DISCLAIMER: The re-posting of this article is not meant to “identify” my feelings about the subject matter one way or another. Nor is it meant to divide, anger or cause dismay. What I enjoyed most about this piece is that the writer took the time to really delve (with numerous examples) into a very hot button topic and present, in my humble opinion, some very valid talking points. It’s called educating yourself, y’all, and seeing things from different perspectives. That which align myself to, are the parts I purposely highlighted towards the end…if you’re seeking the “T” about how I truly feel.
OnStage Blog • Ashley Griffin, Guest Editorial • May 25, 2021
TW: Discussions of discrimination and violence against marginalized groups, sexual assault, and identity erasure.
“We are all born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
– Roger Ebert, “Life Itself”
What “type” of people get cast in which “type” of roles has been a discussion since time immemorial. Many university drama programs teach classes on how to “Know Your ‘Type’.” It has always been a complex conversation, but recently it has burst into the collective consciousness of non-artists as well as those in the artistic community. Should non-trans actors play trans roles? Should straight actors play gay characters? Should non-Latinas play Latina roles? What about the recent casting of Rachel Zegler as Maria in the Steven Spielberg helmed “West Side Story?” She is Latina (as is Maria,) but she is Columbian and Maria is infamously Puerto Rican. What about all the Puerto Rican actresses who can play Maria?
This is a complex issue and one that I’ve rarely seen a nuanced discussion about. Why am I the one writing about it? (I’ll get to that at the end, I promise,) but I would like to take a deep dive into the complexities of casting based on personal identity.
Let’s start with a discussion about casting practices and the current issues faced.
PART 1 – THE (LITERALLY) VISIBLE
So, let’s start with that term from before. “Type” Casting.
In its simplest terms, typecasting means what “type” of role an actor is likely to be cast in. In its broadest terms, traditionally (don’t worry, we’ll address the problems of this next part later) it has referred to age, gender, coloring, and vocal type.
For example, a blonde, white Caucasian woman of about 18 with a soprano voice would likely be an Ingénue “type” slotted into such roles as Sandy in “Grease,” Luisa in “The Fantasticks” or Clara in “The Light in the Piazza.” “Type” however can be expanded to include the inner “essence” of someone as well – what “vibes” a person brings into the room just by being them. You might have two white, blonde women, who look exactly the same – one might have “girl next door” vibes, while the other seems more like a diabolical “Squeaky Fromm.”
Typecasting has been used since the beginning of casting to supposedly help agents and casting directors easily delineate which people to bring in for which roles. And in some sense, there’s no way around it. In its broadest terms, it’s comically obvious. I’m a young, female-identifying person. Unless we’re talking about some wildly experimental production (that would be just as wildly inappropriate and I hope doesn’t happen) I will never be called in to audition for Porgy in “Porgy and Bess.”
And the reason, in the broadest terms, that typecasting (can) be helpful is because of the need for “shorthand” when you’re telling a story.
Lindsay Ellis in her video essay on Disney’s “Hercules” gives a wonderful explanation of shorthand:
“When you’re watching a movie, basically everything you see on the screen contains some form of shorthand. For instance…Hercules getting down on his knees and praying to Zeus. Now, a good boy in Ancient Greece probably would have, you know, brought a goat and…slaughtered it on that alter…you know, rather than getting down on his knees and praying like a Christian… The audience associates getting on their knees with piety, therefore this is shorthand. And this has nothing to do with historical accuracy and everything to do with using shorthand to get information to the audience using cultural information and knowledge the audience is presumably familiar with.” – Lindsay Ellis, “Hercules, Disney’s Beautiful Hot Mess: a Video Essay”
I like her example because it is a relatively neutral use of shorthand. And shorthand, though we may not realize it, is necessary to tell a story in a condensed amount of time. One reason is what Ms. Ellis said – many times creators need to use cultural information and knowledge the audience is presumably familiar with.
