MISCAST: Diversity In Theatre

Photo Credit: Mathilde Ramsden-Board

An original, creative and exciting production is coming to our stage on Sunday. Sightline Productions are performing MISCAST, a show allowing actors to play roles that they would not traditionally be cast as. This is part of an effort to promote diversity and to showcase a wide range of different writers and genres, all reinterpreted in different ways. As such a forward-thinking description, I wanted to find out more about the ideas behind the production, and how far these ideas represent diversity in wider theatre.

The Directors of Sightline Productions’ MISCAST, Anusha Persson and Assistant Director Layla Chowdhury, were inspired by MCC Theatre’s annual Miscast Gala. MCC Theatre is an off-Broadway theatre that often develops innovative and unusual works. The MCC Theatre are also the hosts of the annual Miscast Gala, in which Broadway actors and celebrities perform songs by characters for which they may not be professionally considered. This could be down to attributes of gender, race, age, etc. Notable performances were Jeremy Jordan’s version of ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen in 2014, and Hamilton’s Jordan Fisher performing ‘I’m Here’ from The Color Purple this year.

Likewise, Sightline Productions were curious to see how the premise of MCC Theatre’s Miscast Gala translated to straight acting. Speaking about her plans for MISCAST, Anusha Persson commented that “we wanted to see where actors’ own identities clashed with those of their characters, and how this affected our interpretations, and our ultimate staging of the pieces.” This brings about an interesting point: how can diversity affect the presentation of the theatre performance? Like MCC Theatre aims to provoke conversations that have never happened and otherwise never would, Sightline Productions found that monologues often became dramatically different when they were cast non-traditionally. Meanwhile, monologues that were initially portrayed as aggressive or threatening gained a softer dimension. Humour was also achieved in non-traditional casting, so contrasted to the original interpretation.

Photo Credit: Mathilde Ramsden-Board

Yet these exciting results are not always given the opportunity to develop. In May 2017, it was revealed that a casting director in Portland, Oregon, was denied the rights to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf once they learned of his plan to cast a black actor in the role of Nick. This was also seen with the estates of Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams, who denied rights when a proposed cast member did not match the race or gender that the playwright had originally described. These restrictions not only narrow the director’s opportunity for challenging audience perspectives, they also prevent new interpretations from forming, as shown in Sightline Productions’ MISCAST.

In Durham, then, the story is different. Hild Bede Theatre’s ‘Beautiful Thing’ embraced the realities of coming-of-age, homosexuality and the value of a diverse community, whilst Gala Theatre’s Engage programme aims to widen access to its venue for a larger cross-section of society. They achieve this through offering diverse multi-arts activities, ranging from workshops for school groups to arts projects with local charities. These are just two recent examples of diversity in Durham’s theatre, and Durham’s MISCAST is another exciting development.

Sightline Productions are also going one step further in their casting, as the directors had no prior specification for troupe size and gender breakdown. Rather, they were simply looking for actors that had interesting interpretations of the pieces that were set, and were open to being redirected in potentially weird or challenging ways. This open-mindedness for casting is what the National Theatre could try. With their aim of having an average of 50:50 gender balance on stage by March 2021, this may be a way forward. After all, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, commented that, ‘in terms of gender imbalance and cultural diversity, it will be interesting to see where we can go’, and, as one of a number of well-funded organisations, the pressure is very much on them. The type of casting used for Durham’s MISCAST seems an easy fix to increase diversity in some productions.

Diversity in theatre does seem to be improving though (if very gradually). The Asian American Performers Action Collection (AAPAC) has released its annual report, “Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages.” The report details the ethnic breakdown of actors working on Broadway and at the 16 largest non-profit theatre companies in New York City during the 2015-16 season. Promisingly, AAPAC found that the 2015-16 theatre season in New York City was the most diverse on record, with 35 percent of roles being portrayed by actors of colour and actors with disabilities. As well as this, organisations such as The Act for Change Project and Tonic Theatre have put emphasis on forcing the arts to consider how they can improve diversity within their workforces and on stage. This came to fruition last October when The Act For Change Project hosted a debate on diversity within entertainment and the arts. Encouragingly, it was widely supported by the National Theatre and The Stage. Although there were some divisive panellists, the debate opened up conversation on diversity, which (it goes without saying), is crucial.

This is why Sightline Productions’ MISCAST is so exciting; its very premise promises conversation. And that conversation, (and consequent action), is what theatre on a national scale is making small steps towards. 

MISCAST is on at 8pm, Sunday 11th November at Caedmon Hall, College of St Hild and St Bede. 

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