Tag Archives: casting

Why Is Race the Line?

Lord Capulet (Jon Nagel) and his nephew Tybalt (Reggie D. White) in Impact's production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Lord Capulet (Jon Nagel) and his nephew Tybalt (Reggie D. White) in Impact’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I had an interesting conversation with a theatremaker recently about casting. The discussion centered around multiethnic casting, particularly whether casting actors of different races as members of the same family would make the storytelling in the play unclear. The concern was that audience members would have trouble reading the actors as related and therefore have trouble following the play’s narrative.

If you’ve followed my blog for more than 12 seconds you already know what I think (diverse casting is GO), but I gave this particular aspect of diverse casting some serious thought, as this is nowhere near the first time I’ve had this discussion. Here’s where I landed:

Why is race the line?

That’s a serious question, btw, not a facetious construction meant to elicit a WOMP WOMP from my fellow SJWs. We take it for granted that we put our disbelief in suspension when we go to the theatre, but that suspension has limits. When we see something inaccurate onstage, for example, it pulls us out of the narrative. When an actor playing a medical professional pronounces the word “larynx” as “larnyx,”or says the blood type B+ as “B plus” (both of which I’ve heard), I have trouble maintaining the belief that that person is a medical professional.

In casting, however, we make enormous allowances. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of As You Like It although the actress playing Rosalind is married to the actress playing Celia, the actor playing Orlando is married to the costume designer, and the actor playing Charles the Wrestler has never wrestled a day in his life. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of Romeo and Juliet although we know Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Juliet, and Tybalt are not related and, in fact, look nothing alike. We lauded Peter Dinklage as Richard III although his disability is nothing like what Richard’s was, and we lauded both Sir Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey as Richard III, although neither has any disability at all.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in London. Photo by Nigel Norrington.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in London. Photo by Nigel Norrington.

It goes even further than that. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet’s nurse who is far too old to have plausibly given birth 13 years prior, although her entire relationship with Juliet hangs on that fact. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet who is visibly more than twice Juliet’s repeatedly stated age. We rarely expect an actor playing Iago to have military bearing although his years-long military experience and current military rank are central to the character and the narrative of the play. Hell, we live in a world where a major company can hire an all-white cast to do a show as vague “Native Americans” and almost no one bats an eye apart from Native American theatremakers and a few bloggers (also this).

So why is it so common for theatremakers to hesitate considering– or even refuse to consider– an actor of color to play the daughter of a white man, a Puritan farmer, the grandmother of a white woman, or a founding father (all examples taken from personal experience or discussions I’ve had with other theatremakers)? When we already are well aware that the actor isn’t the character, the characters’ relationships are (almost always) feigned, and the locations and actions are (almost always) pretend, why is that one factor– race– the line in the sand?

I don’t mean to discount the importance of race in our culture, or in the lived experience of people of color. What I mean is: Why is race so often THE most important consideration in casting, even when the production is not specifically about race? Why is race considered so much more important than other factors, such as age, suitability for the role, or skillset?

If you’re producing A Raisin in the Sun, M Butterfly, or Othello, the race of the characters is of primary importance, but most plays are not specifically about race. There’s no reason Tybalt cannot be Black in an otherwise all-Caucasian Capulet family. There’s no reason Eurydice cannot be Asian and her father cannot be white in Sarah Ruhl’s play. There’s no reason Joe Pitt cannot be Latino while Hannah Pitt is white in Angels. My own cousin is Black, and there are literally millions of other multiracial families in the US.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater's Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The three main arguments I hear about this go as follows:

1. But they WERE all white in that time and place. For one thing, are you certain? Because you’re probably wrong, even when you’re talking about Puritan Massachusetts or Colonial America. And also: So? There are lots of things we’re choosing not to depict accurately (some of which I’ve listed above), either because we have made a choice to believe they aren’t important, or because we don’t have the capability to. Think about this: 130 years ago, the difference between an Italian person and a white person would have been apparent to any American. To cast an obviously Italian woman as Juliet would have appeared absurd to an American audience in 1885, even though Juliet IS Italian, due to the enormous racial prejudice against Italian immigrants at the time.

2. Well, how about white people playing Black characters? Huh? Why can’t THAT happen? HUH? REVERSE RACISM. Well, it actually DOES happen, especially in Hollywood. Google “whitewashing.” I’ve already covered why this is problematic in this very space a bunch of times. Here, read this. Don’t believe me? Check out Racebending.

3. It will make the narrative hard to follow. This is the argument that arguably has the most (any) merit. A friend of mine has a daughter who looks exactly like her in every way but skin color, and did so even as a toddler. Although they looked so much alike, she was constantly asked, “Where did you get her?” I told my friend she should reply, “Out of my uterus.” People often unthinkingly assume all familial relationships are biological, and then use racial similarity as a marker for familial relationship, even though they know, if they pause to consider, that adoption, stepchildren, and biracial people exist. Stories like these underlie that. However, we can’t necessarily apply that to theatre. We don’t know the relationships of any of the characters onstage until they are revealed to us, and we already know we’re in the world of pretend. If you tell an audience that, for example, two men of different races are brothers, almost everyone in the audience will accept that. It’s not uncommon, especially in indie theatre and in areas with diverse populations, to see diverse families onstage. Yet some theatremakers still hesitate to cast people of color for reasons of narrative clarity, yet will discount literally every other physical marker as unimportant.

Sean Mirkovich as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kelvyn Mitchell as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in Impact Theatre's Richard III. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Sean Mirkovich as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kelvyn Mitchell as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in Impact Theatre’s Richard III. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I think what’s going on here is simple. We see “white” as “normal,” the baseline: neutral. We see people of color as a deviation from that– particular,  different, “other.” Race has narrative, of course, and we must consider that narrative while casting. If you have an all-white cast apart from one Black actor who’s playing the bad guy, you’re saying something specific. But often diversity in a play that’s not about race doesn’t change the narrative at all. How much difference would it make to the narrative of As You Like It if cousins Rosalind and Celia were of different races?

Sarah Dandridge as Rosalind and Francesca Choy-Kee as Celia in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of As You Like It. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

Sarah Dandridge as Rosalind and Francesca Choy-Kee as Celia in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of As You Like It. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

But because we see whiteness as “neutral,” when we look at white actors, we imagine a palette of possibilities, a narrative polyvalence, that we do not afford to people of color. A white person can be anything; a person of color is primarily and foremost “of color,” and therefore is relegated in most cases to inhabiting spaces already designated as such. A white person is read as “person”; a Black person is read as “Black person.” There are casting directors who still separate their files into “ingenue,” “leading man,” “Asian,” “Black.” White people are divided into types; people of color are their race alone. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less common, but we’re still far behind full inclusion of people of color. However, even small gains by people of color in casting are seen as a threat to white actors. We have a long way to go.

Years ago I made a personal commitment to include people of color in lists of actors I was recommending for roles wherein race wasn’t specified. Whether that had any impact on the eventual casting of the role or not, it was one way I felt like I could personally challenge the idea of whiteness as neutral in my day-to-day life. I get these all the time– people ask me for recommendations for roles like “woman, 20s, good comic timing, excellent physicality” or “man, 30s, sophisticated, witty, elegant.” All too often the implication is that a role is white if not otherwise specified, and I refuse to accept that. We’re getting better at diverse casting, certainly, but we’re still struggling with it, particularly on larger stages, where some directors can be enormously resistant.

While we take it for granted that an audience can see past a 30-year-old woman playing a 13-year-old girl (“come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen”), or a 70-year old woman playing that 13-year-old girl’s wet nurse; while we take it for granted that people will accept Kevin Spacey as disabled; we all too often refuse to take it for granted that an audience will accept a diverse family or a Black Puritan.

It’s time to rethink this. We need to slow down and recognize when we’re positing whiteness as neutral and color as a deviation from that, and we need to stop imagining that the only places audiences can tolerate actors of color are in spaces clearly designated for them. We need those ethnic-specific roles (and plays), certainly, but we also need to open our minds to making our onstage families look more like our offstage families; to giving our audiences credit for being willing and able to play pretend with us wherever we take them; and to giving actors of color consideration for their types, talents, and abilities apart from– and in addition to– their ethnicities.

Bay Area Children's Theatre's production of Five Little Monkeys. Mama Monkey and her five little monkeys as one happy (and busy!) family. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.

Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s production of Five Little Monkeys. Mama Monkey and her five little monkeys as one happy (and busy!) family. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.

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Protecting Racism in Theatre

Yes, I am still talking about this, despite some truly delightful comments and emails requesting that I stop draining all the fun out of life. (One woman, who said, and I quote, that she would like to punch me in the face, was relieved that I didn’t cast her local production of The King and I, as I would have unfairly deprived her of her favorite role, Lady Thiang, due to my ridiculous stance against yellowface.) The title of Mike Lew’s brilliant HowlRound article, “I’ll Disband My Roving Gang of Thirty Asian Playwrights When You Stop Doing Asian Plays in Yellow Face,” says it all. Privilege goes down hard, and it goes down swinging, and it goes down all the while claiming the right to do, ahem, whatever the fuck it wants.

One of the things privilege wants, and wants badly, is the continued ability to protect racism in performance. Mike Lew’s article above discusses some particular and extremely important issues regarding racism in performance, and while this was written for a special HowlRound series, he and I and a bunch of other theatre bloggers (and writers and critics and academics and your mom) have been discussing racism in narrative performance for quite awhile. And it’s disheartening to see, despite ongoing national discussion for DECADES, so little impact. Yes, things are changing, but with glacial slowness.

Change is maddeningly slow in an art form otherwise known for its cultural progressiveness because privilege is constantly defending and protecting racism in performance by calling it names like “artistic freedom” or “intellectual complexity” or “having faith in audiences.” See through the verbiage to what’s underneath: protecting racism.

Philip Kennicott’s article in the Washington Post, “A challenge for the arts: Stop sanitizing and show the great works as they were created,” is an overt apologia for racist characters and tropes in classic plays and operas. Kennicott asserts that the only people who care about what he terms “giving offense” (ugh) in American theatre are people who see art as merely “entertainment” rather than “an independent and volatile space governed by its own rules (or no rules at all).”

To preserve their independence, the arts need to stand resolutely aside from the increasingly complex rituals of giving and taking offense in American society. The demanding and delivering of apologies, the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended, the futile but aggressive attempt to quantify offensiveness and demand parity in mudslinging — this is the stuff of degraded political discourse, fit only for politicians, partisans and people who enjoy this kind of sport.

Art has more important things to do: preserving its autonomy, preserving the danger of the experience, preserving the history embodied in the canon, and helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty.

I’d like to start by immediately euthanizing his phrase, “the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended” for two reasons. First, people who are resisting bigotry are often dismissed with the belittling idea that they’re “offended,” as if fighting cultural oppression and the tools with which it creates, disseminates, and preserves that oppression are equivalent to an imaginary schoolmarm shocked at finding the word “fuck” carved into a desk. No, we are not “offended.” We’re fighting bigotry, and belittling that by pretending it’s about offending our delicate sensibilities with your culturally superior artistic achievements is nonsense. Secondly, the idea that only people of a certain group should resist bigotry against that group is, in 2014, laughable, and Kennicott should be ashamed of himself. Tell it to Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Tell it to Judy Shepard. Tell it to Kiichiro Higuchi. A culture wherein bigotry is protected by privilege is a culture of inequality, and that inequality affects us all. We all have areas of privilege and areas wherein we lack privilege. Resisting race-based bigotry is to resist all bigotry, as a concept, benefitting us all. But even setting personal benefit aside, in this statement Kennicott BELITTLES EMPATHY, and he should be ashamed.

Let’s look at his central idea: that preserving the bigotry in classic works is aligning oneself with a higher good– the “autonomy” of art and its history. The basic conceptual problem here is that “art” does not spring full-formed from the head of Zeus, perfect and complete. Art is created– and interpreted– by humans, using the tools we have at our disposal. Art does not have “autonomy,” because art does not have a separate existence from its creators, interpreters, producers, or performers, particularly performance-based art that is largely created using the bodies of living people.

Two of the specific examples he gives are Monostatos from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He gives many examples, but I’ll focus on these two and allow you to extrapolate from there rather than bloviate about them all.

Kennicott seems to believe that performance is the only window through which contemporary people can access classic performance. No one is arguing that classic works, along with their historical bigotry, should no longer be studied by scholars, discussed, or written about, so the hysteria around protecting the “autonomy” of art and “the history of the canon” through performance is curious. Scholarship studies what is there, on its own terms. In performance outside of an academic pursuit, however, there is a duty to the audience to be, at the very least, clear, and Kennicott shows a truly shocking lack of understanding of the basic dramaturgy of classic works in performance.

Monostatos is a character originally conceptualized as a Black monster of a man who threatens rape and violence. He has a single aria in which he laments that he’ll never know love because it’s denied him due to his ugly Blackness. Die Zauberflöte premiered in 1791 in Vienna, in a time and place wherein the opera’s audience would take Blackness as a nearly universal sign for “ugly and repellant.” Mozart chose that semiotic purposely. However, that semiotic no longer functions as he intended. The entire cultural context of Blackness has shifted, and performing the semiotic as written actually vandalizes the original intent. If you want to preserve the intent– that the character is self-evidently read as physically repellant– you must search for a contemporary semiotic that gets you as close as possible to the original intent if your purpose is to preserve the original intent. When you pause to consider that Kennicott is arguing for performing Monostatos as written solely due to a stubborn insistence on being allowed to be publicly racist “because art,” you begin to see what’s underneath the argument.

Shylock is a complex character, and Merchant is a complex piece of work. Many people think it’s no longer recuperable due to the fact that antisemitism is woven into the fabric of the narrative. I’ve seen a number of attempts to work around that, none successful. It’s the reason I haven’t directed it myself. It’s truly a tragedy, as some of the play is heart-stoppingly beautiful. But whether I think the attempts are successful or not, the fact remains that, in 1605, there had been no (openly living) Jews in England since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, and there would be none until Cromwell permitted their return in 1657. It’s almost certain that Shakespeare had never seen a Jew, and was using the semiotic of “the Jew” as a marker for avarice, lack of honor, blasphemy– all the things English people of the time associated with “Jews” as a concept. If you choose to stage Merchant today, you’re confronted with the unhappy reality that Shakespeare used a member of a marginalized group as a semiotic for a set of ideas in a way we now consider unvarnished bigotry, and contemporary audiences will not react in the same way to that semiotic as the author intended. And while the solution is not as simple as ones generally found for Monostatos, contemporary directors recognize that a solution must be found, and not because people are going to be “offended,” but because the 400-year-old symbol no longer works as intended.

Of course I understand that there are some people who still take Blackness to mean “ugly,” and that there are plenty of people who believe Jew = avaricious (as a Jew, I’ve been treated to that sterotype numerous times), but the culture as a whole no longer accepts those symbols as read. A director cannot rely on them to function as they once did, and clarity of storytelling is one of the most basic aspects of our jobs.

If Kennicott and his ilk believe it is so important to perform these works as written in order to preserve them as a window into our past (“the history embodied in our canon”), where are the castrati? Why do we no longer perform Shakespeare with adult men in the male roles and underage boys in the women’s roles? Because Kennicott, and people like him, are not ACTUALLY arguing for historical preservation or artistic “autonomy.” Instead, they’re arguing for the right to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not, and an issue they find acceptable– bigotry in performance– is being challenged. Kennicott and those who concur with him, like the woman who wanted to punch me in the face, are protesting the challenge to their power, to their cultural authority. They want the right to be able to continue to perform works in yellowface, or to perform roles that equate Blackness with monstrosity, or to perform antisemitism, simply because they have had that power long enough to consider it a right, and are, and I use this word deliberately, offended at the suggestion that they do not.

It all sounds so pretty, and fine, and noble: “autonomy of art,” “preserving the history embodied in the canon,” “helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty.” But under those phrases lie the simple idea: “I am uncomfortable that I am losing my cultural supremacy and its concomitant definitional authority over what is acceptable and what is not.” How ironic that these fine words, used in the service of protecting racism, shine an undeniably clear light on our “ugliness, weakness and cruelty.”

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Ferguson, Narrative, and Dungeons and Dragons

Like everyone, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ferguson, and about the epidemic of white men gunning down unarmed young African American men.  What is racism made out of? What makes someone think that such an action is acceptable in any way? As they say, no one is born racist. Sure, people talk a lot about the influence of tribal thinking (who is like me and therefore part of my group; who is unlike me and therefore a potential threat), but there’s no intrinsic reason that should be related to skin color any more than hair color or height. No, you have to create racists, and you do it by creating, disseminating, and consuming racist narrative.

