HOLDING THE MIRROR UP TO NATURE: Casting Shakespeare for Today’s Audiences

A few weeks ago, in our weekly intern company meeting, I did a session about casting. After we went over the basics of headshots, resumes, cover letters, and interview etiquette, I set them a task – cast the 9 major roles of Romeo and Juliet (Romeo, Juliet, Nurse, Friar, Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio) from a large pile of headshots and resumes. The only parameters were that 5 of the actors had to be Equity, 4 non-Equity. I had carefully selected a stack of about 50 of the Bay Area’s top actors. Half were actors of color, and there were equal numbers of men and women.

The 15 students were divided into three groups of 5. Each had to present their choices, then explain them to the rest of the group.

The first group consisted of 5 bright, talented young people – 4 female, one male, all white. The cast they chose was also all white. They cast men in every role except Juliet, Lady Capulet, and the Nurse. When I questioned them why they didn’t think about more racial diversity, or about casting women in some of the men’s roles, they looked startled, then a little sheepish. The young man said, “Oh. Well, we didn’t have much time, so we just did the easy thing.”

Aha.

I understand where these kids were coming from. As a member of the privileged white upper-middle-class, I know it is all too easy not to examine my choices. It’s way easier to go with my culturally programmed, default mental image of a character than cast someone whose face may not immediately come to mind when I think “Romeo.” But those of us in that privileged position have to stop doing the easy thing. We must pause and reflect. We must say “what if.” We must do this about race, about gender, about body type, about sexual orientation – about everything that makes us different from one another. There’s nowhere that I go in my community where all the people are white, or male, or slender, or straight.  But we all know how many films, TV shows, and plays feature mostly people of that description. This homogenization has affected how we all think – Juliet is forever white and lithe with long flowing hair in many of our minds, regardless of our cultural background. But only a very small number of real 14-year-old girls fit that description. How much more fresh and illuminating can it be to see her portrayed differently?

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Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in the new Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet.

At SF Shakes, we feel incredibly lucky to have the audiences we do. Most theatres are dying to attract the kind of age, economic, and racial diversity that we get in our “theatre” every night at Free Shakespeare in the Park. But the diversity of our audience makes it even more critical, and even more urgent, that we start doing a better job of reflecting that audience on stage.

I’ve heard several arguments over the years to explain why theatre companies in general, and Shakespeare companies specifically, don’t cast more diversely. Here are some of the most common:

1. Shakespeare didn’t write enough roles for women/actors of color/deaf actors/you name it. You’re right. He wrote roles for able-bodied white men only, because those were the people allowed to perform on stage while he was alive. At that time, scores of people also died from the plague and thought everyone in the Southern Hemisphere walked upside down. We’ve learned some useful things since then. Besides, I believe Shakespeare wrote great CHARACTERS, to be played by the best actors at his disposal, and if we were alive today, he’d cast differently.

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B. Chico Purdiman as Benedick and Rebecca Kemper as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2012.

There is a core challenge to running a classical theatre – no matter how diversely we cast, at the end of the day, Shakespeare is a dead white guy. As much as I believe that his stories and characters have universal significance and appeal, I know the word “universal” itself is problematic, because it’s usually the white cultural elite who decide what that means.

Let’s be real, there’s some horrible racism in Shakespeare, and some heinous sexism, and we can’t do the plays without tackling that. But here’s the thing – Shakespeare’s dead, but his plays are living texts. There’s a reason they weren’t published at the time they were first performed – they were constantly changing even then. So I feel just as great about casting a female Hamlet as I do about cutting the line “liver of blaspheming Jew” out of Macbeth.

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Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in 1899. You go, girl.

When I was in high school, I read Hamlet, and something happened. I didn’t relate to Gertrude. I sure as heck didn’t relate to Ophelia. I GOT Hamlet, and if you’d said to me, “but you can’t understand Hamlet, you’re not a guy,” I would have said “yeah, and I’m not Danish either, nor did my uncle kill my dad and marry my mom.” My 16-year-old soul was Hamlet, and that was the role I wanted to play. I think Shakespeare’s words belong to me, and to anyone else who wants to claim them.

2. The audience won’t follow the story if you cast women/actors of color/etc. We have been casting non-traditionally for SF Shakes’ Shakespeare On Tour school and library touring program for 25 years. The kids in the audience, many of whom have never seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare, don’t have any problem figuring out who’s who. I recently saw Beli Sullivan, a female actor of color, play Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Company, utterly convincingly. Audiences want to see well-performed, well-told stories. Directors and producers should not project their own biases on the audience, or assign them prejudices they may not possess. And if they do possess these prejudices, the play becomes a forum in which to confront them.

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Safiya Fredericks, Beli Sullivan, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Festival.

3. There aren’t any well-trained classical actors of color/women/etc. I’ve heard this one a lot from white directors – “I’d cast diversely if there were any actors of color with Shakespeare experience.” Where do people get experience? From being cast. Besides, who is judging the talent in this situation? Usually a white director or producer, with that cultural bias I mentioned earlier. “Good classical acting” is in the eye of the privileged. Diversity must be embraced on all levels of the organization – if we’re really going to fight bias, the decision-makers can’t be all from the dominant culture either.

There’s an unspoken, insidious feeling in the Shakespeare community that if you have to cast a woman, it’s because you weren’t able to get a man to play the role- and therefore the show won’t be as good. The fact is, there are dozens of talented, well-trained female actors available for work at any given time in the Bay Area – 50% of the casting pool (see the Counting Actors Project for some statistics of how many are working every month). All creative directors have to do is what players in Shakespeare’s time did in reverse – assume that women can play men’s roles, as much as men can play women’s.

