The OUDS elections last year were a flurry of controversy that culminated with the OxStu drama columnist declaring that he was ‘watching OUDS burn’. Of course, the only people who don’t find thesps clique-y are thesps themselves, so much of the drama had to do with petty student politics. But, at the forefront, was a classic battle of the sexes.
It turns out that while most people interested in drama are aspiring actresses reading English, most of the parts available are for aspiring actors reading PPE. This is a familiar phenomenon in both student and professional drama, and the result in Oxford is lots of talented actresses scrounging for bit parts while less inspiring male actors carry away roles like Hamlet and whoever all those boys were in Stoppard’s Invention of Love.
Next week the OUDS battle of the sexes is being staged yet again. The Burton Taylor is proffering the first student production of Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, the story of three sisters perpetually caught reliving a shared sexual encounter from their adolescence.
The Playhouse, on the other hand, is boasts Peter Schaffer’s tale of Peruvian pillage and plunder in The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Royal Hunt’s script offers a staggering two parts for women (non-speaking) and twenty one for men, whilst The New Electric Ballroom has three female parts to its solitary male role.
Royal Hunt director Charlotte Beynon speaks of the pressure she felt when bidding for a Playhouse slot with a show of nearly all men: ‘A lot of people told me that OUDS would not want to fund it because it was mostly men’. At the time, OUDS was considering bringing in a ‘gender officer’ to require all funded shows provide an equal number of parts to men and women.
But in a play about Pizarro’s interactions with Spanish soldiers and Inca warriors, it would have perhaps taken away from the historical accuracy if Incan warriors were played by a flock of eighteen-year-old girls. That said, Beynon ended up finding a way to cast 8 women and 15 men in her show – though this partly made a virtue of necessity as Beynon had dozens of women auditioning for the play and only a handful of men.
Meanwhile, Phoebe Éclair-Powell, director of The New Electric Ballroom, says that the gender themes in Walsh’s play did attract her to the work, as it is a play about ‘what it is to be on the cusp of womanhood’. But far from being just a ‘woman’s play’, Éclair-Powell fell in love with ‘the dark humour, great visuals and desperate storytelling’ such that she contacted the playwright directly and negotiated the first ever student performance of the work.
Despite the wildly different themes and male to female ratios in these two 3rd week productions, both Beynon and Éclair-Powell agree that gender and casting is tricky in the world of Oxford drama. Beynon asserts that an official gender officer or policy ‘isn’t the job of the OUDS’.
Éclair-Powell agrees, saying ‘I don’t think they should enforce it but I think there should be more awareness about the choice of OUDS shows in general. We are students and should be tackling plays that allow for greater balance of gender roles before we are catapulted into a world where the chance to do this becomes limited’. Beynon similarly suggests a better role for the OUDS in ‘promoting awareness of plays that have a better balance in gender’.
Ultimately, these two female directors stand together in promoting the importance of artistic integrity over that of gender equality and suggesting that, really, the plays themselves are to blame.