“When does the community get to abort someone else’s creative impulse?”

Quintessence director Alex Burns addresses community concerns about his “all-male” Shakespeare productions

9 minute read
Miller, wearing a kilt and holding a bloody knife, dodges away from Parkinson, who sits downstage & turns back toward Miller
Who has enough testosterone to do Shakespeare properly? Daniel Miller (left) and Scott Parkinson in ‘Macbeth’ at Quintessence. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

“By embracing its theatricality, all-male Shakespeare will allow us to push the limits of the horror that this play demands,” Quintessence Theatre Group artistic director Alex Burns said in a statement on the casting of his all-male Macbeth (extended through April 28, 2024). The note appeared in marketing emails and on the show’s webpage, but later, following a backlash, the company quietly removed it (a team decision, Burns said). Burns agreed to sit down with me for an interview about it all after I caught a matinee of the show.

As he notes in the playbill, Burns has loved “single-sex Shakespeare” since he was 12; he founded Quintessence to pursue this passion. But his yen for single-sex Shakes draws controversy: in his BSR Podcast interview on Macbeth, Burns says that “a number of leading female actors in the community” shared concerns about the exclusivity of his 2014 all-male repertory productions of As You Like It and Richard II, and he knew he’d stir up a similar response with Macbeth.

Anyone can read a collection of responses (here and here) to Burns’s casting statement, gathered through a form (where Burns’s original statement is reproduced) organized by local artist Katherine Perry, and I recommend this BSR op-ed by a local trans actor, Bruce Baldini, who critiques Burns’s characterization of Macbeth as a “testosterone-driven” story.

Macbeth show logo: bloody red text says "something wicked this way comes." A woman's bloody hand holds a crowned man's neck
(Image courtesy of Quintessence.)

I saw Burns’s striking 2012 all-male Othello, and his Macbeth has the same fleet, stark, sharp-edged style, starring Daniel Miller as Macbeth and Scott Parkinson as his Lady.

“I’ve had a number of trans, nonbinary, and female-identifying artists who have seen Scott’s performance and find it revelatory,” Burns told me. I agree that it’s a gripping, sensitive performance. But, to many of us, that’s not the point.

Gender as artifice

I’m much more interested in Burns’s notion of gender—and particularly womanhood, in the context of his Macbeth—as “artifice,” a theme he returns to repeatedly. In the Macbeth playbill, he expresses the need to focus on “heightened language, theatrical artifice, and the performance of gender.” On the BSR Podcast, he says the rehearsal room was “very very exciting” because “the gender of the characters is being created as part of the artifice, like the violence, like the magic.”

Likewise, in his now-removed casting statement, Burns said he’s re-exploring Elizabethan theater traditions, “in which gender is a key element of the theatrical artifice and performance aesthetics.”

As critic Kiran Pandey describes in his BSR review, Parkinson emerges from an ensemble of male soldiers and becomes Lady Macbeth right in front of us, putting on a hectic smear of blush and red lipstick, to match his red nails. He wears a delicately shaped corset that leaves his shoulders bare and puts on a wide bustle-like structure at his hips.

Reinforcing the binary

It’s worth examining Burns’s philosophy in conjunction with his staging of Macbeth. Despite the men’s costumes being a mix of contemporary button-downs and sleeveless tees, kilts, lace-up boots, and vaguely modern military fatigues (plus a sleek velvet blazer for the titular male), Lady Macbeth’s pinched and rounded silhouette is clearly from another century, emphasizing this historic signifier of femininity.

A corset? For womanhood? Groundbreaking.

And, not surprisingly, the men who play women in this show have apparently removed all their body hair (in a production with a lot of kilts and bare chests, and much of the audience at eye-level with the actors’ bodies on a raised stage, this is especially conspicuous). Parkinson is not tall and has a slight frame, especially next to the broad and brawny Miller.

Parkinson, in a strapless bodice, pulls Miller, wearing a green & blue plaid kilt, seductively toward him face to face.
Scott Parkinson (left) as Lady Macbeth and Daniel Miller as Macbeth at Quintessence. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

In his casting statement, Burns situated his show “in a moment when gender evolution and gender binary is at the forefront of civic dialogue and cultural investigation,” but this production isn’t investigating any binaries, except maybe for viewers so regressive that they want to ban drag (and Lord knows those folks probably don’t make a habit of taking in Shakespeare at mid-sized regional theaters).

The foundational male?

In the show’s final tableau, a frozen Lady Macbeth (posed like a statue of the Virgin Mary with her palms turned demurely, beseechingly outward) is rolled onstage in a sort of upright vitrine, like a museum exhibit, the men swirling around her. The image left me cold, and not because of the play’s dark themes. It’s no great leap to suspect that Burns, so passionate about casting only men, sees womanhood itself as artifice: part of an aesthetic toolbox, something you can easily telegraph and trap under glass.

