male or female. If anything, the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s stories become even more apparent when they are populated by people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexes.

In the meantime, both companies continue to receive rave reviews. Though some Shakespeare purists may still wring their hands at the prospect of women playing men’s roles, Wolpe says her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

“There’s never been a negative comment about an all-female production. There never has been in twenty years. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘You’re ruining the play.’”

Now that these companies, along with Judith Shakespeare and The Queen’s Company in New York as well as others across the country have proven that women are capable of playing roles with all of the depth and complexity of Shakespeare’s male characters, I hope they’ll turn to creating play-worlds in which women don’t have to pretend to be men in order to be powerful.


Images: Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet. Photo credit: Kevin Sprague. Riot Grrrls production of Julius Caesar. Photo credit: Abby Wood.

9424767218_af9014c605Originally posted at Ms.

It’s no secret that this summer’s movies suck for women. It’s been mentioned on Vulture. NPR did a story about it. The New York Times covered it. Even Fox News ran a piece about it.

Yet Jodie Foster has a leading role in the new action movie Elysium. How’d she score it? Foster makes a point of having her agent specifically seek out leading-man scripts that can be flipped. Her role in Elysium was originally written for a man.

More actresses might want to do the same, because the Movie Insider database of films in development and pre-production contains films in which there really is no reason that the main character can’t be a woman.

A third installment of Night at the Museum is in the works, for example, but Ben Stiller is not yet signed on to reprise his role. In the first movie of the series, much of the plot and humor relies on the fact that the main character is new on the job–in fact, one could argue that deviating from this set-up is why Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian grossed only half of what the original did in its opening weekend. The film’s subtitle, Brother From Another Mother (seriously), indicates that Night at the Museum 3 will return to its previously successful formula and introduce a brother to Stiller’s character who has taken over for him at the museum.

Other than the dated and possibly offensive reference in the title, not much would have to change to make the new character a sister. After all, the job of the watchman is essentially that of caretaker, which is a job women do every day. The style of the film does require an actor capable of the kind of comedy for which Stiller is known, but there’s no dearth of female comedic geniuses around these days. The role could be played hilariously by Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig or Sarah Silverman, to name a few.

Kristin Scott Thomas, who recently told The Daily Mail that she has become invisible compared to younger female actors, could play the lead in When the Starlight Ends, in which “a novelist finds himself with the ability to rewrite his past,” an ability he uses to try to reunite with a lost lover, or in Tomorrow, in which “a man travels back and forth in time trying desperately to prevent the murder of his family.” It shouldn’t be hard to sell audiences on a woman whose primary motivation is, in the first example, love, or, in the second, saving her family. Gender-swapping these roles would also make the films the first major movies in which the female character is the one who can time travel.

To suit Hollywood’s penchant for the heteronormative, wives would probably be flipped to husbands, but that’s part of the fun of cross-sex casting: Not only do women get to play characters who are ambitious and powerful, but men get to play characters who are compassionate, domestic and invested in their relationships above all else. In reality, some men actually are. In this way, the practice has the potential to dismantle deeply held assumptions about the inevitable relationship between gender and sex.

Producers are unlikely to take my suggestions for several reasons:

A) Hollywood has little to gain from subverting the patriarchy.

B) Hollywood relies on international markets, where “woman-centered movies don’t sell,” or so the wisdom goes.

C) American storytelling is still driven by the assumption that is at the heart of the Western canon: The male experience is the universal human experience, whereas the female experience is specialized, driven by biological factors, the absence of which prevents men from being able to see themselves in female characters.

This is, of course, total bullshit. The assumption persists partly because stories in which a male character is defined by his reproductive organs are relatively rare, so biology does not constitute a barrier to empathy, whereas many–if not most–female characters are written as driven by their biology, usually made manifest in characters focused on finding a mate and/or having and caring for children. In the absence of roles written for women in which they desire other things, too–like power, money or justice–gender-flipping provides audiences with female characters designed to represent the universal human experience.