Let’s say Disney wanted to keep “Hercules” 100% historically accurate. Well, they have two options. They either have Hercules showing up at Zeus’s altar and sacrificing a goat – which will likely be confusing and probably traumatizing to the vast majority of the film’s audience…or they have another character break the fourth wall and take a time out to explain how prayer worked in Ancient Greece (one way of giving the audience “context” – remember that it’ll be important.) But since Disney wasn’t trying to teach a history class, nor were they concerned with potentially offending the Ancient Greeks, they used shorthand so they could get on with the scene.
I would like to point out that another word often associated with aspects of “shorthand” but usually with a much darker connotation, is “coding.” I won’t go too deep into this word as there are others who have analyzed its meaning and use it far better than I. Suffice it to say that it tends to refer to an often derogatory stereotype of a marginalized group that is used as a racist/homophobic/transphobic (etc.) “shorthand” to imply that a character belongs to said group without explicitly confirming it in the text.
For a further discussion and examples of one aspect (queer coding) check out The Take’s video essay: “Queer Coding, Explained – Hidden in Plain Sight” Lindsay Ellis has another great video essay on the film “Bright” that goes into racial coding called “Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding.”
Unfortunately, both “shorthand” and “coding” can lead to stereotyping (of greater or lesser degrees.) Note how many performers will wear glasses for a photoshoot or to an audition where they are supposed to look “nerdy” or even simply “smart.”
Apparently one of J K Rowling’s biggest concerns about casting Hermione in the “Harry Potter” films was that creatives would simply “stick a girl in glasses” instead of looking for an actress with the real “essence” of Hermione. (This example cuts a little deeper when you look at the casting of the West End/Broadway play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” where Noma Dumezweni, a Black actress was cast as Hermione. She certainly had the essence, but many fans couldn’t get over the fact that she wasn’t the right “type” which, after the casting of Emma Watson in the films, if not before, had come in the zeitgeist to mean “white.” Never mind that the only descriptors of Hermione in the book were: big, bushy hair (check for both Watson and Dumezweni) and buck teeth for the first couple of books only.)
But when “typing” and “short-handing” work, they work because they’re simple, effective ways to give the audience context. Like I said above with the “Hercules” example, it’s not possible to give a dissertation to the audience explaining the history, nuances, and other pertinent information needed to have an utterly complete understanding of the elements of a given story. Hey, most of the time audiences don’t even read the program.
There have been serious discussions over the years about the importance/effectiveness of the optional Director or Writer’s note in a program. There have been cases when productions have relied on the audience reading this note in order to get them information vital to understanding the story they’re about to see. But what about the audience members who didn’t read it? Is it laudable that the creators provided the audience with that information? Or laughable that someone would expect anything other than what’s onstage to be vital to the understanding of the production? In most instances, the argument falls on the latter.
But here’s where it starts getting tricky…
Let’s take the Broadway production of “Aladdin.” “Aladdin” is set in the fictional Agrabah which is described in the narration of the Disney film as being near the Jordan River, but is also described as being where “caravan camels roam” which is less frequent near the River Jordan and more frequent in the Arabian countries of Morocco and Algeria. The film also draws influences from the Middle East and South Asia in general (note the depiction of the Taj Mahal.) So suffice it to say, if you asked the filmmakers, they would likely say the story is set “in the Middle East” (which is in itself problematic as it is lumping every person and culture within a vast array of countries into a single, generic identity.) But even taking the generic “Middle Eastern” setting, the Broadway production received criticism for not casting Middle Eastern performers in many of the roles.
A counterargument was raised. This show takes place in “the Middle East.” Regardless of personal identity, the performers needed to “shorthand” Middle Eastern identity to the audience. The question was asked – what do you do in a situation where, say, you’re trying to cast a “Middle Eastern” role and you’re down to the two best candidates: one is of Middle Eastern descent, but has very light skin, blue eyes, and light-colored hair…the other is not of Middle Eastern descent but has darker skin, and darker hair and eyes.
