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Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Play by Lauren Gunderson

In the Autumn of 2019 I enrolled in a Directing I course as part of my BA in Theatre. For this course, we learned techniques to address action verbs, sectioning a script to rehearse, ran a crash course in casting, stage configuration, creating images, sight lines of the audience, which stage configuration to best suit the story, and many others. The knowledge was broad spectrum to give us the best overview possible. 18 weeks does not allow time for a more in-depth look at each segment which, itself, could encapsulate a lifetime of study.

We referenced A Sense of Direction by William Ball but also looked at many excerpts from Anne Bogart’s A Director Prepares.

Our end-of-term outcomes included a ‘directors book’ and the showcase of a 10-minute scene excerpt from a play we direct. We dipped toes into the experience of casting, managing our schedules with our actors, and reserving spaces to rehearse in. Each week, the goal was to rehearse at least once, for at least an hour and a half. I managed one two hour rehearsal each week, and doubled that time during our ‘tech week’ before showing. We had roughly 8 weeks to rehearse. Before the process began that seemed an inordinate amount of time. After, when faces with all the minute details and shifts that affect not only the visual of a performance, but its possible story impact; less than 40 hours was inconsequential.

Before touching casting, however, we had four options to select a play from. Each touched on major genres in theatre; we had comedy, tragedy, contemporary realism, and a softly absurdist play fueled by the poetry of speech.

I selected Exit, Pursued by a Bear written by Lauren Gunderson, a tragicomedy with roots in realism and driven by narrative, particularly the narrative of Nan. She is the protagonist of the play subjected to domestic violence.

Exit Pursued by a Bear used a meta-theatrical device – the ‘play-within-a-play’ – as a means to teach Kyle, an abusive husband the wrongs of his actions. It handled themes of domestic violence, sexism, toxic masculinity, sex shaming, and to a lesser degree homophobia.

1,000 Cranes 10,000 Thoughts: Trans Narrative in Film

Everyone wants to be seen. To have their existence acknowledged and accepted. Everyone desires to find themselves when they open a book, or watch a film, series, or play. For gender divergent people in general and transmasculine people specifically, seeing themselves in media is often fruitless. Transmasculine characters, if they are given the space or acknowledgement to exist at all, are almost always portrayed by cis-men or cis-women. Their stories, voices, and experiences are generalized to a palatable and inaccurate narrative to be consumed by cis-audiences. These representations create a destructive, damaging concept of what it is to be trans. This extends not only to the uneducated views of cis-people, but to the personal perceptions of trans people about themselves, their validity, and their experience. 

In Western culture, our society has structured itself around concepts of man and woman. This delineation defines an individual’s role in society; what they should like, do, be. How they should behave. What they should want. How they should look. This formation of a gender binary is so deeply ingrained that most Westerners cannot comprehend a society without this structure. Cis-gendered people – are comfortable with their assigned identities as a man, with XY chromosomes and a specific set of genitalia; or a woman with XX chromosomes and the corresponding genitalia. Comfort with this is fine, but this comfort has lead to the erasure and violent treatment of gender divergent people.    Presently, this issue is being waged for the acknowledgement – legally and personally – of transgender and nonbinary identities. It is not a new issue; after all, many of the activist leaders such as Martha P. Johnson, were what we now call transgender, gender non-conforming, or non-binary. FtM (female-to-male) individuals lead entire lives long before the 20th century without words for themselves except that they were men. It is only the freedom of media and social media that issues of gender identity have gained such traction. 

Media, however, cuts both ways in its usefulness to bringing attention to injustices. It also serves as an outlet for intentional misinformation or misrepresentation born of ignorance. In the case of gender divergent characters in film, television, and theatre this is both crude and rancorous. Characters, casting, and narratives are frequently written for transgender characters without regard to the reality of the individuals they affect. They are created for comic relief, a sense of tokenism, or a want for inclusivity but an unwillingness to fully educate one’s self. From this extends the practice that transgender characters are not written unless the crux of their existence is their gender identity. Transgender actors are rarely considered for transgender roles and more rarely for roles of characters who are not transgender. 

One of the earliest modern films to focus on a transgender character was Boys Don’t Cry released in 1999 and directed by Kimberly Pierce. At the time, transgender viewers released a collective cheer – at last, they thought, there was a step toward change, a turn in the tide. Two decades later and there has been minimal progress; particularly with the visibility of transmasculine narrative, and the many troubles of the film have been vociferously contested. It is still considered by some, to be a must-see for any young or questioning trans-identified person. Unfortunately, ‘good for its time’ is not an excuse to overlook the exploitative aspects of this film presently. 

