Video: Exploring gender fluidity in Shakespeare, and in schools

Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter.

Gender fluidity in Shakespeare’s plays was not only a common plot device 400 years ago — it was a practical reality of the live theatregoing experience. Shakespeare wrote his final play in 1612, but the first female actor didn’t appear on an English stage until 1629.

That means every female — and every female pretending to be a male — was originally played by a male actor. Even Cleopatra. Even Juliet.

Imagine, then, watching Twelfth Night when it was new in 1599. When Viola is found shipwrecked, she dresses like a man to get a job — and both a duke and a countess fall in love with her. In As You Like It, just staged by the DCPA Theatre Company, mighty Rosalind escapes her murderous uncle by bravely exiling herself to the forest, where  she not only manages as well as any man — by dressing like a man — she wins the man of her dreams. Now consider male actors playing those roles, and what that must have looked like to an audience.

Rosalind and Viola are perfect characters for these gender-fluid contemporary times, when headlines have been dominated for much of the year by news of an Olympic decathlon champion undergoing a gender reassignment. Young people across the country are pushing back against gender categories, or the idea that anyone is 100 percent male or 100 percent female. 

As a result, gender norms in schools are necessarily evolving. Education about transgendered people and gender identity is starting up  —  and earlier — in many schools. And while some have proclaimed these changes to be an assault on traditional family values, others say it is long overdue, given that 50 percent of all transgender youth commit or attempt suicide by the the time they are 20, according to national statistics.

Mackenzie Sherburne leads a talkback after a performance of 'As You Like It.' Photo by John Moore.
Mackenzie Sherburne leads a talkback after a performance of ‘As You Like It’ attended by many students who had already participated in her classroom workshop on gender fluidity in Shakespeare’s plays. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter.

With the lone goal of starting a conversation, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Education Division has developed an interactive classroom workshop that uses Shakespeare’s gender-bending as an entry into dialogue.

“My job is not to bring an agenda in. It is just to start the conversation about gender roles,” DCPA Teaching Artist Mackenzie Sherburne said. “We are talking about the difference between biological sex and gender — and that those definitions are literally expanding right now.”

Sherburne recently visited two high schools to perform I Am the Man – a 15-minute, one-woman adaptation of Twelfth Night written by DCPA commissioned playwright Steven Cole Hughes.

Using three specially created puppets designed by DCPA Teaching Artist Rachel Kae Taylor to help tell the story, Sherburne performed I Am the Man at Aurora Central and Westminster high schools. Those students were then invited to see the DCPA Theatre Company’s full staging of As You Like It.

Video: ‘Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’ brings Bard to schools

The classroom performances, said DCPA Education Director Allison Watrous, allows the students “to dive into the workshop component that discusses, unpacks, and challenges gender roles and assumptions.
The workshop was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Shakespeare in American Communities project, in partnership with Arts Midwest. “This has been an incredible collaboration for the NEA Shakespeare in Communities grant,” Watrous said.

'As You Like It' talkback.
A student comments during a talkback after a recent DCPA Theatre Company performance of ‘As You Like It’ led by DCPA Teaching Artist Mackenzie Sherburne.  Photo by John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter.

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