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How to Respond to a "Casting Controversy"

I’m no stranger to casting controversy. I come from Chicago and my first experience with one of these crises was in the fall of 2012. I was sitting in my office at DePaul University, which I shared with five other MFA directing candidates, and gasped out loud when I saw the opening night announcement for Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular at a local theatre. That could be really exciting, I thought. My heart quickly sank, however, when I read the roster of artists involved, none of whom were South Asian. When I saw the press photos, which showed actors in what looked like brownface, I was hurt and offended.

I reached out to the then-outgoing Artistic Director, who was directing this production as part of his final season. He explained that his production team was approaching Bollywood as a “style.” And besides, they had stated that they were looking for a diverse cast in their audition posting, which obviously indicated their attempt to be inclusive.

Wanting to keep an open mind, I attended the production together with a few other members of the South Asian theatre company I led at the time.

Your 'casting controversy' is the symptom; the root problem is institutional bias. And hey, good news—you’re now aware of that bias!

Simply put, we found the production offensive, and we were not alone in that response. Everything from faux dandia dance moves to inappropriate costumes for a widow to Hindu iconography pasted on as set dressing deeply hurt me. I felt like the culture I love and grew up in was being treated like cheap window dressing. After the opening, when members of the press also began to write about the elements of appropriation in the piece, the Artistic Director called me, berated me for drawing attention to this issue, gaslit me, and threatened to sue me.

This eventually resulted in an event we are now all too familiar with in Chicago: a town hall meeting. This particular event was hosted at Victory Gardens Theater, and had a broader focus about inclusion and diverse casting, rather than addressing the specific issue at hand. No one wanted to single anyone out, I guess. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), based in New York, wrote a “do better” letter which I passed along to the moderator; they declined to read the statement aloud.

Looking back, I felt pretty heartbroken. I felt that I’d lent my voice to an important issue, had risked my professional reputation in order to do so, but hadn’t made much of an impact on this specific situation, or on our field’s understanding of appropriate casting, in general.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016, when two Chicago theatres faced criticism for their lack of inclusion of Latinx artists: Marriott Theatre for their production of Evita, which featured only one actor of Latin descent in their cast, and Porchlight Music Theatre for their production of In the Heights, which featured a white actor in the lead role of Usnavi. This resulted in another town hall event (again hosted at Victory Gardens Theater), and this time I served on the panel. (I’d recused myself from the previous one, due to the aforementioned lawsuit threat.)

What was successful about this second event was its structure:

  • First, the moderator spent forty-five minutes asking questions of the carefully curated panel.
  • Then, the moderator broke the audience into small groups to discuss specific action items. Each member of the panel joined one of the breakout groups; one breakout group even formed online, including participants who were livestreaming the event via HowlRoundTV (full video here).
  • At the end of the (very long) evening, the whole audience re-convened, and representatives from the breakout groups shared their findings and suggestions.

What remained challenging was the broad focus of the evening: the topics discussed were again generally focused on questions of inclusion and representation, rather than specifically targeted at the “offending” productions. Again, I get that no one wanted to single anyone out—but it is difficult to make specific suggestions in response to a general problem.

I left this event feeling more uplifted and empowered—the attendance had been better, the social media presence was powerful, and people walked away talking about resources like ALTA Chicago, the Chicago Inclusion Project, and the Chicago Minority Actor DatabaseGreat, I thought, because I don’t want to have to have that conversation again.

Crowd of people attending a town hall meeting
Town Hall event at Victory Gardens.

But in the fall of 2017, I found myself involved in yet another “casting controversy.” I went to see Northlight Theatre’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will—the second production of that play, which had premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts earlier that year. On the second page of her script, Gunderson writes, “Casting should be diverse. Shakespeare is meant for everyone.” I was so heartened by this directive and by the casting of the Denver production, which included several actors of color—and two South Asian actors to boot! My desi heart soared! Gunderson’s vision for this play seemed so in line with my own personal mission: to crack open the classical canon to include more diverse voices in those gorgeously written stories.