Artifice demands a default layer, a foundation ready to be transformed. And in Burns’s theatrical vision, the cis male soldier is the blank slate—just as cis masculinity is the default in the world at large. From entertainment to politics to medical research, people of other genders are tired of the idea that feminine or nonbinary ways of being are mere deviations from a masculine standard. In many instances, this philosophy is killing us. In this world, womanhood becomes a narrowly proscribed, jealously guarded aesthetic (see every right-wing jerk who thinks trans women are nefarious men in dresses).

In reality, womanhood is a potent, intrinsic, exhilarating mess of who we are and what the world expects of us; how we actually look and how society tells us to look, and the dangers we face every day.

You want to execute a bold vision in the theatrical performance of gender? Acknowledge that womanhood is not a quick, instantly legible aesthetic. Call me when the women on your stage are allowed to be tall or have fat bodies and hair on their legs and silhouettes that don’t hail from two centuries ago, when the women on your stage are trans or disabled or visibly aging, and they’re dramatic and sensuous and sympathetic and scary.

Chasing “lived experience”

That gets to the heart of something else Burns addressed with me in our interview. “It’s a fundamental disagreement about what is permissible in theater,” he said of his critics. He hopes people will come see Parkinson, and that they’ll “have a new appreciation” for the role of Lady Macbeth which only Parkinson can provide. “I think that does have to do with Scott’s excellence as a performer,” Burns added, “but it’s also his gender identity. That’s part of the excitement to me.”

The cast, in vaguely military costumes, processes in a U-shape toward the camera, around a fancy cloth-covered dining table.
The cast of 'Macbeth' at Quintessence. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

Is it wrong for an actor to play a role without the “lived experience” of that character, as Burns said many respondents suggested?

“Fundamentally I don’t agree with that, especially when I’m doing a play about murderers,” Burns told me. He alluded to progressives who demand better representation onstage and compared them to repressive conservatives: “The right and the left are both trying to stop this enterprise of drag or performance of gender in theater, for very different reasons.”

Of course, you don’t need to be an ambitious murderer to play Lady Macbeth. But it’s problematic to equate drag bans with a push for historically marginalized folks (e.g., cis women and trans people) to have more opportunities onstage. The entertainment industry, and theater specifically, are historically misogynistic spaces. When Burns takes Lady Macbeth, arguably one of the most famous female roles in the Western canon, and says that it’s just inherently more exciting when a man plays her, it’s hardly surprising he strikes a feminist nerve.

Aborting the (white man’s) art?

I don’t believe that men can’t play women. And I don’t think most progressives believe that either. The point isn’t to remove all men from female roles; the point is to acknowledge that throughout history, cis men have always had most of the roles. Pitching in to change this is not a slippery slope to ruined art, as more privileged creators tend to claim.

Burns told me he was surprised by the volume of critique the company got before the show in question had even opened. “When does the community get to abort someone else’s creative impulse or vision or claim it’s not appropriate?” he wondered. “For me, personally, as an artist, and philosophically, I don’t really have a moment where that should happen.”

3 white male actors walk together, one in a kilt, one in a furred robe, and one in a drapey black open v-neck shirt.
Men have always been center stage: (from left) Owen Corey, Christopher Patrick Mullen, and Jamison Foreman in ‘Macbeth’ at Quintessence. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

To me, he sounds worried about the potential creative constraints of a more equitable world, or, in other words, an imaginative world that is sensitive to the structural imbalances of the real world. It’s telling that the company silently withdrew his original casting statement instead of standing by it. And to me, it’s ultimately not surprising that a director so fixated on “artifice” seems uninterested in questions of how lived experience informs the artistic process—even when his community tries for years to bring it up.

Burns joins many cis white men whom I suspect are saying, in effect, down that road is a place where I cannot automatically have and do whatever I want. How can I execute my artistic vision there? To which we say, welcome! This is where everyone else has been making art for millennia.

The context and the choice

There’s nothing inherently wrong with all-male Shakespeare, even in a century where women are allowed to play Lady Macbeth (except for the fact that gender binaries probably don’t serve us in general). But we need context: most Philly theater companies are led by cis white men, many of whom have held the reins for decades. Meanwhile, the trans artists, the fat artists, the disabled artists, the boundary-pushing artists of all genders, are doing 10 times the work: creating and producing and starring in and promoting their own shows (probably while working a day job), innovating on a shoestring because established companies rarely cast or hire them. And after they’re excluded, they’re told to buy a ticket to join the conversation.

But what’s done is done. Burns’s Macbeth is onstage, and he doesn’t seem fazed by the community response to his vision. “People who want to come see the work should come, and the people who don’t want to come see the work should see the work that they want to see in other places,” he said on the BSR Podcast.

Right on.

This is an important moment to support the art you want to see. I hope that’s what Philly theater fans remember, long after this Macbeth closes.

What, When, Where

Macbeth. By William Shakespeare, directed by Alex Burns. $25-$60. Through April 28, 2024, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or


The Sedgwick is a wheelchair-accessible theater. There is an accessible restroom located in the lobby of the theater. Seating accommodations can be requested at the time of purchase both in person and online.

Masks are encouraged, but not required.

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