The Frightened Arrogance Behind “It’s Called Acting”

August 2nd, 2016 § 11 comments

Margaret Hughes

Margaret Hughes


It is quite possible that, when the English stage was officially opened up to allow women to perform alongside men, most likely in 1660 when Margaret Hughes played Desdemona, some argued against it, on the grounds that young boys had been successfully been playing women for years, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. After all, only 30 years earlier, a French touring troupe met with disdain for daring to employ women, and even once English women were permitted to act, men did not immediately cease playing women’s roles.

Ira Aldridge

Ira Aldridge

When Ira Aldridge became the first black actor to find fame on the stages of Europe, having left America, which offered him no opportunity, there were at first people who took exception to the breaking of the color line, feeling that blackface had been more than sufficient for the portrayal of non-white characters and that a black man speaking the words of Shakespeare was “blasphemous.” One critic wrote that “with lips so shaped that it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English,” while another objected to his leading lady being “pawed about on the stage by a black man.”

Phyllis Frelich

Phyllis Frelich

After Phyllis Frelich won a Tony Award in 1979 for Children of a Lesser God, might some have dismissed her honor as resulting from a sympathy vote because she was a deaf woman playing a deaf woman, or that her achievement was somehow less simply because she used sign language, which was how she communicated every day? After all, one critic, praising Frelich, took note of her “affiliction.”

Invented scenarios? Only in part. And certainly none are implausible, at distances of hundreds of years or just a few decades. They are, after all, representations of the breaking of a status quo, the altering of a dominant narrative, and the much too easy ways of diminishing significant achievements at the time that they happened.

The stage remains a place where certain practices, steeped in tradition, persist. Despite being seen by many as a bastion of liberals and progressives, the arts are dominated by white Eurocentric men, whether it comes to the stories being told or the people placed in the positions of authority who are charged with making work happen. While the not-for-profit arts community has begun in recent years to explore equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives designed to give voice to a broader range of gender, race, ethnicity and disability, the field is still dominated by white structures and white professionals “opening doors” to other stories.

That’s not to be dismissive of those efforts, but only a means of contextualizing them and reflecting how nascent they still are in so many places. Let’s not forget, it was only in 2015 that the Metropolitan Opera dropped using blackface on the actor playing the title role in Otello, an original Broadway musical featured an all-Asian cast, an actor with a mobility disability in life originated a role in a Broadway production using a wheelchair. How was it possible that this hadn’t happened sooner?

The changes on our stages, the efforts to assert of a broad range of identity where it was previously denied, is reflective of society as a whole. While it has been 51 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and 26 years since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, there are still legal battles being fought to insure and protect their full and proper implementation. However, in the past decade, with the rise of social media, advocates for change have had the opportunity to make their cases ever more swiftly and directly, without adjudication by the media as to what concerns will be permitted to reach a critical mass of awareness, with people driving the story, not the story driving the people.

As efforts towards fairer and truer representations of racial and ethnic identity in theatre have resulted in particular shows becoming flashpoints – with The Mikado in Seattle and New York, with The Mountaintop at Kent State, with Evita and In The Heights in Chicago, The Prince of Egypt in the Hamptons and so many more – one of the more frequent and derisive responses has been, “It’s called acting.” That is to say, ‘Oh, it’s all make believe,’ all little more than ‘let’s pretend,’ and as such shouldn’t be held to the same scrutiny or standard as say, the make-up of juries or the population of schools. It says that since the discipline is about taking on a persona, the reality of the person doing so shouldn’t be considered, shouldn’t matter. The phrase condescends to anyone who dares think otherwise.

Those who would reduce efforts toward equity in the arts might wish to isolate them as being the result of identity politics or political correctness. The “it’s called acting” claim is, make no mistake about it, an argument for the status quo, for tradition, for the denial of opportunity, for erasing race. It expresses the thinking that gives awards to people who pretend to be disabled on stage and screen, while making it difficult for people with disabilities to attend cultural events, let alone be a participant in creating them. It is the mentality that loves West Side Story, but cries foul when songs sung by characters who speak Spanish are translated into and performed in Spanish.

“It’s called acting” is the response of those who perceive their long-held dominance, their tradition, as threatened, their own position as being at risk. “It’s called acting” sustains systemic exclusion. After all, as the saying goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality looks like oppression.” Privilege abounds in the arts, on stage, backstage and in the seats.

If we lived in a society, a country, where everyone was indeed equal in opportunity, then the arguments for paying heed to the realities of race, ethnicity, gender and disability might be concerns that could be set aside. But that’s far from the case, and if the arts are to be anything more than a palliative, they must think not just of artifice, but also about the authenticity and context of what they offer to audiences.

For the arts to survive, they must move forward, lest they become antiquated. In a society where the balance of ethnicity and race is shifting, it is incumbent upon the arts to at last fully welcome and support all voices and allow them to portray and tell their stories as well as the stories of others, instead of being forced to assimilate into some arbitrarily evolved template. There should to be an acknowledgment of how the lived experience can contribute to the arts, rather than denying its presence or validity, along the lines of the canard, “I don’t see color.”

