Know Thy Subject: Expect Diversity

There is great controversy in the world of theatre when it comes to casting. Analogous to this is the classroom task of putting on a play. The philosophical question is the same. Does the actor need to match the part? In other words, do you need an actor that is black to play Martin Luther King Jr.; do you need an actor that is Italian to play Romeo; are there times when you must pay attention to the diversity that the actor brings to the part and other times that it does not and should not matter? At least in the professional theatre there is a larger pool of actors, however, the pool of actors, like the classroom, is limited to the people that show up.

With children, it is even more of a challenge. Nearly every part in mainstream plays are not for children. Many parts that they are asked to play are adults. There are not many plays written for kids; the plays that are written for kids are often lacking in content with a simplified script. The content that I want to teach, and the content that my students are ready for, does not exist in a simplified script that is written for kids.

I have developed several instructional strategies to manage this problem. I let students shape their own narrative by literally writing the script that they want to work on. This eliminates any issues of adapting outside content to my students. I encourage them to work with the stories that they know based on their own personal experience. By doing this, I get a wide range of stories. From these stories, I select an evening of varied performances. One of my favorite plays ever written by one of my students was half in English and half in Spanish. Few of my students speak Spanish. However, the play was excellent and deserved to be produced. The entire class had to learn, memorize, and personalize the text written in Spanish. When students asked the inevitable question of, “Why do we have to do this?” I responded, “because it teaches you about the world around you; this came from your colleague and from your community; not everything needs to be easy and comfortable for you.” I can have this response because I know that every student, regardless of their comfort level with the material, will still be treated with respect; also, I had my eyes opened because of a play that I had to work on with a context that was not comfortable for me.

When it comes to casting, I generally practice what is known as color-blind-casting.[1] Rarely do I have a play presented that mandates an actor with a particular trait. I always have actors that are between the ages of 10 and 14; I do not always have characters in my plays with the same age rage. Further it would be educationally irresponsible of me to cast a student, based on skills and abilities in a part that they were not ready to play or achieve in the context of the project. I have seen far too many productions that featured an actor, with an obvious diverse trait, that was not able to perform in that part.

One prominent example of this was several years ago. I was invited to watch a production of Grease. As it happens, this was for a summer camp and most of the people that had signed up for the camp were girls. The director cast one of the few boys in the production as Danny, the male lead and romantic attraction for Sandy. The girl that was cast was about 14 years old; the boy was about 8. There was agony for the entire play. Much of the plot revolves around the relationship between these two characters. The director was unwilling to reimagine the casting and make Danny female or cast a female actor in a male part. The show was a tragedy and there were plenty of female actors that could have performed in the part of Danny excellently.

Casting should be based on ability and in an educational setting that can get tricky because of our diverse society and the history that we all carry with us. However, there are plays that mandate an actor with a particular trait that cannot be faked. If I had a play that was specifically about black character, I would have to cast a black actor. Without this I would be risking community outrage or worse yet my decision would go unnoticed and another minority person would be overlooked because the homogenized white culture had absorbed them.

Lacking that black actor, I would not be able to perform the script; or, I could discuss the script with my students and identify the challenge and create dialogue about the production. But, that is about as far as it could go. Even though there are many movies where ethnicities are faked and an ethnically ambiguous actor plays a range of characters from different cultures, I do not think that I should participate in the problem. I have learned that when it comes to casting (and to teaching for that matter), I must be flexible and adapt to both the script and the classroom pool of actors that I have.

When it comes to student assessment, I can adapt to each student in the classroom. I use a rubric that is based on skills rather than student interpretation.[2] This allows the personalization of a text to come to the performance. The powerful thing about theatre is that it can, and should, change with each performance and each performer.[3] One interpretation should be different from the next.

Lastly, so that all students have a sense of belonging, I have only three rules for my content area. Respect yourself; respect others; respect the space around you. I ask students on the first day of class what these things mean. I ask them to give examples of respect. This is one value that is universal. However, the way respect is shown changes from one year to the next. Students must participate in the shaping of the classroom culture. Doing this sets the tone for everything else; teaching is a partnership between the students and the teacher, it cannot be done in a homogenous melting pot. Rather, the partnership is formed anew with each new class in a new and beautiful way.

Know THY STUDENTS, linked here.

Know THYSELF, linked here.

Back to Prologue and Epilogue, here.

[1] Color-blind-casting is term that started with the idea that any actor of any skin color should be allowed to play any part. However, the term now applies to other identifiers such as, gender, physical ability, and age.

[2] Interpretation is one of the largest areas of bias an artist can have. As one who identifies as an artist, I recognize this and allow my students to express themselves through their bias and not my own.

[3] It is interesting to note though, this idea that performances change by the day is held primarily in Western Culture. In Kabuki, a Japanese form of theater the performance is passed on exactly from one master to one apprentice. This has preserved the art form for the past 400 years so that a performance today is nearly the same as it was when the art form first started.

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