Female playwrights, Female parts and casting into deep waters

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I’ve spent the past two days holed up at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, holding auditions for my Unlimited Commission ‘Cosy’. Joined by stalwart companion director Phillip Zarrilli, our most consistent subject of conversation has been the wealth of talent parading in through the door: Women actors, female performers, actresses, whatever it is they may prefer to be called, the diverse array of skill, facility and emotional intelligence has been glittering and humbling, leaving us with the impossible next task of selecting the cast for the r&d process.

‘Cosy’ is a dark comedy with six characters, all women, disabled and non-disabled, playing ages 16 to 76 years. This fact alone elicited a few cheers and several full body hugs, female actors embracing the female playwright who for many years has made a commitment to writing roles right across the age range. This was a decision I made in my early twenties, when as a jobbing actor I started writing my own audition pieces as I was fed-up of the limited fayre. The theatrical landscape before me looked thin and uninspiring. It seemed after being the ingenue and playing Juliet, there might be Lady M in the Scottish play (I’m Irish, I’m superstitious, I can’t help it), and then the oasis of nothingness until sexless old haughty Lady Bracknell. I decided then to write meaty parts for women of all ages, and ‘Cosy’ is the latest manifestation of this commitment.

I think this is a serious subject – the representation of gender (and impairment) in plays and also the corresponding dearth of women playwrights being produced. We are still underrepresented – still considered either domestic or ‘risky’ (see this article about Hytner and The National Theatre in London and why women playwrights are still marginalised). This is another reason why I celebrate Unlimited and the funding bodies, venues, and organisations supporting this initiative. If women actors have a limited spread of roles and opportunities (hence the penchant for all female Shakespeare productions recently), and female playwrights still are marginalised (see this Guardian  blog about gender inequality in the theatre) what hope then for disabled or Deaf playwrights, makers, dancers, choreographers, and practitioners?

I’m sure this is a subject I will return to.

In a previous post, Casting Haiku on my parallel http://www.cosytheplay.co.uk blog, I wrote of the process of creating pithy character descriptions for agents and performers to get a glimmer of the role they were being considered for. Little did I know in that innocence of a few days ago how my interpretation of these characters would be changed – and for the better.

As a playwright, I have lived with the voices of my characters in my head for quite some time. These voices all speak with different syntax, rhythm, vocabulary and world views from each other, but the ‘acting’ is one and the same – my own inner ‘voice’. Imagine then the delight, the absolute GIFT of sitting as a steady stream of engaged, passionate, talented actors passed through, revealing a spectrum of surprising and different interpretations of these characters I thought I knew so well… These talented women showed me perspectives and possibilities I had never imagined and  I am extremely thankful to all who brought those characters off the page, out of my head, and into life.

Phillip and I now have the slow and difficult deliberation of making a credible ‘family’ cast  from the actors we saw…. Mother, siblings, niece/grand-daughter, plus the matriarch’s quirky friend. There are so many different permeations – all could work – they just lead to very different styles and takes on the script. We are currently locked in this delicious but frustrating wrestle. We may be some time.

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