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  • Why ‘casting the best actor for a role’ is a terrible argument 24 December 2016 | View comments

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    This is not a blog post about The Print Room’s production of In The Depths of Dead Love. It’s a blog post about a specific argument that I’ve seen/heard countless times in discussions about integrated/diverse casting (that I have only ever heard used in defence of non-diverse productions, or in opposition to casting quotas or more generally the arguments of those advocating for diversity) that needs to be dropped. 

     

    I am genuinely sick of the notion that we should just ‘cast the best actor for a role’. Let me explain why. 

     

    I understand what this argument is meant to encapsulate: merit has no ethnicity. Merit has no sexuality. Merit has no gender. Merit is blind to whether someone is from a minority or underrepresented group or not. It makes perfect sense to cast on merit alone (and surely give audience members a better experience in the process, getting to watch the best performances possible) - who on earth would oppose a meritocracy?

     

    It’s not a meritocratic stance. It’s bias masquerading as meritocracy.

     

    [I’m likely to get a little ex-analytical/linguistic-philosophy-student during the following. Apologies.]

     

    Let’s break the notion of ‘casting the best actor for a role’ down. Either ‘best’ means simply ‘most skilled’ (a fuzzy notion at best, but for the sake of argument we’ll pretend it’s quantifiable - you can at least tell the different between very good acting and very poor acting) or it means ‘most suited to the role’, which at least contains some echoes of the meritocracy angle, since the actor has to be capable of fulfilling the demands that the role makes on them. 

     

    So, ‘best’ as ‘most skilled’: you’ll never see *all actors in existence* for a role. So, by necessity, directors* are limited to casting the ‘most skilled actor seen in audition’. This is where the argument I’ve previously heard against the notion of ‘casting the best actor for a role’ comes in: the audition process itself can be hugely biased. How diverse was the group seen for a role or production? What efforts were made to make sure it was clear to actors and agents that submissions from a wide range of performers were sought? (I’ve spoken to actors in the past who now take a lack of ethnicity listed on a casting breakdown to mean ‘white’. Immediately after hearing this, I added a sentence to the top of all my casting callouts specifying that a lack of given ethnicity/gender/disability/etc meant everyone was welcome to apply for audition, and noticed an impact instantly.) What - if any - steps were taken to genuinely find a diverse group of actors, from which the ‘best’ could be identified? Because if steps were not taken, and if those auditioned are already an imbalanced or entirely homogenous group - then the idea that the system being used is a meritocratic one falls apart. 

     

    [There’s also the fact that actors improve with practice - new roles, new challenges, working with new people, all informs and develops an actor’s craft. There is more depth to this angle of argument, as I’ve heard from others who I believe can articulate it better than myself. Plus, I want to make a different, additional, argument…]

     

    So, best as ‘most suited to the role’: ‘the role’ is not a fixed, unchangable, objective thing. It’s a combination of information given in the script, and what a director does with that script. (Yes, there are performances other than scripted ones, sake of ease…) A script may offer details about a character’s gender, age, ethnicity - but, of course, just because a character has a trait or identity does not mean the actor playing that character must have it in order to be ‘most suited’ to the role. Cases where unavoidable restrictions on performers who are allowed to play a given role are, to my mind, rare (I’m thinking the Becketts and the Harwoods).

     

    Benedict Andrews’ Stella Dubois is not the same role as Sean Holmes’ or Ellen McDougall’s or Sarah Frankcom’s or…Those Stellas all occupy different theatrical worlds, different performance styles, different contexts. If you took one of those actresses and transplanted her and her performance into another production of Streetcar then it would suddenly feel out of place, inappropriate, misjudged, entirely possibly miscast. 

     

    This might only seem applicable to a certain type of production - something stylised, director-led, a production where a director’s determined to ‘put their mark’ on it. However you choose to describe it. But deciding to stage Streetcar’s card games *as card games*, rather than, say, the aggressive consumption of watermelons, is no less a choice. It is still a choice that a director has made about the kind of production, the style of performance, the exact theatrical world for this play - all of which affect any given ‘role’ in the play, as they have to cohere with those elements. Choosing to cast Stella in one way is no less a choice than choosing to cast her in any other way.

     

    So, ‘best suited to the role’, becomes ‘best suited to the role in this production’. The actor who best fulfils the production’s requirements in terms of matching/reflecting its artistic aims, the skill required to tackle the individual part, and the director’s creative ideals. For a cast devoid of diversity to all individually be the ‘best actors for the roles’, it’s necessary that the director has decided that such a cast best serves what they want to say, what they want to achieve with the production, and what kind of experience they want to give audiences. I doubt whether a director who cares about this industry, who cares about fair and equal representation of a population, who cares about questioning their assumptions, who cares about challenging bias, would make that decision. 

     

    So: if ‘we should just cast the best actors for the role’ is used as a retort to those who criticise productions for a lack of diversity, what it implies is a cast with minimal/zero diversity is the best to fulfil all aims of said production, aims which are intrinsically tied to an artistic vision, an artistic vision which must consequently be accepting of a lack of diversity.

     

    The above doesn’t mean I’m opposed to every single production with a cast devoid of diversity, before clever counter-examples are offered (hell, the most recent thing I staged myself was a one-on-one piece that I performed, making the entire cast white, middle-class, cisgender, etc) - every argument that’s ever made has to be tempered by some sound judgement on individual cases. Also, I don’t believe or think that any of what I’ve said above means a lowering of standards regarding the quality of performances/skilfulness of actors. There is no dearth of incredible talent out there, possessed by a diverse group of people - it simply needs to be recognised (where the arguments re auditions come back in).

     

    ‘Casting the best actors for the role’ is used to try and claim meritocracy. All it does is hide assumptions about what kind of theatre truly is best.

     

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    *At times in this post, for the sake of brevity, I’ll say ‘directors’ where it could equally be ‘casting director’ or some other member of the creative/production team making the decision. Also, you know, I’m a director, so this is the angle I come at things from.

     

    **Some might say a director need only be concerned with the story a play tells, rather than the story a production tells - a) I disagree and b) one of the reasons I disagree is because I don’t think the two are separable.

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