Since the audience is not guaranteed to have all the context, one would assume, if the first actor was cast, that there would be a huge uproar that a seeming Caucasian person was cast in a Middle Eastern role. It cannot be guaranteed that every audience member would have access to the information that that actor was in fact Middle Eastern, even if the production made it a part of every marketing tool they had (not to mention the fact that the actor might not want their “Middle Eastern” identity splashed on commercials, in news articles, etc. to justify their casting (on the flip side, maybe they would welcome the chance to broaden the general public’s understanding of what a “Middle Eastern” person “looks like.”))
So there was a feeling from the production of “we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t, and in this case, we thought shorthand was more important than accurate identity casting.”
And, of course, one of the many downsides to this is it puts actors in a box – and a box that’s not always accurate because it erases identity nuances and has broader social effects…when Middle Eastern characters are only ever depicted as looking one-way people start to assume that’s the only way that real Middle Eastern people look and…we can see where this rabbit hole is going…
This has all been extremely relevant to the longtime conversation about casting based on overt physical differences and in and of itself contains numerous issues, each deserving of its own in-depth conversation (or several.) The neutral idea of short-handing quickly gives way to coding, to stereotyping, and lots of other awful things.
Now I think it’s important to remember that within this nuanced issue there are instances where, I believe, the vast majority of people would agree that casting based on what you physically ARE is important. Most of these instances strongly relate to stories being told about people who physically are X, Y, or Z. For example, I think most people would agree that the role of Celie in “The Color Purple” should be played by someone who is Black. (I would be fascinated to know if someone disagrees with that and what their argument is…)
But what about stories about differently-abled characters? Most commercial productions of “The Miracle Worker” have featured a seeing/hearing artist as Helen Keller. Though it’s a throwback, most productions of “Heidi” have cast the wheelchair-bound Clara with a walking actress. The argument in these cases is that traditionally abled artists are needed because of the other factors that go into putting on a show (i.e. theoretically it would be challenging to cast a deaf, blind child actress as Helen Keller and safely bring them through the rehearsal and performance process.) Whether that’s true or not is, again, fodder for another discussion specifically on this topic.
On the flip side, the wonderful Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening” showed how casting deaf artists in deaf roles can immensely enhance a production from creation on, and how seeming challenges can lead to brilliant ideas and choices that would never have been thought of otherwise.
But what about the times when none of this is important? What about stories where overt, physical characteristics have nothing to do with the story being told? What about “Cinderella?” “Dear Evan Hansen?” And many more? Often, I’ve found, necessary “short-handing” has been confused with “archetype” or even “stereotype.” Why does it seem to be so hard for some productions to be able to separate what is absolutely necessary for a role and what, actually, isn’t?
Let’s use Christine from “The Phantom of the Opera” as a case study.
Traditionally Christine has been cast as a white, cis, able-bodied woman between the ages of 18 and, oh, late ‘20s/early ’30s? Who is 5’7’’ or under and is a soprano.
What here is absolutely necessary to the telling of the story? Let’s take it point by point.
White – not necessary. Some may argue that the story takes place in 1870 Paris and non-white people would not historically have been in an Opera company. Hold on there…in 1851 soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield became a Black pop star in America when she toured the country, performing at the Metropolitan Hall in NYC and later at Buckingham Palace.
Theodore Drury founded an Opera company in 1900 and Asian Opera is (probably) the oldest form of Opera in the world …Christine is a young orphan whose father was a famous violinist. In the show it says her last name is Swedish – that has nothing to do with her ethnicity. Guess what? There were non-white people everywhere in the world in the 1800s…and the show says nothing about the ethnicity of either of her parents…just her last name.
Cis – also not necessarily. The performer playing Christine does have certain vocal requirements and, since I’m pretty sure no one’s going to go dramatically changing the keys of most of the score, those vocal requirements will likely stick no matter what. But as long as the artist can sing the material, there’s nothing in the texts that makes it necessary for Christine to be a cis woman.
