How to… devise a gender-neutral production

Max Gill. Photo: Ray Burmiston
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1. Swap and think

Start by writing a scene between a man and a woman as you normally might, then swap the genders around without changing any dialogue. What surprises you? What jars? Be honest with yourself about your expectations of each sex. Remember, we are not born woman or man in terms of our character, yet society encourages us to expect behaviours from each; begin to explore how you can use conventional attributes for one gender in a non-conventional way with the other gender to add dimension to your characters.

2. Prune pronouns

Avoid gendered pronouns (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘his’, ‘hers’ etc) and improve your scenes. Begin by removing these from stage directions. You will find you have to show character by action on stage rather than descriptions for a reader. Then remove these pronouns from dialogue where possible to give flexibility to characters’ relationships (unless of course the characters need to discuss someone who does not feature as a physical character in the play: for example, their absent father). You will find this also makes your dialogue far more immediate and effective. Characters must speak largely in the first and second person. Any writer will know that, when we are stuck in a scene, the easiest thing to do is to get characters to discuss another character not currently on stage. This is nearly always bad writing, because no matter how nice the descriptions, it is bad drama. Fortunately, it is very hard to do this without the use of pronouns.

3. Play with prejudices

Remember, a non-gendered world can only exist on the page. We cannot ‘unsee’ gender in the flesh (yet). Embrace this and play with people’s expectations and prejudices. Make us see gender all the more clearly through its absence in the text; as a performance, a construct, just like any form of characterisation.

Max Gill is the director of La Ronde, running at the Bunker Theatre, London, from February 11-March 11. He was speaking to John Byrne

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