Cross-Racial Casting: or The Social Pages ~ theatre notes

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cross-Racial Casting: or The Social Pages

Last night, Lee Lewis' Platform Paper on Cross-Racial Casting was launched at the Beckett Theatre with vim, espi├Ęglerie and lashings of after-launch conversation lubricated by copious amounts of wine. Among a crowd of 30 to 40 interested people were Stephen Armstrong and Michael Kantor (respectively executive producer and artistic director of the Malthouse) as well as a notable blogger presence - Matt from Esoteric Rabbit, Ming from Mink-Tails and Daniel from Our Man in Berlin.

An hour and a half flew by. Or it did for me, anyway. Platform Papers editor Dr John Golder was MC; I spoke briefly (see below) and then Lee talked with lively passion about her paper and responded to questions from the audience. Topics covered included: the reasons why she decided to investigate this issue; the responses so far to what she has written; the influence of the dominance of naturalism and Lee's conviction that the first step should be aggressive cross-racial casting of the classical repertoire; the present conservative political climate that has so inhibited experiment on main stages and, perhaps most interestingly of all, Lee's interrogation of her own practice and ethics as a director. Peter Brook turned up once or twice, although sadly not in person.

Conversation afterwards flowed through many byways (the differences between Sydney and Melbourne, Dr Who and Harry Potter, blogging, the general theatrical discourse, the inhibitions that surround discussions about race, and so on...) One major question was how to extend the conversation about cross-racial casting into a general ethic in theatrical practice. Ming - whom I'm sure will write further about this - was bothered that such an important issue was considered by many of her peers to be a minority concern that doesn't affect white people. There was a notable sense throughout the evening that this issue is not about "worthiness" and rather has everything to do with the task of making exciting theatre that engages with the Australia in which we all live.

It was all, as my kids used to say, very fun. Let's hope the conversation does continue: I'm with Lee in thinking it one of the vital questions in Australian theatre. If you haven't read it, buy the book - I assure you that it's a fascinating, smart and stimulating read - and maybe subscribe to the Platform Papers series, which is well worth your attention.

Here's what I said in launching the book:

I’m honoured that Katherine Brisbane asked me to launch this book, and would like to thank her in absentia. It seems to me that Lee Lewis’s paper, Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre, is an important contribution to the continuing conversation about theatre in Australia, and I’m delighted to be here today. The editorial board at Currency House is to be congratulated for this series of Platform Papers, which has for the past few years provided a valuable and sorely-needed space for extended and thoughtful analyses of Australian performing arts culture.

This particular paper has already generated a lot of comment and discussion, some of it excited and positive, some of it hostile. Perhaps, as Lee Lewis ventures so fearlessly into such a delicate and complex area, this is only to be expected. But I’d like to begin with some negative theology. There are a number of things that I think this paper is not.

This is not an accusatory paper. It’s not an argument that blindly points the gun of racism at theatre directors or writers or artistic institutions. It is not concerned with apportioning blame. As Lewis quite rightly says, “Little is served by this discourse of blame beyond encouraging inertia”.

Rather, I think Lee does something much more interesting and much more positive. She intelligently and sensitively identifies a complex problem that she perceives within Autralian theatre culture, and then, without ignoring the minefields that surround the issue, she suggests a possible approach towards its resolution.

What is the problem? According to Lee, the diverse ethnic make-up of the Australian population is not reflected by a similar diversity on our stages. Sydney main stages – and by extension, mainstream stages in other Australian cities – remain "reprehensibly White". Not reflecting this diversity, she argues, means that theatre is missing a huge opportunity to re-imagine our national identity, that we are unwittingly participating in implicitly colonial practices that privilege the White over every other kind of identity.

In order to develop her thesis, Lee examines the social construction of Whiteness and the broader implications of the marginalisation of what she calls Third World Looking People. And she takes a searching and not unsympathetic look at how this plays out in the complicated culture of theatre.

