Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Colorblind casting

July 31, 2020

So, Jerry Coyne has a post up talking about an article in the NY Times about colorblind casting, which I can’t read because I can’t get free articles and there’s no way I’m subscribing to them, since I don’t even subscribe to newspapers in my own country and so prefer to get my news from more reliable sources, like innuendo and small children. Anyway, all I can do is rely on Jerry Coyne’s references to the article, but for the most part I don’t want to get into her — Maya Phillips — views on why it’s wrong, but instead simply want to focus on my own thoughts on the matter and when it’s a good thing and when it isn’t. Let’s start with the definition, at least summarized by Coyne:

“Colorblind casting” is defined in this New York Times piece by culture critic Maya Phillips as “performers [inhabiting] characters of racial backgrounds that [differ] from their own.”

So let me dispense with the extreme ends that could end up as strawmen. On the one end, we have cases where the script has a loose idea of what race a character is or should be, but when casting don’t find themselves limited to that race because the race of the character doesn’t actually have any bearing on the plot. They may have conceived of the character as being a certain race and even mentioned it in the script, but none of that is important to the plot or characterization and so they are open to the best actor for that role no matter what their race. One typical example might be someone who read for a character where race was a more important factor but who didn’t get in, but in the auditions seemed to have a voice or cadence that really fit the other character, so the powers-that-be decided to give the role to that actor and change the race of the character to fit the actor. This is obviously perfectly acceptable and might even be something that they should do: even if they have an idea of what race the person seems most like to them, open it up to all races and let the best actor win, and then adjust the race accordingly.

On the other end, we’d have the case where a character has a set, defined race in-universe and key plot and characterization points depend on them being that race, and those points cannot be changed. If the character is going to be referred to in-universe as being of a certain race, then I think it completely obvious that casting an actor of a different race for that part isn’t going to work, unless you’re going to try some kind of subversion (like the notes in the original article about “Hamilton” making some of the Founding Fathers black). You can try those sorts of things, but you have to be prepared for it to fall flat. So, no, in general you aren’t going to cast an actor that is at least obviously not of that race (races that are at least superficially similar can work if done properly). This should be uncontroversial.

Or perhaps not:

I’ve never had a problem with people of any race or gender playing anyone, as the whole point of entertainment is to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, as I already noted, “colorblind casting” used to be “colorblind” just for whites, so that we had whites playing Asians or Arabs (i.e., Alec Guinness in Lawerence of Arabia). This reduces the opportunity for talented actors of color to play roles; it was a form of discrimination.

Now, this really sounds like saying that anyone can play anyone of any race and gender at any time, which is ludicrous. He does soften it later to more closely align with the obvious case I outline above:

One other exception: when race is really important in a role, then one should cast appropriately. For example, Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockinbird must surely have to be black, for blackness is essential to his role. Likewise, it would be bizarre to cast a black person play, say, David Duke, for in that case it would be very hard to suspend disbelief!

But then he also adds this:

What a can of worms she’s opened here! An act of minstrelsy! Does that mean that blacks playing the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are minstrels? Does this mean, as Bill implies in his piece below, that any non-Jew playing Shylock in Shakespeare is an “act of minstrelsy”?

Well, this section focuses more on “cultural”, but for Jews racially that would fit into my notion of “close enough” above but black people playing people who are defined in-universe as white fits exactly into the sort of thing that I consider obviously wrong and something that we cannot suspend disbelief over. I can see why in “To Kill a Mockingbird” it would obviously be a problem — the work itself makes key plot points out of the race of the character — but don’t necessarily see why casting a black person to play David Duke would be more a violation of suspension of disbelief than doing that for a character that the work constantly refers to them as white or Asian. Coyne here seems to be conflating the two cases above, but ignoring that in the first case above it’s not a white actor playing a black character or a black actor playing a white character, but instead is the writers changing the race of the character to match the race of the actor. So the character changes from a nominally white character to a nominally black character, for example. This, then, wouldn’t be a case of actors playing characters of any race, and so while it’s acceptable, it’s also not what’s happening.

In short, the obvious case is the case where the character is clearly identified as having a certain race. In such a case, you can’t put an actor of a different race in that role unless you are trying to subvert or parody something.

Okay, so what about the less obvious cases? These are all cases where the character originates outside the work itself and where it originated the character has a specific race. Let’s start with the example of historical figures, like Alec Guinness for Lawrence of Arabia. The issue here is that generally the goal for any biopic is to cast actors for at least the main roles that resemble the characters they’re playing as much as possible, because the audience has often seen pictures of them and know what they look like, and if they look too different they won’t be able to suspend disbelief. As noted in the comments, one of the reasons for casting Guinness in the role is that he physically resembled Lawrence of Arabia. But if you swap the race out, there will generally be an obvious disconnect there, and this will be greater the greater the physical difference in races is (again, coming back to the “close enough” angle mentioned above). So, in general, you don’t want to have real, known people played by someone of a different race, because it will be jarring, especially for the primary characters. So you don’t do it unless you want to subvert something (which, as noted above, was indeed the point for “Hamilton”). And you have to be prepared for your subversion to fall flat and the audience to be turned off by the change. Otherwise, you want to keep the races the same.