“[…] wider acceptance that films like “Boys Don’t Cry” helped usher into Hollywood, but they are not wrong to demand more. To dismiss their concerns because their tactics are caustic would be a mistake.”

Jude Dry ; Trans Students Protest ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ on IndieWire

The issue with Boys Don’t Cry – beyond its casting of a cis-identified woman – is that it is very voyeuristic of the trans experience. Like most films, it is preoccupied with the physicality of a transman, despite not casting one. The character, Brandon Teena, was frequently shown to stare at himself in the mirror. While mirrors may be awash with symbolism, in the case of gender divergent people, they are far more frequently a source of anxiety not conducive to lengthy visual perusal. For many, myself included, engaging one’s reflection for an extended time results in little but disappointment. Every feature becomes a critique in how it does not look appropriate or ‘passable’ as we have been socialized to expect of binary gender. One cannot relay the depth of discomfort and dissocia engendered by a mirror for trans, nonconforming, or nonbinary people with the whimsical over-shoulder stare of a cis-actress.
In my first attempt to watch Boys Don’t Cry, I made it perhaps ten to fifteen minutes into the film as a casual viewer. The entire set-up is off-putting and vaguely nauseating; that this is the go-to recommendation for a transmasculine film is unacceptable. Largely because there is very little positive in Pierce’s telling. No matter how much struggle a person’s life has, or how horrible their end; there were happy moments and it is important that directors and writers do not erase these moments for the voyeurism of pain – and Boys Don’t Cry is little but voyeurism. In an article for .them, Oliver Whitney made the most clarifying statement of the violence depicted against Brandon Teena in Pierce’s film:

“[…] film’s final 45 minutes. The based-on-a-true-story ending isn’t unexpected; the issue is how Peirce depicts that violence, emphasizing the details of Brandon’s assault and death over his life before the days leading up to it. The film’s disturbing rape scene is made even more traumatic by Peirce’s choice to intercut it with the police interrogation of Brandon the following morning. We’re forced to watch two forms of assault on a trans person simultaneously: First, the horrifying (and gratuitously graphic) rape, and then Brandon’s forced recounting of it to a cop who denies his identity. The scenes where Brandon gets shot and stabbed, or is stripped and exposed by his eventual rapists and murderers, John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), in Lana’s bathroom, are jarring and upsetting.”

1999 marked the first film which focused around a transman – or featured one. Since then, little has improved in representation or quality. In television, there are some strong examples of transmasculine characters, film has not fared so well. In theatre, few plays have been written with transmasculine characters, few have cast transmasculine actors; in this area it is a simple matter of there being such a tiny pool of content compared to the number of transmen engaged with performance art. 

Tatiana Maslany was cast as the trans character Tony Sawicki in Orphan Black  in 2013. Victoria Atkin was Jason Costello in Hollyoaks 2010 – 2011. Daniela Sea, a bisexual woman, as Max Sweeny in The L Word 2004 – 2009. Jordan Todosey as Adam in Degrassi – a series so lauded for its ‘queer frinedliness’ would not cast a trans teen. Zelda Williams as Drew Reeves in Dead of Summer 2016. Finally, Hannah Alligood was Frankie Fox in Better Things 2016. All of these are high-profile television series. All featured cis-women in the roles of trans-men, it is likely ctual trans-men were never considered. I find this limiting for the potential of a character and that of the actor. Viewers are given an oft shallow and limited view of the entire life experience of a trans person. 

Films since Boys Don’t Cry have cast Janet McTeer in Beyond Albert Nobbs 2012. Elle Fanning in 3 Generations 2015, and most recently Nicholas Alexander, a cis teenager, as Adam in Adam 2019.  Adam is also a topic of hot-debate at the moment because, the character himself is not trans. He is a cis-boy who pretends to be trans to keep the attentions of a girl who has mistaken him as trans. Some consider the film a problem because of how many trans teenagers and adults are abused and accused of ‘faking.’ 

Adam contributes to the idea of a phenomena of ‘trans-trenders’; people who allegedly pretend or fake being trans for alleged attention. It must be conceded that given how many people fetishize trans* folks, there will undoubtedly be those who do affect a state of trans-ness to attract this form of attention. This is not a common situation. These are not actions representative of people legitimately questioning their gender. On this topic, it should also be clarified that not everyone who at first thinks themselves trans will discover, on their journey, that they are trans. Some will identify as nonbinary, some only as gender non-conforming, some as gender fluid. Others will find that they are indeed cis-gender and unwilling or dissatisfied with the societal expectations of their assigned gender. Their experiences and journeys are not invalidated no matter their conclusion. 

