Shot Behind The Theatre

A whimsical and readable blog

Casting visual and non-visual ethnicities in Vancouver Theatre

As a white, Canadian male, I step very gingerly into this subject, much like a self-aware, privileged porcupine would walk through a balloon factory.

Recently (when this was written), I produced, directed and adapted a modern version of Richard Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal” dubbed “The School for Scandal of Vancouver”. Critics’ reviews ranged from describing the production as:”a hot mess: simultaneously unattractive and beautiful at the same time” to, “there are few Vancouverites as funny as this group”. One night, I received an email from an audience member who had a very particular problem with our work.

One night  after the show (I’m the kind of clingy director that must see ALL performances), I opened an email from a particular audience member whom I knew had seen the show that night. I also knew this audience member left halfway through. This action alone is fine. 21st century adaptations of 18th century British comedies of manners aren’t for everyone. I was expecting to read “Great job; loved the work but I had to go because of blah blah blah”. I wasn’t too far off. Here’s the email:

“Great job – sorry the cold became too much for me. Question – why did you use such a Caucasian cast for a show set in Vancouver?”

Spot on about the first part; I read the second part several times.

“Why did you use such a Caucasian cast?”

I was half-surprised to see this question. The surprised part was due to the cast not being all Caucasian (I’ll get to that in a moment). The unsurprising part was hearing someone challenge, however subtly, my portrayal of Vancouver as a city.  “School for Scandal in Vancouver” made its references and parody clear–this was about the city of Vancouver and its denizens. And some of those denizens have opinions about how their city is portrayed in entertainment,  thus unavoidably prompting some keeners to take issue with aspects of racial representation and equity. When you have a philosophical axe to grind, and access to the internet, you’ll find a stone on which to whet your opinions and pointed questions.

“Why did you use such a Caucasian cast?”

A lot of things ran through my mind as I attempted to answer the question. What did he consider Caucasian? What is considered too much, as his use of the word “such” implied? Should I have a Caucasian quota? Should I have a non-Caucasian quota? What do we consider non-Caucasian? What would enough Caucasian and non-Caucasian have been to balance out his sense of appropriate representation?

There are a few issues here. One, by not knowing the ethnicities of the cast members himself, this audience member assumed he could tell by appearance  the ethnic backgrounds. Two, by asking why I used, “such a Caucasian cast”, he implies that there is a level of “Caucasian” appropriate to a show set in Vancouver. And three, in a follow-up email, this audience member asked for a number of non-European cast members. I replied that I could not provide a list because I did not know everyone’s ethnicity, but also because several of our cast members are Metis, which technically includes a European background, which therefore wouldn’t qualify on his list. So what is enough to make you Caucasian or non-Caucasian?

During auditions, I don’t make it a practice to ask an actor what their ethnicity is in order to fill some kind of quota. Actors audition to demonstrate their skills, not to fill a racial gap. I certainly hope this audience member, when he direct shows, isn’t casting actors specifically because they don’t Caucasian. I think his question was barely worth the response I gave him, much less a whole blog post. But its implications bothered me, least of all because of its lack of conscientiousness and its abundant  pretentiousness. And I wasn’t the only one who had this reaction.

“Why did you use such a Caucasian cast?”

One member of the cast, who identifies herself as Iroquois and Metis, was insulted that she apparently “didn’t look Indian enough” from lack of proper skin pigmentation. A potential solution to this problem, she suggested, for future productions, was either for her to wear a head-dress at all times, or write “Indian” on her forehead in red. I looked into this tongue-in-cheek outrage a bit more.
In The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, King discusses the “Indian” signifers that create a “simulacrum” (method of identifying) the”Indian” identity. He describes the various signs that denote authentic “Indian”ness, which, he claims, are all the old-school icons that we commonly associate with Hollywood and mainstream identifiers. These identifiers, unfortunately, create a discrepancy between the “Dead Indian” (think headdresses, war whoops, tomahawks, darker skin and long black hair) and the “Live Indian and Legal Indian” of the present day. Of the cast members who identify themselves as First Nations, none of them bear signifiers of a “Dead Indian”, or those that we might stereotypically use to identify. None of them have a signifying skin colour of a “Dead Indian”, as Thomas King would put it. The fact our audience member insisted we had an overly Caucasian cast, suggests to me that these lack of signifers of”Dead Indians” in the First Nation cast members led him to his question. Does this mean our First Nations actors who don’t look like “Indians” are Caucasian? I asked them, and they disagreed. Quite loudly.

So if an actor doesn’t look non-Caucasian, if they have none of the non-Caucasian signifiers, it’s obviously troublesome to assume that they are, indeed, Caucasian.

“Why did you use such a Caucasian cast?”

