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Archive for Sunday, January 5, 1992

NON-TRADITIONAL CASTING

January 5, 1992

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Today you're as likely to see Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Raul Julia perform a wide variety of Shakespearean parts in New York as you are Kevin Kline or Christopher Plummer.

Meanwhile, in contemporary films audiences see Native-American actors such as Graham Greene perform roles that once went to Chuck Connors. Casting directors now look at Asian-American actors such as John Lone, Mako or Joan Chen when casting Asian parts, whereas before they would choose Paul Muni or Luise Rainer.

Both phenomena are aspects of non-traditional casting: Minority actors and actresses assume roles previously reserved for whites and grab roles they should have received in the first place. Even as colleges such as Kansas University demonstrate a commitment to non-traditional casting, the professional theater is taking longer to absorb the idea.

"THERE REALLY are changes happening," said Beth Reiff, assistant to the director of the Non-Traditional Casting Project in New York. "But there's still a long way to go to achieve parity.''

Established in 1990, the project tries to serve theaters that look for ways to include minorities in their productions. It defines non-traditional casting as ". . . the casting of actors of color (African-American, Asian, Hispanic and Native American), actors with disabilities (Blind or visually impaired, deaf or hearing impaired and ambulatory disabled) and female actors in roles in which race, ethnicity, physical ability or gender are not essential to the characters' or play's development.''

ACCORDING TO a 1986 study, 90 percent of all productions in the previous four years were cast entirely with white actors. Just recently, the musical "The Will Rogers Follies'' originally was cast with an all-white chorus; they later hired African-American females for the line.

Although no statistics exist for the current theatrical scene, anecdotal evidence shows more theaters are looking at different ways of casting shows. Regional and not-for-profit theaters, like the Public in New York, are taking the lead in the professional theater.

"The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre (in Washington, D.C.) and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival all seem committed to casting without regard to race,'' said Reiff, a Kansas University graduate. "But a lot of resistance is still seen in the field.''

PAT MELODY, who teaches theater at Haskell Indian Junior College, sees the casting climate changing throughout the United States.

"Our graduates have been getting cast in all kinds of parts all over the country for years," Melody said.

In plays portraying sociological realism, such as August Wilson's "Fences,'' about a former Nergo League ballplayer, parts demand to be played by actresses or actors of a particularly ethnic or racial group. But in non-naturalistic plays by Shakespeare or Bertolt Brecht, many parts can be played by anyone, because these scripts develop their own, internal reality.

Other non-naturalistic dramatic forms, such as opera, are also open to non-traditional casting; last spring, Lawrence audiences saw a non-traditional casting of Figaro in "The Marriage of Figaro.''

REALISTIC dramas also can be cast non-traditionally: An Atlanta company performed "Death of a Salesman'' with an all African-American cast, and an upcoming Broadway production of Ibsen's "The Master Builder'' will feature Earle Hyman, who plays Bill Cosby's father in "The Cosby Show.''

"I think it's very important for the theatrical art to value non-traditional casting,'' said Jack Wright, director of the Kansas University Theatre.

In Lawrence, non-traditional casting has been a staple of the University Theatre program for several years. Recent examples include "Thunder Rock'' directed by Ron Willis, "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui'' directed by Heinz Uwe-Haus and the upcoming production of "Romeo and Juliet'' directed by Paul Meier.

"WHEN I left KU, I was surprised to find out how little non-traditional casting there was,'' Reiff said. "We had always had it in the University Theatre productions.''

"We've tried to open casting up to everybody,'' Wright said. "We look very carefully at scripts to see what parts can be opened up.''

Sometimes non-traditional casting can produce provocative meaning. Paul Stephen Lim, a KU assistant professor of English, said he's thinking of producing a production of "The Fantastiks'' with the male and female ingenues both played by women.

"It would be interesting to see that the two fathers approved of the lesbian relationship and tried to bring them together,'' Lim said.

The flip-side of the non-traditional casting issue involves casting minorities in parts that were written for minorities.

IN FILMS in particular, casting directors have tended to cast whites in Asian or Native-American roles, such as the white actors who played Charlie Chan. The Screen Actor's Guild, Actors Equity and other unions have attempted to place disabled actors in roles calling for characters with disabilities and ethnic actors cast in ethnic parts. Recent films such as "Dances with Wolves'' and "Black Robe'' have cast Native-American actors in those roles, and others, such as "Class Action,'' cast African-American and Asian-American actors in roles without an explicit ethnic factor.

One recent example was the controversy surrounding the Broadway production of the musical "Miss Saigon.'' Jonathan Pryce wanted to play an Eurasian pimp as he had done on the London stage; Actors Equity initially insisted that an Asian be cast, but the producer threatened to cancel the production. Equity relented.

"SOME PEOPLE said that it was an example of non-traditional casting, but it wasn't,'' Reiff said. "Whites have been cast in Asian roles for years.''

Wright, who has worked as a local casting director for films such as "The Burden of Proof'' and "The Day After,'' said producers are now more open to casting roles with a variety of actors. But they still run into some problems.

"I sometimes put forward some actors for small parts, and the producers say they don't look ethnic enough, even though they're from that ethnic group,'' Wright said. "When you're dealing with a small part, sometimes you have to make an immediate impression.''

Ultimately, the people who buy the tickets will decide if they like or dislike non-traditional casting. But as more and more minority actors take the stage, audiences may come to accept such casting.

"Students seem to accept it, but older audiences might find it harder to adjust to that whole process,'' Wright said.

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