Hampshire College’s Notes On Race And Casting

Introduction
From 2012 to 2015, I taught acting, directing, and theatre for social change at Hampshire College. Hampshire students are passionately committed to social change and the college has been a hub for activism and visionary thinking since its inception. The Theatre Program aims to teach traditional disciplines (design, playwriting, etc.) alongside theatre for young audiences, the theatrical jazz aesthetic, site-specific design, documentary drama, and courses about interdisciplinary artists whose work redefines identity and the way we see.

When I arrived, questions about race and casting were being discussed in classrooms and in the Hampshire Theatre Board, the student-led body that produces the main stage season. As a multi-racial program with a long-standing commitment to inclusion, these conversations were not new. But they were in greater focus due to the leadership of several active students of color who were in their final years at Hampshire and who felt strongly that their stories had not been fully represented on stage. To support this ongoing work, students, faculty, and staff developed a group called "The Hampshire Theatre Mission Task Force." This task force was charged with addressing issues of equity in the program, starting with questions of racial equity. The group began its work by organizing an event in which students and faculty of color shared their stories with one another. Later, the group organized a Theatre of the Oppressed forum about racial diversity in the program.

Two actors on stage
Money Play, an ensemble-created play, inspired by stories of students' class backgrounds and the many identities that intersect with class.  Photo by Janine Norton.

As this process unfolded, I asked if I might write a short statement about race and casting at the college, inspired by these ongoing discussions. My hope was that it would reflect the many ideas being shared, including my own, and help pass on the conversation to future generations of students, who could both learn from the dialogue and expand on it. Over the course of the next eighteen months, I wrote the following notes and shared them with students, faculty, staff, alumni, the director of multicultural and international student services, and folks in the field. It was revised many times in response to their feedback.

My perspective as a white artist and teacher is important to note here, both for transparency and to share my point of view. I've worked for twenty years in community-based theatre, often creating work about race, class, and immigration. Currently, I'm developing a piece on whiteness and mourning. As I look back at my early work (at the time seen through the blinders of a black/white paradigm), I can see how I articulated my nascent understanding of whiteness onto black bodies—without being clear that I was doing so. In moments, black characters in my work stepped forward into their own radiance; but often, they were distorted by a misdirected expression of guilt, or by discomfort in my own skin, neither of which I felt I could fully articulate in my own voice.

I see that now as a perpetuation of the violence of a culture that sees blackness as an object for white folks to shape or to mold, often in the image of our own fear, and because we have been taught— tragically—that our own cultures do not exist. This erasure denies us the ability to see our complicity in systemic racism and it withholds from us the full richness of our identities: those we've inherited, know in our bodies, imagine, and see in each other's eyes.

Two actors dancing on stage
Money Play, an ensemble-created play, inspired by stories of students' class backgrounds and the many identities that intersect with class.  Photo by Janine Norton.


My sense is that many of today’s college students are aware of the complexity of racial politcs, often more so than their teachers. But the fear of saying the wrong thing—and a history of conversations about race that didn't go well, or that did not lead to action—often prevents hard discussions from happening at all. The intention of the document is not to suggest that we have the answers, but to open up space, provoke questions, spur dialogue, and acknowledge the expertise that so many students are already bringing into the room. Although written for all students, it has been particularly impactful for white students who are much more likely to be having these conversations for the first time. It is intended to be a living document, revised as the issues evolve and the Hampshire Theatre Program changes, which is already happening. Because of the work of my colleagues and the college as a whole, the current first year class of theatre students is among the most racially diverse in the program's history.

At best, this document is a reminder: a reminder that this system of violent inequality is unnatural, and breaking it down so that we can see each other clearly is the most radical—and the most natural—thing we can do.

The "Notes on Race and Casting," as the piece is called, is now included in the curricula for many Hampshire theatre classes and in the application for mounting a show in the main stage season. Particularly, those students whose leadership helped inspire it have received it very positively. With that said, some students have felt it to be a useful statement of vision, but less helpful in terms of specific steps to solve the problem. I agree with that assessment, but I would argue that we are collectively responsible for creating a solution. At best, this document is a reminder: a reminder that this system of violent inequality is unnatural, and breaking it down so that we can see each other clearly is the most radical—and the most natural—thing we can do.

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Multiple actors on stage
Money Play, an ensemble-created play, inspired by stories of students' class backgrounds and the many identities that intersect with class.  Photo by Janine Norton.

Notes on Race and Casting
A core value of the Hampshire Theatre Program is to foreground voices and bodies historically absent from the stage. This reflects the values of racial diversity and social justice that are at the heart of the program’s mission. So casting is more than putting on stage a reflection of who we are. It is also creating an image of who we dream ourselves to be.

Casting in the outside world often reinforces stereotypes and does not allow us to play against our “type.” So educational environments provide rare opportunities for students of all races, genders, and identities to play roles they might (not yet) be able to play outside Hampshire. As a director, how can you express your artistic vision and also expand those opportunities?

It's impossible to summarize in this short paper the many issues of identity and casting, particularly those as complex and as often unspoken as race. But it is vital that you seek out the conversation. It is in collaboration that we can challenge our assumptions and learn to be guided not only by our instincts but also by the questions that sharpen them.

It is our hope that this writing about race and casting will open up further conversations, and additional writing, in particular about gender and gender identity in casting. We invite you to help us widen, and deepen, this conversation so that it reflects our many identities and how they intersect—in our lives and on our stages.

