Should the Character on the Page Dictate Who Plays It On Stage?

Let's look at the clutter we’ve made from casting real people based on fictional qualities.

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Must actors possess the perceived behavioral and physical qualities of the figure on the page? No.

I have been working on the hollower since 2015. It was once a play that spanned five centuries and multiple continents. There was ocean, arctic tundra, heat and cold, pre-colonialist Canada, and modern Florida. The latest version — currently at New Light Theater Project (Access Theater Black Box, 380 Broadway, NYC) through June 9 — is a “modern haunt comedy exploring how crowded isolation can be” — and crammed into a kitchen.

Director Kristy Dodson and I hope to embody as much of the play’s history and current environment as possible, with a kind of curated chaos and five human performers. While inventing these characters, I, of course, had to think about the people who would play them.

As a playwright, I also want to look for ways to create (truthful) danger without either fetishizing actors or affirming harmful cultural messages. Composing human stories and casting them is always political.

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Many people believe that character descriptions are rudimentary, but they’re not; they are complex. What does it mean to write: “Emma: 30s. Beautiful”?

While composing character descriptions for the hollower, I tried to think of ways to imagine how a body may look or move. Example:

Otto: A woman whose hair is impervious to all adjustment. Enjoys top-shelf whiskey and bargain doughnuts. Is deeply afraid this is it; this is all there is.

As I consider how to attach formal suggestions for an actor’s appearance or behavior, I also have to think about what casting does to the process and audience experience.

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When I was in fifth grade, I was cast in my dream role: the “sailor who is mauled by the Cyclops” in our class adaptation of The Odyssey. As to be expected in a suburban school play, our portrayals relied on bed-sheet togas, recorder music and an understanding by our audiences that we were 11.

At some point, though, there comes to be a foundational expectation that an actor must possess the perceived behavioral and physical qualities of the figure on the page. The older I got, the more verisimilitude was assumed, or attempted. In college, 19-year-old actors razor-made pattern baldness. Whenever we didn’t match the text, we did what we could to indicate the “ideal” physical or behavioral type.

This is all before you work in the professional American theater, where there is usually no perceivable gap between performer and character. This is even true of this production of the hollower. While casting a play, the language around finding performers is entirely about the perceived “realism” they will deliver on stage: how they look, move and behave will be scrupulously compared to the figure in the text, even in adventurous pieces. This way of thinking may be ubiquitous but it’s not inherent, or even necessary, to the performance.

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It’s also a strikingly political approach to populating American stages. Why is the agenda about what makes a character “authentic” only achievable by hiring performers who fit those first-page descriptions, rife as they are with gender, racial and ethnic stereotyping, able-ism, and white cis-hetero patriarchal standards for behavior and beauty? How do we cast Killer Joe or Peter Pan? To expect performers to perfectly fit the intended character description indulges us in plenty of outmoded cultural beliefs.

To put it another way: what we say with our plays need not be what we say with our performers; physical messages can converge or diverge in myriad interesting — and intentional — ways. Consider Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, currently at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in NYC. The gender of the performer may be “true” to the text, but the ages are not. The performers make no attempt to close the gap between the age of their actual bodies and the presumed physicality of the adolescents they portray.

Other, more common ways to divorce fictional and nonfictional presentations of a character are less successful. Theater companies frequently endeavor to make casting more “inclusive,” for example, by putting one or two non-typed performers in an otherwise “as-intended” production. This idea fails to address what should trouble us about exclusive stories, and it doesn’t tell us why their narratives fall short. To broaden possibilities for nonwhite, queer, gender- (and all other) missing “non-conforming actors is critical for making ethical, relevant, 21st-century art. Simply to rethink one or two character traits within an oppressive backdrop is an aesthetic choice, not a radical one.

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In carving out safe space for new work, let’s challenge assumptions around what makes something naturalistic. Cis-male whiteness thrives in naturalism because, to many of us, subconsciously, this is equated with being “standard.” I hope that in the hollower we take a stab at this problem. I want to destabilize the cultural conclusion that femininity is more performative than masculinity.

In fact, in thinking about the “believability” of our casting choices, I repeatedly had to learn and think about the ways in which I must be accountable for, and deliberate about, the messages I send when I write character descriptions. Have I made the privileged mistake of imagining universality where there is none? Until we make work with more generous, disruptive content, until we re-imagine naturalism, our primal and culturally construed shorthand for what different bodies “mean” will continue to poison our narratives. In the hollower, I hope that our messages are both intentional and radical.

The next step for me — and for, I hope, the future of the theater — is that we take a better look at the clutter we’ve made from casting real people based on fictional qualities. When we effortlessly invest in a fifth-grade class adaptation of The Odyssey, we underestimate audiences because we presume that its characters must be physically and behaviorally embodied by the fifth-graders who perform them. Why?

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Liza Birkenmeier
Liza Birkenmeier is a member of the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater and recently collaborated on (Not) Water with Sheila Callaghan, Daniella Topol, New Georges and 3-LD. Her work has been seen or heard at The Playwrights Realm, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Directors Lab, Rattlestick, The School at Steppenwolf, The San Francisco Playhouse, City Theatre, Prelude NYC, and elsewhere. She is a commissioned artist at Ars Nova and Carnegie Mellon University and is a New Georges Affiliated Artist. She has been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, Millay and MacDowell Colony. She received her MFA at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.