Theatre nerds spend a lot of time obsessing over casting choices: who’s going to play this classic role in the latest revival of a Broadway musical? How might an unconventional casting choice up-end our assumptions about who a character is and what they look like? Dr. Amy Cook of Stony Brook University looks at what’s going on in our heads when we ask these questions. Her forthcoming book, Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting, examines the cognitive processes that allow us to understand what’s happening in, say, an all-female version of The Taming of the Shrew, or the casting choices behind a modern hit like Hamilton.

Book cover for Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting

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Illustration of two people embracing
Nineteenth-century print by Thomas Fairland depicting Charlotte and Susan Cushman in the role of Romeo and Juliet, respectively. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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Michael Lueger:

The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre Community. It's available on iTunes, Google, and HowlRound.com.

Hi and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. What's going on in our brains, when we sit down in a theatre to watch a show and start processing the various casting choices that the director has made? What do we mean when we say that and actor is cast well or badly in a particular role? These are some of the questions that Dr. Amy Cook wrestles with in her new book, Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting. Amy is an associate professor in English and theatre arts at Stonybrook University where she's also the graduate director in the Department of Theatre Arts. Amy, thank you so much for joining us.

Amy Cook: Thank you for having me.

Michael: In your introduction, you mentioned that the term character in the sense of a role that someone plays only dates back to the nineteenth century. Can you tell us more about how the word came to take on that meaning and what that says about developing attitudes towards casting?

Amy: Yes, the term character really comes from the idea of a mark made on a surface or your hand writing, as in Polonius' instructions to Laertes is that he character his father’s advice in his memory. In the eighteenth century, actors did not become characters, instead they had lines of business and they played their part. These parts did not necessarily need to match the actors themselves. It was not necessarily based on my medic representation. Certainly there are plenty of stories of actresses playing Angenieux's way into their dotage. We start to get this idea of character and then in the nineteenth century, building character as in going through challenges to improve yourself comes from talking about school and education in the nineteenth century. The way I'm talking about it here is then is relatively new. To refer to a character in daily life or in fiction is to integrate a narrative onto a person. In other words, if someone has a character, they have a presumed past and future action. We instill that into our perception of another person. How this relates to casting I think is fascinating.

In the twentieth century film during the days of the Hollywood star system for example. Casting was done by producers choosing someone from their list of leading men or cowboys, Angenieux's. It was pretty much based on who the director might have wanted to work with or who was available. It was certainly to some degree mimetic in the sense of matching type to character, but it wasn't a whole lot more creative than that. They had a list of people that they used. Angela Powell noted in her book, the one thing that started the change casting with the idea of none traditional casting. Suddenly you had actors being cast as characters that it didn't historically fit their race or gender or any other physical marker of the actor. It was a that point she noticed that we started ... A tiny space opened up between character and actor. You could just talk about the character of, say King Lear, as played by Morgan Freeman for example. We may say, as you notice, that an actor is perfect or doesn't look right for the part, but we don't really know anything about this process.

If you look at casting books, books that are specifically casting, they're very much about the business of it. How to audition well or stories of what happened when this actor was cast over that actor. There's very little of a sense of the process by which we come to see the intersection of character and actor as a positive one, or a negative one. This is exactly my interest. This relationship between the actors body and the character, because this to me, has to do with the cognitive ability that creates character through casting. The way in which I cast the man who walks in with the white coat as my doctor. I think when I extrapolate the idea of casting in theatre or film to my daily life, it gives me an interesting protocol or perception. I'll talk a little bit more about that.

I think it's important to ask ourselves what we can understand about ourselves and about the people that we see in our daily lives by thinking about the casting we find right and the casting we find wrong. In particularly because I think this has tremendous political, social, cultural, ideological implications.

Michael: Now you're writing about all these cognitive processes that are going on in our brains as we watch and actor and think about how that actor relates to their role. Can you talk about the cognitive process called compression and how that affects our perception of an actor playing a role?

Amy: Yes. A lot of this work comes from cognitive linguistics and cognitive science, but cognitive linguistic was a really nice fit with thinking of theatre and performance because they both study essentially a similar thing. Cognitive linguistics are looking at what we understand and thinking about how it is we could possibly understand relatively complicated phrases or simple phrases and theatre is ... My interest is how did we understand that that actor came on in Act II was the same actor that came on in Act I. That to me, the fact that we can hold that together is pretty complicated, because all of these people look relatively the same and yet we're able to keep as discrete, the character of Hamlet from the character of Horatio. I'm interested in that process.

