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Identity-Conscious Casting

Moving Beyond Color-Blind and Color-Conscious Casting

In 2014, Lavina Jadhwani, a text-based director and adaptor in Chicago, wrote a piece for HowlRound about color-conscious casting after directing a production of Duchess of Malfi. In the years since, Lavina has shifted to using the term “identity-conscious casting,” because she believes identity contains multitudes and race is just one part of that. In this conversation, Lavina sits down with Victor Vazquez, founder and casting director of X Casting NYC, to chat about the realities of casting in theatre, moving beyond the concepts of color-blind and color-conscious casting, and more.


Lavina Jadhwani: I briefly worked in casting in Chicago, but part of the reason I got out of it was that we would have certain conversations about identity in the casting process, something as as simple as, “This is what family looks like in this story.” And that meant the family we were putting on stage didn’t look biologically related. There were lots of reasons that could be, which may or may not have been stated explicitly in the text. Regardless, I believed a conversation should be had about that, but lots of the time they wouldn’t make their way into the rehearsal room.

To an extent, I understood that as a casting director, that was not my job. But I also remember talking to one director I’d been working with who said, Are you telling me you can watch my work and look at that family on stage and tell whether or not I had a conversation about race in the rehearsal room?” And I was like, “I mean, kind of. We can tell when people are living the truths on stage or not.”

When I talk about identity-conscious work, I say, “Here are the givens of the text and here are the givens of how the artists working on it identify. Both of those things have value in the space.” To me, that idea is relatively simple. You have that conversation and then you keep having the conversation. I think that’s how we get people to create work that is authentic and honest. And skilled theatre artists and even audience goers can pick up on inauthenticity however it may manifest on stage. I do think that when conversations about identity and how identity factors into the work aren’t had, that disconnect shows. The conversations are better when we allow all of the identities in the room to be present.

an empty audition room

Audition room at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Photo by Victor Vazquez.

Victor Vazquez: I understand there is a very real contextual and historical tradition when it comes to casting. And I am both responsible and not responsible for that, meaning that I acknowledge it’s real and I acknowledge it has inflicted trauma on actors, directors and writers, casting professionals themselves, and others.

Theres an umbrella service organization called Casting Society of America (CSA), and the CSA has over a thousand members globally. Here in New York City, there are about a hundred casting directors who are members, but only a handful of us are of color. And when we look at that dynamic, it’s no surprise the same traditional systems that have been harming people of color are being replicated over and over and over and over again.

There is no confrontation of process. There is no one in a position of power saying, “Hey, we’re harming actors here. Can we relook at this?” The term identity-conscious casting” might be new to a lot of these casting directors and to the majority of the industry. My mission creating X Casting has been about redesigning and recreating new processes in the art of casting—reimagining this field with a lens of anti-racism that really confronts the white supremacist structures and characteristics that have gone unquestioned for far too long.

There is a tradition at play here, that there is also a reckoning of that tradition, and that there is an emergence of something new. That new thing is a conversation about identity consciousness in casting.

All this points towards the ultimate goal of liberation. For me, liberation lives in a place of intersectionality. As a first-generation American son of Mexican immigrants, with Spanish as my first language, and being a queer cis man, intersectionality exists within who I am. The word liberation” exists when we make space for individuals and their wholeness, as fluid as that may be.

I want to name that there is a tradition at play here, that there is also a reckoning of that tradition, and that there is an emergence of something new. That new thing is a conversation about identity consciousness in casting, which is about making space and embracing how actors and artists can bring their whole identities or even parts of their identities to a process, to a character. We are not saying casting is blind to those parts, but we’re also not saying it’s only color that we’re conscious about. We can also be conscious about somebody’s rejection of gender as a construct, somebody’s queerness, somebody’s abilities, whether neurological or physical. That’s what identity-conscious” means to me, that we are inviting and welcoming, that we are actively and radically making space for all the different ways that actors exist in this world. I’m curious about what that means to you.

four people seated

New York City Audition room in February 2020 with Charly Evon Simpson, Victoria Collado, Victor Vazquez, and Ilana Becker. Photo by Victor Vazquez.

