O/T: THE MIRACLE WORKER Controversy

While this topic isn’t specifically related to musical theatre, I think it does have ramifications for theatre in general and is thus worth reflection.

The casting of Abigail Breslin in The Miracle Worker has sparked a huge controversy, upsetting advocates for blind and deaf actors in the arts. Earlier this year, the controversy was brought to light in a report by Patrick Healy in The New York Times:

Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, an advocacy group for blind and deaf actors, among others, said… “We do not think it’s O.K. for reputable producers to cast this lead role without seriously considering an actress from our community… I understand how difficult it is to capitalize a new production on Broadway, but that to me is not the issue. There are other, larger human and artistic issues at stake here.

The Alliance‘s argument is framed with the attitude that casting a blind or deaf actor in the role would be more “artistic”, which of course is nonsense. And even if you chuck artistry out the window, would it automatically make for a show that is more compelling? This is precisely my problem with this particular criticism from the Alliance, who according to their mission statement deal with the inclusion of ‘artists who are African American, Asian Pacific American, Caribbean Black, South Asian, Latino, Arab American, Persian American, Native American, Deaf and hard of hearing, blind and low vision, artists who have mobility, physical, developmental or intellectual disabilities’.

By the standard they’re setting, gay roles should be played by gay actors. Straight roles should be played by straight actors. Cross-gendered casting should never occur and, perhaps, most ironically, neither could any non-traditional racial casting of a role. I mean, where do you draw the line? How can an organisation like this say that they’re consistent in promoting even the selective list of causes they promote if they aren’t objecting to every single casting or appointment that is out of line with their mission statement, or at the very least being more high profile in their campaigns to include the list of minorities they choose to promote? That kind of inconsistency makes it appear as if this is all for the sake of political correctness rather than for the sake of inclusivity, which I think is an inappropriate message to be send out by an organisation such as this.

An article from the Broad Street Review by Jim Rutter beautifully puts this all into perspective:

This whole assumption that “shared experience” informs a role rests on a narrow view of performance — a warped understanding of method acting. Perhaps more important, it leads to a counterintuitive result.

Subsequently, the producers of the revival have hired a visually impaired actress to understudy Abigail Breslin in the role of Helen Keller, as reported once again by Healy in The New York Times:

After an injury when she was 9, Miss Siegel, who will become one of the few disabled actresses working in a major Broadway production this season, can see only shapes and colors out of her right eye, she said in an interview by e-mail. She can see well out of her left eye.

So does that mean that everyone is satisfied now?

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3 Responses to O/T: THE MIRACLE WORKER Controversy

  1. KristinT says:

    I think what this article is trying to say is that visual- and hearing-impaired performers aren’t exactly over-represented in the arts and the Alliance is raising a concern about whether the production made an effort to find a talented blind/deaf actor before defaulting to the norm.

    But they’re not saying that this means only gay actors can play gay characters and that we have to abolish cross-gender-racial casting or promotion of equal opportunity for minority actors. To say that’s what they mean is disingenuous.

  2. David Fick says:

    And to suggest that this is not an implication of their mission statement is naive: it is the basic principle off of which they’re operating. The more implicit these are, the more disguised they are within the rhetoric of political correctness, the more deeply rooted their double standards are.

  3. KristinT says:

    No they’re not. The actors that this Alliance represented are under-represented, discriminated against or not afforded equal opportunity. That’s what makes them minorities. It’s not a double standard to say that they should have first right to playing these sorts of roles; it’s trying to address an imbalance. Given how visually and hearing impaired performers aren’t exactly a common sight in the mainstream arts, I’m not surprised that some are annoyed that an iconic role has been cast in a way that could be deemed a little insensitively. Having said that, I haven’t read the script or seen the show, so I don’t know if there’s any content that means a hearing- or visually-impaired performer would have difficulty. Kind of like how I could understand why Asian performers would be annoyed if, say, a Caucasian actor got cast as the lead in a production of Miss Saigon when there’s arguably many other varied opportunities being afforded Caucasian actor and Asian actors might be told at auditions they’re “too Asian” to play such and such a role.

    I’m not saying I agree with the article, or think that the argument’s been put most articulately. But that’s the point (I think) they’re trying to make.

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