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?