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Quality should override gender

Isn’t it odd how “gender-blind” casting and the not-enough-good-roles-for-women issue still vexes the profession and yet many amateur companies have little choice?

Amateur companies often have a strong pool of very competent women but struggle to cast male roles because fewer men sign up to amdram. I saw, for instance, a rather jolly non-pro Peter Pan (half term panto – good idea)  last week in which John and Michael Darling, most of the pirates and lost boys were played by girls and women. The dame – usually of course played by a man pretending to be a grotesque woman – was played by a woman too which certainly gives pause for thought. There weren’t many men on stage but it all worked to pretty reasonable theatrical effect.

I know too, that amateur companies have to cast their nets quite widely when they’re trying to cast say, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Gondoliers, or anything else which really does demand some strong male casting.

And yet, at another level, we’re still told that men dominate the profession to the detriment of talented women so what on earth is going on? Are drama schools getting equal numbers of applicants? Because if they’re not but are recruiting 50/50 (as I know most of them are) then they are presumably not applying  quite the the same  strict criteria to men that they do to women.

The only drama school I know which determinedly recruits on talent, potential and nothing else usually ends up with far more girls than boys – many of them, presumably,  the very ones, who’ve been shining in their local community or youth theatre.

I often see quite weak graduating students in drama school showcases because we are, of course, running too many courses and training far more actors/performers  than the industry needs or can absorb. In a showcase “tail” most will usually be male. That confirms my strong, long held suspicion that some of them were enrolled more for political reasons than for their ability.

And yet … traditionally once they’re out and available for hire male actors find far more roles and opportunities than female ones. There’s something very strange happening here. And it boils down to muddled thinking about casting as well as recruitment to drama school.

Don’t blame Shakespeare, by the way. He was simply writing within the constraints of his day. In 2020, as most productions now acknowledge, there’s no reason why nearly all Shakespeare’s roles can’t be played very successfully by women as anyone who saw Glenda Jackson as Lear or Harriet Walter as Brutus will attest. I’ve also seen women ably playing Banquo, Bottom, Mercutio, Hamlet and lots of others.

Television and film are, possibly, different because we do expect a certain adherence to naturalism and suspend our disbelief less readily. But look at the number of shows which now revolve around women and create wonderful roles for them: Gentleman Jack, Call the Midwife and The Crown to cite just three examples from dozens I could mention.

Yes, these women are there. One of the ways of solving the gender imbalance might be to forget quotas and simply recruit the best. Trouble is, it wouldn’t be long before we were fretting about a shortage of male actors for professional roles. Welcome to Topsy Turvy Land.

Perhaps the time has come to focus on trying to persuade more boys to take part in schools, youth theatres and local companies. A big project in schools nationwide perhaps? “It’s cool to perform”? We need the best – regardless of gender.

Meanwhile, on the face of it,  it seems pretty absurd that talented female actors are abundant at pre-entry level but struggle against (often) less talented males for roles once they hit the industry.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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