A Demand for Nontraditional Casting

The drama displayed in scenes at a symposium on nontraditional casting Tuesday was upstaged by heated, sometimes vitriolic outbursts from the event’s panelists and from the audience.

James Earl Jones, Jimmy Smits, Richard Lawson and 24 other actors performed excerpts from nine plays to demonstrate the theme of the “Non-Traditional Casting Symposium”: That talent, not necessarily race, gender, ethnicity or physical ability should dictate casting choices. Blacks, Latinos and Asians played roles typically given to whites, a woman played Julius Caesar, and the physically disabled played the able-bodied.

But the day’s real histrionics came from those who hadn’t had lines to rehearse.

“We wouldn’t be sitting here if all non-white cultures weren’t considered trash,” said panelist and playwright Frank Chin.


“What if (governmental) arts funders said, ‘If you’re going to have a racist policy, you’re not going to get the funds,’ ” shouted panelist Clinton Turner Davis, one of the event’s organizers.

“I’m angry, and I’m not alone in my anger,” said audience member Shabaka (also known as Barry Henley), artistic director of the Black Theatre Artists Workshop at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. “I don’t have any hope in this process because we live in a white, male-dominated society.”

With a primary goal of opening up more jobs for ethnic and minority actors, directors, playwrights, producers and others in the theater, film and television industries, the 12-hour event at the Japan America Theater was the fifth such symposium held in major American cities since 1986.

The first conference was organized by the New York-based Non-Traditional Casting Project Inc., after a study conducted by Actors’ Equity, the national actors’ union, showed that 90% of American plays were produced with predominantly white male casts, said Davis, co-founder of the project.


Among Tuesday’s 20 other panelists were Reuben Cannon, a black Hollywood casting director; film producer Moctesuma Esparza (“The Milagro Beanfield War”); JoAnne Akalaitis, who wrote the play “Green Card”; and Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. About 850 people attended the free symposium, sponsored by the California Theatre Council, some of whom were critical of the event.

After watching scenes from such classics as Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (with black actor James Earl Jones as Big Daddy) and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (with Jimmy Smits, a Latino, as Willy Loman’s son Biff), panelist Ellen Sebastian noted that white males had written every play represented.

“By the time I got to ‘Blithe Spirit’ (by Noel Coward), I thought, I’m gonna vomit,” said Sebastian, director/producer of Life on the Water, a San Francisco theater troupe.

Others complained that more actors than potential employers had shown up, even though at least eight casting agents attended, as did Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum and Bill Bushnell, artistic producing director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Symposium organizer Madeline Puzo, associate producer of the Mark Taper Forum, acknowledged a “discouraging” lack of Hollywood studio or network executives at the well-publicized event.

Much of the conference was spent outlining discrimination against minorities--from one panel’s consensus that theatrical artistic directors are mostly white males, to another’s conclusion that Hollywood has about three non-white executives. But not all the discussion was so grim.

As panelists explored issues ranging from government support of non-traditional casting to breaking the “barriers” of discrimination, some optimism and hope were expressed.

Actor Carl Lumbly, who had a recurring role on “Cagney & Lacey,” said he was ambivalent about participating in the symposium. But he decided to deliver a short speech because progress has been made in nontraditional casting and he believes that, in the future, “anything is possible. That’s why I’m here.”


Symposium organizer Davis said that Actors’ Equity research shows that the four previous non-traditional casting conferences had “increased the employment of (minority) actors around the country.”

And Marcia S. Ross, now vice president of casting at Warner Bros., said in an interview that last year, when she cast the series “thirtysomething” for MGM, she more often than not recommended to producers an equal number of minorities as “white guys.”

David Hayes, artistic director of the National Theatre of the Deaf, provided the day’s most encouraging words.

Recounting how the successful troupe of deaf actors, labeled a “freak show,” couldn’t get bookings at first, he advised persistence.

“Don’t quit--anybody. Because ultimately, what’s going to succeed is only one thing, which is quality.”