The Ruse of Non-Traditional Casting

Non-traditional casting is a political ruse that needs to end.  If you haven’t heard that term before, “non-traditional casting” is a politically elevated cultural cudgel that argues you can cast any actor of any gender, Race, color or creed, in any role for any reason and the audience will be fine with it because the theatre is colorblind and Race-neutral and culturally sensitive.  It’s all a bunch of hooey.

In theory, non-traditional casting is fine as a peculiar one-off, a botched abortion that becomes a momentary, live birth — but to say that in modern mixed company will get you branded as a Racist — even when you try to argue against the illogical nature of everyone fits any part.

Would you cast a Jewish woman as Hitler?  A transgender Eskimo as Goebbels?  A mentally ill Ecuadorian as Himmler?  Non-traditional casting believers would answer, “Of Course!” — while the logical rest of us would say, “We’d never believe it. Plays take place in a context of place and time and the people playing the roles create that reality.”

Non-traditional casting mocks believability and context and the culture of the originating work.  It may make one feel special to say — “We practice non-traditional casting,” — but in the effort of the enforcement, the idea has no magnitude beyond the feel good moment; except, of course, for ruining the very core of a dramatic piece of work with unnecessary culturally correct fiddling.

When I was a graduate student at Columbia University in the City of New York, I was assigned to work with a director who decided to take one of my Midwestern, male, characters and turn that single character into bi-polar, Gay, East Coast twins:  A male ego and a female superego.  Each actor would take turns saying the original lines intended for a single actor and sometimes both actors would appear on stage, aware of each other, to tease an existential nuclear annihilation of the self.  I was agape with fear and hatred as I realized this director was not only untalented, but completely crazy.

When I asked why he wanted to “split” my one character into two, he said, “Non-traditional casting.  Characters aren’t sacred.  They can be changed at will.  It’s the essence of the character, not the person playing the character, that matters.”

I was horrified that this young director had been so brainwashed by the political correctness of “non-traditional casting” that he’d morphed the entire idea into something meaning a director can change the fabric of a Playwright’s work on a whim and a wink when, in the end, the Playwright will always take the blame.

I did the honorable thing and canceled the production.  I realized the collaboration was hopelessly broken on a low level of trust and on a basic, core, understanding of the script.  I learned early on in my theatrical career that it is best to stop a disaster midstream than to wash an entire company down the waterfall.

The whole non-traditional casting notion started years ago as an effort to get work for non-Caucasian actors.  White Folk were writing plays about White Folk, and that made it really hard for non-White Folk to get paying jobs in the theatre as actors.  So a plan was concocted that we shouldn’t accept plays as they were written, but rather how we “wanted them to be” and that meant sacrificing authenticity, and the Playwright’s will, for the political good.  We could set right the injustices of the past with non-traditional casting of the future.  “Non-traditional casting = Non-White casts,” is the sniggering old chestnut willingly tossed around in backstage cubbyholes.

If we spin this non-traditional casting meme around and argue that Nazi Skinheads should be cast in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — there would be outrage in the aisles! — but that’s the idea of non-traditional casting:  “Any actor for any role.”  Now, an all-skinhead touring company of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” might do business as a novelty act, and as a mocking of August Wilson’s seminal work, but we all know casting Skinheads for that show is absolutely and completely ridiculous, aesthetically criminal, and morally wrong; but you’ll never get non-traditional casting people to agree with you, because then they would have no basis for their casting-without-context argument.  They would be forced, by their own argument, to support the Racist Skinhead over the proper Black actor.

We demand authenticity on the stage, and if Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — a quite specific play about a dysfunctional, alcoholic, Irish family — is allowed to be changed in its core to suit a radical, Racial, political end, and not one of cogent, dramatic, satiety, then the live theatre is finished in the ruffle of its own ashes.  There’s a reason why, even in death, Samuel Beckett so fiercely protects his right as a Playwright to have his plays performed precisely the way he wrote them.

Shakespeare with the first victim of non-traditional casting.  His plays were perceived to be “overdone” and “overexposed” and the natural “next incarnation” would be a non-traditional re-imagining of the text, not in antiquity, but in a post-modernistic casting spin cycle.  The Greeks were next.  Then the real target came into focus:  New plays and classics of the modern era.

Non-traditional casting jingoism isn’t restricted to the live stage.  Here’s an example of the same sort of political tampering in an artistic process in casting for “The Hobbit” film:

Naz Humphreys says she was told she was too dark for the job. And indeed, the ad specified potential applicants have “light skin tones.” It sounds like a clear-cut case of blatant racism, one that led to the swift firing of the person who placed the ad and allegedly told applicants, “We are looking for light-skinned people. I’m not trying to be — whatever.” (Fun fact: Whenever anyone starts a sentence with “I’m not trying to be …” the next thing out of said individual’s mouth is guaranteed to be damning.) But the job posting in question was a casting call. And the gig was as an extra in “The Hobbit.”

The casting person’s stipulation that would-be hobbits be “light” — a requirement she made only of females, by the way – certainly appears to be an incredibly insensitive mistake. Humphreys, who is of Pakistani descent, told New Zealand’s Waikato Times Monday that “It’s 2010 and I still can’t believe I’m being discriminated against because I have brown skin.” And a representative for director Peter Jackson’s Wingnut Films added, “No such instructions were given, the crew member in question took it upon themselves to do that and it’s not something we instructed or condoned.”

The casting call went out for a specific skin color — is that wrong if that fits the feat of the production?  Clearly, the reality of the casting call was trumped by political correctness and people lost their jobs merely because they wanted to be specific about the sort of actor they wanted — and if a Casting Call wants a specific skin tone — I argue to let them have what they wish, let them follow their color muse, and don’t see the show if you are offended; but to force them to change their cast in process because of non-traditional casting political pressure is an unnecessary intervention into a self-corrective production process.

Is it better to leave the Racist in the public square, or is it better to hush the Racist and hide the true intent?  I vote for letting the Racist sing long and loud and let the human consequences expose the nature of the beast for reduction and rendition.

I know many non-traditional casting supporters will argue there are many plays and musicals where gender or Race or whatever is insignificant and doesn’t affect the core of the play whatsoever; and I would argue back that, if that’s the case, then the script isn’t worthy of production in the first place because it is intrinsically flawed, without anchor in time and place, and the whole idea of the show belongs in the dustbin of anonymous peculiarities.

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