A version of this essay appeared as “Race Free, Gender Free, Body-Type Free, Age Free Casting”
in TDR (1988) 33, 1: 4-12.

Richard Schechner


Abstract / Résumé

The majority of roles in the Western classic and modern classic repertories are male roles. On European and American stages, from the 17th to the late 19th century, women played a considerable number of men’s roles. With the rise of realism and the availability of photographic visual media, this practice ended for the most part (Hamlet being an exception). In this paper, I argue for “open casting” – and especially gender-free casting. I place this argument in the context not only of theatre but of society at large.

La majorité des rôles dans les répertoires classiques, anciens et modernes, en Occident sont des rôles masculins. Sur les scènes européennes et américaines, du 17ème à la fin du 19ème siècle, les femmes ont joué un nombre considérable de rôles d’hommes. Avec l’essor du réalisme et l’avènement des mass-media visuels et photographiques, cette pratique a pris fin pour la plupart (Hamlet constituant une exception). Dans cet exposé, je plaide pour des distributions ouvertes (« open casting »), particulièrement eu égard au genre (« gender-free casting »). Et je situe cet enjeu non seulement dans le contexte théâtral, mais dans celui de la société en général.

The theme of this year’s IATC meeting is “femininity.” In the spirit of that theme, listen to what Zelda Fichandler, the founder-director of Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage and later the head of the Graduate Acting Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, wrote twenty-two years ago:

Suppose that there were a fine acting company made up of white actors and black actors and Hispanic actors and Asian-American actors; women and men; young actors, older, and old; deaf actors and the hearing; actors with other special characteristics. And suppose that one assigned roles freely, without prediction from history or from one’s old habits of thought. What if one took non-traditional casting as far as one could? (American Theatre, May 1988:20)

In the same year, feminist performance theorist Teresa de Lauretis wrote:

Redefining the conditions of vision, as well as the modes of representing, cannot be predicated on a single, undivided identity of per­former and audience (whether as “lesbians” or “women” or “people of color” or any other single category constructed in opposition to its dominant other, “heterosexual women,” “men,” “whites,” and so forth). (Theatre Journal, May 1988: 171)

These two women are speaking to each other, and to us. Let me explain.

In terms of casting a play, what would “redefining the conditions of vision” entail? Can we actually “assign roles freely, without prediction from history or from one’s old habits of thought”? Ought this to be a principal job of theatre critics like yourselves – educating audiences and theatre producers alike to open casting to everyone? Meryl Streep as Willie Loman, Judie Dench as Juliet, Morgan Freeman as Blanche du Bois? Knowing that the theme of this year’s IATC meeting is “femininity,” let me focus on the “woman problem” in theatre.

The problem and the difficulties of a solution must be examined within certain demographic cultural realities. The majority of IATC critics gathered here are women, a majority of students at New York University’s Drama and Performance Studies departments – and at most other schools also – are women, increasingly theatre is a profession populated by more women than men, and that the theme for this year’s IATC meeting is “femininity.” But despite these majorities, there are more great roles for men than for women. For every Ophelia and Gertrude there are Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Gravediggers, the Ghost; for every Mother Courage and Kattrin, there are a Chaplain, Cook, Swiss Cheese, Eilif, Sergeant, Colonel, and General. In most other areas of political, professional, and aesthetic life, women are claiming their place, but not as much in theatre. No one raises an eyebrow about a woman prime minister, but there would still be a to-do about a woman on Broadway playing, say, Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Not playing Willie “as a woman,” but as the male character Miller wrote.

At present, in the Western repertory from the Greeks through to Elizabethan and Renaissance theatre and on to the modern classics such as Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Williams, Pinter, and Mamet, the preponderance of great roles – the preponderance of all roles – are male characters. This is not to deny great woman characters from Clytemnestra to Portia, Phedre, and Hedda Gabler, from Miss Julie and the Three Sisters to Mother Courage and Blanche Dubois, etc. But for every Portia there are ten Hamlets, and so on down the line. And remember that in ancient Greece and Elizabethan England, all the roles went to boys and men. Definitely the playing field has been tilted for centuries. So is it too much to advocate strongly for truly open casting? Or maybe even companies like Japan’s Takarazuka, where all roles – men and women alike – are played by women?