The solution, she says, by no means lies in simplistic identity politics. TWLP actors are not, for example, granted the same possibility of transformation that White actors are: a White actor is considered neutral and able to be protean, whereas a TWLP is forever trapped in the biological reality of his or her ethnic origin.

I think Lee’s identification of the problem is pretty much unarguable. On the whole, our mainstages are, as Barrie Kosky said while casting his eye over the STC’s Actors Company, very “white bread”. And actors who do not identify as White are very seldom seen on our main stages outside ethnically-specific roles. We recently had an Indigenous Othello in Melbourne, but we are yet to see a Black Lear or an Asian Hedda Gabler. And, as Lee points out, even if cross-racial casting began to happen routinely, this could only be the beginning of a complex and exciting shift in our cultural dialogue.

I hope that Lee’s paper does lift us past the discourse of blame to a more positive recognition that there is a problem, and more, to further discussion on how it might best be dealt with. I declare this book launched and now pass over to Lee to talk more about her ideas.

And then she did...

Nicholas Pickard's blog report on the Sydney launch here.

Pictures: Top: Lee Lewis speaks at the launch. Bottom: Some of the later conviviality: (L-R) Brad and Sarah from the Malthouse, David, me, Matt the Esoteric Rabbit (front), Stephen from the Malthouse, Ming from Minktails. Photos: Brett Boardman


Anonymous said...

It was a very engaging forum - I hope I won't struggle to follow all the separate blog-strings about it (a reminder, perhaps, that a complex society doesn't/can't have a singular "coversation" about an issue like this . . . )

I really appreciate LL's attempt to connect academic cultural theory with theatre practice, and the reminder to be willing to be wrong. Risk isn't just for managing but embracing - to invert/abuse an investing rule of thumb, high returns require high risks?

Am still thinking through the (admittedly very minor) challenge to 'naturalism' that cross-racial casting might involve in certain productions (audiences will go with cross-racial casting, though I'm not sure we want them to be colour-blind in either direction . . .)

Agree entirely that there is some excessively cautious practice going on.

What happens on the 'main' stages also impact on the offerings available to regional ones (performing arts centres in regional Australia).

Alison Croggon said...

Hi J-Lo - that's an interesting point about regional centres. And I'm sure there are many possible responses; as you say, society is complex, and for me last night's forum revealed some of the complexities around this issue. Perhaps what interested me most was the sense that it is as much an issue about personal responsibility and ethics, which is I think where Lee is being exemplary.

On Stage And Walls said...

Would have gone (because I felt that Platform Papers was dropping off in quality and I stopped subscribing)so I need to re-evaluate that little publication.
But I went back to see The Glass Soldier last night, which is better, it runs faster (finished at 10:55), the sound is improved and a lot of people genuinely enjoyed it , even some secondary level students who sat out the length quietly. Croggin still gets shot.

Anonymous said...

Further thoughts/reflections:

1. I like that LL is clearly pointing to the role of heavily funded state companies, while highlighting the personal responsibility of all parties (and that she isn't making a claim to some stand-alone 'leadership' role, but points to other contributions)

2. Not comfortable with 'war' between perspectives/companies as a descriptive term in this context - though am inclined to believe that tensions are more acute in Sydney than Melbourne (not sure why on this point, and obviously want to focus on ideas and not personalities)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Bardassa - Poor old Croggon. I'm glad to hear they've cut the running time.

Yes, J-Lo, I'm also uncomfortable with the notion of a "war": that too easily reduces to binaries. And to be rightly critical of the main stage institutions shouldn't blind us to their achievements, either - I'm still envious that Sydney has the Actors Company. It's also worth noting that Lee is presently directing two shows at the STC!

I am not intimate enough with the scene in Sydney to comment with any authority, but from what I understand it's a complex ecology. Still, the perception that there is a gulf within the theatre culture is probably not entirely without foundation - for instance, no one from the MTC - to my knowledge, anyway - was interested enough to turn up to the launch. Certainly, there's a sense that the MTC as an institution isn't especially interested in participating in this kind of dialogue, which is a shame for all of us, since it is the largest theatre company here.

