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. That’s 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.”