By Jenny Porter Tilley | firstname.lastname@example.org Jan 17, 2018
“A new day is on the horizon,” Oprah Winfrey said, in a statement that ended with a standing ovation, as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement earlier this month at the Golden Globes.
Winfrey spoke directly to young girls watching, telling them they too could be leaders in the entertainment industry. As public accounts of sexism and sexual assault continue to emerge, pressure is growing to provide more and bigger roles for women.
But there’s another way to give female actors more opportunities: By casting them in roles traditionally given to men, starting with texts written centuries ago. It’s happening with Indiana University’s upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” opening Friday at IU’s Ruth N. Halls Theatre.
Meaghan Deiter, who plays the title role, is thrilled to get to say one of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare’s work: “Et tu, Brute?”
“I get to say that, which is really cool,” Deiter said. “It traditionally wouldn’t have been available for a woman to say or play the role.”
In its original form, the play has only two roles for women, both of whom are wives of other characters. The rest of the roles — 39 of them — are for men. It makes sense, considering many of the scenes involve governmental officials and people in battle, which would have been all men at the time.
In director Jenny McKnight’s cut of the play coming to IU, there are 21 actors. She cast eight women, some in roles traditionally played by men, instead of casting the 19 men and two women the scenes she chose would require.
“This is happening more, and I think it’s a cool opportunity for women,” Deiter said. It’s not her first time playing a Shakespeare part originally written for a man, either. In “The Tempest” last spring, she played the role of King Alonso, which was recast as a queen.
Bloomington audiences were exposed to another twist in casting Shakespeare’s works in 2016, when Cardinal Stage Co.’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” featured women playing all the roles, portraying both men and women.
When McKnight began auditioning actors for “Caesar,” she didn’t come into it with a plan to cast the title character as a woman. But she did create a couple of composite characters who she planned to be women, based on multiple characters in Shakespeare’s original play.
“This play was written in 1599,” McKnight said. “It’s been produced a billion times. I can’t imagine anything that we’re doing hasn’t been tried before.” Rather than trying to do something groundbreaking, she’s focused on the experience Bloomington audiences will get from the production — including theater and English students who may come to the show to fulfill a requirement for a class.
“How do we get those students excited and hooked into Shakespeare? We make it unexpected,” she said. “They expect to see a bunch of white guys in togas, but then see something else.” She hopes they’ll sit forward in their seats a little and take notice.
Students of theater working with historical texts are familiar with the skew toward roles for white men. IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance strives to plan seasons with diversity in style, content and available roles, according to chairman Jonathan Michaelsen.
“We want to make sure we aren’t doing things that are so male-dominated that we don’t have enough roles for women,” he said. “Then we try to take on pieces that are diverse culturally and reflect the world as much as we can.”
Planning a season this way means not necessarily eliminating historical plays that should be a part of an actor’s curriculum, but instead rethinking them, often using colorblind and gender-blind casting methods.
It’s not uncommon for theater instructors to have women playing men’s roles and vice versa in class, McKnight said. But most of the time, “it happens as a classroom exercise, but not as a full-blown production,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to do in that realm in terms of changing minds. Some people are still old-school about casting. … I do think minds are changing, and we’re living in an exciting time when people are not just willing, but excited, to think outside the box.”
Although presenting an established play in a different way can be a risk, Michaelsen wants the department’s students to learn that they can take risks as they build their own careers.
“It gets students thinking in a creative way, not just presenting it the way it’s always been done,” he said. “It not only gives certain students more opportunities, it also just makes everyone in the cast — and hopefully the audience, too — think that yeah, you can take a risk. You can do something different.”
As women in acting, as well as other professions, continue to fight for their voices to be heard and to be given a seat at the table, Michaelsen hopes IU students on stage and in the audience are already being accustomed to new ways of thinking.
“We’re trying to serve as many students we can and as many diverse backgrounds as we can,” he said. “To say that ‘Hamlet’ was written for a man, so only a man can do it … we’re getting away from that.”
If You Go
WHO: Indiana Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
WHAT: “Julius Caesar,” written by William Shakespeare, directed by Jenny McKnight.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Jan. 23-27; 2 p.m. Jan. 27.
WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $5-$20; 812-855-1103, theatre.indiana.edu