I think the answer to the question of "should we stick to the way scripts are written when it comes to gender?" is a loaded question and tough to answer with a general-brushing answer. I would ask a director who wants to cross-gender cast, "is an oppressing "other" wanting to perform a role that an oppressed minority should be?" An example might be men lined up to play Roxy Hart in Chicago. With a highly disproportionate number of men to women roles in theatre, is this a good idea? Or is a director looking to cast Hamlet as a female? How does this alter the story and relationships within it? What is the purpose? Is a company interested in cross-gender casting just for the buzz or is it truly serving the community, society, and/or the story to look at it through a different gender's eyes?Each show, each film, each story must be handled on a case-by-case basis.
An excellent example of a company that does purposeful cross-gender casting well is The Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPS Fest) in Portland, Oregon. In brief, the company is an unrehearsed Shakespeare company based off of the New England Shakespeare Festival. A season of plays is decided at the beginning of each summer of up to 19 different Shakespeare shows (expanding each year by two shows–one comedy and one drama or tragedy). Each weekend, the company of actors performs 3-5 different Shakespeare shows with all different casts. The casts never rehearse together, their lines are printed and taped to scrolls that they use throughout the show, the performances are in the public parks and free, and there is only one performance of each show with that particular cast. It's an extraordinary experience.
At OPS Fest, Actors aren't cast based solely on how the play is written, they're cast based on their audition at the beginning of the season (which involves performing in a full, unrehearsed production), their previous involvement and training with the company (there are apprenticeship and internship programs), and their level of training outside of the company (along with references, interviewing, overall connection to the other company members, etc.). The actor gets to decided what gender they play for their character, but there is a rule that the choice must be either the way the character is written or the gender the actor identifies as. For example, I could play Romeo as a woman (she/her) or I could play Romeo as a man (he/him). I could not play Romeo as non-binary because the character is neither written that way, nor do I identify that way, but someone who is non-binary could play Romeo that way.
I think this is a great approach to classical texts. And I hope that we see a future where many more stories aren't written to be stuck one way or another. Pictured in the first photo is Tish Maskell, who I chatted with briefly about the subject, shared "Henry [in Shakespeare's Henry V] goes back and forth for me ALL the time... really depends on where my headspace is that day. Richard [III] is always a dude right now, but that may change. Discovered recently that Iago's a lady for me... don't know that I'd ever be able to go back to not having the option of making calls like that."
Gender is fluid. Playwrights that expand the opportunities for all genders to apply themselves as they identify to any particular role is a progressive and strong choice for the future. Yes it's challenging because of how culture has shaped the way we think of gender for thousands of years, but it isn't impossible. Teenage Dick by Mike Lew is a great example of a recent play (adaptation of Richard III) where gender is written as open for several of the characters. Writing more characters who can be any gender on purpose is necessary for progress.
There are myriad ways entertainment could progress. Cross-gender casting in stories that have already been told is a necessary step toward changing society's perception of gender. But it also must be done with consideration for how it affects the story and what is being said by the interpretation of the production.
Writing and producing plays, shows, and movies with primarily female and non-binary leads is necessary. Stories about men who aren't stereotypically masculine or heterosexual is necessary, and also stories about men in general wouldn't suffer if there was a great big break from them. There is long history of stories about male protagonists. What many would call the "greatest stories of all time" are primarily about male protagonists (A Christmas Carol, The Odyssey, Sherlock Holmes, 1984, and Frankenstein – See "BBC Culture - The 100 Stories That Shaped The World"). Most historically great, classic movies are heavily focused on male leads (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Casablanca, The Godfather, Singing In The Rain) and many great movies of history that are led by a woman are looking at a man or a group of men as her focus or must be saved by them (Titanic, The Wizard of Oz). Another big issue is that non-binary people are often overlooked in this conversation and it's primarily a discussion of men and women playing each other. This must also be considered and changed in the media we consume. People who are non-binary need to be written into stories and need to be seen. They exist. They must be recognized, especially in media and stories.
For fun, per Manny's prompt on this blog, there are a few characters written as male that I'd love to play either as male or as female. Some of them are Hamlet in Hamlet, Spongebob in Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical, Scuttle in The Little Mermaid , and Peter Pan in any adaptation of the story.