Frequently in theatre, roles are cast more from the look of an actor first and the talent second. On the flip side, roles can be gender bent, interpretations can be made, and the script is used as a suggestive tool, not the end all.
However, some playwrights are particularly strict about a production meeting the exact framework laid out by the script. Beckett’s plays for example were expected to follow exact stage directions from the original show. Edward Albee is a famous American playwright, and his estate distributes production rights for his shows. Albee passed away in 2016. His play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was scheduled to perform this summer in Oregon, and cast an African-American male as Nick, a young professor. Because of this, the estate revoked the right to produce the show, due to its commitment to accuracy in casting. More details can be found in this article: NPR – Who’s Afraid of a Diverse Cast, and this one: NYT- A Black Actor in ‘Virginia Woolf’? Not Happening, Albee Estate Says. Citing the numerous references in the show to Nick’s Caucasian appearance, the estate claims casting outside of those parameters does not do justice to the integrity of Albee’s work.
So, it seems there are two sides to this discussion. The modern day representation of minorities (including women, ethnicity, religion, etc.) is always hotly discussed in theatre and film. These mediums (especially mass market movies) deliver the stories of our society, affect our opinions, and drive our discussions. There should be equal and adequate representation of characters from all walks of life. And as a side note, those actors should be treated and paid equally as white or male counterparts.
But, when looking at historical shows, where should a company draw the line between discrimination and artistic integrity? Should the playwright’s intention be respected, and the original work be maintained, or should it be allowed to grow and change with the times.
As a theatre artist, this is always an interesting debate to me. Plays are living breathing pieces of art, that generally reflect the time period and audiences of their day. It is important to consider the historical representations in a show such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, set in 1962. If we look at America during that time- would an interracial couple been as widely accepted as it is today? Definitely not. And as the article states, there is the fact the script itself calls out the blonde-haired, blue-eyed attributes of Nick, the character in contention. We wouldn’t pull down the Mona Lisa and make changes to bring her into modern times, and we shouldn’t do the same to Albee’s play. However, the director, producer, etc. also have artistic license of their own to present the show as they see fit. Race still means something in our society, so it isn’t as though we are colorblind enough to see past the change of race in casting. As an audience member, would we be more focused on the alternative casting, or the work being produced?
I fully support equal representation of all in our film and theatre, as well as the director’s choice in this instance to cast as they wish. However, I also understand a playwright wanting to maintain their work- their piece of art, in its original form.
It is a very interesting debate between respect for accurate historical representation (especially in our current world of alternative facts) and progressive artistic choice.