Anonymous said...

Major companies were conspicuously absent from the Sydney launch, too. This was probably a deliberate display of haughtiness on their part but was interpreted by many in the crowd as an unwitting admission of irrelevance. The consensus among participants seemed to be that the major companies have largely become a conservative cottage industry servicing a whitebread clientele. In Sydney, the centre of relevance – in terms of the kind of work being produced and its engagement with Australian society – has shifted westward. In this sense, they took the argument quite a bit further than Lewis does. (I’m not sure they’re right, but it’s an interesting point.) The crowd enthusiastically responded to Lewis’s general thesis and recommendations, and reported depressingly consistent stories of the glib, stonewalling responses they got from major companies when they had the temerity to raise the issue of cross-racial casting themselves. You really have to admire Lewis for having the nerve to pull the pin on this particular grenade while she’s working at STC, but the experiences of others at the launch suggested that only an “insider” could do this without being either brushed off as a whinger or, worse, completely ignored. Courageous stuff.

Anonymous said...

Shocking photo of yours truly; all those restaurants have taken their toll.

I should have something up about this today or tomorrow. I'm still digesting what was, for me, a seminal evening on all fronts.

George Hunka said...

Writing from New York (where Lee had "grown accustomed ... to mixed-race casts"), I was fascinated to see how much of a problem this was Down Under. I'm assuming that casting in most urban areas in the U.S., anyway, is just as multicultural (is casting just as "color-blind," to use that loaded term, in Paris and other European cities? Maybe you or Daniel can say), and this has precious little to do with genre. My "In Public" and "Sustaining," both of which director Isaac Butler and I cast together, were both multi-ethnic, though the first was realistic/naturalistic in genre and the second much more abstract. I can only speak for my experience, but this multi-ethnic casting occasioned absolutely no comment from audiences, so accepted has the practice become.

I wonder if this is more a class issue as well. "In Public" (the realistic play) took place amongst the educated professional classes; "Sustaining" (the abstract play) in a more depressed setting of a large town. Maybe genre cancels class out in various ways. In the second play, Daryl Lathon, a black actor, doubled in roles of a street criminal and an academic colleague of the main older character (who was himself played by Arian Moayed, of Middle-Eastern descent, I believe).

Neither of these plays explicitly explored issues of race. It's not at all a moot point, even in New York, I want to emphasize. But it sounds like the larger theatres in Australia (or Sydney, at least) have some catching up to do.

Alison Croggon said...

That's precisely Lee's point. She noticed in the first place because she worked in NY theatre for ten years before returning to Australia. She said the other night that she left a country that she felt was at the forefront of this discussion (though if she's speaking of main stages the state theatres have always been white) and returned to one where everything had as she put it "gone backwards". And no doubt it reflects the sharp conservative turn this country took a decade ago. We are even presently indulging in a version of apartheid or a our government has it a "new paternalism" in how the state deals with its indigenous population (but that's another story).

Unknown said...

Follow-up question for George Hunka or other USAians--to what extent do you think that (white) American audiences, even in big cities, who see unexpectedly multiethnic casts (e.g. in a show they're already familiar with) still attach more significance to an actor's race than may be intended?

For example: I think Sondheim said of the London revival of Company, starring Adrian Lester, that no one would have cast a black actor as Bobby on Broadway because everyone would have thought they were Trying to Say Something, which rang true to me, though it was several years ago. I've also heard theatergoers here on the Left Coast complain about productions that cast e.g. a black Prospero and didn't "do anything with it", as if it were a failure of creativity to call attention to the skin color of one's lead. I don't know how typical this is, and, like Mr. Hunka, I'm also curious about how people in other places that haven't yet come into the discussion see it.

(If this is too tangential, I'll happily withdraw. :) I don't want to thread-hijack at all from the Australian conversation, just wondering about the experiences of people who have dealt with this more directly than I.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Sylvia - international perspectives are very welcome - it's certainly the context in which Lee frames her argument.

