Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Enjoy Being a Guy

A few thoughts on the nature and craft of cross-gender acting

By Natalie Lebert

As an actress who finds herself for better or worse often playing men in theater, I am frequently questioned on the “how” of it. How do I manage to play male roles so convincingly? Do I do endless research? Do I spend my days and nights observing and obsessing over the physical characteristics of the male of the species? A hushed pause generally follows while the inquiring mind waits for me to spill my well-honed secrets.

Are you ready? Hang on to your hats. The answer is…no. To all of it. There is no endless research; there is no feverish examination of men (at least not for a job). As it happens, I am one of those women who are ‘blessed’ with a speaking voice that settles in the lower registers. I also tend to be overweight and my largeness apparently gives me a certain brute presence onstage that can read as male. Sorry to disappoint, dear reader, but that’s the extent of my mystery. But do not fear...years of masquerading as the not-so-fair-sex have taught me a thing or two. Allow me to share what I like to call:

A Drive-By Guide to Playing Men Onstage.

Shake What Yo’ Mama Gave You: This is to say, examine your day-to-day behavior for untapped maleness. Check out your physical bearing when you get really angry. Do you try to make yourself bigger and taller? Do you stand with your legs farther apart to give yourself a wider base of support? Guess what? You are being guy-ish! Listen to yourself when you are explaining a subject you know really well. See how your voice lowers? Ok, you don’t sound like James Earl Jones or anything, but truth to tell, most guys don’t either. Rather than beginning by observing men, begin by observing yourself for signs that Mars is far closer to Venus than previously thought.

Pick a Guy, Any Guy: Now that you’ve mined your own behavior for “the man inside”, let’s take a look at some men outside. Watch what body part they lead with when walking (take a guess). Watch how they walk and give it a descriptor. Would you call it purposeful? Striding? Describe it and see if you can embody it. How do their arms hang at their sides? How do they sit? Describe it. Wide? Loose? Describe and then embody it. A director I greatly respect, Rebecca Patterson of The Queens Company, says that gender is based in role playing. You are an actor and it’s a role, play it!

Take It To The Text: What we learn as actors is that what characters say indicates who they are. This holds as true for gender as any other trait. Examine what you have to say as a male and see if there is muscle in it. If you find it, relish it when you have to speak those words. Look for strong sounds, consonants and imagery. See if you find yourself thinking “a girl would never
say that!” You are probably right.

There you have it. My three steps to being a man onstage. Look inside, look outside, look at your words. Be willing to play and give yourself over to being the guy YOU can be. Nobody swaggers like you. Flaunt it!

Natalie (Nate) Lebert has been an ASC member since 2004, happily crossing the gender divide with roles as Celia (As You Like It) and Banquo/Porter/Lady MacDuff (Macbeth). She has also played Feste (Twelfth Night) and Grumio (Taming of the Shrew) for The Queens Company (www.queenscompany.org).

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