3799345378_8d68996aa0Being able to imagine “men’s” roles being played by women requires practice, but once you get going the possibilities are endless. Imagine a gender-flipped Weird Science (yep, Universal is remaking Weird Science), in which two geek girls use their technological expertise to create the ideal man–played by Channing Tatum or Ryan Gosling, natch. Such a choice would provide a powerful antidote to the original film’s overt male gaze and reveal that the media’s narrowly defined representations of who is beautiful distorts women’s desires as much as it does men’s.

Game of Thrones fans might like to see Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) in the reboot of another ’80s classic, Highlander. Ryan Reynolds is currently slated to play the sword-wielding immortal who spends centuries fighting and finding other immortals and taking their power. Many people would consider the character too violent for a woman to play, but Lucy Lawless and Miranda Otto have proven that women can handle swords, and Christie’s background in gymnastics would make her a formidable foe in any century.

No doubt a producer brave enough to flip Highlander would face intense backlash from the largely male fanbase of the original. But science fiction and fantasy are perfect genres for gender-flipping: In a made-up world, anything is possible. Speculative fiction exists to show not just who we are but also who we can be.

Gender-flipping introduces the possibility that women can represent the human experience, leading eventually to more parts written for women that do that. As more creators include women characters who are complex and universal, more people will realize that this makes entertainment better, not worse. Eventually, we won’t even be surprised by it.


Photo from Weird Science courtesy of Caca Joucias via Creative Commons 2.0.

Photo of Jodi Foster courtesy of Zinemaniacos via Creative Commons 2.0. 

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games, and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

To think it thinkable shortcuts no work and shields one from no responsibility. Quite the contrary, it may be a necessary prerequisite to assuming responsibility, and it invites the honorable work of radical imagination. — “On Being White,” by Marilyn Frye

Slide1This paper was originally presented as part of WAM! LA’s 2013 Conference.

30 years ago feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye wrote about the importance of the imagination to feminism in The Politics of Reality. 20 years ago I read the book in a college Women’s Studies class, and to this day my feminism has been inspired by her explication of how to see oppression and imagine freedom. Oppression, she claims in her essay of that name, cannot be seen for what it is if you only look close up:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

While stepping far enough back from a birdcage to observe it’s structure can be done in the space of a small room, stepping far enough back from our lived reality to see the patterns that indicate oppressive social structures can be only done in our minds. As if that’s not hard enough, we must step far enough back to be able to see not only the patterns that have affected us in our individual lives but also patterns that only affect those less privileged than ourselves. In so doing, we both gain clarity of vision and exercise what I like to call the empathetic imagination.

The empathetic imagination is able both to connect the dots between the individual instances of prejudice and limitation that make up oppression and to understand that even limitations that only apply to other people are still oppression. This is not a new kind of feminism, it is in many ways the oldest kind, but it is a kind increasingly at odds with today’s individualized, consumerized culture. From contemporary parenting practices to technology to for-profit online education, our culture encourages people (young people in particular) to place themselves at the center of their experience and of the world around them.

The question for me, as an academic, a writer, and a theater maker, is how can we engage young people in making the connections that allow them to see oppression as a “network of systematically related barriers?” And how do we help them empathize with people they don’t know, discrimination they haven’t experienced, and struggles that are greater than theirs?

First we have to learn to speak their language, by which I don’t mean the slang they use but rather the way that they use images to communicate rather than words. I got on tumblr recently after a few students told me, “It’s where the young people are.” I have heard millennials described as digital natives and boomers as digital immigrants; I consider myself a second-generation digital immigrant: My family was one of the first on the block to have a computer, but it started up in DOS, so that experience doesn’t really help me with today’s click, drag, and drop interfaces. So while it’s taking me a bit to crack tumblr, I can see that indeed it is where the young people are. And it is largely image driven.

In this virtual space, I can use images in ways that help viewers make connections between individual instances of discrimination and prejudice (what we in academia call critical thinking). The success of the post below, which has been reblogged/liked about 15,000 times and counting, shows that tumblr’s users are already asking questions about whose stories our culture values and about representations of oppression (or the lack thereof) within those stories:

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My question is whether these same viewers are willing to engage in an even more radical act of the imagination: Using words to create their own images in their minds. My internet plays, written about social issues with as few descriptors as possible in the same space as a blog post, challenge readers to engage imaginatively with words by turning them into images, thereby engaging imaginatively in the creation of the stories, the characters, and the worlds. Whether we imagine stories that reflect the systemic oppression that is reality or stories that reveal the possibility of a new, more free reality, when we create our own images we engage in a radical, counter-cultural act.