My heart sank, however, when I saw the casting announcement for the Northlight production, which included a cast that (to my understanding) was entirely cis and white. The production team was similar in its makeup. What happened to Gunderson’s vision? I wondered.

Again, I felt it was important to see the work, despite my initial misgivings, so I attended the opening night performance. And again, I couldn’t help but feel hurt, offended, and betrayed—not only by the production itself, but by the organization as a whole, a company I’d worked for in various capacities since 2002. In direct contrast to Gunderson’s directive, this production reinforced the notion that Shakespeare is only meant for a select group of people—one that doesn’t include me or my colleagues of color or the trans* community or Native artists or artists with disabilities.

So, what to do?

First, I contacted a few other artists of color whom I know to be vocal about issues of inclusion. They shared with me that they had contacted the director and Artistic Director but felt that their email exchanges made minimal impact. I decided to write a piece for public consumption and partnered with a local arts criticism blog called Rescripted. My editorial, “The Book of Will Fails to Diversify the Bard,” was published on 30 November 2017, and was shared over 1,000 times on social media—an indication of the level of interest in the conversation. On 5 December, the website published a response from BJ Jones, Artistic Director of Northlight Theatre.

A few things in Jones’ response struck me as particularly disappointing. The first was this statement:

Our casting process extended invitations to actors of color. Indeed, we made offers to multiple actors of color. All of whom turned down the roles for a variety of reasons, with availability being chief among them.

First of all, diversity includes, but is not limited to, racial diversity.

Secondly, language like "all of whom turned down the roles" puts the onus on the actors of color, when the onus should be on the institution. If the actors approached were already booked, the issue is not that that the artists are in high demand, but rather that the institution did not begin the casting process early enough. The issue may also be that there is a lack of trust between the artists and the institution.

Finally, Jones’ language reminded me of the blasé response I’d received from the director of Pippin (shared with me privately via email)—the lack of ownership in both instances was stunning.

Jones ended his statement by writing:

In the spirit of continuing the conversation, Director Jessica Thebus and Aaron Todd Douglas will be co-hosting a panel in late January, and we hope to see you there.

Not again! I thought. I was then invited to be on said panel, but declined because 1) I was told the audience would primarily consist of Thebus’ students, not the general public, and 2) I was told that Jones would not be in attendance. Shortly after I declined to be on the panel, the event was canceled entirely.

Making room for new voices often means that other ones (ie, traditionally privileged communities) will have to step aside. You must be willing to do this in order to make reparations to the communities you’ve hurt.

With a bit of distance from all three of these situations, none of which contained a satisfying response to me or the communities I collaborate with, I propose the following approach to companies who find themselves amidst a “casting controversy” in the future:

Step 1: Acknowledge that this is not a PR problem.

It’s not even a casting problem. Your “casting controversy” is the symptom; the root problem is institutional bias. And hey, good news—you’re now aware of that bias! Some people never get that far. But the more challenging news is that this kind of institutional bias takes years to address. And if you don’t want to repeat this kind of mistake, you must commit yourself to radical institutional changes that acknowledge and compensate for that bias.I’ve participated in, but am no expert on, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion training, so I won’t presume to make more specific suggestions. Plus, there’s no “one size fits all” solution, as not all institutions are built the same. But in short—you need to contact an EDI consultant and/or create a task force to address this bias ASAP.

Step 2: Apologize.

When I was at Shakespeare and Company, Director of Education Kevin G. Coleman introduced me to a three-part apology, which we used with our students:

  1. Acknowledge what you did wrong.
  2. Apologize, genuinely.
  3. Ask the person or group that you hurt, “Do you forgive me?”

Language like “we approached actors from X community, but they were already booked” or “casting didn’t work out as we planned” do not count as apologies. Take ownership of what happened and of your complicity in those events. There's a saying: “there are two reasons why people open their mouths to speak: either to make someone else feel better, or to make themselves feel better.” Make sure you're focused on the former.

But the last part is most important—asking for forgiveness. So often, people in positions of power do not acknowledge their privilege and/or recognize that their actions can disempower people and communities with less privilege. Empowering someone to say, “Yes, I forgive you” or “No, I do not” or “I maybe can, but here’s what I need to make that happen” gives them back some of the agency that has been taken away from them.

