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Rewriting the Script


By Liza M. Velazquez

WITH over $25 million in ticket sales and countless jobs on the line, last summer's Miss Saigon controversy has forced actors, directors and audiences to rethink their ideas of just and unjust, plausible and implausible. The basic question: Who gets what role and why?

The trouble began this past summer when British producer Cameron Mackintosh announced that English actor Jonathan Pryce would reprise is starring role as a Eurasian pimp in the Broadway version of the much heralded London musical. The Actor's Equity Association and several members of the theater community opposed Mackintosh's casting decision and in response Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show.

After a few weeks of negotiations with Equity, Mackintosh agreed in writing to cast Asians in central and understudy roles. Pryce also consented to discontinue the use of eye prosthetics and make-up which made him appear Asian.

Associate News Editor of Equity News Helaine Feldman comments that "since the settlement, casting has gone on smoothly--but no new [definite] casting decisions have been made yet." Equity is consulting with Mackintosh during the casting process.

After much debate and criticism, the controversy has died down. But the conflict between maintaining artistic freedom and integrating the drama world is not easily resolved. Certainly the agreement between Actor's Equity and Mackintosh offers no ideal solutions.

The hullabaloo that occurred this summer made it seem as if racial cross casting had never been done before. But in fact, cross casting isn't anything new. No Chinese actor ever played Charlie Chan.

More recently, Denzel Washington portrayed royal white villain Richard III in this part summer's Central Park Shakespeare series, sponsored by The New York Public Theatre. "We have been casting across racial lines since producer Joseph Papp started the Theatre in 1954" explains a Theatre spokesperson. "Morgan Freeman appeared recently in our production of The Taming of the Shrew."

Public debate surrounding Miss Saigon revolved around two poles of thought. Perhaps Actors' Equity had a right to demand that Pryce's role be reserved for a minority actor since few performances are so custom-made for affirmative action casting? On the other hand, perhaps the union was infringing upon the rights of both producer and actor involved in what may be viewed as a case of reverse discrimination?

Actor B.D. Wong and M. Butterfly playwright David Henry Hwang are key proponents of nents of Equity's attack on Miss Saigon casting. According to Equity News, the pair envision the casting of minority actors in minority roles as the first step zoward non-traditional casting across the board.

American Repertory Theatre director Robert Brustein expressed his opposition to the Equity stance in numerous periodicals throughout the summer. "It is an irony tat while actors rightly hate typecasting, their union is insisting that racial roles be played only by minorities," Brustein remarks in a recent issue of the New Republic.

In the same article, Brustein cites the realm of theatre as one of the few forums for genuine experimentation across ethnic lines. "The art of the theatre is the art of transformation--regardless of racial or ethnic composition."

As the immediate dispute surrounding Miss Saigon subsides, Equity News admits that perhaps it has "applied an honest and moral principle in an inappropriate manner," in its initial attempts to take ultimate casting decisions out of the hands of the show's producer.

"We knew that it was time to deal with what we saw as a moral issue." Equity president Colleen Dewhurst says in Equity News. "But once we went beyond Mr. Pryce's application and exploded into the issue of whether or not Mr. Pryce had a creative right to play this role, we then invaded an area in which we do not belong--ever--and that is the question of our denying anyone freedom to make an artistic choice--good, bad or indifferent..."

All the controversy has predictably whet the public's appetite for the scheduled spring premiere of Miss Saigon. "Undeniably, this whole business has been good in terms of publicity for the show," Feldman says. "There still haven't been any ads in the New York Times for ticket sales--but that isn't worrisome."

Beyond Broadway

Unkown to and yet intimately affected by the actions of Producer, Actor and Union in the Miss Saigon issue are the individuals involved in theatrical performances on college campuses throughout the country.

The questions of justice and fairness that arise whenever an actor is cast for a role are not limited to media sponges like Miss Saigon and Richard III. Student directors, actors and audiences are collectively responsible for much of the cross-casting experimentation that occurs in theatre today.

Many student directors emphasize that race and gender are not viable concerns. Talent is paramount. Student actors and directors interested in cross casting have discovered tat careful re-examination of classic roles played by white or male actors reveals that the conflicts and experiences of these characters are more distinctly human than particularly male or female, white or black.

