Nontraditional

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Nontraditional

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 10.2 (Spring 2017)

Plays are not real in the sense that bullfights are real; none of the performers is fighting for his life, or his love, or his standing in the community. Each player will still be there, breathing and unchanged, at the curtain call. But if the show is any good, we in the audience shall have been responding with part of our minds as if we had actually been attending a bullfight, or a wedding, or whatever.

Authenticity

That half-belief comes partly from self-persuasion, but pretense in our own minds is seldom sufficient. We require artifice as well. We want acting, makeup, costume, setting, and lighting – and not least the corporeality of the performer – to help us half-believe.

To that end, some kind of verisimilitude in the actor’s appearance seems tremendously helpful. All other things being equal, we in the audience usually do best at persuading ourselves of the reality of this unreal spectacle when presented with a plausible physical correspondence between the actor and the role, what the EEOC in its regulation allowing sex discrimination in casting speaks of as “authenticity.” In English-speaking theater, for at least three hundred years, the conventions of the artifice have usually relied upon such authenticity. We have historically looked for men to play men, women to play women, the old to play the old, the young to play the young, and (though we have, as will be seen, tolerated some defections from this norm) for the racial divisions of the characters to be matched by those of the performers.

Rejecting Authenticity

Of late that has been changing explosively, with a vogue for “nontraditional” casting (spelled both with and without a hyphen). The phrase gained currency after a theatrical industry survey and a conference in 1986 generated the so-called Non-Traditional Casting Project.

The quintessential show of 2015, Hamilton, did not merely tolerate nontraditionally casting our white Founding Fathers (and Mothers) with nonwhite performers; it caused a controversy by recruiting replacements for its original cast and members of a touring company cast with a casting notice that specifically called for only “NON-WHITE ACTORS” [all caps in the original]. After the outcry, the non-white language was brought down to lower case and a confusing additional phrase was added: “Performers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are encouraged to attend.” A 2015 production of Spring Awakening previously mentioned in these pages cast many of the roles with deaf actors whose American Sign Language speech and “singing” was tracked by differently abled performers voicing what the actors could not; one of the performers navigated the stage, even the dance numbers, in a wheelchair.

One argument for nontraditional casting is uncontroversial: it is well-recognized that there are too many roles which, if the demands of authenticity were strictly complied with, would go to fully-abled white men, leaving not enough roles left over to give anything like parity to other performers. There is little need to discuss the obvious parity problem. But there are more reasons for eschewing authenticity than simply avoiding a lack of equity.

Taxonomy

The multiplicity of reasons has given rise to an accepted taxonomy. Scholar Angela Pao in an indispensable 2010 study, No Safe Spaces, has summarized the types: color-blind (and I would add gender-blind and ability-blind) casting (aiming for the best performer), societal casting (putting ethnic, female, or disabled actors in roles they might perform in the real world, though I’d argue this actually conforms to authenticity’s agenda), conceptual casting (nontraditional casting to give the play greater resonance), and cross-cultural casting (transposing the entire world of the play to a different setting).

Whatever the motivation or the rationale, it is a problem. We’re none of us race-blind, gender-blind, age-blind or ability-blind. And we think plenty about ethnicity too. We do notice, much as most of us wish we didn’t, when confronted by anti-authentic casting. Anyone who says he or she doesn’t notice all these differentiations is simply lying. And since we do notice, we find the suspension of disbelief harder every single time with non-authentic casting, and we always shall. It will not slip by and it will operate to discourage the suspension of disbelief.

That axiom is hardly a reason never to engage in unconventional casting. But we’d better do some hard thinking about what in unconventional casting works best and what works worst, and why. As it happens, I do have some thoughts.