Here I am speaking of gender. But a very strong argument can also be made, I believe, for open casting with regard to age, race, and body type. That’s the kind of assigning roles freely Fichandler was writing about. If the deeply engrained conventions of casting to type were set aside what then would the criteria be for playing a character? Is it utopian to insist that training plus insight into a role is sufficient? Can critics educate spectators and producers alike to at least look at and listen to casts where the gender, race, age, and body type of the performers are, as it were, not perceived – while paying close attention to the same with regard to characters? That is, to see a white actor as a black Othello (without “blacking up”) or an actress, or actor, of 60 as Juliet. I remember butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, at 71, dancing as a young woman, or rather as both young-and-old, in the onnagata tradition, in Admiring La Argentina – for which Ohno won New York’s Dance Critics Circle Award in 1977.

Of course this is not going to happen, at least not at first. At first, such “blind casting” would be a new kind of avantgarde encoding its own social and aesthetic comment. It will be attacked from both orthodox theatre goers and critics who are attached to realism of one kind or another; and by those who insist that gender cannot simply be wished away. And what does it mean to assert that the gender, race, age, and body type of the performers would be “not perceived”? With regard to gender, essentialists will claim that “women are women, men men” while constructionists will argue that gender neutrality does not exist, that every look and move is a performative. But, perhaps, in the long run, gender-blind casting will be ordinary, just as audiences care less and less who is in a symphony orchestra (once exclusively the domain of white men). Not that classical music is out of the woods: virtually no major orchestras are conducted or managed by women. And classical music is not performed by artists enacting specific roles with particular characteristics. But what I am probing is the possibility of detaching role-characteristics from actor-characteristics. I am not arguing that Juliet’s gender or age, or Othello’s color, or the servant Jean’s class (in Miss Julie) do not matter. Of course they matter: they are at the core of the roles. What I am arguing for is the ability of a skilled performer to play the needed class, gender, race—or whatever is called for; and to do so without recourse to realistic disguises (though there is nothing wrong with disguising, especially in theatre with its varied and complex traditions of masquerading). And also, when the dictates of a particular production ask for it (depending on the actor’s and/or director’s interpretation) to play against or to play with the gender, race, class, body type, etc. Lots of queer theatre already does this with regard to gender. These practices and other similar practices with regard to the other supposedly fixed character characteristics ought to go mainstream.

Of course one can, and must, call for more new plays with more and better roles for women. Over the centuries many writers have answered that call, including in our own time Paula Vogel, Caryl Churchill, Suzanne Lori-Parks, Sarah Kane, Saviana Stanescu, Ntozake Shange, Jasmine Rana, Sarah Ruhl, and many others. But no matter how many worthy new plays are written, the classic Western repertory continues to be played, and rightly so; and this repertory—no matter how many Antigones, Noras, Cleopatras, Ranevskayas, or Maggies there are—is hugely over-balanced in favor of men’s roles (not to mention white roles). This imbalance will always be with us because the repertory is just that: works that are produced again and again. The situation is better in the movies where new films cascade over older ones; there are a considerable number of remakes; and classic films are shown over and over. Not to mention that there are many times the number of screens than there are theatres for live shows; and that television and the internet are also lively platforms for the celluloid or digital moving image.

The imbalance on the live stage can be redressed only by re-conceiving what performing on the stage is. There is progress in this direction when it comes to ethnicity and even up to a point with race. Who demands that only Russians act Chekhov, Norwegians Ibsen, Scots the Scottish Play, or American southerners Tennessee Williams? Slowly but steadily, some of the racism embedded in theatre casting is being overcome. On the American stage, people of color increasingly perform roles beyond Othello, the dramas of David Henry Hwang, August Wilson, and “black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” this or that. Increasingly, when non-whites perform roles written with whites in mind, the roles are played color-blindly. Mercutio is “played by a black actor” or a South Asian actor rather than being a “black Mercutio” or a “South Asian Mercutio.” The difference in word placement signifies a change in attitude. Slowly, race-blindness is over-taking race-consciousness. But even here, progress is slow; there is a very long way to go before audiences, actors, producers, and directors are able and willing to be color blind.

Not so with gender. Gender is more resistant, sexism being so very deeply, almost “naturally,” encoded in Western culture; and in many non-Western cultures too. Progressives and radical thinkers as well as sex bigots want always already to note, mark, and problemitize gender and sexual orientations. In English, in addition to the default woman, man, girl, boy there is a profusion of carefully parsed gender and sexual orientation terms: lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual, queer, straight, femme, butch, top, bottom, drag queen, drag king, and so on. People’s practices, choices, and pleasures are conceived as discourses translated into ongoing political-aesthetic debates. Roles on stage tend to be translated into one or the other of these.

