Casting across traditional lines raises questions in theater world



"Whose Role Is It Anyway?" That's the central question that will be posed at a panel discussion about nontraditional casting Wednesday at the Hippodrome's M&T Bank Pavilion.

Presented by the Hippodrome Foundation and the University of Maryland School of Law and moderated by Marc Steiner of WYPR-FM, "Whose Role Is It Anyway?" will examine the practice of casting across lines of race, gender, sexual orientation and physical abilities.

"It's an interesting question because anybody who is making theater in America today has to ask yourself what your responsibility is to the melting pot," says Donald Hicken, head of the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts and one of Wednesday's panelists.

FOR THE RECORD - A Nov. 10 article about the event Whose Role Is It Anyway? (tonight at the Hippodrome Theatre) included two errors. Windy Marshall, an actress who uses a wheelchair in the play Steel Magnolias, was incorrectly characterized as disabled. Also, Arena Players will present a scene from The Glass Menagerie performed by African-American actors in traditionally white roles rather than a scene from The Meeting.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"I certainly subscribe to the theory that if an actor is good enough, it's not going to matter what race they are. It's not just about the quality of the actor; it's more about the conditioning of the audience."

Hicken will be joined on the panel by actor Clayton LeBouef; casting director Pat Moran; Center Stage literary manager Otis Ramsey-Zoe; Robert E. Suggs, a professor at the law school; and playwright Rosemary Toohey.

Moran, who cast LeBouef in his breakthrough role as Col. Barnfather in NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, recalls that the part was originally written for "an older white guy. Then Clayton got it. ... So the older white guy then became a younger black guy." Moran believes film audiences, producers and directors are becoming more accepting of nontraditional casting.

But the issue is often more complicated, particularly when a role is already established, or when a work is specifically about race or gender. Then nontraditional casting can become a legal issue.

In terms of copyright law, Suggs poses the hypothetical example of casting two women, instead of a man and a woman, in a traditional love scene. "If you change the genders, have you changed the meaning of the work? And if you've changed the meaning of the work, you've transformed it, you've created a derivative work that's outside of the license granted," he says.

If the casting involves hiring an actor of a different race, he continues, the matter can extend beyond copyright into constitutional law and civil rights statutes.

Wednesday's event will feature scenes illustrating nontraditional casting presented by three community theaters. The Vagabond Players will perform a scene from Steel Magnolias featuring a physically disabled actor. The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre will perform a scene from The Tempest featuring a woman in the traditionally male role of Prospero and another woman as the sprite, Ariel. And Arena Players will perform a scene from The Meeting - about a fictitious meeting between Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - in which Malcolm X will be played by a woman.

"Whose Role Is It Anyway?" inaugurates the third year of cooperative programs between the Hippodrome Foundation and the law school. Also planned is a program examining women's issues and equal rights in conjunction with the production of Little Women coming to the Hippodrome in April.

"I'm increasingly more convinced about the importance of trying to address complex social issues that are sometimes difficult to talk about by using theater, by using the arts," says Karen H. Rothenberg, dean of the law school.

"Whose Role Is It Anyway?" begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the M&T Bank Pavilion, 12 N. Eutaw St. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Call 410-727-5225.

Kahn steps down

Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, is stepping down as head of the drama division of New York's Juilliard School, a post he has held since 1992. Kahn will still teach a third-year acting class at Juilliard and focus more energy on the Shakespeare Theatre and particularly on its new 776-seat Sidney Harman Hall, which is scheduled to open in fall 2007.

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