Performing Gender: ‘Break Yourself’

Break Yourself is a short 30 minute solo performance that explores and experiments with personas and mannerisms we as humans acquire ourselves and what opinions with have of others personas. The performance gives us a small insight into the life of “Olly”, a graphics designer with a peculiar infatuation with ‘working class hero’ Bruce Springsteen. Though the plot is scattered and confusing, the idea of the performance, in my opinion, is to question the certain mannerisms that with associate with gender.

The seed of doubt is planted into the mind of the audience from the start; the character of Olly is wearing a light blue pair of jeans, a white shirt and a black jacket. His hair is short and he has an extremely well-trimmed beard, at the end of the show the actor takes it off to reveal Olly is in fact a woman. There is no speech for the first 10 minutes of the play and it’s not until Olly speaks that the audience are able to decipher what gender the actor on stage is. This, for me, is the main idea of the play; challenging societies gender norms that are enforced on us from such an early age. As humans, we constantly have to label everything, even if it means the label we use is socially unacceptable or morally unacceptable. To quote Lesley Ferris on her views of male actors dressing as woman in Greek comedies “Female characters were only identified by their clothing, their clothes literally stood for the woman.”(Ferris: 166). This can relate to the idea in Break Yourself that it one slight aspect of masculinity or femininity in your performance can determine what sex you are from an audience perspective. For me, it was the actor’s voice followed by the monologue Olly, now Ira, delivered to the audience, adding numerous mannerism changes and details of wanting to sleep with the male stranger sat across the room from her, the audience were now given the answer they were looking for.

Gender constructs are a huge contributor to the patriarchal society western civilisations has come to live with. However we feel about it, we as humans will always judge what sex someone is by how they look, how they act and how they speak. A quote brought up by Christine Tamblyn about Holly Hughes’s Dress Suits to Hire “The butch/femme opposition is represented as an artificially wrought social dynamic”. This quote for me sums up how western values have manipulated us to believe that masculinity and femininity are complete polar opposites, we as humans are not able to have characteristics of both, instead they are completely separate entities.

To conclude, the final part of Break Yourself ends with Ira, the actor previously playing Olly, repeating over and over into a microphone the various quirks and mannerisms she has had to learn in order to look masculine enough. Particular things such as ‘gulp don’t sip’, ‘don’t put your hands on your hips’, and ‘don’t let them see you swallow’. The importance of this piece of theatre relates strongly to today’s ideology of gender and whether or not we as humans are ever going to be able to look past someone’s gender and not judge them on the clothes they’re wearing or the way they’re acting. The performance tackles the idea of gender and how it is, of course, an artificial social construct creating by patriarchal values while also creating a piece of intelligent and thought-provoking theatre that everyone should go and see.

Edit: Taken from my portfolio, a review of a play I saw at Camden People’s Theatre for my Representing Women module.

Ferris, L. The Routledge Reading in Gender and Performance (1998) UK: Routledge
Tamblyn, C. No More Nice Girls: Recent Transgressive Feminist Art. Art Journal 50.2 (1991): 53–57. US: College Art Association