We hit a stumbling block in casting my new musical “The Golden Cage”, which opens April 20 at ‘Theatre Four” in Theatre Row in NYC. The stumbling block is language! Not in the play itself, but in the ‘Character Breakdown’ we use for audition notices.
I’ve always described the two characters – Birdman Boris and Cage-dweller Alphea – as ‘he’ and ‘she’ – but only because it was easier. In my mind they could be any gender, age, race or body-type.
And right there is the stumbling block. That was all just “In my mind.”
This whole process of pulling a story OUT of my mind and onto a stage with sets, lights, costumes, actors, direction, music — and NOT-me – means it all has to come OUT of my mind and into a sharable format. One of those formats is that powerful ‘Character Breakdown’ – because it calls out to the actors who will bring the breath and body of these characters.
So, sure, I may be saying to people that the characters can be ANY gender, race, age, body-type, ethnicity – but what Rebecca Miller Kratzer pointed out to me is that if we describe the characters as ‘he’ and ‘she’ in those audition notices – we’re limiting who will even try out for these roles.
If we call Boris a Bird-MAN then only men will see themselves as being invited to audition.
The director helped me see that I was limiting my own vision of the play before we could even cast it – simply by the language I was using.
(Trust me … this theme of me limiting my own vision is going to come up again and again as I share the process of bringing this show to the stage.)
So Rebecca and I went back to the Character Breakdown and worked on de-genderizing it.
Not so easy. It meant pulling out the pronouns and their active verbs in sentences like this:
“Boris has spent his whole life searching for the legendary Golden Cage, and when he finally finds it, it’s everything he ever imagined. Except for one thing: There’s a woman living inside it and she claims it’s made of cement and iron and that she’s a prisoner.”
You can remove the pronouns, but then you’re often removing active verbs that come with them, and the story can become flat:
“Boris has spent a lifetime searching for the legendary Golden Cage, and when found, it’s everything imaginable. Except for one thing: There’s someone inside it who claims it’s a prison made of cement and iron.”
So what’s missing? At first my lazy brain said: the pronouns and the active verbs! How can I write without them????
But I decided to keep looking – and here’s what I discovered:
By relying on the ease of gender pronouns to give a sense of who the characters were, I wasn’t truly exploring or sharing the juice of their character. When I started looking beyond the gender pronouns I started finding ways to share more about the kind of people – or bird-people – they are..
So right now, the Character Description reads like this:
“The Golden Cage” is the story of a mythical Bird-Person, Boris, who is on a lifelong quest to find the ultimate symbol of security, the legendary Golden Cage.
After years of searching, Boris finds the magnificent cage on a remote mountain peak, and it’s everything the legends described. Except for one thing: There’s a grumpy, overly-dramatic Diva living inside it – Alphea – who says the cage is a prison made of cement and iron.
“The Golden Cage” is about perception, isolation and the cages we build around ourselves – and the human connection that can set us free.
“RIGHT!” says I to me. Alphea is a Diva, someone who hides and protects their terrified, fragile vulnerability by creating bigger-than-life drama – right down to the costumes. Is Alphea fashioned on my mother … or on me? Well, that’s fodder for a different post.
The takeaway here for me is: what were the gender pronouns hiding from me? The adventure of searching for character in words that are rich and colorful and open to many interpretations.
How will all this impact the casting? We’ll find out when auditions start in a couple weeks!