Performer reverses roles

Elise Franco

Dr. Yvonne Shafer, a theatre professor at St. John’s University, waits to perform a solo piece about women portraying male roles in plays. She gave an example from “Romeo and Juliet” and acted out other roles women have played during yesterday’s presenta

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Yvonne Shafer jumped right into her performance lecture yesterday afternoon, which portrayed theater actresses playing male Shakespearean roles, by falling dramatically to the floor after reciting a monologue from the late 19th century play “East Lynne.”

Shafer, who recently retired from teaching theater at St. John’s University in New York, has been doing even more performances since then. She first brought her performance to Kent State in 2004.

Performing, as opposed to teaching, is a fun way to learn what is going on at universities other than my own, Shafer said. She also said she loves taking students’ questions and finding out what they think is most interesting about her lectures.

Yuko Kurahasi, professor in the School of Theater and Dance, said she brought Shafer to the university because she combines a unique form of lecture and performance. She said the turnout for the 2004 lecture was so high she couldn’t wait to bring her back.

Shafer said her performances are significant because many people are still considering what women’s roles were back then. Some are under the impression that females didn’t really do much until the mid-’90s, which isn’t true.

During the 19th century, many actresses preferred playing male roles written for males, over the less focal female roles or roles of men written specifically for women.

“These women stepped outside the accepted role, and they were successful,” she said.

“They basically created a path for women to do things not normal for women to do.”

By 1891, 26 women had already played the role of Hamlet, according to a book written by Lawrence Hutton.

Shafer focused mainly on Charlotte Cushman, one of the most famous actresses of the 19th century. She starred in 16 male roles including Hamlet, Romeo and Oberon, as well as several women’s roles.

“Cushman was moved to act in male roles because she was not a dainty, pretty woman,” Shafer said. “She felt she had to be mobile on stage, and many women’s roles didn’t allow this.”

In 1845, Cushman, who played Romeo, and her sister as Juliet, went to perform in Britain, Shafer said. The play was scheduled for eight performances, but her portrayal of Romeo was so popular that they stayed overseas for 80 performances.

Not everyone was happy about women playing male roles however. During one performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” a man in the audience began making loud noises right before Romeo, Cushman, was about to kiss Juliet. Cushman demanded the man be removed immediately or she would remove him herself.

These women who played male roles did so because the dominating male characters gave women more power, Shafer said. Especially when other the other men in the plays had much less important parts.

Realism in theater began to set in during the early 1900s. Advances in technology led to changes in staging and costumes, Shafer said.

“What was conventionally accepted before was becoming kind of funny to people,” she said. “After that not many women successfully played male roles.”

Contact undergraduate studies and Honors College Reporter Elise Franco at [email protected]