If we don’t break down gender barriers in casting, Philly theater will continue to stall.

As a trans actor, I’m dismayed by the “testosterone-driven” concept of the all-male Macbeth at Quintessence

6 minute read
Parkinson, in a strapless bodice, pulls Miller, wearing a green & blue plaid kilt, seductively toward him face to face.

When Quintessence Theatre Group artistic director Alex Burns announced that the company’s spring 2024 production of Macbeth would “return to its classic roots and the presentation of all-male Shakespeare” and called the play one of Shakespeare’s “most ferocious and testosterone-driven tragedies,” the Philly theater community took notice.

As a member of this community who is a trans man, I had a strong reaction to this statement, which originally appeared in a note from Burns in a marketing email announcing the show’s cast as well as on the Quintessence website (where it no longer appears). Local creator Katherine Perry circulated a feedback form (where Burns’s original statement is reproduced) soliciting voluminous comments that Perry delivered to Quintessence and published online (you can read them here and here). According to Perry (as of Tuesday, March 26), no one at Quintessence had acknowledged any of this—almost a month after the feedback form went live.

But the purpose of this op-ed isn’t to reach Quintessence. My purpose is to find more community. I want to share my specific experience as a white trans masculine actor who has been part of this theater community for more than a decade.

How much testosterone do I need to be onstage?

Let’s take the phrase “testosterone-driven tragedy.” The idea that testosterone equals violence is not new. It is, in fact, the weapon used to target trans people. Trans women are excluded from athletic fields because of this distortion of science.

I know I am not considered for traditionally cis roles because I don’t look like a cis man to those casting. Perhaps I don’t have enough testosterone. Perhaps casting directors could list the nanograms per deciliter I have to reach to qualify for their productions. Perhaps if I send my bloodwork over with my resume, I can expect an audition?

In a BSR Podcast interview about the show, Burns references past “all-male” productions, referring in particular to his 2014 As You Like It. He claims that his casting choice elevated the text: “To see a male-identifying actor playing Rosalind brings a level of comedy to the performance or resonance to the lines that were referring to male … body parts underneath the dress of the actor playing the role.”

I personally am sickened by the idea that Burns or any director considers my hidden “body parts” when deciding if I am right for the role. I also think it’s strange to even hazard a guess and then decide to employ someone based on your thoughts on their genitals.

This is an example of how theater companies reinforce gender binaries. And it reflects my own experience as an actor. At best, cis casting directors look at me and think I don’t look enough like a “man” to play the role in question. At worst, I am asked personal questions about my body, or I sense those in power silently trying to figure out what’s in my pants and if I was born with it. That is a terrible breach of the boundaries and safety I deserve as an actor. Until casting efforts in this city actively work on breaking down gender barriers in ALL roles, we will continue to see the same cis actors on these stages. And Philly theater will continue to stall.

The truth about drag

In his original statement, Burns says the “performing artist's ability to explore the presentation and construction of gender through illusion is being challenged as either illicit and illegal or inauthentic and harmful,” apparently a reference to current anti-LGBTQ legislation targeting drag shows. I can only assume that Burns thinks that he is including drag in this Macbeth.

I find it particularly strange that the production invokes the spirit of drag when this city has a gorgeous, groundbreaking, ever-growing drag community filled with performers and designers—none of whom, to my knowledge, were called upon to collaborate on this production. It is easy to put on a dress and call it drag. And then it is just as easy to claim that what you have created is the very thing many legislatures are trying to take from us.

Miller, wearing a kilt & holding a bloody knife, dodges away from Parkinson, who sits downstage and 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.)

But anyone who has ever seen a drag queen can spot the difference: imagination, taste, creative excellence. While cis artists are certainly welcome, it is trans folks who created drag, and it’s trans folks who change the world with it. As I navigate the world physically transitioning, I have found artistic solace from going to drag shows and developing my own drag persona. Black trans drag artists, in particular, are the originators and current transformers of the art form. To hog their spotlight by presenting a vague copy of the external aspects of their art form shows a lack of imagination and, in fact, a copying of others’ imagination.

I wonder when Burns last went to a real drag show. What would any of his drag friends think of that Lady Macbeth dress? (I know my eyes will never be clean.) I think it’s pretty dishonest to use all cis, all-male Shakespeare to try to ally yourself with trans people and drag artists who are quite literally fighting for our lives and the right to our art form TODAY. This gender play through the eyes of a cis white gay man directly diverts attention and resources from communities in peril.

Who says they were cis?

I do not have the luxury to look at gender as a fun dress to wear and then take off. And neither did other people throughout history. Burns’s claim that his production is returning to “Shakespeare’s theater,” with his bespoke definition of male, reveals a bold assumption that the original actors, and Shakespeare himself, were male and cis. Trans people have always existed. We have always been at the forefront of artistic expression and revolution. How can Burns assume that there were no genderqueer artists in Shakespeare’s original productions?

Burns seems to look back into history only to see the people who look and think like him and then present that vision as historical context. It shows a true lack of imagination to see a supposed limitation from the past and then inflict it on the community you purport to serve today.

A masterful diversion

In the BSR Podcast interview, Burns’s apparent lack of interest in challenging his limited worldview is particularly dismaying. He sometimes gives an exasperated laugh over the community’s response and sometimes seems to revel in it. He also invokes a popular tactic used by the comfortable artist: “Well, you don’t know what you think of [my art] until you see it.”

This assertion is a masterful diversion. It puts the onus on the dissenter to trade their time, money, and artistic attention for the right to have an opinion. But it’s a fallacy. It’s desperation in disguise: begging us to see it and disagree with it so at least the production can be relevant. It’s disheartening that this is how Quintessence chooses to connect with a younger generation of trans and queer artists: by excluding us and then demanding that we buy tickets.

I don’t need to consume the art in order to have an opinion about how it’s made. That’s because the performance itself is only a portion of the work. Quintessence leaders have demonstrated through their casting process, their promotions, and their weak response to community outcry that this show is not worth my artistic opinion. Engaging by exclusion will not tempt me to witness mediocrity.

At top: Daniel Miller (left) and Scott Parkinson in Macbeth at Quintessence. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

Find the BSR review of Macbeth here.

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