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The Other Side of the Table: Considering Roles That Don't Belong to You

Hello, friends! Welcome to The Other Side of the Table, a place where industry professionals share tidbits, insights and experiences related to the wonderful world of casting, and our process in particular. Please remember that casting directors are as varied and individual as actors, so the sentiments contained herein are in no way intended to serve as a catch-all for some kind of universal casting intel; rather, this series will provide a glimpse into the minds, hearts and processes of casting people who want to share our wisdom. We hope you will enjoy and find it valuable in some way. Happy auditioning!

This week, Stephanie discusses the role of the actor in a responsible casting process.

“But what if they called me in?”

“Don’t blame the actors! They didn’t cast themselves!”

Sound familiar? These are typically the most common lines of reasoning we see/hear when it comes to actors auditioning for or playing roles for which they’re clearly not appropriate --whether it be white actors in brownface or abled actors playing characters with disabilities-- and they’re two sides of the same coin. Ironically, it’s a coin which actually depletes an actor’s most valuable currency: agency.

There is a long-held and widespread belief that actors are essentially powerless in the hierarchy of theatre, film and television. This way of thinking, ingrained so deeply in most of us that we’re scarcely aware of it, renders us so utterly expendable that we become convinced that not only must we pursue and attain employment at all costs, but that our individual drive to become and remain employed trumps any sense of principle or community we may otherwise claim to espouse. We have been conditioned to believe that the most important thing an actor can do for the health of their career is to KEEP WORKING… even if that means going in for (and taking!) jobs we’re pretty sure we’re not right for.

At the same time, we may consider ourselves allies to marginalized communities and even campaign in other ways for things like visibility, inclusion and social justice. We love and respect our friends and family who are trans, who are POC, who are disabled… we may have even reached out to them for approval or support when preparing for roles portraying characters like them because we want to be sure we honor them with as much authenticity as possible. Because at the end of the day, we’re actors, right? Isn’t it our job to strive to portray the spectrum of humanity in all its dazzling incarnations?

I’m gonna go ahead and say yes, that is our job-- but sometimes that means taking a step back and letting our fellow humans have ownership of their own portrayals.

You may have dark curly hair and an olive complexion, or a name that non-Spanish-speakers think sounds Latinx… but are you actually Latinx? You studied ASL, but are you Deaf? Do you have the lived experience of a trans person? Do you actually identify as enby? And if not, are you so convinced that your skills are so superior to those of fellow actors who genuinely identify as such that you could legitmately be considered a more appropriate choice? Because when we put ourselves forward for roles clearly not meant for us, that’s essentially what we’re saying-- as well as tacitly supporting the dubious practice of assuming and discarding at will elements of humanity which are non-negotiable for many of our fellow artists, elements which have historically barred them from the comparatively obscene wealth of roles available to non-marginalized populations.

And if that weren’t enough… we are actually taking work away from underrepresented artists. As we all know, there are only so many audition slots, and while you’re in the room doing your best Lebanese accent, your Lebanese friend may not even be getting seen, because they’re new to town, or don’t boast your name recognition, or have as proactive or prestigious an agent as you do. Trust me, it happens. And it happens when we’re not forthcoming about who we are.

Because guess what? It’s actually illegal for casting personnel to inquire about ethnicity, nationality, age, gender or disability status. That’s right-- the casting agency that keeps calling you in for “ethnic” stuff either has no idea you’re actually white, or they themselves are ethically challenged. But you know. Which gives you, the actor, the power in that relationship. What will you do with your power?

Can I tell you what doesn’t happen when actors decline auditions for roles they’re not appropriate for? Their careers don’t end. They don’t get blacklisted. They don’t “miss their chance.” They move on to the next audition, and job, and things keep humming along, possibly even with the added respect of their peers and industry professionals who actually appreciate actors helping them do their jobs better.

But what does happen is that one more person, or creative team, or even institution, must look deeper, not only into the casting pool, but into the communities they’re purporting to represent with their portrayals of marginalized people. There persists, still, a notion that actors from underrepresented populations are likely to be less-talented-- frankly, just not as “good” as white/cis/het/abled actors. While it’s certainly true that less opportunity is naturally going to result in less experience… I’d still personally much rather watch, say, a greener neuroatypical actor in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time than a neurotypical one with a super-stacked résumé (and, for the record, I’d also much rather see your all-white community theatre produce The Music Man than Hairspray). Recently, Kiernan Shipka was criticized for playing a Deaf character, a decision which was defended in a variety of ways ranging from the nature of the character’s deafness (acquired at age 13) to her perceived status as an up-and-comer, a young actor not in a position to turn down a starring role: a girl’s just trying to work! Yet I can’t help but imagine how that role might have been cast if someone in her position --young, yes, but not without influence-- had declined, perhaps with the recommendation that an actor with acquired deafness be sought instead; they are definitely out there! Maybe the role would have simply gone to another young, A-list hearing actor anyway… but maybe not.

I’ll never forget the well-known actress in our community who began her general audition for us a few years back by stating, up-front, that she was not of the particular ethnicity that many believed her to be. She admitted that she’d taken roles over the years under that misconception, but that it didn’t sit right with her anymore and she wanted us to know that about her. And I personally know many other actors who are similarly forthcoming (including actors with agents who are aware, but persist in submitting them inappropriately): they will either graciously decline an audition they don’t feel right about accepting, or at the very least express their concerns to the casting director and begin a conversation. These actors do this out of respect for themselves and their community, and out of a deep understanding of what it means to contribute to the growth of an art form which is, by its very nature, collaborative and --at its best-- based on trust and respect. A good rule of thumb is: if you’re called in for something and it feels weird to you, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not right for the role. See how it feels to follow that intuition.

Actors have agency. And when we stop supporting the myth that less-visible equals less-worthy, we exercise our ultimate power: the power to shape what kind of art we participate in creating, and what kind of artists we want to be.

Now we’d like to hear from YOU-- do you have topics or questions you’d like to see addressed from The Other Side of the Table? If so, please feel free to comment below or send us a message. We look forward to reading your thoughts, and hopefully sharing an audition room with you sometime soon!

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