When a police officer, or a man in a 7-11 parking lot, or another police officer, or the guy next door, or a Neighborhood Watch nutjob (I could go on and on, but you get my point) shoots and kills an unarmed young African American man (the ages of the five murder victims above spans 13 – 22), he does so because he believes that young man is in some way intrinsically dangerous, and less human because of that. After the fact, the stories pour out: “I saw him reach for a gun” is a favorite. “I thought my life was in danger” is another. What makes a man imagine a gun in the hand of an unarmed African American teenager? Because he sure as hell isn’t imagining that gun when it’s a white teenager in front of him.

I believe that the answer lies in the narratives we create, disseminate, and consume. The entertainment industry makes a staggering amount of money selling products that depict Black = Dangerous. There are white men whose entire fortunes are built on that trope. (Check out this article by Dr. Darron Smith on the issue of the depiction of Black men in American media.) The reality is that MOST African American men are NOT committing violent acts, but MOST of the art about African American men that gets funded, distributed, and consumed depicts that as if it’s irrefutable fact, even when the main Black character is not participating in those activities– he’s “getting out,” or “trying to rise above.” There are white gatekeepers out there refusing to fund art that doesn’t conform to that trope because they believe it doesn’t sell as well– and maybe they’re right, which is on us as consumers.

I’d never say that an African American (or anyone else, for that matter) who created art about violence out of his or her lived experience should not be doing that. No one should ever tell another person that the art they create out of their lived experience should be suppressed– consuming authentic narratives about others creates empathy. Everyone should have a voice, and we need diverse voices from diverse points of view in all our art forms.

But that’s just it– we need more diversity in our narratives. We need to take a cold, hard look at the ways in which we as creators and distributers of art contribute to making Black = Dangerous the PRIMARY narrative about African American men, because the impact of that is quite literally lethal. We don’t have other, equally potent cultural tropes about African American men tempering Black = Dangerous, which is why this racist trope is the one in the minds of armed white men facing unarmed African American teenagers– these white men have been taught from birth that Black = Dangerous, and they, for whatever combination of reasons (and we could list these all day– institutional racism, family racism, enjoyment of privilege, lack of critical thinking skills, and lack of empathy are just a few), BELIEVED IT, never questioned it, and gunned down someone’s baby in cold blood. As a mother, it stops my heart.

Solo performer and author Brian Copeland does a show called Not a Genuine Black Man. I took my students to see a performance of the world premiere run. It was an incredibly impactful experience. The most devastating story he told about growing up African American in a nearly all-white Bay Area town (San Leandro, now one of the most diverse cities in the nation) in the 70s, was when he was 9, being chased and harassed by racist white teenagers. He saw a police officer, thought “safety,” and ran up to him. The police officer took a step back and put his hand on his gun. NINE YEARS OLD.

This is what a nine year old boy looks like. From istockphoto.com.

This is what a nine year old boy looks like. From istockphoto.com

This country desperately needs to disrupt the cultural status of Black = Dangerous as the primary trope about African American men. We need to stop making money off a trope that’s literally KILLING KIDS. As artists, it’s our JOBS to understand the cultural context of the tropes and narratives we create. WE MAKE CULTURE. Let’s start making it with the deliberate goal in mind of making the primacy of Black = Dangerous a thing of the past, so that one day a story about a Black bad guy will be no more about his Blackness than narratives about The Joker, Emperor Palpatine, or Hannibal Lecter are about being white. We desperately need to decouple the concept of “dangerousness” from race.

Let’s look at a content creator who’s doing it right.

As a giant nerd, of course I got the new Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. When I first cracked it open in the store and began paging through, I was floored. Page after page after page of women– as many women as men– all looking like legitimate heroes in functional armor, not scantily-clad pose monsters pretending to fight while twisted into impossible shapes that manage to show both cleavage and ass. I never realized how much I felt like I was a girl horning in on a “guy game” until I saw these pictures and felt welcomed.

What also immediately stood out was the diversity. The book is filled with people of color. I stood there holding the book in the game store, and I almost cried. I held the book out to my husband, a longtime player, and fought back tears as I explained to him what it meant to me just to see these women. And to think about what it would mean to young nerds of color to see themselves reflected on those pages.

I could go on and on about what this means for women. But to stay on target: There will be an entire generation of nerdkids who will learn this game in this edition, for whom Black heroes will be a natural part of the game, who will experience narratives of Blackness that aggressively disrupt Black = Dangerous. All D&D adventurers are dangerous. But they are all individual, as individual as the people playing them. A Black D&D adventurer is no more or less dangerous than anyone else. His Blackness is part of his identity, but nowhere in that universe is the color of his skin a marker for his dangerousness. His broadsword or his spellcasting, on the other hand . . .

Let me show you a few examples. These are just a few out of an incredible diversity of images. If you EVER had an interest in D&D, or thought you might someday check it out, now is the time.

This is the first example they give of the Human race. LOOK AT THAT FUNCTIONAL ARMOR!

This is the first illustration in the Human race profile!


This is the first illustration in the Fighter class profile.

This is the first illustration on the Wizard class profile.

This is the first illustration in the Wizard class profile.

There are still plenty of white guys in there, but along with them, there are just as many women and people of color pictured as legitimate adventurers in their own right, not window dressing or tokenistic afterthoughts. Bravo, Wizards of the Coast. You fucking nailed it. I hope this new edition brings you legions of new, diverse fans. And you can BET I will be showing these pictures to my students and talking about narrative creation in our culture.

Do I actually think D&D can save the world? YOU BET I DO. But it can’t do it alone. It’s up to us as artists and entertainment industry professionals to reject the idea that the only trope worth funding or distributing about African American men is Black = Dangerous, and replace that harmful idea with a wide variety of tropes– yes, including Black = Dragon Slayer. I’m not leading some campaign against art that depicts Black men committing crimes or being violent. I am, however, one small part of a campaign against a widespread artistic and cultural practice that PRIMARILY depicts Black men as threats.

This CAN be done. We just have to pay attention to the cultural context of what we’re creating, funding, distributing, and consuming, and make a commitment to real diversity. When it’s done right, it’s glorious.

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10 Tips for Choosing an Audition Monologue


Hello, you magnificent bastards. I love you all, and I’m prepping a new blog post for you while I’m also prepping a bunch of classes and a new season at my theatre, so it’s moving kinda slow at the junction. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the post up in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, to prove my love, here’s an article I wrote for Theatre Bay Area Magazine, 10 Tips for Choosing an Audition Monologue. I spoke with some of the top casting directors in the Bay Area and used my own eleventy scrotillion years of casting experience to come up with a solid, practical guide to choosing monologues. 

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Why You Didn’t Get Cast


Buster Keaton and Donald O’Connor rehearsing in 1956

A few days ago, I had two conversations almost back-to-back. One was with an experienced and talented actor who believed they were getting the message that their career was over just because they were in a dry spell. The other was with yet another Bay Area actor whose career had stalled the minute they went AEA. While we talked about the many reasons why that happens, this actor said to me, “I want to see if I’m good enough to be an AEA actor.” And my heart just broke because, as someone whose life is always on the other side of the table, I know how seldom casting is purely about who’s “good.” I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors.

So here you go, actors of the world. The pure, unvarnished truth about why you didn’t get the role.


Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart performing Philadelphia Story for Victory Theater, 1942.

1. MOST COMMON: You’re just not right for it. I know this sounds like a massive, shit-eating cliche, but it’s absolutely the truth. A director walks into the room with a character conceptualized in a certain way, and is looking for the person whose type or energy matches the character. The truly amazingly badass Leslie Martinson of TheatreWorks taught me this years ago, when I was first starting out: Every conceptualized character has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Every actor has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Casting is about finding the best match. I pass over actors I flat-out adore all the time because the fit isn’t right. For example, a director might have Orlando conceptualized as a man in his 20s with a gentle, soft-spoken energy, while your audition presents a man in his 30s with a bright, aggressive energy. While your audition might be fantastic, you’re not going to be that director’s Orlando.

2. Your skillset isn’t developed. This is the second most common, and the one people like to think of as “not good enough.” That way of thinking is total bullshit. How do I know? Because year after year, I see actors grow and develop. I see actors go from maaaaybe having the skills to handle a small supporting role to being ready to carry a play in one season. Either they took a class that unlocked something, or worked with a director who stretched them, or went on a spiritual quest in the New Mexico desert, or had mind-blowing sex with Ian McKellen, whatever. But I see it happen all the time, because dedicated actors are constantly working on their skillset.


Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Joe Melia rehearsing Too True to be Good at the RSC in 1975.

3. The role was precast. Some directors are superstitious and will read people for roles that are already cast. It’s unfortunately common for actors to commit to roles that they later bail on (a better-paying gig, a family emergency, a medical situation), and if you auditioned other actors for that role, you have some go-to options. One casting director told me she was so superstitious that she didn’t get rid of the casting data for a show until it CLOSED. On the flip side, lots of theatres are upfront about which roles are precast. Don’t let that necessarily discourage you. You may want to consider coming in for a show where your dream role is precast– you may end up playing that role after all.


Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun, 1959

4. The role went to someone they’ve worked with before. This is incredibly common. You know an actor’s work, you have a shared language, you understand how to work together. A known quantity is less of a risk, even if the known quantity didn’t crush the callback like you did. The director knows from past experience that the other actor can give them what the work needs.

5. You’ve had a history of behaving unprofessionally. Luckily, this one is extremely rare, but it does occasionally happen. Violating your contract (coming consistently late or no-showing to rehearsals or shows, for example), treating fellow actors or crew disrespectfully, making unreasonable demands (such as demanding the theatre violate their contract with the playwright so you can change something in the script despite the fact that the playwright declined to allow the change, or demanding the day off during tech because it’s your one year dating anniversary), deciding closing night is the time for GAGS! and IMPROV!, badmouthing the show on social media (“This play is going to be total shit!”). Although I’ve seen every one of these examples firsthand, they are, as I’ve said, pretty rare. The converse, happily, is MUCH more likely to be true– that we take a chance on an actor unknown to us because someone at another theatre is raving about how awesome they are. And believe me, I’m not trying to imply that this doesn’t happen in the opposite direction. I know plenty of directors treat actors in unconscionable ways. But that’s an entirely different blog post. My point is that, in any theatre community, companies share personnel. While we don’t necessarily go out of our way to share that kind of information, the Literary Manager at one theatre is directing a show at another theatre. The actor at one theatre is the Artistic Director at another theatre. What happens in Vegas, so to speak, does not stay in Vegas. But be happy that the converse is also true and much, much more common– we’re raving about how wonderful you are to our friends at other companies. I’ve sent many a “heads up” email to directors to let them know that an actor new to them and about to audition for them is someone I’ve worked with and believe in.

6. Conflicts. You may have been the best person for the role, but since you’re planning to be in Oklahoma for Baton Twirling Nationals during tech, they’re going to go with someone else.


7. You tanked the audition. Oh, man, this one is a heartbreaker, and I see it all the time. It’s one of the reasons I tell my students that the best way to cast is to see as many plays as possible so you’re seeing actors in their natural habitat. Auditions are weird little creatures, artificial and forced. However, if we want to open our theatres to new people and new communities (and we do), we’re stuck with open auditions. Like standardized testing, which only measures how good you are at standardized tests, auditions often measure how well you audition and little else. While callbacks are theoretically meant to correct for that, you don’t always make it to the callback to show them. I’ve seen plenty of actors give me a crap audition and then give a beautiful performance in someone else’s play. They had a bad day, or memorized a new monologue they thought would be “better” for the role the day before, or were too nervous. There are a million reasons why a great actor would tank an audition. Don’t let it discourage you. Take an audition class or work with a coach if this is a common problem for you. Do what you need to do. But KEEP TRYING. Invite artistic directors and casting directors to see your work. Don’t give up! You won’t tank them all.

And that’s my main piece of advice: Don’t give up. If this is your dream, persevere! Nothing is insurmountable. FALL DOWN SEVEN TIMES, GET UP EIGHT.


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The Weapon of Invisibility


Jered McLenigan in Lantern Theater’s Julius Caesar. Photo by Mark Garvin.

This is a piece about the Wooster Group’s production of Cry, Trojans!, Lantern Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, the Lean In/Getty stock photography collaboration, and my head finally exploding all over my computer.

Privilege is a squirrelly thing. When your privilege is working for you, it’s undetectable to you. That’s its job: to silently ease your way through life by protecting you from the thousand little (or big, or enormous) roadblocks people without your privilege face every day.

Two examples from my own life on both sides of privilege:

I taught for a long time at a film school. I taught early-career filmmakers about casting, working with actors, and script development. One semester, a young Black man had written a short film script about four young Black men being pulled over. The police officer asked all four for their IDs. I told this young filmmaker that he would need to clean up his narrative– that it didn’t make sense for the officer to ask for the IDs of passengers unless he had some reason, and the script needed to provide that narrative bridge. I had four young Black men in that class and all four were immediately astounded. They had been asked for their IDs as passengers every single time they had ever been in a car that had been pulled over. They believed it was normal. I had never once been asked for mine as a passenger, and had never even heard of such a thing. I had been protected by my privilege so completely that I had had no idea I was even being protected. I began to wonder what else these young men were experiencing that was invisible to me.

When my son was little, he went to a Jewish preschool. I didn’t talk to him much about Christmas or Easter. When he was almost three, we were headed into a supermarket that had just been decorated for Christmas, as they are always an orgy of Christian heritage between September and January. My son pointed at a giant Santa and said, “Look, Mommy! A king!” And I was overwhelmed with unexpected gratitude that my son was, for the moment, protected from the full knowledge of his outsider status in our culture. It wouldn’t take long for him to understand. But for the moment, his lack of Christian heritage privilege was completely unknown to him.

What we know about our own privilege is always a process, and one we have to struggle for, since it involves active curiosity and empathy, two things humans are just abysmal at, despite our constant assurances to each other of the contrary. But an understanding of the shape of one’s privilege, as hard-won as that is, is just the first step if you’re interested in social justice. The second step is, you know, WORKING for social justice. Unfortunately, that involves actively working against your own privilege, and there is nothing humans hate more than that.

So we find subtle ways to fool ourselves (and others) into IMAGINING we’re working for social justice while ACTUALLY reinforcing (in grad school, we called this “reinscribing”) our own privilege and cultural superiority.


Cry, Trojans! Photo by Paula Cort.

The Wooster Group is well known to you if you have a degree in theatre, or were plugged into the theatre community in the 80s. Most people know about it as the New York-based company that gave birth (so to speak) to Spalding Gray. Some people will recall its tradition of experimental deconstructions of classic works and nonlinear, aggressively designed original works in what we once called a “postmodern” style. Headed by Liz LeCompte, Wooster Group has an almost legendary status for what was, for its time, very experimental theatre. Lantern Theater is a company in Philadelphia that’s in its 18th season. A quick glance at their production history reveals a very prosaic aesthetic, featuring unremarkable, utterly safe works such as The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, The Liar by David Ives, Private Lives by Noel Coward, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonough, in addition to lots and lots of Shakespeare.

So here comes the part where my head begins to explode:

These two companies, almost at completely opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum, both pulled the exact same stunt at the exact same time: They staged shows featuring non-white characters and cast those characters with primarily white actors. Cry, Trojans!, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, was originally conceptualized as a collaboration with the RSC and performed in London, and was reconceptualized for an American run. Originally, the Americans played the Trojans and the British played the Greeks, rehearsing the scenes separately until coming together just before opening. Wooster Group played its Trojans as “Native Americans” against the British playing the Greeks as modern soldiers. For the American run, LeCompte decided to make both sides “Native American,” using a fusion of appropriated costumes, props, and other imagery gleaned from books, films, and other materials– and an almost entirely white cast. Lantern Theater, remarkably, staged Julius Caesar in feudal Japan– but without Japanese actors, instead casting seven white people and one Latino, with African American actor Forrest McClendon as Caesar. (I highly recommend looking at actor Makoto Hirano’s letter to Lantern Theater about the cultural appropriation in their production.)


JC Guzman and Forrest McClendon in Lantern Theater’s Julius Ceasar. Photo by Mark Garvin.

At this point, when the national theatre community has been decrying cultural appropriation, yellowface, brownface, and the like loudly and vigorously and at great length, it seems almost a deliberately retrogressive act. But here’s where privilege steps in and allows people to make decisions like these without understanding how deeply problematic they are.

Both Liz LeCompte and Charles McMahon (the director of Julius Caesar) believe they are working for a HIGHER CAUSE.