Lavina: For me, it comes back to my identity as a text-based director. When I work, I think, Here are the truths of the text and here are the truths of the human beings in the room. And then, Let’s allow those things to coexist. The article that used color-conscious” as a term still comes up in conversation—that term was in fact rebelling against the white supremacy you named. The term color-blind” doesn’t make sense to me. “Color-blind” says to me: the truths of the text matter and everything else doesn’t matter.

And frankly, I don’t think that is an equitable conversation. That’s why I at first shifted to “color-conscious,” but, as you point out, identity contains multitudes. With the play I was working on in grad school that influenced the article—The Duchess of Malfi, which is set in the Reconstruction era in the South—I was largely interested in how race factored in. “Color-conscious” was relevant because for that production and that specific context, race was a large part of it. But there are myriad ways in which a person can identify, and something I regret about that production is that I didn’t use the term “identity-conscious” because “color-conscious” can limit the conversation.

Identity-conscious directing involves design, it involves casting, it involves the rehearsal process and the run. And it involves everything from what the family looks like on stage to how conversations about hair are navigated within this community. We have to keep having the conversations. As a director, and especially with the amount of work we’re doing online these days, I primarily identify as a facilitator. It’s about facilitating these conversations upfront, regularly, and also coming at them with an openness and a humbleness and an honesty.

We’re experiencing a generational shift in terms of how we facilitate conversations in the rehearsal room. As a director, a lot of the people who taught me or who I assisted when I was coming up would come into the room with an energy of, “I’m the director and I have all the answers.” And my school of thought is, I’m the director and I’m hoping to ask the right questions in a thoughtful and sensitive and collaborative way.” It also means I need to be aware of my own identity, which is limited, and my own bias.

I want artists to be able to come to the work being specific in their truths. I love the casting process as a director because that’s when I fall in love with the human beings in the room. I get a sense of how everybody is as an artist or as a musician, how they like their text. That’s the beginning of a collaboration that is going to continue through opening night and through the end of the run. That’s why a big part of this identity-conscious work is having these conversations. Coming into this conversation is knowing what the questions are, but also having to be really open because there are experiences in the room I can’t talk to.

I really do think casting needs to be seen as a design and dramaturgical element in the American theatre and that casting directors, if we want to pivot, can be casting designers.

Victor: I think there are two different conversations. There’s one about reinvention and then there’s one about invention. I don’t think they’re the same thing. I’m not personally interested in reinventing canonical work. As a casting director, sure there’s magic in casting Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and these traditional canonical Western plays. But the conversation about identity consciousness in that work is different than a conversation about identity-conscious casting in the invention of new work.

In the traditional canonical way, you are forcing a body of an individual contemporary artist to fit into a contextual and historical model the way they were never intended to be. There are a lot of inherent tensions in that model when we think about identity consciousness, because many people were never in that writer’s imagination. They were erased from this industry at that time. They were being actively excluded from the imagination of the Western canon.

But when we’re talking about the invention of new work, whether it’s in theatre or in film or TV, there’s a lot more room for actors to come to the work being specific in their truths. We can argue that self-identification isn’t vital, but not every artist has the capacity to self-identify, and some self-identification is very messy. It’s a personal and complex negotiation for everybody, whether someone is mixed race or whether they had to suppress their language or their cultural heritage in order to assimilate… So I question how we invite people to come into our rooms with their truths. It’s not like saying, “We only want to see people who are fully conscious of their identities.” There is also tension there, but at least this tension is grounded in a contemporary truth that gives the actor power to define.

