The Casting Process Is History

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Lin-Manuel Miranda.  By John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

One of the hottest topics of conversation at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) annual conference in Chicago earlier this month was no surprise.  Announcements in the press about the casting of Porchlight Music Theatre’s upcoming Chicago production of In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes had recently raised urgent questions.  Triggered by the reaction of some influential commentators to the company’s choice of an Italian American actor for the leading role of Usnavi (a character whose identity as a Dominican immigrant to the United States is central to the musical’s story, and one that was originally played on Broadway by Mr. Miranda), many attendees and some speakers at the conference discussed the value of authenticity in casting in the context of the ongoing need for more and better opportunities for actors of color.

 

In light of the currency of the issue, conference organizers* made a last-minute addition to the program which I found to be one of the more interesting sessions I attended (even though unfortunately I had to leave it a little early).  Princeton faculty member and award-winning dramatic critic Brian Herrera gave what he described as an “interactive performance” in which he answered attendees’ questions about a subject on which he is the best-informed researcher that I have heard tell-of: the history of casting.

As he spoke, Dr. Herrera’s theoretical point-of-view emerged, challenging conventional wisdom.  He asserted that the idea of the “best actor,” which most directors (and producers and their casting directors) would likely assert is the grail they seek in casting each role in a production, is for the most part a myth.  He went on to describe how an artistic casting process cloaked in a particular sort of mystery has often preserved traditional systems of privilege in the ethno-racial, gender and sexual identities of those assigned to plum roles in performances on stage and screen.

I may well be garbling some of this, and fortunately there’s no need to rely on my memory to learn from Dr. Herrera’s deep study of the practice of casting over time.  At his ATHE conference session, he directed us to an excellent article he authored–one that fortunately is available for free on the web site of the journal that published it, The Journal of American Drama and Theatre.

Here’s the article, which is entitled “The Best Actor for the Role, or the Mythos of Casting in American Popular Performance.”  I think it issues an important challenge for us to confront as we make casting decisions: Do we (directors and others that make decisions about who plays what parts) keep the process mystified–probably unconsciously in most cases–in part to protect our own implicit biases?


*Meaningless disclaimer: as the organization’s treasurer I am on the Governing Council of ATHE.  Not that it matters here, but I really had no significant role in programming for the conference.


Photo: By John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (https://www.macfound.org/fellows/941/) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Road to Authentic Casting Is Also Slow

The conversation about the casting of In the Heights at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre has accelerated since the last post about it here on The Director’s Vision blog.  Diep Tran published an impassioned article on line for American Theatre magazine, including statements from Quiara Alegría Hudes, co author (with Lin-Manuel Miranda) of the musical.  Ms. Hudes is emphatic that authentic casting is essential for any professional production of In the Heights.  It’s interesting, though, that she states that “I’m happy for schools and communities who do not have [Latino] actors on hand to use In the Heights as an educational experience for participants of all stripes.”  Ms. Tran points out that this attitude is far from universal among playwrights and advises consulting the author whenever the question comes up.

This was followed by the publication of an article by Priscilla Frank on The Huffington Post, opening up the conversation well beyond the theatre community.  The comments there have generated controversy.  Rhetorical questions from the chief theatre critic of the major daily Chicago Sun-Times, Hedy Weiss, implied that actors should be allowed to stretch to inhabit characters with backgrounds different from their own. (Ms. Weiss is the writer of the Sun-Times article that drew the scrutiny of Howard Sherman on his Arts Integrity Initiative blog.)  On Facebook Chay Yew, a playwright/director and the artistic director of a larger Chicago company, Victory Gardens Theater, expressed alarm and disappointment at this.  Mr. Yew’s reaction has in turn triggered further comment.  For her part, Ms. Weiss has now offered (on her Facebook profile) to attend a civil “town hall meeting” on the topic, and someone else has pointed out that the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists – Chicago has planned a meeting on this very topic for August 9 at Victory Gardens.

