Gender-free roles offer women more opportunities in male-dominated theater industry

Gender-free plays and musicals in Korea from left, "Orphans," "Midnight" and "Amadeus" [RRANG, MOTIVE HERO, CONNECTED COMPANY]

What if Mozart’s musical rival Antonio Salieri was played by a woman? Or if the all-knowing, mysterious boy Damian from Hermann Hesse’s “Damian” was a girl?

Gender-free is the buzzword in the local entertainment scene as this season’s batch of musicals and plays promise to keep theater alive and fresh by having more female actors play conventionally male roles. But whether a change of pronouns is enough to empower women in the industry still remains to be seen.

Gender-free shows are still a novelty in Korea’s theater scene, taking root from the #MeToo movement in 2018. In other parts of the world, the idea of one sex playing the other has existed for centuries in different forms such as onstage cross-dressing in ancient Greek and Shakespearean plays, Kabuki (traditional Japanese drama performed only by males) and drag. The all-women Japanese musical troupe Takarazuka is over one hundred years old.

Recent productions in Korea adopted gender-bending, though the umbrella term "gender-free" is often used to describe them. Gender-bending means that traditionally male roles are extended to female performers as well. For instance, the dark comedy “Orphans” which completed its run on Sunday in central Seoul, is originally a three-man play about two orphaned brothers who kidnap a wealthy businessman but then get played by him when he makes them believe that he is their lost father figure.

The local production of the play has been casting females to play all three roles since 2019 with no alterations to the script. According to local production company Red And Blue, it is the first time that “Orphans” has been staged with females since it opened in 1983 at The Matrix Theatre Company in Los Angeles. The ongoing play “Amadeus” and the musical “Midnight,” are also examples of local gender-bending works in Korea.

Gender-bending started as a means to give more opportunities to female actors in an industry that lacks meaty roles for women. Industry experts say the ratio of male to female roles in local theater is seven to three. Smaller shows with just two actors are mostly comprised of just men.

Sporadic female castings expanded to locally produced gender-free shows where characters are created with the intent of being either male or female. The musical “Damian,” playing at Dream Art Center in Jongno District, central Seoul, is an example of this as it has been casting both males and females in the same roles since it was first staged in 2020.

Actor Hong Na-hyeon plays Max Damian in the ongoing musical "Damian" at Dream Art Center in Jongno District, central Seoul [NANGMAN BARRICADE]

This type of casting reflects the industry’s largely young and female audiences’ craving to see more of their narratives on stage. According to 2022 research from local ticketing platform Interpark, 75 percent of theatergoers were female.

The response to gender-bending and gender-free shows has been positive with more popping up each season. The four aforementioned gender-fluid shows have an average rating of 9.7 out of 10 on Interpark with enthusiastic responses.

“The female cast brings a whole different flavor to the play and I personally was able to better connect with the show,” reads a comment for “Damian” on the platform written last month. “The story feels so different depending on which actor plays it,” reads another around the same time.

In local news articles, the shows are hailed as breaking gender stereotypes — a female can be a father figure without an alto voice and a hulking demeanor and a male be a sensitive mom without putting on a dress.

“The spectrum of female characters in the industry is very narrow, so as an actor, I feel like this change is opening up many more opportunities for me,” said Choo Sang-mi, an actor in “Orphans,” during a press interview last year. “Females can be just as entertaining as men in these roles and offer characters that the majority of the audience can identify better with.”

“Gender-free castings aren’t simply about giving one more spot to female actors; it is a phenomenon that is the result of people wanting more female-centered narratives,” Kim Gun-pyo, a dramatic arts professor at Daekyeung University, told this paper's affiliate JoongAng Ilbo.

The trend is not without criticisms, however, though they are often less recognized. Some experts argue that the shows are a convenient way for selling tickets, using gender politics as a promotional push given that young, “woke” females make up the bulk of audiences.

“Gender-bending in Korea is different from other countries because it squeezes in one or two women among other males playing the same part. It is then heralded as empowering women on stage,” musical critic Kim Su-jin told the Korea JoongAng Daily. She published an essay book “All Night Musicals” (translated) in January.

Nearly all commercial musicals and plays cast more than one actor — and as many as five — for a single role. For instance, the three-part play “Orphans” in Korea cast 12 actors, with four actors alternating each role. There were a total of four females in the entire cast. In the play “Amadeus,” there are three actors who play the role of Antonio Salieri, with just one of them being female.

The pay gap between men and women actors also makes gender-bending “sometimes, a financially convenient option,” according to Kim.

Korea has a notoriously wide wage gap between males and females and this divide becomes even more disparate in the theater which is so dependent on its male leads. There are also no unions for actors in Korea to collectively negotiate their wages.

Kim said that instead of squeezing in a few female actors in male roles, more female-centered scripts with interesting characters need to make it onto the stage for female actors to be better recognized.

“It is great that people are looking for more female narratives in theater but there is still a dearth of original characters that females can play. The issue with theater today is that it can be too PC [politically correct], especially when it comes to women in lead roles. But until the playing field evens out for females, gender-bending will have to do.”