Tufts' student director Sharon Cinnamon says that "all campus shows are cast with a policy of no discrimination." She is currently directing a version of West Side Story with women actors playing the parts of gang members in both the Sharks and the Jets.

Boston University graduate student director Marcus Hogan supports Cinnamon's Color-and sex-blind casting policies. "I need someone to get into the essence of the character," he says. "Color or gender is not important."

Hogan has been extensively involved in cross casting. He is currently directing a version of Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernada Alba in which a male actor is being used to play the part of a grandmother. In the past he has directed performances of The Elephant Man where he used a handsome male actor to play the role of John Merrick. Hogan says the actor was "representing what was inside the character rather than his outward appearance."

Un-Common Casting at Harvard?

The Harvard/Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) boasts a plethora of actors and directors who have been involved in performances which cross cast roles. HRDC President Mary Elizabeth Rieffel says the club's primary concern is to "encourage participation and get the best people possible involved in shows."

HRDC Campus Liaison Beth Norman traces the club's active commitment to cross racial casting a few years back. "In the past, shows were very white-bread," Norman says. "Now, no one is ever disqualified because of their color and there is a definite push for cross-casting."

In the past few years, performances like Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead as well as Black Community And Student Theatre's (C.A.S.T's) Trouble in Mind have explored the new perspectives and insights raised by untraditional casting.

Molly Bishop, director of this season's production of The Tempest has cast a woman in the traditionally male role of Ariel, finding tat the political tensions in the play are interestingly transformed into sexual tensions. Most of my shows are feminist oriented," Bishop explains. "I feel an obligation to find good roles for women."

Recognizing that cross casting changes the audience's perception of the performance is an interesting by-product of gender and racial role swapping. Director Jenny Gibbs offers last spring's all-female production of As You Like it as a prime example.

"By casting Orlando and Rosalind as women, the audience was deprived of hidden heterosexual tension, resulting in the actors being brought to the forefront rather than the characters," Gibbs says. "Belief was suspended but this resulted in a more intellectualized viewing position."

A Battle of Means and Ends

Does no-holds barred, cross-casting always work? College directors and actors fall on both sides of this issue. Harvard student director Jim Marino briefly considered cross-gender casting during auditions for this fall's production of Romeo and Juliet. "The play is largely about women being oppressed by a patriarchal society. I decided that having women carry the swords that force Juliet into marriage wouldn't be as plausible as having male actors in those roles," Marino says.

"Gender blind casting depends upon the actor and directors to keep the goals of the play they want to present in mind," Marino says. "However, you cannot sacrifice a good actor because of gender, race or color."

BU director Hogan warns against serving the aims of cross casting on a purely political level while ignoring the aims of the script that is being performed. "It's got to work well so that the public can see there's nothing to be afraid of," he says.

Harvard director Gibbs was faced with the dilemma of wanting to cross cast while remaining true to the intentions of the scriptwriter when holding auditions for this fall's performance of Tiny Alice. "I wanted to cast the best actors--male or female. However, it became clear during auditions that gender cross casting would be disruptive to Albee's script."

"One woman and four men--that's the point of the play," Gibbs says. "I am very happy with the actors that have been cast because they are the best actors for the play."

Theory versus Reality

Although cross casting seems like the ideal meritocracy, directors and actors alike recognize that those who "do not know the right people," very often because of their gender or ethnicity, are not even given the opportunity to audition for many roles.

"The best actor is supposed to get the role, regardless of looks," Gibbs says. "But it's hard to discuss the reality of politicking and networking that goes on behind the scenes in idealistic terms."

Hogan expresses his regret that cross-gender and racial casting is still "more on the level of debate than reality" in mainstream film and theatre. He cites his willingness to cast regardless of race or gender. "I would have no hesitation casting a black Hamlet," Hogan says. "Looking Danish is not the essence of Hamlet."

Hogan blames cost-risk minded producers for hindering further exploration of untraditional casting. "Lack of insight is costing Hollywood millions of financial dollars. Cross casting will reach a sector of the public that only filmmakers like Spike Lee are currently able to tap into," Hogan says.

"The cultural claustrophobia that many mainstream performance artists and producers fear is simply not based on reality," Hogan says.

"Look at the demographics of this country. Luck Skywalker could've been black."

"Most of my shows are feminist oriented. I feel an obligation to find good roles for women." --Molly Bishop

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