Thoughts on Diversity: Casting Walt Whitman

Tom Pickett as Walt Whitman

Tom Pickett as Walt Whitman

At the opening night of the frank theatre company’s Walt Whitman’s Secret, a colleague came up to me and said “thank you for the casting.”

I was surprised by the comment. I had just spent three weeks in the rehearsal hall with a group of very talented actors trying to create something worthy of the stage. The diversity of the cast had for me never been an issue.

Yet here was an artist thanking me for doing nothing more than my job – reflecting back the society I live in. I appreciate the thank you. It means a lot to me. However it raises the question of why in this day and age and in a city of such a rich diversity as Vancouver, artists still feel as if they are being left out. And, despite effort by institutions like Pacific Theatre and Bard on the Beach, the only answer can be is that they still are.

I have been fortunate in my career to work in international practice. I have worked on and seen shows that have included artists not only of ethnic diversity but of diverse nationalities. I have seen and worked on productions where artists of different lingual and cultural heritages play family members, where historical characters are represented by people different background, etc.

In my own practice, I have sought to diversify on the stage not for political reasons but a very simple one. It is my obligation as a theatre practitioner to reflect back the society I am practicing in. This obligation isn’t questionable, it is why the arts exist. If we are not holding the mirror up, then we are not doing our job. As producers and directors, we must take responsibility for what we put out into the world.

Anna Cummer as Auffidius

Anna Cummer as Auffidius

In Vancouver I have achieved this with varying degrees of success. When leading the Mad Duck Theatre Collective (2002-2009), we were seeking a gender equality in production that represented our current society, and if not, then a society I wished we lived in. Along with Gwynyth Walsh’s as Vancouver’s first female Prospero, female artists represented characters in positions of authority as they do in everyday life. Casting that was considered risks outside our group such as Anna Cummer’s Auffidius in Coriolanus, Laura Jaszcz’s Chiron or Lesley Ewen’s Marcus in Titus Andronicus were never a question for us. Why can’t Coriolanus’ equal be a woman? We felt that to include cataclysmic stories to justifying the role or casting was to miss the point.

My own recognition of the ethnic diversity issue was a member of the west coast C.A.E.A. advisory. I sat on a committee with Valerie Sing Turner,David C. Jones and Anthony F. Ingram. It didn’t take long to recognize the inequity they were talking about. For me, this was not only a question of injustice but straight to the core of what we do as artists.

I developed my own set of guidelines. If the play or project is addressing specific themes of discrimination or themes specific to a minority group of people then you stay true to it, if not then then the casting is wide open. I then have the obligation to reflect back my society. If my cast is not divers or if that diversity is restricted to lower status or magical roles, then I am not doing my job.

Lesley Ewen as Marcus with Anna Cummer as Lavina in Titus Andronicus

Lesley Ewen as Marcus with Anna Cummer as Lavina in Titus Andronicus

I can’t say I have always been successful. Although I had sought a diverse cast for the United Players’s The Lion in Winter and despite contacting every company in Vancouver that works in diversity, the turn out for auditions was slim. In the end the casting represented, as it had also did also on 2014’s The Pitmen Painters with the same company, those who put themselves forward.

Clearly there is still work to be done.

One of the main reasons I took the directing gig of Walt Whitman’s Secret was to finally be in a position where casting an actor of the caliber of Tom Pickett as Walt Whitman would not be a series of discussions. As much as I love organisations like Neworld Theatre and the frank theatre company, I look forward to a time when mandates of inclusivity are no longer needed as they are the accepted norm.

(L to R) Kamyar Pazandeh, Tom Pickett, Adele Noronha, Conrad Belau,

(L to R) Kamyar Pazandeh, Tom Pickett, Adele Noronha, Conrad Belau,

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