I am working to ally with artists from ethno-racial backgrounds that have long been underrepresented and misrepresented in theatre and other forms of dramatic storytelling.  I support those that are working to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion in this work, and although the idea of authentic casting is newer to me I am fully on board.  It seems to me that Ms. Weiss and others that argue for “color-blind” casting, even when it works in favor of actors from backgrounds like my own, are–at best–missing a crucial point.  I am imperfect at all this and still learning how I can best help, and all of my thinking about it necessarily comes from the privileged position of an aging white Anglo male with a pretty cushy job as a university administrator (and a background as a professional and academic director and producer).  I also find some of the issues involved in all of this complex enough to be intriguing.

For example, it’s clear that authorial intent is a crucial ingredient in this conversation, but is it always the overriding consideration?  The Porchlight situation has arisen in the shadow of a decision that proved controversial by another professional Chicagoland musical theatre company, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, to cast non-Latinx performers in Evita.  Even though it is obviously set in Argentina, my guess is that the British creators, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, did not have Latinx performers in mind in the 1970s, when they wrote this now-classic musical (the original West End stars were Elaine Page, David Essex, and Joss Ackland).  In the U.S. four decades later, though, I would argue that the need to increase diversity and inclusion is an extremely important factor, and in the Marriott case it should probably have been the controlling one.

In their statements to the press, the Porchlight folks have pointed out that they have no business asking the actors they audition about their ethnicity.  That’s true.  In retrospect it seems to me that if a top priority had been authentic casting, they might have employed an interview question along the lines of, “How will your own background help you to maximize the dimension, detail, and truth you bring to the role of Usnavi?”  To be honest, however, I don’t know that I would have realized the importance of such an interview in advance.

I’m also being honest when I say I worry about theatre companies such as Porchlight.  I don’t know a lot about this company’s particular circumstances but I know that it’s a mid-sized theatre, and I have some experience running one of those: I was the producing and artistic director of a mid-sized company in the 1990s.  We worked continuously to give the company a solid institutional image, but all the while we were painfully aware that we were operating on a shoestring, most years racing to stay a step ahead of some accumulated deficit and never with any financial reserves.  It would have been a stretch for us to do the sort of outreach that Porchlight has described, and when Ms. Hudes says “You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you’ve exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run,” all I can tell you is that it would not have been within our means to do so.  That doesn’t mean I disagree when she says that “The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost.”  I’m certainly in no position to say otherwise.

Ms. Tran writes that “If all else fails, it’s fine to not mount the show if you can’t do it the way its creators intended. Because when it comes to a choice between whitewashing roles of color or having no production at all, the latter is preferred.”  Here again I don’t mean to argue, but in case it’s of any use in the conversation I would offer that the cancellation of a scheduled production after the investment of all the resources required to prepare for it could easily have crippled our mid-sized company.  Also, it still looks to me as if Porchlight had honorable intentions to diversify its repertoire when it chose In the Heights.  To cancel the show entirely would strike me as unfortunate, especially if it might discourage future efforts to expand the range of material being produced by this company or others.

Let’s face it: before they committed to producing Miranda and Hudes’s musical, Porchlight should have had a more robust strategy for getting this right.  They should have involved more Latinx artists as key staff members in the creative planning and casting processes.  Perhaps they should have partnered with a Latino theatre company as co-producer.  I just find their mistakes all too human, especially given their limited resources.  I hope they find their way through this successfully.

Like Ms. Tran, I am “ready for theatres to do better, to commit to authenticity, and to stop making excuses.”  But my nature, my background and, I freely admit, very possibly my privilege seem to be making me more patient about it.

UPDATE (August 2): Howard Sherman’s latest blog post provides useful context.  “When it comes to respect and recognition, diversity and inclusion, there is a new arts narrative being written right now.”

