It starts with the looks, of course. No one does anything overt, like simply say, "What are you doing here?", or, "You make me uncomfortable." But they don't need to say anything. I know I'm not where I ought to be, and they know it. But there's nothing to be done. As the cliché goes – "It is what it is."
Over the past ten years I've had the opportunity to costume a couple dozen shows.
I confess I'm a solid costumer, but not a great one. And I shop more than I build costumes. This may be less than best practice, but these are the circumstances under which I've worked.
I've had to buy a fairly large amount of women's clothing, then, over the past decade. And while some items may now be purchased on-line, there are risks associated with that practice. And every woman knows some of the problems to which I refer.
First, most men have no idea of the weirdness of women's clothing. Every WalMart and Target in America have shelves of nicely organized pants for men. All a man has to do is know a waist measurement and an inseam measurement. The man walks into the store, goes to the shelf, find the appropriate numbers on the style of pants, pick them up, and take them to the cash registers for payment. Piece of cake.
Buying shirts are remarkably easy for men too. On a shelf or rack, dress shirts are organized by collar and sleeve size. A man can pick up an ensemble and be whistling out the door in the amount of time it takes to walk to the shelf and then walk to the cashiers.
Women's clothing, by contrast, is endlessly variable. If a garment has any numbers or size information, they are to be lightly trusted. And then the question is how does the planned-for garment drape or fall or wear or emphasize on the body of this or that actress with her unique body and body shape.
Men don't have equivalent ambiguity that almost necessitates taking time to try on every garment to see how they look.
So off I go with my measuring tape and a hope and a prayer.
Looking for women's shoes in a shoe warehouse filled with an acre of shoes, the women shoppers wonder, am I buying shoes for a younger woman? Do I have a foot fetish? You can start to see a little monologue beginning – "You hear about foot fetish, and here it is. You here about toe-sucking men, and here he is. This is what a toe sucker looks like. How gross!" Meanwhile, I'm thinking, "Does this color match the actress' jacket? Will this heel last through the run of the show?"
The odd part is costuming large women. In these instances I'm left in a place with larger women who suspect I'm buying these clothes for myself.
Oh, la, what a lark.
None of which would have surprised Sophocles, were we able to whisk him to the present through the gracious efforts of a decent time machine.
Gender in the theatre has always been notional and a matter of conscious intent, rather than a slave to biology. Clytemnestra and Medea both would likely have been played by men. In Greece evidence suggests men played all parts. Gender was indicated to the costume and mask. And comic characters would pin large, fake phalli (what do you call the plural of phallus?) on the exterior of their costumes so that the audience would have clarity about their gender.
Likewise, Shakespeare inheriting the medieval practice of the "Mystery" or "cycle" plays, continued the practice that plays were done by men and boys. So the first Juliet – a boy.
Women dressed as women disguised as men. Cross-dressing has also been a regular part of theatre as well. Breeches parts. A catalogue of all examples of gender blurring and/or disguises would be very thick indeed.
Beyond my moments of personal discomfort that comes from the helplessness of needing help in the purchase of women's foundation garments in different styles and sizes – what more can we say?
Mainly that, despite the growth of women in positions of power in the Theatre, women still get the short ends of things compares to men. Take any all-male cast of a Shakespeare play. It gets publicity for the exotic nature of a man playing a woman.
How often do we hear of comparable all-women casts? The rarity of the all-woman project creates an absence noticed little. And that absence might lead some to think nothing's to be done.
Even shows written by women playwrights regularly have casts that ask for more male actors than female actors.
And then when you do get work, the life of the woman artist is challenging. The longevity of women's careers tends to be fairly short. Women appear to have more attention paid to surface beauty than to inner-characteristics of character.
And, as I have done, we tend to look at gender from a biological binary perspective. Even though, in theatre, gender is what we say it is. Theatre is the place where all people can find the life of human beings in all of its glory and all its ambiguity. But we don't often embrace that.
So I'll walk into the lingerie shop for foundation garments for the women, as well as the shoe shop. I'll put up with the stares and unvoiced comments.
In the end, I'm still a male. And I can walk into a store, buy pants, and be on my way before a woman even finds where the store has hidden the dresses this season. So I have things pretty good. So I need to go now and buy a belt.
Regardless of gender, it's good for the actor on stage to keep pants up.