di Cabral, UNR theater professor and Reno Little Theater board member, came out as non-binary in 2020. This summer, they co-taught a national workshop, “Performing Beyond the Binary.” Cabral talked over coffee about what that means.
“I think at the root of it is just acknowledging how much binary thinking there is in the world,” Cabral said. “How do we approach performance through a non-binary lens?”
Questions that came up in the workshop included: “What are the gendered assumptions that we have about how our bodies move? And how do we break outside of those?”
When a theater group secures the rights to a play, there are always some rules that come along with the arrangement. Individual playwrights (or their estates) set those rules. If a company wanted to re-think the gender of a David Mamet character or a Samuel Beckett character, for example, that option would likely be off the table. But Cabral has seen that needle moving.
Some playwrights, rather than describing a character with specifics such as “Jack is 15, white, and male” might instead just describe Jack’s motivations, opening the role to a wider range of actors.
(The same can go for race—at least in one famous case. “I’ve auditioned for Hamilton before,” Cabral said. “They literally say on the audition breakdowns, ‘nonwhite.’ Only one character in that show can be white.”)
“When we have those new contemporary playwrights shifting how they describe their characters, it’s just opening the world up a little bit more for us,” Cabral added.
They pointed, however, out that when it comes to casting, “re-thinking the binary” doesn’t necessarily mean “anything goes.”
“I have two philosophies as a director,” Cabral said. “If the play doesn’t specifically discuss biological needs of a character, anyone can play those roles. Hamlet can be played by any gender. There is nothing about Hamlet story that requires that he be cis male or that he identifies as male at all. So, in my classroom, I encourage my students to explore these characters. If it doesn’t say that this character is onstage giving birth, then I don’t really care about the gender of this character right now. Anyone can play it.”
And Philosophy #2? Well, there’s some nuance to Philosophy #1. If an actor wants to play a character with a different gender identity or orientation than their own, Cabral will ask, “Do you have the social and cultural competency to step into those roles? … I wouldn’t ask a cisgender white man to try to step into the shoes of a lesbian/trans woman of color character—for so many reasons. … He would need to do a lot of research to figure that out. It would be easier to cast someone who already has that cultural competence.”
If Philosophy 1 sounds a bit inconsistent with Philosophy 2, Cabral explained why: “I think the biggest issue for me about straight actors being cast in roles is that, more often than not, it’s Oscar bait. They’re doing it because they know they are going to get an award for it. But that same award and recognition is never allotted to a queer actor stepping into straight roles—which we’ve been doing our entire lives. We’re good at it. … And for me, I think that’s where the disparity is—that all of the recognition goes to ‘The straight actor did such a wonderful job playing this gay character.’ I think until that is mitigated a little bit, we need to tip the scales and start casting more queer actors in queer roles.”
These ideas will inform the upcoming performance season at UNR’s Department of Theatre and Dance. First up is Little Women The Broadway Musical in October. “That one’s going to be fairly binary,” Cabral said. “Musical theater tends to be relatively restrictive.” Next, the department will stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The auditions page contains this note: “We will especially be looking at all genders for the role of Puck, Lysander, Egeus and all mechanicals except Flute.”
“Nonbinary and female actors killed their auditions, and we did end up casting women in the roles of Puck, Starveling and Philostrate,” the department’s Rosie Brownlow-Calkin wrote in an email.
If the notion of theater embracing a beyond-the-binary seems new, there’s one thing Cabral wants you to keep in mind—that non-binary people are not new.
Non-binary people have long been acknowledged in Native American and Indonesian cultures, Cabral pointed out, adding, “I’m native Hawaiian, and in Hawaiian culture, the idea of non-binary genders exists.”
“There is not one way to be non-binary,” they added. “There is no ‘correct’ non-binary approach. That’s literally the opposite of what ‘non-binary’ means. And so when you meet someone who lets you know that they identify as non-binary, trust them, even if you think they look like a cis woman, trust that they are non-binary. It is their call. It’s their identity.”
The next performance by UNR’s Department of Theater and Dance is Little Women The Broadway Musical, directed by Kasey Graham, at the Redfield Proscenium Theatre Oct. 8-10 and 14-16. Tickets will be available here once they go on sale.