Anker: Race, ethnicity not deterrents in casting process

Marcie Anker

Marcie AnkerThere’s good theater, and there’s bad theater,” Doug Wager repeated several times to me throughout our phone conversation. I know, I spoke to Doug Wager on the phone; it’s all right to be jealous.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Wager, he is the head of the theater department, head of graduate directing and, most recently, the director of Temple’s main stage production of “The Liar,” by David Ives.

Season selection is yet another one of the duties that falls to Wager’s shoulders. A process that he described as “kind of like playing 3-D chess. We always have to be very aware of the casting pool in relationship to gender, culture and race. At the same time, the season has to have a variety of interdisciplinary students – we have [musical theater students], grad students, lighting and production grads; a series of pedagogical imperatives that have to be taken into account, and ultimately it comes down to what you can afford.”

I had an eye-opening experience at the end of last semester when I was able to sit in on the spring season auditions. I sat two chairs down from Wager, who was charged with the exhausting task of casting all three shows of the spring semester, including his own.

During the course of two nights, we easily saw more than 160 students, keeping us in Barton well past midnight on the second night. I was the dead last person to audition. As you can probably guess, I wasn’t cast.

Watching every student audition before me didn’t exactly do wonders for my self-confidence, but sitting on the other side of the casting table taught me so much about actors and the audition process. Before that moment, I’d walked into tons of audition rooms and seen the line of eyes staring at me from behind the judging table, and I felt like I was standing in front of the Volturi, just waiting to be torn apart. I’m sorry, I hate myself for using a – sigh – “Twilight” reference, but you get the picture.

So when I watched student actors enter, I instantly recognized the same frightened expressions in their eyes, and imagined how silly I must have looked. As actors, we hear again and again, “Directors want you to do well, they want you to have good auditions, they want to cast the best actor for the part,” and promptly write it off as hot air. But it’s true. I genuinely was pulling for every person that entered, and I wanted to cast the best actor with the best audition.

I saw good auditions, bad auditions, ugly auditions and auditions that made me wish I had my friend Jose Cuervo there to comfort me and tell me everything would be all right. The theater department’s racial and cultural diversity waxes and wanes with each new wave of incoming students per semester, but by and large it maintains a primarily white majority, with a greater amount of women than men. As you can imagine, this presents certain challenges when trying to create a balanced, well-rounded season.

“Given the demographic composition of the student body, obviously it’s a very diverse group of kids,” Wager said. “So we’re always looking for opportunities to provide for students to experience working in ethnocentric material, which is cultural-specific. But also, we look for opportunities where casting diversity can be built into the world of the play that doesn’t necessarily make you take non-traditional casting into consideration.”

The balancing part of the job comes into play when a show calls for a disproportionate amount of actors from one specific group. Like last year, one of the shows was “Richard III,” which calls for a nearly all-male cast. To counter that, “Top Girls” was done the next semester, an all-women show.

[blockquote who=”Lia Simon” what=”senior theater major”] Theater is so creative and experimental that anything can be done on stage – any role can be mixed-race or gender-bent.[/blockquote]

Non-traditional casting is essentially the practice of casting a particular role without consideration of the actor’s ethnicity.

Adjunct acting professor, Nancy Boykin, cites the source of the challenge as the lack of ethnically diverse parts being written in new work.

“It’s hard to find characters that are ‘heroes’ of other nationalities [than white-American],” Boykin said. “There is a gigantic gap in works when it comes to other ethnicities.”

Boykin is right. There aren’t a whole lot of plays that call explicitly for ethnic characters. And I don’t think that the problem is in casting, as I once did. There is a huge misconception that there is faulty and/or biased casting, but, as Boykin said, “David [Ingram], Doug [Wager] and Dan [Kern] make great efforts to balance and spread around casting. They try to use the best actor for the part. Unless, of course, that actor is over-used.”

Wager shares Boykin’s firm belief that casting is about choosing the best actor for the role, nothing else. When I used the phrase “colorblind casting,” though I couldn’t see his face, but I could tell Wager was displeased. I was so embarrassed.

“I don’t believe in it,” Wager said. “‘Colorblind casting’ is a phrase that comes from a white culture of accountability, so it already is saying that ‘colorblind casting’ makes you [as an actor] pretend to be [something you aren’t]. There are some plays where race doesn’t matter. You cast the best actor for the role and you cast it regardless of any other criteria. The point is to not rule anybody out, unless the story unequivocally rules them out. That means, just because [‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams] is written for a white cast doesn’t mean you can’t do it with a mixed race cast. But that also doesn’t mean you should do ‘Fences,’ [a play by August Wilson written for an African-American cast], with an all-white cast.”

The importance of story and storytelling were points that Wager stressed emphatically, saying that the world of the play that is created by the ensemble can either make or break a show. The impact of a show can be compromised if a director tries to force context upon the story in order to purposefully make a show different. Sometimes non-traditional casting works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“In the industry, the whole subject of non-traditional casting has ceased to be controversial, which is good. Because now it’s just good theater or bad theater, and good theater is done regardless of the parochial view of cultural boundaries,” Wager said of the world outside of the Temple theater department.

Senior theater major Lia Simon, an incredibly talented actor, weighed in on Temple’s casting practices.

“I know starting out here, like freshman year, I was a little confused why I would see the same people being cast all the time – people older than me, basically. And I thought it was preferential treatment or pre-casting, but I’ve grown to see and understand that you just don’t get cast in everything that you audition for. Theater is so creative and experimental that anything can be done on stage – any role can be mixed-race or gender-bent. If an actor comes in and knows the text and can become the character, it doesn’t matter what a person looks like or what ethnicity they are.”

Simon added that she’s never felt at a disadvantage based on race or ethnicity and doesn’t get down on herself when she isn’t cast in a show.

“When I first came here, it was more about me learning about the craft that I have, and I don’t think I had the proper tools at first. It was all about growth,” Simon said.

Kathy La, a junior theater major, recognized and addressed the gap that Boykin referred to in new works.

“There are a limited number of roles that are written and offered to Asians and Hispanics,” La said. “And the few characters that exist are often stereotypical. But a lot of it is dependent on the actor, because the actor has to be a character chameleon, because the presence of the character has to come first before race, ethnicity or gender.”

What La said echoes something that Wager says about actors: “All actors must believe that they can play everything. That’s part of the actor’s job. From the actor’s perspective, it’s a need to believe that anything is possible.”

Belief is the driving force in theater – actors must believe they can play anything, directors must believe they can do any show and writers must believe they can tell any story. Directors take chances on casting, like actors take chances on auditioning. Gender, ethnicity and race are secondary to the story being told.

In the words of the wise Wager: “There’s good theater, and there’s bad theater.” Here at Temple we believe in the former, and nothing else.

Marcie Anker can be reached at martha.anker@temple.edu.

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