“Plus it’s not about that. It’s about everything bigger…We love the piece, we love the stories, we love the films, we love the people…We wanted to tell the story in this way and make it so big that this [lack of direct Native American input] wouldn’t be a problem.” — Liz LeCompte, quoted here (emphasis mine)

“’We wanted to get away from all of the clichés and assumptions about classical Rome, with people walking about in togas and looking like statues from antiquity,’ says artistic director Charles McMahon. ‘Our associations with that make it feel like we’re saying, ‘This is old, this is long in the past” . . . McMahon also wanted to avoid the specificity that comes with updating the play to the modern day. ‘We didn’t want to say this play is like Libya, or this play is like Central America or Russia or North Korea, because that’s not the point either. I think there’s something universal about it.‘ McMahon soon realized that the stoicism of Caesar’s Rome had strong philosophical parallels with Japan’s tradition of Zen Buddhism. ‘The ideas in this play of being detached from the results of actions and being emotionally remote from the events of the world are present in the great samurai epics. So these themes all seemed to add up to feudal Japan being a very resonant scenic and thematic environment to put the play in.'”– read Shaun Brady’s  whole article here, emphasis mine

LeCompte clearly thinks that her artistic vision is “bigger,” and therefore more important than issues around cultural appropriation or racism. She believes that the importance– the “bigness”– of her artistic point of view about Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida should eliminate the need for an examination of the racial politics she puts onstage. She overtly asserts her artistic vision’s cultural superiority over any issues of race. She has no interest in an artistic exploration of Native American cultures. She’s appropriating various aspects of Native American cultures to make what she overtly states is a more important artistic point.

MacMahon states that the way he could get his (mostly white) audience to associate emotional distance with Julius Caesar was to visually associate the play with SAMURAI FILMS. He has no interest in an artistic exploration of feudal Japan. He’s interested in importing a feeling of stoicism, manliness, and ass-kicking fighters to a mostly white audience, and is appropriating the cultural artifacts of fuedal Japan as an artistic shortcut. He’s appropriating a very specific culture and calling it “universal” because he’s imagining the feeling he gets from watching Kurosawa, not the cultural heritage of a real people whose descendants are alive and marginalized.


Cry, Trojans! Photo by Paula Cort.

LeCompte and McMahon are using artifacts of other cultures– both groups currently marginalized in the US– while shutting out the people of those cultures from the artistic process because they believe their artistic vision is MORE IMPORTANT. They see these cultures as visual art available for their use, not as an inextricable part of the heritage of real, living people. They have reinforced their own privilege and cultural superiority, maintained the invisibility of those marginalized peoples, AND set themselves up as answering to a higher artistic calling– in LeCompte’s case, the “bigger” nature of her artistic vision, and in McMahon’s case, “universality.”

The Lean In/Getty stock photo collaboration is pretty much the same thing, but even more blatant. It purports to be a massive new tool for social justice while instead overtly reinforcing privilege to an almost shocking degree. I SHOULD BE USED TO IT. I knew what to expect. But I was still shocked.

If there's one thing the Lean In/Getty collection has taught me, it's that photographers love to take pictures of young white women running. It's like CATNIP to them.

If there’s one thing the Lean In/Getty collection has taught me, it’s that photographers love to take pictures of young white women running. It’s like CATNIP to them.

The Lean In/Getty stock photography project crashed onto the internet in a loudly self-satisfied manner, proclaiming itself to be a feminist project– a revolution in stock photography that shows women in new, “more empowering” ways, claiming it will change the way women are perceived in America by changing the imagery associated with us. I reviewed all 2763 images. I set aside any containing children, as that’s a discussion for a different day. I also compared the images to the ones you can already find on existing stock photo sites.

One thing that’s immediately apparent, and for which the Lean In/Getty collection deserves a basket of high-fives, is its inclusion of older women. There are many more older women depicted than you would expect to find in such a collection, and it was damn refreshing. I loved the inclusion of photos of older women being active– biking, dancing, swimming. Another thing the collection does right is show pictures of women doing jobs, as opposed to sexy models pretending to do jobs.  Although the vast majority of workplace photos show upscale offices or studios, the few that show blue-collar workplaces do show women who look like they actually belong there, as opposed to a scantily-clad model licking a hammer.

This . . .

This . . .

. . . as opposed to this.

. . . as opposed to this.

On the other hand, exhaustingly, almost ALL of the women in these photos, elderly women included, conformed to traditionally acceptable, thin body types.


Out of all the images of adult women without children, exactly FORTY-THREE (by my count) of the pictures in which women’s bodies were visible depicted women who were not thin. That’s one and a half percent. Of those 43, only FIVE showed non-thin women performing any kind of fitness activity, although the Lean In/Getty collection is rife with with women performing fitness activities (especially white women, whose workout depictions make up 10% of all photos, compared to 2.2% of all photos depicting women of color performing a fitness activity or in fitness clothing).

Unbelievably, depictions of professional women were even WORSE. Exactly ONE picture (that I could find– maybe you’ll find one more and bring the grand total up to two) depict a non-thin woman in anything that could be remotely construed as a professional or business setting, although the collection features literally hundreds and hundreds of business-oriented pictures. Searching “business” gets over 600 results, while “professional” gets over 800 results, and they are almost all of thin women. Considering 60% of women in the US are not thin, that’s an aggressive shut-out that feels deliberate. It’s just not believable that such a result was entirely accidental. Since the Lean In collection has been non-stop screaming its feminist awesomeness as empowering for all women since even before it dropped, one is left wondering why the only women worth “empowering” are the 40% who already enjoy thin privilege.

The few non-thin women depicted in a workplace are depicted in low-wage blue collar or service industry jobs (factory workers, custodians). There are a few portraits, mostly of older women. Very few young, non-thin women were depicted at all. For the record, there are precisely two pictures of a visibly disabled woman, both of the same very fit athlete.

Let’s look at some of these pictures:


From the Lean In/Getty collection, from the first page of images returned from the search “business”


From the Lean In/Getty collection, from the first page of images returned from both searches “business” and “professional.”


From istockphoto.com, from the first page of images returned from the search “business.”


From shutterstock.com, from the first page of images returned from the search “professional.”

Lean In/Getty gets a high five for returning images such as this when searching

Lean In/Getty gets a high five for returning images such as this when searching “professional.”

But most of their images look like this.

But most of their images look like this.

One of a tiny handful of pictures in the collection of almost 2800 depicting a young, plus-sized woman

One of a tiny handful of pictures in the collection of almost 2800 depicting a young, plus-sized woman.

For every picture of a plus-sized young woman, there are literally over 700 of a woman with this body type.

For every picture of a plus-sized young woman, there are literally over 700 of a woman with this body type.

While the Lean In/Getty collection is doing much better with older women than other stock photography sites, it is actively reinforcing the thin privilege the woman behind the Lean In brand, Sheryl Sandberg, and the woman from Lean In who supervised the stock photo project and curated its imagery, Jessica Bennett, currently enjoy, and it can’t be completely irrelevant that Sandberg is now in her mid-forties. What the Lean In project has done, under the guise of “empowering women” through “changing imagery” is reinforce the cultural privilege and dominance of women of Bennett’s and Sandberg’s body type while making an attempt to create more cultural acceptance for women of Sandberg’s age and older, all while blatantly shutting out women without thin privilege, rendering them virtually invisible. While pretending to empower women as a whole, they have instead reinforced their own privilege.

Celebrating with salad! Yes, this was one of the photos the Lean In collection returned when I searched for

Celebrating with salad! Yes, this was one of the photos the Lean In collection returned when I searched for “celebration.”

Invisibility is a weapon, and it’s the one we most often use to reassert or reinforce our privilege and cultural dominance. If THOSE PEOPLE aren’t there, it’s because they aren’t IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO BE THERE, and the project’s focus is on “more important issues” anyway. You only get answers to the questions you ask, so be prepared, if you want any credibility in this fight for social justice, to ask WHO IS MISSING? And WHY?

Not every project needs to have a representative from every single group, but when we appropriate someone else’s culture while keeping them invisible, or when we purport to stand for a group’s empowerment while shutting out over SIXTY PERCENT of them, we have a problem.

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The Politics of Accents


This guy.