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Lisa Wolpe as Iago in Othello at LA Women’s Shakespeare Company.

4. There just aren’t enough actors of color in the Bay Area. I’ve often heard “I want to cast diversely, so why don’t actors of color come to our auditions?” I’ve felt this often myself. According to the 2011-12 annual report, Actors’ Equity Association’s national membership is approximately 85% white – pretty discouraging if you’re a casting director.

There are a lot of class-related reasons for this disparity – whites are still at the top of the income bracket, and when upper- and upper-middle-class kids go to college, their parents can house and feed them while they take unpaid internships at non-profit arts organizations, or support them through the early desperate years as young performers. The result is an artistic elite – largely white, largely college-educated, often subsidized by mom and dad – and fewer actors of color in the casting pool. There are cultural reasons as well – if there are no actors of color on stage, non-white audience members don’t see themselves represented, and it may never occur to talented young people that this is something they can really do.

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Armando McClain as Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare on Tour 2010.

Does that let producers off the hook? No. I spoke to a few Bay Area actors of color who feel discouraged to audition for many companies, ours included, based on what they’ve seen us produce. As one actor said, many actors of color feel they can work more if they head to LA or New York, instead of waiting around for the obligatory August Wilson or David Henry Hwang piece.

We have a responsibility as cultural leaders to make sure our stages represent the population of the Bay Area – not only to reflect our audience, but to demonstrate that artistic expression is a basic human right, and that careers in the arts are open to all.

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Mia Tagano as Olivia, Stephen Klum as Feste in Twelfth Night, Free Shakespeare in the Park 2004.

So enough excuses –  besides reflecting our audience and pursuing social justice, here’s the most important reason to cast diversely:

1. It’s better for the art. As Hamlet says, “holding the mirror up to nature” is the right thing to do. It’s also essential to the work itself. Actors with varied life experiences bring different perspectives on the text, stories and characters. We’ve been performing Shakespeare’s plays for over 400 years. Would we still be performing them if we insisted on all-male casts, if they were only allowed to be performed on London’s South Bank with a permit from the Queen, or if they were never translated into other languages? I doubt it. Constantly looking at the plays from new angles has kept them alive and flexible.

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Top: Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar. Bottom: The RSC’s African Julius Caesar.

When I consider an actor for a role, I’m looking at so many things – the timbre of their voice, the way they move, the way their face expresses emotion, the way the atmosphere changes when they make a choice, the way they engage with the other actors on stage. Race, gender, size, and physical ability are all a part of this. There is no such thing as “race and gender-blind” casting. ALL casting means something, and one must always be mindful of what it means. Actors, as soon as they get up on stage, acquire a set of quotation marks – they are symbols. Their physicalities, their voices, their mannerisms all become a set of signals that the audience responds to, as each member of that audience projects his or her experience onto that actor. It is “easier” to identify with someone who looks, sounds, and acts like you. But it expands your humanity and deepens your empathy to identify with someone who looks nothing like you. (Bitter Gertrude has a great blog post on this topic.)

Can a person of color identify with a white actor? Of course. Can a woman identify with a man? Sure. They do it all the time. But let’s ALL try doing it, say 50% of the time.

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Alex Lenarsky as Celia and Maria Giere Marquis as Rosalind in Impact Theatre’s As You Like It.

Here’s the thing – if we really believe that Shakespeare is for everyone (and at SF Shakes we do, passionately), white directors and producers like myself can’t stand up on stage as privileged arbiters of taste, passing down wisdom from our enlightened perch like beneficial medicine. This will only contribute to the perception of Shakespeare as elite and difficult to understand – a problem that certainly didn’t exist 150 years ago, when even the most illiterate prospector in the West knew a bit of Shakespeare by heart. If we want a better world with more equality for all, we must show women in positions of power. We must show people of color as fully developed, multi-faceted humans instead of stereotypes. We must hire actors of all shapes, sizes, and physical abilities, representing all the great diversity we see around us in the real world. Staging Shakespeare as living texts, constantly evolving over 400 years of history, gives us that opportunity.

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Radhika Rao as Brakenbury, Ryan Tasker as Clarence in Richard III, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

We’re practicing some mindful casting with the Free Shakespeare in the Parklet program this summer. We have 50% men and 50% women in the Parklet shows, and 40% actors of color – up from 30% last year. Our upcoming Shakespeare On Tour production of “Julius Caesar” has a rotating cast of 12, 58% women and 42% actors of color. And we’re making a commitment to build on this for all our productions to come. We will strive to improve gender parity and diversity on stage in future seasons, with the goal of 50% men, 50% women, and 50% actors of color in our casts. And we’ll embrace diversity offstage as well – I’ll get off this soapbox regularly to make way for our Resident Artists, who have varied backgrounds and nuanced ideas of their own about Shakespeare, social justice, and theatre.

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Maryssa Wanlass as Casca and Melissa Keith as Cassius in Julius Caesar, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

Remember that casting exercise I did with the intern company? The next two groups took a good look at their “Romeo and Juliet” casts. When they presented their nine actors, they had women playing roles like Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Mercutio and actors of color playing Romeo and Lord Capulet. They explained their casting in thoughtful ways – instead of “She just looks like a Juliet. She’s so pretty,” or “He was the only old guy we could find, so he has to be the Friar,” they said things like “I had a class with her and she’s so wise. She’d be a great Friar Laurence,” and “His cover letter is so passionate about Shakespeare and he’s done stage combat – he’d be a perfect Romeo.” They were looking harder, thinking creatively, and moving past what was “easy.”

“Put not yourself into amazement how these things should be: all difficulties are but easy when they are known.” – Measure for Measure

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Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest.

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