Casting Non-Traditionally: From Page to Stage (2006)

October 28, 2006

Theatre Row
New York, NY


Marcy Arlin, Artistic Director, Immigrants’ Theatre Project

Debra Ann Byrd, Artistic Director, Take Wing and Soar Productions

Debra Cardona, Dramaturg, Classical Theatre of Harlem

Martin Denton,

Mia Katigbak, Artistic Director, National Asian American Theatre Company

Christine Simpson, Artistic Director, Fluid Motion Theater

A panel was co-hosted by the Alliance and Fluid Motion Theater & Film following the matinee performance of Fluid Motion Theater & Film’s production of The Great Conjurer at Theatre Row in New York.  A group of Artistic Directors, dramaturg and theatre reviewer discussed non-traditional casting with respect to their theatres.  Represented theatres included Immigrants’ Theatre Project, Take Wing and Soar Productions, Classical Theatre of Harlem, National Asian American Theatre Company and Fluid Motion Theater & Film, as well as theatre critic Martin Denton from   Some comments included:

“Our casting is multicultural, but always at the center stage there is an artist of color – someone of African or Asian or Hispanic descent.”

“We just did a production of Waiting for Godot and gave it a post-Katrina treatment.  We basically put it on a roof in the middle of a flood and it really worked.  There is a big speech in the second act about when people need help other people just stand by and talk about how people need help.  Meanwhile, the poor man was drowning in the pool.  So it worked really well.”

“We try to stress universality – universal themes are found in all of these works – and make them relevant to an audience.  That comes out of – the three women who started the company – one is a Korean adoptee, one was from Asia, and the other is a second generation Asian American.”

“There is certainly a cultural bias in the U.S. and in this city among people who want to make their living as a theatre journalist.  It’s hard to name any major publications that have anybody of color on their critic staffs.”
“But it is for the Harlem community.  It is open for anyone to come, but we want to be able to give the Harlem community access to great works of classical theatre.”

“When we decided to mess with the canon – if we decide we’re doing an Adrienne Kennedy play, we are really thinking about serving the Harlem Community.  But when we did Melvin’s play, there was a whole generation of young people who needed to know who Melvin Van Peebles was.  When we did Derek Walcott’s Dream on Money Mountain, it was also because his plays are not really done anymore.  You read it in school and you don’t have any more access than that.  It’s really important not only to do Shakespeare and Greek for the Harlem community, but also to do great plays by people of color.”

“One of the problems is – if you’re a recent immigrant from India, you’re not interested in seeing a play in English, you’re interested in seeing the latest Hollywood star to come and sing.  So for a while we were pushing against that sentiment and we work with other theatres to do that. Once we did an evening that was ½ about Haitians and ½ about Russians, so we had Haitians and Russians in the audience.  A lot of what I do is “why not?”

“We had a workshop/development session about 2 years ago and we asked questions.  And this woman just walked in off the street and we thought “Great! This is what you want – just someone to come in off the street.” And the Narrator, the N character, was played by an Asian-American woman, and the lady said, “It was a little weird at first, seeing an Asian-American up there on stage, but after about an hour I was OK.”  And I was like, the play only runs an hour and ten minutes!  But you know, everyone else seems to get it and understand it.”

“Another way that I’m aware if it is – I just saw a show last night and I won’t say what it was – it was a play where the three main characters were a Pakistani taxi driver, a Black homeless drunk, and a White mid-west religious fundamentalist.  And I thought – we don’t need any more plays about those types.  There are ways to tell the story where the homeless man didn’t have to be Black, the Pakistani man could have been anything – could have been a doctor, could have been a theatre critic – and the fact that he was a taxi driver – that offends me terribly.  That is a place where you end up thinking about race all the time and there’s something wrong with a theatre community where a Pakistani actor – that’s what he gets.”

“When I see a show like this – I certainly wouldn’t write about the race choices.  It’s hard because sometimes they throw it in your face in another way when it’s in the script.”

“We did a Cherry Orchard as well, and we got the same questions from the designers.  And then she thought about it and said well, why can’t Asian-Americans interpret Russian culture?  Why is it any different from Americans interpreting Russian culture? We don’t say leave your cultural identity at the door.  Our presumption is that where ever you’re coming from will necessarily inform what you’re doing on stage no matter what the material.”

“Theatre companies should look beyond England and Ireland and white America to find what the canon is – in 50 years will August Wilson be in the canon?

Return to: National Diversity Forum Main Page