The more life I live, the more I am forced to confront how little control we have over anything, how little power we have to align the myriad forces that have to align in order for us to achieve our goals and realize our dreams. I think we tell stories largely to organize what is actually chaos. Stories put events into a narrative in which we can identify cause and effect. They embody intangible forces in characters, put words to our deepest fears and desires, and paint pictures of what cannot be seen by the eye.

When we summon the imagination to tell stories that feature people who are other than us, we teach ourselves to empathize with them. I write plays like A Woman and Her Doctor in such a way that none of the characters have a defined race, challenging readers to imagine the play in their head with characters who may look quite unlike the characters that populate most Hollywood films, television, and theater. I hope the same tumblr users that respond so strongly to pure images will be interested in using words to create their own images as well. The experiment is in progress.  Input is welcome.

Since I rediscovered and posted one of my favorite bell hooks quotes the other day, I have been thinking about whether her pedagogy or any of those based on Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed are actually relevant to teaching today’s American college students.

I asked this question once before, when at Marlboro College I served as sponsor of a student’s Plan (that’s Marlboro-speak for area of study/major/concentration/line of inquiry) that included the Freire-inspired theater of Augusto Boal. Examining and experimenting with the material together, the student, community, and I found that the Legislative Theatre exercises designed to give the disenfranchised poor of Rio de Janiero agency in public affairs did not automatically translate to helping the 99%-white, middle-class students at this liberal college solve their problems.

In Legislative Theatre as Boal envisioned it, actors perform a scenario for the audience in which an oppressed person encounters discrimination and/or marginalization. Audience members then substitute for the oppressed character and, through a series of improvisations, attempt to discover ways to change the circumstances of the character’s oppression. Though the exercise in this form did not lend itself to a group composed primarily of those in power, when audience members were allowed to substitute for the oppressing characters instead, they were made more aware of their power and learned to exercise it in more democratic ways. In such a way, perhaps, may an adapted pedagogy of the oppressed be made to suit the conditions of higher education today.

hooks devised the Freire-inspired pedagogy laid out in Teaching to Transgress (1995) for the students she encountered who

want [teachers] to see them as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply seekers after compartmentalized seekers of knowledge.

17 years later, hooks’ “Promise of Multi-Cultural Change” has not come to fruition, and I’m astonished at the extent to which today’s students–not all, but most–expect and even demand that teachers be authoritative purveyors of facts rather than engaged human beings modeling an experiential way of learning. As have many other educators, I blame their helicopter parents, who, along with a secondary education system that revolves around tests and therefore defines the teacher’s job as “making sure the students have the answers,” have created a generation of college students with no idea that they haven’t actually learned to think yet and no practice doing the hard work necessary to gain real knowledge. Add to that the total saturation of consumerist values they’ve been bombarded with since birth through their unprecedented exposure to media and technology, and we’ve got students who see teachers as contractors and themselves as buyers who can and should customize the product to suit them individually.

In the hopes, however, that the only future for higher education is not the for-profit, online model, and being as persistent as ever in my belief that humanism is not dead, I cannot conform to that status quo. When conducting a search for a new faculty member, colleges and universities often request a Teaching Philosophy, but that document is rarely provided to students. Therefore I will lay out here, for prospective students either being forced to take one of my courses by their curriculum or deciding whether to take it of their own accord, the principles by which I teach.

1. I am not a patriarchal authority figure. I do not approach the material as one who has all of the answers. The best way to learn to think critically is to ask your own questions of the material and to seek out, on your own, your own answers. I model this by approaching even material I have been teaching for ten years or practicing for 20 as if it holds yet-undiscovered secrets which only an intellectual archaeological dig can uncover. I ask questions to which I do not have the answers, and this may make you uncomfortable. Here is the good news: THAT’S OKAY. Being uncomfortable does not mean you are unsafe. Being uncomfortable means you are in new territory and though you should proceed with caution, you must above all else work through the discomfort to proceed.

