Strong Theatre Roles For Women: Where the Hell Are They?

In this blog I want to address an issue that has not only been in the press recently, but has been discussed amongst some of my friends: Why is it that there are so few strong female roles in theatre?

For an art form that has had so much involvement in societal change, it is surprising that it is still lagging behind in the race for gender equality. We’ve had our very belief systems shattered by the existentialist Samuel Beckett, and the brutal realities of life stare us in the face in Sarah Kane’s Blasted. However, something as simple as a woman playing a role that would normally be written for a man is almost unheard of.

In fact, it makes us feel uncomfortable.

Strong Female Roles Make Audiences Feel Uncomfortable.

This point was made in The Independent article in September. Vicky Featherstone, the Artistic Director at London’s Royal Court argued that audiences and critics are perhaps unknowingly prejudiced against female-led narratives. She stated:

We haven’t seen a female King Lear, we haven’t seen a female Willy Loman, we haven’t seen a female Hamlet. People haven’t written those plays yet. And when they do write them […] people don’t receive them very positively.”

She went on to say that female actors are judged more harshly because of this, especially if they are a flawed character. A lot of the time, women are pigeon-holed into smaller, whimsical and fun roles, as audiences are more accustomed to watching this. Terri Paddock, the founder of WhatsOnStage.com agreed that it is perhaps not the audiences or critics being prejudiced, it is more to do with them not being as familiar with strong, female-led roles in plays.

Paddock continued his point stating that frequently, plays starring female characters are generally centred around women’s issues, rather than universal ones.

Paddock used The Death of a Salesman as an example; it is a play with more male roles, however he argues that it is not about men’s issues. I would be inclined to disagree with that; yes, it is about the universal themes of ageing, social change and family, yet, it is also undeniably about the crisis of masculinity.

Strong Women in Real Life.

The issue of female identity has not only been discussed in the theatre world, but most recently, by Jennifer Lawrence in her essay: Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?. She strikes up the argument that unlike men, women are expected to be pleasant and avoid being authoritative, as it can come across as bossy and self-centred. She says:

All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions and I give mine in the exact same manner and you would have thought I had said something offensive.”

This perhaps explains why flawed female characters are criticised in theatre; are strong women feared within both narratives and reality?

What is being done now to change this?

Recently, an article in The Stage asked: Does your play pass the Bechdel test? Beth Watson, an actor behind the Bechdel Theatre is keen to put on plays that pass these requirements:

  • There are at least two female characters on stage.

  • They talk to each other.

  • They talk about something other than men.

Bend it Like Beckham Stage Show. From 'The Stage' Website.
Bend it Like Beckham Stage Show. From ‘The Stage’ Website.

The test originated in 1985 as a comic strip by American Artist and Writer, Alison Bechdel. Watson adopted this test and decided to apply it to stage plays in order to tackle the female stereotypes within mainstream theatre. A recent stage production of Bend it Like Beckham passed the test with flying colours.

It is campaigns like this that will hopefully start to make an obvious difference in the type of plays that are produced. With more women than men in the theatre industry- surely it makes sense?

My friend, Leah Holmes recently put on a play at the Brass Works Theatre in Bristol called Citizen George. The play is set during the French Revolution and follows the struggles of three prisoners; Robert, a skilled

Citizen George at The Brassworks Theatre, Bristol. From Bristol 24/7 Website.
Citizen George at The Brassworks Theatre, Bristol. From ‘Bristol 24/7’ Website.

pickpocket, Count Carpet, a snobby aristocrat and Citizen George, a thieving black solider.

We later discover that Citizen George is in fact the very talented composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. His fellow prisoners question their previous prejudice based on his race and respect the fact that he has succeeded in his own right.

The directorial decision to cast these male roles as women only enhances the prejudiced theme further. The fact that this could have easily been another male-centred play, makes us appreciate the refreshing element a full female cast can bring to a play about inequality.

A play set during the French Revolution was suddenly brought forwards into the 21st Century, inviting us to question our views on equality in our ever-changing society.

What I think…

More than ever, this makes me want to write more plays. I want to change the way we see women; not just as wives, sisters and mothers, but real, strong, independent women- like what we see every single day.

If you write, act, direct, dance- whatever, I encourage everyone to get together and make some darn good theatre with female characters we can relate and aspire to.

Let me know what you think. Comment below or tweet me @tesshenderson94.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please don’t hesitate to subscribe!

References:


Strong Female Roles Make Audiences Feel Uncomfortable, Says Leading Director: Emily Dugan, The Independent.

Does Your Show Pass The Bechdel Test?: Jo Caird, The Stage.

Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?: Jennifer Lawrence, LennyLetter.

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My First Sensational Circus Encounter Revealed: Marie Celestial Show, Bristol.

Marie Celestial, Bristol

In all my twenty-one years I have never experienced live circus performance.

Marie Celestial, Bristol
Steam-Punk Style Spaceship.
Marie Celestial, Bristol
Slack Line Routine

I don’t mean clowns and performing lions and the like- I mean traditional circus.