Adam presents a complex conundrum in a film. In one sense, it could be looked at as an explanation made understandable to cis-gendered audiences. The character Adam undergoes research similar to that of a questioning trans teen. He engages this research to best impersonate a transman. This behavior, while painted as the innocent mooning of an adolescent is also predatory. His behavior is exploitative not only of the girl whose attention he seeks, but in the real dangers faced by countless trans teenagers every day. He and others can read about the fear of murder, homelessness, assault, sexual assault, public humiliation, and general dehumanization faced by transpeople every day – but they could never understand it. This film may have the potential to broach a narrative perspective that could be informative. However, it has come at a time when queer identified people face daily struggles to retain basic human rights. Adam will do more damage than good. It will join the ranks of singular incidences used by anti-trans and extremist groups to discredit and attack transgender people. This is not a film for queer people, it is not a film for trans people, it is not a film that will or does empower. It is only another example of how a cis-white-male can exploit marginalized people for his own benefit. 

There is an unfortunately accurate perception that transness is not marketable in a person. If a person is a transman they will not be castable as a cismale character or a transman. Trans-mens’ bodies do not look much like a cis-man’s. Occasionally we see these individuals who are able to afford HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and ‘top surgery’ – a mastectomy – and fit the mold for ‘male-ness’ in theatre, film, and television. These few individuals have a higher, but still not great, chance of finding work and being cast. The characters are there, they are being written; but they are not being cast and that is unacceptable. This becomes exploitation and tokenism; another “this series has a trans character, watch it, applaud me for it, but I cannot be bothered to include you in the benefits.” 

Not every film released erases transgender existence. Writers, directors, and producers do not universally deride, miscast, or exploit narratives. I am not claiming that every bit of media needs to include an obviously transgender person. What does need to happen is for the casting and narratives within these media to expand their perspective. Overwhelmingly our society consumes the literature of upper middle-class, cis-hetero white men. A mouthful, but no less true. Media does not reflect the vast spectrum of lived experience and it is a loss to storytelling and visual pleasure. On a less whimsical note, what we are exposed to influences our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. When those stories are overwhelmingly derogatory, dismissive, or negative – it affects how we see ourselves. If affects, as a society, our response to difference. It limits people just as it limits stories. 

“In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.” 

Ernst Fischer

Rotterdam is a play written in 2015 by Jon Brittain. It explores the life of a young woman and her partner who comes out to her as transgender. The two navigate his transition and her rediscovery of her own sexuality. Rotterdam premiered at Theatre503 in 2015 and transferred to Trafalgar Studios in 2016. While Brittain himself is not transgender, he remarked in an interview about Rotterdam that the themes within the play were long coming.

“It had been bubbling for a while. I had some friends who transitioned and I started thinking about the fact that I hadn’t heard many trans stories in popular culture. I think the stuff you end up writing is the stuff that has an emotional resonance with you.

Jon Brittain for What’s On Stage on Rotterdam

While the play was focused around transgender narrative and sexuality, the original cast were all cis-actors. This is, again, disappointing. The play itself was a step-forward according to The Independent in opening opportunity for more transgender plays to be taken to stage. However, in early 2020 we’ve seen little to no improvement in that visibility. Mainstream theatres are still not producing transgender content. They are still not casting trans actors. We often hear the litany that they ‘simply are not there.’ But they are. They work side jobs to pay bills and give up acting, directing, and writing, because their work goes unacknowledged and unseen. Their bodies do not ‘fit the type casting’ and their narratives do not fit heteronormative perspective. 

All of the best writing and best acting training or thoughtful discussions with transgender people will not make up for their lack of physical presence in media. 

“… there’s some significant media representation for LGB folks, but an argument could pretty easily be made that there’s not any positive representation for trans folks in film, certainly not outside niche indie and small international releases at least. Even the little that exists, like Tangerine and A Fantastic Woman, are flawed and arguably more trending towards neutrality than positive. Not to mention that transphobia is much more accepted in film than homophobia these days. I can’t go to the movies and watch a comedy movie without at least one transphobic joke where trans women or trans people in general are the punchline. And criticisms of that transphobia are quickly and sharply brushed aside. And then there’s the whole issue where no one’s willing to cast trans folks, no one’s willing to [hire] trans writers, no one’s listening to trans actors when they provide feedback on making their roles and dialogue better, etc. We’re deeply tokenized, used as [O]scar bait or punchlines, and that’s generally it.”

Anonymous participant in survey conducted by Carson Levy

This participant in the survey conducted by Levy puts into words the very frustration myself and other trans people experience when sitting through films. Beyond the political implications of this, beyond the lack of inclusivity, is the ridicule. Transphobic behavior enables transphobic behavior, when this occurs in film it validates transphobic people – it empowers them. An already marginalized group becomes more alienated. 