In this, we are making space for the messiness and chaos and complexity of identity. With new work, there is a collaboration that can happen with the writer and actor in real time—an actors identity can impact the development of a project. That speaks to a dramaturgical process. I really do think casting needs to be seen as a design and dramaturgical element in the American theatre and that casting directors, if we want to pivot, can be casting designers. And casting designers can be introduced to the process at the beginning, along with every other designer. They can be part of the imagining of the moments of the production.

You can’t hire a casting director and say, This is what we need, and our set design is fixed, our costume designs are fixed, therefore, we need you to find this able-bodied individual who is not in a wheelchair because our set design is not accessible and our costumes aren’t either.” Then there is no respect for an actor’s whole identity or for somebody to be able to bring their whole selves into a process.

Historically, what I have been seeing is that there’s an active and persistent erasure. There’s an, “Okay, don’t pay attention to the actor’s skin color. Don’t pay attention to this actor’s sound.” I’m also curious about how we can start integrating those conversations early on and wrap around, as creative teams, the alchemy of choices we’re making, particularly with the collaborators we’re inviting into the room and how to make space for different parts of an actor to be seen.

"I was privileged to have access to live performances of Shakespeare plays at a young age, but none of the actors looked like me. That's one of the reasons why it was deeply important for me to have an inclusive cast tell this story"—Lavina Jadhwani, As You Like It director

Lavina: I completely agree with you that casting directors should be treated as designers. That’s also part of the reason, as someone who solely works freelance, I stepped away from casting. I was having a really hard time as a freelance casting director, being involved at and compensated for the level of collaboration that I would want to have. Our field is still struggling to assign value to that work.

This idea that we’re going to be aware of some things but not aware of others is part of the reason why I shifted to the term “identity-conscious work.” Identity can be fluid; for example, the actor who originated a role at the beginning of a year-long run is not the same actor who closes that show. And I think the texts are not fixed. Part of the reason I continue to explore canonical work is because there aren’t definitive versions of the texts, so both language and identity can be fluid.

The idea that the text isn’t fixed and that identity needn’t be fixed either—a light bulb went off when I came to understand both of those things. I don’t think we are taught to interrogate or challenge or even adapt the text as much as I think we can. I think the way we continue to produce these plays in the United States is very limited. These plays aren’t for everybody and they don’t have to be for everybody. One of my mentors, Bill Rauch, once said, “We can’t tell everybody’s story that once.” I think that is true. We also can’t do everybody’s kind of theatre at once, and that’s okay.

Part of my activism is saying, “If you want to be in these plays, let’s find a way for you to be in these plays.” The way training is done in classical programs, at least when I was there, the idea of what is good language, what makes something good, is very problematic and is rooted in a lot of forms of oppression. And when we think about what text work looks like in this country, it is taught through a white supremacist lens.

Part of my work and my activism as a director and adaptor is saying, “The text can also look like this.” Right now, I’m working on adapting The Cherry Orchard. Part of the reason I’m working on that is because I’m about to become a homeowner for the first time. And that’s a really big deal for me as the child of immigrants. In the past, I’d heard people talk about how political the play is and, I’d think, Yeah, okay, I guess.” Again, truths are fluid. Identity is fluid. Six months ago when I was looking at this play, I didn’t know I was going to become a homeowner in the middle of a global pandemic. But all of a sudden, I’m looking at the story and I see a conversation about generational wealth and I see a conversation about privilege. And I really see the play now as Lophakin’s play; I see the story through the lens of this guy who returns home, whose father and grandfather—this is stated in the text—were slaves on that estate and now he’s going to own the place. The story is incredible through that lens.

When people ask me about Ibsen, about Chekhov, there’s always a conversation about who the translator or the adaptor is. When I look at other translations, I can tell—all these people were writing for very a specific company and actors. And for me, I just assume everybody in the room is a person of color. I think that makes a difference in the language.