Anonymous said...

I saw Brooks Mahabarata many years ago now in the quarry in Adelaide-I distinctly remember the exhilaration I felt watching that ensemble telling a “universal” tale. It wasn’t a melting pot though. From memory each episode would often have an aesthetic sense- movement, design, musically etc- of the main actors racial and cultural heritage. Except when it didn’t!. It seemed to be a delicate weaving of acknowledgment of racial difference and forgetting it, sometimes in the same breathe. Like setting the convention then breaking it, all relative to the specificities of the story at any given time. I wouldnt call it colour-blind in any absolute way.It was revelatory at the time, I'll never forget the feelings even if I cant wholly articulate them.
I find it hard to generalise about the ramifications of “colour-blind” casting. To be truely colour-blind would be to live in a world where there was no systemic racism, institutional or in us as individuals, and even perhaps no racial differences at all. I’m not sure we can avoid “Saying Something” no matter how we may wish to transcend the idea.More then a question of what we say and how we say it. This is not an argument for paralysis though, or amnesia or being overly careful. In Australia it would be so great to just try stuff out( without wishing to disregard people who have and do) whether that be making the race of the actors an organising idea for the whole to a smaller or greater degree or not at all or finding more subtle integrations that may only be discovered on the floor.Lets have it all! What Lee is saying is pretty undeniable- though no matter how undeniable I often think something is someone or some group always goes ahead and denies it!

Anonymous said...

A personal perspective. I remember a few years ago auditioning for a company. I don't want to be too specific so lets just say that it was a state funded company resident in Melbourne. I didn't get the gig and a few weeks later I met the director around the traps and he said that he thought that the audition was decent but for the sake of balance he didn't want to get too 'woggy'. There were two other people already in the cast who shared a heritage of exceptional cuisine and three would simply be spoiling the broth.

Not for a moment do I think that the director is a sheet wearing racist. He's not he's a decent bloke but in this instance he gave a pefect example of unacceptably lazy thinking. Three 'ethnics' representing a middle class dilemma...puhlease it will never fly.

On a side note I'd have to disagree with you Alison that this issue is being exacerbated by the hostility of this govenrment to multiculturalism. For many of us with an excess of vowels in our names it has ever been thus.

Regina di Teatro.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for that, Regina (Queen of the Theatre?) Lee's paper does examine studies of "implicit racism", the not-quite-conscious choice that may be due to many things, but in the end add up to something else.

I didn't mean to suggest that Australia was once a paradise of equality; we all know that isn't so. But it seems to me that pre-Pauline Hanson things were somewhat better than they are now. If the PM basically winks at racism, it has a knock-on effect on all public discourse.

George Hunka said...

That's an interesting question, Sylvia, and I think my experience with "In Public" is pertinent, because the text of the play itself didn't raise any issues of race, but the multi-ethnic cast might have invited some odd responses.

The play itself is about two mixed-race couples in New York and an adulterous affair that might possibly be taking place among them. Now, as the play was cast, the affair (if actual) would have involved two black individuals, whose spouses were white. When we were casting the play, Isaac and I talked for quite some time about whether we were introducing into the play certain elements regarding desire, sex and race which weren't originally part of the text. What were we saying, implicitly or explicitly, about this dynamic? What was culturally significant about playing this dynamic out on stage (instead of, say, in the pages of a novel or short story, in which the physicality of the characters was assumed and not explicitly theatrical), in the context of the original work as well as the social context of New York City in the 21st century? And though the genre of the play was naturalistic/realistic, Isaac took the text in a more abstract direction as the play was performed.

Bear in mind that we were doing this play in New York, which (in theory) has one of the most culturally mixed and progressive populations in the United States. While, as I said, the production occasioned little comment to me directly about this issue (though I didn't speak to every member of the audience), I wonder if a similarly multi-ethnic cast in this particular play would be received in the same way in American cities which (again, in theory) were less culturally mixed and progressive.

