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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Thoughts on Robert Frost, casting his dramas

It's a familiar fact that in theater, roles written for men outnumber roles written for women. By a ratio of 2:1.*

Avatar Repertory Theater, in its six year history of producing live, virtual theater, has usually counted in its roster about equal numbers of male and female voice actors. We've filled our character lists by casting women's voices as men and, more often, adapting our play scripts to change roles from male to female. Since our visual characters are avatars, it's easy enough for a female actor to put on a male avatar and get on stage. My real life theater training and experience was in opera, and singing trouser roles to cover castrati parts seemed merely practical. How else to put the show on?

A.R.T.'s been doing it from nearly the beginning with our second show, Shakespeare's The Tempest in 2009. Rowan Shamroy was a kind and wise Gonzalo, using the character's age to disguise her quite female voice, and both Ariel and Trinculo were played by different women on different nights, as women, and it made no difference to the comedy. Barf jokes are barf jokes for either sex.

Six years and hundreds of shows later, we've cheerfully recast parts or rewritten roles from Sophocles to Dickens to Philip K. Dick.

Then we came to Robert Frost's drama poetry from "North of Boston", performed last February and one of the shows we can take into repertory. I wrote the adaptation and changed a couple of parts to be played by a woman - the lawyer in "The Self-Seeker", and the night clerk in "A Hundred Collars". No problem.

We were performing seven pieces with two men and two women, so in the course of working out the blocking problems and needing to even out the sequence of voices, I cast the unnamed part of the neighbor in "The Housekeeper" as a women.

Throughout this piece we are never told who this person is, what the relationship is to either of the other characters, or even why in the scene. Neighbor seems to be there as a sounding board for the old woman, asking questions to get the story told. We only even know that Neighbor is male when John comes in on the next to the last line to say "Just the man I'm after". So I changed the line to "Just the one I'm after", cast the incomparable MadameThespian Underhill in the role (and in truth felt some security with her there while I tackled the old woman), and we went to rehearsal.

A third of the way through the first reading she stops. "Ada, this isn't working. Who is this person?" We talk. We try to fix it. It's just not working, and I don't know why. Our four actors for this show encompass a combined experience of nearly a hundred years of theater, a gifted writer and a retired English professor. We know how to fix this stuff! But no. One word changed, and the thing is broken.

So since we have very limited rehearsal time, I didn't have a piece to replace it with and already had the publicity out, I recast the role with Iain McCracken (Sodovan Torok). He was understated and perfect, the thing sounded fine. Problem solved.

But I felt as though a significant part of my internal landscape of words had sheared off. I grew up north of Boston. I can't remember a time when I didn't know some Frost poetry. It was part of every school year, part of the landscape. Familiar. Take the other road. A well-built wall. Stars don't talk to us, we talk to them. I thought I got it, like breathing. Who knew who the neighbor was? Who cared? It turns out that if Frost is writing it, we have to pay attention.

*The Guardian Women in theatre: how the '2:1 problem' breaks down 
Huffington Post Theater's Audiences Are Mostly Female: Why Not the Roles?

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