There is a growing mandate for equity, diversity, inclusion, and access (EDIA) on and behind the stages of American theatre. The 1995 Professional Theater Document of Principle, endorsed by the unions and guilds of actors and stage managers, casting directors, playwrights, producers, stage directors and choreographers, as well as Actors Equity Association's Equal Employment Opportunity statement—all point to a critical consensus that EDIA are professional values to which to aspire and realize in practice.
We as theatre practitioners, and the general public alike, hear and use terms like nontraditional casting, color-/race-, and gender- blind and now more recently, conscious and coalition casting. But do we share a literate understanding of how these concepts function in practice, their histories, their differences and the values informing them? However way we understand these practices, we often arrive at the same beleaguered endgame: ritualized and repeated public calling out of productions gone awry, and the hardening resentment towards what is perceived as autocratic identity politics and political correctness, leaving us all fatigued and whiplashed, using whatever energy remains to create work in our respective corners.
An increasing and rich body of critical scholarship documents and critiques the history of casting practices, particularly within various groups (e.g., women, LGBTQI actors, actors of color, actors with disabilities, etc.) But processing complex yet practical questions about casting should not be taking place solely among academics and critics. As one of a handful of actors of color in a competitive undergraduate theatre training program in the 1990s and as an acting teacher with two decades of working in various institutions, I have witnessed the demographics of undergraduate actors change dramatically towards greater diversity. But changes in equity, inclusion, and access are harder to determine. For many students enrolled in an introductory Acting class, this course experience is often their first and sometimes only encounter with professional theatre practice and conduct. I believe acting classes, particularly introductory courses, offer a crucial space to frame and articulate explicit analysis, inquiry, and creative engagement with casting practices.
The values informing any casting practice vitally determine not only the clarity of storytelling, but also access and opportunity for those telling the story. The recent refusal of the Albee estate to grant performance rights to the Shoebox Theater in Portland, Oregon—based on the director's decision to cast a black actor in the role of Nick in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—provides yet another opportunity to process and strengthen our understanding of casting practices that advance equity, inclusion, and access. These recurring disputes speak to the need for shared literacy around casting practices. What are the values or ideologies at play underneath recent casting conflicts?
The Artifice of What Is "Naturalistic"
I am skeptical of the term "naturalistic" when describing imagined worlds that are exclusively white. The Dramatists Guild’s statement speaking to the Albee estate's decision makes clear that casting concerns are within the protected purview of a writer's intellectual integrity; and the Albee estate has every right on that basis to grant or to withhold approval. In the past, Albee spoke to being concerned by the prospect of incorporating a staged interracial relationship in Who's Afraid…? Casting decisions implying such a relationship would theoretically be at odds with what Albee referred to as the "naturalistic" world of the play, which takes place in the 1960s. Indeed, historically interracial relationships were subject to legal incarceration until the Supreme Court's case Loving v. Virginia was settled in 1967, determining state bans on interracial marriage (or "miscegenation" laws) unconstitutional. Notably, the Hays Code governing what was permitted to be depicted in American popular film forbade characters to engage in "miscegenation" (i.e., "sex relations between white and black races"). The Code ceased technical enforcement since 1956. In the time and place of Albee's play and that of its contemporaneous audience, American private life and collective imaginations were artificially and forcefully circumscribed by “White Supremacy,” to offer the term used in its legal debut in Loving's decision. The fact we have culturally internalized, and perhaps normalized, these systems of discrimination makes them no less artificial. Given this essential context, we can name and reframe the staging of these racially white worlds as grossly unnatural. Perhaps the casting of an intact white world is what the Albee estate will continue to interpret and insist as essential and requisite to any sanctioned production of Who's Afraid…? If so, let us recognize and interrogate the peculiar world such casting implies for what it is—unconsciously artificial and increasingly antiquated.
The Character Breakdown
Theatrical plays uniformly denote the number of female and male roles alongside genre in published script form, often on the back cover of acting editions. Character breakdowns within the script often reiterate the gender count and additionally note the age of the characters. This conforms to two of three organizing characteristics that social psychologist Paul Bloom observes: humans generally and unconsciously structure a person's identity at first glance according to perceived gender and age. The third point of organization Bloom contends is race. In reading play scripts, however, a character's race is often conspicuously absent, except generally when a character is not white; non-white characters are often marked and noted.
This nearly standard refusal to name whiteness brings to mind an awkward, but revelatory phrase former Actors Equity Association Executive Secretary Alan Eisenberg coined in 1998: white-understood. Eisenberg used the term to describe the unwritten, inferred, and fully operational policy that characters unspecified by race are by default, racially white and played by default, generally by racially white actors. Whiteness is the dominant casting choice to signify and embody the normal, the neutral, the universal, and the unmarked. Specifically, Eisenberg was providing clarity around the concept of nontraditional casting—a proactive practice to consider minority actors (gender, race, etc.)—which was then conceived to identify and rectify this radical imbalance in access and representation.
