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BWW Blog: Typecasting for a Better Story, Not a Worse Reality

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Actors strive to diminish the distance between themselves and their character. By digging deeper, they can procure their character's truth and stumble into beats with more honesty than they could ever hope to craft alone. This is the function of an actor's toolbox. Compartmentalizing emotions with rasaboxes, embedding beats with objectives and mapping out inner monologues are all examples of tools that an actor uses to dig deeper into themselves in their search for a character. The ultimate goal being to melt the lines of reality and allow the character to shine through for the benefit of the audience and story. When done correctly, the audience will have a clearer understanding of the meaning of a story, and the messages to take into their own lives.

Acting is a craft like any other. Just as a professional violinist uses music theory and pedagogy to perform a piece, an actor uses their body and toolbox to tell a story. An actor becomes another person on stage and the audience responds emotionally. The emotional bond between a performer and their audience is a bilateral one: It hinges on the audience's ability to ground their suspended reality and believe the character on stage. In a perfect world, nothing but the actor's ability and preparation should step in the way of that bond. Unfortunately, as every actor knows, audiences do not demand only a convincing performance to suspend their reality, but also a convincing "look." The problem is that the "look" audiences depend on is set by the industry itself. These "looks" are called archetypes.

Archetypes are vital tools in the theatre industry. When actors portray characters with qualities that the audiences recognize, the storytellers are free to dive into deeper concepts and themes. Over time, more productions have utilized archetypes and more audiences have become dependent on them. As a result, actors may dedicate their lives to effectively transforming on stage, but if they don't match the physical archetype of their character, audiences are less likely to believe them. That is why there is a premium on typecasting in theatre.

You may be the best actor in the room but can still lose out on the job for being too tall, too short, not fat enough or not skinny enough. The skills you can control got you in the room, but the characteristics you can't control will force you out. When used correctly, typecasting can be exhausting for the performer, but good for the benefit story and the audience. When used incorrectly, typecasting can be good for some performers but limiting for others, setting dangerous narrative precedence's that perpetuate racially segregated structures in storytelling and society as a whole.

"Traditionally white character," is a term referring to a form of type-casting that involves coding an otherwise ambiguous archetype with racial certainty, often to keep black and brown performers from taking center-stage in stories that are not explicitly about race. This form of typecasting is not aimed at helping the audience lower their suspension of reality, but instead at building up the barriers that already permeate reality.

The power of a talented storyteller is their ability to blur the lines between fiction and reality. The danger is the influence that comes with that power. When a creative team reserves diverse casting for explicitly diverse stories, they are implying that a character is white, unless otherwise indicated. This is found most often in productions that take place during history. The teams behind these productions claim that by casting exclusively white actors, they are staying true to the "historical context" of the piece, and by extension, grounding the reality of the story for the audience.

The problem with this reasoning is in the fundamental qualities of live theatre. The audience's reality will always be heightened. They will always intellectually understand that they are watching actors portray characters in front of an artificial set. Audiences will suspend their reality to a certain extent with the expectation that the creative team will take them the rest of the way. They except realism in costumes, or music or set dressing. Not all of the elements of a production have to be grounded in realism, as long as the elements that are help contribute to the themes of the narrative. The elements that the team focus on, are therefore important. They help contextualize a story, by highlighting specific aspects of the human experience.

Therefore, when creative teams choose to make the whiteness of the actors in a historical piece a highlighted element, they're suggesting that the story they are telling is inherently about race. The otherwise universal plays about love, loss, betrayal and friendship that define the theatre canon are unnecessarily coded white, with an outcome of limiting the opportunities of performers of color. This creates the most dangerous archetypal standard: white unless otherwise indicated. Making white the default in theatre is a self-perpetuating cycle that frustrates performers of color, and subconsciously justifies the racist systems that audience members partake in outside of theatre. Stories reflect reality and influence reality.

Racist theatre is not just a result of a racist society, but also one of the tools for perpetuating that society. Racism breeds racism, and the power that artists hold help shape social structures at every level. As a result, it is the responsibility of creative teams across the entire industry to not only avoid racist typecasting, but also to work actively against archetypes that perpetuate white coding of ambiguous characters. As long as art continues to be complicit in racism, so will society.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Troy Freeman