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Are we blind to the need for blind casting?

Jaya Rana discusses if the questions surronding 'nontraditional' casting can ever be answered.

Perhaps the biggest debate surrounding ‘gender-blind and colour-blind’ casting (with which actors are cast regardless of the traditional race/gender of their role) is the question of whether it truly is blind casting or merely a veiled act of positive discrimination, leading to what is perhaps an even greater question: is affirmative action something which ought to be promoted in the arts? Last year, the English National Opera claimed that they were actively looking to enlist choristers from ethnic minorities, and we have seen movement in a similar direction from the RSC and the National Theatre; it seems however that the TV and Film industries have been slower to follow suit.

Black Panther (2018) and Get Out (2017) are just two examples of productions which overtly pursue casts of colour and have both proved to be profoundly successful. I would go as far as to say that the casting of both of these productions isn’t even colour blind casting, it’s what the RSC’s Erica Whyman (theatre director) refers to as ‘colour conscious casting’, in that it’s a purposeful employment of affirmative action in the performing arts. Having had this debate with many friends in Oxford, both thespians and avid viewers alike, I have concluded that, in theatre, film and TV, colour-blind and gender-blind casting is usually greeted with a positive reception, but only in cases in which the role in question does not centre around the gender or ethnic identity of the character. As soon as the decision to cast someone of a certain gender or complexion interferes with the clarity of plot, or a character’s motivation, we seem to encounter dangerous territory. For example, there are certainly understandable reasons as to why many directors abstain from ‘colour-blind’ casting; they do so in the name of realism. It would perhaps be a less convincing portrayal of say, the upper class in 19th century England, if the ladies and lords of the manor were portrayed by people of colour, purely because this would not be a realistic depiction of the time. Although there are obvious exceptions (and successful ones at that) with regards to colour-blind or colour-conscious casting, such as Hamilton, it is fair to say that while often ground-breaking, and brilliant in their own right, they certainly do not provide the most realistic account of the time.

However, gender-blind casting is even more complex an issue. Whether you consider its outcomes to be benefits or disadvantages, it is undeniable that it changes the dynamics of a piece on often a fundamental level. An example that certainly springs to mind is a production of Antigone at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in which King Creon had been changed to Queen Creon. However, maybe this is a slightly different debate, as not only is this an example of gender-blind casting, it is an active reconstruction of character in a classical piece of literature. What stood out to me most in this production is that the dynamics between Antigone and Creon change profoundly when Creon is portrayed as a woman. All of a sudden, an element of female competition is introduced; their conflict appears to become more of a jealous tussle for Haemon’s affection, and the role as the most important woman in his life. This I find to be more problematic than the traditional notion of gender-blind casting, as it fundamentally rocks the foundations of the character dynamics; and in a play which is as classic and well-known as this one, it can be challenging for viewers to accept such a drastic change. On the other hand, it is important to note that, while this directorial decision certainly affected the undercurrents at play in the production, this is not necessarily a bad thing; this choice added a whole new element to the piece, perhaps making the dynamic between Antigone and Creon more multidimensional than it was originally.

In the same way that we frequently see Shakespeare’s plays being set in different environments, playing with the gender of characters can be equally rewarding in that it emphasises the natural timelessness of a piece of art. It has been seen with the character of Puck in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as the gender-flipping of Malvolio (becoming Malvolia) in the NT’s Twelfth Night. This is particularly relevant currently, as we’re living in a time when concepts of gender are being openly questioned more than ever before, and what was once understood as binary is now being viewed in its actual spectral state. Perhaps playing with gender presentation in theatre and film is the logical (and necessary) next step in our progression towards gender equality, and maybe eventually, gender eradication.

While polemical, this is certainly the direction in which we’re heading; people being regarded as people as opposed to being divided into groups and dichotomised. It would be reductive to ever claim that this debate over blind casting has a clear-cut answer. While it can be considered a step forward in our quest for equality, it also often undercuts the pursuit of realism in many cases, and fundamentally, it is a director’s choice as to which they prioritise.

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