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.

Sarah B

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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59 thoughts on “HOLDING THE MIRROR UP TO NATURE: Casting Shakespeare for Today’s Audiences

    • Go see their work and invite them personally! My first draft of this post said a lot of things about how hard it was to cast diversely due to the small number of actors of color, but when I spoke to some of our Resident Artists, they said they don’t always feel invited, even in their own company, to audition for the roles they want to play. As one actor said, “If I see one more black Mercutio, I’m going to stab somebody.” So the commitment has to be bigger than tokenism and we can’t decide that some roles can be played by actors of color and some can’t.

  1. Rebecca, Great post! Thanks for breaking it down so clearly and thanks for the leadership. Your response regarding how to get actors of color to attend your auditions, “Go see their work and invite them personally.” is right on.

  2. As an artist who has worked in small Midwestern communities for three years now, I believe the need for gender parity and diversity in casting is equally important – if not more – in places where the community is less diverse. We need to reflect all nature with our mirrors. It is better for the art and even better for the audiences. I’m excited to share this blog with others outside the Bay Area!
    To quote the play I am currently working on:
    “But cheer thy heart, and be thou not dismay’d”
    This post cheered my heart and I have never been prouder of SFSF. Thank you.

  3. Wow, what incredible commentary about an issue that, as an audience member, I haven’t really fully considered. But, yes, Juliets and Ceasars should come in all shapes and sizes! So glad you are speaking boldly about this and educating your interns.

  4. Rebecca, thank you for setting an amazing example as a thoughtful leader in our field whose vision embraces the full spectrum of artists and audiences in our communities. You’re setting the bar high, as it should be. Bravo! Bravo! BRAVO!

  5. Yay Rebecca! Excellent article and congratulations on the great work you are all doing! Our all-female Hamlet plays in L.A. Aug 30-Oct. 27 and we’re putting up an all-female Othello with the Harlem Shakespeare Festival in NYC December 15th, if anyone can come and see us. Many thanks, and again, big congratulations on the journalism and the journey! Best, Lisa Wolpe, http://www.lawsc.net

  6. On the other hand, there are instances where unconventional casting of Shakespeare makes a mess of the text– simply because the language of some of the plays is so infused with sexual, and racial and ethnic identifiers, that you end up with something that makes little sense, as I note in a review of a recent “re-imagining” of The Merchant of Venice.

    Incidentally, I don’t think we should excise the line “liver of blaspheming Jew” from the witches’ incantation in Macbeth— instead of trying to politically correct the past, we should be willing to address the values dissonance between our 21st century liberalism and Shakespeare’s illiberal era. The witches, like the Macbeths, are not meant to be nice people– and for that matter, the line is an ironic subversion of the anti-Semitic folklore of the blood-libel with which Shakespeare’s audience would be familiar and fed into the “pound of flesh” trope that Shakespeare appropriated in The Merchant of Venice.

  7. What a fantastic read! 🙂 I look forward to more companies thinking outside of the box. My company’s R & J featured the title roles as a gay couple. Romeo was played as a woman. Tybalt was played by a woman. The Montagues were also a gay couple. Romeo had two mommies. Mercutio and Benvolio’s friendship had homosexual undertones. Our audience was dealing with the aftermath of the murder of one of DC’s finest and an increase gay teens committing suicide as a result of bullying. Our production was a benefit for The Trevor Project.

  8. Rebecca, thanks for your thoughts. In my office, We have been spending a lot of time recently talking about diversity. It takes work, to doubt, but its far from impossible. I’ve heard all of these excuses as well. Of course, every piece of art should be different from every other piece of art- so I try and stay clear from rules, but we have to get rid of the intellectual barrier (baggage) we have about it. And, right, stay away from tokenism. But the work of inclusion is tough. It’s not enough to say the door is open. You have to put in the work required to make sure actors of a wide variety of backgrounds feel valued and treasured as collaborators- not that you’re simply “allowing” someone to work with you. Otherwise, it’s just fulfilling quotas,

    • Hi Ian – First of all, thanks so much for reading this and your willingness to be part of the conversation. And THIS is SO TRUE: “It’s not enough to say the door is open. You have to put in the work required to make sure actors of a wide variety of backgrounds feel valued and treasured as collaborators – not that you’re simply ‘allowing’ someone to work with you.” You nailed it. As for quotas – any kind of affirmative action stance is always going to be controversial. However, we’ve had semi-realized good intentions for years, and we feel like it’s time to give ourselves a solid set of goals, something we can really hold ourselves to. And by “ourselves” I mean not only the staff, but the core group of diverse Resident Artists we’ve been building over the last few years, who have become “us,” not “them.”