Compression is the process by which something complicated and abstract can be reduced. It's like how if you see a line drawing, or a caricature of Donald Trump, you know immediately who it is. Even though it's missing a tremendous amount of information. This process is how we're able to make maps of the night sky, or look at a weather map of swirling colors and understand a storm is coming. There's a tremendous amount of dispersed data, but once you tell me that red is hot and blue is cold, then a movement equals wind, there's a certain amount of mapping that goes on to make sense of this. This is the process by which we got through our daily lives. We don't even really notice it. We don't really notice it. So for example, I talk about Branagh's casting in Hamlet because it's this crazy tour de force of casting. I sort of felt like it was Branagh showing off. With the number of celebrities, he can cram into a long play, but not one that has nearly as many character as he has celebrities.

He casts characters that aren't even in the play such as Priam and Hecuba and Norway. Through this casting, I think that Branagh is announcing his intention to connect theatrical London with filmic Hollywood. Charlton Heston plays the Player King whom Hamlet warns not to out heroded, Herod. Prompted by this casting, I think the audience can immediately understand that this Player King could use Hamlet's directorial advice. Heston is so well known for over acting. He even spooked himself on Saturday Night Live, when he said ... when Hamlet tells him not to out heroded Herod, we don't need to know who Herod was to understand that to out heroded Herod is probably what Charlton Heston does all the time. We're really quickly able to get this very complicated idea that requires historical information, that there's no way Branagh can give us in any other way than by casting Charlton Heston. He's also, of course, an American actor. Charlton Heston plays the Player King and during his speech, the one that inspired Hamlet to wonder how an actor can cry for Hecuba, when Hamlet can't even cry for his dad.

Branagh shows footage of Prium and Hecuba in action, and in this sequence, he creates it like a flash back and he has, so that we can understand what Heston is talking about, though I don't know why that's necessary, except to make the interesting Hollywood London point. The actors that Branagh cast's as these flashback real life Prium and Hecuba are Judi Dench and John Gielgud, famous, respected, theatre and film, but respected English actors. They are then the original, that the American Charlton Heston is sort of trying to bring on stage. Or trying to represent. It's this hilarious, meditheatrical joke, not unlike the joke that I think that some critics have talked about Shakespeare making when in the same scene, earlier scene when the troop of players arrive, Hamlet talks about the players being kind of run out of town by the stupid little boys who are playing and taking their parts. There is this ... For those ... It rewards those geeky in the audience who know Judi Dench and John Gielgud are. It's not terribly complicated.

It's not nearly as complicated as understanding who Herod is, because it's the instant visual joke, we so quickly know who Charlton Heston is, who Judi Dench is, that in this context, we can understand the difference, the idea of theatre and acting and Hollywood acting versus London acting by virtue of this.

Michael: Speaking of big names like Judi Dench and Charlton Heston, you write about the role that celebrity plays in effecting our understanding of a role and it seems like celebrity casting is just ubiquitous on Broadway now. If you're going to do a show, you need to have a big name attached to the production. Can you tell us about how celebrity casting has worked historically?

Amy: Yeah. I think that we tend to be very critical of that exact phenomenon, that if you're gonna do a Broadway play, you have to cast a celebrity and yet the reason why is because if I'm gonna see a new play or a complicated classical play, I'm gonna be way quicker to understand it if you tell me it's got David Hyde Pierce or Kelsey Grammar in it. I can walk in trusting that I'll be able to process a large amount of the plot and a large amount of the character information, simply because I have so much background information with that celebrity. If I don't understand the play, I'll be entertained by the intellectuality of their previous character that I'm familiar with in this new context. I think celebrity is incredibly important and I think that it's this ability to off load the cognitive work of making sense of story and characters that makes celebrity so necessary in a way in theatre and film. I think that Moliere certainly relied on it. Shakespeare relied on it.

I think even if you really think about the pageant plays in the medieval period, they weren't celebrity's but they were locals. A huge amount of a humor seems to come from the fact that, that's really the butcher up there. I think that that was really operating as a cultural conversation starter, a ways of taking the distant narrative of the Bible and bringing it present. I think celebrity's do that for our casting now. It reduces the complexity of the stories and of the characters and it makes us get it really, really quickly.

Michael: In line with that disconnect between what you might know about and actor off stage versus the character that they're playing on stage, you talk about something called strategic miscasting something, which can sometimes refer to physical appearance. Can you give us an example of strategic miscasting and tell us what it says about that phenomenon?