When I talk about identity-conscious work, it does impact everybody in the room and everybody in the room needs to be a part of conversation. Worship of the written word is part of white supremacy culture, and one of the things I struggle with in terms of my collaborators who are newer to these conversations and newer to the work is that identity is often not explicitly stated in the text. There’s an intangibleness to it that I understand can be challenging for people to wrap their brains around. Especially because language is evolving so quickly these days.

Part of the reason I continue to explore canonical work is because there aren’t definitive versions of the texts, so both language and identity can be fluid.

Victor: I’d love to speak to your comment about how you imagine when you read something, because the power of imagination is exactly what casting is. I think the American theatre struggles to understand this work: casting as imagination, casting as a culture-making machine.

Across the globe, there are little over a thousand casting directors who are funneling and filtering projects through theatre, Broadway, TV, film, commercials, radio, advertisement, podcasts, and audio books. This is all generating culture. It’s generating voice. It’s generating who we see. It’s generating representation. But at the same time it’s an economic engine. These are artists who are employed, who are paid. They’re able to imagine for themselves sustainable futures.

Casting has an impact on a global scale. It’s casting the imagination of the contemporary and modern world. I was born in Compton, California and I grew up in South Los Angeles. And I grew up in a predominant community of color. When I read a script or when I process information, my imagination is mostly populated by Black, Indigenous, and people of color. That’s how I see the world.

When I cast a project, it is predominately with people of color. It is imagined as so because that’s how I imagine the world. Inviting a casting director to a project is inviting their imaginations to infuse into the project. If you were a director and I was your casting director, I would bring my wild imagination to the ideas of actor choices that I would present to you.

When you were talking about Chekhov and being a homeowner and how that is impacting how you interpret the story in a different way, what you’re speaking to, at least what I hear, is that there’s an alignment in story. Thats what is so fascinating about identity-conscious work, identity-conscious casting: it doesn’t just invite a person’s identity into the room, it also invites them to align themselves with the story.

A lot of times in auditions, I like to ask actors questions that have nothing to do with the play. I might be inspired by something on the resume or I might say, “How are you doing as a person? How are you as an artist right now? What’s on your mind? Do you find there to be any intersections with your life and the story?” That question leaves space for the artist to bring themselves into the process. And when there is alignment between the story and their lived experiences, that can illuminate a lot for us, like, Wow, it will be interesting for them to bring their perspective into the rehearsal.”

a large group posing for a photo

Lavina Jadhwani with the company of sons the wear dresses and mothers that love sweet potatoes by Gage Tarlton at the Kennedy Center.

Lavina: That is why representation matters. Authenticity in the work. Part of the reason I got out of casting was because it was starting to feel like casting and representation were the symptoms, whereas the thing that was ultimately broken was the infrastructure and the way in which we view storytelling in this country—i.e. through lenses that are problematic.

You talked about inventing versus reinventing. A lot of my work has been a rebellion against this term “color-blind” because I think it is so harmful. Blind to what?

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Thanks for sharing this conversation! I'm wondering how you deal with the Civil Rights Act regarding these discussions. As you know, we can't ask actors about their identity, nor can we legally use things like sexuality as a criteria for casting. How does identity-conscious casting work when you don't know anything about the actor and could be sued for asking?

Thank you, Lavina. I am going to update the playwright’s note on casting in my current script from “color conscious” to “identity conscious.” Thanks for offering this very helpful framework.

Great article! I really relate to the idea that if casting is going to do real artistic work, it is really a kind of design work; I was fighting that fight for violence design for many years! I was really curious about what the conversations that the two of you were talking about consisted of, since I am usually not privy to that part of the work (again, because the casting is not considered part of the production design, so we don't sit in the same meetings!) I got a glimmer of it right at the end there, when you talked about the kinds of questions you ask people auditioning, but for those of us not usually at auditions, what does it look like in the rehearsal room? I have definitely been in rehearsals where conversations about actor identity take place (and, sadly, far more where they don't), but when someone really conscious about it is leading that discussion, what exactly is the discussion, and how does it impact the work?