Casting in our times

This coming Monday night, theater professionals are going to gather to talk about the role race plays in casting actors for plays. The talk arises out of a confluence of events; several Twin Cities theaters simultaneously programmed plays that focus on Asian-American stories (Guthrie’s M. Butterfly, Bloomington Civic Theatre’s “The King and I” and the Children’s Theatre Company’s “Disney’s Mulan Junior”, “StrikeSlip” at Nimbus Theater, and “Kabuki Medea” at Theater Unbound). And when it looked like several of the Asian-American roles were going to be cast with Caucasians, actor Randy Reyes and others raised concerns.

Reyes argues that such casting decisions would never be made with plays that involve African-American stories. Imagine an August Wilson play with a white “Aunt Ester,” or CTC’s recent production of “The Lost Boys of Sudan” featuring Caucasian teenagers. Would the productions have been anywhere near as compelling?

But juxtapose those concerns with the practical realities local directors face. While the talent pool of Asian-American actors in the community has increased dramatically over the years (thanks in large part to the work of Mu Performing Arts recruiting and training actors), it is still not that sizable. And at least one director expressed frustration that when he held auditions for his play, no Asian-Americans showed up.

These issues speak to a new stage in the evolution of casting in regards to race. If you go back far enough, it was common practice for white actors to use “black face” or “yellow face” to play the ethnic roles in a production. Caucasian actors dominated in all the roles. For the last few decades it’s been more prevalent to engage in “non-traditional” casting, in which a person of any color could play any role. Thus, Asian-American and African-American actors finally had a chance to get a part in a Shakespeare play (other than Othello), as well as the rest of the European theatrical cannon.

But now, as not just the actors but also the stories on stage are diversifying, there is a desire to cast according to race, in order to do the stories justice. And directors are realizing that even in the old European plays, race can add a layer of meaning and complexity to the work that serves the story, rather than just making it look more “colorful.”

The purpose of Monday night’s forum (held from 6-8pm at the Children’s Theatre Company) is not just to discuss these issues, but to come up with some best practices for addressing them. Do theater companies need to coordinate with one another on their seasons? Should casting for a racially specific production begin earlier than other productions, to ensure the right talent is found? And how is the creation of new work playing into both the successes and challenges of communities of color?

I’ll be moderating the panel discussion, which will feature CTC Artistic Director Peter Brosius, Mu Performing Arts Artistic Director Rick Shiomi, actor Randy Reyes, Pillsbury House director and actor Faye Price, and Ten Thousand Things Artistic Director Michelle Hensley. The panel is free and open to the public, but due to limited seating, reservations (made through the CTC ticket office) are highly recommended.