Ignore the Female Innkeeper and Lola

Let’s set to one side for this discussion roles that, within the expectations of the culture in which the play was written, do not call for a particular, gender, ability, age, or race. It probably would not have mattered much in Louis XIII’s time whether the innkeeper who stuck Athos in the cellar where he drank up all the wine was male or female, so any dramatization of The Three Musketeers can cast either a man or a woman in the role. Dumas wrote the character as male, but I saw a woman do it this last summer and it hardly registered. Likewise, there are cases where historical authenticity is unimportant. If a witness at the Caine mutiny court-martial is black and not a mess attendant, the fact that the Truman’s order fully desegregating the armed forces, fighting men on destroyers among them, came three years after the action isn’t going to rob it of much credibility. Conversely, if the witness were female, it would probably seem more out of place, since, as is commonly known, the gender desegregation of Navy fighting vessels began a quarter century later. Nor, speaking of ships, is anyone going to care about gender or race in the chorus/crew of the S.S. American, where Anything Goes.

In similar vein, let us (momentarily at least) set aside casting like Hamilton’s or that of Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad, casting which deliberately transgresses our expectations for a reason. Nor am I speaking of characters who straddle sexual boundaries in some way, like Lola in Kinky Boots or Dr. Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror.

Who Owns Tevye and Tzeitel?

I am speaking of casting a performer who looks or sounds different from what the context would seem to call for, and that casting raises serious problems of proprietorship or plausibility.

Problems of plausibility, for instance, were posed in a 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof that cast as Tzeitl Sally Murphy, an Irish rose who by her looks did not plausibly come from an Eastern European Jewish gene pool, and in the same production raised questions of proprietorship by casting gentile Alfred Molina as Tevye, who might have looked the part, but raised some offense among Jewish theatergoers by occupying a quintessentially Jewish role. Problems of both proprietorship and plausibility were raised by casting African American female Lizann Mitchell as the Stage Manager in Our Town in 1998 (fictive Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire standing in for towns that would have been all-white and arguably being about white concerns, and the role having been written for a man). Likewise with cross-cultural stagings of Hello, Dolly (1967) and Guys and Dolls with all-black casts, raising in the former instance the argument that there were no blacks in the Yonkers of the 1890s, and certainly in that era no prosperous black culture of the nature depicted there or anywhere, and in the case of both shows the protest that the black performers were not believable enactors of the supposedly Jewish characters. (Pao and also Warren Hoffman, in his recent book The Great White Way, look skeptically at claims that either show highlights a particularly Jewish milieu, although Hoffman acknowledges the problem with presupposing a prosperous African American merchant class in the Yonkers of that era.)

A Korean-American WASP

I shall return to proprietorship, but let us go further for the moment with plausibility. There is obviously something flexible about it. Let me give a recent example from my own experience. I saw this last spring a revival of Harvey at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. This 1944 play is a comic fantasy about the liberating effect that belief in a human-sized invisible rabbit (who may just be real) can have. The hero, Elwood P. Dowd, can see the rabbit, and no one else can. Those who can’t include the WASP ruling class of his western town, including his sister Veta and Veta’s daughter Myrtle. In the Guthrie production Veta was played by a conventionally cast white woman, while Myrtle was played by a Korean-American performer, Sun Mee Chomet, an accomplished actress and a terrific comedienne with a gift for falling to pieces hysterically, which is what the role calls for. But no one could mistake Ms. Chomet for a WASP or a realistic target of the play’s social commentary. Worse, much of the comedy surrounding Myrtle and Veta concerned mother-daughter conflicts, and the physical unlikelihood of that family tie in that era (by coincidence the U.S. movement for interracial adoptions began in 1944, the same year as the play) just made it harder to suspend disbelief than it ought to have been. By contrast, the role of cabbie E.J. Lofgren was played by an African American man, probably not quite realistic with that name in the specified place and time, but not totally implausible. Referring to the earlier-referenced taxonomy of the nontraditional, Myrtle’s casting was color-blind, whereas E.J.’s was societal, or something close to it. And as I have commented above, societal casting does not challenge authenticity or our craving for realism.