An Actor Exits

Broadway World reported yesterday that the Tony Award-winning actor Tonya Pinkins had resigned from the cast of the current Off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at Classic Stage Company (CSC), directed by CSC artistic director Brian Kulick (who is in his final months at the helm of that theatre company).  Pinkins’s statement about the reason for her departure, printed in full today on Playbill.com, is crucial reading for any director or student of directing that’s interested in the many recent and current conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion in theatre, directorial authority, and more.  For directors especially, it is also very interesting to read Kulick’s response to Pinkins’s decision.

What issues does this situation raise about who should be producing and directing what, who should be making what decisions, and how the actor-director collaboration is affected by issues including white supremacy, stardom, patriarchy, and the director/producer phenomenon?  Did Kulick handle this as well as possible in the best interests of the theatre company, the production, and his directorial vision for it?  What else does the Pinkins departure and the Kulick response bring up in your mind?  Thoughts (and other questions) are welcome in comments here or on The Director’s Vision Facebook page.

UPDATE: In a clarifying status update on Facebook, fellow Mother Courage actor Michael Potts wrote: “While I won’t talk publicly about our process on Mother Courage, I do feel compelled to correct the record on a particular statement made in [the] broadwayworld.com article before an actor’s reputation is ruined. AT NO TIME did any actor threaten ‘to kill’ Tonya. The actor said IN REHEARSAL, that as his character (an armed, enemy soldier), if Mother Courage made such a move, the truth of the scene would dictate that he kill Mother Courage. This was the script we were using and had been rehearsing with Tonya for 5 weeks. Again, this was said to Tonya in rehearsal with other actors present. NO ONE threatened the life of Ms. Pinkins.”  That’s what I understood from Ms. Pinkins’s statement, but perhaps Mr. Potts is correct to go out of his way to avoid any possible misunderstanding.

AND ANOTHER (January 1, 2016): Michael Potts has published a more lengthy update on his Facebook feed.  In it he strongly supports Tonya Pinkins’s declaration on race and gender in theatre, but offers a differing perspective on the rehearsal and preview-performance process behind CSC’s Mother Courage:

I’ve tried to avoid this, but I see things spiraling out of control. Two issues are being conflated. The first, ‪#‎BlackPerspectivesMatter‬, in which she is completely correct and I wholeheartedly support. The polemic she sets forth in her incredibly well composed statement on race and sex in the theater, is spot on. The second, the Mother Courage rehearsal process is pure hyperbole.

“The question of Mother Courage being delusional (inelegantly put by the director, for certain) was brought up during our very first week of table work. The director was referring to Brecht’s own writing about the character. As he put it in more elegant fashion and repeatedly stated during the entire rehearsal process, Mother Courage is a tragic character because she never learns. War teaches her nothing.

“Actors know very well that there is nothing incongruous about a director holding one view of the character and the actor holding a different view. Directors normally defer to the actor in nearly all cases. Hopefully, out of this creative tussle, something transcendent appears. Such was the attempt in our production.

“Make no mistake, Tonya ran our production from the start. She was Momma Courage, yes ‘momma’, her request and everyone complied including the Brecht estate. Throughout the rehearsal period, when she wanted to make a change, any change, it was allowed.

“Also, actors are aware that even during technical rehearsal and previews, performances are still evolving and subject to change. However, we also hope by that time, after weeks of rehearsal (4 weeks in this case), certain things are beginning to set up. Though, it’s still possible, wholesale changes in blocking and script are normally less frequent at this stage. Therefore, it is also expected that when an actor decides to make a major change in dialogue and/or blocking that involves fellow actors, that there’s a little friendly heads up if not rehearsal given to those actors. Unfortunately, Tonya didn’t get around to doing that. Still, every actor rolled with it. The director wishing to protect the whole has the job of addressing the situation for the sake of everyone involved in telling the story.

