On Thursday, we welcomed among the visitors to the room Stephen Purcell, an academic, director, and practitioner. Here are his thoughts on the morning:
The group was three days into its week-long exploration of Lyly’s Galatea when I attended its Thursday morning session. It was, I understand, the first session dedicated to the play’s exploration of gender, so from my outsider’s perspective, at least, it felt like an important moment.
Following a vocal warm-up, the group began to explore gendered movement. Director Emma Frankland invited us first to move around the space embodying different states of physical tension: first as if we were relaxed, then as if we were hurrying for a train that we were increasingly likely to miss, and then finally as if we had just missed it. It was a useful way to remind participants of the different levels to which which we put our bodies under various kinds of stress. Emma then asked us to start to move around the space in a “masculine” way. I found myself struggling to do this without invoking stereotypical masculine behaviour, but perhaps this was the point – gender is not innate, but a performance whose boundaries are defined more by culture than by biology. Emma encouraged us to think of masculine movement in terms of taking up space and claiming a sense of ownership over the room. When we then shifted to “feminine” movement, the implication was that we should change to smaller, subtler, less assertive patterns of movement. Finally, we were asked to explore a “genderless” state of movement, something I found very difficult – I ended up moving around the space almost like an automaton, losing all sense of personality. I suspect “genderless” movement may in fact be an impossibility, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment.
The exercise got me thinking about the research I’ve been doing into gendered movement at the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe. While the actors playing cross-gender in the Globe’s all-male or all-female productions tended to claim that they were first and foremost playing a character, and that gender was only a secondary consideration, they sometimes explored the ways in which gender can be signified by different kinds of movement. Readers interested in this might have a look at the following accounts:
Some of these accounts essentialise gender, suggesting that men move in one way, women in another, as if masculine and feminine bodies are destined always to move (and therefore signify) differently. But others (for example Ann Ogbomo’s) recognise that gender is a social construct, and that it therefore gets signified differently in different historical contexts.
The follow-up discussion to the first part of this morning’s session revealed some interesting things. The project has assembled a diverse group of performers, and they were enormously generous in sharing their experiences of various kinds of prejudice and exclusion. Their discussion tended to endorse Emma’s suggestion that in this society, straight, white, non-disabled cis-gender male bodies are invited to “take up” and “own” space in a way that other bodies are not. One of the participants pointed out that there are different kinds of masculinities and femininities – that it was all very well to assume that a white male body might be able to “take up space”, for example, but that a black male body could not (at least not in this society) take up space in quite the same way without bearing certain connotations. Emma usefully turned the conversation towards the difference between notions of “passing” as male and “being read” as male – the first assuming that gender is something you do, the second that gender is something done to you by the gaze of others. (Of course, the gaze we are met with in turn affects the way we behave.) Her point made me realise why I had had such difficulty envisioning a genderless movement – however much I try to strip my movement of gendered signification, others will still be looking at me and reading my movement through a gendered lens. It also made me think about the way Lyly’s play explores this, asking the audience at the start of the play to “read” the male body of the boy actor dressed in male clothing before telling them that this is, in fact, Galatea in disguise. It was precisely this kind of radical gender indeterminacy that bothered the Puritan anti-theatricalists. Lyly’s play challenges the stability of gender not by presenting “genderless” bodies, but by presenting bodies so overloaded with gender signifiers that they become impossible to “read” consistently.
These observations were also partly provoked by the final exercise of the morning. Emma asked volunteers to stand before the group with their eyes closed and to allow another member of the group to dress them (she had assembled two costume rails of broadly “masculine” and “feminine” clothing items respectively). The volunteer would then turn and look at their reflection in the mirror. It was interesting to see how the participants generally wanted to undermine straightforward gender signification, assembling outfits that combined masculine and feminine elements (and in one case producing a deliberately surrealist outfit in which costume items were worn on the “wrong” parts of the body).
But the most profound moment was when Emma dressed Becky, one of the group’s female performers, in a conventional masculine outfit: shirt, tie, three-piece suit and hat. As Becky turned to look at her reflection, she responded viscerally, shrinking slightly and signalling her emotions to the rest of the group.
It got me thinking about a lot of things as we headed off to lunch: the subtly violent way in which gendered clothing restricts and polices our movements (men as well as women); the way in which gendered clothing is often tied up with our sense of self; the ways in which the knowledge that we are being looked at, and “read”, can affect us.