Non-traditional casting is not a two-way street

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This is a guest post on the Mister Producer blog, in response to Richard Jordan's earlier piece on colour-blind casting.

Philosophically, the world—including theatre, film and television—to which we all aspire is one in which everyone has the same opportunity, the same shot. However, we are far from that utopia. Even if at some point, as a society and as an industry, we are able to achieve an equal playing field, there must always be room for culturally-, disability-, gender-, sexual orientation-, age- specific work.

Non-traditional casting was intended to open up what was primarily a Euro-centric, Western repertoire to artists who had been systematically excluded and discriminated against for reasons such as the colour of their skin. In 1985, US Actors’ Equity completed a four-year study which showed that of every professional production in America, over 90% of the actors hired were Caucasian. If one exempted culturally-specific work such as Dreamgirls (on Broadway at the time), the percentage was even higher.

Non-traditional casting efforts were established to address the longstanding, institutionalized practices of exclusion that had been in place throughout our profession for decades, unchallenged. Our decision makers and gatekeepers were almost exclusively Caucasian. The goal was to end the often unwitting neglect by those leaders and for decisionmakers to consider and hire artists on the basis of each one’s individual talent and merit. However, in those instances where a particular culture was essential to a character or a play, then it was essential that the creative team be sensitive to accurately representing the cultural needs of the piece and casting accordingly, while still evaluating artists as individuals rather than as cultural tokens.

If actors are not given the opportunity to portray their own ethnicity, let alone anyone else’s, how will we ever understand this dimension of our humanity and how will these artists have the opportunity to grow and develop as their peers do? It makes a profound difference to the artist, to the process of the other artists working on the piece and it affects the experience of the audience.

When we speak of authenticity, it is to insure that actors of color are allowed to inhabit their own cultural identity whenever appropriate. The practice of non-traditional casting was never intended to justify casting a Caucasian in a culturally-specific role, or casting a non-disabled actor in a disability-specific role. To do so is a misappropriation of the term and the practice, since the goal is to rectify exclusion. Until such time as there is genuine equality throughout our society, it’s not a two-way street.

Sharon Jensen is the executive director of the New York-based Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, previously known as the Non-Traditional Casting Project. The organisation received a Tony Honor in 2011 for its ongoing efforts on behalf of ethnically diverse and disabled actors in the theatre community.