The Choices of Sexualizing in Theatre

Mikayla Whitehouse

In the last year I have seen a variety of shows in Calgary, Alberta, as well as in London, England. While there were many differences in the genres, themes, and styles of the shows, there was a common thread that I noticed in many of the productions that I saw. This was the sexualisation of the female characters on stage.

In London I saw The White Devil at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. The action of the play requires the female lead, Vittoria, to be a sexualized character. What disturbed me, however, was the sexual violence shown to her servant, Zanche. This was unexpected for me, as I had not perceived these actions as necessary from reading the script beforehand. Similarly, in watching Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, I was surprised by the sexualisation of both women and men that did not move the plot forward, specifically towards the character Malvolia, a gender swapped Malvolio. This included a scene set in a male strip club. While the play gave an interesting message throughsome the action, I was distracted from the overall plot.

As a female actor, my reaction to this theme was initially anger. I did not understand why it is deemed okay to treat a woman disrespectfully on stage, especially when nothing in the script seemed to be requiring the action for the plot to continue moving forward. My next reaction was to ask a question. Do I, as a female actor, have to be okay with allowing my body to be sexualised and treated in a way that I deem disrespectful in order to find work?

The answer is no.

While in some cases the script requires a character to be approached in a certain way by another character, or for sexualised actions to take place, there is always a choice for the actor before entering in to any action on stage that one is not comfortable with. And there is no black and white line that should absolutely never be crossed, but there are some questions that you can ask before agreeing to a role or action on stage.

1. What is the purpose of the action?

Does this action move the plot forward? Is it required by the script and does it have a purpose in the overall action of the play? While some actions may be uncomfortable, asking this question helps to determine if it is a necessary part of the plot. Sometimes the moments that are most uncomfortable as an actor can be the most potent for the audience. Whatever the answer, you have full permission to enter into a conversation with the director and ask why the action is in the blocking, and ask how it will be handled.

2. Am I comfortable with this?

While it is important to stretch our comfort zones, and acing does ask us to enter into areas that do just that, you still have full permission to have boundaries. These are good and healthy, and look different for each person. You also have full permission to ask questions and have a conversation. While some boundaries may limit a role that you are willing to play, you have no obligation to enter into a role that puts you outside of your boundaries. I believe this is part of having respect for yourself and the work that you do.

Acting requires risk, vulnerability, and willingness to be selfless for the sake of the story. However, as an actor it is important that you give yourself permission to set boundaries for yourself and determine what you are willing or not willing to be a part of. Stories need to be told, and some of them are uncomfortable. But you always have the choice of what you will or will not enter into.


Mikaylya is a student at Rosebud School of the Arts in Rosebud, Alberta, Canada

Photo: Johan Persson