The phrase white-understood exposes the falsehood of meritocracy, or the bromide that consideration of acting should be theoretically free of considerations of age, gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, or any other social identity. In other words, “the best actor for the role.” While this unspoken policy is showing signs of change or at least acknowledgement, we must positively push for more visible and energetic dismantling. As a recent landmark study of hiring bias released by AEA makes clear, the glaring disparity of working opportunities for minority actors of all kinds persists—despite decades now of diverse actors emerging from exceptional training programs. To mitigate the lack of access to employment not only for actors of color but all minority actors, playwrights are increasingly explicit in utilizing character breakdowns to specify the multiple identities of the characters. Playwrights are including notes on casting, reinforcing how essential these represented identities are to the play's vision and experience. As teachers, we must find a way to speak to the manufactured norming of whiteness and process these concepts generously with our students; this collaborative conversation is essential to how and with whom we witness and create theatre.
Theatrical embodiment can be an act of radical empathy as actor and character transform each other in occupying the same physical space. As actors, we draw our creative fuel from our experiences, imaginations, curiosity, and courage. We also draw from and act on our implicit biases about ourselves and others. Activating our artistic resources must involve decolonizing our imaginations. While we are continually expanding our notions of casting and representation that bend towards greater inclusion, we must inform that momentum with knowledge of practices that historically and currently continue to exclude. We empower students when we equip them with the ability to identify and process the practice of whitewashing and all of the attendant and unexamined variants—blackface, yellowface, brownface, cripface, etc.—that continue to depict the violent erasure and dehumanization of members of marginalized groups.
Before the first character inquiry, who am I?, actors ask, who or which character can I play? or more pointedly, which character am I allowed to play? As a teacher, I challenge students to set aside notions of what might be considered their literal or stereotypical type, and invite them to ask themselves, who or which character speaks to me? Which plays and scenes encourage each individual student to bring their full and multiple selves to the process? How can we disrupt the permission-based structure of acting and embolden students to determine roles for themselves? This continual artist inquiry can open a connection between creative freedom and representational equity.
Many students observe professional acting exclusively through popular film and television. According to the recent self-reported list of the most popularly produced high school plays and musicals (2015–2016) from Dramatics, most students who experience high school theatre typically perform from scripted material valued for its accessibility, familiarity, and pragmatic fit with cast size. Simultaneously, as college acting classes become increasingly diverse, some students enter with a sharp awareness (and often fatigue) of normative white-understood protagonists—with a hunger and sophistication to examine and undo these constructs. Invariably, there is a range of lived experiences, cultural literacy and (mis)information of representation among the students, with differing perspectives and assumptions of embodying a role with integrity and insight. It is my responsibility to acknowledge and bridge this range, as well as facilitate collective understanding.
To create this shared understanding, intentional discussion about casting practices as part of the curricular experience can and should:
- Establish the values of equity, diversity, inclusion, and access as central to the mission of professional theatremakers.
- Clarify how creative freedom—including casting possibilities—differs between the learning space of a classroom environment and the professional expectations of a public stage.
- Affirm that all art-making has context and history.
These discussions reinforce the core work of acting training by:
- Empowering the actor with the responsibility that comes with transformation and representation.
- Compelling the actor to root their work with respect to a character's imagined, lived experience.
- Committing to a deeper understanding of the dramatist’s vision and intentions, which includes a respect for creative rights.
But above all, I try to impart that theatre is about meaning-making as I bring my own evolving questions about representation and equity to the classroom. The week early in each semester focused on processing casting practices promises discomfort, confusion, uncertainty, and possibly, clarity, community, and creative freedom. As teachers, we must be willing and able to talk about inequity, homogeneity and exclusion if we are to realize equity, diversity, and inclusion. As actors, we “travel from the self to the other” to invoke playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith. Our actor bodies do not disappear nor should we want them to; our unique and complex bodies create additional layers of meaning—complicating, enhancing, or diminishing, flattening—the play’s vision.
As a mixed-race woman of color, I strive to bring the history of my own various adaptations to the work I do as an acting teacher—not only the creative adaptations as a theatre artist, but also the social and personal adaptations of insisting on legitimacy and belonging in spaces that rarely reflect the makeup of my many identities. In my own journey as a teacher, I have tried to balance integrating issues of representation and equity with the more conventional modes of actor training analysis and process. But I am more urgently of the mind and heart that these concerns overlap and enrich each other. I recall strongly as a young actor how readily I accepted any role my acting teacher chose for me, determined exclusively by her subjectivity. To be cast is to be made visible, even on someone else's terms. However, in ceding any discussion of rationale or my own input in casting, I forfeited my own insight into what was possible, what could be imagined for myself.
These learning spaces can and must establish a baseline for the values of EDIA. There will continue to be productions that challenge or confuse these values. We serve our students and our field when we learn and practice talking about casting—how we strive to and often fall short of fully seeing ourselves and others in our work.
I wish for my students not just visibility onstage, but agency in their art.