Amy: This strategic casting or counter casting as I'm calling it, is relatively new I think. It's where I get really excited because I think it offers us and opportunity to think of casting a generating change. As a creative thing and not just behind the fog of art. If the body playing the part does not match the presumed race or gender, or body type of the character, then that's for me, strategic miscasting or counter casting. So when Lin Manual Miranda plays Alexander Hamilton, spectators can learn protocols of perception that question the central importance and the normality, the invisibility of white bodies, and particularly in that play. Casting for Hamilton is not about my nieces and it's not about giving opportunities to people of color. The story must be told with the bodies of non-white actors. It is pivotal and the racial and ethnic makeup of these performers, is part of the story of the birth of democracy. Without representing on stage these young scrappy and hungry people who might rebel democracy now, Hamilton just isn't Hamilton and this has been incredibly powerful. That the bodies of the races are present.

We don't want to not see race. We can't not see race or sex, gender, or disability. We can expand our category of what it means to be an immigrant body, to be a female body, to be a fat body, to be an old body, to be a female body, whatever. What roles are possible? What stories can be told with those bodies through the strategic miscasting? There are a number of examples in the book of this. I am tremendously excited about it, but one place where I perceive it was during the Women's Marches of 2017 and 2018, because all of these women wearing these pussy hats. They were refusing the parts they were handed, that they were given a kind of role to play and they cast themselves counter to that. They appropriated this idea of the pussy and they played a different part. I talk a little bit about different ways in which women have kind of forced a new narrative by counter casting themselves and forcing a disruption between the expected role and the performed role.

Michael: Yeah, I was really struck by your description of a recent production of Taming of the Shrew, which as I think many of our listeners know, poses all sorts of problems if you wanna perform it in the twenty-first century.

Amy: So this production by Phila Deloitte and at the Public in Central Park was all women. It was tremendously interesting because a recent time I saw Taming of the Shrew, I remember leaving with my two sons and they knew that I was a little bit troubled by the play and its misogyny and, none the less, we're driving away and my seven year old says, when I asked him what he thought, he say, "Well I like it because at the end the women said that she has to do everything the man says because he's the man and I like that because I'm a boy." I thought yes, exactly, there you go. That is the narrative of Taming of the Shrew. I don't know how you get around it.

One production that I thought did complicate it was the all-female production of Taming of the Shrew where what was interesting was that all of the women were women, there was not an attempt to try to play men. It was simply that the bodies were counter to the characters. So Patrucio was Janet McTeer and she was incredibly sexy but incredibly sort of masculine and female, but so then we have this group working together that are trying to enforce a binary narrative about sex and gender and roles in society that simply breaks down because none of the bodies are what they're saying they are. It works to kind of pull at a key string I think in the play. I also saw recently a production of King Lear with a woman in the title role and some of these things have been done before, but there are certain ways in which you can tell it's kind of opening up an alternate narrative for new stories to get told.

Michael: Now obviously, most shows don't just feature a single actor in isolation. There's a whole cast and how we evaluated the productions casting choices has a lot to do with how those actors relate to one another. Can you tell us a bit about how this relates to a phenomenon called distributed cognition?

Amy: I think that the ecology of The Taming of the Shrew example works here. Our understanding of that play is not because Petrocio is a woman and Kate is a women, it's because they're all women. We know this from the best example is always Romeo and Juliet because the casting of those two tells a tremendous amount of story about why they're separated and also any romance. You learn a lot about Romeo by looking at his Juliet. That automatically happens. There's a way in which we take in information from an ecology over and across different pieces in information rather than linearly or specifically. Distributive cognition sort of fits into the 4E what's called the 4E cognition. First of all distributive cognition assumes embodied cognition, which means that thinking is something that happens in and with our bodies but it's not processing that goes on in the head.

Thinking is what happens when I sit in the chair, when I pick up the cup. This goes on without my thinking about it. It is how I navigate my environment. That is a really new idea that I think has a lot of implications for the arts and the humanities that just simply haven't been explored yet, or just beginning to be explored, because our language really repeats and rehearses a kinda Cartesian dualism about thinking and the body. Even if theatre scholars talk about the body, they could talk about the wisdom of the body, of muscle memory. All of things reiterated and rehearse that separation. For me, dancing is thinking and feeling is thinking and it's what I do in my body, with my body and I can't do without my body. The best example of distributive cognition I can give you come from Evelyn Tribble who wrote a book called Cognition in a Globe, and part of the reason why this is useful is because she is applying to Shakespeare's Globe.