But when that challenge does occur, we must ask ourselves some difficult questions about what our desire for realism really means in the artificial world of the theater, and whether our taste for “realism” is pure, or is instead an unacknowledged nostalgia for the hegemony of the white, the male, and the fully abled. (Hoffman and Pao each quote liberally from critics whose pleas for realism were pretty transparently, if unconsciously, motivated that way.) I was actually relieved when, shortly after the Harvey production, I found I was feeling the same way about a production of Wendy MacLeod’s Schoolgirl Figure, a black comedy about anorexia, in which two of the three performers portraying teenaged girls engaging in a starvation competition were not skinny enough to be credible to me. My desire for a performer to be body-plausible seems not to have been confined neatly to racial and gender categories, after all. But I still distrust myself.

Three Frames

And I still ask myself why I care about authenticity. And why I seem to care more in some contexts than others. Pao has an explanation for the context sensitivity too. She writes:

All more-or-less traditional dramatic theater productions refer to between one and three frames of reference: (1) the era of the author, (2) the era of the director/actor/spectator, and (3) the era of the fictional world of the play. These frames may all coincide (e.g., a 1950s American production of Death of a Salesman or A Raisin in the Sun); the first and second may be the same (e.g., a production of Racine’s Andromaque at the court of Louis XIV); the first and third may be the same (e.g., a Molière comedy being performed in the twentieth century); or all three may be different (e.g., a nineteenth-century production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar).

She posits, and my own reactions seem to conform to her proposition, that the more distant from contemporaneity these three frames move, the less nontraditional casting disturbs audiences. The locus classicus of relief from the cravings for realism, for most modern audiences, is Shakespeare, whose works in all three frames are at least four hundred years removed from us. And over those four hundred years, as almost every theatergoer knows, casting conventions have radically changed.

Shakespeare Is No Touchstone

Richard Burbage, the Globe’s impressario, cast all of Shakespeare’s roles, both male and female, with males. Burbage had no choice in the matter; women were not permitted on the stage. So casting men in women’s roles was, for Shakespeare, a baseline artifice, like stage lighting today. By coming to the theater, his contemporary audiences had bargained for it, had, to use a recently popular phrase, baked it into their expectations. That is not the same thing as to say that they were inured to unconventional casting; they were simply inured to different casting conventions.

But I would maintain that, like modern audiences, they noticed. I’d theorize that it was because Shakespeare knew they noticed that he had so much fun with the recurring device of female characters, Rosalind and Portia and Viola and Julia, disguising themselves as males so convincingly that the characters around them do not notice and are completely taken in. What a relief it must have been for Shakespeare’s original audiences to be freed, if only for a time, from the burden of noticing – for a man playing a woman playing a man is going to be able to be far more authentic as a man than he can ever hope to be as a woman. (So far as I can recall, there is only one case in Shakespeare of a male character disguising himself, and only briefly, as a female one: Falstaff in Merry Wives.)

There has been a recent vogue of all-same-sex Shakespeare productions, but the directors, I’d maintain, are doing the very opposite of what Burbage did. He cast traditionally within the usages of his time, and they are casting nontraditionally. Whatever the agenda, it differs fundamentally from Burbage’s.

The original casting conditions are not the only reason nontraditional casting goes down easily in Shakespeare. With Shakespeare’s plays probably more than with the works of any other dramatist in our canon, authenticity is almost meaningless anyway. Not only can’t we go back to his time and his casting conventions, we can’t or wouldn’t want to recreate Shakespeare’s staging, costumes, lighting, or anything else. Add to that that so much of Shakespeare is set in fantasy worlds anyway (Prospero’s island, the Forest of Arden, the woods of Midsummer Night’s Dream), real places freely reimagined (fair Verona, Ilyria, Elsinore), or in historical settings that Shakespeare and his contemporaries could only have had sketchy ideas of, like Caesar’s Rome, Titus Andronicus’ Rome, Cleopatra’s Egypt, or even England in the reign of King John. When one searches for ways to be authentic with Shakespeare, one scrambles for one’s footing. There is no there there. The texts are like vessels into which we are obligated to, and thus freed to, pour a tremendous amount of our contemporary imaginations. Shakespeare is seldom done in doublet and hose, but instead almost always in some more modern form of dress, with part of the fun being to see how it’s adapted.

