On stage at Sarah Lawrence this year, an Iranian woman played an Irish character. A Nepalese student was cast as a Russian. Non-traditional casting-casting without regard to gender, race, disability or other physical characteristics-is literally changing the face of theatre. "So much of theatre is not done the way it was done the first time," says theatre faculty member Dave McRee MFA '91.
"Some of our students are startled that they have been 'non-traditionally' cast," says John Dillon, director of the theatre program. "But why would you deny yourself the opportunity to see any actor who might be a wonderful performer? Theatre is an act of the imagination. Don't limit your imagination up front."
Non-traditional casting, and the alternatives and possibilities it provides in the theatre world beyond campus, was the subject of a panel in the Suzanne Werner Wright Theatre in January. Dillon, McRee and Desi Shelton MFA '04 and Christine Toy Johnson '81 participated.
Johnson, an Asian-American actress and singer, has played many musical theatre leads, including Julie in Carousel, Cunagonda in Candide and Maria in West Side Story. "When I started," she says, "it was sort of unspoken that any actor of color was going to play stereotypical characters." Her roles at Sarah Lawrence included the (traditionally white) ingénue in a senior-year production of The Fantasticks (then-president Charles DeCarlo played her father). She is now active in the Non-Traditional Casting Project, an advocacy organization that combats racism and exclusion in theatre, film and television. "I talk to college students around the country who are still being excluded from productions at their schools, in this day and age. I urge them to challenge the boundaries," she says.
With a relatively small pool of actors to draw from, Sarah Lawrence has of necessity always practiced non-traditional casting. As a result, theatre students look beyond who they are or how they might be seen stereotypically; the theatre department is turning out aware, well-educated people who will find new and interesting ways to create theatre.
Broadening students' concepts of themselves and theatre continues after they leave the College. Desi Shelton, associate artistic director of the Walt Whitman Art Center in Camden, N.J., recently directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Her original goal was to have an all-black cast, but in the end it was the caliber of acting that dictated her casting choices. So Big Daddy was black, and Big Momma was white. A disabled actress played the sister-in-law. "If you can't do it at the community theatre level, where can you do it?" says Shelton, who African- American. "Whoever can communicate my vision, that's who I want."