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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Amy Hansmann (l) delivered an eye-opening Macbeth to Alicia Rice's Lady Macbeth. (PHOTO: soulsticetheatre.org)

Theaters struggle with gender diversity

Diversity is a big concern in the world of theater. Last week, I looked at ethnic diversity on stage; this week, let's talk about gender diversity.

There have been and continue to be a variety of ways that theaters grapple with the issue of moving from white male theatrical dominance into something that more closely resembles the rest of society and their audiences. One way to try and get more women involved is gender-bending casting, a practice that works sometimes and other times not so much.

As an example, let us look at two productions that took place during the 2014-15 theater season in Milwaukee.

Alchemist Theater opened a production of "Oleanna," aDavid Mamet play written as his response to the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas and his former aide, Anita Hill. At the heart of the hearings – and the heart of the play – was the issue of sexual predatory dynamics between an older, powerful man and a younger, less powerful woman.

Alchemist cast the woman as a gay man, and the production ran for one performance before Mamet ordered it shut down with a cease and desist order.

The change in gender totally changed the dynamic of the play. There is obviously a difference between an older man/woman relationship and an older man/gay man relationship. It was a stupid and childish attempt at gender neutral casting, exacerbated by the fact that Alchemist decided to surprise everyone opening night with the casting decision.

Six months later, Soulstice Theater produced an all-female rendition of "Macbeth," with a cast of 18 women of varying abilities, making the evening uneven. But the fact that the cast was made up of women provided a new and expansive look at what may well be the most masculine of all Shakespeare's plays.

Amy Hansmann gave us a "Macbeth" with the kind of ferocity that belongs to a woman, far different than that of a man. The absence of the male machismo was missing, replaced by a more targeted and direct brutality. At the time, I was lukewarm on this version, but in hindsight, I vividly recall the fascination of Hansmann's "Macbeth."

There has been progress having women play men's roles.

In 2007, Cate Blanchett delivered a masterful performance as Bob Dylan (named Jude Quinn) in the film "I'm Not There." It wasn't an impersonation, but a fully fleshed out character being played by a woman.

Just two years ago, British actor Maxine Peake played Hamlet in a production under director Sarah Frankcom.

"For a lot of really well-regarded female actors in the Victorian age and before, it was seen as being part and parcel of your journey and genesis as an actor," Frankcom told BBC News back in 2014, saying their version of Hamlet would serve as "a combination of male and female."

"We've looked at gender as a spectrum rather than something that is either male or female," she added. "Hamlet occupies different parts of that spectrum at different parts of the play."

The general impression left by the experts who deal with this issue all the time is that women playing men's roles can be a special thing as long as it doesn't lead to confusion for the audience. Most directors also think that gender bending can't change the intent of the playwright. The intent of the playwright is, and should be, sacrosanct.

It is not just on stage that the world of theater grapples with increasing opportunities for women.

Renaissance Theaterworks in Milwaukee has led the way and shown other companies how to do it.

For over 20 years, the woman-focused theater has staged top-quality productions featuring women as directors, as playwrights, as designers and as all manner of crew – as well as actors.

Renaissance gave opportunity to an untested Mallory Metoxen, one of the brightest young female directors in the city. The same can be said of The Rep for another leading director, Leda Hoffmann. And Erin Nicole Eggers is making a name for herself helming some truly memorable and unique productions in the city.

There are women in other positions that are also successful trailblazers, like playwright Liz Shipe who has a wonderful imagination. Melissa Wanke is arguably the best stage manager in town, a position where women seem to dominate.

Milwaukee theater companies seem to be aware of the need to involve more women, and they all seem to be making efforts to do so. Sure, there is a long way to go, but I might suggest that the theater world has made more progress than has been made in the boardrooms in the city.

If there is one area of diversity that needs work in Milwaukee it's in the age/experience area.

Many of the theaters in Milwaukee use the same actors over and over. I can understand why they do it, looking for a level of comfort and surety with known quantities. After all, local theaters operate on small financial margins, and risk taking is a daunting proposition.

The issue is that there is not enough opportunity for young actors in Milwaukee. Trained actors graduate each year from programs at Marquette, UWM and UW-Whitewater, but many of those young actors can find little work in Milwaukee, forcing them to leave town for what they believe are greener pastures.

Perhaps the best way for a young actor to learn the art is to work with more experienced actors and experienced directors in meaningful productions. That doesn't happen enough in Milwaukee. Young actors are too often locked into companies with their peer group, and those productions, while often interesting, don't really provide for the kind of growth experiences young actors need.

A commitment to diversity – by gender, race, language or age – is a good thing, and the world of a theater is a creative place where it can flourish. But it's important to search for legitimate opportunities and not craft gimmick efforts that destroy the intent of a playwright or confuse an audience.


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