Gender, thou art a construct

The streetlights during Pride Week in Soho: an example of London’s efforts for equality and inclusivity.A promising young artist explores and confronts gender and gendered perception through theater classes in London.

by Eliza Mantz '18
Artist Development Fellow '16

A resident of Leverett House concentrating in Theater, Dance & Media with a secondary in African and African American Studies, Eliza Mantz '18 was awarded a 2015-16 Artist Development Fellowship to attend theater classes this summer at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA). Mantz is a board member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and Coordinator of the Loeb Experimental Theater. She has also worked as a Marketing Department intern at the American Repertory Theater and is a proctor for the Freshman Arts Program, and plans to pursue a career in theater. In this post, Mantz reports from London about how gender differences led her to realize the truth of a certain Shakespearean character. (She also writes for her own blog, EBM in Londontown.)

Eliza Mantz at LAMDA.
Grace Ann Roberts (left) as Camillo and Eliza Mantz '18 (right) as King Leontes in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.

It has been clear since I first stepped foot in a British theater this summer that there is something so distinctly different about the way that contemporary English theaters approach casting Shakespeare plays. The presence of flexibility and imagination is so palpable, boldly and unquestioningly opening up stages to people of color, women, and people of different abilities. While I have already gained infinite insight studying this as an audience member, I’ve also brought that research into my classes, exploring gender as it pertains to my work as an actor.

I’ve spent the last few weeks at LAMDA working on the character of King Leontes from The Winter’s Tale, exploring Act I, Scene ii with another woman in my class also playing a male. I approached the scene with a similar point of view as I had most of my past Shakespeare work—just be a person, pursue something (and maybe wear some unisex sneakers while you’re at it). I had a lot of breakthrough moments, and felt like I was creating something that was personal and honest.

But, what is personal and honest to me is reliant upon my experiences, my worldview and, unavoidably, my gender—not necessarily those of Leontes. I’m not a king, I’m not a raging, jealous, murderous man (although some who know me well may beg to differ), but I was trying so hard with my “honesty” to bridge those differences that in reality I was just letting my experiences take over his. My teacher, Rupert Hands, made a comment about this, and the work that came from that has profoundly changed me as an actor, gender aside. He told my partner and me that we can’t ignore the inherent differences between ourselves and our characters, especially when we are playing a different gender. Shakespeare has written an incredibly complex character based on perceived general truths and constructs about males of his time (many qualities of which can still be found today in certain walks of life where gender constructs are strongly set forth), which does play a huge role in Leontes’ actions and, consequently, the action of the play.  

Rupert asked me to not throw away my experiences as a young woman with a specific tactical palate and set of character traits, but also to not throw away the character himself and what is put down on paper in part because of his gender. My natural impulses in the scene essentially forced my inherently gendered perception of the world onto the character. But when I allowed the truth of the text to come into contact with my truth, that was when I was able to let loose the true Leontes and discover real honesty in the character—not just separate ideas of a character—and in myself. When I allowed my gender to come into contact with the character’s gender, that was when a real, unique person emerged. 

The Artist Development Fellowship program, jointly administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA), the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and Office of Career Services, awards 10-15 fellowships annually to promising and/or accomplished student artists and creators who have an unusual opportunity for artistic growth and transformation. The program is open to all undergraduates currently enrolled in Harvard College, and applications are evaluated by the Council on the Arts, a standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For more information, visit the OFA website or call 617.495.8676.