Thinking about Gender
Leaving room for a collaborative reading
The dramatist Craig Baxter defines a script as (among other things) “a set of instructions” for other artists to work with. A novel (or a poem, I would add) is a finished product, but a script is never a finished work of art.
I find this comforting right now, because after I turned over the script to Red Curtain Foundation, I started thinking again about the legitimacy of gender-neutral (flexible-casting) characters I’ve written/carved, and my desire to continue writing them.
A very long time ago I had an online discussion about a poem in which the speaker is drinking tea. I think I had postulated that gender was integral to our experiences, and the other writer used the poem as an example to refute my stance. That was a long time ago and in a very different cultural climate when it came to (most of us who are cisgender) considering what gender really means - how it functions outside of feminist, academic examination.
When I read a poem about drinking tea in the kitchen, I bring to it my experiences - parallel or analogous. And to be honest, in my mind, “kitchen” touches on feelings of obligation and shortcomings that are definitely rooted in my gendered upbringing. The feelings - ambiance - of my kitchen isn’t like any scenes of kitchen I’ve seen in films, nor is it like any of the detailed, heart-of-the-house warm kitchens described in novels. Novels also position the reader in the kitchen by way of point of view: the provider of such a kitchen, or the recipient of the comfort it provides, or a visitor. Gender seems connected to both culture and era in my mind - even along the timeline of an individual’s life.
When I read the poem years ago about the kitchen tea-drinking, my reading was gendered even though the speaker wasn’t. Were I to read the same poem today, I am sure that my (post-menopausal) gendered reading would be different. In this sense, is a non-gendered reading ever possible? Is a “true” gendered reading possible? If gender is a continuum, are all gendered characters “valid” regardless of the gender of the author and/or reader? Is it all or nothing? There is a near point where this question becomes academic rather than a question of craftsmanship, academics having its own aesthetics and artistry that I respect too much to begin to toy with.
Maybe as a matter of genre, poetry is more collaborative than a novel. More akin to theater.
I was surprised by how the director of Ripeness is All is approaching some of the characters in terms of sex/gender. It isn’t what I had envisioned, but that is the beauty of theater - it is collaborative. We work within one-another’s boundaries to create the whole. And the idea of another director making different choices for the same characters in the future thrills me.
When I write characters for flexible casting, I think about the basic human drives that I feel/have felt and know about from 57 years of living. I never think, “A woman would behave this way.” But I also have no doubt my having lived this long as a cisgendered female influences the text. As does all of the other descriptors of who I am and who I have been. But if I do my job, the director and the actors will at worst overwrite any lingering subtext in a manuscript, at best provide all of the gendered context for the work.
Collaboration is the whole point of theater, isn’t it? Maybe this is one of the things that distinguishes theater from performance?
I’ve written a ten-minute play with two siblings. One has moved from home and one has stayed. Casting gendered roles (ages, culture, era) here would entirely change the “play”. I don’t know that I’m ready to try to write a character that is specifically a non-binary, older sibling who left home and returns after their mother’s disappearance. But the thing is, I am ready to let the director and actor choose to bring that the work as they choose to. It’s exciting.
Baxter’s statement about a script being a set of instructions for assembly to other artists is absolutely freeing, because I do believe I can write from a starting point of human experience.
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