20 December 2009

Non-Traditional Casting

“Non-traditional casting” is the Actors’ Equity name for its policy of encouraging producers and directors to consider women, minorities, and the handicapped for roles that don’t specifically require them, but also don’t specifically exclude them. Equity contends, for instance, that all doctors aren’t white males. No one ought to be able to argue sensibly with this Affirmative Action--though there are some people who do. (I mentioned a couple of them who’ve written about their opposition; see “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward, Part 3,” ROT, 11 November.)

The idea is to give underrepresented actors chances they might not otherwise get. In other words, if casting an African-American man as a lawyer only says, “Here’s a lawyer, who also happens to be black,” then it’s an appropriate case for non-traditional casting. Sometimes, the casting even adds a dimension to the production, however unintended by the director. A case in point: Franchelle Stewart Dorn, who played Cleopatra in Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger’s Antony and Cleopatra some years back, is African-American. (STF was a predecessor to today’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, one of Washington’s most prominent theater troupes.) So were most of the Egyptian court. The Romans, including Antony, were white. That ancient Egyptians, unlike their Arab successors, may have been dark-skinned is of little consequence, since Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy, descended from an imported Greek (that is, white) dynasty. Nonetheless, dividing the two camps is effective theater since the Egyptians and the Romans had disparate cultures and looked on each other as foreigners who didn’t understand each other’s worlds. Making Cleopatra’s world “black” and Antony’s “white”--without modern racial overtones--separated them in an interesting way. Now, I confess, I have no idea what the director, Michael Kahn, had in mind except to assemble the best cast he could, but regardless of his intentions, the casting made a useful dramatic point. (That Dorn is an extremely talented actress and was the most powerful presence on the Folger stage only justifies the choice--and the policy.)

A few years later, Kahn hired Harold Scott to direct Othello for the Shakespeare Theatre. Scott cast Avery Brooks as the Moor and André Braugher as Iago. Both actors are African-American, a decision that disturbed one of the opponents to whom I referred just now. Now, I had some reservations about the production, but they concerned the performances, particularly of Brooks (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was once a teacher of mine). I understand director Harold Scott’s point in casting André Braugher as Iago--it made the play about jealousy and betrayal rather than racial hatred; I interpret Shakespeare’s play that way anyway, so Scott’s decision reinforced the original point for me, and diminished an imposed interpretation that’s accrued in more modern times.

Theater people make a distinction between at least two forms of non-traditional casting. Simple non-traditional casting usually means casting actors of color, women, and disabled actors as characters they don’t traditionally play as long as the role and the script don’t require specific racial or gender characteristics or physical abilities. That means casting a Hispanic man as an elementary teacher, a woman as a judge, or a paraplegic as a social worker. That’s what gave us Frances Sternhagen as the doctor in Outland and Sidney Poitier as the drifter in Lilies of tItaliche Field. Both characters were originally conceived as white men. It’s also what enabled Mary Tyler Moore to replace Tom Conti as the patient in Whose Life Is It Anyway? on Broadway. Perhaps the most prominent example of this type of non-trad casting is Robert David Hall, who plays the medical examiner on TV’s CSI. Hall’s a double-amputee as the result of an automobile accident, but his character makes little reference to this fact because it’s irrelevant. (Hall, though, often speaks and writes about his work in this respect because he advocates very strongly for casting actors with disabilities in roles like his.) Only a few people have difficulties with this; indeed, most spectators may not even know it’s occurred.

The other type of non-trad casting is often called “color-blind casting.” That means that roles are cast without consideration for the race, and often gender or physical abilities, of the actor regardless of the script. That accounts for Gail Grate as an African-American Eliza in Arena Stage’s Pygmalion and Earle Hyman as Solness in Tony Randall’s Master Builder here some years ago. More recently, the final cast of August: Osage County included Phylicia Rashad as Violet Weston with a white sister and a houseful of white children. This, obviously, takes a little more getting used to, and sometimes it works better than other times for any given spectator. The examples I noted earlier are of this variety--and nowadays, no one really cares as long as the acting’s good.