Okay, so what about the case where the character comes from another media — a book, a comic, a previous TV show, a previous movie, etc, etc — and is being adapted to the screen or as a play. Can you cast actors of different races than the ones that were in the original work? The issue here is that making changes to a work in an adaptation for no reason can annoy the original audience, who are the audience that you are at least counting on to make your work a success. If they dislike it and stay away, then all you’re doing is appealing to the new audience who don’t know the original work and so don’t consider it to be any different from any other new work out there. So do you risk annoying the original audience to cast an actor in a role that originally had a different race? Often, and if done well, there’s no real problem with it. If done poorly, though, it can really kill a work. Remakes often get more forgiveness than adaptations (although Starbuck in the remake of Battlestar Galactica was a prime case where at least the initial introduction was handled badly), but again here it’s going to come down to how important the race of the character was to the character, but with the added criteria of the reason given for making the change. A behind-the-scenes comment that they intended to keep the character as that race but the actor blew them away is likely to be better received than a claim that they needed “diversity”. Fans of a work don’t want to see changes made to it by an adaptation for no reason, but are open to some changes if it makes sense and/or works.

So, the answer about “colorblind” casting is essentially this: you can do it if the characters are written mostly colorblind, but be very careful if they aren’t. And this should pretty much cover off all the objections and defenses of colorblind casting.

And Canada’s Dorothy is …

November 6, 2012

… Danielle Wade.

I actually managed to get the final order right, with Danielle winning it, Stephanie being the runner-up, and AJ finishing third.

While I still think that Danielle had the weakest voice, I think that when she sang on her own instead of with the other girls you didn’t notice, and also that she had a stronger vocal performance this week. I hadn’t seen her performance of “Hey, Big Spender!” that was voted her best performance (she did that one, I presume, before I started watching) but she did it well and again highlighted how she acts performances. And she also had some very good lines in the discussions around her performance and coron … er, ruby-slippering?

Daryn: So, if you become Dorothy, how would you react?
Danielle: [something like a nervous and giddy twitter]
Daryn: Well said.
Danielle: Thank you.

And also, when she had won:

Danielle: This is the first time I’ve ever auditioned for anything. I hope all of them go as well!

All that needs to be said about Stephanie, I think, is that the song chosen as her best performance was “Hello, Buenos Aires” … a performance that resulted in her being in the bottom two that week. It was absolutely a breakout performance, but somehow Canada didn’t warm to it … although they saved her the next week.

Now, while trying to find something to watch I’ve tuned in to “Next Top Model” for the past few weeks, and there’s one thing that I noticed about last night and the whole competition when compared to it: AJ and Stephanie, watching Danielle sing after winning, seemed genuinely happy for her. Sure, they could be acting … but these are the two that I thought weren’t that great as actresses, so it seems unlikely. And for the most part, it seemed like all of the competitors on “Over the Rainbow” were happy and sad for each other, without all of the sniping and backbiting that you see on “Next Top Model”. They never seemed to suggest that someone else should go home. Watching the performances, they generally seemed sad as opposed to happy when someone went home. There seemed to be less, at least, of a sorting out of who their competition was and arguing over that. Good performances were applauded, and they were appropriately respectful when people were at risk or going home. They seemed to, well, like each other, which is clearly not what happens on “Next Top Model”.

I could say that it’s cultural, and that’s likely part of it. But the real reason for this, I think, is that while almost all of the girls were convinced that they could be Dorothy — except for poor Colleen, due to the judges commenting that they weren’t sure that she could — none of them thought that they ought to be Dorothy. Even Danielle, the front-runner, was reminded that she couldn’t let up and due to her inexperience had to feel that the others might well have an inside track. That feeling of being capable but not necessarily deserving it, I think, led to them all thinking that if they didn’t make it, one of the others really did deserve it, which led to less direct competition and more of a “I have to do my best, and we’ll see if it’s good enough” attitude than a “I’m the best, and so I can only be cheated out of my victory” attitude. It was nice to see, and much more entertaining that what we see on “Next Top Model”, because I can actually like the girls and want one, or more, of them to win.

Of course, now that “Over the Rainbow” is over I’ll be able to avoid watching “Next Top Model”, which is a good thing.

Anyway, congratulations Danielle and you deserved it … about as much as the other two did [grin].

Over the Rainbow Performance Nov 4 …

November 4, 2012

So, I just finished watching the final performance episode of “Over the Rainbow”, and thought I’d get my comments down now because I’ll be out for a good chunk of the day tomorrow.

