It looked full of promise at first. The Stratford Festival was staging The King And I, and diversity activists eagerly anticipated an Asian actor finally receiving top billing at the festival's mainstage. Alas, it was not to be. The role of the stubborn but charming Siamese king was given to a white American. Four months into the season, many visible-minority actors still can't believe it. This disappointment highlights a question long whispered in backstages: when will major theatre companies in Canada follow the lead of other countries and make the leap into non-traditional casting that reflects our non-white population?
Theatres contend that the traditional plays they typically stage, with their period settings and specific cultural contexts, make casting minorities difficult. But more and more equity advocates are saying this reasoning is stuffy and short-sighted.
A survey conducted by ACTRA's diversity committee rep, Bobby Del Rio, suggests that companies are leaving minority actors waiting in the wings at an alarming rate when it comes to lead roles. According to the survey, titled Theatre In Canada: Preservation Of White Culture, only 6.8 per cent of the cast at Stratford this season are visible minorities, not counting The King And I, which he says skews the figures because it features several Asian children. At Soulpepper the figure is 4.5 per cent, and at the Shaw Festival only two out of 63 are actors of colour.
"If equitable casting doesn't appeal to a sense of fairness," says Del Rio, "you'd think it would at least appeal to a sense of capitalism and the need to get more people to the box office."
Veteran actor Sandi Ross finds a reluctance to try experimental casting a terrible anachronism. "Why do white guys get to be every race on earth?" she asks.
It's a question that's occurred to Jean Yoon, who's had two decades of experience running into an invisible wall at auditions. She says she got to a point in her career where she found all her roles fit into three categories: animals, aliens/magical creatures and prostitutes. "Only once did I get to play a human like me, and I thought, 'Fuck, I've got to quit.' I knew the only way to come back (to acting) was to write my own stuff. It's hard for actors of colour not to drown in bitterness."
The major theatres reached by NOW are largely apologetic, while insisting that the scene is improving. At the Shaw, new artistic director Jackie Maxwell says she is actively encouraging visible minorities to audition, because moving to more diverse casting is a priority for her. She says Shaw's work doesn't always lend itself to a racially mixed cast. "If you're doing something set in an English drawing room, it's difficult not to reflect that in the casting. And I don't want to do token casting."
It's reputedly hard for people of colour to get a toe in the door for a CanStage gig. But according to associate producer Bonnie Green, discussions of race and casting have occurred at board-level meetings because of concerns that productions weren't considering Toronto's demographics. "We need to start thinking creatively about casting, because the default is Caucasian," she says.
CanStage's 2001 production of Indian Ink proved an eye-opener to directors and producers who thought it would be difficult to find suitable Asian actors. "Finding good actors of colour turned out to be much easier than we expected," Green says. Interestingly, CanStage's hugely popular Dream in High Park summer Shakespeare series operates under a "colour-blind casting" policy that attracts what Green calls "a sea of GTA faces."
While the mainstage has some catching up to do in this regard - "Some visiting directors are keener than others to hire actors of colour" - Green says CanStage doesn't want to interfere with artistic vision.
At Stratford, associate director Andrey Tarasiuk declines a request for an interview, referring instead to a letter to the editor he penned to NOW (May 8-14) taking issue with remarks on visible-minority casting made by playwright and actor Andrew Moodie (see related story, page 21).
"There have indeed been people of black, Asian and aboriginal origin on the stages and in major roles at Stratford," he wrote, referring to the roles of actors like Karen Robinson, Dion Johnstone, Walter Borden, Jamie Robinson, Seun Olagunju, Thom Allison and Charles Azulay. Tarasiuk's letter pointed as well to the many actors portraying the courtiers of Siam, including Helen Yu and Anne-Marie Ramos. "The Stratford Festival," he concluded, "is committed to diversity and to excellence. We would invite the readers of NOW to see for themselves."
Del Rio points out, however, that seven of this season's shows, including The Taming Of The Shrew, Love's Labour's Lost, Gigi, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Present Laughter, No Exit and Quiet In The Land, have not one visible minority performer.
(Repeated calls to Soulpepper have gone unanswered.)
While Canada's small and medium-sized companies, such as Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People (LKTYP), Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille, have more racially diverse casts than the major theatres, Del Rio cautions that they often slip into segregation. "They'll do a black play, then a native play, then an Asian play, so it's sometimes more segregation than integration," Del Rio says.
Factory Theatre artistic director Ken Gass, aware that theatre has cultural "blind spots," helped organize the CrossCurrents Festival, which develops and produces works by playwrights of colour. It's no good, he says, "ghettoizing" artistic voices.
Allen MacInnis, artistic director of LKTYP, which has a long tradition of casting plays to reflect the lives of kids in the audience, says, "Traditionally cast productions often signal a failure of imagination. The thing with theatre is, if you imagine it, it's possible."