The Plague of Custom: on the Gender Binary in Casting and the Question of Conformity

By: Carissa Cordes

Back Balance Showcase 2015
Photo: Heather Heineman

Several years ago, I found myself desperately trying to explain to a playwright friend of mine that I felt limited by the way he was casting me, especially after working together for years. I felt not only undervalued but like he didn’t understand me on a fundamental level. Unfortunately, I did not have the language at the time to explain the source of my frustration: the strict gender binary at work in classical theater at large and more specifically in his casting decisions.

He told me there were no roles for me.

I haven’t focused on the performance side of theater since.

That conversation helped me realize I had allowed other people to dictate my identity in the casting room for too long. I needed to find my voice.

By taking time off from figuring out fictional characters I was able to figure out who I am: a female-bodied person, a lesbian, who identifies more in the genderqueer and androgynous middle of the gender expression spectrum. My life grew in unexpected and exciting ways: I deepened my training in aerial acrobatics, a physical art form that is more about what your body is capable of doing and less about what gender your body represents; my partner had a baby; and I am now in school learning how to heal people. I sometimes feel I stumbled in to this full life with stability I did not imagine was possible several years earlier.

Before my self-imposed hiatus, I had become depressed from trying so hard to squeeze into a box that didn’t fit me. While I loved performing the written word, I had lost track of who I was. Looking back, it’s easy to identify specific events that highlight the dissonance between who I am and who I felt I had to be:

When I was in college, I took an acting apprenticeship with a classical theater company during a summer break. My acting teacher gave me Edmund’s soliloquy from King Lear, “Thou nature art my goddess; to thy law my services are bound.” The monologue never specifies the gender of the speaker, only the speaker’s name. The monologue was a fantastic fit. I fell in love with it.

Then I was told by the head of the program that this monologue was inappropriate for me, as a female, to use as an audition piece for classical regional theaters. They said I should use female character soliloquies and wear a skirt and heels, because slacks and boots are inappropriate for Juliet.

Later in my college career, I took a Business of Acting class, which focused on preparing students for auditions for commercials and agents, but also addressed theater auditions. I performed my Edmund monologue in a mock audition in that class. It was emphasized—again—that this should be in my “back pocket, just in case they need to see a third piece,” and I was asked if I was performing it as a male or female. I said, “I am performing it as myself.” The teacher responded, “that’s fine then, as a girl you should dress in a more feminine manner. Please dress more appropriately for the next class.”

After graduation, I went to a weekend-long workshop in an effort to introduce myself to several agents and managers. At the organizer’s insistence, because the workshop was audition-based, I would perform female monologues, wear make-up with manicured nails and keep my hair down. For the last day the organizer requested I also wear a skirt and heels. I acquiesced to all of these requests believing this would lead to some commercial success.

After this workshop was over I was sent out on a trial audition for one of the agents in which I was again expected to dress in a feminine manner—which meant going from work to the audition and trying to “feminize” myself in the bathroom, only to feel awkward and ridiculous in the audition. After several similar attempts to meet expectations, I realized I did not want to continue on this path. If dressing in an overtly feminine manner was required for commercial success, perhaps that world wasn’t for me.

I attempted the grad school cattle call; I auditioned with my favorite Edmund monologue. On my callback sheet someone suggested I should go to a historically female college known for cross-gendered casting, a college that was not present at this audition. Apparently this individual could not get over the use of words originally written for a man, being spoken by someone with a female body. Never mind that all of Shakespeare’s words were originally written for men and boys who cross-dressed and played the feminine.

I understood most of these schools were casting for a season, but they are also learning institutions. Why was the primary factor in their consideration of me as a prospective student my ability to fit into the twin, very narrow and cramped boxes of ‘type’ and ‘gender’?

I now find myself longing for the opportunity to perform onstage again, but this time I want to do it without compromising who I am. I am ready to shake up the gender paradigm.

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