For the Actor: Butch or Femme?

men.take.spaceA young actor recently asked me for advice about a role he was playing. And I was reminded of a long-ago college student, to whom I gave the same advice, and who ended up playing lead roles. I told him to remember the male/female exercise we did in his freshman year–and to butch it up.

I prefaced my advice by saying that none of this has anything to do with how we move in real life. What actors need to do is have many character choices available to them. (Many women end up playing male roles—especially in Shakespeare. They need this stuff!)

The exercise:

Enter, sit down, wait, give up waiting, exit.

Do this as if you were your twin sister (or, in my case, twin brother.) What you get at first is a lot of stereotyped behavior–sashaying, crotch scratching–until the audience is giggling.

Then I say–is this really how people move? And don’t we all move on a sort of continuum? Me, I’m a little butch for a female. I take up space. But I can get all sweet and fluffy if needed for a role (and if no one laughs too hard!)

So here’s what I tell the actors once they’ve realized the error of their ways.

Skinny-Runway-Model-01Stereotyped female: take up less space. Feet together, arms close to body, narrow shoulders. Flexible–soft neck, delicate arms, soft upper body. Low center–baby-making hips.

(Not Toshiro Mifune big hara/power in navel, that’s different–a Japanese approach to butch.)

Femme attitudes: Smilling, no matter what. Flirtation, sweetness, or–oh, gosh, thinking of secretary-style-women I’ve known, a kind of head-ducking powerless thing. Ew. But I can do this if the role demands it!

Stereotyped male: Take up space–legs apart, wide shoulders. Everything stiff and muscled–strong shoulders, neck too thick to move much. Ditto arms—and they may stand out from the sides a little, to make space for muscles (and be read to sock someone!). Not flexible. High center–more weight in upper body than lower body. Narrow, inflexible hips. (This is tricky for me, but I can do it—it’s just a matter of imagining them strongly enough.)

Attitudes: can be sneering, can be I’ll-take-care-of-you-little-lady, can be don’t-mess-with-me. I use this physicalization when I’m in a big city; I call it my meanest-s.o.b. in-the-valley walk.

For butching it up, I love watching the guys in the gym who are pumping iron. Or Grace Jones, telling the sweet young girl how to get a man. This little video chunk, from Conan the Destroyer, is a great contrast in butch and femme.

Most people are a little of both. I know straight men who are a little femme, and gay men who are a little butch. Same with women. Practice the stereotypes; then use them carefully.

As Tom Stoppard writes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people.”