Able-bodied – Since Christine has to dance in the corps of an Opera ballet company (and this is important to advancing the plot) she must at least be able to execute the choreography.
Woman (female-identifying) – This could theoretically be up for debate, but I’m going to land on the side of, yes, Christine, in this production, probably needs to be a woman. On the technical side, there are the roles in the “shows within the shows” Christine needs to play, which are female, second, the story hinges on the fact that Christine is a young dancer in the corps of the Opera ballet. Given the way the ballets have been staged, the corps is made up of female dancers, with one or two male dancers doing small side roles. For her to be a “nobody in the chorus” plucked out into stardom in this world, being female-identifying is part of the storytelling.
Between the ages of 18-late 20’s/early 30’s – yeah, this is a requirement. Christine in the text is a very young woman – young enough that she’s in the corps in the Opera ballet, young enough that it hasn’t been that long since her father died, young enough for no one to really have heard her sing, or to have her debut yet, and young enough that her only experiences with romance are the Phantom and Raul saving her red scarf. So the performer needs to believably pass as someone between the ages of, say, 16 and 20-something?
5’7’’ or under – yeah, this is a (slightly) flexible, but generally hard and fast rule that relates to the age question above. On stage height translates to age…it’s annoying, but it’s true. Teen children will always be cast as shorter than their parents, teens/young adults will always be cast shorter than older characters. Because of this, there’s a height cut-off for any Phantom cast member playing Christine, Meg, or any of the young dancers.
Is a soprano – yes, as mentioned above, it’s highly unlikely they would change keys for most of the score to accommodate anyone…
So what do we actually have? Outside of any personal opinions of the creative team, for storytelling purposes, in this production of “Phantom”, Christine must be a female-identifying person between the ages of 18 and early 20’s/30’s, 5’7’’ or under who is a soprano and can execute ballet choreography.
That’s a very different breakdown.
Or another example: Ado Annie in “Oklahoma.”
The only aspects that are ABSOLUTELY necessary to the casting of this role are: Female identifying (she does sing a song called “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No,”) age-wise – a peer of Laurie’s, comic, and a person who owns and revels in their sexuality.
Look at Ali Stroker – a wonderful performer who is wheelchair-bound. She won a Tony for playing Ado Annie and it was a shock to most people that this role could be played by someone in a wheelchair.
I would like to add that both here, and throughout my discussion, there may be communities or groups of people that I inadvertently don’t mention specifically. Please forgive me if that’s the case and know that I am intending to include all marginalized communities in this discussion – everything is applicable to everyone.
And one issue I want to briefly touch upon is the issue of “size.” This is an issue that will straddle both sides of this discussion as for some their body type isn’t, for others it is a choice. But unless something to do with your physical makeup is a part of the story being told (one of the few cases that come to mind is Tracy Turnblad being a larger girl being an active and important part of the storytelling of “Hairspray,”) I think this is a topic that needs a separate in-depth discussion as it delves more into industry bias than story requirements (unless something about an artist’s physical make up excludes them from a necessary requirement of the show.) One person who is speaking brilliantly about this (specifically in the dance world) is the wonderful Kathryn Morgan who was a soloist with the New York City Ballet. Please check her out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD0xB8VNzSk&t=15s
But can casting can ever truly be “color/able blind” full stop, end of statement? Ignoring race/ableism isn’t necessarily the best thing. It depends on the situation. In the Brandy version of “Cinderella”, there were multiple races represented and they simply created a world where a lot of negative things had to be overcome, but race wasn’t one of them (for example, Cinderella was a Black woman, her stepmother was white, and her stepsisters were Black and white respectively – so, though her stepmother was awful, it was never because of Cinderella’s race which, in another casting universe, could have become a central focus.)
