Mark Hammer – Actor/Teacher (2007)

by Mark Hammer (1937-2007)

I’ve heard it said that if one life is enough for you, you have no need to be an actor. I have never seriously considered an un-related occupation.   For me, acting is the spirit’s response to the body’s mortality—live enough lives within the span of the one life endows, and you’ve beaten the game.  Moreover, I have come to suspect that this impatience with the limited experience of “one life” that impels me to act in plays may also be one of the human impulses drawing audiences to watch them.  Theater (along with other forms of narrative) may, like religion, be one of humanity’s communal responses to its awareness of mortality.  That suspicion has informed the personal aesthetic beneath my approach to the work, itself.  Theater is, among other things, an extraordinary means of stationary travel, and as a tour guide to inner worlds of unique human identities, I am committed, by purpose as well as preference, to the pursuit of “the undiscovered self”.  Each role I undertake must introduce me and my audience to a stranger—a self none of us has met before.  It’s a debt I owe to myself and to the institution I claim to serve.

These imperatives were in my thoughts before circumstance propelled me into a direct connection to the issue of non-traditional casting. My goals and approach to achieving them have not been changed by my new circumstances.  From now on, even though each of the strangers who will inhabit my body and speak with my voice may continue to represent different occupations, ages, economic classes, nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations or even genders, they will all share one fact of their lives.  They will all be unable to stand or to walk.  Following an automobile accident in January of 2001, I have been confined to a wheelchair since being released from rehab in July of that year.

Actors directly affected by Non-Traditional Casting all bear perceptible (visible and/or audible) signs of membership in an identifiable group of human beings which, solely because of those signs, influences the range of roles we are chosen to play.  The affected groups primarily include all ethnicities, certain conspicuous national or regional ancestries, genders, sexual orientations and un-concealable disabilities.  These are groups whose circumstances are often accepted as conclusive indicators of character.  A comprehensive discussion of diversity in our society as well as in our arts inevitably leads to an investigation of all the data we use to identify one another.
Politically and artistically, we acknowledge that the human race is a group consisting of a diversity of groups.
Membership is never elective. (Trans-gender surgery is an exception that virtually proves the rule.)  In some instances, concealment is an option—national ancestry has been obscured by changes in surname (Recently, this option has become gratifyingly rare.)  As a practical matter, actors enable themselves to choose whether or not to be categorized by national ancestry or regional background by acquiring alternatives through training to habits of diction and dialect.

Given the essentially involuntary nature of these identifying circumstances, there remains a considerable range of acceptance of membership as a clue to individual identity.  Some artists emphatically embrace their membership in a certain group with a fervor born of an honest belief that because the group may be ignored, undervalued, or misunderstood by the rest of society, its nature—what distinguishes it from other groups or society at large—is at the present historical moment—a more fitting subject for society’s contemplation than those elements of private personality which distinguish an individual from all other members of the same group.  In effect, this artist is asserting that while there may exist a range of interesting or important aspects to his or her personality, none is more important at this time or should be more interesting and relevant to the present world of strangers than his or her ethnicity, ancestry, background, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability. Indeed, actors have helped to neutralize the power of negative stereotypes. Some have weakened the stereotypes by the strength of their vividly un-stereotypical personalities; others have satirized the stereotypes by outrageous exaggeration thereby revealing them as caricatures; still others have blatantly asserted stereotypical behavior, affirming “negative” stereotypes as positive emblems of group identity.  Group identity has historically been a staple of stand-up comedy—a form which has (along with music and spectator sports) launched minority artists into national prominence while the rest of their group moves at a somewhat slower pace into the mainstream of our society.  Much of this history was and will continue to be the result of the spontaneous interactions among historical, cultural and economic forces as they encounter the specific talents and inclinations of individual artists.

