All-female casts, while not unheard of, have historically been far less common than all-male casts, which have been part of theater from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to Mamet. If the current theater season is any indication, that could change. For girls of color who have thought about suicide / When the rainbow is insufficient, H*tler tasters, POTUS, Sixand wish you were Here have female casts and were written and directed by women, in part or in whole. In addition to these, enoughShaina Taub’s musical about America’s women’s suffrage movement, has a cast of people who identify as female or non-binary, and Jaki McCarrick’s Belfast Girlsrunning at Irish Rep, has an all-female cast
These shows vary in tone and subject matter, and of course each actor’s experience is different, but a common refrain from the women we spoke to is the safety they felt working with other women. “I’ve never worked with an all-female cast and creative team before. There’s a shortcut. I didn’t have to explain how I felt that day or if I was on my period,” said Hallie Griffin, who played Liesel in H*tler tasters, a dark comedy by Michelle Kholos Brooks about German teenage girls whose job it was to taste Adolf Hitler’s food for poison. “This piece is such a feminine story, and so for all of the creators to identify as women making this story, I think there was power and truth to that.”
New mom Lilli Cooper plays nursing mother and White House correspondent in POTUS, Selina Fillinger’s prank on seven women trying to protect the president. She found solace in being able to pump at work. “It was really nice not feeling like I had to hide at all when I was pumping and that’s something you don’t have very often. And I felt very lucky to be in that safe space,” she said.
Stacey Sargeant, who plays Lady in Blue in the 1975 Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s chorepoem For girls of color, found additional understanding that comes from being surrounded by black women in the cast and director Camille A. Brown. “Culturally speaking, there’s just a shortcut in the way you communicate because there are certain things that don’t need to be said. They are just understood,” says Sargeant. “In other spaces, I think we unconsciously put on masks and need to code-switch. We don’t need to code-switch in this space.”
This was also true for Nikki Massoud and Roxanna Hope Radja, who play Zari and Salme in Sanaz Toossi. wish you were Here, a play that follows a group of close girlfriends in Iran during the late 70s and 80s. All the actors are Iranian-American. “Usually, when I express a shared experience, especially if it has to do with an Iranian origin, I give a history lesson in addition to telling an anecdote. And my muscle memory is to give the history lesson as I go. and as you tell the story and suddenly you realize talking to these women that you don’t need to do this,” says Radja.
wish you were Here takes place in feminine spaces, in which friends are open and free with each other and with their bodies, so it helps to have a director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who understands these spaces, says Massoud. And that intimacy extends into the dressing room environment, where the actors do cheers, warm-ups in the form of witches’ chants, and all sorts of rituals and secret games, just like the characters in the play. “What makes me laugh is this cliched idea men sometimes have of what a group of women do when they get together, like a naked pillow fight, and how we have to angrily tell them that it’s not It’s not what we do, except it’s what we do. It’s 100% what we do. That’s what’s so brilliant and I think brave about what Sanaz has pieced together in the interactions of these women,” says Radja. “She didn’t set up the rituals that these women have that are instantly recognizable. I think some people might watch this and go, it’s weird and I don’t acknowledge it, but I can attest that at as we come together and spend more and more of our time together, it all just grew on its own.”
Although backstage has changed in the age of Covid safety, there are still pre-show rituals, like at POTUS, where Julianne Hough likes to go into everyone’s dressing room and blast the music. “It’s really hard to socialize as much as before the pandemic, but anything we can do to connect with each other, we really try, and I think that makes the space even more joyful,” Cooper says.
There is a lot of joy behind the scenes of Six, the musical that presents the six wives of Henry VIII as pop stars. Brittney Mack, who plays Anna of Cleves, his fourth wife, says they often laugh, listen to music and shout their love for each other. But at the same time, they also connect with each other. “With an all-female cast, there’s this idea that you have to be campy or for some reason, I don’t mean inauthentic, but let’s say all the time,” Mack says. But that hasn’t been the case on this show, where they help each other through tough days, like when Mack had to come to work after losing his uncle.
“Actors are the ones who are down to earth every day, regardless of what’s going on in our personal lives. And I think that’s the magic where the all-female cast comes in,” Mack says, because ‘she thinks of the creative team as distinct on any show, regardless of gender. (Six is written by Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow and directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage.) “Because to be honest with you, as a black woman, it’s always very white, so there’s always a wall,” Mack says of the creative team, though she’s proud to be a part of the show and applauds the casting choices. “This show is very historically accurate. You can sit there and have these women play these queens and we get it. Nothing about it changes. Nothing about its history changes. And yet, how long did it take Bad to cast a Black Glinda, and she’s not even real,” she said.
Besides having all women in the cast, Mack is grateful for female stage direction. “The other day, Peyton [Taylor Becker, the production stage manager] literally left when it was raining and went to Duane Reade’s and brought me tampons,” she says.
This camaraderie behind the scenes often lends itself to a closeness on stage that is perceptible to the audience. Mack says people always tell them they look like they’re having fun together on stage. “It’s because we are, honestly. We really are,” she says.
It is the same to For girls of color. “One of the things that people constantly say is that there’s a real connection between the seven of us and I’m like yes, that love that you feel, that connection, that support, it’s very real” , said Sargeant. . “I really adore every single one of them. They bring me so much joy. It’s truly an honor to work with them.”
Another thing these shows have in common is showing people parts of femininity that aren’t usually shown on stage. For example, in POTUS, Cooper’s character pumps into a White House office in his first scene in the series. “It’s important because it represents something so common and normal and regular, but it’s often very hidden and I think there’s definitely a stigma attached to breastfeeding and pumping in public and being able to to do it on a Broadway stage in front of 1,000 people every night is so awesome and liberating. I absolutely love it,” she says. “A mother came to see me after the show one morning at the stage door to tell me thank you for representing working mothers and I felt so lucky to be that representation.”
In wish you were Here, there are scenes of menstruating women helping each other wax and shave their legs. “It’s great because you demystify these things that are just part of a lot of women’s lives, but some of them are, I think, more insidious because there’s this feeling of, ‘Oh, that makes me feel uncomfortable, so I don’t want to see it. It’s not pretty,” Massoud says. “And I’m like okay, well, we’ve seen men do all kinds of unspeakable things on stage for hundreds and thousands of years, you can sit in front of a woman talking about getting waxed. You can survive.”
While these scenes make people feel uncomfortable, that hasn’t stopped these shows from enjoying success in the form of reviews, award nominations, and audience response. Although there may be challenges from a marketing perspective, especially with H*tler tasters because of the title (the asterisk was added to combat this). “If we want to make a change for more women, more people of color, and more people from the LBGTQ community to be creative and actors, if we want to see a difference in that, we need to support theater. Like H*tler tasters or the other shows you write about. Because without public support, these shows will not be produced,” says Griffin. “That’s how producers know they need to keep producing this work and open the door for other people.
The other actors also expressed a desire to see more shows like these. Cooper says, “If this could be the rest of my career, I’d be happy.”