“Allow me to address the ‘fur incident’. This was in the script from day one of rehearsal. There were no problems or questions about this part of the scene through 4 weeks of rehearsal. None. We move to the theater. Costumes are added to the technical process of mounting the play. The scene proceeds and only then is there a conflict about a fur. Tonya states her intention to take the fur and explains it’s what Brecht wrote. This is true…in another translation,-not the one we’d been rehearsing for 4 weeks. The actor wearing the fur defends his position grounded in the text we’re working from. Tonya again asserts it’s what Brecht wants and that she intends to take it. The actor defers to the director. Compromises are immediately offered to resolve the issue. None were suitable to Tonya. The debate is tabled and both Tonya and the other actor confer with the director privately. The decision is reached to do the scene as written. During that evenings performance, Tonya takes the fur. The actor has no choice but to let it stand. She is Mother Courage, after all. Too long a story, shortened, both director and actor acquiesce to Tonya’s choice. Tonya takes the fur for two additional performances then announces that she won’t do it anymore. No explanation. Why was it so essential that a week and a half debate was required? Why after 2 performances, was it now ‘suddenly’ not essential? Was it really about Brecht’s intention? What was this conflict/demand really about? Such was the process of this Mother Courage. I witnessed time and again our director bend over backwards, to the point of spinelessness to try to appease Tonya.

Anyone who has worked with Tonya knows that no one silences her. ‘No one puts baby in the corner!’ Tonya is a force. Her brilliance is clear, her intelligence evident by her release referenced in this post.

“Of course, there were honest creative differences as in any other creative endeavor. However, no one was ever muzzled, rebuked, rebuffed, made voiceless or enslaved.

“Put simply, Tonya wanted to move in an entirely different direction once the show was already rehearsed and set. It was too late in the game to re-rehearse a concept.

“Unfortunately, these statements have led people to conclude that the play is a complete mess, that those of us still involved are left with something lesser and by extension we are lesser actors and a director and theater company’s reputation are being unfairly trashed. I’ve read people already conclude that the director is a racist and sexist. You would be mistaken on all counts. Though, there are justifiable critiques of this production, none of them rise to the level of what’s being insinuated.”

THE LATEST (THAT I’VE SEEN–January 2):  At the risk of appearing to propagate a squabble, I want to continue to give the fullest picture I have of this discussion.  I do so because I don’t think it’s just squabbling; I think Tonya Pinkins has kick-started a very important conversation, it has become quite public (at least among theatre-makers), and additional shadings in understanding of her perspective may be valuable.

Ms. Pinkins responded to Michael Potts’s longer statement with this comment: “It deeply saddens me that my wonderful costar feels he must defend, The establishment.  Michael, you know nothing of what was communicated between myself and the producers and anyone else. You simply saw the fallout. I’ve been working on this production long before you were even considered.  I don’t believe any of the men would have treated me the way I was treated if I was a White woman.  Believe me if I had ‘run’ the show , there would be a finer product.”

Mr. Potts then wrote: “Tonya, the show is a fine product. YOU are a wonderful Mother Courage. You are made for the role. No, I do not know what transpired privately between you and the producers. I can only and was only speaking to what transpired in my presence.”

To which Ms. Pinkins replied: “You speak to your perspective as a man in the room. The patriarchy always thinks it can tell a women what to think and feel and interpret when her No is a ‘Yes’.”

ANOTHER COUNTRY HEARD FROM (January 2): Broadway World reported that author and activist Larry Kramer had chimed in on his Facebook profile on New Year’s Day in support of Tonya Pinkins, and published his statement about the situation.

