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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: July ::
Re: Colour-Blind Casting
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1459  Friday, 18 July 2003

[1]     From:   C. David Frankel <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Jul 2003 12:44:09 -0400
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

[2]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Jul 2003 18:19:29 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

[3]     From:   Chris Kelsey <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Jul 2003 12:22:11 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

[4]     From:   M Yawney <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Jul 2003 10:34:31 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

[5]     From:   Gabriel Egan <
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        Date:   Friday, 18 Jul 2003 11:03:17 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

[6]     From:   Carol Morley <
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        Date:   Friday, 18 Jul 2003 13:29:58 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           C. David Frankel <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Jul 2003 12:44:09 -0400
Subject: 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

Sam Small asks (and answers):

>Do we tolerate a hugely fat Romeo?  A desperately ugly Juliet?  A 20 yearr old Polonius?  A male >Ophelia? Well, no.  The audience would find the casting incredible.

In fact, we do -- depending on who "we" is (or was).  Casting, like
every other aspect of theatre, is a matter of conventions -- and these
conventions are not fixed.  Granted, it takes time to change
conventions, and sometimes conventions die hard (and, often, more than
one set of conventions exist at a given time).

Theatre, after all, functions through metaphorical transformation:  the
assertion that this building (The Globe, for instance) equals Verona or
that the actor (David Garrick, for instance, and not notably slender)
equals Romeo.

Surely, some plays, in some production circumstances, offer more
difficulties in shifting the audience's conventional expectations (that
is, there ability to separate actor from character and see both) -- but
you can only shift conventions by actually shifting them.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Jul 2003 18:19:29 +0100
Subject: 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

>This has been aired before on this list but not quite in this slant.
>The politically correct lefties will come tramping out declaring that
>skin colour matters not - in anything - in any way - in any play.  It's
>nonsense, of course.  Skin colour is a physical attribute - like age,
>gender, height, and weight.  A director casts his play or film and
>selects the attributes that best suit the script.  There is nothing more
>complicated than that.  This whole question is one of credibility and
>must be judged for that alone.  Do we tolerate a hugely fat Romeo?  A
>desperately ugly Juliet?  A 20 yearr old Polonius?  A male Ophelia?
>Well, no.  The audience would find the casting incredible.

I slightly agree with some of the points made by Sam Small, but in a
broader sense I do not.  I may be left of centre, but I'm not
particularly politically correct, and I do notice all of the attributes
that Small lists when I'm watching an actor in a play, and I agree that
my response is changed and altered significantly by them.  The casting
may be colour-blind or gender-blind or shape-blind, but an audience
never is.

The question is not whether I notice these castings against type, but
whether I really care.  I didn't see Simon Russell Beale's "hugely fat"
Hamlet, but many people did and a lot of them enjoyed it, and various
actors in the 19th century played him when aged between 60 and 80, which
must equally break Small's rules.  I have seen plain and even ugly (in
my opinion) actresses in romantic leads, some of whom have given very
good performances (the stout and middle-aged Miriam Margolyes acting
Dickens's more attractive younger women in her "Dickens's Women" show or
in selections of scenes that she gives, has to be seen to be believed -
her wonderful voice and character acting overcome any awkwardness about
her appearance).  I have seen student productions of Hamlet (with every
character aged about 18 - including Polonius), and I have seen all-male
Shakespeares (such as the Globe Twelfth Night with a male Viola, a male
Olivia, and a male Maria).

As Sam says I am fully aware, as a member of the audience, that these
things are being done, and sometimes they feel wrong (the most horrible
things that I have seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have been
productions by middle aged and elderly actors pretending to be teenagers
- rather less successfully than Margoyles), but the things that upset me
are not necessarily the things that would upset other people.

If Sam Small objects to male Ophelias, then he would obviously have
hated the original production, but Shakespeare's audiences presumably
loved it.  The fact that I often enjoy a film or play much more if it
stars an attractive young woman, probably says a lot more about me than
about the casting director (I wondered rather guiltily after seeing the
film Lilya-4-ever whether I would have empathised with the lead
character as much if she had been an unattractive overweight and glum
teenage girl driven into prostitution rather than a sparkling,
attractive, and lively character - although in reality people don't
suffer less just because you find them less friendly and attractive.  I
also wonder why I find it easier to empathise with young female rather
than young male characters in films and plays - even when they are far
too young for me to find them sexually attractive [whether consciously
or subconsciously] which might otherwise be the most likely
biological/psychological explanation of such a gender-bias).

In short, Sam Small may reject with contempt all of the castings that he
sets out above, and there are some castings that I too would find
unpleasant or unworkable and which would cause me to respond badly to an
actor or a production, but the important point is that Sam's list is
different from mine, and that none of the examples that he gives would
be seen as unforgivable by everybody.  A casting director casting
against type or against realism is making a decision which does heavily
affect his production, but as long as there are enough members of the
audience who are willing to accept or even enjoy the change then that
makes it perfectly acceptable and worthwhile.  I suppose that a major
part of this is whether the production is breaking the "rules" that the
audience that it has attracted expect to see.  Modern stage productions
of Shakespeare routinely cast non-white people in Renaissance English
roles, and most people seeing those productions seem to accept that, but
we would not be equally forgiving (at this period in history) of a
realistic historical film or documentary that cast Henry VIII with a
black actor.

