I have always wanted to wear a dress on stage. Out of all the plays, starting from the classical era and ending in the 20th century, the only desire I have is to play female characters. I find the problems men face in Shakespeare to be quite boring; the acquisition of power and land can only take me so far. It is the women who are truly trapped, who desire a better life, who deeply mourn for the world they inhabit. That feels most reflective of my current state of being. How beautiful it would be to wear a long white dress, sip tea, and gossip about the tragedies of our lives. What would it feel like to sit and wait? To deal with the decisions of others? Now that is me.
I began flirting with this idea in my first year of my MFA acting program by putting on an “all male version” of a Victorian play, in which three women are trapped in a love triangle at the turn of the 20th century. It didn’t quite cut it for me. I wanted it all, the corset, the pearls, the long hair tightly fixed upward (a specific dream I simply MUST let go of, as I have been very bald for the last 10 years). I should have gone for it all, but I was scared. Of what, I’m not sure. What would it fully mean for me to play a woman? To explore the expression of my gender to see how my experience sits with hers?
Around the time I was asked to reflect about the future of the American Theater, a friend of mine joined me for a chicken sandwich on a rich stranger’s stoop in Park Slope. He had told me that he had booked a part on a TV show playing a gay man. He asked me if, “this was okay?,” as he is not gay, and I am apparently the gatekeeper. I told him, “No. Or at least, I don’t think so, but not for the reason you may imagine. And I don’t think it’s up to you really to make that call. You need to get paid like the rest of us”, knowing he would be paid a large sum of money for the brave act of playing a man who kisses other men.
This conundrum has unfortunately enveloped our entertainment system as a whole; both TV/Film and Theater are infected by it. When I look into the problems of the American Theater, and I speak about the theatre specifically because that’s the arena I find myself most frequently in, I believe that casting is at the forefront of the schism we are facing. And sadly, the actor is at the brunt of this divide. It is the actor that has to make the choice whether or not to take the part, even though they are at the bottom of a larger system that oppresses them. The art and the system present a paradox to the actor: the act of storytelling indicates that unless spoken otherwise, we are not playing ourselves, we are pretending. Yet, because every marginalized group is starved for representation, we must be the thing to play the part, for the sake of equity. If only one in every thousand parts on tv, film, and theater identifies as queer, what sense does it make to give it to a straight actor? It simply baffles me. But on the other hand, who am I to say that you have never identified, or have questioned the idea of your own sexuality? Our lives are a constant process, and who am I really to define you?
The true problem isn’t that the actor who takes that role is not queer, or cis or male for that matter, but that the larger system of the American Theater has starved every group that is not a cis white male so much, that if they do not get to play themselves, their people, they will die. This is not the actors’ fault. This is the institution’s fault. It is the fault of the producer, of the director, and of the casting director. It is the fault of the educational system of the Theater for not providing this diversity of story from the beginning stages of the artist’s life. It is not the actors’ fault (unless you someone famous like Emma Stone, then it quite indeed is your fault; and for those of you that have missed this culturally contentious moment, may I redirect your eyes here). But we cannot have a system that brands the role of artist as “Starving” and then kick them when they try to eat.
As I recall the story of my failed soiree into the life of the Victorian female, I remember a female classmate telling me that she wasn’t appreciative of the fact that I have taken three roles away from women. And that thought alone perfectly encapsulates the trap we are all in: by exploring a part that is not myself, I am taking the part from another.
We must look at this time as a collection of artists in a chapter of a long timeline of theater. We are in a chapter of representation: of building stories of unheard voices, and lifting the spirits of those who have been cast aside for hundreds of years. And if that means that our imaginations can’t roam as freely as is possible, that is a sacrifice we must make for the equality and liberation of all voices. If the parts asks for a certain type of person, in our exploration of gender and sexuality, let that person play the part. Simple. And if we do this, perhaps the next generation of artists will be free enough to explore outside the lines.
I would like to make one thing clear in this. The highway that we are on, from oppression to liberation, does not flow both ways. This road must be traveled solely to benefit the oppressed. For example, on this road, I believe women can play men. I do not believe that men should play women. I believe non-binary and trans actors should be able to play cis characters. I do not believe that the reverse can be allowed. I believe queer characters can play straight. The opposite cannot be true. The rules must be this rigid, it must be this clear, for supremacy will fill any cracks that may exist.
I imagine freedom and liberation for artists exists in the same metric as it does for people; no one is free until we are all free. Freedom in our art cannot be achieved until no one feels tied down to represent a larger group, when there is such a large array of diversity in our storytelling that no one feels responsible for feeding a group of starving artists. And maybe then, I’ll be seventy and I’ll get to sit on stage in a long white dress, drink tea, and wonder if I’ll ever make it to Moscow.
This essay was commissioned in collaboration with SideLight, an ongoing series of curated essays from a contingent of the next generation of artists and arts leaders. As the theater and entertainment industry rebuilds and reimagines, these pieces speak directly to our present, yet also seek to envision our future.
All media courtesy of the writer.