While I could write plenty about nonsense like Asian actors being asked to do “the accent” in their audition for “Prostitute #3” and “Kung Fu Master Criminal,” or Black actors being asked for a more “urban” accent or audition piece, I’m actually heading in the opposite direction.

There’s a “Shakespeare accent” that American actors are taught to use, or sometimes just pick up on their own through exposure. I’ve seen plenty of teachers throughout the years refer to this as “RP,” “Standard American,” or “Mid-Atlantic” (not to be confused with the actual accent of people in that region– more on that later). The terminology is confused and not always accurate. “RP” stands for “received pronunciation,” which is in actuality a British dialect considered “proper,” and “Standard American” refers to an accent that uses a harder final R than these actors are being taught. But the accuracy of the terminology is not the point.

We all know that accent. It’s slightly faux-British, posh, and its main feature as practiced seems to be the dropped R.

We know from the study of OP (“Original Pronunciation”) that the British accent of Shakespeare’s day was actually nothing like this “Shakespeare” accent American actors use, or than British RP for that matter. Check out this comparison between RP and OP. So why do we teach actors to speak in these faux-British tones? Why do actors adopt this fabricated accent when they do Shakespeare?

The answer can’t be “because the text suggests it,” or “the text sounds better that way due to the way it’s written.” A notable part of OP is its harder final R. This entirely contrived  “Shakespeare accent” is most notable for its soft R. In fact, that’s its main (and often sole) feature as practiced across American stages. So “because Shakespeare” cannot be the answer.

What *IS* the answer? We know that what’s often called the “Mid-Atlantic” accent, popular in pre-1960 America, was a deliberate, acquired marker of wealthy white privilege, and was therefore cultivated by people looking for upward mobility and acceptance in the upper classes of America, or by actors whose careers would be built on playing upper-class roles. In 2013, we still use a version of it to denote “posh” or “privileged” in popular culture– look for it in films, cartoons, video games. It’s everywhere.



There are some teachers out there now teaching an accent they call “Classical American,” as in, American accents for use in classical theatre.  “Classical American” is a reverse-engineered accent that labels and codifies the semi-British “Shakespeare accent” that has evolved from (and is still sometimes labeled as) Mid-Atlantic or RP. There’s a book originally published in 2005 flogging “Classical American” as “an intermediate option between well-pronounced Neutral American and Standard British. It builds upon Neutral American, blending additional rhythmic and sound elements, which result in more formal or heightened speech without sounding British to an American ear” (emphasis mine). Precisely. I’ve heard this accent referred to innumerable times as “formal,” “heightened,” and “elevated.”

“Formal.” “Heightened.” “Elevated.” “Formal” has long been code for “posh.” But what’s being heightened here? What are we “elevating” when we drop our American accent and move to a semi-demi-faux British accent? CLASS.  That’s what’s being heightened. The appearance of privilege. Poshness.

The “Shakespeare accent” has nothing to do with acting Shakespeare and EVERYTHING to do with acting “posh.”

Those of us in the theatre talk a good game about how Shakespeare is for everyone, and whine a great deal when our audiences are less diverse in race or age than we’d like. Although we have a long way to go, we’re slowly getting better at looking to ourselves for problems with racial diversity in our audiences, but we epic fail with looking to ourselves for problems with age diversity in our audiences, generally blaming lack of swarms of twenty-two year-olds at our productions on their boorishness and lack of interest in “culture.”

Maybe the way we frame Shakespeare is to blame for the homogeneity of its audiences. When people talk about Shakespeare as “lofty poetry,” it makes me cringe. Not because they’re wrong– there’s certainly enough lofty poetry in Shakespeare to keep your lofty poetry needs happy for quite some time before you have to turn to Blake or Donne– but because Shakespeare ON STAGE is less about poetry as such and all about stories– rich, passionate, violent, emotional, heart-ripping stories at that. Shakespeare uses poetry to tell stories, and he will drop the poetry or jack up its rhythmic demands in a hot second to make an emotional point. The poetry is in service to the stories. These stories tell all the secrets of the human heart, and we continue to frame them in popular culture as staid and boring “high culture,” as if Shakespeare is medicine that you must take because it’s good for you rather than ZOMG THESE PLAYS ARE AWESOME.

Part of sequestering Shakespeare into the special, rarefied, and (most importantly) exclusive domain of “high culture” is this pretend, contrived, completely non-regional “Shakespeare” accent; an accent created solely and specifically to denote “upper class.”

This accent is part of the mythology that Shakespeare is “high class” art for the privileged. If we as directors or audience demand that Shakespeare actors adopt an accent that was created specifically to signal “rich and white” and still signals that to this day in popular culture, what are we saying about Shakespeare?


I know an exceptional Black actor with enormous range who was told by one of his college professors (also a Black man) that he would never be able to do Shakespeare because of his “Black accent.” Of course he was wrong. Apart from this particular actor’s massive flexibility, the professor’s own experience as an actor was decades ago, and this is the 21st century in the Bay Area, where that kind of thinking is thankfully now on the wane. However, there are still too many directors out there who will absolutely refuse to cast a Black actor– or ANY actor– who does not adopt the upper class white accent our culture has come to associate with Shakespeare, and too many universities and training programs that teach that as NORMAL. At general auditions for my company last spring, I had a batch of diverse, newly-hatched college grads all from the same Bay Area university (not the same one I discuss above, depressingly) whose actors, each and every one, came in doing the “Shakespeare accent.” I almost wrote to the department. I probably should have. But even more depressingly, there are plenty of teachers and directors who still think that’s necessary.

Let me just say: Balderdash.

BECAUSE we know that Shakespeare’s plays were written for an accent nothing like this contrived “Shakespeare accent,” but an accent no one anywhere today would mistake for “posh,” and BECAUSE we know that Shakespeare’s plays are the greatest plays ever written in the English language and tell all the secrets of the human heart, and therefore belong to everyone, and BECAUSE we recognize that more diversity of all types on our stages and in our audiences is a good thing, and BECAUSE this is almost 2014, FFS, I RESOLVE:


Listen, if that’s how you really talk, then I have no problem with you using that accent when you do Shakespeare. In fact, that’s my entire point. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH JUST AS YOU ARE for Shakespeare. Your body, your voice, just as they are, are worthy carriers of these stories, whether your speech is “posh” or straight outta Compton. Talk like you talk. YOU ARE WORTHY OF SHAKESPEARE, just as you are.

And directors? Please stop. Just stop. These stories are yours to tell. You don’t need to overlay fake poshness to prove you’re worthy to enter the club. You’re already worthy.

These stories are part of the human literary heritage. They already belong to you. They’re about you, whoever you are. It’s time to liberate these plays from the mythology of exclusivity.

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High School Yellowface


I’m not posting pictures of the actual minors in the show. Instead I’m choosing to post pictures from America’s vast yellowface past. This keeps the kids’ identities confidential while also providing some cultural context.

Someone I know recently posted some pictures of her son’s high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of course I’m stoked that the kids are doing Shakespeare instead of Grease or One Direction: The Musical or whatever. And I definitely understand the impulse to want to set these plays in a fanciful place and time, especially if you have hundreds of hours of free parental labor and thousands of dollars at your disposal. I’m not a huge fan of randomly chosen settings, like Love’s Labour’s Lost in an 18th century brothel or King Lear on the Death Star (although I might have to give that last one some serious thought). But I understand the impulse, even if I do not agree with it.

The problem with this play is that it’s set in “Ming Dynasty China.”


I’ve written about race in casting before (this and this). But I’ve been thinking about this issue all day, for two reasons: One, the fact that this is educational theatre; and two, that half the kids in the cast are Asian American, but the faculty director is white.

There’s a reason theatre education belongs in schools. It teaches kids about the challenges and joys of creating art collaboratively. It helps kids learn how to extract meaning from text in very concrete ways. It teaches kids how to work under an utterly unforgiving deadline. It teaches kids about the massive, gorgeous, messy pile of dramatic literature available to us in the 21st century, which are all windows open to different places, times, experiences, and points of view. Theatre education is a life-changing, mind-expanding experience.