On the flip side, I have seen different productions of shows where nothing changed in the script, but the lead actress was cast with women of different races – making some things hit in VERY different ways that should have been addressed by a dramaturgical team and the company in the direction of the show.
One argument I hear over and over again for why casting can’t be expanded to include more diversity is the “we need a celebrity” argument. I find this a deeply frustrating, catch-22. Many people in power will say there are few minorities (including all categories where that term may be applicable) with the star power to lead certain projects. First of all, that’s not true, and second of all, to the extent that it may be true to any degree is a direct result of the systemic oppression of minorities in the entertainment industry and the fact that they haven’t been given the opportunities that straight, cis white people have been. If they’ve never been given a chance, how can they earn the star power you “need?” And pushing this mindset helps no one. It’s what creates situations where white actors are, for all intents and purposes, performing in Black or yellowface. Remember when Emma Stone was cast as a person of native Hawaiian ancestry?
On the flip side, let’s look at a reverse example. Maria Bakalova burst into stardom when she was cast as Tutar in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Here is a brilliant actress who shares a background with her character (Eastern European) and spoke in her native language in the film (not just speaking, but improvising brilliantly both in her native language and non-native English.) By all accounts, she “made” that movie and was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Ms. Bakalova has said she never thought she’d be able to break into commercial Hollywood films because of her background and accent. Imagine if they’d cast a name, white American actress who then had to “play” Eastern European and make up a native language? They would have had their “star power” but the film would have suffered.
To be fair, the reason “star power” is such an issue is because in order for a project to be successful people have to come to see it. Most people come to see a show or film because they have a strong connection to some element of it – they love the story or the source material (hence the deluge of nostalgic properties and franchises. Why do you think we have dozens of Marvel movies and basically no original superhero/sci-fi projects?) They like someone on the creative team (just say “Directed by Stephen Spielberg” and you’ll have a huge opening weekend,) or they’re a fan of the performers. You have to work a lot harder if you have an original project with unknowns. But the irony is, if an original project, or artist “breaks out” – you’ve suddenly got new “star power” on your hands. Look at “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on Broadway – part of the mythos of that show, and one reason people went to see it was that Sutton Foster was a real-life “girl plucked from the chorus who became an overnight star.” There are many creative ways to market a show and I feel many of them are sadly under-utilized.
PART 2 – THE (POTENTIALLY) INVISIBLE
So what happens when we take this conversation further to discuss aspects of personal identity that are not necessarily visible? An ethnic background that is not necessarily apparent at first glance? Sexual orientation? Gender identity? Neurodiversity? Where you were raised? Economic background? Experiences of trauma?
And that’s not even starting on aspects of identity that are (potentially) part of your identity completely by choice, i.e. your religion.
Part of the challenge with this aspect of potential casting applicability is that it may require artists to “out” themselves in order to “prove” that they personally identify with a role. It’s (thankfully) become common in our society to hear such phrases as “X was the first out gay person to do Y,” but that word “out” is an important distinction. It doesn’t mean they were the first gay person to do “Y.” We’ll never know who that was. We don’t know how many gay, trans, genderfluid, etc. people have done X, Y, or Z because identifying as such does not mean you have to identify as such publicly.
A potentially controversial example of how this issue comes into play happened recently with Lindsay Ellis (same woman as in the “Hercules” and “Bright” examples above.) Ms. Ellis felt forced to “out” herself as a survivor of rape in order to combat serious online abuse and “canceling” in response to a controversial video that, several years ago, was posted online without her permission.
In an hour and forty-minute-long video essay called “Mask Off,” Ms. Ellis basically feels cornered into a position where she has to provide context to the controversial video purely so that people will stop harassing her. I won’t go into the details of that video, but suffice it to say it was a private video based on an inside joke between her and a couple of close friends that they made to help them process trauma they’d experienced. At the time she was working as a YouTube film theorist for an outside company and she didn’t realize that when she exported the video is automatically uploaded to the shared folder for that third party who posted it without screening the content, or checking with Ms. Ellis that this was indeed a video set for release.
