Race & Shakespeare

Race & Shakespeare

Dr. Ayanna Thompson., Prof. of English at George Washington University, specialist in Renaissance Drama, who focuses on race in/as performance.


Introduction and welcome by Chris Edwards:

Race is taboo in our culture; we’re taught not to talk about it.  Can we change this?  For a start, we’re here to talk about it today, and Dr. Thompson is here to make this a safe space for the conversation, and to offer practical approaches to producing Shakespeare for everyone.


Dr. Thompson: subtitle of the session might have been: “Diversity: really?”
“Universal appeal” is a great marketing term; we  often hear or use the word “Universal” to describe Shakespeare’s plays:  universal themes, plots, characters, motivation, appeal, etc., but there are multiple layers of privileges & challenges inherent in this assumption, and in the assumption that WS is that Shakespeare is the world’s greatest playwright.


“Cultural-specificity” – another fun marketing term – is sometimes used in the same marketing materials as “Universal”, apparently without awareness of the contradiction and irony.  An opportunity for discussion when you notice it.


It’s not enough to believe that “Shakespeare is for everyone”; nor to stop at committing to casting inclusively.  These are necessary, but there’s more work to do to move forward in the 21st century.

Issue: lack of movement or change in casting model, and conversations they enable. AT advocates having the conversations necessary to overcome fear and institutional inertia.


Semiotics of casting:  Most professional WS productions include some diversity onstage, in one of three “non-traditional” casting models:


  • “Blind casting” – meritocratic model, regardless of race, gender or physical ability.  Audience is presumably blind to these because they only see the role performed.
  • “Conscious casting” – frame the race, ethnicity, gender and ability in the production: we’re supposed to see these things.
  • “Cross-cultural casting” – transpose the whole show elsewhere: audience is supposed to see the differences & reflect upon them.


But these non-traditional models don’t solve the problems; can actually perpetuate them. Questions we should ask:  Does the audience assign meaning to the bodies/genders/abilities of the actors?  When are we supposed to see race?  When to ignore it?  Talk about it?  Interpret it?


As an example, AT describes a production of The Tempest with a black Caliban dressed as 19th-century American slave (race intentionally visible), and a black Ferdinand dressed as Jacobean dandy (race presumably not visible or significant).  Confusing inconsistency.  Audience is expected to switch interpretation of semiotics on the fly.  Especially confusing if not governed by a coherent vision and ideology.


Self-described diverse companies don’t engage in open discussions about their casting model/practice.  No statement of “what we think we’re doing.”  Race conversation could begin with a public declaration of intent.  If a theatre insists it wants to do “race-blind” casting (or any other model), announce it, have a discussion and discover how your community really responds.


Q:  Who within the organization defines “diversity” and policy?

A:  Artistic Director, in most cases.  But that’s too simplistic: doesn’t take in the internal intricacies within the organization.


W.J.T. Mitchell, Prof of English & Art History at U of Chicago: “Race should be interpreted as a mediumthrough which we experience the world.”  Race is an iconic form, not just to be seen, but also a framework for seeing.


Read: Beverly Tatum, “Why to all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria”?  Brain development from 2 y/o through college.  Taboos are learned early.


Strategy for the future:  Theatre companies need to have sustained dialogues about diversity: internally first, at all levels of the organization, then externally with community.  And yes, that means putting race into the center of the discussion, even if there had been no “problems” reported.  Artistic Director should spearhead the dialogues.  (Hire a consultant to assist/facilitate, if necessary.)


Audience surveys:  ask questions like: “How do you think we do our casting?”  “What is the impact?”, etc.,  and compare results with other companies to determine what people are actually seeing and how they receive your casting.  Are you having the impact you expect?  Any surprises?

Conversation opportunity occurs when surprises come up: audience has negative reaction, unexpected.


Ask more direct questions about race, gender & ability.


Theatre scholars should be on the hook, too: ask them to host dialogues about inclusion!



Q&A session:


Q:  How/where does the board engage?

A:  In the beginning, of possible.  There’s always resistance.  Get Millennials on board.  Millennials are more comfortable talking about race and differences, and expect to be invited to talk about it.


Q:  Where do you see it working well?