Shelly L. Craig and Lauren B. McInroy have conducted many studies about the effects of film representation on LGBTQ+ youth. They found that, overwhelmingly, seeing characters like themselves had positive effects. The issue is that, despite the leaps made in homosexual representation, little has progressed for transgender representation. Their studies were published in 2015 and 2016, and yet, in 2020 transphobia in the industry and in film is more accepted than criticized. Voices against such prejudice have had positive impact, but not to such an extent that trans narratives are allowed space. In 2017 Andre Cavalcante wrote that “film plays a large role in a cis-gendered audience’s ability to understand transgender people.” This is achieved predominately through those trans* texts which break into the mainstream industry. 

“Rothenberg (1990, p. 146–147) discussed the need for adolescents to turn “to creative work as a means of examining and resolving issues of identity.”

Effects of Trans* Representation in Film by Cisgender Actors

The trend of casting cis* actors as trans men has influenced not only the self-confidence of trans* folks but their standards for themselves and each other. We will inevitably attempt to mimic who whe admire. The bodies on television screens are tall, muscled, hairy, traditionally masculine and predominately white. What this has done to the trans community is to create an environment of transphobia and body policing. In an effort to be accepted and validated by society at large, a mentality to become as “cis” as possible has erupted. This is not universal, but it is common enough to be a problem in an already targeted group. 

Despite what may seem like an overwhelming lack in transgender presence in the industry, it is not hopeless. The actor Brian Michael Smith is a major face for transmen in film and television. He has spoken frankly and courageously on his struggles, triumphs, and experience. He advocates consistently for visibility. He has appeared as both transgender and non-transgender characters in series such as 9-1-1: Lonestar, Blue Bloods, and is a recurring character on Queen Sugar and The L Word: Generation Q in addition to others. Brian Michael Smith as appeared in interviews both printed and streamed concerning LGBT youth and queer representation. He teaches in youth filmmaking and leads activist groups for LGBT youth in film such as the Gear Up Program. What is most important to this thesis however, is that he exists as an example to other transgender people that success can be achieved.

Lex Horwitz is a more recent face for trans* activism in the industry. They model for transmasculine apparel such as binders, undergarments, and a face for prosthetics – items such as packers that mimic genitalia. More recently, they participated in the New York Fashion week with a queer fashion label and walked their designs down the runway, before the eyes of New Yorks industry leaders and fashionistas. Many of these pieces featured him bare-chested, in a display of physicality not often accessible to trans* folks. Lex is neither muscular or strictly masculine. Lex is not an actor but they are important to representing non-binary transmasculinity. Their voice is one other queer folks look as an example of success without possessing a cisnormative body. 

Jake Graf is another transgender activist who focuses writing, directing, and acting in short films that normalize queer experience. He is based in London and is recognized internationally for his acting, directing, and writing. Most impressive is the sheer scope of work Jake has involved himself in, and his platform is a large one. His voice is one the industry looks to. According to his website, Jake Graf is one of the UK’s “most visible trans men.” He has appeared on Lorraine, SKy News, Good Morning Britain, Channel 5 News, and London Tonight. His writing has featured in The Evening Standard, Cosmopolitan, GNI Magazine, BOYZ, and Gay Star News. He started with a background role in The Danish Girl and has since moved on to star in Colette directed by Wash Westmoreland, ITV’s Butterfly, and has moved on to development of his own feature film with MisFits Entertainment. Most telling to the power of Jake’s platform, and the importance of media in giving voice, presence, and safety to marginalized groups, is that through this, Jake was invited to speak as a panelist on trans* issues at The White House. 

It is easy to look at actors and celebrities, to see them as nothing more than entertainers, to say that they have ‘no right’ to bring politics into the industry – but has art not always been about politics? The greatest works came to be from criticisms or commentaries on society. Bertolt Brecht was driven to make his audience think, Nietzsche sought to question our perspective on life, and Machiavelli challenged hierarchical foundations with his humanist characters. Film and television have not escaped this propensity of theatre to exist in a sphere of political commentary, but in our modern age, mainstream film and television have become swamped in mundanity. Film should only entertain, but it should only entertain with conventional social values. This entertainment should be white, heternormative, and male focused. This entertainment should not challenge, because to challenge is seen as a departure from its purpose. Mindless entertainment has its place, but is that place justifiable or even acceptable when it comes at the cost of individual well-being – simply because that individual is a minority? 

“More than half of transgender male teens who participated in the survey reported attempting suicide in their lifetime, while 29.9 percent of transgender female teens said they attempted suicide. Among non-binary youth, 41.8 percent of respondents stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.”

