Skip to main content

Although more women direct and write plays in Canada, it's clear who's to blame for the continuing gender imbalance on
the stage

Tim Campbell, centre, plays as Alcibiades in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

Crunch the numbers and it's clear: Shakespeare is still sexist.

The dominance of the Bard of Avon in Canadian theatre each summer continues to mean more work for male actors than female ones – despite some prominent recent examples of gender-reversed or gender-blind casting in his work.

Dozens more men than women are acting on stage because of the continuing fascination by arts institutions and audiences with William Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies and histories – written during a time and in a place where women were legally prohibited from acting.

At the Stratford Festival, the foremost centre of Shakespeare in Canada, male actors outnumber female actors 73 to 47 this season – making the acting company only 39-per-cent female, whereas women make up just more than half of the Canadian population.

While that Ontario repertory theatre produces everything from the ancient Greeks to new plays, it's clear who's to blame for the gender imbalance in the ensemble.

Take a look at the casts for the three plays penned by Shakespeare at Stratford this summer: Timon of Athens features only five women in a cast of 22 (23-per-cent female); Romeo and Juliet involves 20 male actors and 10 female actors (33-per-cent female); and even the ensemble of Twelfth Night is just 36-per-cent female.

Joseph Ziegler (centre) as Timon with members of the company in Timon of Athens.

"I do feel that there needs to be growing gender parity and I think that's something we need to work harder and harder towards," says Antoni Cimolino, the artistic director of the Stratford Festival – who points to how roles have shifted behind the scenes at the Ontario repertory theatre in recent years.

This season, for instance, more Stratford productions are directed by women than men, and when it comes to living playwrights, women outnumber men.

It's a different story on Stratford's stages: While star Seana McKenna has played Richard III and Jaques at Stratford in recent seasons, and last summer's Breath of Kings history play cycle featured a slew of male characters played by women, those gender-bending practices are still the exception rather than the rule.

Most productions of Shakespeare still hew closely to how his plays have been produced since women were allowed to perform on the English stage – with the four to six roles in each play that were originally performed by boy actors now played by women.

A look at other repertory theatre companies that focus on Shakespeare shows that Stratford is hardly alone in having a company tilted in favour of male performers.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's company is slightly more female than Stratford at 42 per cent – featuring 50 men and 36 women in its 2017 season. England's Royal Shakespeare Company, centred in the playwright's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, meanwhile, employed 163 actors at home and on tour in 2016 – and only 57 (or 35 per cent) were female. (Those numbers supplied by the RSC's exclude the various productions of its West End and Broadway hit, Matilda: The Musical.)

Matthew G. Brown as Sea Captain and Sarah Afful as Viola in Twelfth Night.

Other Canadian repertory theatres that focus on different repertoire seem to have a greater representation of women on stage. Soulpepper in Toronto reported that 45 per cent of the performers on its stages (including concerts, presentations and tours) were women in 2016, while the Niagara-on-the-Lake Shaw Festival's acting ensemble currently sits at around 46 per cent female.

While neither of those companies have achieved gender parity, they come closer than most of the summer Shakespearean institutions I surveyed across the country. Bard on the Beach in Vancouver has hired 18 male actors and 11 female actors (38 per cent female) this season, while at Shakespeare by the Sea in Halifax, male actors outnumber female ones by nine to five (36 per cent).

Even Shakespeare in High Park in Toronto has two more men than women in its 12-person ensemble – despite its production of King Lear, starring Diane D'Aquila in the title role.

"It's the 21st century now and it's time – it's time that parity goes not just in the parts, but in the salaries," says D'Aquila, a Canadian stage legend who played at Stratford for at least 15 seasons. "Why not shake it up? Why not make it a different viewpoint for an audience to wrap their head around? I say this as an audience member – as I'm getting to the point where I'm ready to just retire."

These skewed numbers don't necessarily attest to limitations of Shakespeare's plays, but instead to the limitation of institutional imaginations when it comes to staging his work.

From the very first performances of Romeo and Juliet and Henry V, an actor's gender and the part involved didn't have to match up – with young men or boys playing the female roles in Shakespeare's time.

Members of the company in Timon of Athens.

Today, you can still find all-male troupes performing Shakespeare. Before he ran the Shaw Festival, Tim Carroll took a pair of such "original practices" productions from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London to Broadway, while Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd recently flipped the script with a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare plays in London that received rave reviews last fall.

In Toronto, audiences have been exposed to the gamut of female-friendly approaches to Shakespeare in the past year: Thought for Food produced an all-female Measure for Measure at the Red Sandcastle in the fall, while the Groundling Theatre Company produced the same play with just one lead role switched: Duke changed into a Duchess for actress Lucy Peacock.

Why Not Theatre, meanwhile, hit all the right notes with a Hamlet at The Theatre Centre that featured not only Christine Horne in the lead role, but more women than men in the cast as a whole – with some actors playing characters than matched their gender, and others not.

At Shakespeare's Globe in London, artistic director Emma Rice stated her intention to move toward gender parity on stage – and hit around 45-per-cent female in her first season, before the theatre company shockingly announced she'd be leaving after just two years in charge of her experimental vision. "Just do it!" Rice said about going 50/50 in an interview with American Theatre before she was pushed out. "You don't need to agonize about how or why."

In Canada, Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan has been just doing it. Last season, the Saskatoon theatre company hired more female actors than males – and this year, it's doing Richard III and Twelfth Night in repertory with a cast that has achieved gender parity – six men, six women.

"We plan to keep it that way as much as possible moving forward," says Alan Long, director of marketing. "In our opinion, there are only opportunities in this, and it is a lot of fun."

Shannon Taylor as Olivia, Michael Blake as Sebastian, Sarah Afful as Viola and E.B. Smith as Orsino in Twelfth Night.

By the numbers

Company; total number of actors; female actors in company; percentage female; season

  • Royal Shakespeare Company (Britain); 163; 57; 35 per cent; 2016
  • The Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ont.); 120; 47; 39 per cent; 2017
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival (U.S.); 86; 36; 42 per cent; 2017
  • Bard on the Beach (Vancouver): 29; 11; 38 per cent; 2017
  • Shakespeare in High Park (Toronto): 12; 5; 42 per cent; 2017
  • Shakespeare by the Sea (Halifax): 14; 5; 36 per cent; 2017.
  • Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (Saskatoon): 12; 6; 50 per cent; 2017