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Creatively Alienating Mainstream Audiences

July 17, 2019

“Colour / gender blind casting.” A hot topic in the theatre industry for a while now. Let someone from the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community play someone “white.” Let a woman play a Shakespearian King. It gives people a chance at jobs they’ve never been considered for before.

To be totally clear before anyone reads any further, both this writer and website are 100% behind it, totally supportive and won’t have it any other way. That’s the stance, stated with absolute clarity here from the start.

What follows is discursive about how to bring others into line with that thinking – and is in no way whatsoever critical of it. A disclaimer felt necessary in a climate where discussion isn’t always welcome when it is needed and should be so.

As a theatre professional, I’ve now seen a fair selection of productions cast in this manner. Sometimes (Glenda Jackson as King Lear) it’s utterly thrilling. Sometimes alas it’s very evidently a desperate craven attempt to correct an imbalance by tokenistic “virtue signalling” – horrible to watch as the actors themselves are so clearly uncomfortable in unsuitable roles, and the director has left them hanging without a vision to justify anything at all. Mostly, though, it’s as it should be – un-noticeable, unremarkable and it’s a troupe of actors just going about their jobs. As life for everybody should be, all the time.

What worries me, the middle “tokenism” one aside, is wondering if those working in theatre totally lose any awareness that mainstream audiences in particular are not only not as “woke” as they are, but are actually feeling repelled by something they don’t fully comprehend.

In other words, they genuinely don’t understand why casting has happened in that way, and see only something they find plain peculiar, unsettling and just plain “wrong” in a way that not only ruins their evening, but puts them off going to the theatre again for life – even if they are currently happy “twice a year, wife’s birthday and Christmas” stalwarts on which box offices rely.

My reason for highlighting this is reading feedback about shows on the ticket agency website. The website takes a feed from “Trustpilot” the huge consumer reviews website. It’s a genuinely informative read, and quite an eye-opener in how the ordinary ticket buying public perceive the shows they see and how they buy tickets. Quite surprising nobody within the industry really takes notice – there’s plenty of useful stuff out there for absolutely all.

Anyway, the biggie which made me write this blog was the recent casting in “Les Misérables.” The Cosette at the time was played by a young black woman. Earlier in the show, however, the child playing Young Cosette was white. Personally, that doesn’t bother me. Provided both actors can perform to the highest standard the West End demands, get on with it, I say… and I was annoyed that I wasn’t able to see that casting when I went last week, as I’d heard excellent things.

From Trustpilot, though, it appeared that the general theatre audience felt very differently. They turned up for a night at a show, to relax, enjoy maybe a repeat visit or experience a musical they’ve heard a lot about for the first time – and were seemingly feeling alarmed, cheated, or just plain confused that skin colours change half way through a show and nobody explains why.

One of theatre’s major tasks is to examine and commentate on society at the time, and it’s a powerful tool to dissect ideas and attitudes. By presenting totally inclusive casting, it’s a way to confront attitudes and maybe normalise change. After all, at its baldest, “Mr Humphries” in “Are You Being Served” arguably made being overtly “camp,” the label “gay,” acceptable in almost every home at a time when his sexuality was (and how crazy it seems now) illegal.

My question is simply, do current theatre-makers need to sometimes be more aware of the wider picture? It’s obvious that they are on the right path – the Royal Shakespeare Company in particular really know what they are doing, I feel – but is there a risk of too fast, too soon and a massive “stuff the P.C. brigade” backlash that will harm not only the box office take but society itself by dividing rather than bridging, as intended?

What’s normal within the theatre bubble may not be so for some audiences. In reaching out and trying to be inclusive, there may be a danger of which those already “clued up” are unaware. It is vital to act as shepherd, bringing the flock together and leaving nobody behind, no matter how slow. A point to consider, to ensure that not just good work is being done, but being understood as well.

  1. Sandra Sharp permalink
    July 17, 2019 8:34 am

    It’s the OVER-compensation you can find irritating or politically motivated. 7% of the country is not white but 35% of casts at the National Theatre are.

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      July 17, 2019 8:42 am

      I think that’s what I was getting at in my paragraph about “virtue signalling” when the actors aren’t comfortable or right in their roles. Your reaction again feeds into the whole thing about the industry not understanding the wider implications of what they are doing – and perhaps adds that when they do get it really wrong, people do feel as you do. Really good points, thanks for making them.

  2. Bob Pickett permalink
    July 17, 2019 4:04 pm

    I am completely relaxed on race/gender etc. (Six is a shining example of it not being a problem, with a multi-ethnic cast playing the roles of five English and one Germanic women).

    But someone changing race/sex part way through a show is just inconsistent: Easy to explain on Doctor Who/Star Trek etc., but in the context of one show, it doesn’t make sense
    Do this in a mainstream TV show and the studio would be buried in complaints (though, interestingly, you can replace the actor multiple times and no-one bats an eyelid).

    So yes, be fluid. Re-cast traditional roles in another direction; it can produce fascinating results. But play to sensibilities, if you were a black male child at the start, you should grow into a black male adult by the end (if that is what the part is about).

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      July 17, 2019 5:02 pm

      Good one, yes, Bob.

      As I was saying to another person, it’s about the character, not the skin colour. See the first, not the second. That’s where the work is going to have to go, I feel.

      You are totally on the money it’s about current sensibilities. Theatre makers are one step ahead of the general public at the moment, and the question is whether and if it can be bridged.

  3. Steffen permalink
    July 17, 2019 4:47 pm

    My first experience with colour blind casting was watching Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, where, surprisingly, I had no problem accepting Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as both brothers and Spanish princes.
    I also don’t think a black Cosette would be a problem (just as an asian Éponine – Lea Salonga – was perfectly acceptable), but changing colour, or gender, during a show seems unneccessarily confusing.

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      July 17, 2019 5:00 pm

      Oh yes, I remember that!

      I guess the paradox is one of seeing the character not the skin colour. The argument runs that skin is irrelevant to character, so changing colour part way through isn’t important as it is still the same character. That’s the crux of what work is required, I feel.

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