The actor’s secret: the joy of playing with gender
By: Amy Middleton
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“Bet she’s a lesbian.”
It’s not particularly hushed, this comment made in the year 12 common room. Yet it’s not uncommon. Growing up in country Victoria, with short hair and no particular interest in giving blowjobs to the boys I’d known since age eight, I wasn’t the height of popularity in my class. No-one questioned whether I was sexually attracted to girls. Instead, my classmates questioned whether I met their ideas of what a girl was supposed to look like.
Tall and solid, I am a strong woman, neither feminine nor masculine. Some people don’t know where to put me. This includes directors. From being cast as males since drama school, I’ve had a world open to me that very few get to experience: the joy of stepping into another gender’s shoes.
I have never done this more seriously than in Shadows of Angels, now in its fourth season. Swifty, based on Eugenia Falleni, a transgender man convicted of murdering his wife in 1917, is all man: breasts strapped, shoes too big for women’s feet, package securely fastened to his crotch. This character lived as a man in the 1920s, so half-arseing it is not an option. It’s a privilege to be able to play with gender in this way, and I am aware of how lucky I am to have this opportunity.
I have experienced the full spectrum of gender. Cast as everything from female sex workers to old men, my body has been cupped and strapped, sleek with lace; high-voiced in heels and floral prints as a schoolteacher in Morning Sacrifice; hyper-sexed and graceful as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet; and fatherly as Belle’s dad in Beauty and the Beast.
Experimenting in this way is a joy.
Why don’t more people get to experience this pleasure? For women, the lack of experimentation may be a part of limitations generally: as the Huffington Post‘s JR Tungol points out, “while you may be able to name a half dozen or more drag queens off the top of your head, how many drag kings do you know? Women have been dressing as men and performing masculinity on stage since (at least) the late 19th century, but drag kings have yet to achieve the same attention as their queen counterparts.” With drag kings like Melbourne’s Rocco d’Amore showing just how glamorous gender-bending can be, it’s a shame more people don’t feel free to branch out; at the very least, wear a tie now and then.
Gender is still a concrete concept in our culture. While I know plenty of transgender people in the arts, I don’t know any who are actors. How can this be? Perhaps underrepresentation of transgender people is yet another hidden problem in the performing arts industry.
Am I, a cisgender female, helping this cause by playing trans characters? The ethics are cloudy to say the least. What I do know is that by doing so, I will at least start some much-needed conversations.
TBC’s Shadows of Angels is showing from 12 October – 2 November at Melbourne City Watch House. Buy tickets here
H. Clare Callow is a freelance writer and actor in Melbourne. She’s currently performing in Shadows of Angels at the City Watch House.
Image courtesy of TBC
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