Rokia Hassanien, HRC.org

Bibliography

Written Sources

Bowie-Sell, Daisy. ‘Jon Brittain: Trans Stories Aren’t Given the Platform They Deserve.’ What’s On Stage. 22 June 2017. Web Article.https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/jon-brittain-rotterdam-transgender-interview_43939.html

Dry, Jude. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Protests: Why We Should Listen to Trans Activists Criticizing The Milestone Film – Editorial. IndieWire, 14 Dec. 2016, www.indiewire.com/2016/12/kimberly-peirce-boys-dont-cry-reed-transgender-1201757549/.

Graf, Jake. https://www.jakegraf.com/about

Hassanien, Rokia. Study Shows Shocking Rates of Attempted Suicide Among Trans Teens. Human Rights Campaign, 12 Sept. 2018, http://www.hrc.org/blog/new-study-reveals-shocking-rates-of-attempted-suicide-among-trans-adolescen.

Heinlein, Sabine. The Transgender Body in Art: Finding Visibility ‘in Difficult Times Like These’. The Guardian Nov. 18, 2016. Web.

Jakubowski, Kaylee. Too Queer for Your Binary: Everything You Need to Know and More About Non-Binary Identities. Everyday Feminism, 13 Feb. 2017, everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/too-queer-for-your-binary/.

Kantor, Kevin. Non-Binary Actors and the Theatre Industry: An Interview with Kevin Kantor. LGBTQ Policy Journal, 22 May 2019, lgbtq.hkspublications.org/2019/05/22/non-binary-actors-and-the-theatre-industry-an-interview-with-kevin-kantor/?fbclid=IwAR1V9A4zlGUuyT3FE194Cw3AgWLoL4VSjQ6oqoD9jY8jiy4vGCEmm2oQCu0.

Kaufman, MJ. Don’t Call Me Ma’am: On the Politics of Trans Casting. Howl Round Sept. 29, 2013. 

Levy, Carson. Effects of Trans* Representation in Film by Cisgender Actors. Medium. 7 May 2018. Web Article. https://medium.com/@carsonlevy/effects-of-trans-representation-in-film-by-cisgender-actors-fca370fd5434

Villarreal, Daniel. These 10 Trans Male TV Characters Represent the Best (and Worst) of Queer TV Tropes. Hornet, 26 Mar. 2020, hornet.com/stories/10-trans-male-tv-characters-tropes/.

Whitney, Oliver. Boys Don’t Cry’ and Hollywood’s Ongoing Obsession With Trans Suffering. Them., 13 Dec. 2018, http://www.them.us/story/boys-dont-cry?utm_brand=them&utm_social-type=owned&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&fbclid=IwAR3tquzs9I3BecM_XQ9MxdN_EzNit36uJUJTNrNqZAJp73CJQULir76VPVg.

Williams, Haley. How the play Rotterdam has led the way for Transgender stories on Stage. The Independent. 20 June 2017. Web. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/rotterdam-transgender-arts-theatre-caitlyn-jenner-hir-bush-theatre-adam-and-eve-edinburgh-fringe-a7798731.html

Multimedia & Theatre Sources

Adam. Dir. Rhys Ernst. Short Film 2019.

Brace. Dir. Jake Graf. Youtube 2014. Short Film.

Body. Dir. Nathan Cooper. Youtube 2019. Short Film.

Boy. Dir. Lucas Helth Postma. Perf. Laura Hancock, Christina Selden, Oliver Wollenberg, Pernille Dahl Nielsen, Susanne Solberg Hansen. Station Next. STAMMEN 2014. Youtube.

Boys Don’t Cry. Dir. Kimberly Pierce. Perf. Hilary Swank. Fox Searchlight Pictures 1999.

Dallas Buyers Club. Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée. Perf. Matthew McConaughey. Truth Entertainment, Voltage Pictures 2013.

Girl. Dir. Lukas Dhont. Perf. Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Katelijne Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens. Distributed by Netflix NA 2018.

Headspace. Dir. Jake Graf. Youtube 2019. Short film.

Wandering Son (放浪息子 ). Dir. Ei Aoki. AIC Classic 2011. Anime.

The Danish Girl. Dir. Tom Hooper. Perf. Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander. Working Title 2015.

Hir. Taylor Mac. Dramatist’s Play Service 2016. Play.Rotterdam. John Brittain. Bloomsbury Publishing 2015. Play.

Kabuki and Society in Japan

Modern kabuki evolved from political, religious, and social influences which it influenced in return. This evolution can be tracked through three notable stages; the first Okuni kabuki which was lead by Okuni no Izumo which developed into onna kabuki – or women’s kabuki – and finally into yarō kabuki – or men’s kabuki (Tsubaki.) Folk tales, dance, Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, kyōgen, and a puppet-chanted performance known as ningyō jōruri (Tsubaki)  were all absorbed by kabuki to enrich its stories and create a style beloved by the general public and many bakufu. 

