Talent over gender

Theater teacher Shana Prentiss discusses the role gender plays in modern theater.


Junior Grace Patenaude smiles during the finale Nov. 5. Patenaude played King Sextimus, a character who did not have lines until the last number. photo by Katie Massman

by Rachel Robinson, Opinion Editor

The lights of the auditorium rise on sophomore Molly Symmonds dressed in men’s clothes as she begins to play a lute and sing a short song, setting the scene of the story. As the curtain rises, junior Grace Patenaude can be seen sitting regally on her throne. Patenaude does not play a queen or a princess, but a king.

Symmonds and Patenaude were in STA’s fall performance, Once Upon a Mattress. The musical humorously mimics the fairytale, “The Princess and the Pea.” 

When casting Patenaude as King Sextimus, the father of the protagonist, drama teacher Shana Prentiss considered her unique talent which made her perfect for the role, not her gender.

“I needed somebody who could do physical comedy, which is why I chose Grace for that role because I knew that she could pull it off,” Prentiss said. “So that’s really the deciding factor. It wasn’t really that I looked at, any of these girls and went ‘Yes, they can be boys.’ It was ‘Yes, she has what it what I need for this men’s role.’”

Although Patenaude felt challenged by this role, it is not because the character is a man. In the show, King Sextimus is put under a spell which forces him to mime everything he says. So, while Patenaude is delivering her lines and singing her songs, she is also acting her words out in a comical way. 

“I’ve always only ever thought about the character more so than whether it’s a man or woman — that just never really mattered too much to me,” Patenaude said. “I feel like what improves my acting skills the most is like the complexity of the character more so than the gender.”

Symmonds also play someone of a different gender. The script itself does not specify the gender of her character, the minstrel, but she and Prentiss interpreted them as a more masculine figure. 

For Symmonds, the gender-swapping does challenge her because it means consciously switching her body language to accurately portray her character.

“It made me think more about what I look like and just made me be more conscious of it,” Symmonds said. “There are some parts where I kind of have to think about how I stand and if I put my hands on my hips, I have to put them lower instead of just how I normally act.”

Prentiss believes that for female actresses, casting them in male roles challenges them by allowing them to access the historically significant roles that were often not written for women. 

“There’s a lot more character development to the male characters than there are to the female,” Prentiss said. “So obviously, for a woman to play Lady Macbeth, it is a pretty great role. But even there, there are all kinds of holes, there’s all kinds of information that’s missing, as opposed to playing Macbeth where you’ve got this whole wealth of history and information there to play.”

By giving roles to the actor best suited to them without regard to gender, Prentiss hopes to shed light on the trivial nature of gender as a social construct.

“I just think we’re starting to see a trend in theater where people are starting to realize this whole gender thing is just kind of dumb,” Prentiss said. “And I think that’s a positive thing because I think it’s just sort of leading to that idea that gender is made up. To me, it’s the most obvious thing in the world to play with that and to just let the right actor play the role and don’t worry about their gender.”