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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: March ::
Re: Casting
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0189  Thursday, 5 March 1998.

[1]     From:   Richard Nathan <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 3 Mar 1998 16:10:02 +0000
        Subj:   Re: Gender Blind Casting

[2]     From:   Mary Ellen Zurko <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 12:05:06 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0187 Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Things)

[3]     From:   Matthew Gretzinger <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 17:10:29 -0500
        Subj:   P. S. Othello

[4]     From:   Kristine Batey <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 14:24:00 -0600
        Subj:   Re: Racism/Casting

[5]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 17:13:39 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Things)

[6]     From:   Karen Elizabeth Berrigan <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 4 Mar 1998 12:04:18 -0400 (AST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Things)


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard Nathan <
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Date:           Tuesday, 3 Mar 1998 16:10:02 +0000
Subject:        Re: Gender Blind Casting

One of the worst things I have ever seen was a production of "HENRY IV"
- (Parts I & II combined and abridged), in which Falstaff was played by
a woman AS A WOMAN.

The woman in question was Gwenda Deacon, who played the mother of the
murder victim in the film "L.A. CONFIDENTIAL."  She was good in that
film, but in "HENRY IV" she  was dreadful.  Although the play was set in
some future post-apocalyptic time, when gender stereotypes had broken
down, it still didn't make sense for one of Hal's father figures to be a
woman.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mary Ellen Zurko <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 12:05:06 -0500
Subject: 9.0187 Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0187 Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Things)

>I think a more interesting question would be whether it is racist to
>cast Shakespeare's plays to type, or is it necessary to treat minority
>actors as equally eligible to play white characters.

I saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the first time last year.  I
went on purpose to see Timon of Athens. OSF seems to have a strong
tradition of untraditional casting. Apemantus was a black woman in this
production. Is Apemantus a "white character"? In this production, it
absolutely did not seem to matter what Apemantus' color or gender was
(perhaps the cross casting would have been more dissonent in a
production placed in a more specific time and place).

        Mez

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Matthew Gretzinger <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 17:10:29 -0500
Subject:        P. S. Othello

In response to Larry Weiss' posting of March 2:

I personally would love to see an Ossie Davis Death of a Salesman, with
Matt Damon as Biff.

To say that the Patrick Stewart Othello raises "interesting issues" is
surely the truth.  To say that it puts "things in a different light" is
to damn it with faint praise.  But to say that "it is not Othello any
more than the Boys From Syracuse is the Comedy of Errors," is
ridiculous.  Weiss seems to be implying that the casting of a white man
in a traditionally black role renders that production irrelevant.

The example of a Davis/Damon DOS illustrates not only Mr. Weiss' point,
but also his viewpoint.  For him this casting would "detract" from what
Miller gave us.  For me it wouldn't.  It all depends on what you see
when you look at that stage.  Do you see a father with a son?  A black
father with a white son? Or a black actor in a white role?

Mr. Weiss suggests that such a production would "add dimensions to the
play that Miller did not put there," and that in the case of the Stewart
Othello,  "converting a white character to black, or vice versa, might
make a social point, but it alters the drama."  He calls the result
"less a Shakespearean play than an exercise."

I disagree.  Actors and directors interpret text, and give it
dimension.  To the mixture of the words they add the ingredient of
themselves.  This is what they do, and it is what the authors expect
them to do.  No dramatic text is complete until it is interpreted and
performed, and there is no such thing as a dimension that the author
"did not put there."

One production of Othello is not any other production of Othello any
more than my reading of Othello is your reading of Othello.  Othello is
a text.  It is there, like the mountain, and we are all free to climb
it, to find our own version of the "heart" Mr. Weiss refers to.
Differences of this kind can be revealing, illuminating, and are, in my
experience, never limiting.

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kristine Batey <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 14:24:00 -0600
Subject:        Re: Racism/Casting

>I think the following modern instance can illustrate my point:  It is
>possible to play Death of a Salesman with a black cast.  There is not
>much about that play that defines it as a *white* middle-class tragedy.
>I would love to see Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee play Willie Loman et ux.
>But if they did, Matt Damon could not be Biff.  Or, contrariwise, if
>Dustin Hoffman and Jean Stapleton were Willie and his wife, Denzel
>Washington could not play Biff.

The Goodman Theater in Chicago has practiced "color-blind" casting for
many years, and quite effectively. It was halfway through a performance
of "Enemy of the People" several years ago that I noticed, just
incidentally, that the lead character, Dr. Stockman, was black and his
daughter was pale and blonde. This might be harder to do on film, which
is so literal; but on stage, it works quite nicely. The play takes over.

Kristine Batey

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 17:13:39 -0500
Subject: 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Things)

Shaula Evans wrote:

>  My personal opinion is that, so long as
> unconventional casting choices do not detract from the play; i.e.,
> they
> are not "gimicky," and neither add nor subtract from the original
> play-they are worth consideration.

I quite agree, but this begs my question, it doesn't answer it.  When
does an unconventional casting choice become "gimmicky"?  When does such
a choice "add ... or subtract from the original play"?  Or, more
precisely, at what point are we prepared in this most politically
correct of eras to acknowledge that it does?  (And what does Ms. Evans
mean by "worth consideration.")

For example, would it be "gimmicky" to cast a willowy woman as
Falstaff?  What about a rotund black woman?  Ok, what about a rotund
black man?  If you rejected the second choice but not the third, have
you admitted sexism in order to deny racism?

As for Ms. Evans' observation that WS himself cast against type (because
he had no choice), again I agree.  Shakespeare in fact adjusted his text
(and composed it in the first instance) to accommodate the limitations
of his acting pool.  But this, too, makes the point for me:
Shakespeare's "female" actors did not perform in beards and codpieces
(except perhaps in the transvestite portions of the comedic roles).
Presumably, they dressed, made up, spoke and moved as women. They may
have been as believable as latter-day female impersonators.   Wouldn't
RuPaul make a totally credible Iris or Charmian?  So, too, when women
have played men's roles.  I believe that Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet was in
character-short hair, doublet & hose, etc.

All of this is a different species of thing from the in-your-face
idiosyncratic casting we see these days.  A few years ago, Papp produced
a Cymbeline in which a salt and pepper team played Guiderius and
Arviragus (and neither could have been hired for his acting talents) --
Brothers!  What does this tell us of the virtue of Cymbeline's queen.
More recently, of course, Papp's successors have treated us to a spate
of African kings of England, all perfectly good actors (and probably
quite pricey), but none particularly adept at classical acting, or even
legitimate theatre.  Was this casting the "best available" or was the
producer using Shakespeare to make some sort a vague cultural or
political point?

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Karen Elizabeth Berrigan <
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Date:           Wednesday, 4 Mar 1998 12:04:18 -0400 (AST)
Subject: 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Things)

Although it has been argued that Denzel Washington as Biff would add a
confusing element to a white cast of _Death of a Salesman_, I found that
casting Mr. Washington as the Prince in Branagh's _Much Ado About
Nothing_ was not confusing at all.  His brother was played by a white
actor and yet these issues were not raised because they were irrelevent.
In fact, I thought Denzel Washington, in contrast to the monotone Keanu
Reeves and the unintelligible Michael Keaton, was the most convincing of
the American actors.
 

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