While of course color-blind casting involves actors of all races and ethnicity, it seldom includes gender-blind casting (unless a director wants to make some kind of statement). Examples of gender-flipping usually mean the actor’s playing the original gender of the role rather than her or his own gender. Thus when Linda Hunt’s cast as the Indonesian dwarf in The Year of Living Dangerously, Pat Carroll as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or Mary Martin as Peter Pan, they play males. The same is true in reverse when Quentin Crisp played Lady Bracknell or Harvey Fierstein appears as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. When Sternhagen was cast in Outland, however, that was non-traditional casting--but not gender-blind casting. The doctor was written as a man, but when Sternhagen took the role, the character became female.

Among the common objections to non-traditional racial casting is that it defies logic or history (or both). How can an entirely white family have an African-American mother (August: Osage County with Phylicia Rashad)? How can there be black residents in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, at the turn of the 20th century (Arena Stage’s 1990 Our Town with a racially mixed cast)? How can there be black people in Shakespeare’s Sicilia (Alfre Woodard in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1988 production of The Winter’s Tale)? These protesters have so much trouble accepting mixed casts because they read the plays as literal reality. Well, Our Town isn’t literally real: there are no buildings (that is, realistic scenery), dead people have conversations, we move about in time illogically, and there is a very strange character identified as the Stage Manager who manipulates both us and the citizens of Grover’s Corners. Grover’s Corners doesn’t exist in literal reality; it’s not in any atlas, except the one in our imaginations. And in our imaginations, anything is possible.

The same’s true of Shakespeare’s fantasy Sicilia. Who among us really knows what ancient Sicilians or Bohemians looked like? In any case, it’s just not important what they looked like, or what the actors playing them today look like. By extension, too, it applies to more realistic play’s like Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County: Pawhuska, Oklahoma, may be an actual town (the seat of Osage County) and the characters may be based on people Letts knew, but the world of Letts’s play is one of imagination. This is art, not reality, and artistic truth is supposed to go beyond mere surface appearances to the underlying truths of the human soul. Only the most rabid racist believes that the soul has a particular race or culture. Or gender, for that matter.

One of the objectors I mentioned (I’m not going to rename these guys) complained that “Blacks do not belong in parts for white actresses unless they can pass for white.” I’m not even sure how to define “parts for white actresses”: Who makes the rules? The role of the drifter in Lilies of the Field was originally intended to be a white man; what a loss if Poitier hadn’t gotten the role and turned it into a “part for a black man.” The doctor in Outland was written for a man, but when Sternhagen was cast, it became a “part for a woman.” And Shakespeare wrote Othello for a white actor, since there were no black actors in Elizabethan theater; does that make it a “part for a white man”? What about Shylock? There were no Jewish actors in Shakespeare’s company as far as we know. Does that mean no Jew should ever play the role today? For that matter, all the female parts in both Greek and Elizabethan plays were intended for male actors. Should an accident of cultural history prevent women from playing them today? Well, the same kind of accident prevented black actors from appearing in these plays; why should we be bound by it today? (If we stuck to these old restrictions, we’d have missed out on James Earl Jones, one of this era’s greatest actors, playing King Lear!)

Another critic asserted that he’s “sure of what [he is] seeing” in real life, but perhaps we aren’t supposed to be so certain in the theater. Perhaps the meaning of what we see is intentionally ambiguous, meant to make us think--or rethink--received beliefs and unquestioned assumptions. That’s what art is often supposed to do; that’s what Bertolt Brecht wanted his so-called Alienation Effect to accomplish. “Alienation,” it must be noted, is a misleading translation of the German Verfremdung, which really means “de-familiarizing.” Brecht wanted his audiences to look with new eyes at old ideas, so he made them seem strange and unfamiliar. But Brecht didn’t invent this tactic, he only named it, and theater artists have been doing it since civilization began. So, when we go into the theater, we should tell ourselves that we’ll leave our assumptions outside for a few hours. Accept that the world onstage may not be the same as the world we left behind but, just as in the unfamiliar worlds of Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, Animal Farm, and 1984, we can learn a great deal about ours by entering theirs for a time.

In any case, non-traditional casting is here to stay in one form or another, so what its critics do or do not like now may change as they become more used to seeing it. After all, when women and African-Americans first began appearing on TV as newscasters, some people found them disconcerting. (I remember some complainants even maintained that women’s voices weren’t suited to the job of TV news reporting. Can you imagine anyone saying that today?) Now they’re commonplace, as are Asian-American, Hispanic, and disabled reporters, and no one thinks about it. The opera world has long accepted interracial casting even though there were no black, Hispanic, or Asian opera singers when that form was developed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries; operagoers got used to them and value their talent as part of our cultural treasury.