And in such a context, the demands of authenticity of gender, ability, race or age seem to be considerably relaxed. And much the same goes for classic Greek or Roman drama.

In the middle distance, a current production of a work set a couple of centuries ago, there is the current revival of of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 playing on Broadway as I write these words. I have not seen it (though I reviewed the earlier production in these pages), but I have seen videos, and am aware that Tolstoy’s heroine, a member of the Russian gentry during the Napoleonic wars, is sung by Denee Benton, an African American performer who does not plausibly physically resemble the Natasha Tolstoy would have had in mind. It might be a challenge for a minute or two to see her in that role, but worth it. On video, Benton checks off all the other boxes: young, pretty, passionate, elegant. Some stretching of audience expectations may be required, but audiences can obviously deal. And why not? Frames 1 and 3 (as Pao summarized them) are considerably removed from today.

The Opposite Extreme

But what about at the opposite extreme? What about modern works whose force seems to depend upon their ability to speak to what we understand about contemporary America – particularly the modern domestic drama (exemplified by modern masters like O’Neill, Miller and Williams)? As with everything else, it seems to depend. Color-blind casting creates the greatest challenge in these contexts, both because, as with the Harvey example, it is likely to suggest family relationships that are genetically impossible, and because, if taken literally, it would contradict what we know to be plausible about the entire world of the play or detract from the concerns of the play. Whatever one thinks of Death of a Salesman (and, unlike most critics, I don’t think much), if Willy Loman is anything other than white we are going to be distracted by thoughts of how he fits into a predominantly white business world. Miller is trying to make us consider Willy’s dilemmas in light of failures of integrity, his own and that of the company which employs him, not in the light of racial dynamics. It would alter our focus as an audience.

Well, it might be suggested, what if we make the company he works for and most of the people in his orbit nonwhite? Would the problem drop out? That is the key question about cross-cultural casting. Mostly the cross-cultural shift does, at a minimum, alleviate the problem – not because it makes the show more realistic, but because it does the opposite. If Willy and his employers and his family are all black or Asian, they are in a nearly-Shakespearean neverland, because Arthur Miller wasn’t writing about a world populated that way, and the one he wrote about probably had no near-equivalent anywhere that such homogeneous nonwhite populations were to be found. And neverlands, like the world of the classics, seem far enough away so we worry less about realism. Or there may be ways to transpose the play, with some alteration, more realistically to some nonwhite context – and in that context, probably the insertion of white actors would be equally disruptive.

The same holds true about gender, I think, and applies equally in the sphere of comedy. Take The Odd Couple. Felix and Oscar could be black, but they could only be men. To be sure, in 1985, Neil Simon rewrote the play to make the leads, now named Florence and Olive, believably female, but it did require rewriting (out with the poker, in with Trivial Pursuit). Tony and Maria have to be a young male and a young female and must at least appear convincingly white and Hispanic, respectively, because their age, ethnicities, and genders are crucial to everything that happens in West Side Story. (Actually Maria was first played on the stage by Italian-American Carol Lawrence and on screen by Russian-American Natalie Wood.) Similarly, a female or juvenile Tevye is almost unthinkable.

Race and gender, however, are not comparable when it comes to cross-cultural shifts, because there is no culture in which everyone is male or everyone is female. A production in which all the parts, whether originally written for male or female performers, are instead played by members of only one sex can only be conceptual casting, i.e. casting designed to alter the “resonance” of the production. And exactly what the resonance of such casting might be is a problem.

