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Genderbending costumes

The Theatre Conservatory experiments with gender-bending in two upcoming productions

Posted: 09/20/2012

Successful acting depends on how convincing actors and actresses are in assuming the role of someone else, and that includes men being cast in roles as women and women as men in two new productions being staged this fall by the Theatre Conservatory at Roosevelt University.

(In the photo above, a unique costume design featuring lace and sequins is being developed for an all-female cast who will play largely male roles in the October production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).

The opening show of the season, being performed Sept. 28, 29 and 30, is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It features an all-male cast. The second show of the season, an adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, is being performed Oct. 19, 20 and 21. It will be an all-female production. Both are being staged at the O’Malley Theatre in Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Building, 430 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. For tickets, call 312-341-3831.

“We want our students, by the time they graduate, to have gained a wealth of different acting experiences, including opportunities to perform in different gender roles,” said Sean Kelley, director of the Theatre Conservatory and associate dean of Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts.

Gender bending in theatre, TV and movies has been growing in popularity across the nation, but is not a new concept. In Elizabethan England, men played all roles in theatre productions, which is why Roosevelt Theatre Professor Joel Fink chose to cast his new adaptation of The Tempest for an all-male cast.

“We want this production to be done as it would have been in the Elizabethan period,” said Fink, director of the show. “We are exploring the energy that comes from using ‘boy players’ for roles portraying female characters. Our challenge is to make a play, which uses Elizabethan conventions, resonate with today’s audiences.”

The Tempest’s all-male cast includes well-known Chicago actors Ray Frewen as Prospero and Kestutis Nakas as Alonso. Both are associate professors of theatre at Roosevelt. Theatre Conservatory acting student Danny Bradley of Wexford, Pa., plays the part of Miranda, who is a little girl and lead role in the play.

“It’s a challenging assignment, but an amazing experience.  This is not an over-the-top drag queen kind of role.  My job is to simply embody the character of a little girl just like actors routinely did in Shakespeare’s day,” said Bradley, a 2010 graduate of North Allegheny Senior High School in Wexford.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Director Jaclynn Jutting has cast 15 female students at the Theatre Conservatory into 18 different roles – 16 which are male characters – for the October production that is a comedy take-off on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, exploring the question of how “To be or not to be” applies to common people.

Jutting, who has directed multiple theatre productions in Chicago during the last decade and is the associate artistic director at Vitalist Theatre in Chicago, chose an all-female cast for Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead because of the universal appeal of the play’s main theme concerning the true meaning of life.

“There are very few plays with all-female casts, but I think this is one in which the questions being asked pertain just as well to women as to men,” she said.

Costume design for the show is a “tricky, delicate dance,” according to Jutting.  A traveling band of women described as ‘ratty, Elizabethan, disco and burlesque’ wear a mix of men’s and women’s clothes, while main characters in the play sport traditional Elizabethan pumpkin hose and short puffy pants.  

“With both of these shows, we were faced with decisions about where on the spectrum between cross dressing and drag we should land?” said Emily McConnell, costume designer for the Theatre Conservatory. While costumes for The Tempest’s Miranda are soft in design, the apparel chosen for the cast in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is loud, flashy and full of sequins and lace, she said.

“We’re being presented as men but we won’t be wearing wigs and won’t be changing our voices,” added Aubrey Brummett, a junior in Roosevelt’s Theatre Conservatory. The Shreveport, La., native is cast as Guildenstern. “It’s like we’re a big group of girls choosing to put on a boy’s play and it’s really funny,” said Brummett.

Roosevelt acting student Emily Cannon, who will play Rosencrantz in the production, added: "We've talked a lot about playing men, but not necessarily the stereotypical male. We don't want to force anything, but we don't want the audience to be confused either so we're working on finding a happy medium.