This is in response to John Heilpern's article, "Should a Fuss Be Made Over Colorblind Casting" in the June 9, 2009 issue of the "New York Observer."
"Are plays about what makes sense? Or are they acts of the imagination between the actor and audience in a serious game of pretend?"
Dear Mr. Heilpern:
Hi. I'm a theatre director.
In the quotation, above, you ask if plays are "about" what makes sense. Taken literally, that doesn't make sense, because there are not such things as "plays." There is "Hamlet" and "Charlie's Aunt" and "Death of a Salesman." Your question is similar to "Are plays funny or serious?"
In most productions, there aspects that most audience members take at face value. They are not perverse to do so. They are reacting with standard, human psychology. For instance, in a play with a "naturalistic" set, most people will assume that telephones can ring, stairs can be climbed and food can be eaten.
If one of the actors asks, "Can somebody get me a glass of water?" and then another actor passes him a hat and says, "Here you go," an audience member would be behaving normally if he was confused (unless it was an absurdist play). I would call such a moment "an error," unless the play was absurdist or the the character with the hat joking.
Plays can be set in worlds that are different from ours -- often radically different. But the director and actors enter a contract with the audience -- whether they want to or not -- that is something roughly like this: unless the production makes it clear that the pay's item A differs from the real world item's A, and unless that difference is made clear early on, the production is in error, because audience members will, by default, assume that the play's item A is just like the real-world-equivalent of item A.
For instance, it's fine for there to be cartoon characters in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", because this fantasy device is established from the get-go. On the other hand, it would be a mistake if Bugs Bunny appeared halfway through "The Godfather."
Why exactly would it be a mistake? Because what "The Godfather" (and other naturalistic plays and movies) does well is to suck you into its world. When I watch that movie -- or a play like "August:Ossage County" -- I start to believe it's real (if it's done well). As I sit in my seat, the theatre around me fades, and the world on the stage takes focus. I start feeling for the characters as if they are real people that I know.
I specifically go to the theatre to get this feeling. (Not all plays evoke this sort of identification, but the ones I like do.) Anything that detracts from that feeling is a dent in my experience.
For instance, if the guy next to me coughs, I may be rippped out of the dream. I suddenly become aware that I'm sitting in a theatre watching something "just made up." At that point, the play will affect me a little less than it did when I was "surrounded" by it. Hopefully, I will be able to sink back into belief before too long.
Many other things can shatter the dream: an actor flubbing a line, a bad bit of dialogue by the writer, a plot hole... Usually these errors are not fatal, but they do make my experience a little worse than it could be. In some cases, the errors come with such frequency or severity that I am unable to sink back into the dream, and the evening falls flat for me.
I'm aware that not all people watch plays this way. Some people enjoy theatre as artifice and like keeping the fact that it's fake somewhere in their head. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just not the way I watch. I don't want to convince you that my way is superior -- because it's not. What I do claim that my way is a valid and meaningful (and enjoyable) way to experience theatre. I've been doing it for years and it gives me great pleasure. The common term for it is "escapism." You can't escape if you are constantly pulled back into the real world.
In the real world, you have no choice but to integrate weirdness into your world view. If someone says, "I'm going to drink a glass of water" and then starts gulping down invisible liquid from a hat, you have no other choice than to somehow fit that event into your model of reality. Most likely, you will make it fit by concluding that the drinker is insane or joking.
In the theatre, you have another choice. If you hear Hamlet say, "To be or ... Shit! What's the rest of the line?" your brain monetarily gets confused and tries to come up with an explanation as to why a prince in Denmark would talk that way. Then your brain accesses the fact that it's "just a play," and that plays are faked by actors who are actually modern day people. And you then realize that the actor just flubbed his line. Which means that you're thinking about the fact that the actor IS an actor. You're outside the world of the play. For a time at least, the play has lost its grip on you.
In plays, it's possible to mentally jump up to a "higher" level, in which you "see the man behind the curtain." Via my way of directing and viewing plays, that's generally a bad thing. My goal as a director is to keep the audience in a state of belief; my goal as an audience member is to believe.
In the real world, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves can not be blood brothers. When a play claims that they are, your mind will naturally break out of the dream and you'll think, "Okay, I get it, they just cast a white guy and a black guy..." WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK THAT I ENJOY PLAYS, that's an error, because if the audience is thinking "they just cast..." then they are thinking of the play as artifice instead of reality.
Having said that, I will admit that I frequently cast black actors in traditionally white roles. I do it because when you're directing a play, it's impossible to craft anything that's perfect. You just do the best you can given the clay you have to mold. Let's say that I have a choice of two actors to play "Hamlet" (in a production with a white Gertrude). One is a so-so white actor; the other is a stupendous black actor. I will cast the black actor. I will do so because, via my calculation, so-so acting will shatter the dream more easily and more often than a black actor playing a character who is supposed to be white.
But while I'll make this choice, I won't fool myself into thinking it's a perfect choice (given my aesthetics). It's not.
