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 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!


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.


2 thoughts on “Strong Theatre Roles For Women: Where the Hell Are They?

  1. Hi Tess
    As artistic director of Brass Works Theatre I felt that it was imperative for me to cast female actors in these male roles as I believe all theatre can be political and this was an extension of the theme of the piece. However the decision to engage a female director for this project was based purely on the basis of Leah’s dedication and talent. I have always offered opportunities to passionate and talented artists, it so happens that many of them are women. It’s important to work with dedicated artists whatever their gender. Art must be above prejudice of any kind.

    Liked by 1 person

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