2. This does not mean I do not know my shit. I do.

3. I do not command respect and I do not have to earn it. Just as I respect you as a human being deserving of it unless you do something to lose that respect, in which case I will ask that you work to earn it back, I expect you to enter the room with a default of mutual respect and to participate in a social contract in which others only have to earn your respect if they do something to lose it.

4. I am not a babysitter. I will not police your behavior. If you insist on having side conversations, I will only ask you once to focus on and engage in what’s happening around you. After that I will either ignore you or ask you to leave the room. If you are unable to use your willpower to concentrate through an entire class and are unwilling to accept that what another student has to say is worth listening to and engaging with, you are unready to be in a college classroom. To the students who can concentrate and do believe that you can learn from, say, watching your classmates work a scene that you are not in, I expect you to take responsibility for your own educational experience and use peer pressure to impose higher standards of behavior upon those who would distract you from your goal.

5. I teach the arts, but I use the scientific method. Whether I am asking you to interpret or to create, I will ask you to pose an inquiry, investigate it, gather and analyze data, and reevaluate your hypothesis. And then I will probably ask you to do it again.

6. I am not one of those ever-more elusive master theater teachers who, through a lifetime of experience in the field, always have a relevant anecdote and name to drop, whatever the material. I have studied with some of these men, and they can be pretty awesome. But I’m not one of them. I will, however, use personal anecdotes to model a way of engaging with the material. I do not expect you to care about my stories; whether you do or not is actually irrelevant to me. I do expect you to perform the act of bringing yourself to the material in an equally personal way. Connecting the plays you are reading and the art you are making to your own lived experiences is the first step in encountering and interpreting the material on your own.

7. Though our personal experiences are a useful start to exploring material, they are not enough to interpret art created by others or to create art relevant to others. The next step is to understand the ways generations of received authority have interpreted and made art. If you are unwilling to look deeply into the sources of and conditions which created the material with which you are dealing, you will never be able to make it meaningful in the here and now.

8. Once you have both investigated the material as a unique individual and consumed as much of the received knowledge on the subject as you can in several sittings, you will be prepared to ask the biggest questions of all: what in this material is NOT us, what is NOT a part of some Western conception of the universal but is rather OTHER? To what extent must you, despite your personal connection and exhaustive analysis of the text, also use your IMAGINATION to understand this material and embody the other within it? Is there, in fact, an other or has she been elided all together? Can you use your imagination to see the invisible ways in which power and privilege are at play in this version of this particular story? Can you, therefore, imagine telling this story in a way that creates freedom?

And that’s about it. Discipline, rigor, individualism, and imagination. If you can bring all these things to our classroom, there’s a gold star in it for you. Oh, and you’ll also get the ability to live a self- and socially-aware life in which you use critical thinking to solve problems.

Photo of Freire looking like a patriarchal authority figure via the Paulo Freire Institute

Check out this hilarious tumblr.

“Style is knowing what kind of play you’re in.”

– Sir John Gielgud

Part of a a collaboration between The Good Men Project and Role/Reboot on a special series about the End of Gender. Cross Posted at Ms.

I am gendered, just not in all the ways you might think. Whatever part of my brain makes me like makeup and sparkly jewelry isn’t going away any more than is my tendency to argue, solve problems and boss people around. I have no problem emphasizing different aspects of my sometimes feminine, sometimes masculine gender when the occasion calls for it and when I feel like it. I also do not experience much cognitive dissonance when I see other people do the same. My husband’s love of cooking amazes me only because of how much I hate cooking, not because he’s a man.

I believe I have theater to thank for this. As both a consumer and producer of theater, I have learned to see character not as an immutable constant but rather as a complex and constantly shifting combination of biology, neurology, sociology, anthropology and choice.

