An Academy Interlude: Hermione Man

Human Sculpture in Gender Bender Shakes 2013.

Human Sculpture in Gender Bender Shakes 2013.

In high school, like just about everyone else who has an American public school education, I was made to read Romeo and Juliet in English class.  And at some point, we were told that in Shakespeare’s day boys played the women’s roles.  Why?  Because it was illegal for women to perform onstage in Elizabethan England.  I don’t remember if an explanation was given; immorality or prostitution, religion or just plain old chauvinistic prejudice.  I do remember my fifteen year old self thinking, “What about all that kissing and stuff?”

I’m glad to say that the current, and hopefully more evolved, version of me isn’t concerned with kissing at all.  Now, after 20 years of working as an actor, my questions are about what an individual, rather than an actor of any particular sex, can bring to a role.  Did Elizabethan audiences care that they were seeing men portraying Juliet or the Nurse, Hermione or Paulina?  It was the convention of the time, after all. Did it even register that Cleopatra was a boy?  And how would I approach playing a female character if I were given the chance?

Those questions are what drew me to The Cross-Gartered Bard:  Exploring Shakespeare with Gender-Blind Eyes class, led by Rob Nagle, at Antaeus Academy.  Every Tuesday afternoon my classmates and I take on roles we would never get to otherwise perform.  And by working these roles through scenes and monologues, we gain a better understanding of our preconceptions of gender and gender roles.  We talk about how men and women move, sit, gesture; the physical aspects of each sex, but more importantly, how each approaches and works through problems, how each reacts to the world, how each thinks.

Jonathon in Coward's Private Lives

Jonathon in Coward’s Private Lives

So far, I have tried to do justice to the roles of Lady Macbeth, Hermione, Beatrice and, soon, will attempt the Nurse from R&J or Emilia from Othello (still trying to pick between the two). My male classmates have taken on Titania, Imogen and Isabella.  And then there are the women in the class who have played characters like Macbeth, Oberon, Iago and Cassio.  At first it was a struggle, I think, for most of us to get a handle on the shift in gender.  For example, I found that memorizing lines was more difficult than I usually experience, a feeling that many shared.  Each gender approaches the world from a different angle, a different power base, a different way of thinking;  because of this shift in world view, I have also had to shift my awareness as an actor in order to memorize, to try to do justice to my characters, and to think in a new way.

Chekhov's The Seagull

Chekhov’s The Seagull

Something that struck me a few weeks into the class was how we had stopped talking so much about the gender of the characters and how much more our discussions focused on their humanity.  Gender had become secondary to the truth of each moment, feeling, action and reaction, which, after all, is what we do as traditionally-cast performers.  Taking on challenges like switching gender can be intimidating and frightening. Leaping into the challenge and the fear is so much more satisfying and fun than staying in our safety zone.  Rob, and everyone associated with the class, has provided an open, positive, safe environment for our group to explore, make mistakes, and make discoveries.  In fact, I’m looking for the first opportunity to use my Hermione monologue for an audition.

 

LAMER_JonathonJonathon Lamer is currently a student with the Antaeus Academy.  He will also be appearing in our upcoming production of Corneille’s The Liar, “translapted” by David Ives and directed by Casey Stangl.  For info on our Academy classes: www.antaeus.org/theacademy. Auditions for the Fall 2013 Semester begin this weekend.

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