It was not always this way. “Breeches” or “travesty” (literally, “in disguise”) performance is a centuries old tradition in European and American theatre. During the Restoration period in England (1660-1770)”of the 375 plays […] produced in London theatres, 89 contained […] ‘roles for actresses’ ‘in Boy’s Clothes’ or in ‘Man’s Clothes.’ […] ‘Almost every actress appeared at one time or another as a youth, page, a gentleman, a soldier, a shepherd, or what you will — and some became famous for their elegant appearance in breeches or pantaloons” (Mullenix 2000: 20-21). In France, from the 1830 July Revolution to past mid-century, men were banished from the ballet. Stepping “into roles previously filled by men, women impersonated the sailors, hussars, and toreadors who made up the ‘masculine’ contingents of the corps de ballet, even as they displaced men as romantic leads (Garafola 1993: 96).

But make no mistake about it: cross-gender performing was not progressive. Dressing in tight-fitting men’s clothes showed women’s bodies to men in more revealing ways than billowy many-layered women’s garments did. Furthermore, most of the actresses and ballerinas (playing either women’s or men’s roles) had scant authority over their lives. Restoration stages and Romantic ballet theatres were often sex-markets where women were displayed the better for men to rent them. The chance to dance or act the “powerful male” did not translate into power for the women performers. As theatre and dance went public and an increasingly rich and powerful mercantile class emerged, market values determined what happened. With few exceptions, theatre managers were men who profited by granting male spectators of a certain class voyeuristic and sexual access to actresses and dancers.

Furthermore, for the most part the roles women played were “soft,” “adolescent,” “androgynous” or “post-sexual” and “grotesque” – Romeo, Hamlet, Lear, and Shylock rather than Claudius, Caesar, Orsino, or Macbeth. And with regard to the modern repertory, women could not claim Ibsen’s Torvald, Strindberg’s Jean, Brecht’s Arturo Ui, or Sam Shepard’s Hoss. Even today, when women play male roles they frequently feminize them or turn them into women – as with Ruth Maleczech who played Lear in the Mabou Mines late 1980s production. Or gender-bending becomes the subject, as in the Bloolips-Split Britches 1991 Belle Reprieve, a parodic lesbian-gay take off on Streetcar Named Desire.

Hamlet is different. Over the centuries, at least 200 women have performed the Danish Prince – in a wildly different profusion of styles and interpretations – from Charlotte Charke and Sarah Siddons (18thcentury) through Charlotte Cushman and Sarah Bernhardt (19th century) on to Teresa Budzisz-Krzyzanowska (1989) and Angela Winkler (1999)[1]. Why Hamlet? Because he is androgynous and neurotic, his identity and sexuality are in question; he loves Horatio more than he loves Ophelia; his “resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought; he cannot murder to avenge a murder; he is obsessed by the theatre. Manly men such as Claudius consider Hamlet a girly man, driven by feelings, indecisive, politically powerless, ironic, vacillating, poetic: a being of “words, words, words.” Even Hamlet’s denouement is by accident when Claudius’s plan backfires. Hamlet is Western theatre’s most ambiguous and ambivalent figure—for these very reasons.

In 19th century America, Cushman (1816-76)—a “monumental Lady Macbeth,” “white marble suffused with fire”—played over 30 male roles.

Cushman won her way into literary elites and progressive circles. Her admirers included Lincoln and Disraeli; Whiteman […] called her the greatest actor ‘in any hemisphere’ and a pointer to the intellectual future. […] Cushman became the visible hub of a subculture where her public transvestism – and her long exploration of “male” tragic passions – became inseparable from her role as model and resource for women of talent. (Howard 2007: 55-56)

But despite Cushman’s popularity and artistry critics denigrated or ignored her when she played male roles that did not conform to expectations of the androgynous boy-man, romantic hero, or vacillating Hamlet. For example, in October 1860 Cushman performed Wolsey from Henry VIII as part of her New York program—no actress had ever before played this role. Still, New York’s leading theatre publication,The Albion reviewed Cushman’s other roles but didn’t even mention her Wolsey.