Throughout theater history, audiences have accepted all kinds of things outside of ordinary logic. Some are so commonplace, we don’t even think of them: Chekhov’s characters ought all to be speaking Russian, Ibsen’s Norwegian, and Schiller’s German, but we have no problem when we hear them plainly in English. Others seem very strange to us today: the Greeks and the Elizabethans accepted men and boys as female characters; in the 17th and 18th centuries, spectators sat on stage with the actors. Some changes have occurred within our own memories: for centuries, western audiences accepted a white man in black-face as Othello and no one squawked until recent decades. We can learn to accept racially alogical casting in the theater, too; sooner or later, interracial and inter-gender casting will seem ordinary as the non-trad casts overcome reservations with talent and skill. The second time those doubters see an interracial production, they’ll be less confused, and the next time less still, until the race of the actors ceases to be an important factor. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Resident companies like the Public Theater, Arena, and STC have a responsibility to expand their audience’s cultural horizons, not pander to them.


  1. I can dig most of your arguments, but when you talk about a black mother to white children in August: Osage County and it doesn't really matter because even though it's in a real place in Oklahoma, it's most in the realm of imagination, that's where you lose me. August: Osage County is a very realistic drama, not fantasy, and to draw the audience into this kind of play, versimilitude is required. You're challenging and distracting the audience away from being immersed in the drama if a little earworm in their head is intermittently whispering "but how can just the mom be black?" It's an unnecessary distraction.

    1. I said that it depends on the spectator. Obviously, I noticed the real-world incongruity, but once the play got underway and the acting took over my perception, I no longer paid attention to the racial make-up of the cast. I'd entered the world of the play/production. It just wasn't important to me anymore. Apparently it is to you, however.

      As for that verisimilitude you mention: it's theater--we're suspending our disbelief anyway. The house in the Broadway production I saw was missing a big wall. That's not real, but I allowed myself to believe it was. It's the same imaginative mechanism at work.


    2. An addendum to my response (above) to the Comment on race-blind casting: on Monday, 7 March 2016, the New York Times ran a review by Charles Isherwood of an unusual staging in Queens of 'West Side Story.' In the notice, Isherwood remarked on the "colorblind casting," which the reviewer asserted "didn’t detract from the show’s dramatic impact": "The Jets weren't all white, the Sharks weren't all Puerto Rican, and it didn’t matter a bit."

      So you see that it pretty much depends on the spectator and how receptive he or she is to the world of the play established by the production.


  2. I am grateful for Rick's original posting about 'casting' options. I am a veteran high school theatre teacher, and I am beginning to consider the possibility of directing "Our Town" with my theatre students this fall. And I am considering, as I re-read the script repeatedly, "must I cast all of the roles gender specific?" In other words, to make the Stage Manager a woman seems a no-brainer to me. Of course. But what would happen to the viability of the play if I were to cast Dr & Mrs. Gibbs and/or Mr and Mrs Webb as two women? Can I do this? (Of course I can, but does it make sense?) Part of my desire to consider this is expedience: I have many more talented and available young women than men. I've done a lovely more traditional production of "Our Town" in 1984, and I thought it might be really interesting to consider a non-traditional casting of the play? I would welcome any feed back, and if there's been any history of such gender-neutral casting of "Our Town" previously. Thanks to all.

    1. Scott--

      Thank you for sharing your thinking on casting 'Out Town' non-traditionally. If my article made you consider new approaches, I'm very pleased. Clearly whether non-trad casting "makes sense" is a decision you must make, but I do add one caution: some rights-holders put restrictions on innovative casting or staging, so check with the granting agency before making a final decision. I doubt an agent or a production company will reach out to stop a high school production, but I have heard of such action.

      By the way, 'OT' is one of my favorite plays. I coached the mime in a university production back in the '70s when I was a grad student. I've also taught and directed theater in middle and high school, and I'm familiar with the imbalance of women actors to men in that milieu. Best of luck with your production.