Single-Sex Shakespeare

The most obvious (and probably most frequently sought) resonance would be to recreate the effect of a Shakespearean stage wrought by all of the performers being male. There have been a couple of celebrated all-male productions recently: the Globe Theater’s Twelfth Night and Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company’s Taming of the Shrew (with songs by the composer of Spring Awakening). But when you’ve achieved that kind of historically accurate casting, have you actually achieved anything more? The one thing you can be certain of is that you give roles to players who wouldn’t ordinarily get them, and enlarge their possibilities.  (Though I’ve not seen it, I’ve read good things about Rylance’s Olivia in the former production, which crossed the Atlantic to New York twice.) But anything in addition to that? What insights does a historically accurate cast bring? I’ve never heard a convincing account.

With women playing all the parts, including those traditionally assigned to men, the question becomes even more fraught. Shakespeare did not write for any actresses at all. There’s no historical accuracy to be achieved. An informal Web search suggests that the most commonly all-female casting in Shakespeare occurs in productions of As You Like It. As it happens, I did see one of these recently at Baltimore’s Center Stage. Clearly, Goldberg’s production was setting out to convey something. My thought at the time was that it was a largely lesbian message. Rosalind, even before her transformation to a “man,” looked and acted quite butch. The rusticity of the Forest of Arden suggested, and the director and designers went with, a sort of L.L. Bean look to both set and costume, and I commented in my review that it was a “lumbersexual” production. And while that look is more associated with male gays than with lesbians, I don’t think I was dreaming when I understood this tone the way I did.

What Goldberg said for public consumption was not quite the same, however. She told the gay publication Metro Weekly that: “This 400-year-old play is the most gender-bending play in Shakespeare’s canon. It is an invitation to explore gender and identity, and the fluidity of gender.” On the other hand, she disavowed any goal other than the banishment of gender-consciousness: “My ultimate goal is that gender becomes neutralized and you just forget who’s doing what and it’s just about these characters.”

Even taking her at her word, this is still a fairly unusual take on the play, not well-supported, in my opinion, by the text. My point, though, is not whether Goldberg was right or wrong (whatever that means when we’re speaking of Shakespeare), but to point to Goldberg’s casting choices as one strategy for making an unconventional statement with unconventional casting. You can like or, along with me, dislike what she did, but you cannot deny that the casting helped make whatever her point truly was. If it was what I think, the butch Rosalind and the lumbersexuality did in fact convey the feeling of “We’re here, we’re queer, get over it.” And if Goldberg’s intent was what she said it was, the single-sex casting did discourage worrying about the complications of gender, and accepting Goldberg’s stated view that Shakespeare never wanted us to take the plot, and hence the characters’ nominal genders, terribly seriously. Either way, her choice was akin to the subversiveness of the deliberate casting of minorities as Founding Fathers in Hamilton.

So there is something to be said for making everyone one sex, just as there is for making everyone of a different race than that for which the play was written. Something: but not always a great deal.

Patient Outcomes

In my day job as a lawyer I once had to spend a lot of time reading surgeons’ post-operative notes. A common phrase there was “the patient tolerated the procedure well.” The phrase recurred in my mind while writing this. The contract we instinctively prefer to make with a stage performance is: you make it as believable as you can, and I’ll believe as much as I can. But with nontraditional casting, a prop of authenticity is being removed, gradually but unmistakably, as people who don’t look or sound the part are being swapped in. How well are we going to tolerate that procedure? How much are we going to rebel?