This critical silence can perhaps be explained by the actress’s unorthodox choice in selecting Wolsey […]. The role of the Cardinal was thought to be out of the breeches performer’s line: the character was not a youth or a romantic hero but a man—authoritative and cunning—and was currently being played by many of Cushman’s male contemporaries. Such an undertaking could not be sanctioned by critics [..]. (Mullenix 2000: 240)

Several reasons have been put forward to explain the swift decline of breeches performances after 1870. Decisive was the rise of “objective science” in culture and realism/naturalism in literature and theatre. By the late 19th century audiences “could neither imagine nor tolerate displays of incongruous gender play amidst actual tables, chairs, and tea services” (236). Also important were the emerging popular entertainments such as burlesque and circus that put women’s bodies on display without the patina of art. Photography also opened a vast opportunity of visual sexual pleasure for men (and women, too, but for the most part pornography was, and mostly is, made for male eyes). Critics, wanting to be “modern” in their thinking while also defending “high art,” attacked or ignored women who over-stepped the boundaries, calling them “mongrels” who “mocked masculinity” and “belittled the drama” (234). Therefore, instead of leading to a period where Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov—and the other modern masters—were open-casted, critics led the way in establishing a limiting “gender conformist” practice still in place today. Isn’t it time for today’s critics to work toward undoing that restrictive practice?

There are some glimmers of change. In 1995 at London’s National Theatre, Fiona Shaw played Richard II; both Budzisz-Krzyzanowska’s and Winkler’s Hamlets were anything but effeminate; in 2006, at the Piccolo Teatro di Pontedera, over the objections of the Beckett estate (who lost their case in court), JoAnne Akalaitis directed a Waiting for Godot with Estragon and Vladimir played by women. For 20 years Anna Deavere Smith has made powerful performances in which she embodies with great conviction and verisimilitude both women and men. In Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, Helen Mirren is a female Propsero. Taymor explained: “I wanted to do it because there are actresses like Helen Mirren who never get to play these fantastic parts because they were not written for women” (Daily Express, 11 May 2010).[2]

Of course, the situation is complex both practically and theoretically. The correlation among sexual orientations, gender choices, and theatrical performances though at first blush obvious is, in fact, anything but. Drag kings and queens, bi- and transsexuals, lesbians, gays, and straights—these do not each correlate to theatrical performances of or by “men” and “women.” Also, in theatre itself, all kinds of orientations and genders operate both onstage and off. Only a stupid realism would argue that gays play gay, straights straight, bis-bi, and so on. Nor can theorists definitively assign to one gender or another dramatic characters such as Shakespeare’s cross-dressers, Greek heroines, Chikamatsu’sonnagatas, the heroes of the Takarazuka Kagekidan, or the characters of Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, and Tennessee Williams. As Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed and Judith Butler explained, “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (One is not born a woman: one becomes it). Becoming a woman (or a man, or any gender “position”), and then maintaining that position, is a performance.

In codified forms such as Chinese jingju, Japanese kabuki, or Indian kathakali it is comparatively easy to play across genders, if there are no aesthetic or social objections. In fact, in these forms men often play women while the reverse is much less common. Because the behavior (on stage) of women and men is codified in detail, to have women perform men would take a revision of expectations not the development of new codes. In realism, crossing over is more difficult because the social codes of everyday life are deeply engraved in both spectators’ and performers’ expectations. However, increasingly in ordinary social life dress codes are being revised so that it is no longer unusual to see persons in everyday life dress across genders, though women in men’s clothing (a felt “upward mobility”) is more common than men in women’s clothes. I am not talking about drag here, but of the so-common-it-is-not-noticed blue jeans, running shoes, T-shirts, and so on. Soon enough, I think, men will take on more traditional women’s garb without being perceived as being in drag; ditto for men using cosmetics. Once two way cross-dressing enters the mainstream in social life, the stage will follow suit.

Or will it? I ask because a change in dress codes will not necessarily signal a change in behavior. Women in men’s clothes and men in women’s clothes do not lead to “manly women” or “womenly men.” What has to happen is an adjustment at a deep level of what it means to enact gender in relation to social status. Western cultures are more gender dimorphic than some Asian cultures where a sign of wealth and sophistication is a refinement of men’s behavior in the direction of feminine grace and delicacy. On the flip side, the emergence of world-class women athletes in golf, basketball, tennis, track, swimming, and so on provides powerful models for physically strong, graceful yet aggressive looks and behavior. Definitely, globally (thanks to world sports, the internet, and visual media) gender dimorphism is on the wane. Age also tends to reduce gender dimorphism. Old persons of whatever gender tend to converge both in terms of looks and behavior.

