Are All-Female Casts Becoming More Common Onstage? Several of This Season's Shows Suggest Yes
Actors from For Colored Girls, H*tler's Tasters, POTUS, Six, and Wish You Were Here discuss the joys of being in a cast with all women.
All-female casts, though not unheard of, have historically been far less common than all-male casts, which have been a part of theater from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to Mamet. If the current theater season is any indication, that could be changing. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, H*tler's Tasters, POTUS, Six, and Wish You Were Here have female-identifying casts and were written and directed by women, in part or in full. In addition to these, Suffs, Shaina Taub's musical about the American women's suffrage movement, has a cast made up of people who identify as female or nonbinary, and Jaki McCarrick's Belfast Girls, running at Irish Rep, has an all-female cast
These shows vary in tone and subject matter, and of course every actor's experience is different, but one common refrain from the women we spoke to is the safety they felt working with other women. "I'd never worked with an all-female cast and creative crew. There is a shorthand. I didn't have to explain how I was feeling that day or if I was on my period," says Hallie Griffin, who played Liesel in H*tler's Tasters, a dark comedy by Michelle Kholos Brooks about the German teenage girls whose job it was to taste Adolf Hitler's food for poison. "This piece is such a female-driven story, and so to have all of the creators identify as women making this story, I think there was a power and a truth to that."
Lilli Cooper, a new mom, plays a nursing mother and White House correspondent in POTUS, Selina Fillinger's farce about seven women trying to protect the President. She found comfort in being able to pump at work. "It was really nice to not feel like I had to hide at all when I was pumping and that's something you don't get very often. And I felt very lucky to be in that safe space," she says.
Stacey Sargeant, who plays Lady in Blue in the Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange's 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls, found added understanding that comes from being surrounded by Black women in the cast and director Camille A. Brown. "Culturally speaking, there's just a shorthand in how you communicate because there are certain things that don't need to be said. They're just understood," Sargeant says. "In other spaces, I think we're unconsciously putting on masks and having to code-switch. We don't have to code-switch in that space."
That was also true for Nikki Massoud and Roxanna Hope Radja, who play Zari and Salme in Sanaz Toossi's Wish You Were Here, a play that follows a group of close girlfriends in Iran in the late '70s and '80s. All the actors are Iranian American. "Usually when I express a shared experience, especially if it has to do with having an Iranian background, I'm giving a history lesson in addition to telling an anecdote. And my muscle memory is to give the history lesson as you tell the story and suddenly you realize as you're talking to these women that you don't need to do that," says Radja.
Wish You Were Here is set in female spaces, in which the friends are open and free with each other and their bodies, so it helps to have a female director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who understands those spaces, says Massoud. And that intimacy carries over into the dressing room environment, where the actors do cheers, warmups in the form of witchy chants, and all sorts of secret rituals and games, just like the characters in the play. "What makes me laugh about it is that clichéd idea that men sometimes have about what a bunch of women do when they get together, like a naked pillow fight, and how we have to angrily tell them that is not what we do except it is what we do. It is 100 percent what we're doing. This is what's so brilliant and I think brave about what Sanaz has pieced together in the interactions of these women," says Radja. "She didn't put together rituals that these women have that are immediately recognizable. I think some people could watch that and go that's odd and I don't recognize that, but I can attest that as we get together and spend more and more time with each other, all of that has developed on its own."
Though backstage has changed in the age of Covid safety, there are still pre-show rituals, such as at POTUS, where Julianne Hough likes to go into everyone's dressing room and blast music. "It's really hard to socialize as much as we used to before the pandemic, but anything that we can do to connect to each other, we definitely try, and I think that makes the space that much more joyous," says Cooper.
There is a lot of joy backstage at Six, the musical that frames Henry VIII's six wives as pop stars. Brittney Mack, who plays Anna of Cleves, his fourth wife, says that they are often laughing, listening to music, and yelling their love for each other. But at the same time, they also check in with each other. "With a cast that's all women, there's this idea that you have to be campy or for whatever reason be, I don't want to say inauthentic, but let's say on all the time," says Mack. But that hasn't been the case on this show, where they help each other out during the rough days, such as when Mack had to come into work after losing her uncle.
"The cast are the ones that have our feet on the ground every day regardless of what's going on in our personal lives. And that I think is the magic where the all-female cast comes in," Mack says, because she thinks of the creative team as separate on any show, regardless of gender. (Six is written by Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow and directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage.) "Because to be honest with you, as a Black woman, it's still very white, so there's still a wall," Mack says about the creative team, though she is proud to be a part of the show and applauds the casting choices. "This show is very historically accurate. You can sit there and have these women play these queens and we get it. Nothing about it changes. Nothing about the history of it changes. And yet how long has it taken Wicked to cast a Black Glinda, and she's not even real," she says.
In addition to having all women in the cast, Mack is grateful for female stage management. "The other day Peyton [Taylor Becker, the production stage manager] literally left when it was raining and went to Duane Reade and got me tampons," she says.
That camaraderie backstage often lends to a closeness onstage that is noticeable for audiences. Mack says that people always tell them it looks like they are having so much fun together onstage. "It's because we are, honestly. We really are," she says.
The same is true at For Colored Girls. "One of the things that people consistently say is that it feels like there's a real connection between all seven of us and I'm like yeah, that love that you feel, that connection, that support, it is very real," says Sargeant. "I truly adore each and every one of them. They bring me so much joy. It's truly an honor to work with them."
Another thing these shows have in common is showing people parts of womanhood not usually shown onstage. For example, in POTUS, Cooper's character is pumping in an office in the White House in her first scene in the show. "It's important because it represents something so common and normal and regular, but that is often very hidden and I think there's definitely a stigma attached to nursing and pumping in public and to be able to do it on a Broadway stage in front of 1,000 people every night feels so awesome and liberating. I really love it," she says. "I had a mother come up to me after the show one matinee at the stage door to thank me for representing working moms and I felt so lucky to be that representation."
In Wish You Were Here, there are scenes of women getting their periods and helping each other wax and shave their legs. "It's great because you're demystifying these things that are just a very normal part of many women's lives, but some of it is I think more insidious because there is this sense of, 'Oh, that makes me uncomfortable, so I don't want to see it. That's not pretty,'" says Massoud. "And I'm like right, well, we've been seeing men do all kinds of unspeakable things onstage for hundreds and thousands of years, you can sit through a woman talking about getting waxed. You can survive."
If these scenes make people uncomfortable, it hasn't stopped these shows from finding success in the form of reviews, award nominations, and audience response. Though there can be challenges from a marketing perspective, in particular with H*tler's Tasters because of the title (the asterisk was added to combat that). "If we do want to make a change so that more women, more people of color, and more people in the LBGTQ community are in the creative side and are actors, if we want to see a difference in that, we have to support theater like H*tler's Tasters or the other shows that you are writing about. Because without the support of audiences, these shows won't get produced," says Griffin. "That's how producers know that they need to keep producing that work and opening the door for other people to walk through."
The other actors also expressed the desire for more shows like these. Cooper says, "If this could be the rest of my career, I would be happy."