This is precisely why this is so disappointing to me. These kids are being taught that it’s acceptable for white people to play characters of color. It’s nowhere near acceptable in the professional world, where a mistake like that can create national controversy. If you don’t have an all-Asian cast at your disposal, you shouldn’t be doing a play set in Ming Dynasty China, and to place high school kids into such a situation is to do them a huge disservice. There’s a reason why I’m not posting pictures of these kids. This is not their fault, and I’m not holding them up to global mockery. It’s easy to say, “What does it matter? It’s just high school theatre.” If that’s the case, then what does ANY educational activity matter? Why not blow it all off and let them all play CoD: Ghosts instead of reading Catcher in the Rye or doing those calculus problems? I guarantee you that the skills theatre kids are learning are more likely to be useful to them in their future day-to-day lives as adults than calculus will be. If you believe education is important, then it follows that teaching kids that something highly controversial and racially problematic is just fine is shockingly irresponsible. Either education matters or it does not.


Midsummer is a play people love to set in various places, and it can be quite successfully done that way. Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco did an all-Filipino Midsummer using Filipino folklore tropes, with Tagalog-speaking mechanicals that was so fantastic I saw it TWICE. Which is insane, since I rarely get out of my own theatre. But this was a Filipino production, headed by a Filipino director, with an all-Filipino cast, at a Filipino theatre. This was about taking ownership of a classic story, coming from a deep, authentic positionality. A white director setting Midsummer in Ming Dynasty China with a half-white cast is not the same (especially when that cast are all teenagers working under an adult authority figure who makes the bulk of the creative decisions). It doesn’t have a deep message that comes from the center of Chinese or Chinese American culture. Instead, it’s a white director using a non-white culture as WINDOW DRESSING. And no matter how much research was done, or how many accurate renderings of period costumes or sets there were, this was using a culture as decoration, not marginalized people telling a story from within that cultural positionality. It’s deeply problematic.


When I first started discussing this issue, I was told that half the cast is Asian, some of the techs are Asian, and the faculty choreographer is Asian. I was told that the Asian families coming to see their kids in the show weren’t complaining about the yellowface (out loud). I was told that the performances weren’t “stereotypical,” and that someone was playing traditional Chinese music during the show. I was told that the casting was “multicultural.” These were all held up to me as reasons it’s OK for white kids to play people of color. I actually gave it some thought. After all, the kids were in traditional Beijing Opera makeup, not actual yellowface . . .  did that matter? And I wondered for a bit if the presence of Asians working on the show changed the equation at all.


Oh, right. No, it doesn’t. Not even an Asian director makes a difference in the ensuing controversy apart from: “He should have known better.”

It’s just not acceptable for white people in America to play people of color at all. Race has meaning. And although I suppose it could be argued that a half-white cast isn’t as egregious as a fully-white cast, or one wherein all the leads are white, race still carries narrative that cannot be erased. The meaning of a white person playing an Asian person is culturally problematic in profound, complex ways attached to a lengthy history of appropriation, erasure, and oppression. It’s a common misconception that “multicultural casting” means that white people should be able to play characters of color because we cast people of color in roles originally written for white actors. To pretentiously quote my own damn article that I linked to above (see, now you don’t have to click on it):

Using a white actor as [a character of color] has a very different impact on the narrative than casting a person of color in a traditionally white role. It erases the physical presence of the person of color and substitutes it with blackface/yellowface, imperialism and cultural appropriation. The West has a long history of casting white actors in racist portrayals of people of color, of appropriating the narratives of people of color and reshaping them through a white lens, and of shutting artists of color out of positions of importance. An American audience viewing a white person portraying a person of color will be reminded of all of these, and of blackface, of yellowface, of the history of racism with which we still struggle. These are all present in any production wherein a white actor is cast as a person of color because they are so palpably present within our culture. Again, race is always part of the narrative.

Maybe it’ll change some day, and we will be so many hundreds of years past the issues that make yellowface culturally unacceptable that it truly will not matter any longer, because race will no longer carry the same narratives it does now. Perhaps it’ll carry new, better narratives, less painful, less difficult. But that day is not today, and both yellowface and whitewashing remain culturally unacceptable.


I’m not going to reveal the location of this production, and I won’t approve any comments that do, because at its heart, this is about protecting those kids. They should be taught right from wrong, and yellowface is wrong, just as all whitewashing is wrong. In our current cultural context, it’s never OK for a white person to play a person of color, even in a high school. ESPECIALLY in a high school. And claiming that it’s OK because there are Asians in the room is like the guy who says “My Black friend LOVES my racist jokes.” Whether it’s true or not, the jokes are still racist, and there is a much larger cultural context to consider.

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Why Cold Readings Are Almost Always Useless

My Troilus and Cressida auditions

My Troilus and Cressida auditions

I’ve been steadily working on a post about auditions for directors and producers (what drives actors crazy, what they love, what works, what doesn’t) and I keep getting hung up on specific issues that end up taking on lives of their own. The homogeneity of the women on our stages was the first one, and now this. Eventually I’ll have a post for you (PINKY SWEAR) but I think we all need for it to be less than 38,000 words long, so I’m breaking these larger issues out into posts of their own.

So, cold reads, amirite? They’re almost always completely useless. Let me count the ways.

1. The information a cold read gives you is beside the point. When you hold an audition, especially a callback, you’re attempting to obtain a specific set of answers to a specific set of questions about an actor. Chiefest among them are how the actor makes choices, shapes narrative, engages with scene partners, handles the language, physicalizes choices, and takes direction. You need to know how the actor inhabits the character for which she’s auditioning. You need to see her make emotional and physical choices within that, and make thoughtful adjustments to those choices. You need to see what her style is– does her approach to the material fit with your own well enough to ensure a productive rehearsal process? An actor who has not had adequate time to prepare will be able to show you almost none of that, because that work is complex and takes time– which is why we have a rehearsal process instead of just having actors memorize the script on their own and show up to tech to get their blocking. We expect actors to come into rehearsal prepped, and it’s without a doubt that auditions, as artificial as they are, will provide you with the most accurate information about how your actor will rehearse (and, therefore, perform) if they can replicate as closely as possible the conditions of rehearsal.

A cold read is a completely different experience than either rehearsal or performance in almost all cases. What a cold read shows you is whether an actor can make choices QUICKLY and how adept the actor is at reading aloud. While either of those skills can be useful in some very limited situations (soap opera acting and voice over work spring to mind), they are of limited use in casting your production of, say, Hamlet or Eurydice, where creating a space for the actor to show you her talent, skill, and craft will be of much better use than seeing how good she is at pulling something out of her ass on the spot that will be, of necessity, superficial.

In case you needed any more evidence that cold reading skills are only loosely related (at BEST) to acting skills, I am an EXCELLENT cold reader and LOVE to cold read. Ahem. ‘Nuff said.

OK, I'm not THAT bad.

OK, I’m not THAT bad.

2. An actor who lacks the time to prepare is an actor glued to the script. Of course no one expects an actor to come into callbacks with the sides memorized, but a prepared actor is an actor whose head isn’t constantly buried in his script. If he’s unfamiliar with the lines, the basic narrative of the scene, or the emotional narrative of the character for which he’s auditioning, he’ll be unable to connect with his scene partners as his head will be glued to his script trying to piece together what comes next and what he’s going to do about it. If being able to engage scene partners is an important skill to you (SPOILER ALERT: it is), then you want that kid’s head out of his script as much as possible. Giving him the opportunity to look it over in advance is the way to do that.

3. Dyslexic actors are more common than you think. While many mildly dyslexic actors have found ways to work around a cold read situation, you’d be surprised at how often incredibly talented actors are so severely dyslexic they have to turn down your callback because you can’t be arsed to send sides in advance. When I posted about this on facebook, I was deluged with grateful responses.

“I’m literally crying as I type this. You have no idea how many auditions I have had to turn down because I didn’t want to look like an idiot, stumbling over words, and sounding them out in front of the auditors.”

“Many dyslexics are incredibly expressive and artistic people, which is what makes them such brilliant performers. I am one of these people. Thank you so much for seeing us in a world that often doesn’t.”

“Yes! Thank you. I have this issue so frequently.”

Personally, I learned firsthand how useless cold read auditions were years ago when I worked with an incredibly talented actor who was so severely dyslexic he could not read aloud at all. However, he was almost always the most talented actor in the room. People can succeed if you give them the tools they need to succeed, and all a severely dyslexic person needs is a little time.

If I could just have a few more minutes with the script . . . No?

If I could just have a few more minutes with the script . . . No?

