Sex Does Not Define How Well a Role Is Played or a Story Told - We Need More Gender Neutral Casting

28/07/2016 16:33 | Updated 29 July 2016
Milan Maksic via Getty Images

When we read a book, look at a painting or watch a play, does knowing the gender of the artist, author or playwright change our opinion or experience of it? JK Rowling certainly thought so, hence choosing JK over Joanne.

Our culture is dictated, divided and valued by gender - we have mens' and ladies' toilets, sports teams and colour codes. And in TV and theatre, men play male roles, and women play female roles.

But what would happen if we got rid of gender as an indicator of how well a character could be played? Could we start from scratch, freed from our genders?

Judith Butler, an American philosopher and gender theorist suggests that gender is constructed through one's own repetitive performance of gender, therefore suggesting that gender itself is performed.

As an actor we explore the line between performance and real life. Drama school 'breaks us down' to 'build us back up' again from a neutral place that might allow us to better connect to a character, story and audience. We aim to do so in a truthful way, without the hindrance of habits, or tics that we might have adopted along the way - like in the way we walk, stand or speak.

It's been said before that 'sexuality is of the body and gender is of the mind', so if we accept for a moment that gender is something we perform - might that not be a hindrance too? At the very least it is something worth exploring.

If I'm honest, I don't entirely agree with this 'breaking down' method. It's homogenising and I've witnessed actors lose a sense of themselves and their identities within it, like sometimes regional accents get overridden for the 'preferred' RP.

Yet, amid this drama school method, there was no breaking down of gender which rigidly informs the roles we might or might not get during drama school and the ones we're to forget when we leave (if we survive).

I kid you not when I say a fellow male actor in my first year at drama school leaned in to me one day, clearly attempting to pay me a compliment, and said "I bet you'll get to play a lot of mothers in your career".

Although of course there's nothing wrong with playing a mother, it was frustrating to hear the presumption that as a female actor this was an archetype that would interest me and that it was one of the few kinds of roles that was actually available to me.

Thankfully, it feels that the landscape could be changing. What I've started to see, and I'd love to see more of, is where people are cast - not genders.

Shakespeare has been one common entry point for gender neutral casting, following Phyllida Lloyd's powerful all-female production of Julius Caesar and Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's recent production of Henry V starring Michelle Terry as the title role and her bride-to-be played by Ben Wiggins. Two great examples of where gender neutral arts has been explored.

It really doesn't have to be about making a massive statement - if anything, it's just a step closer towards actually representing society.

In response to a survey that found that women made up 65% of theatre ticket revenue, Lyn Gardner of the Guardian wrote "why keep going to the theatre if you seldom see yourself reflected there? The industry is shooting itself in the foot if it fails to commit to real change." And we know that there are more male parts in Hollywood than female.

So if there aren't enough roles for women currently, why shouldn't female actors play the roles that are there? If they can communicate the part better than anyone else, isn't that enough?

How would anyone know they were the best 'man' for the job without giving them the chance to audition?

And what about all gender identities? Where do trans actors and gender non-conforming actors fit in this binary and heterocentric system?

Although it's clear that we need to raise the bar for women and trans actors in the arts, we need to go beyond gender and look towards an industry where gender doesn't come into play at all, where cis roles are just as open to trans actors, and traditionally male/female roles are open to the opposite sex or gender non-conforming actors.

Can you imagine the exciting future for the industry if theatre companies and TV producers keep challenging programming and casting choices across the board and actively continue to put into practice diverse and gender neutral casting to both old and new work on a wider scale.

My hope is that the future of theatre is emancipated from these limitations, that gender stops being used to define who we are or what we are capable of. In our lives we empathise and connect on a human level, beyond race class age and gender - shouldn't the arts reflect that too?

Anna Martine stars in the transgender play Rotterdam at Trafalgar Studios in London's West End on now throughout August. Tickets start from £15 and are available here.