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On Blind Casting

October 4, 2017

Colour and gender. In theatre, they often determine who gets the part. Wrong levels of melanin and number of X chromosomes means you get to keep on flippin’ those burgers / answering those phones, kid.

“Colour / Gender Blind Casting” is the industry’s reaction to this. The best actor (the word Actress is frowned on, for those selecting to identify wholly in that historical gender label) for the job – gets the job.

Theatre is about making audiences believe in a particular world, so why shouldn’t they accept that woman is man, that a black woman is a white man or whatever? After all, Shakespeare never had a woman play Juliet, and London was a cosmopolitan city with people from all nations living in it.

The question I raise, though, is about those times when such casting makes an audience feel uncomfortable about themselves. For me, that’s when casting is done not because the right person has been found, but when a production team seemingly decide simply to “make a point.” Sometimes it even feels like audiences are “having their noses rubbed in it” too. Instead of the joyous celebration of, say, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Cymbeline,” the result is a confusion that makes audiences fester with uncertainty and ignore the merits of a production as they struggle to be liberal when it goes against all their personal natural instincts.

An online friend was telling her parent about the 2017 production of “A Tale of Two Cities” at the Open Air Theatre. Before she could get the words out, her mother guessed instantly that a pair of identical people, crucial to the plot, were this time played by a Black and White actor respectively.

Let’s be clear, both actors were outstanding… and the artistic vision brave to have faith in its choice, and frankly, it worked for me. And yet, and yet… for those around me… going by the reviews and opinions I read online…

Is there a point beyond which audiences cannot be stretched? Is it when audiences begin to fear they are being required to take part in Orwellian “Double-think” when all they want is an entertaining night out? Do they sniff a Crypto-Marxism that they can’t identify but fear? Do they feel they will be branded if they voice even the smallest “why?”

There’s also the chance of a “back-fire.” I was recently angered by the female Rabbi in religious outfit at the opening of “Angels In America Part 1.” I thought the director was trying to make a “point” insensitively – after all, portraying a female Imam would be out of the question. Fortunately, a good online friend happens to have a PhD in the play, an article in the show’s programme (Dr Garside) and relationship with the production. She assured me it was cast and played as per author’s original instructions. From that, we realised it was a reference to “Yentl” – a big film at the time of the original production, and the writer was just trying to tie old and new America. Had “making a point” casting not existed, would I have seen it far quicker? Possibly… and I’m sure some will still have reservations about the idea in the first place.

Opening up roles and debate is excellent, but if an audience feels in any way confused, or more likely “shut down” by something instead, that has to be counter-productive. Can it be that some elite artistic vision is too strong for the wider public? If so, are there gentler ways to educate, means without fear of something different, rather than seemingly trying to replace one ill with another – substituting apartheid with a form of cultural fascism, almost?

Difficult questions, and one to which I’d love to find an answer and unite the theatregoing and theatre-creating worlds thinking more closely.

2 Comments
  1. mayasounds permalink
    October 4, 2017 10:15 am

    Interesting. I’ve not seen any productions so far where I’ve found blind casting decisions intrusive, that I can remember. Didn’t think twice about the rabbi in Angels; I just figured it was easier to give her that role than have an additional male actor who gets to do nothing else. I suppose a lot depends on a viewer’s own sensitivities.

    I often enjoy gender swapping especially; Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, for example. No reason that role could not be female, really. Lots of recent Shakespeare productions have taken a run with genders; Scott Hamlet had a female Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, the HiddleHamlet had both of them as women plus a Horatia, Marcella and Bernarda, none of which was in any way an issue for the narrative, I don’t think. I also don’t think it’s an issue if it’s done as a statement, as long as the actor embodies the role well. There’s some other great plays that I would love to see with gender swaps; I think a female Iago would be really interesting, or a female Judas.

    • Steve Rich permalink
      October 11, 2017 9:04 am

      Only just seen this, Maya, and thanks for the response.

      On the rabbi, as my blog noted, they wouldn’t have dared disrespect certain other faiths in that manner, so it felt very uncomfortable and raised a horrible question.

      Agree on some gender swapping – I’ll never hear Lear spoken as well as Jackson did it, the Scott Hamlet indeed worked. A female Iago could be explosive, really, really explosive. Female Judas? Interesting thought…

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