  9. Thanks Rebecca – this is a solid example of how to start removing those unconcious prejudices that are so insidious. You guys are actually making it real. Kudos!

  10. Thank you, Rebecca. You have expressed so well what has been an important part of the Festival ever since it was founded in 1983. I was proud to read this. Bob Glavin

  11. Brilliant analysis. I always related to Prospero, and seeing Helen Mirren in the role gave it new poignancy for me. Thank you for being awesome!

  12. I fully agree with the sentiment that theatre needs to become more diverse, behind the scene as well as on the stage, but I’m curious as to how you balance that against casting the most talented actor for a given role.

    That’s not to suggest that the most talented actor for a role is always going to be a specific race or gender, but as an example if at the end of auditions you’ve got your dream cast in place only to discover they are all white, or all men, or all [fill in the blank], do you forgo your first choice for one or more roles to hit that desired balance of diversity for your audience?

    • Hi Matthew – First of all, thanks for reading and for being part of the conversation.

      What I’m proposing is this – if we practice “mindful casting,” we’ll never have a moment when we suddenly discover our dream cast is all white or all men. We will be looking, noticing, and seeing everything about each actor all the time – that’s why I say that there’s no such thing as “blind” casting. If we go in “blind,” our ingrained set of preferences – not chosen by us, but insidiously taught to us all through our lives – will kick in and it’s very likely that we’ll end up with a cast that’s mostly white or male. My first choice, “dream cast” simply wouldn’t be all one thing – in order to be a dream cast, it would have to be diverse AND talented.

  13. When I lived in Chicago, I played Juliet for seven years. Reviewers would often comment on what an interesting or daring choice it was to use a young asian woman. When we later toured the shows in the high schools, no one batted an eye. I don’t think the kids ever even noticed… for them, it was about the story.

  14. A truly intelligent and important article, which so articulately outlines the necessity for true, thoughtful diversity in the world’s most pliable and open theatrical canon. As a woman who jas played more male characters than female, you just validated mine and so many others’ careers! Thank you.

  15. My question is: who were the top 50 actors in the Bay Area? How did you decide this? Are they the same people that keep getting cast over and over again in most of the Equity theatre companies? Or did you think outside of the box on that? I suppose to find actors of color to put in that group of 50 must have taken some digging, but I wonder if the other 25 white people were the same ones as usual. I am sure you have heard of the 80/20 rule. From my observation it applies to casting plays; roughly 20% of the actors, especially Equity actors, get 80% of the roles. As I look at the faces of the people in the photos of your current MacB production, I see that it holds true. My challenge to you: look outside of your predetermined stack of 50 actors. Defy the 80/20 rule. Defy it. In the same way that actors of color and women are being left out, some of those 80 percenters are actors of excellent talent who are not getting the big opportunities simply because for reasons beyond their control, they didn’t get into that 20% group. Granted: part of it is talent, part of it is networking, part of it is being able to make an impression when you walk in the room; part of it is having a good reputation. But part of it is luck, just plain old luck. I would contend that, not only are women and actors of color being left out of the picture, but so are many other people who have a lot to offer, but may not have been deemed worthy by those few larger companies that make casting decisions, and who are perhaps afraid to take a chance.

    • Hi Ray – Thanks for reading and for commenting. I think you’ve opened up another subject for another essay – perhaps one that you should write! My stack of 50 actors were not necessarily THE top 50, they were “among” the top actors. There are way more than 50 wonderful actors in the Bay Area. And no, I didn’t have to dig very hard to find 25 wonderful actors of color, or 25 women. I agree, every director has a group of actors they enjoy working with and part of this process will mean getting those directors out of that comfort zone. Our current cast, made up of terrific actors, does not represent the kind of diversity we’re going to strive for in the future.

  16. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rebecca. Thank you for such a thoughtful and powerful post. I remember reading reading all the standard growing up novels as an English major in college and having that experience of identifying with the hero. Heck, I even felt that way about Harry Potter. It’s great that as women we see ourselves at the center of the quest narrative.

    Your comments about casting (thank you for putting the interns through that wonderful workshop) made me think about how important it is to confront racism, especially in our work. And it reminded me, sadly, of how common it still is. One of the tech companies I worked for routinely struggled to use diverse images in marketing materials, only to have them challenged by executives (surprisingly, in Europe) as “not acceptable to ‘our’ customers” in the guise of making the materials more “culturally appropriate” for markets outside the US.

    And, then, I came across this news http://news.yahoo.com/mexico-airline-apologizes-light-skin-162331914.html about a casting call. We’re making progress, and talking about it helps, but there’s still a ways to go.

