Theater department experiencing long-standing gender role disparities
8 mins read

Theater department experiencing long-standing gender role disparities

Two-thirds of USD’s theater department has found that it can be hard to catch a break.

For years, college theater departments across the nation, including USD’s, have all been facing the same problem – a lack of female roles in productions.

Right now, USD’s theater department is made up of 66 percent women and 34 percent men, said Raimondo Genna, chair of the department of theatre.

While there are almost twice as many females as males in the department, since 2011 there have been 136 lead male roles and 94 lead female roles, meaning that males had opportunities for 42 more original lead roles than females. However, 20 of those lead roles were genderbent to accommodate actresses.

The theater department has a demographic split of 66 percent female students and 34 percent male students this year. Taylor Kidd / The Volante

Lydia Kanz, a junior musical theater major, said she and her classmates are frustrated with the situation.

“This year happens to have a lot of shows that are very male-heavy in their casting and roles available to people, and that puts a huge strain on the department,” she said. “This year I think we had 14 or 15 girls, which is huge because a theater class is typically like at most 10 people. So we have 14 to 15 girls and maybe four boys and only two of them are musical theater based. So that’s made it a difficult year for the girls.”

Kanz said the lack of female parts creates a competitive environment.

“Especially women that are similar types, they are pitted against each other for these roles and if someone gets something and someone else doesn’t, and maybe they both were really good, the director just had to make a choice, it creates some tension in the department,” she said.

While there’s competition between the women in the department, the men often don’t have to worry about competing for roles, Kanz said.

“Having a male-heavy season also hurts the men because there is no real urge for competition. They aren’t like, “Oh, I need to do well to get this part.’ Because they’re like, ‘Oh, hey, I’m probably going to get in this show anyway because I’m a guy,'” she said. “I think that it’s beneficial to have that competitive nature in the male area, not just the female.”

Kanz said these issues affect everyone in the department.

“As a woman, this really affects me, because I would love to perform, and I know that I can perform, and I can perform well, and I would dedicate myself to a larger role, but the opportunity just isn’t quite there,” she said. “The women feel ripped off by the season that we were given. Everyone feels that tension and upset in the department.”

Looking for solutions

The theater department faculty chooses productions in the fall for the next year. Students can submit suggestions, but Kanz said she isn’t sure suggesting a play does much good.

“Too often students’ ideas, we feel, are often pushed to the side, or at least I feel,” she said.

Genna said there’s a lot that goes into choosing which plays are performed. Faculty consider how the production serves all students, including design tech students and others involved in the production, he said.

The department looks for shows that have “enough range or a broad enough appeal, from popular to a bit more obscure,” Genna said.

The budget and students’ abilities are also taken into consideration.

Genna said another factor is the appeal to audiences and educational value to their students.

“We want to be sure in their time with us they are being exposed to Shakespeare, that they are being exposed to classic musical theater, contemporary theater, something a little bit more avant-garde,” he said. “So all of those things come into play when we are choosing a season. There are many, many, different factors that go into it, as well as many constituencies we are trying to appeal to.”

Genna said the number of student submissions varies.

“Sometimes we can get like 15-20 (submissions by students) other times we get maybe a half a dozen,” he said.

The theater faculty often share the same frustrations as students, Genna said.

“I completely understand and I support and agree with the frustrations that our students have, because it is very much an issue, and it’s going to be an even bigger issue when they get into the professional world because they are going to run into it even more so,” he said. “Which is why whenever this does come up the one thing I keep telling them over and over again is that they need to write plays, they need to write the musicals.”

Trevor Hudson, a senior acting major and president of the Student Theater Co-op, said while this season was very male-heavy, students advocated for themselves.

“I think the main role of STC is filling that void that the department can’t fill at the moment. Because we did a show, Cinderella Waltz, that was five girls and four guys,” he said. “We were all on the same track of making sure that we have a lot of female roles, guaranteed because it’s just unfair. If our department isn’t able to fill that then we have to take that on ourselves.”

Reflecting back on his four years at USD, Hudson said he thinks things are getting a little better, but it’s hard because male roles have always been dominant.

“I 100 percent agree with the chair that, I mean, we’re riding off of how many years of white male shows and them being the main shows to go to,” he said.

Hudson added that last year there was talk of genderbending a role, but it was denied by the playwright.

“I know last year I was also in The Pillowman, and I know I heard we were originally going to go with a female detective and we asked for the rights for it from the playwright and he said no, because he had intended the script a certain way,” he said. “He intended the detective to be a male.”

While they weren’t able to genderbend that role, Hudson said there’s been more genderbending this year than in the past.

“I think this issue is finally being addressed because last year it was kind of addressed a little bit but not really, now this year they are way more open to genderbending roles and making sure that the female side of the department is getting their fair share,” he said. “I think we still have a ways to go in that aspect… they are finally seeing what the problem is and trying to fix it.”

Hudson said he thinks next year there will be even more improvement and is excited to see female-heavy shows chosen.

“Definitely with this next season, not only are there genderbent roles, but there are a lot more female roles because the show that just got confirmed today is a show called Little Women… which I think is perfect, I think it’s going to fill that void,” he said. “It may not be the progression that needs to happen, but it’s slowly moving its way forward.”