Gender in theatre classes

By , November 9, 2010 2:00 pm

One of my primary sources of income is teaching theatre classes to middle- and high-schoolers. I really enjoy it, and I firmly believe that it allows for self-expression and the development of interpersonal skills, two things that are important for all professions, in all walks of life. We – the other directors and I – are in the process of picking the stories we would like to work on with our high school students. The end goal is a performance in March, consisting of four ~20 minute pieces and some improvised scene and story work.

As I was observing the story workshops this year, I kept a particular eye out for the relationship scenes present in a few of the stories being examined. Inevitably, they all involved male/female relationships, just as they have in the past. But this year, much more than in years past, it really bugged me.

I acknowledge that having a gay relationship in a story – particularly with high-schoolers – will often mean the focus of the audience is on the gay-osity of the story, at the expense of everything else. Likewise, if the purpose is to teach students to portray stories on stage, adding issues of gender and sexuality will complicate and distract from the primary purpose for most students. But I’m not straight, I’m gay. The straight-osity is distracting for me. And, statistically, we probably have a few students who aren’t straight in our high school class of eighteen kids.

Part of this, I think, is coming from the bad taste in my mouth left from the recent transphobia I experienced. Still waiting to clear up some things before I really post about that, but it’s made me more aware of my minority status as a trans woman and a lesbian. So I’m feeling a bit more confrontational than I once was.

But I also want to know if it’s possible to find a balance, of allowing kids to portray non-heterosexual characters without it being A Big Deal. I want to be able to direct pieces – even in high school – about People Like Me without the entire process turning into a discussion on what that means. (Just like we’re directing pieces with straight characters without it being a big deal.) Is simply an unrealistic and naive desire?

6 Responses to “Gender in theatre classes”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Follow-up thought: Would it inappropriate or unfair to place high school students in the position to portray a sexuality other than their own?

    • Joan says:

      It already happens with queer actors. Why not do it to straight actors too, and let the queer actors do it in the process?

      (Related anecdote: I’m a lesbian too. When I was starting to come out (and was still living and being perceived as male even by most of my queer friends), I was in a queer youth theater group and landed a part as a trans lesbian. And it felt awesome.)

      I’m not sure how to write queer characters without making the show about their queerness. Obviously the writing has a role to play, but part of it is just desensitizing people. If no one has put on a play with a trans person in a high school before, you can’t do that without making it a political statement. But once it’s been done enough, maybe you can get into more subtleties without people freaking out. So I think it’s partly just a necessary transitional stage, and we shouldn’t worry about it too much (though obviously we should be careful about stereotypes and such).

  2. RadDyke says:

    My little sister gave me the best piece of advice a few years ago. “Things are only a Big Deal if you make them so”. I think you can gracefully work in something subtle around sexuality. If you don’t make the gay-ness of it a big deal, I don’t think it will become one. If it just is another piece you’re doing, another relationship you’re portraying, I don’t know how many people would actually bat an eye at it.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. One of my friends gave the seemingly simple advice of just asking the students. Going off of what RadDyke said, she suggested something along the lines of, “Hey, I’m interested in doing this piece with a same-sex relationship. What do you all think of that?”

  4. Since suicide among gay teens has been in the news lately, I would think of this as a subject. It would focus the audience’s and the performers attention on the subject more and not as much on the gay issue. …Just a thought.

  5. Gin says:

    Rebecca, I am a high school theatre teacher and this is something that comes up every now and again in my classes. A couple of years ago, I had students write issue driven plays. One student wrote a piece about a gay high school student who told a straight student he liked him and as a result was killed. It was an excellent piece and very effective.

    That being said, although my classroom is a Safe Zone and I have a number of GLB (and possibly T) students who find refuge here, I see very little in the way of plays or performances dealing with homosexual relationships and given the conservative nature of the community, I don’t expect to.

    I will say that when I directed Pippin last year, I did not shy away from Pippin’s exploration of all areas of sexuality (and being that the lead and the dancer in the scene were seriously into one another, it was a smoking hot dance).

    In answer to your question, I would gauge the climate at the school and not push anyone to do anything they re not comfortable with. Sadly, high school is not the best place to push boundaries and if a student feels like he or she is being pressured, it could come back to bite you. Be careful as you tread.


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