    Kirsten

  17. Yes Yes and Yes! This is wonderful and has to be shared with readers of Arts in Color (a new site about people of color in the arts). What is your reblog policy? A lot of times we use part of the copy and link to the original for people to continue reading. This is a discussion we often have over at Arts in Color…and a discussion that seems to be gaining more speed. My first question is always-ok so how do we implement this? How do we start creating a more diverse theatrical experience. Thanks so much for this & I look forward to hearing from you!

    Shavanna
    Editor, Arts in Color

    • Hi Shavanna –

      How exciting! Yes, reblogging would be absolutely fine, anything to continue the conversation. When it comes to implementation – that’s probably another essay, since it has come up more than once in the comments. I will be starting the casting process for next year’s production soon, and I look forward to putting my money where my mouth is – part of the reason I wrote this is to hold myself accountable.

      I think the best way to cast more diversely is to get to know more actors, and our current 2-minute-monologue-and-thank-you process is not serving that purpose (that’s another essay as well). I also know that in the past, our auditions have been about 90% white and 70% male, because that’s what our reputation has been casting-wise. So if the few actors of color who come in aren’t right for our casting needs, we end up with two choices – tokenism, which no one wants, or another all-white cast. We have to see more actors of color at the auditions, and that will take some active inviting and recruiting.

      SF Shakes currently produces two major productions each year, our school tour and the flagship program, Free Shakespeare in the Park. It’s about 25 actors total. It’s a manageable goal with those numbers.

      Rebecca

      • Reblogged today (http://artsincolor.com/2013/08/holding-the-mirror-up-to-nature-casting-shakespeare-for-todays-audiences/), and some of our readers have already clicked the link to read the rest here!

        Yes-I do think inviting will be helpful. Perhaps reach out to sites like mine, organizations like NAATCO, and many others to get the word out about your upcoming auditions. Having the information presented directly from these resources that already have a place in the community of artists of color may be helpful. I’m actually originally a performer from Northern CA but I have to say I’m not sure what networks there are out there for performers of color that may be of use to you.

        Feel free to send me your casting info and I will be more than happy to put it on the site. We did a feature on Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and that was a big hit with the readers so I’m sure auditions for classical work will be of interest to them as well. Please let me know how else we can help and keep us posted as you approach this year!

        Also if you have a production at all around the holidays that includes artists of color (I will be at home) and would be happy to cover it for AIC, therefore, familiarizing our audience w/SF Shakes and what you all have to offer!

        Thanks Again,

        Shavanna

      • Hi Shavanna! Thank you so much for posting and tweeting, and yes, as soon as I have the audition info I will send it to you! We don’t have any major productions over the winter holidays, but will have some student productions in November and December. I look forward to meeting you in person!

      • Great interview! I particularly like Ito’s reflections on “traditional guilt” as cultural background intersects with sexual identity.

  18. Racism and sexism are huge problems in our society. Anyone who denies that is simply living in a dream world. I think that any time you can find a way of changing that through Shakespeare’s work, you are doing a wonderful service to both the audience, by opening everyone’s eyes to change, and to the artists by giving them new opportunities. I hope that others follow your lead.
    Ray

  19. Heck, yea.

    GAN-e-meed’s 2010 production of “Hamlet, featuring an all-female cast.” This is myself, SerahRose, playing the title, opposite Jackie Davis (Gertrude) an actress of color. We actively sought women of all shapes, sizes, and colors for this cast. The pre-production audiences were pro-actively doubtful about our choices. The post-show audiences had nothing but good things to say…

  20. Much love! Lest anyone wonder, this is the character of SF Shakes – regardless of whether the play is a Shakespearean favorite or Pippi Longstocking. Thank you, Rebecca, for your efforts!

    • Liam – thank you for reading and commenting! Speaking totally from my own preferences, it’s critical to me that Othello be an outsider in a dominant culture, and it’s harder for me to buy a white man as an outsider than a man or woman from a more subjugated group, at least in the US. I’m sure in some other countries, Othello could be played as a member of a minority ethnic or religious group, and that would be an interesting path to explore. For me, it’s less about political correctness and more about making sure the audience can immediately identify that Othello is an outsider. Recently, Patrick Stewart and John Ortiz have both played Othello, in productions with diverse casts. I didn’t see either production but there are some interesting reviews and interviews on line about those directors’ and actors’ feelings about the play and the role.

      • Quick response to Liam and Rebecca: How about a white, blond, blue-eyed Othello in a cast where nobody else was fair-of-skin, blond and blue-eyed? That would reinforce the outsider-ness of him or her. A “her” would be even more outside: so many people still view females as lacking the equipment to be in charge. (I’m incorporating Rebecca’s truth about quotas here, too.)