My boyfriend studied at Circomedia in Bristol and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I decided to get some circus tickets to the Marie Celestial show for our anniversary to go see what all the fuss was about; and what better place than Bristol to go watch some circus?

This particular show was set outdoors in a “secret city centre location”- already this was very intriguing. I received an email a few days before informing me where it was…(I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say where it was…so I’ll just keep stumph).

Anyhow, first impressions were pretty positive. The set was basically a large metal steam-punk inspired spaceship, which I think you’ll agree is pretty cool. Fire protruded from the top, netting hung from the sides, and a slack line was attached from the spaceship to a pole. I was very intrigued as to how they would incorporate everything.

The performers were dressed as what I could only describe as steam-punk aliens- I assume that is a thing? This obviously worked well with the set. The basic narrative was that the aliens had landed on a new planet and were exploring it; I got the impression that this planet was Earth as they took a great interest in the audience. This was conveyed using occasional verbal communication, but mainly via physicality and facial expressions; which all performers were exceedingly good at.

What impressed me a lot was their use of the nets hanging from the side of the ship; these were used to hang upside down on, clamber inside, do the splits and literally forward-roll in; it was mesmerising to watch. As a first-time circus-goer perhaps this type of choreography isn’t unusual, but  either way, I was taken aback by their skill, precision and endurance.

Not only this, but the use of the slack line was absolutely incredible; my boyfriend told me that it can be a very difficult skill to master, which made me respect the particular woman who did it even more. She didn’t only walk across it; she laid down, did the splits and carried several lanterns with complete ease. Never once did I feel that she would stumble.

There were also a few comic moments which helped pull the story along; such as finding underwear hung up on a line and putting it on their heads and turning their noses up at strange human food. Overall, this made the show very accessible to people of all ages.

The only criticism I would have is that it wasn’t long enough! We were informed that it would be a 40-minute show; which is fair enough for an outdoor, standing production. Yet, it only lasted 25 minutes. I wanted to see some floor work perhaps, as it seemed that the performance was very much contained on the ship. It would have been interesting if there was a little audience participation; especially as the main thrust of the narrative was them discovering Earth.

Other than that, this was a very positive first experience of traditional circus, and I would very much like to see some more.

If anyone could recommend any great local (or far away) circus shows, then don’t hesitate to comment below or tweet me @tesshenderson94

Review: The Shawshank Redemption on Stage- Theatre Royal Bath.

Ian Kelsey as Andy Dufresne and Patrick Robinson as Ellis 'Red' Redding
Ian Kelsey as Andy Dufresne and Patrick Robinson as Ellis ‘Red’ Redding

Hi all!

So this is my first blog post! I’m from Bristol and I love going to see local theatre, so surprise, surprise- that’s what I’m writing about. My first blog post is a short review of a production of The Shawshank Redemption I saw at the Theatre Royal Bath a couple of weekends ago. So here goes…


As soon as I received the Theatre Royal Bath brochure for this season of theatre, I knew that the first must-watch production on my list was David Esbjornson’s touring production of The Shawshank Redemption. 

At first, I was very excited to see one of my favourite films on stage. With its gritty realness, sharp humour and intelligence, Stephen King’s novel was portrayed exceedingly well on film. I was intrigued to discover what they would do stylistically to the story on stage; would it be as brutal, honest and shocking?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, as the curtains rose I was impressed with the set; it was dimly lit and grey with a level above where the wardens could eerily walk back and forth over-looking the scene. They cleverly dragged small backgrounds on wheels to change the setting to an office, Andy’s room with the famous poster of Rita Hayworth and a large and (somewhat precarious) bookcase floated down from above to create the library scenes. It was evident that each set change was thought through with precision.

However, some of the acting amongst the smaller roles proved to be very weak; they tended to have a wooden and awkward presence. Although they warmed up as the play progressed, it was Owen O’Neill in particular who played the main prison warden who failed to loosen up. His arms swung around nervously as he spoke; he failed to have that commandeering aspect needed for his authoritative role.

Moreover, I assume the fights amongst the prisoners were intended to look stylistically fake- with large, swinging movements and exaggerated reactions (very West Side Story). However, I thought this was a poor decision; for a story as gritty and shocking as Shawshank, I expected the fight choreography to look more real; thus creating a bigger impact for the audience. 

Nonetheless, I was particularly blown away by Ian Kelsey who played Andy Dufresne and Patrick Robinson who played Ellis ‘Red’ Redding. Robinson was strong throughout, carrying the story with his bold narration; his presence felt very natural on stage. Kelsey took a little longer to warm up, but when he did, he was very engaging and witty. The scenes with them together were by far my favourite; they had a very strong connection. Other than that, Robinson’s monologue at the end stood out in all its heart-wrenching, triumphant glory.

Overall, the production failed to reach my expectations, but then again, it’s a lot of pressure for a cast to recreate the story so many of us know and love. I personally would have made some directorial changes, especially in regards to the fight choreography. Other than that, I was very impressed with the two main actors. I just wish that this production had more of an impact on me than it did.