One form of rebellion is the modern iteration of I call the one-way ratchet, a ratchet which used to run the other way. Once upon a time, white performers, but hardly ever nonwhite ones, were permitted to play nonwhite roles. For instance, the original 1951 production of The King and I, a show in which most of the characters were Asian, featured few performers of Asian ancestry. Among the leading Asian characters, the King was portrayed by Swiss Russian Yul Brynner, Tuptim by Italian-American Doretta Morrow, Lady Thiang by Jewish American Dorothy Sarnoff, etc. Even most of the children were of non-Asian ancestry. There was, preceding this, a long history of blackface performances by white performers (think Al Jolson singing Mammy). But there was almost no nontraditional casting of nonwhites in white roles. In Hoffman’s book, the history of blackface, and the near-exclusion of black performers from sharing the stage with white ones are described in detail.

One-Way Ratchets

Now, however, even as white roles open up to nonwhite performers, there is serious resistance to going the other way. As a sign of the change, the purportedly “archival” production of The King and I currently playing at the Lincoln Center featured nearly all performers of Asian ancestry in the Asian roles. Lincoln Center’s alteration of course may be traceable back to a 1972 complaint filed against the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center (which then operated the Vivian Beaumont Theatre within the complex, where The King and I is now playing) with the New York State Division of Human rights on behalf of some Asian actors in connection with four plays with Asian settings and characters (including Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan) where whites were cast in Asian roles. The company won the legal battle, but promptly went out of business, and in the process effectively lost the war.

This seems to be mostly about race. It caused some controversy that sighted and speaking Abigail Breslin was cast as the deaf and dumb Helen Keller in a 2009 revival of The Miracle Worker, just as sighted and speaking Patty Duke had been in the original production half a century ago. But unlike the situation with Asians in The King and I, it was not unthinkable.

Attempts to give nonwhite roles to white performers have run into authorial resistance as well. There was a striking instance in 2015, when Katori Hall, author of The Mountaintop, a play about Martin Luther King, Jr., learned that a white actor had been cast as King in a production at Kent State University; Hall wrote an angry denunciation and changed the standard language of her contract with companies producing the play to prevent the companies from putting white actors in either of the play’s two roles. And of course the casting controversy with Hamilton has already been mentioned. (To be fair, the Estate of Samuel Beckett has until recently been equally adamant that Beckett’s plays, set in neverlands if ever any plays were, but apparently white and male neverlands, not be nontraditionally cast. The break in resistance on the racial front came when the play was transposed to post-Katrina New Orleans, and African American players were cast as Vladimir and Estragon. The Estate is apparently still refusing to allow women to be cast in male roles.)

Et Tu, Felix and Oscar?

As we get further into this new age in unconventional casting, then, a lot seems objectionable or pointless, but little is truly impossible. We can cast the old, unrevised Felix and Oscar with women, if we really want to. But we’d better have a point, since we’re doing it in roles that really depended in their conception upon the maleness of the characters. We can cast a white man as Martin Luther King, Jr., in a play focused right on King. But we’ll elicit predictable and perhaps justified indignation. Such choices will probably not be worth it.

The big gains for unconventional casting will be in cases like that of Natasha in the reworked Great Comet, where somehow we can be persuaded not to go on noticing some kind of inauthenticity. The Spring Awakening example, with many of the actors communicating in American Sign Language while other performers spoke and sang their lines, partly worked, but where it didn’t, it wasn’t because of that split between the two kinds of performers. I think I can speak for the audience that we all got past that part very quickly. (As I wrote in an earlier piece, there were other issues in the show like an overcrowded stage, inadequate dancing, and vocal talents that did not measure up to the original Broadway cast’s.)

Despite all the theoretical talk, it looks to me as if there are in the end only two rules with nontraditional casting. First, and paradoxically, the unthinkable (and you’ll know it when you see it) had better be well-thought-through. Second, with every other kind of unconventional choice, one should ask whether the audience can be persuaded to overlook the mismatch between performer and role enough not to have its suspension of disbelief itself suspended. Two principles so broad and anodyne can hardly promise infallible results, but anything more prescriptive would ignore the genius of the theater, which is that the rules are always being successfully broken. You can’t know till you’ve tried it, thank goodness.

It seems a certainty that we’re going to see a lot more trying.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Leave a Reply