Carmen Aguirre's play The Refugee Hotel, dealing with the arrival of Chilean refugees in Canada in the 70s, was slated for production by Factory in April. But Aquirre, a champion of minority casting, and artistic director Ken Gass, himself a supporter of culturally diverse theatre and founder of the multi-ethnic Cross Currents Festival, were unable to resolve their differences over ethnicity and excellence. The following are excerpts from Aguirre's letter to the theatre community, followed by selections from Gass's e-mails to her. Finally, Gass's son, Ed Gass-Donnelly, weighs in.
I was beside myself with joy last April when Ken Gass told me that he would like to premiere my play The Refugee Hotel at the Factory Theatre. As a Chilean Canadian who was amongst the first batch of Chilean refugees to arrive 30 years ago, the play is very close to my heart. What a great opportunity for Latino actors in this country. What a great opportunity for any actor of colour! I made it very clear to Ken that I didn't expect to fill the eight Chilean roles solely with Latino actors. We were both in agreement that we wanted the best person for each role, so the auditions would be open to all races and ethnic backgrounds: Latino, Asian, South Asian, native, black, Middle Eastern, and northwestern European (popularly known as "white"). The Refugee Hotel is a Canadian play. I believe in reflecting the racial and cultural diversity of Canada (and, in this case, Toronto) on our stages.
I arrived at the theatre on Friday, November 14, at 10 am and found only 10 people being auditioned that day, eight of them white. Throughout the day I mentioned actors I wanted for the auditions (whose names had been given over the last six months), and Ken would run down to the office and get a staff member to call them at the last minute for an audition to be held on Monday. One of these actors says that she received a phone call from Ken himself at 11 pm on Saturday night, asking her to audition on Monday morning. She was not available.
I also began to realize that most of the actors we read on Friday are Ken's students or ex-students. Almost all of them were excellent. This was day one of the auditions, we had another six days to go, and I was eager to see more. I obviously assumed that we would be looking at dozens of actors of colour and native actors.
At the end of the day Ken and I went to dinner, and it was then that I realized that we were only seeing three or four more actors on Monday, and that that would be it for the auditions. We were basically looking at 14 actors, almost all of them white.
On Monday we auditioned four or five more people, and then Ken went to teach his class at U of T. I had insisted that we audition (native actor) Lorne Cardinal and had raised his name over the last six months. Ken agreed but of course didn't call him until the last minute, at which point we were told that Lorne was busy.
At the end of the auditions Ken made it clear to me that the cast for the workshop would be 100 per cent white, at which point I insisted that he at least bring in Marilo Nuñez.
On Tuesday, the day of the workshop, Ken cast many of the roles on the spot. The only person of colour in the room (Marilo Nuñez) was given the silent role. The character is called "Calladita" (Little Silent One) because she is mute. The cast read, and although many of them had been fabulous at the auditions, it became clear to me that most of them were not right for the parts. There is a character that is 100 per cent native. She has lines that say, "I am Mapuche," which would be the equivalent of someone saying they're Mohawk. Ken cast a white woman in that role and wanted to cast her for the premiere.
He was not open to having a native actor or an actor of colour for that role. He had only auditioned one actor of colour for that role, and refused to see any native women. I am aware that there are native people who look "white." However, the casting issues are not only about skin colour - they are about race, culture, language, ancestry and instinct.
After the workshop I proceeded to tell Ken that I was very disappointed with the way things had been going and that I would like someone else to direct the play. He ignored my plea and launched into a long monologue about why he felt the play had to be cast with white actors. Ken repeated three times that white actors are superior to actors of colour. Whenever I would suggest a minority or native actor, Ken would shoot down my suggestion.
The meeting ended with the following agreement: we would look at every possible Latino, native and actor of colour in town (as had already been discussed for the previous six months) and we would do this in December. Ken's words that most stand out in my mind are the following: "I want superb actors for your play, and actors of colour are not superb."
The following day I was supposed to go to the theatre to sign the contract. After much thought I decided not to sign and pulled the play. Ken and I obviously have huge artistic and political differences.
Excerpts from e-mails written by Gass to Carmen Aguirre and actor Marilo Nuñez. I agree fully in principle with what you say, but am still wrestling with getting not only a very good cast but a superb cast. Clearly a balance needs to be achieved. I'll try to audition Allegra Fulton (an actor with Spanish ancestry), Lorne Cardinal (a native actor) and Columpa Bobb (a native actor). I think as a next step we should seek out all the potential Latino actors and find out who the best options would be if we were going with a 100 per cent Latino cast for the Chilean characters. I do hope, in the end, that you will also be zealous of getting the absolute best actors, which is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the point of view you - and we the Factory on many occasions - have expressed.
In terms of creating opportunities for actors from Latin America, it is perhaps a moot point as to whether they are served any more by having Cardinal and Allegra (take roles) than "white' actors. I deeply apologize, Carmen, if you misconstrued my remarks as generalizations about Latino actors. A huge part of my own personal work, as well as Factory's, has been about creating opportunities for actors from all communities. But occasionally I think choices have to be made in favour of the immediate play rather than a larger social agenda.
There are perhaps two other factors you should be aware of. Part of the disorganization on my part was that during the week before you arrived I was writing a huge research grant proposal, trying to tap funds for a three-year $250,000 workshop grant to promote cultural diversity in the theatre. [The project would look] at plays written for white actors and exploring them with mix-racial and ethnic cultural identities and also the reverse, and, in fact, create a serious laboratory where the composition of the company would be at least 50 per cent non-white.
FROM GASS TO ACTOR MARILO NUÑEZ
Yes, many of the actors in the room (of the workshop) were being seriously considered, but never would I have even suggested the idea that the final company of actors would be entirely "white' in this context. Such would have been entirely inconsistent with all my recent directing experience and approach.
EXCERPTS FROM A LETTER BY ED GASS-DONNELLY
(theatre and film director and son of Ken Gass). The (current) controversy exploded when the majority of the actors who auditioned were white, which by Ken's own admission was largely the result of conflicting schedules and a harried timetable. [But what has] received astonishingly little attention is that Carmen Aguirre, the playwright, contractually had veto power over the casting. The impression left by her is that Ken was somehow attempting to racially hijack her play. Where things get complicated is that Carmen has stated that Ken told her, "I want superb actors for your play, coloured actors are not superb." Ken has publicly stated that this is an outright lie. So we are stuck in a game of he said, she said. However, my father's track record of being such a strong advocate of culturally diverse work, not to mention the fact that he would have to be a complete idiot to say that to her face, hopefully would lead you to believe the truth lies obscured somewhere in the middle. If her quote is true, then Ken must have a passion for working with un-superb actors, since nearly half of all actors hired by Factory last season were artists of colour.
She has also accused Ken of being disorganized and unprofessional. He is probably the lowest-paid artistic director in Canada. He continues to work as a teacher at the U of T to subsidize his salary. Also on his plate are plans for a major renovation of the building, the launch of a new performance festival and a new Canadian rep company, not to mention trying to find a few hours to finish his new play.
So it's no real surprise if the initial auditions were thrown together at the last minute while he was travelling back and forth between Toronto and Ottawa (and having to replace an actor in the National Arts Centre's presentation of Factory's Tiger Of Malaya when an actor fell ill). While this may seem tangential, it's really the cause of this whole conflict. As an artist and a son, I am appalled that this situation has been blown out of proportion. If you ask Ken to name the top 10 actors in Toronto, I can guarantee the list will be as diverse as the city we live in.