Sunday, June 22, 2014

Actress/Actor, Past and Present... A History of Women in Theatre Part 2 of 3

Actress/Actor, Past & Present:
 "At particular historical moments, the body of the actress (assumed to be an object onto which male desires were projected) and the body of the prostitute (assumed to be an object onto which male desires were enacted) slipped discursively into one: whore/actress."[1]

In Possession, the Actor stands in a queue for a cattle call audition for Les Miserables:
ACTOR: An assistant to the assistant director got me a ‘special’ audition.  Special as in stand in a queue round the corner…. I met him at the Ivy.  Pretending to be up and coming.  Me.  Maybe him as well... They never do something for nothing.

In performing the role of Actor in Possession, there were times when I felt that a one-night stand had occurred (in her fictional life), on the night alluded to in the text, when character when actor and assistant director met at The Ivy.  At other times, the character of Actor realized in the moment of telling, that she had now compromised herself by accepting the audition.  It is interesting that sexual activities are often said to be: ‘performed.’  They are also considered ‘acts’.

One of the most interesting aspects of my research, were found in the accounts of three 'ordinary' actresses ('nobodies') from the 19th century, all of whom obscured their identities under pseudonyms. [2]  There is a persistent irony in the desire of actors who disguise themselves as others, longing to be seen for who they truly are. "[I am] content if what I wrote....may help to remove an unjust prejudice from the minds of those who think only of an actress as an...irresponsible being, without conscience, principle or self-respect, and incapable of understanding the serious duties and responsibilities of life." [3]

These three 'nobodies' recount the difficulties faced by women desirous of working with certain London theatres and touring companies, who were not 'kept' by a rich man, nor willing to exchange sexual favors for work.

I recognise in my younger self a definite naïveté regarding the business of theatre at large. My survival as an actor appeared to depend on choosing to ignore the way I was treated by many male directors.  How would I work if I allowed my discomfort to intrude?   My desire to act was great. 

Using my own experiences as a template, a female actor beginning her career in the late 20th century might experience the following:

  • The director sends away the stage manager and the leading male actor so that he may enact the scene with you himself and physically assault you.
  • On hearing that you used to ride horses, your director waxes lyrical about your muscled thighs pressing against said equine beasts.
  • You are pursued by male audience members outside of the theatre, who appear to confuse you with the character you are playing; it becomes frightening.
  • Yourself and other women in a production are expected to wear revealing clothing/expose your breasts although it is thought by all members of the cast that this is an extremely odd design/character choice.
  • Your fellow actor believes that he can only 'connect' with his leading ladies if he sleeps with them; You use emotional reserve as a way to keep him at a distance.  Discussing the production years later with the director of the production, you find that he the director holds you responsible for the resulting lack of emotional grasp, voicing that you should have 'humored' the other actor, at least emotionally...

The accounts of 19th century female actors whose autobiography is “threaded through with stories of sexual exploitation of women in theatre”, affirm the universality of this experience.  By “recognizing the centrality of sisterhood to personal achievement,” I become the witness of myself through them; empowerment through contextualization.  Possession is a concrete manifestation of a newfound desire to contextualize myself as female actor-writer.[1]

[1] Viv Garder, The Three Nobodies: Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press 2004) p.27

[1] Kristen Pullen, Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, February 2005) p. 2
[2] Viv Garder, The Three Nobodies: Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press 2004)
[3] Ascribed to Alma Ellerslie, Ibid., p.13

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