While kabuki has a basis in bugaku dance, much of its iconic style evolved from folk dances. The two main types of dance in Japan may be divided into mai; that consists of “gliding steps […] characterized by a subdued mood and is abstract and restrained. (Tsubaki.)” Odori has rhythmic movement of the limbs and is “freer, more realistic, and more colorful (Tsubaki.)” Between the Heian period and Muromachi period the most popular dance forms were ennen, dengaku, and sarugaku. The first is a presentation performed at Buddhist temples and is directly influenced by bugaku. Dengaku was evolved from Japanese indigenous ‘field dances.’ Sarugaku was imported from a style in T’ang China. absorbed most aspects of all of these dances, and from them, kabuki was also inspired. Tsubaki claims it is believed Okuni created kabuki directly from her experience with furyu – dramatic portions of an act – within the ennen style. Furyu also means to be “elegant, refined, and beautifully attired (Tsubaki.)” This concept fused with that of odori to create illustrations of beautiful costumes and large umbrellas to add to mystique and create the quintessential vision of a kabuki dancer. 

Okuni’s kabuki possessed the buka (dance and chant) but utilized naturalistic movements that more closely resembled life and the familiar folk dances than Nō. This world of kabuki was made of “softness and coquettishness that were completely foreign to the nō” according to Tetsurō Watsuji (Tsubaki.) Interestingly enough, women  and Okuni specifically would impersonate male characters in performance. Watsuji theorizes that this transposition influenced the emergence of onnagata even before the ban on women as performers. It is only the specialized form of onnagata that we see today which emerged during the period of wakashū kabuki (Tsubaki.) During these early performances with men dressed as women and women dressed as men, many of the scenarios mimicked the licentious nature of brothels. The dialogue too was filled with lewdness due to many of the performers advertising their other profession as prostitutes (Shively.) 

In 1603 the first performance of kabuki coincided with the Tokugawa bakufu emergence; a governing class of military shogun, feudal lords, and upper samurai (Shively.) The bakufu eliminated class mobility for common citizens and so they turned to kabuki and other ‘gross’ pleasures for entertainment. For the social elite, kabuki was anathema to social order. The Tokugawa government’s morals and principals revolved around Confucianism. Principals kabuki shirked and so for 250 years, they engaged in a social duel (Shively.) Kabuki refused to be snuffed out by restrictive laws and took ingenious steps to continue its existence. 

Early kabuki performances aimed to entertain the common people and their main audience were soldiers returned from war. Some performed in military bases and incited the rowdy crowds such that brawls easily broke out until Tokugawa Ieyasu banned them from Suruga (Shively.) The behavior of these actors and actresses was so popular even court ladies in the capital that they would emulate it. Unfortunately, in 1608 and 1609, several took this behavior too far and conducted themselves as would prostitutes with their fellow courtiers. They drank, had sex, and made merry in the night to the absolute fury of the emperor. He sent to Ieyasu and tasked him with their punishment – several of whom were executed – the rest banished (Shively.) This trend of behavior escalated until 1928 when the dancer Azuma was banned from Edo and women were banned from recitals. Although local areas attempted to restrict the performance practices of kabuki, this had limited success and so the Tokugawa government stepped in to ban women from the stage entirely. Between 1629 and 1645 the ban was not strictly enforced and was reissued numerous times (Shively.) 1656 marked the first legitimate enforcement of the ban when Kasaya Sankatsu was thrown in prison for allowing women on his theatre stage (Shively.) From here, young boys took the place of women with little improvement to bakufu opinion on the art. The Edo Meishoki reads:

“Youth’s kabuki began, with beautiful youths being made to sing and dance, whereupon droll fools again had their hearts captivated and their souls stolen. […] Even though the lineage of every one of the youths was extremely base, these beautiful youths were respected by the stupid; they flapped about like kites and owls and, going into the presence of the exalted, befouled the presence […]”

Edo Meishoki

From here, townsmen and young military men became so enamored of war and wakashu kabuki that the government banned even female impersonation on stage in 1642 – but relented in 1644 after repeated petitions. Then, to make their point of stringent morality, the Tokugawa banned homosexuality in 1648. Actors and actresses, particularly those of kabuki and kabuki itself was seen as a particular evil influence (Shively.) 

In 1651, Ietsuna replaced Iemitsu and enacted sweeping and rigorous reform to stamp out kabuki and its threat to moral society. Women and young boys were banned from the stage, kabuki and puppet theatres were shut down all over Edo, and pressure on the highly feminized onnagata. Here, another central change occurred in the visual aesthetic of kabuki. The men were required to shave and actors forelocks and dress their hair as men and not women (Shively.) This was to remove the image of the onnagata as actual women from audiences and – ideally – end the sexual relations. This was the beginning of yarō kabuki. To ensure this law was maintained, actors were occasionally required to submit to inspections by government offices. To bypass it however, they craftily utilized silk scarves and later copper-lined forelock wigs (Shively.) 