In some ways I think our experience with "In Public" illustrates some of the challenges of "color-blind" casting when applied to texts which do not have explicitly racial content.

(And I note here: even in the small off-off-Broadway theatre where "In Public" was produced, a theatre of fewer than 50 seats, the audiences were almost 90 percent white, by my reckoning -- in contrast to the cast, which was only 60 percent white, and came closer [though still inaccurate] to the racial demographic composition of the city itself.)

George Hunka said...

(And a brief correction -- in my first sentence above, I wrote "The play is about two mixed-race couples ..." In the text of the play, no mention was made of the race of any of the characters, and it wasn't my intent to write about mixed-race marriages. I just wanted to make that clear.)

Tony Adams said...

(Writing from Chicago) I can only speak for my experience, but Paris and London don't fare much better than the US when it comes to multicultural casting. (with a few notable Parisian exceptions, Theatre du Soleil and Brook's company especially.)

Not to argue with George on his show . . . but I would argue that NY doesn't do that great of a job as a whole--not that Chicago does either. Though it's been a while since I've been there, Isaac has wrote about it recently on his blog as well.

There are artists and companies that do a good job reflecting the communities they live and work in on stages, I 'd have to say my experience says they are in the minority though.

Outside of the major urban centers it can be more difficult. The small rural county I grew up in was 90% white. Just finding any actors was a chore for the one company there, let alone actors of color.

George Hunka said...

I didn't say that "New York was doing a great job," just describing my own experiences. I wouldn't really know what that "great job" would look like.

Alison Croggon said...

Don't let me interrupt this fascinating discussion: I just want to say that I don't think anyone is proposing "colour-blind" casting, because I - for one, anyway - don't think there is any such thing. Of course race is a texture in any production, whether it's an all-White cast or otherwise in whatever combination or non-combination. The question more properly seems to me to be what kind of texture race might be in the theatre, or in individual productions (I'm sure there's a better way of putting this). I don't think there's any question that it should be "invisible", or even that that is a desirable goal.

George Hunka said...

Or even if such a thing as "color-blind" casting is possible, let alone desirable. In part, we're talking about the race-consciousness of each individual audience member, and how casting decisions affect that consciousness in the spectator's experience of the production.

Tony Adams said...

I agree, that I think the notion of color-blind casting is problematic. At least in the US, every company I know of posts a disclamer with their auditions about color-blind casting,(I think Equity makes them) but few who actually do.

(I meant no offense George, I wasn't trying to single you out personally.)

I admit, I don't know what a great job would be exactly. I know that in our multi-cultural societies, continually all-white stages are doing a poor job.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if this is a post or a side, script (from -

Edward Ablee on directors wanting to reference the historic context of "Whose Afraid of Virigina Woolf" by by featuring mixed-race couples -

'Albee never allowed anything as radical as that, fearing that the play would be just too loaded up to be effective drama.

"No one thinks it is acceptable to drop notes and bars from a Beethoven symphony to get a 'fresh take'," he says. "So why is it acceptable to play around with an author's text to make it address an issue the author didn't intend to address?

"Nor do curators knock pieces off Henry Moore sculptures to give them a 'fresh perspective'. What diminishes a playwright's work so much that they can change the text and alter the context and it's all an improvement. Sorry, they're my plays and I'll do my best to ensure that they're presented in a way that keeps their integrity intact. Fifty years after I die the copyright on them will expire. They can do what they like then."'

Anonymous said...

In the last 18 months in Perth (since I arrived), the most notable... how to describe it... color casting was Tom Gutteridge's production of ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST with Aaron Pedersen (Black Swan Theatre Co). The production made an issue of Aaron's colour, but not Dennis Simmons. The production got very mixed reviews, including criticism of casting, not about color but about comedic ability.

Last year Barking Gecko used Joni Tham, a Singaporean-trained actress to play multiple roles in a touring professional schools production. Kids constantly questioned an Asian actress playing an Australian character of Serbian background but not a white actor playing an Australian character of chinese background.