Basically, what she says is that what we think of as the cognitive work of Shakespeare has historically been understood as coming from one man. One lone genius who sat in his room and typed up something great and then they, like a machine, put it together. She uses the idea of distributive cognitive to say that the cognitive load of the event is actually spread over and through the people, the environment, and the system. To imagine a production of Hamlet or Taming of the Shrew requires thinking with the Tiring House, the actors, the rhythm of the poetry, the rhyme, the entrance and exit mask back stage. The casting of the Clown as opposed to verbiage, as opposed to the apprentice. The whole system generates a kind of cognitive whole. The other simple example I can give is the way in which a cockpit, a pilot sort of understands that flying the plane requires a lot of thinking that is done with and through his instrument. It's not that he has a set of instructions in his mind that he's continually remembering, it's that he is off loading cognitive tasks to the instruments.

I'm interested in theatre performances where the actors and the characters are not necessarily individuals with psychological Freudian, internal cells, but are rather a system of creatures working together to tell a story. I think there are a lot of plays that are doing this, that are focusing less on my Freudian […] inside and more on these units coming together to tell a story.

Michael: One example that you site is Anna Deavere Smith, and there's a really fascinating process going on there.

Amy: Yeah, I think she off loads a certain amount of her work onto the memorization. It's very much about her body. I think there's a tremendous amount ... And there's something really interesting about the way in which she separates the character from the actor. She kind of travels from herself to the character.

Michael: Now you've already given us some real-life analogs to this, for instance casting the doctor as the doctor because he or she walks in in a white coat, but I'm curious if the process of working on this book has given you any insight into how we think about casting? Not just in the theatre but in real life.

Amy: This feels generative to me. It first struck me during the 2009 State of the Union Address. The first time Barack Obama addressed the Congress as President and Representative Joe Wilson, I often get his name wrong, shouted, "You lie." I was so struck by that. What I immediately recognized was that Joe Wilson believed that the President was miscast. It was not that Barack Obama was not a good president or was on the other side. He fundamentally did not belong where he was, and so the protocols of respect and decorum that were normally operational in that setting were not in play because he thought of him as some black man on a stool or whatever yelling at them. Not yelling at them, but talking to them. I think there are a sizeable portion of America's voting public that felt the same way. They just were not able to see Barack Obama as right for the part of the president. They perceived him as being miscast, because for them being white and male is fundamentally a necessary sufficient condition for being a president.

This is where the cognitive science also helps because what contemporary cognitive science has done a lot of work on how we think about categories. We don't think about categories as having a definition. We don't think, oh look over there, that's a dog because it's a mammal and categories have prototypes and that partially means that they're expandable. Our category for president can change in the same way our category for marriage can change. Our category for gender can change because they're based on prototypes not rules sent by God that insists that this has to be this and always should be this. And this has to be this and always should be this. If you understand your categories as expandable, as changing over time, then you can adapt them and they can grow, but if you don't then you're just simply not going to be able to see Obama or Clinton or anyone that doesn't look like a white male as President, or as your doctor, or as not a thug.

I'm not saying that Joe Wilson wasn't a racist, or that there isn't a tremendous amount of racism or misogyny at play in the election of the past two elections. Rather that if we think about it as a failure to expand our categories as a casting error, then I think it gives us a little bit more room to think about getting people to rehearse change. I think thinking about category confusion is easier to address and rehearsing change is something that we do in the theatre. As Brandi Wilkens Catanese puts it, we rehearse acceptance of women a Heads of State or African Americans as Heads of State when we see them in movies, like Air Force One, or 24, or Hamilton, and this starts to push and pull our categories. For example, when Judi Dench was casts as Em in James Bond, there wasn't a tremendous uproar, we were able to understand that she had authority and respect and intelligence.

That was enough to make her gender less challenging or troubling to people who for the most part are pretty worried about expanding their James Bond as we found out when the Sony hacking revealed people’s terror thought of an Idris Elba, James Bond. We can change our ideas of who can be what, of what counts, of who counts and of what body is right by strategically miscasting at these people. Also recognizing our own casting biases in our life. That is different than racism, or bias, or it's not necessarily true, but it’s not racism or biased, but it's a way of recognizing our own agency in our bias and in our prejudice.

Michael: We'll posts information about Amy's book as well as material related to casting and its history in our show notes. Amy, thank you so much for giving us a new perspective on what we're thinking about when we evaluate casting choices.

Amy: Thank you. This was fun.

Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit howlround.com and follow HowlRound and @TheaterHistory on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theatrehistorypodcast.net where you can find links to all of our episodes and you can email your questions and comments about the show to TheatreHistory@theatrehistorypodcast.net. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound who make this show possible. Our theme music is The Black Crook Gallop, which comes to us courtesy of the New York Public Library Libretto Project and Adam Roberts. Thanks as well to Tim Cress who signed our logo and finally, thank you for listening.