Sunday, July 26, 2015

Why the Roundabout Casting of Noises Off is Problematic




The recent cast announcement for Roundabout Theatre Company's Noises Off (brought to my attention on Facebook by Kate Rigg) is extremely problematic. The all-white casting of a play about a company putting on a production paints the picture that theatre is still only by and for white people. The arguments defending this choice--casting based off of talent or an artistic vision--are equally as problematic.

BEST TALENT
Okay, so let's just argue the casting of this show was based off the nine actors who were the most talented who auditioned for these roles. However, if the best talent argument is used, why do we stop at disregarding race? Why not gender, too? Why not a male Belinda or female Selsdon? "But the roles are written for specific genders, not for specific races!" So what this tells me is when a role is not ethnically specific the default for someone casting that role is white. I'd be curious to see what the default would be for non-gender specific roles. "What? Non-gender specific roles? That doesn't make sense! Some of those characters are supposed to be in love with each other! Boys can't be in love with other b..." Yeah, I think an organization like SCOTUS is going to disagree with that.

Fine. Let's disregard the gender restriction and go back to ethnic specificity. Is it to be believed that not one actor of color who auditioned was as equally talented to play any of these nine roles as the person who was cast? And let me remind you that Roundabout states on its website that it is an Equal Opportunity Employer. (Thank you Miki Yamashita) The implications that there are no talented actors of color are far beyond what I could explain in this blog, so I'm going to create an entire separate blog which I will link here when it's done.


Screen-cap from Roundabout Theatre Company's Website

But, I mean...come on...really?!?

ARTISTIC VISION

Perhaps there were better actors of color for some of these roles, but for whatever reason the producers or director couldn't envision them in the roles. Again, this reads to me as an artistic team that only sees non-ethnic specific plays as all white. This production's casting makes a statement to the world and audiences that; only white people create theatre. White actors, white directors, and white stage managers. These choices seem to me unimaginative and lazy. 


You might ask, "What would a diverse cast add?" Farce is all about setting up and tearing down expectations. What if Brooke was Asian? If we play to stereotype, an Asian actress who always wears glasses may be trying out new contacts for this show, which would explain her constant loss of them. Additionally, to play against stereotype of Asians who are studious and the model minority, how funny could it be that she is the space cadet of the cast? What if Dotty was a Latina? Again, it feeds into stereotype of a Latina house keeper, but then how much more resonate could Dotty's lines read about being unhappy with playing that type of role? Make Lloyd, the director, a person of color, because it would explain Lloyd's troubling behavior in the show! For the most part, directors of color who are directing non-ethnic specific plays are always feeling an added amount of undue pressure. In three simple choices we've added an extra depth to three characters. See what a little imagination can do?

Still having a hard time seeing Noises Off cast diversely? Then, I think you need to admit that you are someone who sees white as the default. I don't need to sit here and tell you you're wrong. But, I am going to tell you that you need to own it. Own that you only see a White America. Own that this production is choosing to work with white actors and tells the story that a white director only works with a white stage managers and white actors. Own that this is the story that is being told on stage. Exclaim it to the world; "MY DEFAULT WORLD IS WHITE!!!" Is that difficult? Is it uncomfortable? Does it feel wrong? Like I said, I don't need to sit here and tell you, you're wrong. Your own conscience seems to be telling you that.

Regardless if a white dominate American theatre is not the artistic vision you intended for the stage, that is the hidden message that is being put and told on the stage. And if that's the story you want to tell, I know a target market of confederate flag waving, #AllLivesMatter hashtag using, and anti-immigrant Trump lovers that you should be reaching out to.

But if you're ready to join the progressive side of America, where in just a few decades the minority will become the majority (which is already true in some cities such as Los Angeles), then start looking for that diversity in your artistic choices. Start looking for that in your actors, your directors, your designers, your writers. Don't get left behind. Or at least, don't start scratching your head when "your" audience starts disappearing, stops donating, and can no longer be found when you're the one looking for work. Then again, if drowning out the necessity of diversity with these #WhiteNoises helps you sleep a night...

(Thanks Rodney To for the #WhiteNoises inspiration.)

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UPDATE: Previously I had called this the "seemingly all-white cast" because I didn't know the entire cast very well, so I didn't want to presume that none of those actors might be mixed race and be white passing. That being said, my friend Trevor Biship on Facebook reminds me that "casting is about making a statement. Regardless of 'passing,' this statement is pretty clear to me." And he is correct, this casting statement reads all white to me. And now after doing my research on the individual cast members, the most ethnic diversity comes from actors with some Armenian and Albania's backgrounds...


Additionally, I previously suggested a male Poppy, but got a few reminders from people that her female anatomy becomes a crucial plot point in the play.

Also, after looking back at the casting notice for this production from Backstage, the notice asked for submissions from ALL ETHNICITIES...well, that seemed to go well for them...Either the company backed out at the last minute of making diverse casting choices, OR there was very little intention to actually cast diversely, and the ask for all ethnicities was purely for show. I'm noting director 
Jeremy Herrin as well as casting by Jim Carnahan and Stephen Kopel for the future. It would be great to get a response from them or RTC about what happened in this casting process that started with all ethnicities in the submission but ended with an all-white cast.

