All Female Productions of the classics - It's not historically accurate. So what?

Aliki Chapple, 27 January 2013

The session was attended by: Alison Goldie, Grace Gummer, Ellan Parry, Kitty Martin, David Bellwood, Rebecca Manson Jones, Rose Biggin, Mark Courtice - Apologies if I've misspelled your name or omitted it in error.

I started out by saying that I was one of a group of women in NW England who wanted to stage all-female productions of the classics, beginning with but not limited to Shakespeare, and that we were interested in people's reactions to the concept. I've tried to organize the report by topics we discussed rather than in chronological order. If anyone present feels I've missed anything out or misrepresented anything, please do say.

Why? Why not?

Advocacy - All female productions as redressing the balance
Someone was amazed that more women don't do this, given the huge number of women actors and the limited number of available roles.
Rebecca said she finds herself veering between great approval of the idea and a desire to poke holes in it (I am paraphrasing)

Why wouldn't cross-gendered casting do the same thing?

It's good for the actors, is it good for the audience?

There is a question of restoring a historical injustice as well as getting to play those roles.

The world is changing, gender roles are changing, but students are still encouraged to think very traditionally about gender in canonical plays.

The backlash against changing gender roles is pushing young people in the direction of hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine self-presentation. All female productions can help illustrate the performativity of gender

“For every all male production there should be an all female production”


The possibility of throwing new light on the text through this approach, whether to illuminate gender roles in a historical text, or, more broadly, to illuminate a particular character or relationships between characters by making the familiar strange.
David told us how much he admired the Portia in the Donmar Warehouse production of Julius Caesar, how the tenderness between the characters was deeper and stronger than he's ever seen.

Can it reveal a core of meaning in the text that was obscured by gender?

Audience response

Again a great deal of love for the Donmar Warehouse JC, from everyone present who had seen it, several people citing the enthusiastic audience response.

There are audiences that will be drawn to a production because it's all female, there are audiences that will shun it for the same reason.

What if you never mentioned it was all female, and just allowed the audience to notice in their own time?


Because of the sexism of most texts, it's common to have only one or two (usually young) women in a company of men. Very often, women don't have older women in a production to learn from, but in an all-female production, there might be an abundance of elders.

Because we want to

Women wanting to work with other women, to play those parts... This is a gopod enough reason in itself.

The Fallacy of All-Male Historical Theatre

(I really wanted to write “phallusy”)
There's a sense in the general public that all-male theatre is traditional, just the way things were. This is not historically robust : It's something that happened in a very particular time and place and for quite a short period, not the way things were done since time immemorial.

Does an all female production tacitly accept this premise? Does it reinforce the “Bardology”, accept all male productions as more historically valid to seek to overturn the model?


Do you change the text, make the character a woman?

Do you you “bloke up”, drag king the character and go to lengths to perform masculinity?

Or do you just “not get your knickers in a twist” about it and just play the character who happens to be male?

Do you set the play in a time and place that justifies everyone being female?

Does the period in which you set it facilitate or disturb the suspension of disbelief?

Ellan, who is a designer, is very interested in how design works with gender presentation in such a production, and is keen to work with us.

Or do you just do it, without highlighting or justification?

There are parallels with race blind casting, with modern dress or different historical settings for texts.

How do you market such productions so as to put off the fewest possible potential audience members?

Conclusion: We're doing it. We're The Rose Company, we're based in Lancaster, and we will have an all female Shakespeare production in summer 2014, come hell or high



NW, Theatre, gender, crossdressing, women, Shakespeare, theatre, canon, cross casting

Comments: 1

Jen McGregor, 28 March 2013

Interesting report. I run a theatre company in Edinburgh and we're gearing up for a production of Macbeth. It's not all female, but the casting was gender-blind and there's only one male in the cast. We simply don't have enough men in the ensemble to cast according to gender. Instead, I have a lot of committed, talented and versatile women. It makes sense to use them, and if I want to tackle the classics that means being willing to cast cross-gender. So I prefer to cast according to qualities, not chromosomes.

A couple of years ago I directed a production of Romeo and Juliet with a female playing Tybalt. That was the only role where I cast cross-gender. She played the character as a man. I wondered whether anyone would ask about this choice at the Q&A sessions we held, but... no-one did. She had the right qualities for the character and was believable, so the audience just went with it. I think we need to trust them to do that.

It was a period (or fantasy period, since it wasn't accurate to any particular point in history) production and I think that helped, because the costumes gave clear indications as to who was male and who was female. I believe it's important not to confuse your audience there, because if the story depends on a female character being subject to gender-related behavioural constraints - Juliet, for example, seems unable to leave the house unaccompanied unless she has permission - then you can't have another female character of the same background who isn't subject to those constraints. If Tybalt were being depicted as a woman, we would wonder why Tybalt can run around Verona at will while Juliet can't. It makes Juliet look like a bit of a wimp for getting the nurse to do all her dirty work for her, because we assume that she could and just chooses not to. It strips her of strength and sympathy. Likewise, if you set your production in a time period/society where women have the freedom to work, hold property remain unmarried, have sex and children out of wedlock and have access to birth control, many of Shakespeare's stories lose their power.

Personally, I plan to market Macbeth in exactly the same way that I would if it weren't gender-blind. I might well have Macbeth himself (played by a woman, and she's really not a masculine-looking woman) on the poster. If that puts a few people off, well... it probably wasn't going to be their cup of tea anyway.

Good luck with your production! Do you have a blog where we can follow its progress? Ours is