BWW Blog: Amanda Grillo - Finding the Fit: Typecasting
A big part of show business is typecasting. There are "types" that people fall into. These can be based around age, race, gender, and personality. Some people this as an opportunity to play to their strengths. I once participated in a workshop where the instructor told us to "know our types". He then began to call people out one by one: "You're a Fierstein. Try looking at Edna Turnblad or Tevye." "You're a Broderick. Look at his roles." "Streisand. You have a lot of options for material." He compared us to already well known household names in the theatre world. What about embracing who you naturally are? Why be the next [insert celebrity here], when you can make a name for yourself and be original? There are stock characters that people naturally gravitate towards with ease whether it be by look or by personality, but if people get locked into these types it begins to be all they are seen as. To some people, these types can be seen as limiting. There's not much variety in roles if they play the same kind of part over and over. Actors should try to expand their range of roles when possible. The popular belief of what is attractive doesn't necessarily need to be the leading players driving the action, but just because someone who isn't conventionally attractive drives the story doesn't mean it is an ugly duckling tale. Dramaturgy also comes into play if a character description is explicitly influencing the script. That being said, I've seen several productions where the characters look phenomenal. They are a perfect depiction of how the story describes, but the talent was subpar. It was very clear that a different person was a much better fit, though they might not have been the perfect image. This idea got me thinking: Just because you look the part, does that mean you deserve it?
I surveyed one hundred random, anonymous participants. The survey was distributed to several different theatre pages on social media where participants have a wide range of experiences and opinions. I also had the pleasure to interview Michael Kennedy (a student at the University of New Haven), Stephen Sheperd (a recent alumnus of the University of New Haven), and Diana Dart Harris (a professor at the University of New Haven whom has degrees in both dance education and exercise science).
First, let's take a look at the collected data. Summary graphs are in the photo feature below for your convenience. To preface the data that I will be presenting: There were options to skip questions as well as leave comments on certain questions. Two questions allowed for multiple answers to be selected. The survey was taken by sixty-eight females and thirty-two males. Participants ranged from ages fifteen to over sixty. The majority of participants were in their twenties and thirties. Seventy-eight percent of participants had theatrical experience in schools and community theatres and thirty-nine percent of participants had professional theatre experience. Majority of respondents identified as actors, as shown in the graph below. Participants also identified as being directors, writers, and designers. One participant did not identify in any of the provided categories, to which I unfortunately did not think to add an "other" open response option, and thus skipped the question.
One of the first questions I posed to participants was when type casting is considered to be okay. The most popular answer seemed to be "If it is dramaturgically supported" and "At the director's discretion" coming in for second. For this question, my focus was providing them a chance to explain their thoughts, in addition to the multiple choice poll. With the provided comment section, twenty of the participants explained their thoughts. Most of the responses in the comment section referenced specific examples of physical qualities of the character being explicitly stated in the script. Here are some of the answers that stood out most to me in this research:
"I think it's only okay if it is important to the story. Like, a play may say a character is Caucasian but if there is nothing that makes her being Caucasian important to the story than she doesn't have to be casted as such. It won't change the story. Same when a character was described as small. I think things like that are important to keep only when they are major obstacles the characters canonically struggle with or have to overcome. Such as racism or fatphobia. In cases like in the heights, it's important to keep the characters as Hispanic because of culture/representation. I also believe this is the case for Hamilton (not ensemble) because of representation reasons and the point Lin was trying to make. Also, the type of music is historically black music & has been appropriated so much that people think its okay to take part in the usage because it's "cool" but doesn't understand the struggle of the people it was originally intended for. "
"In a school setting, it is important to consider the student's comfort level when casting. Also, if the theme of the show relates to diversity or inclusion, it is important to make sure that roles intended for minority groups are well-represented by the appropriate actor (i.e., if the role is Native, it should be played by a Native actor whenever possible)."
"It is fine to have a certain type of personality play a certain character, however casting the same type of person as the same type of characters all the time severely limits an actor's potential."
"Type casting is ok. Not everyone is going to be able to do every show because of their type, that's just showbiz. You can't get so offended by it. Yes, you can gender bend, change the race, etc of so many shows and characters. It is 2016. However, there are still specific shows and roles that can't be changed and have to be typed. I.e. You can't have a skinny Tracy Turnblad or you can't put on a Caucasian production of The Color Purple. It wouldn't make sense. Sure it [stinks] sometimes, but it has nothing to do with talent, it's just part of the business."
