A Female Prospero?

The joys and challenges of theatre at a women’s college

Each time a director ponders a theatre troupe’s next production, there are many considerations—performance rights, casting and production design. But at a women’s college like Agnes Scott, a dearth of male performers adds an interesting challenge to any production.

“The women’s college environment really forces directors and actors to think more creatively about the production process and the development of characters,” said Caitlin White ’13, president of The Blackfriars, Agnes Scott’s student theatre troupe, founded in 1915 and the oldest producing theatre in Atlanta.

Without male students as active members of the acting troupe or crew, women’s college theatre programs often cast women in roles originally envisioned for men, re-imagine the roles as female or cast off gender conventions all together. So while the gender of the actors may be limited, the creative possibilities aren’t, White said.

“I think acting at a women’s college is very exciting. Not only do you get to play male characters, which is something that would not really be available in another setting, but you also think about your characters differently than you would otherwise,” White said. “Gender becomes a less important factor in developing a character, so you really get to focus on other personality traits and characteristics and really develop the complexities of a character.”

Women playing every role in a production yields another opportunity not open to most female actors—the chance to play a canonical lead role such as Hamlet or Julius Caesar. Past Agnes Scott productions have featured women playing the lead male role unaltered from the original play, rather than rewriting names and pronouns to account for a female actor as many productions do when casting a woman in a traditionally male role.

“I want our students to play the great roles whenever possible and we try to produce plays in such a way that makes that possible,” said David Thompson, Annie Louise Harrison Waterman Professor of Theatre and chair at Agnes Scott. “There’s an example in theatre circles of casting a woman in a lead role, for instance in ‘The Tempest,’ and renaming the character Prospera instead of Prospero. I have no problem with that, but I’d like our students to play Prospero, not Prospera.”

The Blackfriars’ production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” cast women in all the male roles, including Prospero, and cast a man as a Miranda, the sole female character in the play. As an all-female troupe, the Blackfriars often challenge and experiment with the gender identities of characters in the plays they perform, Thompson said.

“There’s a great debate as to what happens when you change the gender of a role. Some say it simply opens the role to that performer and others say that there are gender implications that are revealed. Depending on how we approach the production, either or both of those things can happen,” Thompson said.

When performing more modern plays still protected by copyright restrictions, Agnes Scott applies for permission to perform the work, just as all those who perform a play do, but must jump through a few extra hoops to receive permission to alter the play’s script to accommodate a character’s gender change or to have a woman perform a male role. That means discussing and proposing production plans with the publisher, the author’s agent and, if living, the author herself or himself.

“If you create a compelling proposal, we’ve found that in the majority of cases, a reasonable request will be considered and even honored,” Thompson said. “We’ve had good success in creating plays that feature women from plays that did not previously feature women.”

These extra permissions require more time so you have to start the ball rolling well in advance when planning a production, White said.

In 2009, the Blackfriars performed Bertold Brecht’s “Galileo,” a play with around 40 characters but only a handful female. Agnes Scott approached the publisher about performing the play with an all-female cast, who then approached Brecht’s son with the proposal. The son said he believed his father would have loved the idea and told them to proceed, Thompson said.

The Blackfriars haven’t had a request denied in recent memory, thanks to careful planning about which plays and playwrights are open to the kinds of changes Agnes Scott needs to make to do a production with an all-female cast, Thompson said.

“We have not been told ‘no’ but I can think of several well-known playwrights who would be very likely to tell me ‘no’,” Thompson said.

Women’s college theatre productions, especially at small colleges like Agnes Scott, also provide more opportunities for women to work behind the scenes, directing and handling lighting and set design.

 “Throughout the history of theater, women have been underrepresented,” Thompson said. “Most of the roles are male roles. Most of the actors, directors, designers and playwrights have been men. So we try to give women the chance to do all of those things and tackle all of those roles.”