This may sound like an ignorant question, but how do you as a non-binary actor navigate a role that calls for a binary gender? Do you avoid those roles, or perhaps play roles against your misgender? Perhaps more roles than we realize are less gender-dependent than we think; is there room for ambiguity or simply changing a character’s perceived gender…
I LOVE that you asked this question.
Gender and casting have a complex history. To give a very abrupt and oversimplified tour of theatre history: quite simply, classical theatre as we think of it has traditionally been dominated by cisgender men for a very long time. For a long time it was illegal for anyone assigned female at birth to act onstage (unless it was in very intimate court dramas.)
An anomaly in this overview is Charlotte Cushman. Look her up. She’s absolutely amazing. In the mid-nineteenth century, she played male and female roles from Shakespeare’s cannon and was one the best paid actors of any gender during that era.
I believe that Charlotte Cushman singularly makes the case that there are some actors that intrinsically transcend the gender binary. AND that it can be a solid business practice (AKA audiences will buy tickets.)
Of course, this only happens if we trust our audiences.
More directly to your question of how I personally approach roles that call for a binary gender:
I delight in being called in for male roles. The most fun I have ever had onstage was playing Ram’s Dad in Heathers: The Musical. There was no conversation about if I would “pass” as a cisgender man. My solo brought the house down every night.
And in a way, it didn’t matter if people had read my bio in the program before they saw me perform or not. The gender of the actor portraying the character became irrelevant.
The task that Ram’s Dad sets before the actor portraying him is to transform from a toxic masculine energy to one of acceptance and preaching (albeit misguided) intolerance.
I don’t get many opportunities to audition for male roles. I would like to get more. I think there is profound work that needs to be done in the casting community to expand awareness around what non-binary and transgender actors can be called in for.
And a lot of it comes down to what a playwright crafts as the character descr4iption in the first place. I am heartened to see more and more playwrights carefully crafting their character descriptions away from the (cisgender-assumed) male/female binary.
In short: if I could only play male and non-binary roles, I probably would. But I’m still ok with playing female characters. If I have a type in the traditional sense of the word (PLEASE, let’s get rid of type!) it might be lesbian astronaut/Mariska Hartgitay. You know–the authoritative woman with short hair who dedicates more time to her job than herself? Yeah.
If I try to avoid any roles, it’s roles that I’m not right for (I will not portray transgender women or transfeminine roles–I know that they are not mine to play.)
I hope that as we move forward as an industry, we can push ourselves to deconstruct gender as a descriptor of character. For me, crafting character is all about what is elemental to inhabit this fictional being. What is their essence? And can I capture it?
I don’t know if you’ve seen the online conversations going on about Sia’s upcoming film and how it is being received by folx with Autism. I have seen some pretty dark conversations around gender and casting (Scarlett Johansen, Eddie Redmayne) but I’ve honestly never seen the vitriol quite like this before.
Sia said it was a deeply unpleasant experience to work with an actor with Autism and so she cast a neurotypical actor in the role instead. (Read more about this ongoing conversation in Mickey Rowe’s fantastic piece, “I May Be Autistic, But I’m Not a Bad Actor, No Matter What Sia Says.”)
We’ve seen this before. And we’ll likely see it again. But I feel it is relevant to pull on this thread a bit because of the significant overlap in the TGNC and Autism communities.
Speaking from my personal experience as a non-binary actor with Autism–I need to say how infuriating it is to see people in positions of power explain their thought process behind casting cisgender or neurotypical actors in roles designated as non-binary, transgender or neurodiverse.
Members of the TGNC and Autism communities often have to work SO HARD on a daily basis to appear more “normal”–for safety, for job and housing security.
If we were allowed to put our daily experience of human interaction on our acting resume, it would be a fucking encyclopedia. The casting director’s table would crumble beneath its sheer weight.
And I might be rambling now. And that’s ok. I’m angry.
I’m angry for myself and for all the other gender and neurodiverse actors who want to take up space in an industry that consistently paints us into very tight corners.
We deserve a space at the table. Our voices deserve to be heard. Loudly.
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