Friday, July 27, 2012

Creative Casting

In celebration of Indie Theatre Week (July 23 - July 29, 2012),  we asked members of the OOB community to share some of the Indie Theatre moments that inspired them.

Contributed by Sofia Landon Geier

I’m thankful to an actor I recently cast for sending me a message a few days ago regarding my theater company’s use of the term “race-blind casting.”  He feels that by using the word “race” at all, we are perpetuating the thinking that the color of an actor’s skin is a factor.  I should say the color of a non-white actor’s skin is a factor.  In the world of casting, we recognize black (African-American), brown (Latina/Latino), Asian, South Asian, Native American, etc.  We do not recognize “white.”  It is taken for granted.  A character is white unless stated otherwise. 

It is this presumption that proud Actors’ Equity member Evan Edwards takes issue with.  He is launching a one-man crusade to popularize the term “Creative Casting.” Edwards is playing the role of Harry MacAfee (made famous on Broadway and in the movies by Paul Lynde) in UnityStage Company’s AEA Showcase production of Bye Bye Birdie.  Harry MacAfee is “traditionally” played by a white actor, but, Unity Stage went the “non-traditional casting” route by inviting Edwards to take on the role.  Edwards actually came in to read for the role of Albert Peterson.  We had reached out to black actors for the part played on Broadway and in the film by Dick Van Dyke.  Edwards sang and read well, but, he wasn’t what we were looking for, when it suddenly occurred to me that standing before us was an actor with power, comic timing and a certain quality that spoke of an “old-school 1950’s family man” – he was the Harry MacAfee I had envisioned.  I just hadn’t envisioned him black.  So much for being race-blind!  Edwards got me thinking, and the more I thought, the more I realized I was far from being able to come up with an answer.  I decided to invite some people I’ve worked with for their thoughts.  You’ll see that we don’t reach a conclusion, but, we definitely hit some nerves.

Actor Imran W. Sheikh is impatient with the entire discussion. He says, “You can make the label [Creative Casting] sound as politically correct as you want, but it's still a label. Audiences should come to see a story, brilliant performances. Not skin color.”  Casting Director Kim Graham (TV’s Homeland) agrees with Edwards. “I love what he said! I think those old phrases were transitional attempts in our industry to open up the diversity factor.  But, we’ve moved past that now and our language should reflect that.”
LA actor Clyde Kusatsu remembers being told by his college drama teacher to forget about an acting career. The rationale? “There's only "Tea House of the August Moon" or "The King and I" could you possibly make a 'living'?"  Kusatsu didn’t let himself be defined by others, even surviving his role as Margaret Cho’s father on her short-lived sitcom.  Cho’s show famously failed due to insistence by producers on demeaning, out-of-date stereotypes.  “Rots of ruck” – oh really?  But, Kusatsu has had the last laugh – he works constantly, in a variety of roles.  He’s in basic agreement with Edwards, though, about the label, saying that  “each generation needs to be either reminded or re-educated.”

Jade Justad gets where Edwards is coming from, but, she doesn’t have time to wait for the unenlightened to catch up. “I do think it is kinda bizarre that in the world of theater where we will make believe ANYTHING - we're riding on a train, there's a big forest fire, I'm an elf- it is considered a "bold" move to cast, say, an African-American actress as Hedda Gabler.”  A conservatory trained stage actress, Justad does not see a viable career for herself in the theater.  She jokingly refers to it as “a white kid’s sport.”  Instead, Justad is writing, directing and acting in her own films.  Now she’s the one doing the casting, putting her own vision out there. 

I requested a black roommate at college.  Why?  I had never spoken to a black person and I wanted to put an end to the narrowness of my life.   Until Edwards contacted me, I thought “race-blind” was progressive.  “Progressive Casting” is the alternative suggestion of actress Veronica Reyes-How, who made it to the top in ABC’s Diversity Showcase.  Diverse casting? Progressive casting? Creative casting?  Just “casting?”  Honestly, I want to cast the best person for the role.  But, I have found that if I don’t specifically ask for actor submissions from a particular ethnicity, actors of that ethnicity do not respond.  And, I don’t mean that old saw “actors of all ethnicities are encouraged to apply.”  Very few actually apply.  So… any answers out there?  Or will the answer come with time, through just the doing of it?  If we cast without regard to race, then at some point, will it all become moot?   Can we envision a post-racial creative world?    


Sofia Landon Geier is the Founder & Producing Artistic Director Unity Stage Company. She began her theatre career as an actor, studying drama at Northwestern University where she gained experience performing everything from Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and restoration comedy to Second City improv. Sofia acted with several of America’s leading repertory companies, including Connecticut’s Long Wharf and Stamford Theatres, Albany’s Capital Rep (which she co-founded), and Actors’ Theatre of Louisville where she was directed by Jon Jory. Sofia received a Drama Desk nomination as Best Actress for her critically-acclaimed performance of the title role in Peg O’ My Heart. On Broadway, Sofia played Clelia in Larry Shue’s comedy The Nerd opposite Peter MacNichol.  

1 comment:

  1. Sofia, GREAT thought-provoking post and really well written. I really appreciated the perspectives you included. Here's my take...I do NOT like the term "creative casting" because it's unclear, unlike "Race-blind casting." The issue here, as you said, is whether we should need any term at all. Of course the reality is that we do. Of course that's a shame, and of course we hope that one day it will not come to that, but until that time comes, let's stick to using language that is clear for actors to understand.

    As for whether we can have hope that one day race-blind casting will be a given and no longer need to be said -- hmm, I wonder if there was a time, once women were finally allowed to act on stage, that folks needed to emphasize GENDER-blind casting. See, anything is possible when you look at how far we've come!