As a student director, I began casting women to play roles written for men in order to make up for the lack of roles for women. I quickly became interested in the increased storytelling possibilities created by this destabilization of identity, and I began to experiment with what I could say about the nature of gender by treating it as a performance. To this day, whenever I direct I use some cross-sex casting. Sometimes I change the sex of the character to match the sex of the actor by adjusting pronouns and costuming according to the actor’s body. Because parts for men are usually written with traditional ideas of “manhood” in mind, this usually results in the creation of a “masculine” female character: an identifiably biological woman who nevertheless speaks and acts like a man. Sometimes I do not change the sex of the character but rather have the actor actually pretend to be a member of the opposite sex–to play the part in drag. In that case, the audience, aware of the pretense, is reminded that all of the performances they’re watching are pretend–in a sense everyone is in drag–and is thereby enabled to ask, What else about these characters is not “natural” but rather a construction of the writing and/or performance? And if writing and/or performance are reflections of the cultures out of which they arise, what else in culture is constructed?

More recently, I have added sexual orientation to the mix and democratized the process by asking the actors to determine themselves whether their characters are female or male, feminine or masculine, homosexual or heterosexual or some combination of the above. Whether the choices ultimately highlight or subvert the author’s original intentions, the act of choosing and performing creates possibility.

You might think this would be confusing, but it turns out that it’s a great way to get the audience to engage on a deeper imaginative level. I have had audience members tell me that they mentally assigned a variety of sexes, genders and sexualities to the same character in the course of the same performance. Fewer people than you’d suspect are bothered by the idea that a character could be one thing in one scene and another in the next. For many, this is more like their experience of the world.

What I’ve discovered is this: For audiences, seeing stories in which kings and CEOs are women helps people imagine a world in which women can hold positions of political and economic power. Likewise, seeing stories in which men are caretakers, homemakers, shoppers and cooks helps people imagine a world in which that can be true as well. And the more you mix it up in the same show–put a woman in a typically masculine role and a man in a typically feminine one in the same play in which another woman plays a very feminine character and another man a masculine one–the more you reinforce the fact that, in real life, real people play all kinds of roles too.

For performers, pretending to be someone else reveals that, to a certain extent, everyone has the power to be whomever they want regardless of social expectations. Many aspects of identity can be chosen and shaped: In a sense, we are the playwrights of our own lives. Pretending to be someone else also reveals the ways people are inherently different from one another, sometimes in unchangeable ways. Through literally embodying the other, performers learn to recognize and respect those differences. Further, crafting a performance based on an actor’s differences from the character (rather than the similarities) gets performers to think about the ways character itself–including sex, sexuality and gender–is a complex product of hormones, genes, neurology, socialization, culture and choice.

The possibilities for application of this practice are endless. Anyone else remember having to read plays aloud as part of high school English class? What if, in that setting, boys read some of the girls’ parts and girls read some of the boys’? What if we provided reading material to young people in which none of the characters are sexed or gendered, asked them to determine those things themselves, and then questioned the assumptions on which they based their decisions? What if we each spent a week consciously trying to be more masculine or more feminine than we usually are? What if we each spent a day disguised as a member of the opposite sex? What if, as part of playing “let’s pretend” with our children, we encouraged them to pretend to be a sex or gender that they’re not?

Empathy can only be created when we see the world from another person’s eyes, and outside of the theater world people don’t get enough opportunities to do that. Engaging imaginatively in what it means to be a feminine man or a masculine woman won’t end gender, but it will help us to understand the endless possibilities of it. At least it might blur the gender binary and the idea of a fixed relationship between sex, gender and sexuality.

Photo of Twelfth Night at the University of California at Riverside, Directed by Holly L. Derr. FROM LEFT: Vesta Rounsaville, Alexandra Franke, Samantha Spada, Kyle Filippelli, Fracis Chen and Andrew Mena. Photo by Alan Call.

The Good Men Project and Role/Reboot have collaborated on a special series about the End of Gender. Dozens of bloggers are taking on Hanna Rosin’s ongoing (and recently reignited) “End of Men” argument and what meaning gender has in contemporary society. This collaboration includes bloggers from Good Men Project, Role/RebootThe Huffington PostSalonHyperVocalMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free Zone,The Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.