Just about everybody who attends a student production or a production by
a single-sex school, or a production by a woman-only company, or a
production by a company using Shakespearean single-sex casting to
celebrate the tradition, would accept the fact that the characters might
be played by actors of the wrong sexes and ages.  Pantomime traditions
even seem to make this acceptable in light-hearted comedic roles in
otherwise naturalistic plays and films (so that Wilde's Lady Bracknell
or Mrs. Crummles from a recent film of Nicholas Nickleby can be played
as pantomime dames by men, without much in the way of objections), but
just think if a naturalistic film cast a young female actor as Fagin in
Oliver Twist, that would feel wrong to most.

It is true that these castings against the grain will lose the
sympathies of some audience members, perhaps even a sizable number in
some cases, but then this is equally true of any directorial choice.
Think of the number of people who denounced Branagh's "Henry V" for not
being enough like Laurence Olivier's, and on the other hand the number
who denounced him for being too like Olivier.  Think about the number of
people who would be repulsed by abstract scenery, and the number of
people who dislike excessive stage realism.  Should Shakespeare only
ever be staged in "traditional dress"? - my grandmother thinks so, but I
disagree:  I like to see a range of productions of different kinds - and
if it should, then is the "traditional dress" for Shakespeare's "Julius
Caesar" togas or doublet and hose, or even some combination of both (as
we see in the contemporary portrait of "Titus")?

The main problem with Sam Small's posting is that he is trying to
establish a set of norms as unbreakable that are really based on his own
cultural and personal (and perhaps even generational) prejudices.  I
would love to have seen a Henry Irving spectacular production of a
Shakespeare play, with its "realistic" scenery and pretensions to
"historical" accuracy, its cast of hundreds, with live animals, and the
like - but I know very well that many of the conventions that Irving
used would grate horribly with my own expectations of what a Shakespeare
production should be like.  Since I'm used to filmic realism, a lot of
Nineteenth Century "realistic" scenery would presumably look like a
wobbly wooden cut-out (which is in fact what much of the scenery was).
As I've said before, an exceptionally elderly Hamlet (as was common in
the 19th Century) would cause me much greater difficulty in suspending
my disbelief than did Nonso Anozie's black Lear in his twenties (which
would doubtless have been entirely unacceptable to the very same
Victorian audiences who watched elderly Hamlets with no problems).  You
could accuse the Victorians of being racist, or me of being ageist, and
both these things might be true to an extent - but the truth is that we
have just developed our expectations in different environments, and find
different things acceptable.

There are always things which remain difficult or unacceptable, but
these things change - both between individuals, and between historical
periods.  Sam Small may be repulsed by all failures to cast to type or
realistically (except that he too apparently makes exceptions, any bets
that some members of this list would find his own use of this convention
in his apparently abstract play "incredible" and unwatchable?).  I think
he just has to accept that as long as the director likes it, the actors
are willing to do it, and enough of the audience is willing to accept
it, or even to applaud it, then these things can be done, should be
done, and good luck to everybody!  If these practices were really as
unacceptable as Small claims, then the companies that used them would
very quickly have their productions panned, their audiences disappear,
and go out of business.  Since this hasn't happened in many cases,
Small's opinions are apparently more personal and less universal than he
imagines.

Thomas Larque.
"Shakespeare and His Critics"
http://shakepsearean.org.uk

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chris Kelsey <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Jul 2003 12:22:11 -0500
Subject: Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

Sam,

Are we to ignore the original cast members of Shakespeare's plays? as a
gauge of Shakespearean production? Juliet might not have been
"desperately ugly," but Juliet was certainly not played by a
thirteen-year-old girl, let alone any girl or woman--which would seem to
rough up against any stipulation that physical characteristics should
greatly sway casting. That is, if we are to take the history of
Shakespearean productions into consideration as we debate their
contemporary permutations.

You've mentioned that "context" of a play may allow for variations in
casting. It seems that for us to accept the original productions of
Shakespeare we must then also include the political context surrounding
the production of a play. In Shakespeare's time, women could not act in
these companies. Hence, men played those roles.

In our time, significantly different sorts of political contexts
influence how we produce, perform and VIEW a theatrical production. Are
we not allowed to take these greater contexts into consideration?
Certainly you have--at least for viewing.

Christopher Kelsey

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           M Yawney <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Jul 2003 10:34:31 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1446 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

Sam Small says:

>Skin colour is a physical
>attribute - like age,
>gender, height, and weight.  A director casts his
>play or film and
>selects the attributes that best suit the script.
>There is nothing more
>complicated than that.  This whole question is one
>of credibility and
>must be judged for that alone.  Do we tolerate a
>hugely fat Romeo?  A
>desperately ugly Juliet?  A 20 yearr old Polonius?
>A male Ophelia?
>Well, no.  The audience would find the casting
>incredible.

This ignores that much of these matters are culturally conditioned. We
see leading ladies in their 30s playing ing

 

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