To return to the stage. Why not actively promote a broad range of “impersonations” and “crossings”? From the parodic to serious drag kings and queens; from enacting lesbian and gay power to “just doing the role” in a variety of ways; from making gender differences visible in a conscious Verfremdungseffektto effacing differences in order to project a universalist “we are all humans” transparency. Casting against gender and type is the stock-in-trade of parody and travesty — witness the many plays Charles Ludlam wrote, directed, and starred in or the men in tutus of the Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo or the gender play of Split Britches and WOW Cafe. Often the intention is political — as when women play males at WOW Cafe or when Chicano farm laborers play white bosses at the Teatro Campesino. Reasons for these kinds of groups are many and diverse. There are hundreds of particularist groups formed according to gender, race, social class, disability, ideology, sexual orientation, or age. Lesbian, gay, black, Chicano, deaf, disabled, old, poor, Marxist, Jewish, Native American, and so on. In these groups actors are cast within the determinants of the group, sometimes crossing one line but not others, race but not gender, gender but not age or body type. This kind of particularist performance art/theatre serves a very important purpose. I am not arguing for curtailing this activity. What I am asking for is a wider application of cross-gender performance; for the practice to enter the mainstream; to become ordinary.

It is true that gender, race, age, and body type signal specific sociopolitical meanings—but it is also true that these meanings are always shifting—and that art, fashion, and popular entertainment can lead the way. The categories them­selves are definable only within specific contexts. That is, what constitutes a “black” or a “white” or an “Asian” or “Hispanic” person—you fill in the blanks—is not some fixed objectively measurable entity, but evolving circumstances that have emerged over the centuries in a variety of cultures that are now more than ever interacting and affecting each other. When I am asked to specify to what group I belong I often check “other.” That is because categories are continuing to change. Not only race, culture, and ethnicity, but also what it means to be a “woman” or a “man,” an “old person” or a “young person,” a “fat person,” a “normal person,” or a “thin person”—and so on. You cannot answer what/who you are without referring to changing criteria responsive to also changing social circumstances. At any moment, one can perhaps offer a definition. But what do such definitions mean? No definition is an objective index; each definition reflects and also helps determine social privilege or lack thereof. Therefore, to confront spectators with casts against type is to ask audiences to wonder what such casting means—and to wonder about their own place in various social hierarchies and circumstances; maybe even to inquire into their own personal situations.

What would the benefits of open casting be? First, it would give actors the chance to play roles that have been off limits by virtue not of skills but because of gender, race, age, or body type. Second, it would drive a wedge between actor and character encouraging spectators and performers to critically examine interacting performance texts rather than assuming a simple-minded identification of the performer with the role. Third, it would further stress the already weakened link between theatre and realism. Fourth, performers and spectators alike would be more able to see gender, race, age, and body type not as “biological destinies” but as flexible, historically conditioned performative circumstances.

Today I am asking you as critics, as people with real power, to get behind what Meyerhold said nearly 100 years ago: “Women should take over men’s roles on stage as well as in real life, by acting parts written for male actors. Give me the actresses, and I’ll make a Khlestakov and Hamlet of them, a Don Juan or a Chatsky!” I am asking you to advocate unequivocally for women to perform in any and all kinds of roles; to help women achieve in theatre what women are achieving in business, law, politics, and medicine. If 19th century critics helped slaughter the open casting of their epoch, let 21st century critics lead a renaissance of open casting.


[1] For a full account of all these Hamlets, see Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
[2] http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/174383/Helen-Mirren-s-storming-new-role


FICHANDLER, Zelda (1988).”Casting for a Different Truth.” American Theatre 5, no. 2 (May): 18-23.

de Lauretis, Teresa (1988). “Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation”, Theatre Journal 40 (no. 2):155-77.

GARAFOLA, Lynn (1993). “The Travesty Dancer in Nineteenth-Century Ballet” 96-106 in Crossing the Stage: Controversies on cross-dressing, Lesley Ferris, ed. London and New York: Routledge.

HOWARD, Tony (2007). Women as Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MULLENIX, Elizabeth Reitz (2000). Wearing the Breeches: Gender on the Antebellum Stage. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Copyright © 2010 Richard Schechner
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Open Casting