Luckily, for me at least, the dissonance that happens when Washington and Reeve's play brothers doesn't last long. If it's established early on, I'll be disturbed by it briefly -- then I'll get over it. (In the end, Reeve's bad acting will bother me much more). Theatre is about pretending, and I'll buy the pretense. But I won't buy it instantaneously, and for the moment or moments that I'm not buying it, it's a problem. That may seem trivial. So what if the dream is briefly shattered? It IS trivial if you don't share my aesthetic or if you don't share it strongly. All I can say is that it's not trivial for me.
I have discussed this with many people. Some agree with me. Others say, "It doesn't bother me." I'd like to speculate as to why it doesn't bother them. To start, I'm going to make the following claim: if, in real life, I introduced you to two guys, telling you that they are blood brothers (with white parents), it would be disorienting if you saw that one was white and the other was black. My guess is that you'd think I was lying or mistaken. You would be at least momentarily confused.
So why do people say that the same thing doesn't bother them if it's on stage? One reason might be because they don't view theatre the way I do. They don't strive to believe in it -- to forget that it's "just a play." Or maybe they do this somewhat, but not as much as I do. Certainly, most people who came to theatre via academia are trained to not do this. "Don't use art as escapism," the professors say. "Always keep a critical eye!" Academics are concerned about things like theme, social relevance, craftsmanship and historical context. If these are the things one is interested in, it won't bother them if Biff is black and Happy is white. Only naive viewers, like me, are bothered by things like that.
Wait. Is that true? In my experience, even the most academic audience member is bothered by anachronisms. If a play is set in 1950, most literary people will be upset if there's a poster of Bill Clinton on wall. Why? Because no one knew about Clinton in the fifties. The academic detects that the set designer made an error. So, when he sees a black actor play a white character, why does that same academic not detect an error? Why is one slippage from reality bad and another good?
My guess is that most (liberal) people are happy to see a black actor play a white character because they hate racism. In that aspect, I'm typical. I hate racism, and, when I'm not actually watching a play, I'm gladdened by the idea of a black actor getting opportunities that he wouldn't have had in the past. That is definitely a good thing. So I suspect that there are people like me -- people who go to the theatre to escape -- who none-the-less aren't bothered by colorblind casting. If you could peer inside their brain and view events in slow motion, you'd see that, in fact, they are bothered momentarily. If they go to the theatre to escape, how could they not be? But the warm feeling that a blow has been dealt to the evil of racism quickly replaces the negative feeling -- so quickly that the viewer's brain doesn't even register the negativity.
The academic viewer scorns the anachronism, because it shows that they director was sloppy. On the other hand, he cheers for the colorblind casting, because it shows that they director has good ethical values. The academic can feel both these things because he naturally thinks about the director while he watches the play. Whereas if I think about the director, there's something wrong with the play. And if my audience thinks about me, I feel like I haven't done my job.
Theatre is, of course, very different from the real world. In play rooms, there is always a wall missing; there are strange lights hanging everywhere; time moves much swifter than it does in reality; people speak more clearly... These conventions don't have to be set up. We just expect them. We do so, because we've been brought up with a theatre that has these specific conventions.
Conventions can change. To the Elizabethans, it would have been odd to see a woman on stage. We don't give it a second thought (to us, it would be odd to see a man playing Juliet.) It may be that someday, black and white actors playing blood relations will be an ingrained convention. Kids will be brought up with it from their first night in the theatre. I hope this does happen. In fact, I would willingly sacrifice my escapism for such a convention. It would be a sacrifice for the greater good. And -- good news -- I suspect that this will happen. It's the direction we seem to be going. In the future, a kid who is just as intent on escapism as I am will be able to see a black actor playing a white actor's father and truthfully not be bothered by it -- even for a second.
But I didn't grow up with such a convention, and I can't instantly suck it into my soul. Conventions don't work that way. They become natural via repetition. In the meantime, it's important that we don't assume racism on the part of a viewer or artist who is disturbed by colorblind casting. The truth may be more nuanced than that.
If you're a champion of colorblind casting, you should ask yourself how far you're willing to run with that idea. Why just colorblind? How about an actress in a wheelchair playing Juliet (in a period production)? How about a 300lb actor playing Puck? Is there any point where we say, "that casting is distracting"? I'm not talking about what we should do. Maybe we should let a disabled actress play Juliet because the benefits outweigh the costs. I'm saying that if you are able to "suspend your disbelief" when a black actor plays a white character, are there any instances where you wouldn't be able to do this? If you can suspend your disbelief under all circumstances, then it doesn't matter what we put on stage. There are no wrong choices.
Finally, I'd like to say that there's a deep hypocrisy in most discussions about colorblind casting. Have you ever noticed anything about the black actors who play white characters? They are so damned good looking! So are the white actors who play white characters. How come no one is casting Paul Giamatti in the roles that Harrison Ford gets? How come no one is casting Toni Collette as the hot chick? In real life, average-looking people are sexy and have adventures. Why do we insist on a perverse sort a falseness on stage? And why are people who are so into colorblind casting generally not bothered by the lack of beauty-bling casting?