By: Gina Young
I wrote my first play when I was 18. It was about cutting, and coming out, and how the girls that seemed the most perfect on the outside were often secretly the worst. The stuff of high school. A group of students wanted to put on my play but they were told by their school administration that they couldn’t. It was “not appropriate for high school students.” Confusing, because it was literally a play written by someone recently out of high school (me) about her high school experience (shitty). That same high school had no problem putting on a spring musical where girls gyrated suggestively in tiny shorts and were the butt of sexist jokes. The lesson was clear: you can be a sex object, but you can’t talk about your sexuality on stage. That isn’t “appropriate.”
Here is an actual list of actual roles I was assigned in acting classes my freshman year of college: call girl, hooker, go-go dancer, prostitute. Oh and eventually lesbian go-go dancer, because once they found out I was queer they had a hard time seeing me as anything else.
As a young acting student I remember thinking, are these the only roles women get to play? Or just the only roles that certain aging male acting teachers are interested in seeing 18-year-old girls play? Were any of these plays even written by sex workers themselves?
We did our best. We tried to please. I did what teachers and agents and casting directors told me to do, half-assedly and without pleasure. I went to plays ravenous and left still hungry. Sat my butt in red velvet seats for musicals whose songs made my hair stand on end and my heart swell in my chest—and whose subject matter was like, women getting beaten and teenage girls getting raped. I would look around the audience and think, am I just projecting or does every woman around me look uncomfortable and every man have a boner? Who gets entertained and who gets triggered? Am I supposed to aspire to play out that trauma onstage?
I went to drama school because I was told I had a talent for acting, but I became a playwright out of necessity. I had to write my experience into validity.
And then I started this thing. It was a long time in the making.
Feminist Acting Class is an experiment to see if the form of an acting class can be made feminist, in addition to the content. This means prioritizing plays by women with multidimensional female characters, while also breaking down the hierarchy of the teacher/student relationship. In Feminist Acting Class, anyone can play any gender. The experiences of queer, trans, people of color and disabled people are revered instead of reviled, centered instead of pathologized or pitied. We throw out the absurd idea that “love interests” are a certain breed of young, straight, able-bodied Aryan-type beauty. We know from real world living that all kinds of people fall in love all the time. So what the hell is an ingénue? What makes a romantic lead?
I ask participants what roles feel forbidden to them and why. Does theater have to replicate the status quo or can we tell different stories?
We also analyze scenes and monologues through a historical lens—what was the status of women at the time the play was written and in the time period in which it is set? Plays speak to their time. It’s potent. Always read through and beneath.
As women, trans and queer actors we have barely begun. Feminist Acting Class is a starting point to find out who we really are, free of sexist power dynamics and pressure to fit ourselves into narrow norms to succeed within capitalism. I want to see what you can do, uninhibited by societal conditioning and the constant expectation that we always be pretty and crying. Let’s write. Rock. Rip shit up. Make costumes, play with eyeliner, collaborate with our friends. Refuse to take roles that aren’t as intelligently written as we are intelligent. Refuse to be objectified. Kill off the voice in our heads that says, “good theater must be…” (linear, must build to a dramatic climax, must be approved by the faceless arbiters of success…) or “a good actress must be…” (conventionally beautiful, making a certain amount of money, not waiting tables or doing gender the way that I do…) I want us to create work that is more interesting and renders the bullshit obsolete. Your life matters and is relevant and interesting and funny and tragic and REAL and you’re such a drama queen anyway, don’t deny it, don’t deny yourself the pleasure.
If what you’re doing feels dangerous and kind of like career suicide, you’re probably on the right track.