Morgan Jenness posted Michael Potts’s longer statement for Mr. Kramer to read.  Mr. Kramer responded: “morgs, i’m afraid i find potts’ response petty and simple-minded and not dealing with the main issues. first and foremost how dare kulick cut an hour from this script and what was left after this castration, which no doubt tonya was troubled by, as she should have been, and potts should have been too. as rehearsals continued and previews too it sounds like tonya was just doing what any great actress would be doing if reaching for even higher levels — trying to work things out emotionally and as is often the case still learning after the curtain comes up. so tonya didn’t tell all the actors what she was thinking, or suddenly found herself trying, or told them too pointedly, hurting the pooor baby’s feelings. haven’t they worked with great actors before? I have. glenda jackson did what the fuck she wanted, thank god because ken russell was incapable of helping her, which sounds a lot like kulick not being able to help tonya and her knowing it, thus increasing her frustration factor. i had the privilege of watching rehearsals involving such as kim stanley, geraldine page, ralph richardson, the great olivier, and was friends with the great luise reiner. they all had and did and reacted just as tonya did.”

I post Mr. Kramer’s comments not to endorse or validate them, but because his very strong point-of-view may provide additional matter for the discussion at hand, especially as it relates to the role of the director.

IN THE INTEREST OF BALANCE (January 2): I think I should mention that Mr. Potts has received more than 75 comments, more than a few of them from high-profile theatre professionals, thanking him and/or expressing support for his longer Facebook post.

THE LATEST NEWS: All comes courtesy of colleague Matt Saltzberg.  First, the role has been re-cast: http://www.broadway.com/buzz/183344/kecia-lewis-steps-in-after-tonya-pinkins-abrupt-departure-from-mother-courage-and-her-children-off-broadway/

And, the composer for the production, Duncan Sheik, gives an interview: http://www.americantheatre.org/2016/01/04/duncan-sheik-on-cscs-disputed-mother-courage/

ANOTHER UPDATE: American Theatre magazine just posted a podcast that includes an interview with Ms. Pinkins.  “I think that actors do not realize how powerful they are,” she says late in the interview.  “We’re not treated like we’re powerful.  But I want to inspire actors to take that power.”  That should be heard in context and is excerpted just to pique your interest!  Click here to listen (the Pinkins/Mother Courage section starts right around 12:40, but the news that precedes it is interesting too).

THE PRODUCTION CONSIDERED: Charles Isherwood’s review in The New York Times calls Mother Courage, now with Kecia Lewis in the title role, calls the production “terrific,” “searing,” and “by any measure the finest of [CSC]’s Brecht cycle.”  He says Ms. Lewis’s performance (given partly with script in hand) is “commanding,” “powerful, complex and persuasive.”

Color Vision Follow-Up: “The Revolutionary”

This intoxicating and inspiring article about Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton: An American Musical in this week’s “T Magazine” in The New York Times gets at the heart of why the whole conception of America as seen through the lens of this “revolutionary” musical is a total game-changer.  I am so psyched!  Probably won’t be back in NYC to see it on Broadway until May, but I’m more than ready to buy my ticket now!

History Enriched

Direction, the fascinating and well researched book by Simon Shepherd of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, provides an extensive, rich, complex supplement to the quick history of directing I offered near the beginning of Chapter Two of The Director’s Vision (Second Edition).  On pages 16-18 I relied almost exclusively on the theory offered more than sixty years ago by Helen Krich Chinoy in Directors on Directing.  Shepherd acknowledges this as “the ‘standard treatment’ of the emergence of directors,” but offers some very interesting alternatives that I would love to incorporate, however briefly, in a third edition of The Director’s Vision.

Shepherd credits Norman Marshall, author of The Producer and the Play (1957), with pointing out that, although it would be a long time before the work would be labeled as directing, by the 1830s Madame Lucia Elizabeth Vestris (manager of London’s Olympic Theatre) already “insisted on detailed rehearsals which…she led herself and, alongside this, she made innovations in the scenic arrangements of the stage, in the interests of greater realism….suggesting that, in the emergence of modern directing, the originary point was a woman.” (p. 79)  Although I took care to credit the contributions of Ellen Franz to the achievements of of Saxe-Meiningen, I’m now kicking myself for failing at the very least to list Vestris among the managers I catalogued as forerunners of the modern director.

