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A Few Thoughts on Being a Female Actor in Classical Work

I have a weird relationship with women in the classical canon.

Before I go further, I will say this: I am an actor who loves doing classical work and I also happen to be a woman who loves doing classical work. I have studied and trained with incredible women who have helped me find so much beauty in the somewhat limited scope of femininity in the classical canon.

However, looking at classical work with a gendered lens is troubling, often, for artists who aim to create work that provokes thought and, on a grand scale, change. Many women in early modern plays are limited in their full personhood by circumstances, relationships, environment, culture, and education. It is sometimes troubling to portray these characters truthfully because I never want my performance of less powerful women to be misconstrued as a "this is the way things should be" story rather than "this is sometimes the way things are, and it shouldn't be" story.

As a feminist, I struggle with making sure that all of my characters, regardless of what I initially see in the text, have the ability to draw power from somewhere in their lives. It is impossible for me to play a person without power, even if she is written that way. Women often fall into tropes of victim, whore, virgin, or asexual-nurturing-mother-figure. They are often defined by the relationship to the men in the play, and more often than not are not full people in their own right. As an actor, I fight that idea tooth and nail. I feel it is my moral and artistic obligation to bring my women out of these tropes and into the light of full humanity.

When I work on any character, one of my first priorities is to find out from where the character draws his or her power: what makes this character feel vulnerable and how does this character armor up to do what they have to do. The more work I do in this vein, the more I have come to appreciate and even love the women who I have spent time with in rehearsal, learning how to make them powerful, and learning when it is important to be truthful in their victimhood, which is often very difficult for me as a person. Telling the truth is difficult, but the truth is that people are victimized.


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