As determined by spontaneous forces, the choice to emphatically embrace one’s minority and to allow, if not encourage, the public to view membership in that minority to be the most relevant and interesting factors of one’s individual identity has historically been, to some extent, a default choice.  The African-American civil rights movement intervened in “spontaneous” events and made them less spontaneous.  Forces and movements have since arisen calling for the culture, the economy and the society to begin to alter its thinking to allow artists greater freedom in the choice of the degree of importance to be assigned to their membership in a perceptible minority

Enter my personal approach to acting.  My view of my calling requires that I declare that my disability is the least interesting thing about me and consequently about every role I play.  I may encounter a role in which the playwright or director seems to be suggesting that the character think otherwise, and because I am an actor who in principle can never admit to being miscast, I will give it my best shot.  I have done three roles since my confinement.  Only one of those contained any textual reference to my disability and that reference was added to the text in rehearsal, and even in that instance the production supported my choice that the disability may have mattered to those characters who remarked upon it, but it had little, if any, influence on my own sense of personhood.  I think audiences found that choice, as I did, to be more interesting.

The language in the current Production and Off Broadway Agreements reads:

“When a role to be cast depicts a character with a specific physical disability, the Producer shall include this information in the casting specifications so that performers with similar disabilities may be informed of the opportunity to audition for the role.”

This language is also in the LORT contact, but instead of “Producer”, it reads “Theatre”.  I am grateful for such provisions.  For reasons which I understand, I am not getting as many auditions as I used to when I was more mobile.  If a role were to be cast depicting a character with a specific physical disability, by a theater I care to work at, I would pursue an audition relentlessly.  Fuelled by need and by an eagerness to honor the principle, as it should be applied as a compensatory measure to those minority actors who have suffered from genuine exclusion for a longer time and for more arbitrary reasons than I have, I would treat the audition as a virtual entitlement and do my damnedest to get the role.

I think I deserve the audition on the strength of my resume, but I don’t want to be cast in the role as an entitlement.  The idea that my disability gives me an automatic advantage over a non-disabled actor in playing the role implies that an actor without a disability is automatically less qualified to play a disabled character.  Such an implication seems to me to contradict the very spirit of non-traditional casting.
I speak now as an actor of Caucasian ethnicity who, in his youth, played the role of Othello.  I did a creditable job.  I applied a dark base to my face and to the backs of my hands.  That was a decision I agreed to as much in the interest of preserving the credibility of my fellow cast members who made verbal reference to my Moorishness as it was to support any sense of personal history I was using for the role.  I did draw on my own relation to outsideness (I am Jewish, and had survived an overweight adolescence.).  I used my imagination to explore the relation between mistrust of inclusion and expectation of rejection and sexual insecurity and its consequent susceptibility to jealously.  I think I also, as it happens, reverted to ancestral Old Testament thinking in order to awaken in me the belief that blood sacrifice of the transgressing female was a cause, not a crime. Correctness and creativity are uneasy bedfellows.  While reserving minority roles for actors from the appropriate minorities may be endorsed in the interest of fairness and social progress, as an aesthetic principle, it is questionable.  The history of Drama is full of high points in which an actor’s imagination and mimetic insight into human motives has led to performances as compelling and memorable as any which were fashioned out of the actor’s actual experience.  To exclude such high points is to equate truth with authenticity, an equation which is disproven by what for many artists constitutes the essential fictive nature of all art.
I don’t know whether it was Stanislavski or Jung who first maintained that there is an axe-murderer in all of us.  But regardless of who said it first, the character actor’s creed is founded on the belief of both men that all human experience is available to the imagination and memory of all human beings.

I’ve noticed that other minority actors appear more and more, as their experience and their clout increase, in roles in which their membership in a minority decreases in significance to the overall narrative, and its importance to the finished product is in the hands of the behavioral choices made by the actor.  I hope that the time will come when that option will be available to the beginning actor, as well as to the veteran.
I think the day will come eventually when the significance of membership in any minority will no longer be preconceived by the audience, and the institution of theater will know and trust that fact. From that day on, there will be no such thing as non-traditional casting because traditional casting will apply primarily to projects that deal specifically with minority issues. On that day the Non-traditional Casting Project will do what that other revolution—the one in Russia—hoped to do.  It will dwindle away.  I hope I am still around to see it.
I have no plans at the present to have another go at the role of Othello. I would  be reluctant on grounds of conscience to take the role away from qualified black actors who are still, though less and less, finding leading roles in unfairly short supply.  But who knows?  You might someday hear of a production of Othello in which the title role is being played by a legless old guy in a wheelchair who is made up to look like a Moor. In the meantime, thanks, Non-traditional Casting Project, and keep on keeping on.

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