Despite their moral issues with kabuki, prostitution, and homosexuality they could not completely eliminate it from Edo. It would have tanked their economy and these outlier businesses would have only migrated to other areas. Controlling kabuki was a power balance to keep influence in Edo without allowing delinquency to take over. The result was a constant struggle whose laws were never as effective as the Tokugawa wished them to be, especially pertaining to homosexuality. The Tokugawa’s ordinances were known as Ofuregaki (Shively) and were read to citizens in simple language as officials considered them all stupid. Because of this arrogance, prosecution was never severe and warnings were more frequently issued than action taken. Unfortunately, Shively notes there is not a comprehensive collection of laws from this time to control theatre. We do have records of those laws the Tokugawa implemented to separate theatre from the rest of society and again those attempting to separate prostitution from theatre.  

Like prostitutes actors were confined to their own specific quarter. They were not allowed to leave, to visit or own property beyond their district, nor were they to impersonate residents of the general populace. These restrictions eventually lead to the creation of teahouse theatres which acted as a meeting point. Theatre could be watched, food and drink purchased, and business conducted. Kabuki dancers migrated from relying on visits to personal residences to meetings at teahouses. While the Tokugawa passed legislation to forbid this, they could not truly enforce it. They were also unwilling to shut own the teahouses due to their legitimate uses. When one thinks of Japan in the modern era, or is familiar with it at all, teahouses are generally a hallmark of foriegn impression. Teahouses and onsen are the cornerstone of our ideals for Japanese aesthetic. 

Bakufu restrictions kept the Japanese theatre from developing into a closed space until the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. Likewise, restrictions stood that forbade plays to touch upon politically or morally sensitive matters that may cause uprising or dissent from the current government. This censorship shifted to cover what became known as “love suicide”. In 1703 the kabuki playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon published Sonezaki Shinju which was based on the suicides of two lovers in Japan. The play was an absolute smash with commoners and bakufu women to the point that “love suicides” became a pop trend. Which, understandably led to a ban on “love suicide” plays ( New World Encyclopedia.) Many restrictions were set down by the bakufu in a document on the “ninth day of the third month”:

1. The boxes of the theatres have been made two and three stories in recent years. As formerly not more than one story will be permitted. 

2. It is prohibited to construct private passages from the boxes or to construct parlors for merry-making backstage, in the theatre manager’s residence, or in teahouses and such places. […]

3. In the boxes it is not permitted to hang bamboo blinds, curtains, or screens, and to enclose them in any way is prohibited. […]

4. In recent years the roofs of theatres have been made so that even on rainy days plays can be performed. […]

5. The costumes of actors in recent years have been sumptuous; this is prohibited. Hereafter silk, ponee, and cotton will be used. […]

Bakufu Versus Kabuki. Donald H. Shively.

On and on an ever-growing list of half-enforced standards thrust upon theatre and specifically kabuki. Despite it all – or because of it – the art grew and flourished. 

After the onset of yarō kabuki, different styles of character emerged. The most iconic being the onnagata. However, aragoto style characters dominated the heroic spectrum in stories. Famous samurai, for example, were traditionally played in this style. In the late 1600’s Sakata Tojurō began writing what became known as keisei kai or keisei gai plays which revolved around the love affairs of young men and courtesans seeking to redemption. One of the most popular actors between Edo and Kyoto was Nakamura Shichisaburō who performed in a style similar to Sakata’s writing. That of a romantic male character known as nimaime which was the basis for developing wagoto style (Blumner.) The main parts of wagoto were; nuregoto the love scenes; keiseigoto the scenes amidst courtesans, kuzetsugoto which were lovers’ quarrels, and yatsushigoto or scenes where a samurai is forced to take on guise as a commoner (Blumner.) The main components of this play style also created the basis of character portrayal in the wagoto which we now identify as a ‘soft style’ to compliment the aragoto rough style. Shichisaburō truly marked the character style when he elected to perform one of two famous samurai brothers as wagoto opposed to the traditional aragoto. Blumner relates the following passage from the Edo Shibai Nendaiki or Record of Edo Plays:

“Until now, the Soga brothers have both been played in the strong aragoto style. This time, Nakamura Schichisaburō, with a genpuku ( a special type of young men’s hairstyle), played Jurō in a gentle way that was excellently performed. From that time forward, Jurō has been played in the wagoto style.”

