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Gender-bending casting opens up new opportunities for actors, dramas

Stage actor Kim Seong-nyeo to play female Faust


Actress Kim Seong-nyeo who will play Faust in “Faust Ending.” (National Theater of Korea)
Actress Kim Seong-nyeo who will play Faust in “Faust Ending.” (National Theater of Korea)

In recent years, gender-bending casting, where actors are cast for roles regardless of their gender, has come under the spotlight for its fresh take on the traditionally male-oriented performing arts scene.

Gender-bending casting, more often referred to as gender-free casting in Korea, is about giving actors opportunities to perform regardless of their gender.

Veteran stage actor Kim Seong-nyeo is to take the role of Faust in the National Theater of Korea’s upcoming play “Faust Ending,” set to run from Feb. 26 to March 28 at Myeongdong Theater in central Seoul.

“Faust Ending” is based on Goethe’s masterpiece “Faust.” In the play, erudite Faust, thirsty for infinite knowledge, strikes a deal with Mephistopheles, the devil, and exchanges his soul for unlimited knowledge and pleasure.

Director Cho Kwang-hwa wrote the adaptation of the play, changing some details of the German original to cater to a contemporary Korean audience. The play, which is a 21-hour-long production in two parts in the original “Faust,“ has been shortened to 110 minutes, with its characters and events also scaled down. Its most striking change however, is the choice of a female Faust -- the first time any playwright has decided to do so since it was written some 190 years ago.

According to the National Theater of Korea, Kim is the first female actor to play the Faust character in history. Director Cho thought it would be boring to have another male Faust, and thinking of Kim, he instantly came up with a new story.Though Kim’s female Faust may be the first such attempt, the local performing arts scene has been seeing many female stage actors newly interpreting traditionally male characters, such Hamlet and Robinson Crusoe.

Industry experts say the gender-free casting boom in Korea followed the #MeToo movement that swept through the local performing arts scene in 2018. The movement led the industry to think about the state of gender equality on stage.

As a large number of plays feature male protagonists and women are often relegated to supporting roles, gender-free casting is seen as a chance to give actresses greater opportunities. Also, through gender-bending casting, actresses have a chance to play characters of kings, critics, scholars -- roles with power and honor, which are rarely given to actresses.

Director Lee Ji-na, recognized for her gender-bending casting, has directed many productions in which actresses were cast in male roles, including Dorian Gray.

“If the characters are not historic or exist in reality, I try not to cast specifically for women or men,” Lee said at a press event in 2018. “I plan to pursue gender-bending casting for characters that do not specifically require a certain gender in the future, too, hoping to inspire female actors to take on more ambitious roles.”

Gender-bending casting has also recently been combined with character-free casting to better delivery a story.

The musical “Demian,” staged last year, billed itself as a show with character-free casting. Actor and actress took turns playing Damian and Sinclair, as the director wanted to portray how the two characters complete each other.

“It was the only way for Demian and Sinclair to find their lost half,” scriptwriter Oh Sae-hyeok said at the time. 

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)
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