Though she immediately told them to take it down it is still on YouTube and, without the knowledge that Ms. Ellis is a rape survivor, or the context of this video being an inside joke to process trauma, people took her to task as being “insensitive of survivors of sexual assault.” Once she posted “Mask Off” and, the context was revealed, many people suddenly changed to “Oh! We understand now!” And, though certainly not everyone, many people suddenly became sympathetic towards Ms. Ellis and the problematic video. Now that she’s “outed” herself, many people are regretting the “cancelation.” And that situation isn’t ok. (NOTE: This example is not meant to say that the video in question was in any way “OK,” but to provide an anecdote that arose from the sudden change of response from some people once they had context vs. when they did not.)
It’s painful to watch parts of “Mask Off” because, at least I felt, Ms. Ellis, did not want to do this. She didn’t want to share her private story of extreme trauma on a public forum that will now be out there for everyone to see forevermore. She did it because she felt forced to and I think about this when issues of casting come up. If we say, for instance, that only gay artists can play gay roles, that requires anyone auditioning for a gay role to “out” themselves in order to be in contention.
This is, of course, only one piece in a large conversation about appropriate casting practices. The other big element is that historically certain groups have been seriously underrepresented in the arts and media. When they are represented, the vast majority of the time those roles are being played by people who do not identify as members of the groups being represented. These groups are rightfully calling both for representation and for that representation to come from these groups themselves – as writers, directors, performers, and artists in general.
In real life, trans people are victims of discrimination, violence, and, too often, murder. Many people in the general public claim to not know any trans people. Yet, when “The Danish Girl” came out in theaters, Eddie Redmayne, a cis, male actor, received an Oscar nomination for “bravely” playing real-life trans woman Lili Elbe (and that’s just one example.) So one of the few times a trans story is publicly heralded it’s a cis performer who reaps the rewards (and contributes to perpetuating the false, often dangerous idea that “trans women are just men in women’s clothes.
Recently, Sia’s film “Music” featured neurotypical performer Maddie Ziegler playing a character named Music who is on the autism spectrum and non-verbal. The film is HIGHLY problematic for many reasons, but most can be boiled down to the fact that no one on the autism spectrum was involved in its creation, and the one autistic organization that was consulted is deeply problematic in and of itself.
Sia dug herself into a hole with conflicting stories about the casting of Ms. Ziegler…though she’s shared that the role of Music was written for Ms. Ziegler and has (for years) been talking about Ms. Ziegler’s attachment to the project, when her casting became controversial she announced that she did originally have an autistic performer in the role, the requirements of filming were “too much” and the actress was replaced with Ziegler (????) Sia personally attacked autistic artists on Twitter who questioned the casting and it is muddy at best if Sia ever intended to include autistic performers in the project. The result is what has been widely criticized as a stereotyped, offensive, damaging portrayal of autistic people (this criticism extends way past the casting of Ziegler, but certainly includes it.)
The film was nominated for four Razzie awards this year and, interestingly, two Golden Globes as well, in categories overlapping with those of their Razzie noms…. (I would like to say, however, that I wish criticism of this piece and its issues would stop being leveled at Ziegler – who was a child (legally) when she made this movie and who did everything she could to stop the problematic issues – she was apparently even in tears early on in filming, concerned that the autistic community would think she was making fun of them. I also think she is a wonderful performer and did a great job portraying the role as SHE WAS INSTRUCTED TO PLAY IT. Was it an accurate portrayal? No. But that’s not on her – she was a child, trusting those around her, and she did an excellent job executing Sia’s vision. Sia’s the one we should be held accountable.)
But let’s circle back, for a moment, to “The Danish Girl.”
