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Rethinking Casting Conventions in Shakespearean Plays | A Great Feast of Languages

By November 15, 2013 No Comments

While “A Great Feast of Languages” usually focuses on international or non-Anglophone Shakespearean news, this week, we return to the subject of multiethnic, multiracial,  and otherwise diverse casting in Shakespearean productions in the United States and the United Kingdom.

This post continues from my previous post (November 2, 2013) on two UK projects celebrating Shakespearean actors of color:  the Multicultural Shakespeare Project and British Black and Asian Shakespeare. While highlighting these much needed archival projects, I also turned to some recent (starting with Orwell’s collaboration with the Negro Theatre Unit to produce the seminal “Voodoo Macbeth) interracial or monoracial (starring non-white actors) Shakespearean productions, such as the “photonegative” Othello, RSC’s recent Julius Caesarset in a newly independent African nation-state, and the current Broadway iteration of Romeo and Juliet.

Such productions, I noted, are correctives for Shakespeare’s lack of diverse characters, but today I wish to push this further. This post will not have any real answers or solutions, but hopes to capture some of the concerns, issues, and the occasional breakthroughs afforded by creative solutions and hiring the best and most inclusive casts.

We live in a diverse world and although Shakespeare may very be the dead white guy par excellence, Rebecca Ennals, the Artistic Director of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, highlights that Shakespeare’s work is living, thriving, and endlessly adaptable. Ennals beautiful explains issues of white privilege, clinging to casting conventions, and why we (to quote Hamlet) “holding the mirror up to nature” is the best practice available. She begins with the common excuses for exclusive casting:

  1. Shakespeare didn’t write enough roles for women/actors of color/deaf actors/you name it.
  2. The audience won’t follow the story if you cast women/actors of color/etc.
  3. There aren’t any well-trained classical actors of color/women/etc.
  4. There just aren’t enough actors of color in the (insert location here) area.

But she disproves each of these excuses and deftly argues that:

1. It’s better for the art.

As Hamlet says, “holding the mirror up to nature” is the right thing to do. It’s also essential to the work itself. Actors with varied life experiences bring different perspectives on the text, stories and characters. We’ve been performing Shakespeare’s plays for over 400 years. Would we still be performing them if we insisted on all-male casts, if they were only allowed to be performed on London’s South Bank with a permit from the Queen, or if they were never translated into other languages? I doubt it. Constantly looking at the plays from new angles has kept them alive and flexible.

But maybe the problem is Shakespeare? Carla Stillwell, a true Renaissance woman (playwright, performer, director, and managing director of MPAACT), in a series of blogposts also covers issues of exclusive casting practices, and notes the recurring tokenism so common in many theatre companies:

Let us not forget that no theater season in America is complete without an adaptation of a Shakespeare play (pick one—it doesn’t matter) with an all white cast except for the one black girl who I like to call the “third black girl from the right,” set in New York during the roaring twenties. This has always bothered me.

Stillwell calls for more contemporary works that demand a more diverse cast, but what about those who love Shakespeare?  Dawn Monique Williams, actress and lover of Shakespeare works, argues that we make the shift toward diversity in Shakespeare’s plays, too: “I’m talking about casting plays, ALL plays but in particular Shakespeare, in a way that reflects the world around us.”

The Royal Shakespeare Company, despite the success of such productions as the all-black Julius Caesar (2012) and the Delhi-setting and Indian-casting of Much Ado About Nothing (2012), made a misstep with The Orphan of Zhao, casting only three British-Asian actors (out of 17), despite the play’s popularity and tagline “the Chinese Hamlet.” British-Asian actors asked for an apology from artistic director Greg Doran

On Broadway, according to The New York Timesthere are alarming statistics, too: “Over the past five theater seasons Asian-American actors were cast in 2 percent of the roles in Broadway and major Off Broadway productions, while 80 percent of the roles went to white performers, 13 percent to black actors, and 4 percent to Hispanic artists, according to data compiled by an advocacy group for Asian-American performers.” Asian-American actors numbered actually declined slightly. NPR also offers an interesting take on the lack of Asian-American actors cast in New York City plays.

Casting minority and ethnic actors in plays is problematic–if the roles are conceived broadly or underdeveloped. This was a concern for the Washington, D.C. Shakespeare Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing (2011), set in 1930’s Cuba, with a mostly Caucasian cast and only the villain Don John portrayed by a Latino actor, with two smaller characters’ names changed to food dishes. On the other hand, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 1970’s Latino-inspired Measure for Measure  included a mariachi band and a diverse cast, and was noted for creating a cohesive and topical performance.

While this article does not claim to be comprehensive of ongoing trends, I’d like to end by highlighting some other innovative casting decisions. From Anthony Sher’s spidered appearance, Simon Russell Beale’s toad-like facade, and Kevin Spacey’s leg braces, Shakespeare’s most notorious historic villain Richard III is usually played by an able bodied actor embodying varying degrees of disability. What about an actor physically limited, yet emotionally and psychologically able to portray Richard’s depth and malcontent? Actor Rene Moreno, from Dallas, has used a wheelchair ever since a several story fall, but he has still remained prolific on stage, even playing Shakespeare’s Richard III.

In Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2013), director  Geoffrey Kent cast  Jenna Bainbridge as his Hermia “because she was the best actor for the part — ‘like a porcelain doll with claws.'” Bainbridge is partially paralyzed, so her Hermia eventually leaves the crutches she used throughout most of the play,  but retaining her limp as a sign of her progression throughout the play.

Enobarbus describes Cleopatra as “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale /Her infinite variety,” and we should think the same of Shakespeare’s plays, making sure to avoid making a “stale” production that fails to speak to a diverse audience, but rather embrace the “infinite variety” of acting, directing, and casting choices available.

I’d love to hear more voices concerning this issue. The Shakespeare Standard is an online Shakespeare forum dedicated to bringing the online community Shakespearean news about performance, scholarship, and multimedia every day.  Please join us here at our site or on Facebook or Twitter to discuss the latest things of interest in Shakespeare news. If you would like to share more information about a Global Shakespeare or non-Anglophone Shakespearean production, film, website, etc., please email me at with the subject line “Global Shakespeare.”














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