Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Brown, Velina. Casting Call to Arms, Theater Bay Area (March 2011) -- Kathleen Antonia, uncut

 Velina Brown, by the way, is a smart, talented, passionate delight. I applaud her impetus to write on the subject of non-traditional casting and its role in modern entertainment. I thank her for plugging my documentary Getting Played and for utilizing me as a resource in the first place. Some of the quotes may feel out of context, and because of inevitable and pending questions, I have opted to reprint my e-interview. The italicized text is reserved for Velina's questions, the bold text my answers. The article itself online at "Casting Call to Arms", Theater Bay Area (March 2011). Any questions? Comment away!

I was wondering if you would be willing to share opinions or experiences regarding non traditional casting?

            non traditional casting definitions:
            1. placing a non-white in a role not specially written for a non-white actor (New York Times 1993)
            2. "use of actors of any race, sex, ethnicity or degree of disabilities in roles for which such factors are not germane to the development of stage characters or the play" (Washington Post 1987)
            3. fair hiring (common "law")
            4. "an aberrant idea that has never had any validity" (August Wilson)

I'm not sure there is any agreed upon definition of "non-traditional casting". Regardless, when I think about it, the first thing that comes to mind is, "It's a lie." It's an elitist concept, a token handout by the powerful to the powerless ... do I dare make a comparison between offering the house to a field slave? Maybe that's too far into the negative, but for certain NTC is not the noble concept it's presented as.

Do you think it's still an important issue?

What's important about the issue is that "traditional casting" continues in spite of lip service being given to equal employment opportunity and equal protection, at least in the United States. The USA's entertainment industry is a reflection of all that is wrong with unbridled, free market capitalism, a dynamic the Constitution itself is meant to protect against. If audiences want ("want" is debatable) "traditional" leads, stories, and characters, the profit driven Industry serves them up, but the problem is that doing so fails to establish bona fide qualifications for the jobs available and in that violates U.S. law. Crews, talent, writers ... they are workers who are entitled to employment based upon their skills. They should not be penalized for age, race, disability, gender, etc..

Is there still work to be done or do you feel that the strides that have been made are sufficient?

There is a lot of work to be done. Given our celebration of Rosa Parks for actions thousands of people took before her - seventy years after Ida B. Wells sued over Jim Crow transit - it looks like it's going to be a long road. Given also that talent who draw attention to the issue suffer additional employment penalties by the Industry powerful, most of the work is going to have to be courageous and supported. For example, productions headed by EEO ("Equal Employment Opportunity") or First Amendment supporters should actively seek out talent who put themselves and their careers on the line to speak for equal employment opportunity. As an entertainment community, we need to help all workers feel like they can express their opinions without so much fear of the consequences.

Do you agree with the concept of non traditional casting? Not everyone does.

I agree with the concept expressed by the Washington Post that if certain demographics are not germane to the characters or play, then they should not be considered when casting. I happen to think it's illegal to consider them, but that's what being a lawyer will do to you. I also agree that certain demographics can (rarely) be germane to some stories and characters, and in those circumstances there is a bona fide reason for casting only talent with those qualifications.

Non Traditional casting, Color Blind Casting, American Casting do these all sound like the same thing to you?

I don't think all of these terms sound like the same thing. I've said my fill of "non-traditional casting". "Color blind casting" is as limiting as it is foolish; color isn't the only category of Industry discrimination that requires remedy, and no one is color blind nor should one be color blind. E.g., you should notice that men of Asian ancestry are rarely cast as romantic leads unless the entire cast is Asian. One should be color sighted enough to contemplate opportunities that might break down the horrendous stereotypes that burden us as a society. As for "American casting" ... what does that mean? Casting according to the demographics of the city in which the workers are hired? In Los Angeles, that means principal roles should be more than 50% filled by women and people of color since that's what the City looks like. When does that happen in mainstream media?

If you feel that there still work to be done how do you think it needs to happen? Raising consciousness? Rules? Boycotts? Other ideas?

I think that audiences need to be aware of how the Industry operates, how productions get greenlighted, and how many great works never make it off the paper and great talent never make it onto the screens. "Traditional" stories and characters result from purposeful actions. That being the case, federal and state governments need to enforce Equal Employment Opportunity and Equal Protection laws in the Industry. Performers unions should adopt and enforce the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification as part of their contracts. Audiences need to entertain themselves with work that hires more fairly and avoid productions that don't.

That said, I don't have a lot of hope. I produced a documentary "Getting Played" about Industry EEO, and certainly it is clear that the powerful don't want to be "forced" to hire "non-traditional" talent. Producers want to make money, and they want to create a world that doesn't challenge their thinking, certainly one that doesn't suggest they are unfair or prejudiced. The U.S. government seems content turning a blind eye to Industry operations, probably because of massive profits that it doesn't want to risk by requiring hiring practices that apply to every other business ... American businesses, I should repeat, because Chinese companies were reported as hiring White male Westerners to seal business deals, talent only to suggest that the companies were of strong global presence and influence. Heavy sigh.

As for my own experiences, I haven't yet considered talent demographics for my casting although I am writing a feature where one of the characters must be of a certain race and gender for the story to work ... of course, talent must simply be able to look like that race and gender regardless of actual "biology". Every other role in my script goes to whomever auditions best, a very diverse "dream cast"in my mind as I write. Quite frankly, if it were ever to come down to two for a male romantic lead and one of the auditioners is of obvious Asian ancestry, that's who I would hire, but that's because I believe I have an obligation to counter stereotypes ... realizing that after I write, casting may no longer be entirely up to me.

As talent myself, I have been gifted with so many opportunities to work with such fantastic production teams, but frankly, I have rarely played a character that wasn't specifically of a particular race and gender. I was even fired from a musical once for not playing a character Black enough. There are a lot of issues that experience brings up in addition to the fact that while gender and age were germane to that story, race was not, certainly not whether talent could pull of some stereotype that audiences would appreciate. The issue is generally not, however, getting dropped from a production but instead never getting hired or even an opportunity to audition in the first place. In addition to actual employment, there are significant emotional costs of living lives that aren't given equal chances to flourish. Acting is my fourth career of choice: (1) playing defensive right tackle in the NFL - blocked (no pun intended) by my gender; (2) flying combat for the U.S. Navy - it dates me, but again, blocked by my gender; (3) practicing law - successful in earning a J.D. and passing the California Bar, but too much sexual harassment of a very physical nature persuaded me to quit; and (4) acting ... which will end from lack of employment? I'm sure giving voice to my opinions means I should be looking for career #5, but at the end of the day, who among us wants occupations to be chosen based upon what others think of particular demographics? Probably no one would say affirmatively so, yet this is what we as a society demand everyday, not only in entertainment but in life. How else can we change this dynamic but by changing the images we are fed, the images that shape our thoughts and feelings? I would hope a majority of us could decide we are all worth it.


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