We did [a live read] recently of American Pie, but we reversed the gender roles. All the women played men; all the men played women. And it was so fascinating to be a part of this because, as the women took on these central roles — they had all the good lines, they had all the good laughs, all the great moments — the men who joined us to sit on stage started squirming rather uncomfortably and got really bored because they weren't used to being the supporting cast… It was fascinating to feel their discomfort [and] to discuss it with them afterward, when they said, ‘It's boring to play the girl role!’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. You think? Welcome to our world!’” -- Olivia Wilde
I always look for a great arc. Men get great arcs all the time, especially in movies, but it's very rare for a woman to get an arc. –- Jessica Chastain
"No one has ever asked an actor, 'You're playing a strong-minded man…' We assume that men are strong-minded, or have opinions. But a strong-minded woman is a different animal." -- Meryl Streep
This is the reality of life as an actress. There are far fewer roles for women than for men, and even fewer roles for actresses that are equal in scale and complexity to those regularly offered to actors. Often, female characters are there merely to facilitate a male character’s journey. Women are slightly more than 50% of the population, but according to a study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 31% of speaking roles in movies are occupied by women, and only 23% of films feature a female protagonist. This disparity extends to the classical theatre world, where at auditions for any production, you often see dozens of women competing for the two or three parts open to them. Onstage and onscreen, “neutral” or “normal” is a male majority and a male perspective.
Last November, I had the tremendous good fortune to see Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar (starring Harriet Walter as Brutus and Frances Barber as Caesar) when it came to New York. Watching women take on this most masculine of plays was awe-inspiring. I stood up to applaud at the end, vibrating with the longing to do that, to be as great as these actors were, to do something that affected an audience so powerfully—that made them both think and feel that much. Outside the theater, Cush Jumbo (the absolutely magnificent actress who played the most electrifying Mark Antony I’ve ever seen) listened patiently as I babbled about how much I loved the production and then returned an extraordinary insight. She said that doing Julius Caesar was liberating because, before this production, she hadn’t fully realized how often actresses are pressured not to explore their full emotional range—how often they are discouraged from being emotionally raw and ugly, from taking up all the space in the room, from not being at all ornamental: essentially, how often, even in great roles, women are pushed not to play real people, but more attractive, less complex versions of people.
I think a lot of actors become actors because they are fascinated by people, by human nature, and that is as true for women as it is for men. I want to play fully realized people, and I want to do it without feeling pressure to be likeable or pretty or deferential.
As anyone familiar with the plot of Shakespeare In Love will know, in Elizabethan England, it was illegal for women to appear onstage, so young male actors played most female roles. Shakespeare was restricted in how many roles he could write for women because he needed boys (probably no older than about 21) who were skilled enough to take on large and complex parts. (Fascinating sidebar: scholars such as the brilliant James Shapiro believe that around the turn of the 17th century, Shakespeare had two extremely talented boy actors in his company, because during that period he wrote multiple plays—As You Like It and Twelfth Night among them—that featured two fantastic roles for young women).
Even with those obstacles, Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest roles for women in existence: Rosalind, Beatrice, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Margaret, Cleopatra, Portia… It’s dangerous to assume anything about Shakespeare as a person based on his plays...but I think it’s safe to say that Shakespeare was FASCINATED by women. He understood them as so much more than just objects of desire. His female characters are often the most brilliant, complex people in their respective plays: they can be deeply loving and wise, witty and wounded, and stunningly callous and vicious. In short, Shakespeare wrote women who were fully realized people. He didn't need the female characters to be weaker, or less complicated, or more appealing than the male ones. They could just be human.
Mine is Yours was created in part because we, its founders, were tired of waiting for opportunities to come to us, so we decided to create our own. A major goal of our company is to provide more opportunities for women in all areas of theatre: as actors, directors, writers, producers, etc. As actors, we have a ferocious desire to play those meaty, once-in-a-lifetime roles, the roles with the great arcs. We want to play not only the incredible roles that Shakespeare wrote for women, but also the equally incredible and far more numerous roles he wrote for men. This company gives us the freedom to create productions like R&J—a production directed by a woman, featuring a cast of nine women and three men, in which actresses have the chance to play roles like Romeo, Mercutio, Tybalt, Capulet, and Friar Laurence.
We don’t have any delusions about one production suddenly shifting the views of our society and our industry and ushering in a new age of total gender equality. But every effort to illuminate and combat gender-based injustice matters. As David Mitchell says in his astounding book Cloud Atlas, “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
This production is our drop in that ocean, and every drop has an impact.