19 comments:

  1. once again high schools and colleges point the way with what often defaults (esp. in HS) to
    1) it lives
    2) it can learn lines
    3) it can act
    >>> the part's yours! (now to find a costume that fits)

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  2. Noises Off is set in England, in the mid-20th century. While that doesn't excuse the discrepancy between the casting notice and the cast, it may provide some insight into what was going on behind the minds of those behind the table. I was recently in the room for auditions for a new musical set in Iowa in the 1930s. The director invited an African-American actress to read for the female lead; she did a terrific job, but when it came down to selecting between the top two, the director decided that hiring her would be "too much of a distraction—it would make the play about that." Sad, but there you go.

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    1. Looks like some companies don't mind "distracting" their audiences: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/21-year-old-makes-broadway-history-as-youngest-and-first-african-american-jean-valjean-354378?r=n

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    2. Let the audience have their own experience! Who are you really trying yo protect?

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    3. Yes! They've had an African-American Javert, and an Enjolras, and an Eponine as well. Plus a few members of the ensemble. (Never the young lovers, though, as far as I know.) I suspect that the fact that this is set 18th-century Europe makes it easier, though (for some people).

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    4. Thank you for sharing your experience of what happens in the audition room. As previous commentors listed the shows that are diverse, I see that it's unfortunate that one director couldn't look past this.

      In regard to your point about the setting of Noises Off, what I present in contrast is the film in the 90s change the setting to America and the time period to a contemporary time. Yes, the film was not well received but mostly because of its execution, little was said about it being contemporized and moved to America where all the actors had American accents. So the exception was made for the film. Why couldn't then the exception been made to adjust the text slightly to be in a diverse city and 2015? The time and location of the play are actually not very central to the plot of the play.

      I say this to point out how exceptions will be made sometimes, but not when it comes to adding diversity.

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    5. DW - "Carousel" is set in 1940s Maine. Audra McDonald was *briliant.* The "setting" argument doesn't hold water.

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  3. Stop looking to the past- you made the argument for diverse casting & I imagine i'd enjoy the show either way. There are some roles that ought to be color cat white- but why don't you try what I'm doing- I want to see black and Latino female heroes that appeal to me as a white man so I'm writing that pilot myself. If you want a story about an ethnically diverse cast putting up a show then you are free to write it yourself

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  4. @joe kramer "I want to see black and Latino female heroes that appeal to me as a white man"

    ew. gross.

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    1. Yea...I'm also going to choose not to respond to that post. It didn't make sense and seems rather fetishistic and misogynistic .

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  5. Color blind casting doesn't seem to bother opera audiences...hasn't for decades. Voice quality trumps all (or used to before hi-def).

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  6. Isn't it equally problematic to suggest that actors of more racial diversity playing these roles would add to the character's depth by exploiting racial stereotypes? Smh.

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    1. Hi Pete,

      Actually, what I was proposing was not to have the characters play stereotypes. Rather it was to used the stereotypes people associate with different people of color to the advantage of the comedy.

      Comedy, and farce specifically is all about setting up expectations and then changing them. It's actually the brilliance of Noises Off, you see the play "Nothing On" three times, so you know how it's supposed to go, so when things are different then you expect it is funny. By employing actors of colors, the expectation already exist that audiences have certain stereotypes about the characters. You play to them to gain trust with your audience, and then you break them to find the humor. That is why some of my casting recommendations weren't about fulfilling stereotypes, but using them to your advantage by tearing them down to add extra layers to the humor.

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  7. Peter, thank you so much for this post and it's definitely an "argument" (which should actually just be a discussion, but wtv) that happens at "the table" (that sacred space where only a few are genuinely invited to take a seat) and it's frustrating that, as people/actors/directors/designers/stage managers of color, our presence on and behind the stage is often an afterthought, classified as a "distraction", a quota requirement or "too difficult". We are talking about people's lives and livelihood and I'm tired of this reality of systematic racism being explained (argued) away. Who cares about a few characteristics that may be anachronistic with the time? You don't have to have a vice grip on the art for the performance to be riveting and impactful.

    I went to a predominantly white boarding school in the south and I discovered my love of theater pretty late and, when I was cast in my second show ever as LLOYD in our high school production of NOISES OFF (the only actor of color mind you), it was a huge turning point for me and my family quoted lines from that show endlessly. It was a phenomenal experience for me and one that, I didn't realize at the time, was perfect because none of the characters were related and, therefore, didn't have to "look related". After that, some roles seemed somewhat less "attainable" and I took to Stage Managing to still be involved in shows where casting me wasn't as easy... All this to say, being in NOISES OFF is an opportunity that should be expanded to all actors and should honestly feel like we're really invited to a seat at the table rather than being paid lip service.

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    1. Thank you for the added perspective Kelvin! Love hearing your experience having appeared in Noises Off!

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  8. The last production of "Noises Off" I saw featured a black Lloyd and a Latina Brooke. The only thing distracting me during the performance was my lovely plus-one.

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  9. Thank you for writing this! I get so frustrated about the lack of diversity in casting, especially when supposedly they are open for diversity. I actually just saw The Fantasticks yesterday and was shocked that here in NYC it was also a seemingly all white cast.

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