Direction gives us a lot of additional interesting perspectives on the relationship of the profession of directing to the development of European and American society over the course of the past 150 years or so.  Shepherd goes on to speculate about the possibility of “The Irrelevance of Directing” in the new century and, pointing to the much longer history and perhaps greater persistence of the actor-manager, asks whether “directing as a role might seem to have had a relatively short life, a temporary blip in the long history of theatre.”

All of this is in Shepherd’s Chapter 4.  His book, published in 2012 by Palgrave MacMillan, is available from both Amazon and bn.com.  By the way, he mentions Louis E. Catron’s The Director’s Vision three times in Direction, and the mention in Chapter 4 is the most dismissive: “a how-to-do-it book which said bluntly that the ‘vision’ was more important than craftsmanship.” (p. 95)  Does The Director’s Vision (Second Edition) say that “bluntly?”  I don’t really think so, but that’s a topic perhaps for a future post.

Color Vision

The first update or correction I would like to make to The Director’s Vision (Second Edition) relates to the section of Chapter Twelve, “Casting,” on “Open Casting” (pages 167-170).  On page 169 I used the term “‘color-blind’ casting,” which is a phrase I would no longer use.  “Color-blind casting” is an expression that has been used for decades to refer to casting decisions made without regard to ethnicity, and I used it with good intentions.  I now recognize, however, that attempts to be “color-blind” are misguided in the context of a society in which issues of race are important and volatile.

Before I explain further, let me say that I still strongly support the idea of keeping an open mind when casting any role for which ethnicity is not a germane issue.  Casting is always a matter of convention.  For example, the audience must suspend disbelief in order to accept that, in the context of the story of the current Broadway musical Something Rotten!, the central characters Nick and Nigel Bottom are brothers when we know very well that the actors playing them, Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani, are not related at all.  Some might argue that their similar complexion and dark hair color makes it easier to “buy” them as brothers, but their physical build is completely different with no apparent damage to the credibility of the story (which is admittedly fanciful in this case).  Couldn’t we still “get into” this story if one of the brothers were played by an actor with blond hair? by a Latino actor? by an Asian American actor? Then why not an African American actor?  Were Broadway audiences flummoxed and discombobulated when the renowned African American actor Phylicia Rashad replaced Estelle Parsons (who is white) as the matriarch of the family at the center of August: Osage County?  (They were not.)  And perhaps we serve the theatre and our diverse world by extending the boundaries of this convention, as director Liesl Tommy and the Dallas Theater Center did with their recent production of Les Miserables, in which young actors of different ethnicities played the same character at different stages of growth.  After all, if the performers had looked more alike the audience would not actually have been fooled into believing that a single actor had grown a foot during intermission (only to return to her original height for the next day’s performance).  The gloriously diverse cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical (directed by Thomas Kail and produced Off Broadway by The Public Theater) raises fascinating and exhilarating possibilities for the ability of open casting to contribute to the thematic impact of a play.

Making deliberate choices, however, to expand opportunities for talented and skilled actors, to allow the casts on our stages to resemble more closely the mosaic of humanity around us in our communities, and to challenge our audiences’ assumptions about ethnicity and race is not the same as pretending to be “color-blind.”  It is appropriately respectful of cultures and heritages to see and embrace differences in the backgrounds of the actors auditioning for our productions.  And, in the context of the United States, a nation still plagued by racism and still fraught by the horrible historic evil of slavery and the ensuing shameful facts of Jim Crow, lynching and white-supremacist terrorism, segregation, discrimination (in housing, employment, education, and much more), and mass incarceration, I think it is disrespectful, counter-productive, and cowardly to feign “color-blindness.”  I regret the use of the term in the The Director’s Vision and apologize for my failure to change it before the book’s publication.

I am very much a work in progress and I have learned a great deal about American history and society even in the past few days.  I appreciate patience as I work to improve my understanding and my vocabulary, and I appreciate feedback that will help me continue to learn.  Please feel free to post comments about this important aspect of our work.