When I was in high school, I was into all the performing arts. Well, not dancing, because I still refer to my hometown as the setting for the movie Footloose, where dancing wasn’t to be done and books were always at risk of being burned. But the plays and musicals and choir and speech were (and are) very supported by the community, and what we performed at the school was often some of the only very narrow glimpses into the arts world that the community saw. We had some fairly strict guidelines about what the productions were allowed to be and usually stayed within bounds, but I can recall a little backlash from the extra-marital love scene in Into the Woods my junior year that relegated us to Oklahoma! my senior year.
Who’d I play? Everybody’s favorite overweight whatever. I was Jack’s Mother. I was Aunt Eller. I even played Esther Finkelstein in a play about a Jewish butcher shop in which two Lutherans and a Baptist won an award for a show that had us assume roles (and Yiddish accents) outside of our culture. Overweight people are to be comic relief and I was proud to be getting roles; I did them well. I understood that there were some roles for which we just do not cast overweight people. Cinderella wasn’t plump. Love interests weren’t portly, even though they could mature into soft and round aunts and mothers later in their fairytale lives. It’s what culture has said and it’s what I internalized. I could be white and play non-white roles, but I could not be overweight and be considered a love interest. Those were the norms. Okay then.
As I reflect on these memories, I think of how many limits were enforced and how many were expanded in the arts. Some subjects were taboo, and roles and who could play them were in step with what our culture has internalized. When I look around today, what norms are our culture still enforcing? We’re talking about things like whitewashing and cultural appropriation more, and we are seeing pushback about who is playing which roles. It is no longer a given that we will see predominantly white people in major roles on stage or screen, though by looking at Netflix and how few movies there are out there for non-white people, it’s a staggering misrepresentation of who actually lives in our world. But on stages? We usually hope to see boundaries broken and pushed and turned on their heads to give us life more as it is lived than as it is determined to be profitable by producers.
Bluntly, the arts are showing us that a role should not be limited by what our culture has defined that roles should be. I am so proud that, while Hollywood might still be struggling with representation, particularly in terms of race, our stages here in the Twin Cities have given us people of all different skin colors as Cinderella and Prince Charming and as gentlemen in Shakespeare’s Verona and in Jane Austen’s England and Seurat’s France and Dickens’ waltzing Christmas production, among so many others. There are contexts when race is the key to the casting and contexts when it isn’t. And it’s refreshing to see those boundaries challenged.
Where could we use more expansion? Still in terms of race, we should never assume that subject is crossed off on a list as completed. We’re seeing a few more mixed-size couples out there, whether the couples are gay or straight. But, and here’s where I draw the obvious connection to this community (though the rest of what I’ve said here is remarkably relevant), can we see more same-sex situations as we’ve seen mixed-race casting? Is it possible for us to go there, too? Race is pushing the norms, can sexual orientation and identity as well? I’m asking you, too, because I don’t know if everyone would believe it to be so slam-dunk of an answer. The most beautiful Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen were by Propeller Theatre Company at the Guthrie a few years ago when the all-male company played both male and female characters so poignantly. We’ve had all-female productions of Shakespeare by the Jungle Theater, Ten Thousand Things, Theatre Unbound, and a same-sex casting by Mu Performing Arts.
But how often is it a cross-gender casting where a woman is playing a male role or a male is playing a female role? Could we actually expand that to make the role into an opposite gender from which it was originally written? Could we have a male Cinderella? Could Romeo be female? Can we have genderqueer love stories in our mainstream Western canon productions? It’s not a simple answer, but it’s one worth pondering. As you sit in the audiences this season, consider these questions. How important is it that our productions hold to the internalized norms and can we expand them to fit what our culture actually looks like, particularly in terms of sexual orientation and identity?
With you and with thanks,