AJ was up first, singing “Memory” from Cats, a song that I’d heard a little of before. She was definitely trying for a more subdued performance than she normally gives, but unfortunately she looked a little stiff early on. However, when it came time for her to pull out the dramatic gestures, she really delivered, as usual.

Danielle was next, singing I think “Never Say Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard, which I hadn’t really heard before. As usual, she just nailed it in terms of acting and voice work. For all of the episodes I’ve watched, Danielle has consistently just done what had to be done.

Finally, Stephanie sang, a song from a production that hadn’t been done much if at all in North America called “The Woman in White”, and the song was I think “I Believe in My Heart”. It was a really good song for her and demonstrated that she has an absolutely lovely voice and the looks to go along with it … but she still didn’t move much. AJ and Danielle incorporated a lot more movement into their songs, even though their songs were of a similar tone to hers.

The performances were book-ended by round-robinish group songs featuring songs from “The Wizard of Oz”, and to me a few things became clear:

Danielle has the weakest voice of the three … but she also acts far better with her voice than the other two.

Stephanie has the strongest voice of the three. It really is effortless.

AJ fits a bit into the middle. She’s not as strong an actress as Danielle in all facets, but she’s better than Stephanie is. She also doesn’t have as strong a voice as Stephanie, but it’s stronger than Danielle’s.

For me, acting is the key, and so if I was given the choice I’d probably choose Danielle. The only argument against that is that it might be easier to teach acting than to give Danielle a stronger voice, at which point Stephanie is the better choice. So, my final ranking is:

1) Danielle.
2) Stephanie.
3) AJ.

Now, with it being a popular vote, the most talented person may not be the winner, and I agree with the judges that basically any one of them could perform the role well. So I shall watch with interest who Canada decides is the best Dorothy.

Review: The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum

November 4, 2012

So, yesterday I went to see a production of “The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum” at the National Arts Centre. I went to see almost the last production of its run there, and so this review won’t help anyone deciding if they might want to go see it. But it will let me outline some deeper examinations of works like it just like I do for TV shows and books. I’m not going to talk too much about the specifics, and so will try to avoid any spoilers. The sad thing is that I probably won’t need them.

Despite the name, the museum itself is just a vague frame around the play, supposedly setting things up for us to accept the narrator, Margaret MacNeil. As such, the play is essentially about the life of this woman, and its myriad joys and far more commen trials and tragedies. To that end, the actress playing her has to carry the load of the play, and Francine Deschepper does a credible job. She’s a strong enough actress to catch and keep my attention, but isn’t quite strong enough to compel it. And that’s not a problem if the surrounding cast of characters is strong enough, because it allows me to drift my attention from the lead to them and then back again when required. Unfortunately, while the actors handle their roles credibly enough the characters they play aren’t developed enough to carry that sort of load. We really only see things through Margaret’s eyes, and to be honest her character is a bit shallow and uninteresting. What’s most interesting about her are the things that happen around her and to her, but that effect is muted by the fact that most of that comes from other people — her brother, her mother, her husband-to-be — and they get limited time and development for us to really care about them.

A strong plot or strong comedy could carry us through this … except that, for the most part, everything the play does is precisely what you’d expect for a play of this sort. There are a lot of attempts at comedy in the play, and I found myself chuckling at a couple of them, but for the most part I could see them coming a mile away, and the same thing can be said of the plot. And when I couldn’t see it coming, it seemed to be rather, well, dumb. I only didn’t see it coming because I couldn’t think of anyone actually trying to do that, and so most of the time those ones fell flat. For the most part, then, this is a standard “woman living in troubled times” story, right down to the tragedies and triumphs.

Now, there’s nothing really wrong with that. You can do the same sort of stories that everyone has done and have it be entertaining, or meaningful. But in general when you do this you do something different to make it standout. Usually, that involves the characters; you end up seeing the same story through the eyes of different people than you’d normally see it, and so it’s interesting. But this play strikes me as not really establishing the characters to that level, because it focuses too much on Margaret and her life and not much on the life of the others outside of her house except when it relates to her and her tragedies. As such, I’m having the same reaction to it that I had to “The Stone Angel”, which is mostly not caring about her life. Now, I did find the play more interesting than “The Stone Angel”, but for the most part I think it relies too much on you being able to immediately understand and accept the background of the play of life in the mines in that sort of community. If you can relate to Margaret and her family, you’ll likely like the characters immediately and enjoy watching their lives, perhaps even with a sense of nostalgia if you’ve been in that sort of area or situation. If you can’t, then the play doesn’t really give you any reason to develop that, and you’ll find yourself not really all that interested in their lives, and mostly feeling like you’re watching this because it’s mildly entertaining and it’ll kill some time until your next event.

If I had attended this play mostly just to see the play as opposed to as an excuse to go downtown for the day, I’d have felt that it wasn’t worth my time and money. As it was, it was entertaining enough that I don’t regret seeing it but basically have to react to it with a resounding and heartfelt “Meh”.