Out of twenty comments, the third quote, provided above, was the only response that did not mention physical appearance at all. Reading that response in the comments was refreshing. It focused on the personality and acting ability rather than image. The fourth quote was one of the only "type casting is always okay" responses that took the time to explain why in more words than essentially "If they look the part, they look the part." All sides to these arguments make excellent points. Personally, if it's a scripted image that influences the plot, so be it, but if there is any open ended-ness to how a character looks and it's not dramaturgically tied, then the role is fair game to every shape, color, and any other descriptive trait they have. Yes, some character descriptions are not negotiable and contribute to the dramaturgical integrity of the piece, but is there a point where we can honestly say that talent can trump appearance?
In a perfect world, people would hope the majority would put "yes", however only thirty-one percent agreed. The majority, being fifty-two percent, responded that talent only sometimes trumps image. One can imagine that the thought process followed the similar thought to a few of the previous responses regarding the shows that have image affect the dramaturgical integrity of the piece. In the survey, sixty-six percent answered that they had not been cast due to their appearance. Thirty-four percent of those surveyed admitted to changing their appearance so that they can better fit a role they desired; to what extent those changes were made was unspecified.
I had the pleasure of interviewing three individuals to get their views on typecasting and the image based society that we live in. Interview participants were Diana Dart Harris (a professor at the University of New Haven whom has degrees in Dance Education and Exercise Science), Michael Kennedy ( a current University of New Haven student who majors in Theatre), and Stephen Sheperd ( a University of New Haven Alumnus who though was not a Theatre major, was very involved in the Theatre Program at the university).
If the image of the character is not dramaturgically tied, does talent outweigh image?
"It is completely dependent upon the director and the creative team. The people that are cast must fit the artistic vision. Some directors are open to new ways of seeing characters and developing shows while others choose to go with more traditional stereotypes." -Diana Dart Harris
"In this case, talent absolutely outweighs image. Talent should always be more important than the way a person looks, but if a character needs to look a certain way, image does play a part in casting, and that is okay." -Michael Kennedy
"Certainly! When there are no dramaturgical ties or boundaries, talent should reign supreme, and the director should be able to come up with an image for the show based on the talent that auditioned. A completely pre-conceived vision is fine, but that's only if you have people already booked or if the script is very strict with casting." -Stephen Sheperd
In your opinion, are we at a point in time where the theatre world is more open minded to having a wider range of actors, if for example their body type isn't dictated by the script?
"I think we are moving in that direction. It is definitely better than it used to be, but we're not quite there yet. I believe we will see a big change and a shift toward more creative interpretations of roles and productions in the next 5-10 years. Stereotypes will be challenged and lines will be crossed." -Diana Dart Harris
"I think we have made a lot of progress in the theatre community. As someone who actively follows what is going on in the world of theatre, I have noticed a lot more variety on stage in both body type and race. The classic example right now seems to be Hamilton. That is a show featuring a cast that is every color of the rainbow. Some people may have been upset by the recent casting call asking for non-white actors, but quite honestly, us white actors have enough opportunities. We can let someone else be in Hamilton." -Michael Kennedy
"I certainly think so. Honestly, even if the body type is somewhat dictated by the script, the concept of theatre is to pretend & perform. You can have an overweight man play the usually starving Jean Valjean. If you have someone with enough energy and flexibility, you can have an adult actor play a child or teenager. Heck, in Shrek the Musical, a regular height man portrays the comically short Farquaad. The same should apply to body shape."- Stephen Sheperd
Typecasting is a bold umbrella term that can be used in many different ways. This has been a broad view explanation with a focus in physical appearance. It can be limiting and it can also be strengthening. In the new year, there is no doubt new audition opportunities will come your way. Yes, absolutely embrace who you are, know your strengths, but know that you have the potential of expanding your range beyond just one specific type. There are some things that you can't rewrite, like age or race specific roles that are explicitly stated and influence the plot, but there are some open ended character descriptions that can be fair game to anyone. As more and more contemporary works are created there are more race blind and some even gender blind roles at your disposal.