Holly Blumner from Edo Shibai Nendaiki

The wagato style was born between Edo and Kyoto, however the aragoto style was considered the essence of Edo kabuki. Aragoto itself was considered to be a defiance toward samurai in that the actor looks at his audience as samurai (Gerstle.) 

Kabuki grew not only in style, but in importance. Gerstle says that kabuki was a pillar of social and cultural life in Tokugawa era Edo. In Edo, there was specifically a kabuki calendar with festivals in which commoners participated enthusiastically. Plays were coincided with the beginnings of festivals such as New Year, Dolls’ in third month, Boys’ in fifth month, All Souls’ or Obon in seventh month, and Autumn the ninth month (Gerstle.) A special kaomise performance was given in the eleventh month (Gerstle.) Kabuki was so integral to Edo life that even general bakufu opinion did not keep daimyo and educated men from patronizing the theatre. It was not only the court ladies enamored of kabuki plays. With their separation and distinction as a social class below merchants and barely above the parish (Gerstle), early kabuki actors could be quite humble. This was an attitude that did not last to the end of the 18th century when their popularity reached celebrity heights regardless of bakufu opinion. 

While Edo was the hub of kabuki it was not the only city in which the style was prevalent. Sakusha Shihō Kezairoku compared the three cities styles as: 

“[…] the kokoro or heart of Kyoto kabuki is a “beautiful woman”, Osaka a “dandy”, and Edo, a “samurai”.

Shihō Kezairoku

In Edo particularly, kabuki actors were regarded in a godlike, hero fashion and Ichikawa Danjurō or whoever bore the title, was considered a “king of the world” (Gerstle.) Actor faces and names were used to sell merchandise. They would appear on beauty products, hair brushes, combs, trends in clothing, or food. A sort of early version of the modern social influencer and commercial marketing using celebrity persona. The lives these actors lived on stage were idolised by their fans and viewers. This went so far in the 18th century that bakufu official Moriyama Takamori noted samurai would imitate the speech and manners of kabuki actors – going so far as to even don their skirts. Kabuki was rampant on a daily level. Theatrical singing known as bungobushi and gidayu also became popular among samurai (Gerstle.) No matter how grand, however, this era too came to an end. The 1790 Kansei Reforms brought society once more to a sense of ‘normalcy’. 

Before the reforms, patrons of kabuki and its actors lived and spent lavishly on their entertainments. So much so that these hatamoto – powerful bakufu patrons – were indebted to fudasashi which were official merchants and brokers. Gerstle argues that this extravagance could be seen in two perspectives. One as depravity that infected a stringent Confucian society through kabuki, the other as an attempt to escape that overbearing society. 

Early kabuki developed from the local, indigenous practices of Japan. Many of its myths, dance styles, and visual aesthetics grew from those prevalent in Shinto and Buddhism. However, it was most impacted by its quiet war with the Confucian Tokugawa. This elaborate, 250 year back-and-forth had more layers of give and take than possibly any other style development. The takeaway, was that kabuki did endure, and endured so well as to become one of the most recognizable facets of Japanese culture to foreigners. 

Works Cited

  1. Bakufu Versus Kabuki. Donald H. Shively. A Kabuki Reader. Pg. 33 Samuel L. Leiter 
  2. Chikamatsu Monzaemon. New World Encyclopedia. Web. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Chikamatsu_Monzaemon
  3. Flowers of Edo: Eighteenth Century Kabuki and its Patrons. C. Andrews Gerstle. A Kabuki Reader. Pg. 88. Samuel L. Leiter
  4. Nakamura Shichisaburo I and the Creation of Edo-Style Wagoto. Holly A. Blumner. A Kabuki Reader. Pg. 60. Samuel L. Leiter
  5. The Performing Arts of Sixteenth-Century Japan: A Prelude to Kabuki. Andrew T. Tsubaki. A Kabuki Reader. Pg. 3. Samuel L. Leiter

Fringe Festival V

Dancer Emily Shellabarger performing Genderqueer for the second time at UA Little Rock’s new facility groundbreaking event.

My piece Genderqueer was performed at University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Fringe Festival V hosted by the Theatre and Dance department. The piece was a devised work between Anson and the dancer Emily Shellabarger. Genderqueer explored gestures and movement styles associated with masculinity and femininity. This exploration extended to ‘neutral’ gestures, it attempted to find ‘genderfluid’ gestures, or gestures so far removed from the idea of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as to be null.

Genderqueer was heavily influenced by the visual nature of butoh and the emotional expression of the dancers as personified concepts. It drew on modern dance form, classical form, and Avant Garde choreography.

This piece had no story to tell, but was a nonverbal, silent movement piece to express the director – Anson, the dancer – Emily and evoke a sense of question in the audience.