A:  Oregon Shakespeare Festival does a great job.  Audience not diversified yet, but on and offstage has diversified.  Since 2008, under Bill Rauch, has been leading discussions on “Artistic Representation”.  Board engages in discussion with Artistic staff.  Long-standing Diversity/Inclusion initiative.  Conscious efforts toward consistency.  New, starting 2015: “Open Dialogue” series, 4x/month to talk about Artistic Representation & Audience engagement (Jan-Oct).  19-20 company members as facilitators, trained by a Diversity consultant. Safe space for company members (actors, admin, board, everyone) to talk about how certain roles or moments may have hurt them.


Q: Companies without OSF resources, but with “pipeline” problems:  next steps?

A:  Tap into resources at local Universities.  Scholars will help on the cheap to talk about Inclusion and  Diversity.  Maybe in English or Drama Dept. or even Business schools (organizational change, etc.) or schools of Psychology (clinical and other).


Q: In response to “blind casting”: audience reception is not blind, so are there good alternatives to “blind audience casting”?

A:  Actually, Educational programs with young kids usually are blind, for good reason.  The audience reception changes later.  But if the conversation comes up, talk about it!


On the danger/fallacy of “blind casting”:

Q: L. Peter Callender (African-American Shakespeare Company):

  • In general, color blind casting in the Bay Area is actually working.
  • 25 years ago, there were lots of black actors working; numbers seem to have dipped since then. Not sure why.
  • Described a production of “Winter’s Tale” with black Polixenes and white Leontes didn’t work because of paternity question.


On portrayal of Jewish characters: In response to Rebecca Ennals’ (San Francsico Shakespeare Festival) position that these days, Shylock should be played by a Jewish actor:  What about Jessica and other Jewish characters?  Is there something particular about Shylock?  What makes the casting of this role so much dicier than others?


Peter Callender described playing Simon in “The Whipping Boy”.  Learned a great deal about Judaism by playing Simon, discovered deep parallels between Jewish and African-American experience, played it convincingly and with the approval of Jewish clergy, and now disagrees that Shylock should only be played by Jewish actors.


Q:  Would it help to have Jewish people in the rehearsal room?

A:  Yes, because there are too many ways to offend out of ignorance.


Black actors talk about an “unofficial black canon”: Macbeth, Mercutio, Tybalt, Patroclus – which persists even in companies committed to “color-blind” productions.

A: Commit to casting outside the “black canon”.


Questions without answers:

Q:  Othello:  Does Othello have to be a darker-skinned actors than the others?

Q:  Does “Ocular proof” have meaning any more?

Q:  What is the story-telling vs. the visual impact of the casting?  What does it really look like to the audience, vs how we want them to receive it; the story we’re telling vs. the story we want to tell?


Q: How has Dr. AT’s work influenced particular productions?

A:  Peter Sellars contacted her about his production of “Othello”.  Delighted to learn that practitioners actually read and engage with her work.  Made AT much more attuned to the actualities of theatre practice, and day-to-day challenges faced by casting departments and theatre companies.  Had a subsequent fruitful partnership with OSF.


Q: Is there more diversity on English stage than American?  If so, why?

A:  RSC & National Theatre:  yes: huge companies with lots of support from government grants, and the administrative support to make it happen.  Smaller regional companies have the same challenges as in U.S.:  Non-diverse, and no reflection of audience.


Q:  What do you do with Don Armado?  How to cast a character who exists specifically for racial or ethnic mockery?

A:  That’s where the ”Universal story” falls apart.  Options:  Cut, cut down, or play it up for laughs to hold the mirror up to current prejudices. Define your vision, state it, commit to it.  If audience pushes back, maybe it’s time to re-evalute.


Q:  How do we judge an audience’s sophistication?  What questions do we expect them to ask?

A:  Young people are sophisticated viewers of multiple media.  Imagine it translated to other media like theatre.


Back to “Universal”:

  • “Universal” is a marketing tool.  Seems great, inclusive of everyone.
  • Contrary opinion: “Universal” is bad marketing; the more specific the marketing, the sexier and more dynamic.
  • Reductive to “people who like Shakespeare”
  • “Universal” sometimes interpreted as “fixed”, “consistent”, as if the same for everyone – an assumption that actually sets up suspicion.
  • Can set up stereotype threat.  Young (elementary & middle school) audiences think, “that’s not me.”  They may learn to love WS, but it’s more about “play” and “puzzle” and discovery, not about “universality.”


Q:  WS is great for drawing a community together.  What language to use for it?  What word is better than “Universal”? Because there is something there that reaches beyond specific cultures.

A:  Human condition, heartbeat.

A:  Lisa Wolpe:  It’s really about resonance of the life force on the chakra level; internal witness, music of the spheres, the heartsong.


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