What’s in a Name? What’s in a Label?

Shakespeare in the Ruff Romeo and Juliet
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Most roles I audition for are female characters written by men. I find myself being asked to embody versions of the same female archetypes over and over again: the ingénue, the virgin, the manic pixie dream girl, or the victim. These characters often exist as objects of male desire, and most often are written to fit into a male-driven narrative. The fact is that opportunities for women to express rage, to be dirty, rough, confident, loud, explosive, and filled with contradiction are few and far between. When I think about all that d’bi.young anitafrika does on stage, when I remember seeing Ann-Marie Macdonald and Liisa Repo-Martell in Soulpepper’s Top Girls, Maev Beaty in Passion Play, Tara Rosling and Pippa Domville in If We Were Birds, I feel my heart swell, my skin crawl, my blood boil, and I want more of this. I want more of these kinds of parts to be available to and created by women.

The day I was asked to read for Romeo, I was thrilled by the idea of inhabiting a traditionally male role. In the audition, Andrea Donaldson explained to me that she sees this Romeo as genderfluid, a person raised with the permission to express himself in whatever way he wishes and who lives in a social context where this is possible. I was told not to be too concerned about playing Romeo either male or female but to play the truth of the story and situation as myself, without a concept of gender. I loved this. What a freeing opportunity: I did not have to “try to be a man” nor did I have to “perform as feminine.”

Shakespeare in the Ruff Romeo and Juliet
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The majority of the material women deal with—especially women my age—is still limited to what normative culture deems as “naturally feminine.” The parts of me that are considered “unfeminine” are unwelcome. So in a lot of these roles, I have to actively repress parts of myself. I contract inwards, I become smaller, and I show less of myself to the world, to my fellow actors, to the audience—all because part of me has been told it doesn’t belong. That kind of self-consciousness is counterintuitive: it’s our job as performers to create compelling work by sharing ourselves, our vulnerabilities. But how can I create my strongest work when I feel like parts of my authentic experience are being judged or shamed, are not acceptable or worthy?

After each day of rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet, I biked away feeling as though I had been given the space to make discoveries in a supportive and safe environment. At one point, during a rehearsal in the park, Andrea encouraged me to share how Romeo likes and does not like to be touched. I am rarely, as a woman, given the space to verbally identify how I would like/dislike to be touched physically. I may be asked if I am comfortable with a particular choreography or choice but usually the question “Were you comfortable with that?” comes after the fact. For fear of stalling the rehearsal or being an ungenerous actor, I tacitly consent without asserting myself or asking for what I need. I had never been given the space in scene work to verbalize how touch feels or to clearly identify what kind of touch is okay and what is not okay. I was sort of stunned and had to think for a while. Eventually, I was able to share that Romeo feels good being included in play fighting but does not feel left out when Mercutio and Benvolio horse around without him, because he enjoys watching them perform for his benefit. I was able to identify that Romeo does not like to be picked up, does love to be physically affectionate with his friends, but has certain physical boundaries, which when crossed can feel violating.

Shakespeare in the Ruff Romeo and Juliet
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

I am revelling in Romeo. I am surprised at the part of me that walks with a swagger, that feels attractive without makeup, and that doesn’t constantly judge and censor myself but confidently expresses ideas and passionately declares love. I am getting to know parts of myself that are courageous and fiercely loyal, the parts of me that love to charm, to tease, to show off, to be the provider, to make someone else feel good and desired. I have discovered there is a part of me that is unafraid to take up space. For the past month in this little world that we have created, I have experienced freedom of expression and choice without being asked to change any part of myself. This is a privilege that our culture traditionally gives to the male sex but this opportunity has revealed to me that these feelings and qualities exist in me; they are a part of my own authentic truth regardless of my anatomy or sexuality.

Shakespeare in the Ruff Romeo and Juliet
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Andrea’s genderfluid vision of Romeo and Juliet opens up a world of possibilities. The beauty of this retelling is that it includes a multiplicity of experiences and presents a dynamic understanding of love and gender in our culture today. Lord and Lady Capulet have been combined and turned into one single mother in this production. Watching Pippa Domville embody this character every night, the audience experiences the complexity of a mother’s rage: how wrapped up it is in her own pain, vulnerability, fear, and hope, how she is struggling to care for her daughter as a single parent. The audience experiences a Romeo who loves Juliet not simply because she is beautiful but because she is fiercely her own person. Juliet sees Romeo as extraordinary and accepts him despite of and because of all of his complexity. She does not require him to be anything other than who he is. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so Romeo would were he not Romeo called…” What’s in a name? What’s in a label? How can Shakespeare’s words propel us forward rather than chain us to stagnant cultural narratives based in rigidity, oppression, and exclusion? Can’t the act of loving rise above prescriptive language and limiting beliefs in order to encompass all of us?

Every night when I leave our Romeo and Juliet world and re-enter the streets of Toronto, I am navigating how I am perceived and how I engage with my surroundings. It’s a struggle to assert myself, to feel comfortable in my own skin, to feel powerful and worthy, but Romeo has shown me new pathways of existence. Before playing this part I couldn’t articulate what I was craving to uncover. I didn’t know I was waiting for Romeo. But now I’ve found him, and he’s a lover and a dreamer and a passionate person within me. I will fight to keep him alive in my life and art, and I think I’ll continue to learn from him long after this play is over.

Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Romeo and Juilet is on at Withrow Park until September 4. For tickets or more information, click here

Written By

Vivien is an actor, often mistaken for someone you know from your small town but who grew up in Toronto. She loves to play ice hockey, despises shoes, feels most at home in a canoe, and recently got over a bad shark phobia.

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