BWW Exclusive: UT-Austin Department of Theatre's Brant Pope Sets the Record Straight Regarding IN THE HEIGHTS Controversy
This past October, UT-Austin's Department of Theatre and Dance found itself in the middle of a controversy regarding the casting of its upcoming production of In the Heights. The musical, which opens tomorrow, follows several young Latino and African-American people living in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York.
The casting controversy began on October 30th when The Daily Texan, UT-Austin's campus newspaper, reported that the department decided to cast outside professionals for nine of the 12 lead roles in the show. But months later, the controversy seems to be in the past. On November 10th, just days after initially reporting that In the Heights would feature a cast of predominantly guest actors, The Daily Texan reported that the show would be recast with student talent. In January, it was announced that the show would feature a new director and choreographer as well.
The decision to produce In the Heights stems from the Department of Theatre and Dance's passion for reflecting the local community. While In the Heights takes place in New York, it focuses heavily on Latino characters and includes a modern score featuring salsa, rap, and merengue sounds. Given the thriving Latino community in Texas, In the Heights seems an appropriate choice for UT-Austin to produce. According to Brant Pope, Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, In the Heights is just one of many different ways that the department is addressing and celebrating Texas's Latino community. "We have a large and growing Latino ?population, and we have to address that," says Pope. "We're bringing in Latino faculty. Next year, we're doing a play called Esparanza Rising. ?In our faculty, our recruiting, and our season, we will reflect the breadth of the demographics of our state, and In the Heights is a part of that."
In the Heights is also a newer and widely celebrated show. The original production, which premiered on Broadway in 2008, won the Tony Award for Best Musical and was nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Producing such an acclaimed show provides the department with several other advantages, particularly for one of the department's new musical theater program. In the Heights will be the program's first major production.
But regardless of the strategic selection of the material, UT-Austin's production of In the Heights nevertheless saw its share of controversy. When asked to elaborate on the how the controversy began, Pope suggests that the situation stems from casting ideas that never came to fruition and were never feasible. "The first directing team was trapped between not feeling they had the talent to tell the story authentically and not knowing whether they should cast a multi-ethnic cast or not. Their original recommendation was to use 26 students and nine outside artists. We had a meeting with our students, and we explained that we didn't have the money for nine outside artists. We also hadn't talked to nine outside artists. Nine is ridiculous. We anticipated maybe four, but not nine, and somehow the conversation about it went out of hand."
The rumors and negative press provided the impetus for the department to make some changes in the production. Says Pope, "We wanted to start fresh, and we changed out the directing team. We have a new director, new music director, and new choreographer. Two of the three are Latino. We also re-cast the show. The cast now has only one outside artist and 34 students."
According to Pope, the changes not only benefit the production but are indicative of the overall goals of the department. "We recently made a difficult but appropriate decision to move away from graduate acting," says Pope. "We have no graduate actors and have set aside the MFA program to focus entirely on undergraduate actors."
The decision to do away with the MFA Acting program stems from the changing tides within the theatre and entertainment industry. "The world has changed. Because film and television are the primary employers of actors, they want younger performers. Casting directors and agents have told us that they want talented young actors."
The changes in the department certainly make the controversy regarding In the Heights all the more interesting and confusing. "The irony," Pope says, "is that we've never in our history have had more undergraduate opportunities or roles. That's all we've got."
Pope is also quick to point out that the department's dedication to undergrads goes further than this production. "Our season next year and every year will be built around our undergraduate actors," says Pope.
Numbers are already reflecting that commitment to undergraduates. In the department's 2011-2012 season, there were 60 mainstage roles. Of those, 17 were awarded to undergraduate students. In 2012-2013, there were 33 mainstage roles. Of those, 11 were played by undergraduates. This season, the department has 72 mainstage roles, 68 of which have been awarded to undergraduates.
Regarding outside actors, Pope says that they will still be used on occasion, but much more strategically, especially when it comes to original work written by the department's MFA Playwrights. "For the playwriting students, we do tell them that we will cast their culminating work with age-appropriate actors. That's the only time we do that so the playwrights can actually see their work the way they intended it. We won't force an MFA Playwright to take an undergraduate actor to play Grandpa. But in terms of the rest of the season, we're completely devoted to undergraduate actors."
The department also plans on continuing its use of guest directors. "The students benefit somewhat from working with professional actors," says Pope, "but they really benefit from working with professional directors. We'll continue to bring in professional directors on a regular basis. When we do that, the actors and designers get to work with them, and those directors often find outside work for our students."
IN THE HEIGHTS, produced by UT-Austin's Department of Theatre and Dance, plays the B. Iden Payne Theatre at 300 E. 23rd St, Austin 78712. Performances are Wednesday, April 9th thru Saturday, April 19th. Show times are April 9-12 and 15-19 at 8pm, April 13 at 7pm, and April 12-13, 19 at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$25. For tickets and information, please visit www.texasperfromingarts.org