01 02 03 04 Spotlight Right: February 2012 05 13 14 17 18

This page has moved to a new address.


21 Spotlight Right 22 25

27 Spotlight Right: February 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

McNulty Madness

In a recent LA Times article, Charles McNulty tackles the crises in Not For Profit theater in California.  His refrain is one we have heard before, a tired and tedious diatribe on how "business" is destroying theater,  and producing work that is facile.  By facile, McNulty means work that is popular with audiences, but not "sophisticated or bold" enough to live up to what he, as a public intellectual, believes to be theater's true mission.  One sentence particularly struck me, after discussing Louis G Spisto's "egregious" tenure as head of the Old Globe in San Diego, the author quotes an official at that venerable institution who " praised Spisto for increasing the annual budget from $12 million to $20 million and expanding the audience as well as the donor base."  Huh?  As a theater producer, albeit on a much smaller scale, I would be thrilled to double my budget and expand my audience base (my company takes no charitable contributions).  I would go so far as to say that is pretty much most of my job.  So given these fairly objective successes, what is the main fault that McNulty finds with Spisto's administration?  Apparently "in terms of its contribution to the contemporary repertory, the Old Globe has become second tier"
A few things on this.  First of all, I haven't the slightest idea what McNulty means by  "the contemporary repertory".  At a time when plays must be turned into movies to have any broad cultural significance, it is absurd to speak as if there is some list of plays that everyone in the country should, or should have the chance to see.  But what is more absurd, and borders on insulting, is the idea that as theater producers and artists, our primary concern should be to create work that Mr. McNulty and his buddies at Sardi's think rise to the level of his capricious canon.   Our job is not to squeeze mention of our work into cocktail parties at the Yale club, it is to create theater for our audience.   Mr McNulty seems to stipulate that the "good" theater he supports will draw less audience than the "bad" theater people actually want to see.   This being the case, he is telling us that getting people into shows and building new audience is less important than providing him the oppurtunity to pronounce someone the darling of the season.  
The article quotes a few theater professionals who also bemoan the loss of top down funding that led to such admirable theater in the past:
Madeline Puzo, dean of the USC School of Theatre and a former creative producer at Center Theatre Group and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, points the finger at changes in funding.
"Up to the mid- to late '90s there was a national conversation about theater, a really rigorous conversation about excellence in artistry and also about management priorities that was taking place at the federal government and major foundation level," she said. "Since then, the not-for-profits have had to fall back on community support, both in terms of box office and also individual giving, which forces theaters into a more conservative stance. Boards represent that, though I don't know that they're necessarily driving it."

And there it is, the federal government and people at foundations with fancy degrees should really be the ones deciding what theater is best for people, not audiences, I mean what gives audiences the right to decide what is good.
Robert Brustein, veteran drama critic and founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theaters, held out the hope that "nothing ever stays the same in this country."

"If the NEA and private foundations can increase their subsidies, there may come a time when theaters will recover their adventurousness," Brustein elaborated via email. "But fame as much as money is the spur that drives contemporary theater artists off their true path. And until we start respecting those playwrights, directors, actors, and designers who have chosen the relative obscurity and lower income of the nonprofit world in exchange for artistic freedom and institutional satisfaction, Red State self-interest will triumph over Blue State collectiveness, leaving a once great movement in the same sterile populist void that created it in the first place."

Sterile, populist void.  That was what I meant by bordering on insulting.  As for "blue state collectiveness", if that means the government and major institutions deciding what theater is produced for the good of the people, that is a collectivity I think we can all do without.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Look at Colorblind Casting

I've been hearing through the grapevine and over the networks about last night's AAPAC event to release their new data on diversity in theater casting.  I haven't yet found a link to the study, but from what I understand it marked an uptick for Black and Latino actors and pretty much a flat line among Asian actors on New York's major stages.  In the 15 years that I have been working in theater the issue of "colorblind casting" has always been present.  As a producer I have cast hundreds of plays for my company's 10 minute play series Sticky, and have reached a few conclusions about how I approach the question of race in casting.

I think that we need to divide plays into two types in order to properly examine this question.  The first are plays where a racial dynamic is specifically called for, either by the specific reference to race in the script, or a historical setting that demands a specific racial casting in order to present an "accurate" window on the past.  The second type of play are those in which the context offers no instruction as to the race of the actors.  I will refer to these as Contextually Specific and Contextually Neutral respectively.

Contextually Specific plays, as I stated above fall into two general groups, those in which the scripts refer to race and those in a historical setting.  As to the first, there is little question that some plays and their playwrights have every expectation that casts will reflect their preferences.  A few Stickies ago, we presented a play by Rehana Mirza, there was no question that this play, focused on a White man and a Latina woman, both American, trying to decide what was best for the play's sole indigenous South Asian character had to be cast with race in mind.  Not only was it central to Mirza's point, the play also continued her efforts to create roles for South Asian actors.  Mirza was a member of Desipina, a fabulous South Asian theater company whose signature show "7-11" featured some of the best and most successful Asian actors in the city today.  As an Artistic Director, when confronted with a play with such scriptual demands for racial specific casting, it is an easy choice to honor the writer's intentions.

Contextual Specificity as it relates to historical setting is a trickier issue.  Frankly almost all of the plays I produce are set in the present, so I don't deal with this much.  But it got me thinking about the new production of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" that is upcoming on the great white way.  In this production James Earl Jones will play the former president, a character based on Harry Truman, in a play set in the 1960s.  My expectation is that this will not be particularly jarring for theater audiences, after all we are used to black presidents now, not just our current commander in chief, but also the president in the original "24" who presaged Obama's election.  Generally speaking, I think the historical accuracy argument against colorblind casting, may well be fading away.

It is the second type of play, the Contextually Neutral plays that most effectively point the way forward towards colorblind casting.  By a vast majority, the hundreds of submissions we receive for Sticky have neither scriptual nor historical casting implications.  It is quite common as we put our casts together that actors of several ethnicities are considered for the same part, and there has never been any discussion about what impact a certain racial combination would create.  For these Contextually Neutral plays, I see no reason to consider such factors at all.  Whatever impact an actor's race has on the audience's reaction to a play is unknowable, for every patron who takes it into great account, there will be a patron who pays it little mind.  And just as our society at large gets more accustomed to people of all races playing all roles in life, so shall it be on stage.

The term colorblind has come under some attack recently, as not only a naive, but potentially racist and dangerous attitude, a notion I will not broadly address here, but I think in the specific context of theater, the right way forward is pretty obvious.  If your play is set in the present (or maybe even if it isn't) and it doesn't deal with race directly, just cast the best actor you can.