Crossing The Gender Rack

Crossing The Gender Rack

by Joel Vig
Gender in the theatre has always been open to change. From Shakespeare’s plays, where women’s roles were performed exclusively by men, to more modern examples such as Mary Martin playing the title role in the musical Peter Pan or Harvey Fierstein playing Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray, cross gender roles have been a common phenomenon.

From Summer 1998 On the Issues Magazine: Sarah Bernhardt in an undated photograph, as Hamlet

As a performer, these roles require a set of skills that can only be truly appreciated once you have tried them. Like Alice through the looking glass, you cross over, but now the face you see in the mirror is not your own. The expressions you make, what you do with your hands and face and body changes. You must learn to walk differently, talk differently, in some ways even think differently.

This experience was thrust upon me nearly 20 years ago when I was cast to play the role of Sylvia St. Croix in an Off-Broadway musical called Ruthless! The light-hearted musical chronicles the “claw your way to the top” story of a first-grade prodigy named Tina Denmark and her mother Judy as they are drawn into the seedy world of show biz by a woman with a mysterious past and a terrible secret – Sylvia St. Croix. The character is a show business monster who will stop at nothing to push Tina to stardom.

The role had been written for a woman to play, and in the 18 months of staged readings and backers auditions had always been read by a woman. Joel Paley, the writer/director of the show saw me do a spoof on board a cruise ship entertainment package produced by the Theatre Guild. I had donned a wig and a purple silk kaftan loaned by two stars on board to do a send-up parody of the headliner in the big show room of the ship, an exotic chanteuse by the name of Nyta Duval. It suddenly hit him that the leading role that he had written for a woman should instead be played by a man, that is, me.

In the theatre piece Charley’s Aunt starring Jose Ferrer or in movies like Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis or Mrs. Doubtfire with Robin Williams or Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman, the similar conceit is that the characters are men who, for one reason or another, have found it necessary to disguise themselves as women. Much of the comedy had to do with their inability and discomfort in having to don women’s clothing.

Facing Sticker Shock

My situation was completely the reverse. My character was not a man pretending to be a woman but the real deal. My Sylvia St. Croix had to maneuver in her skirts and blouses, hats and scarves, pumps and pancake like an unstoppable entertainment warhorse. Any sign that there was a man ill at ease or fumbling with difficulty would destroy the illusion and ultimately diminish the show.

“Don’t worry,
honey, we have
men trying on
women’s clothes all the

I needed to be completely at home in the garments and shoes. On our tiny little Off-Broadway budget, I was on my own. I was sent out to buy, off the rack, my outfit with an extremely modest budget — $100 tops. At 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, I was a fairly normal man’s size: a standard 42 long jacket; pants 33 inch in both waist and inseam; shirts with a 16 inch neck with 35 inch sleeve. I soon discovered, to my dismay, that these same measurements for a woman translate into the world of plus sizes and specialty shops for the “big boned woman.”

With advice from wardrobe union members, I headed off to scour the racks of Lane Bryant and The Forgotten Woman. While these stores had things that could work, the sticker shocks of what the outfits for the larger woman cost were eye-opening. Saks, Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor all had some selections for the larger ladies, but, once again, the prices were prohibitive. I began to wonder if there were some sort of punitive subtext in the world of retail for the plus sized shopper.

I finally ended up in a department called Fantastic Woman on one of the upper floors of Macy’s. On the clearance rack, in the back corner I found a hot pink two- piece suit, sort of a Chanel knock-off, that had been marked down six times and now was just within the modest budget I had been given. Before sales tax, it was marked $86.99.

I was beginning to inspect it when suddenly a sharp voice from behind me asked: “Can I help you?” I turned to find an imperious, well-groomed, very tall woman staring at me. “I’m looking for something for a woman friend of mine,” I stammered, adding, “She likes bright pink.” “What size is she?” the saleslady asked with a knowing look. “She is about my size,” I said, “maybe a little taller.” Her face softened. She said: “Why don’t you just try it on.”

I didn’t know what to say, but she continued, “Don’t worry, honey, we have men trying on women’s clothes all the time. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” She led me to a private dressing booth in the back corner of the store and opened the door. “Don’t be embarrassed. I’ll keep watch right outside the door.”

Sinthea Starr (photo by Rose Billings), Joel Vig

I shut the door, and put on the skirt and jacket and looked in the mirror. I guess I hoped that I would look like super sexy Joan Collins, British star of Dynasty fame, or Joan Crawford, the broad shouldered MGM legend who made masculine suits and eyebrows all the rage in the 1940s and 1950s. Instead I looked more like the moon faced Metropolitan Opera star Joan Sutherland, who sang like a dream but on stage appeared to be approximately as tall as she was wide.

I peeped my head out of the door and saw that my saleslady accomplice was there. “Let me look,” she said. I opened the door only wide enough for her to get a solid take. “Does this color make me look fat?” I queried.

“No, honey,” she replied. “Considering that you are a size 18, that suit makes you look almost svelte.” I took off the skirt and jacket and went out to charge it. My saleslady was standing, smiling, behind the register. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” she asked as she rang up the sale. I tried to explain that I was in a show and that I was playing a woman. I doubt that she believed me, but she led me by the hand to the lingerie department and helped me pick out a slenderizing panty girdle and a long line brassiere that fastened in the front.

Dancing the Night Away

Before I left the store, she gave me the best advice she could offer. Being a large woman herself, she said, “Honey, it’s the shoes that really kill you.” She wrote an address of a shoe store on the back of her business card. “Go here,” she said, “tell them Lucille sent you. You’ll thank me.”

I have thanked her many times. Over ten years later, I was hired to understudy Harvey Fierstein in the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, which won him the Tony Award. Edna is the overbearing and overweight mother of Tracy Turnblad, the chubby idealistic teenager with big dreams and even bigger hair, in the John Waters’ story of racial integration in 1960s Baltimore. I used that same shoe store for my Edna Turnblad shoes.

Navigating through the strange and uncomfortable jungle of women’s clothes and shoes and hair and nails and makeup was made so much easier because of her help and kindness. After we opened Ruthless, I went back to the store and gave her free tickets to see the show and she came backstage. “You really are in this show,” she said, “and that pink suit makes you look fabulous.”

In playing roles like Sylvia St. Croix, Edna Turnblad, and most recently, a character of my own creation, Sinthea Starr, I spend hours of rehearsal in front of a mirror to capture that subtle reality of what makes a woman different from a man. The world of gender reversal is difficult and scary. It has been immensely rewarding to unlearn postures and poses that date to childhood, and to relearn to walk and talk and see and feel the world from the other side of the gender fence. The Ginger Rogers’ quip — that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels – definitely rings true.

Joel Vig works in the theater as a director, actor, writer and musician. He created six roles in the award-winning Broadway musical, “Hairspray,” and played Sylvia St. Croix in “Ruthless!,” winner of the Outer Critic’s Best Musical Award in 1993. He appeared in the movie “Liszt for President,” winner of the Best Non-European Feature at the Paris Film Festival in 2008. He lives in New York City.

Also see The Poets Eye in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See The Art Perspective in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.