Step 3: Make room for new voices—and empower them to create change.

Ask yourself: who are the marginalized voices within the dominant culture of your institution? This question was first posed to me at a planning meeting for the 2020 Jubilee, and I can’t stop thinking about it. The work of making our theatre community more inclusive is a lifelong learning process, and that process involves constant reflection and self-evaluation. You might ask yourself, for example:

  • Is my company inclusive of feminist voices? If so—is that feminism as intersectional as it could be?
  • Is my casting and hiring diverse? Who am I putting at the center of the narratives I’m presenting—both onstage and off?
  • How do people literally enter my space? Is that as accessible as it could be, physically? Financially? Spiritually?

Making room for new voices—especially in top leadership positions—often means that other ones (ie, traditionally privileged communities) will have to step aside. You must be willing to do this in order to make reparations to the communities you’ve hurt.

Step 4: Do all of the above as publicly as possible.

It’s one thing to say, “We’re working on this.” It’s another to put your money where your mouth is. I understand that some changes will be internal, that not every institutional decision is fit to share publicly, but a public hurt requires a public response. Trust has been broken. Even if you say, “We heard you,” many marginalized communities will not trust this without some kind of public action to confirm that you’re truly listening.

Finally, a personal request: please consider involving some of the voices that have been your loudest critics in your review and response process.

The issues I speak out about are ones that I passionately believe in and where I believe real change can happen. There are lots of institutions that can and should “do better” —I focus on challenging the ones that I believe can truly rise to the occasion. When I do that, I’m speaking from a place of experience, compassion, and love. When I say, “Hey, that production hurt me and here’s how you broke my trust,” I’m saying that because I want you to say, “I’m sorry, how can we fix that?” I’m saying that because I want to engage more deeply with your company. I want us to be in dialogue together.

I’m saying, “Ouch!” If you respond with, “Oops! I’m sorry,” we’re still talking. But if I say “Ouch!” and you respond with, “Well, I didn’t mean it that way,” or “But I did this other thing right,” or (perhaps worst of all) silence, then there’s no conversation to be had. And when the conversation stops—that’s when you’re stuck with a controversy. 

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Lavina thank you so much for this article. A number of perspectives were shared over the last few weeks in response to events ("casting controversies") at a few U.S. and Canadian theatres. I don't remember seeing a response from a director and activist, who intersected with similar events in their community. My personal reaction has been to discourage "finger pointing" and encourage examining the institutional practices that got folks to those decisions in the first place (and start interrupting, dismantling them). However: I so appreciated the point you made about the need for specific examples (case studies?) to examine. I believe with thoughtful, intentional facilitation it's definitely possible to look at an event(s) in a manner that allows us to get to the larger systemic cause (de-personalizing). I think you are suggesting too? I also appreciated the suggested approaches and strategies. We can all never have too many of those. Thank you once more.

Please Note: After the Book of Will panel was canceled, I conducted an email interview with Jones/Thebus. The following Q/A was originally included in this article, but removed for reasons of length:

JADHWANI:How do you feel that the casting you landed on impacted your audiences? What, if anything, does it imply in terms of future productions of The Book of Will? Future productions of Shakespeare in our community?

THEBUS: I appreciate this question, as it speaks to what fundamentally went wrong in my own process here. As the play concerns historically white British characters, to some audience members it probably simply looked "realistic." But to others, it represented an exclusion from a story that, as the playwright makes clear, "is for everyone," as is Shakespeare. My production could be seen as legitimizing and ignoring the playwright's wishes in the name of some kind of historical accuracy, which is neither necessary nor beneficial to the play. Of course this was not my intention, but it was the result.

I fervently hope that no other production of the play or of Shakespeare would be affected by the homogenous casting of this production--the playwright is clear in her intentions, and future productions should proceed from them.

JONES: I echo Jessica and our hope is that future productions of this play will be cast inclusively. And we hope Shakespeare in this community will continue to be for all.