5 Things I Learned Writing an “Open Gender” Play…

We should write for all genders, not just two.

This article has been cross-posted from its original posting on Medium.

It all started with a production of David Mamet’s Oleanna that was shut down by the playwright for switching the gender of a main character —  Carol, a young student who accuses her professor of sexual exploitation – from female to male, thereby queering the focal relationship of the play. At the same time that gender parity advocates look for more tools – like a greater acceptance of cross-casting – to disassemble a theater system that privileges men both on and off the stage, playwrights have found themselves caught in the cross hairs of controversy as they defend the rights to their intellectual property – namely the right to object to creative vandalism of their work.

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When I heard about this story, I was really conflicted. As a playwright, I am a firm advocate of playwright rights; but as a self-avowed feminist (I majored in Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, after all) I couldn’t help but be saddened by the lost opportunity to queer and critically re-examine a given text – especially a play like Oleanna that occupies such a fraught historical moment in America’s gender politic; the play premiered a year following the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas scandal.

“What if,” I thought, “I could write a play that both respects the playwright’s intention while actively inviting directorial reinterpretation?”

“What if,” I thought, “I could write a play that both respects the playwright’s intention while actively inviting directorial reinterpretation?” At the time, I was just starting to write a new play  –  Rizing, an HIV/AIDS-allegory-cum-Zombiepocalypse-thriller (which is getting a full production by Flux Theatre Ensemble starting May 20 in NYC, by the way… #shamelessplug). I hadn’t settled on the gender of any of the characters, so I decided to write the entire play intentionally in an “open gender” way, where every role in the play is written to be played by actors of any gender. At first, I thought it’d be a relatively easy choice, but I quickly discovered that writing in this way was both more challenging and liberating than I ever could have anticipated. I’m not the first person to write an open gender play, but here are 5 things that I learned:

Queer theorist, Judith Butler. Source: Wikimedia
Queer theorist, Judith Butler. Source: Wikimedia

1. Gender is a powerful societal shorthand. When writing open gender, you must create your own shorthand.
Queer theorist Judith Butler writes about gender performance as being a way for bodies to become “legible” to society. When we perform our genders, we’re not just acting out our personal selves, we’re using an established societal lexicon to convey a whole host of information about ourselves. Theater is a medium which demands almost instantaneous legibility of characters for the audience. The moment an actor steps onto the stage, their body language, costuming, make-up, posture, etc., is designed to immediately inform the audience what to expect from that character  –  and gender is fundamentally wrapped up in all those semiotics. Gender is a remarkably efficient way to establish a character to an audience, but it’s also incredibly confining, as binaries are wont to be.

When I started writing open gender characters, I quickly learned that I needed to use other signifiers to define characters for the audience. In the past, I might try and get into a character’s head by focusing on their various identities (gender, race, class, etc.). However, with Rizing, I started to think of the characters in terms of archetypal roles: the Lover, the Protector, the Troublemaker, etc. In this way, characters’ relational lives became even more important to defining them, which allowed the emotional truth to be central in the narrative, as opposed to the plot (which is often a pitfall of genre writing).

2. Open gender characters don’t need to be “everybody” or bland.
It was difficult at first not being able to lean on the crutch of gender, especially since as a writer, specificity is extremely important in characterization. Writing with no gender initially felt incredibly vague and, by extension, inauthentic. I feared that writing a character that was too aggressive, or manipulative, or emotional, or any number of character traits would inadvertently code the character to a specific gender. However, I quickly learned that these characters demanded as much specificity and authenticity as any other character, and so I chose not to get too worried about the assumptions.The radical transgression of a drag queen’s sashay or a old-fashion butch’s swagger helped me embrace a non-binary approach to gender for my characters.

I found that my experience as a queer person really helped me shake off the binary blues and relish in how beautiful and exciting it is when people play with, heighten, and subvert the expectations around their gender presentation. The radical transgression of a drag queen’s sashay or a old-fashion butch’s swagger helped me embrace a non-binary approach to gender for my characters.

3. Get outside perspectives, and be ready to be surprised… in a good way.
No matter how open-minded you try to be while writing, you’re still going to have an image of who these characters are. However, I really found it helpful to invite outsiders into your creative process early, especially when writing open gender. It’s fascinating to talk through each beta reader’s headcanon in regards to what gender they envision for each character.

For instance, there’s a character in my play that is a gruff, hard-lined, conservative, military-type who has an affair with another character who very much is the opposite of them. In my headcanon, those characters were always a heterosexual pair, partially because the character is so conservative. I couldn’t imagine them occupying anything other than that particularly special convergence of privilege that is white cis male heterosexual. But when a friend of mine read the play, they told me that they imagined that the character was in a heterosexual marriage, but had a homosexual affair. This blew my mind. It revealed a completely different take on the character, who is wracked with guilt and self-loathing over the consequences of the affair, that I never intended but deeply resonated with.

source: Flickr
source: Flickr

4. Casting will be the hardest, the most important, and most liberating decision you make.
Even though I’m relatively new to being on the other side of a casting table, I knew that the process of casting my open gender play was different than most. It was an experience of constant discovery and boy was it hard. Normally, the range of performances you see in the audition room is confined by the casting call. But when you don’t box yourself in by gender (or ethnicity) you get an unbelievable range of options. It’s a pretty wonderful and mind-expanding experience to watch an athletic black man in his 30s and a blonde white woman in her 50s go up for the same part, totally kill it, and both be totally right for the role.

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And with these new options, I was amazed in how much more integral the role of the actor became in shaping the message of the play. Normally, you’re looking for an actor who will be able channel the essence of the character in the text. But when the text is designed to be malleable and unfixed, the actors themselves — and everything that they bring with them (gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, etc.) – become a part of the text. Each actor opens up a world of potential meaning, and as you lock down your cast, that meaning becomes more and more specific, but you still get a sense for how much more meaning could still be mined from that one little play.

balloon5. Writing open gender is really about letting go.
As playwrights, we should cherish our rights to control how our work is presented. As the Doug Wright of the Dramatist Guild asserts, “We have sacrificed a great deal for the privilege of authorial ownership…” and too often directors and producers view the playwright more of a hindrance than a partner in bringing a creative vision to life.

But, for me, this experiment in open gender writing has been a profound exercise in learning to let go. I’ve come to realize that this story is bigger than me. This play can inhabit many truths of anyone who engages with it. Even though I created it, the thing I made does not belong solely to me. In the same way that a work of art is more than just the strokes of paint or the chiseled marble that comprises it’s physical form, my plays are more than the words I put on a page. Art only becomes art through the exchange of ideas, experience, and meaning. In a very real way, I believe that this exchange is a form of transubstantiation –  a sort of humanist communion – and that by writing in a way that invites this communion, playwrights can better facilitate a transformative experience.

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Jason Tseng
Jason Tseng makes plays, comics, illustrations, and games -- mostly about queer people and people of color. He splits his time working for Fractured Atlas, a national nonprofit technology organization that helps artists with the business side of their creative work, and as a community organizer with Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), a 25-year-old organization serving the Queer API community. His work has been featured in GeeksOut’s LGBT comics anthology Power, Sub Rosa magazine, and Nonprofit Quarterly. He produces the podcasts Play x Play -- featuring the best plays you’ve never heard of -- and Queer and Present Danger, a queer nerd pop culture podcast. Find more at JasonTseng.com. *The views and opinions which appear on this blog are his alone and in no way reflect the views and opinions of any organizations he is involved in.