      • Sir Patrick Stewart did this – in a production where he was the only white actor. I didn’t see it, but I’d be curious to see that sort of absurdist reversal of our current perceptions of otherness. The gender choice would be interesting as well. I just saw the CalShakes production in which Cassio was also played by a Black actor – in the case of that production, the otherness was stressed to be about Othello’s Islamic faith. It also did a good job of pointing out otherness in the production in different ways – the three female characters clearly representing different economic classes, and the white working-class Emilia’s disdain for Bianca, a prostitute and a woman of color. With these choices, I was reminded of America today and the different ways in which people feel excluded.

      • You can make these changes — but you have to alter the text accordingly or the lines stop aligning with what is on stage. Othello isn’t a Muslim — the text makes it clear that he is a former-Muslim who has converted to Christianity. You can change that if you like since Shakespeare can’t sue you.

        As to his identity as a Moor — that label has historically been used to as a term a wide variety of people with a wide range of skin colors (usually, though not exclusively, people of Northern Africa of Berber or Arab ethnicity) the text only makes it clear that he is darker than the rest of the Venetians — but again, Shakespeare can’t sue you if you alter the text.

      • The CalShakes production did edit the text to play down the conversion to Christianity a bit, as I recall. And they specifically noted that “Moor” did not necessarily mean Black at the time, but Muslim.

      • And historically speaking, it would be legitimate to use the word “Moor” to designate not a skin color or ethnicity but as a synonym for Muslim, because there have been times where the word was used that way.

        But as to how Shakespeare used it — he was clearly identifying Othello as a Christian convert from a north African Muslim family who was attempting to integrate himself into Venetian society as a Christian. But the idea of persecuting the “New Christians” — descendants of Jewish and Muslim converts — because of their ancestors’ faith was still very much a reality in Shakespeare’s time.

        In a Boston production I reviewed last year by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, they hewed closely to the text but did so in a way that hinted at the manner that President Obama had been plagued by the birther movement.

        Now I am someone who can appreciate both purist takes and re-imaginings of Shakespeare. I only object when either is done poorly. So, by all means, a blonde Othello — just make sure the script and directorial concept make sense.

  21. Hi Rebecca, Thanks for a great article. We’ve had great audience response to diverse casting at Livermore Shakespeare Festival. Only one negative response to female Rosencranz and Guildenstern, but dozens of positive observations about how well it worked – how certain passages were illuminated due to allowing female actors to play the roles, but also to play them as women friends of Hamlet. Our audiences adore seeing Michael Wayne Rice and Armando McClain (actors of color) in leading roles over the years. At least in metropolitan areas like the Greater Bay Area, I think modern audiences welcome the opportunity to see and hear the plays anew. We, as artistic directors, can feel confident in reflecting our diverse American community on the stage. And what fun to ponder and then make the choice: should I ask her to play the male role as male? or change the character to female? what will be illuminated with each choice? That’s part of the fun of analyzing the text and casting. I find it delightful to live in an era where our artistry as directors is not bounded by such strict gender and racial rules (at least with Shakespeare – dead playwright). Inherent in that opportunity, though, is the challenge to do serious analysis of the text, know what the play is really about, and make casting choices that illuminate the themes and big questions in the chosen text, not simply “mix in” random gender choices albeit for excellent social reasons. There’s so much to gain on multiple levels by opening ourselves up to diverse casting choices.
    Thanks again for putting the conversation on the web!

    • Thanks so much for this post, Rob – I heard she’d done it but hadn’t found anything yet about her experience. She brings up a lot of great points about being a woman over 50 in Shakespeare and the sense of camaraderie that women often miss out on.

  22. Hey Rebecca! Lise Bruneau here, SF ex-pat and gender flexing director for DC’s Riot Grrrls – a wing of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company which does an all grrrl Shakespeare every year. What a great article, and thank you so much. I just remember being in England, and seeing Cloud Nine, and then Fiona Shaw rip up Richard II, and had a satisfying thought that in 10 years theatrical gender bending would be so common as to be almost passe. Not so much, huh? Thanks for your efforts in this direction – it’s all pretend, anyway, right? And still loving Wolpe as well for the “stop asking me that”, and all the other great things she said in that fantastic article. And I can’t say enough about how much our actors learn about being human as we embark on these roles. It’s really amazing.

  23. Pingback: Rethinking Casting Conventions in Shakespearean Plays | A Great Feast of Languages | The Shakespeare Standard

  24. Pingback: Casting for Justice: Making Some Mirrors | Works by Women San Francisco

  25. Pingback: CASTING FOR JUSTICE: Making Some Mirrors | Shake It Up

  26. Pingback: Rethinking Casting Conventions in Shakespearean Plays | A Great Feast of Languages | The Shakespeare Standard

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