Our second problem is the level of Caucasian/non-Caucasian that would have been appropriate to this Vancouver-set show. This link here will take you a census of the ethnic populations as per Metro Vancouver as of 2011. Caucasian makes up 54.1%, First Nations 2.8%, and South, East and South East Asian 29.5%, Middle Eastern 2.1%, Latin America 1.3% and African 1% (these numbers have probably changed in the past four years). Following the audience member’s logic, should I have appealed to these statistics in my casting? Again, I don’t have actors put their ethnicities on their resumes when they sign in to audition. How would this then be possible? Who am I to choose/cast who signifies enough Asian, or First Nations, or Latin-American, or whatever else.

Above: A silly question

“Equity in Theatre” is a Canadian organization that creates awareness about the topics I’m raising, and at a panel discussion I attended, several of the Artistic Directors on this panel proudly tooted the casting quotas they have to include actors of all minorities. But I find this practise troublesome in the same way I find the audience member’s question. Quoats put Caucasians and non-Caucasians actors presumably on a level(er) playing field hen it comes to opportunities, but doesn’t this mean actors now have to look a certain amount of non-Caucasian to fit the bill? What if they’re part this and part that? What if the Non-Caucasian signifiers that signify them as non-Caucasian aren’t as prevalent as another actor’s? If your quota is for non-Caucasians, then you’re not doing justice to the diversity of the other ethnicities either.If you have a quota of a certain background, what if that background is mixed with Caucasian? In an effort to be politically correct and socially progressive, this seems to me to raise more problems. What is “fair” when it comes to balancing out ethnicities? The audience’s members question suggests I should have cast more non-Caucasian actors but how many? Enough to reflect Vancouver’s demographics? Should these actors be visibly non-Caucasian? If that was the case, some of the actors who identify as First Nations might not have fit the bill. I aware this issue of casting quotas is much larger than the paragraph I’m allotting it–another topic, for another day. My point is if you create quotas for non-Caucasian actors, how will these quotas take into account appearances? Without directly asking an actor (and telling the audience), it seems to be quite troublesome.

There’s a funny thing that goes in Hollywood where actors of any non-white denomination will play essentially any non-white character, Cliff Curtis being an excellent example. A Latino actor can end up playing Arab, African, or a Maori actress can play Cuban, Persian, Indian and so on, so long as  he or she is dark enough to make it clear she is not white, but not too dark to betray what shade of the world she’s from. This leads me to the third problem I had with this audience member’s question.

The third problem is really just a dead-end. By asking me for a list of the non-European cast members, this seems to negate those of mixed background. This is the same problem if, to fill a quota, you have to ask an actor what their ethnic background is. Just because someone walks into an audition looking white, are they Cauciasan? Do the Metis actors not count, being of both European and First Nations background?  Does any European blood wash out any non-European blood? Or does being only a little non-Cauasian make you completely non-Caucasian? Issues of racial representation and equality are far more complicated than simply looking at an actor and deciding whether he/she is perceivably Caucasian or not, ergo the troublesome nature of the question:

“Why did you use such a Caucasian cast?”

This question grates me because of the sense of self-righteousness that I pick up. My first thought is to blame modern day social media–Facebook morality and Twitter philosophy, a menu of thousands of world causes to support. A buffet of activism, delivered to your door without requiring a foot set outside. What could be more democratic? Surely this modern convention encourages this audience member to express his concern about racial representation after watching the first half of a theatre show. It might make the person sitting at home feel good about themselves, but how much good is it actually doing? Hardly any, it seems.

“Why did you use such a Caucasian cast?”

At the crux of this, for me, as a director, I can only cast who shows up to auditions. Despite making appeals to share my audition notice with the Greater Vancouver Theatre Alliance, the Playwrights Theatre Centre, Frank Theatre and the Vancouver Asian Community Theatre, I only cast those actors who showed up to audition. Do I find the idea of “quotas” for actors ridiculous? I will be bold enough to say, with risk of popping some balloons, absolutely. A Caucasian actor should never lose out on a role just because the company has already cast too many white people, just like a non-Caucasian actor shouldn’t lose out on a role just because he or she is not of a particular skin colour.

What I think this audience member was trying to get at with his harrowing question, was to invoke a sense of social justice, to acknowledge my narrow vision of what Vancouver really looks like. But by asking that question, this particular audience member sets a series of dangerous precedents and assumptions.

Is racial representation a problem? Of course it is, but before you start to spearhead social activism with internet-bred philosophy, cobbled together from a poorly-researched Huffington Post articles, one should think about the implications of how those ideas are challenged. Why? Because in short, by asking, “why did you use such a Caucisan cast?” the audience member casts more damaging social implications, overwriting the social good he attempted to provoke through his question.



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This entry was posted on July 9, 2015 by in Drafts, Essays.


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