That said, a few thoughts to provoke your thinking about the unique role that race can play in casting choices:

Our hope is to replace the idea of “color blind” casting with “color conscious” casting. In other words, not to act is if race is invisible, but to be aware of how it shapes our lives and our perspectives and to make conscious casting decisions based on that awareness. For example, if you cast white actors as the protagonists and actors of color as the antagonists, are you telling the story of the play? Or unintentionally recreating the (often distorted) lens of popular culture? How can you separate yourself from the lens, which you have been conditioned to see through and find something that is original, that is true?

That said, if you are considering issues of diversity and casting for the first time while you are putting up flyers for auditions, you are too late. Engage diverse perspectives while you are thinking of what show to do, while you are thinking of what classes to take, while you are reading plays and seeing work. Ideally, casting reflects the diverse community you are already a part of, not the one you've assembled just for the purposes of a show.

Regardless of your background, you may hear yourself responding to these recommendations by saying, “But there are not enough students of color here!” And yes, Hampshire’s student body is, sadly, far from representative of the diversity of the US, much less of the world. You are not responsible for rectifying that with a single show.

And yet, have you done all you can to make our community and our work more inclusive? This is more than a Facebook invitation or a one-time announcement—it is a personal commitment to reach out, to question your assumptions and practices, and to help imagine and build a theatre community that represents the diversity and complexity of all of our stories.

Moving Forward
There are many reasons why students of color, particularly in a community where the majority of students are white, come together to share common voices and to tell stories that are often untold (and even when told, are often unheard): it builds solidarity; it creates safe spaces; and it allows for silence to be broken.

There are sometimes also valid, although very different, reasons for casting ethnically specific roles with white actors and for casting students of color in culturally specific roles.

However, if you find yourself saying “this character has to be white because…” or “every member of this on-stage family has to be white because...” ask yourself: “Do they really?” “Why?” Similarly, if you are directing a period piece, there are likely many aspects of your production that do not reflect the period with exact historical accuracy. Why, then, is it essential to reflect the racial lines of that time period?

It is not true (as it is sometimes said) that casting a white actor is a “neutral choice.” It reflects a series of assumptions about who can embody what roles and then passes those assumptions on to our audiences, and therefore reaffirms them.

It is not true (as it is sometimes said) that casting a white actor is a “neutral choice.” It reflects a series of assumptions about who can embody what roles and then passes those assumptions on to our audiences, and therefore reaffirms them.

Casting is complex. It is an art, not a science. There may be times when casting is used to challenge assumptions, to explore the crossing of identities, and to provoke thought. A director of color might cast white students in non-white roles to shock and to inspire new ways of embodying. A director might explore gender constructs by asking female-assigned performers to play male and female-assigned roles. A director may ask deep questions about queer bodies on stage, and who can embody them, and to what purpose. You yourself may be making choices that push boundaries far beyond the limited scope of this paper (and we hope to revise it because of your ideas).

There are no right or wrong answers about how to cast. Nonetheless, casting can be a place for us to look at our practices with both generosity and with a critical lens. This is not to shame us into doing something we feel we have to do; but to be conscious about our choices, so that we do not simply repeat the cultural assumptions that have been passed down to us. We do this so that our artistic expression can reflect both the strength of our individual voices and the beauty and breadth of our communities.

Written by Will MacAdams, former Visiting Professor of Acting and Directing at Hampshire College, in partnership with the students, faculty, and staff of the Hampshire College Theatre Program. The notes were written to support ongoing conversations about race and casting at the college. Written with the contributions of Hampshire Theatre Board, the Hampshire Theatre Mission Taskforce, the 2013 Hampshire ‘ASK for Social Justice Conference,’ Eshe Shukura, Hannah Hodson, Melissa Scheid Frantz, LJ Beckenstein, Bria Sutherland, Allison Lerman-Gluck, and Nandita Shenoy.

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Reading this post was such an eye-opener. I say this because I have never really thought about how casting could be different for others because of my skin tone/gender. I never thought anything different of anyone because of their color though. So many people I know have not been casted when they have done remarkable work and I got casted over them. Theatre is all about what you can bring to the table and should not be determined by the color of skin/gender. I think this program is so amazing because anyone and everyone can join and tell their story.. leave their mark, and I fully believe in this. Also I genuinely appreciate the commitment part that casting directors should keep in mind. Not to not believe in race or gender equality but to be aware of it and make a promise that they will not affect your work or the other person. This will become bigger and bigger and one day I hope it becomes a huge success because this will change our world in some way shape or form and I am so glad I was able to read this article and learn more about The Hampshire theatre and what you are all about in when you cast!

I will soon be directing an Indian play at Barnard College. Will, I can't thank you enough for this article and for the extra awareness it creates around casting.

I am so thrilled that you will be directing at Barnard, Mr. Dattani and that this article shines a light on the inherent inequality in the college system. As an Indian graduate acting student in Columbia's MFA program ages and ages ago, I really struggled with issues of race and gender and identity while I was told to "be more Indian" by my older, male, European professor. It was years later when I worked on Sunil Kuruvilla's wonderful Rice Boy at Yale Rep. with a stellar South Asian cast and a wonderful white director, that I understood I could not completely be myself as an Indian immigrant unless I had others who were "like" me in the room while I was creating work. Now, as a professor of theatre myself (in Los Angeles) I am constantly challenged to create an environment where all my students can safely be themselves in the room.

Really great work here Will + everyone who contributed. Thanks for the "reminder that this system of violent inequality is unnatural, and breaking it down so that we can see each other clearly is the most radical—and the most natural—thing we can do."

I am so excited to see this document posted on Howlround. Will, I'm not sure how many people actually did get in touch with you, but I've told so many people about this document since the very first time you shared it with me. Thanks to you and everyone at Hampshire for working on it and keeping the casting conversation alive as it evolves.

yes - and thank you... for a member of an academic institution where we are consistently juggling issues - of so many things - this is needed as we enter 2016