Though I think Eddie Redmayne is a wonderful actor, I would have loved to have seen a trans woman play Lili. And while in “Music” there may be debate about whether a non-verbal autistic artist would have been able to execute Sia’s vision, or be up for everything involved in working on a film set, there is absolutely no debate about whether a trans artist would have been able to execute the demands of portraying Lili.
And then I think…what if Eddie Redmayne identifies as trans…and we just don’t know? What if Elliot Page had played a trans man before he came out as trans himself? Wouldn’t he have gotten just as much hate?
So how do we iron out the already complex issues surrounding identity and who’s cast in which roles when you add to the mix the fact that being identity accurate, in some instances, requires an artist to publicly share potentially private aspects of their identity?
Part of being an actor is wanting to play more than who you are…or even examine private aspects of yourself (or, on the flip side, aspects of the human experience that are far removed from you.) It’s part of what separates drama from documentary and is a big reason why actors of all backgrounds enter the profession. This is maybe sidestepping the issue a bit, but I get a bit miffed when I or another performer is asked if they are romantically involved in real life with the person they’re playing opposite. Though sometimes that may be the case, the majority of the time the answer is NO. No, I don’t have to really be in love with someone to play opposite them, just as I don’t have to hate someone to play antagonistically opposite them, or have murdered someone to play a murderer, etc., etc.
So, in my heart of hearts, in a utopia, my answer to this question is that EVERYONE should be able to play (just about) everything. Trans artists should play cis characters. Gay artists should play straight characters and straight actors should play gay characters. In an ideal world, I think this could only add to our communal empathy…one of the great things about being an artist is you “walk around in another person’s shoes” for a living. I think it could be a great thing if we were all taking time to look at the world from everyone else’s perspective.
But thus far that dream has only been one-sided. We think of cis, straight, and white as the default – the neutral that can transform into everything else. But the truth is we are ALL the default and we can ALL transform.
So, why am I speaking about this? Shouldn’t it be the under-represented groups talking about this issue? (Being female not-withstanding.) And my answer is YES (and I’ve included some links below where we can listen to what they have to say.) I was nervous about addressing this issue and thought maybe I should shut up and step to the back. But I also can’t shake the understanding that I have been privileged enough to be given a platform and we need to use whatever opportunities we can to speak out – otherwise we’re doing nothing.
The issue of casting based on personal identity is a complex and nuanced one. But the bottom line is we can’t even begin to have a conversation about those issues until the playing field is significantly evened out. I would call on all my fellow artists to be allies and supporters of underrepresented groups of artists and, while the playing field is uneven, that means speaking up and advocating for leveling it. That means that we need to be active participants in casting and we can do that by being careful about what roles we accept, bringing inequality to the attention of others, and advocating for our fellow artists. It means that if you are not a part of an underrepresented group, include people who are in any storytelling that involves their community. Bring communities into stories that aren’t directly about them (we all want to play more than ourselves, right? That means Black artists shouldn’t only be involved in Black stories, likewise for trans, gay, neurodivergent, etc. stories.)
Let’s all work together to help move representation forward. But likewise, I think we need to treat each other with a stronger helping of grace. I’ve seen breakdowns where they’re looking for a survivor of sexual assault to play a fictional survivor of sexual assault. No one should be forced to “out” personal details about themselves in order to qualify for a role. If we fight for inclusivity, while treating each individual with love, respect, and empathy…we can’t go too far wrong.
“A Guide to Creating Trans-Inclusive Culture” GLAAD: https://www.glaad.org/files/5050by2020%20-%20GLAAD%20-%20TRANSform%20Hollywood.pdf
Muslim Public Affairs Council: https://www.mpac.org
“Race, Whiteness, Black Lives Matter: Lessons for Theater” Vulture: https://www.vulture.com/2020/06/race-whiteness-black-lives-matter-lessons-for-theater.html
“5 Steps Toward Making Theatre More Diverse” Playbill: https://www.playbill.com/article/5-steps-toward-making-theatre-more-diverse