4. When is a cold read audition appropriate? If you’re directing a film or TV show wherein you know the actors will be receiving new pages regularly and will need to be able to prep and perform those pages almost immediately, a cold read audition is a useful tool in addition to an audition that allows for more in-depth work. Similarly, many commercials and music videos require on-the-spot preparation. (Not that you need six hours of rehearsal to prep a 30 second Valtrex ad or the character “Hot Girl Dancing near Lamborghini.”) If you’re directing a play and cold read skills are required as part of the performance, such as an audience engagement piece where the actors perform material the audience has written on the spot, you’ll want information about an actor’s cold reading skills.

"Thank GOD for my RADA training or I'd never be able to get through this"

“Thank GOD for my RADA training or I’d never be able to get through this”

You might be able to get the information you need from a cold reading if you’re not the kind of director who is focused on in-depth work with actors. There are some directors who are more visually-focused, storytelling through visual imagery rather than focused on storytelling through acting and the actors’ emotional narratives, and for those directors, simply seeing an actor talk and move through space may be enough. If you’re not going to do in-depth acting work, there’s no need to see how the actor approaches in-depth acting work, right? So a cold read, which by necessity cannot ever be in-depth, could give you the information you require.



But for the rest of us, the information we get from a cold reading is just beside the point of the information we need to make informed casting choices, and marginalizes severely dyslexic actors (whose numbers are much greater than you think) to boot. So eliminate cold reading auditions unless you really need to test the actor’s cold reading skills specifically. You’ll get better information AND be more inclusive.

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Skinny White Girls are Exhausting My Eyes

I have nothing against skinny white girls. I really, really do not. I know and love many of them. I cast them all the time, which is not surprising, since the nonunion acting pool anywhere in the US is made up of something like 65% skinny white girls. And even lumping them all together in one group is needlessly reductive– they are as varied as any other group of humans.

But but but.

My eyes are exhausted from looking at skinny white girls and ONLY skinny white girls.

In nearly every representational context, “female” = “skinny white girls.” We, as a culture, are forcing the female experience, in all its variety, to be almost ALWAYS represented by and contained within the body of a skinny white girl. Skinny white girls are not seen as particular; they are seen as general, as “the female.”

In our culture, we posit the stories of straight able-bodied white people, especially of straight able-bodied white men, as universal, and the stories of everyone else as marked by difference. A romantic comedy starring a straight, white, able-bodied couple is just a romcom; but change any one of those characteristics and it becomes a genre film: a Black film, a gay film, a disability “issue” film. You wouldn’t need to change a single word of dialogue to change the perception of the film– just the casting.

What is considered “universal” in representational media is actually reflective of a particular experience– the experience of privilege, usually straight white able-bodied male privilege. Those of us who do not share that experience are always expected to translate– to find and relate to the humanity within the experiences of people unlike us. But those privileged people are rarely expected to do the opposite. Men are rarely expected to relate to plays or films about women, but women are ALWAYS expected to relate to plays or films about men. A film centered around the story of a white man is just a film culturally positioned with the expectation that all will enjoy it in its universality, but a film centered around the story of a Black woman is culturally positioned with the expectation that only Black women will relate to it.

This is a potent issue resulting in a paucity of variation in the portrayal of women. In American mainstream film, TV, and, unfortunately, theatre, what’s positioned as a “normal” and “universal” portrayal of a woman is skinny and white.  All women everywhere are expected to see ourselves, find our humanity, and relate our experiences to the experiences of skinny white girls, most of whom (let’s be realistic) are under the age of 40. AND WE DO. We do it all the time. We do it so well we don’t even think about it most of the time.

I didn’t even realize how exhausted I was by this until I started going to shows at African American Shakespeare Company. As I was watching Merry Wives of Windsor, it slowly dawned on me that I had a level of buy-in to the three lead female characters in the show that I hadn’t had in quite some time. I found myself wondering why. Was it the fantastic acting? Well, sure, but I see fantastic acting all the time. Was it the solid directing or the midcentury costumes (I’m such a sucker for vintage)? I turned it over and over in my mind. And then I realized: Because the three lead women were not all skinny white girls, I felt a level of comfort with them and, by extension, with the narrative, that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. By seeing women who were outside the circle of mainstream privilege, even though they were outside it in a different (and, I would say, more deeply meaningful) way than I am, I felt . . . welcomed. I felt like I could relax. I felt like there was a level of implied judgment that was left outside.

So what does this mean? I’m not saying we should stop casting skinny white girls. Of course not. They’re talented, wonderful human beings who deserve roles and love and cupcakes and all the good things in life, just like anyone else. But clearly we need to step away from the formula “normal = skinny and white.”

I think we all, as a culture, need to look at the ways in which we portray women. While we always portray men in specific ways (the attorney, the action hero, the troubled scoundrel, the cop, the bad guy), we all too often portray women in generalized ways (“the woman”) connected only to their relationship with the men, or to the male-driven narrative. When we step out of that, we fear scaring away potential audience by stepping outside of the “universal” when we step outside the portrayal of privilege.

If you’re a skinny white woman, or a white man, you represent an ever-shrinking segment of the population, but the bulk of representational media still posits you as “normal” and everyone outside of you as marked by difference– the further the difference, the deeper the marking.

Here’s what you can do– here’s what we ALL can do– to have the greatest impact on creating real diversity in our representational media.

If you ever find yourself thinking, “That play/film/show/book isn’t for me,” STOP YOURSELF and ask yourself why you think that. Is it because it has a central female character? A central non-white female character? What is it about her experience or humanity that you find so foreign to your own human experience you feel like her story ISN’T EVEN POSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND? Yes, you will need to do some work to find YOUR humanity in HER story, but I promise you that you can do it, because SHE does it for YOUR stories every day of her life.

I have heard, dozens and dozens of times, smart, educated, awesome men say about plays with female-driven narratives, “I think this play is well-written, but I don’t get it.” They see the difference and stop there, because they’ve never learned to translate. They’ve never had to.

This is a learned skill. You have to TRY to do it if you don’t already know how. It has to be a conscious choice to step over your privilege and learn to translate the experiences of people who do not share your privilege, finding your own humanity within them. Will you understand every nuance? Of course not. I don’t understand every nuance of every play about the male experience. I’ve never been a closeted boy on a chicken farm, I’ve never been kicked in the balls, I’ve never been on a professional sports team. BUT NEITHER HAVE YOU. Well, maybe the balls part (sorry, that must have sucked), but certainly not the other two. Yet, because the protagonists of Joshua Conkel‘s MilkMilkLemonade and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out (both wonderful plays) are male, I’ve seen men relate to those characters and effortlessly see their own humanity in them, even while claiming not to understand plays with female central characters whose stories more closely match their own experience.

I firmly believe that being able to have a theatre community that  stages work with female protagonists– or, hell, even with female supporting characters– who are as diverse in as many ways as women actually are RELIES on having translation buy-in from the resistant members of our potential audiences AND from the resistant members of our own community– two groups, by the way, with significant overlap.

Skinny white girls are cast in almost all our female roles, and have become associated with “normal woman,” because our culture equates whiteness and thinness with beauty (an extremely problematic notion in and of itself), and the body of the actress is there to be looked at– the actress is all too often there to be “the female” in a man’s story rather than there to inhabit a particular story about a particular woman. We can change this in two ways: by expanding the concept of desirable beauty to include more types of women (good) and (even better) we can stop positioning women all the damn time as “desired object,” start staging work that features stories about different kinds of women, and stop pretending that any play that doesn’t conform to “normal woman = skinny white girl as object of desire” is some kind of crazy deviation from the norm.

In order to do this, to achieve diversity, especially a realistic diversity of women on our stages, those who are unused to translating must make a commitment to learn how to translate the experiences of others unlike themselves and see their own humanity therein. But this must be a conscious CHOICE and an ongoing process, or it’s not going to happen.

I know this is not only possible, but happening right now, because I see it myself. Not every white guy is mystified by translation. We’re in a cultural moment where everything is shifting, and our kids are growing up in a world that values diversity in ways never before seen in the history of the world. This is an achievable goal. But we must consciously CHOOSE to achieve it.

Once that choice is made, we’ll start to see more work wherein women aren’t there as decorative objects and events in the lives of men, and we’ll start to see more women on our stages who do not conform to mainstream images of beauty, because their primary function will be telling a story, a story the entire audience will be able to relate to, empathize with, see themselves in because they have chosen to. Our stages will still have room for skinny white girls, but they will also have room for every other kind of woman, and, for that matter, every other kind of man.

We just have to all make the choice, together, to see the humanity in others.

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