A young director's examination how gender is performed on stage especially within the works of William Shakespeare

22 June 2012

Green eyed, 5 foot 4 and right handed

I am a woman. That is a way I identify myself and a way I am identified by others. However, I am also green eyed, 5 foot 4 and right handed. I love cricket, prefer red wine to white, and don't like raw tomatoes. These are also categories of identity, some used more often than others.

Gender is one of the most ubiquitous categories for identity, with almost everyone strongly identifying with one camp or another, and judging or being judged according to the supposed characteristics of XX or XY. But when it comes to gender as a marker for identity I have a certain ambivalence, even a reticence towards the subject, perhaps a strange admission for someone for whom gender has been the driving topic behind my academic study for the past three years and is about to embark on a Masters in Gender. The issue is, as it always is these days, with identity. How far does one's identity as a woman or a man factor in one's ability to do anything or be anything?

My gut answer is 'it has, or should have, absolutely nothing at all to do with whether one is any good at something or not!' As a fledgling director I am already very aware of being described as a 'woman director'. I feel that the word 'woman' here is used as a qualification, and not always a good one. I have never read about a 'man director' – only 'directors' and 'women directors'. When I direct I want my ability as a theatre practitioner to be the yardstick by which I am appraised, not the fact that I don't have a penis, something which seems (if you'll forgive the turn of phrase) immaterial to me.

Yet at the same time I would add feminist to the list of identities to which I fit, and strident feminist if I've just read Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman which at one point last year I was rereading every few weeks. As a feminist I recognise and wish to honour the hard-won gains made by the women before me, both in the world of theatre and elsewhere. I want women to have their equal share in the world in which we're all living, and part of that is done by women telling stories – either their own stories or giving their take on those stories previously told only by men. For example, I think that parts such as King Lear or Macbeth are greatly invigorated when put in the mouths of women, and new and exciting discoveries can be made therein.

However, each player, whoever they are, will (hopefully) bring new and exciting insight to these great parts, and therein lies the reticence I spoke of. On the one hand I want to play down the question of gender as I feel it only heightens division and is an unnecessary and unhelpful way of judging people. But on the other hand I think that having women play roles traditionally played by men and staging single-gender productions of plays offers really interesting possibilities for how we can understand characters and stories.

I think that I will be pulled – or will pull myself – in many directions when it comes to discussions on gender. Should gender be an issue when it comes to creating theatre? And by making it an issue does it make it more of 'An Issue' and therefore only help to reinforce division, as Michael Billingdon was accused of doing here? It is not a question I think I will ever fully reconcile, but it is certainly one I wish to engage with over and over, here and in practise. 

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