This open letter was originally penned in response to the announcement of the casting of ‘Kinky Boots’ by Det Ny Teater. What we bring here is an excerpt focused on the larger discussion regarding minority ethnic erasure, and visual representation on stage via problematic norms, practices, and ideologies. The full letter and following response can be accessed via Mike Gamble’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/mike.gamble.733
This letter is a direct calling of attention to the continued disregard of actors/ethnic performers via the decisions, policies, and practices by theatrical management and production teams that minimize and maintain the erasure of those ethnic bodies from stage during casting.
While fighting to establish a deserving presence within an already suppressive industry, where ethnic performers constantly face adversity in garnering roles of merit, it becomes even more difficult to exist, with the roles intended for ethnic performers going to non-ethnic performers. So, while applause is being given for your decision to stage the award-winning show, please know that it is secondary to a major disappointment to be expressed in the active upholding of the uneven diverse representation field for actors/ethnic performers that looms over the musical theatre industry in Denmark and Scandinavia.
Breaking old habits
The problematic behavior arises when the excuse that “there are not any/not enough ethnic performers in our region” becomes the default rhetoric in Scandinavia when it comes time for casting decisions. It becomes even more problematic when a white male authoritative figure helms the decision and holds it without regard or consideration. It is this mode of thinking that needs to be addressed and shifted into a modern perspective.
When the decision was made to put up Kinky Boots, were any ethnic performers considered to begin with? Was there an audition notification targeted at ethnic performers? How many ethnic performers were contacted? How many ethnic performers were seen? What steps, if any, were actually taken in pursuing ethnic performers? Or was it easier to re-engage the cyclical excuse of their market absence, to avoid having to do a bit of search work? And in turn perpetuate their perceived non-existence and active erasure from the stage?
These questions hopefully offer an avenue for self-reflection – highlighting the importance of these considerations. And how the active lack thereof inadvertently helps to continually create the erasure and perpetuate the perceived absence of ethnic performers.
Not thinking about including ethnic performers as ensemble remains another passive micro-aggressive act in casting. Ethnic performers continue to be pushed to the side, reduced to background, or maintained as a secondary casting afterthought to add a spot of flavor when deemed “necessary”. The song writing team of Michael Kooman & Christopher Dimond even created a musical theater comedy song, based on this casting practice: “Random Black Girl”, originally performed by Patina Miller in 2006, and later by Alex Newell in 2015. Here we are in 2021, and it still shamefully holds active social relevance to our industry.
Creating spaces, giving a platform
Ethnic performers do exist outside the subconscious tunnel-visioned casting perspective, “only when necessary”, only visible/viable when they are needed, to fill out/cast shows like The Book of Mormon, Hairspray, Porgie & Bess or Dreamgirls, to name a few. The city of Copenhagen is a diversified metropolis, chock full of amazing ethnic singers, dancers, and musicians. As is the country of Sweden, although they may not all be active in the musical theater community. All that is needed is for an institution to open a window of opportunity for them to become noticed – but if that window is never opened, it will be hard for them to be seen through.
A common hindering casting ideology is the need of “a name” to draw an audience. A bit archaic in modern relevance, audiences go by what they know because of what they are told. Marketing and publicity are key – not just the name of the show, and not just the big-name leading performer. But even if this practice holds more truth for Danish theater audiences, what happens when the current big-name players decide to retire? Or there is a show in which they are not suitable? When does the next generation of performers, ethnic or not, get their opportunity to prove themselves and become welcomed by the audience? Remember, audiences cannot accept what they do not know exists.
Another opportunity to explore is “color-conscious”/non-traditional casting. Color-conscious means being aware of the historic discrimination in the entertainment industry. Being aware of what it means to put a body of color onstage. To intentionally promote it, and race-conscious actions, to avoid racially homogeneous casts. This is opposed to the term “color-blind”, which defines the same practice with good intentions. But in context, “being blind” to color, means you do not see the person themselves, for whom they are. There are many roles where the lead has been traditionally cast one way, but where ethnicity is not integral to the character’s storyline.
An opportunity to lead change
If you have made it this far in reading this letter, thank you for your time and actual consideration. Please note that no one is trying to tell you how to run your company or how to do your job. No one is calling for a shutdown of the production or a recast of the ensemble. Instead, what is being highlighted are lessons learned from continued missteps in rooted practices. And missed opportunities at utilizing your presence as an industry leader to break the problematic historical norms and practices of Danish and Scandinavian theater. This letter, and conversation, are themselves an(other) opportunity being presented for engagement; it can be an opportunity for an overly defensive response, while the voices of a marginalized group of performers are once again reduced to being addressed as unsubstantiated complaints, and the narrative changed to mob-like racist attacks. Or it can be an opportunity for one of the prominent Danish theater industry influencers to listen to the actual concerns being expressed. And have a necessary and long overdue conversation, about representation and visibility. And in the process learn and help move forward and take Danish musical theater production into the next level of integrated performance and inclusion.
The choice is yours…
Choreographer, Educator, Performer Ordförande/Chairman – Danscentrum Väst
The original letter included a page of signatures in support, which are omitted here but can be found in the full version.