There is no absolute in the arts, no definitive good or bad, right or wrong. The act of creation and the response to that act exist simultaneously in the eye of the creator and beholder (the audience). Consequently, the arts give rise to phalanxes of arbiters at almost every level – teachers, directors and artistic directors, and critics – who seek to guide and even control training, practice and opinion, each in their own way. When those arbiters have disproportionate influence, or in fact become gatekeepers, they assume a greater responsibility, one that goes beyond themselves into the field as a whole. How they are empowered, what they believe, becomes essential to sustaining – or diminishing – the arts.

When it comes to respect and recognition, diversity and inclusion, there is a new arts narrative being written right now. Within that process there are progressives making change, late adopters who are coming to understand, and reactionaries who want to hold on to the past. If we believe that art has value, so do the ethics and process of making it. Being unaware, or worse still, dismissive of how the arts are changing and how the arts reflect society, would keep the field trapped at a moment in time, one already mired in the past, as the world advances. That’s the road to irrelevance, which the arts cannot afford.


Howard Sherman is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.

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  • Elaine Romero

    I just presented a reading of a play at a theatre in LA with a diverse cast. When I submitted it here, I was excited because I knew LA had the acting poll for this show. I remember thinking, “If any theatre community can do this play, LA can.”The lead is Latina and her best friend is Asian. The play rounds off with two more Asian actors and an African-American man. During the talk back, I was asked if the two leading women’s roles could be played by white actors. The question of the mutability of the play to swap out ethnicity continued as part of the post-show discussion. I do not know if the question came because the reading was with an ensemble company and someone was trying to figure out eligibility for the season or if it came from feeling that, in order, for an actor of color to inhabit a role, their ethnicity needed to be central to all elements of her character. As a playwright who sees a diverse world in my head, how do I ensure that diverse world makes it all the way to you?

    • ren_man

      performance contract restrictions.

  • William Myers

    I find that one of the more important parts of the diversity equation tends to be left out of the discussion of diversity in casting (and in the artistic teams behind the shows). That being that the goal of any production is to take the words and ideas of the playwright and present them in the manner best understood by the audience. Using an actor who is Asian to portray the Asian role may lead to that actor having better understanding of the character she plays… but that is only ‘half the battle.’ The other half is performing in such a way (with sufficient skill and understanding of the audience members), that they too benefit from that authenticity.

    If the actor cannot bring the audience into their understanding of that authenticity and why it matters for the play…. then is there any point to it?

    • Pherdnut

      It’s a lot easier to say you tried really hard to find somebody who had both than it is to actually try a little bit by adding like maybe one small casting agency to the usual suspects and then grabbing the good-enough known-quantity you had in mind all along without a guilty conscience.

      These aren’t simple, untalented, or careless people griping about the issue. Most would prefer somebody who didn’t mangle the role and could actually put the effort in to have a bit of nuance on the details to a perfect fit who’s an amateur.

      And in fact many cultural minority actors will tell you they have accepted roles with cultural backgrounds they weren’t really or in some cases not even close to a fit for. But all of them felt a lot of pressure to make sure they did the details justice because of their own experience as members of the non-majority.

      But speaking as a non-obvious cultural minority observer who walks freely among you, people who are never required to understand the details of a culture that is not 100% their own in day-to-day life tend to not be as good at that. Or evaluating whether somebody else is for that matter. It’s not ground they’ve had to navigate daily for their entire lives.

      The problem isn’t that people are trying really hard and then taking the most responsible fallback options they can in service of the story. It’s that they’re often not trying hard enough to even see not-very-hard-to-find proven talent who are actually members of the role’s cultural background.

      In some cases I suspect it’s because they don’t know what trying hard means. In others I suspect it’s because they really just don’t think it’s all that important because they have no perspective on the matter. And even though they would never say so much out loud without being a little shocked by themselves, they’re really just tired of all this minority fussing complicating the problems they want to solve quickly so they can move on to the problems that interest them.

      Or at least that’s what it seems like from the stories I’m hearing.

  • Scott Stroot

    I’m sorry, but simply dismissing the argument that a legitimate aesthetic space exists between actors and the characters they play with this shallow ad hominem charge of “frightened arrogance” and privilege blindness is a very weak, ultimately insufficient argument. It assumes the modernist conceit that the illusion of reality is somehow the standard of value for “good” acting, denying or ignoring a huge swath of theatre culture and history in which that is simply not the point. Extend this argument even a little and you quickly run headlong into the absurd notion that authors can only legitimately create characters whose ethnicity and culture match their own.

    • Pherdnut

      Authors who don’t spend a great deal of time making sure they are deeply familiar with characters they create from culture/class-backgrounds they didn’t originate in run a great risk of alienating real people from that background as an audience and this happens all-too-regularly. And I don’t think it’s an unfair non-statistical analysis on my part that mistakes in that regard are most often made by people who are rarely in a position to be alienated in such a manner given that everybody is being exposed to the dominant culture 24/7 and we’re well-understood.

      I think you’re tripping on appearances and its tendency to correlate with culture as we all unfortunately often do. The core issue is culture. It’s true that all human stories are universal, but there are also details poignant to a shared culture that longs to have narratives closer to the unique elements of their experience shared in the wider world. Stories are after all how we reach out to each other, understand each other, and weave complex cultural tapestries together.

      When we attend to those details responsibly, we do a service to the people of the cultures they are relevant to by making them feel like their own unique narratives are relevant in the world we share and we do a service to ourselves by enriching our own experience with a story we’ve likely been told before in some shape or form but never quite in that way until we finally got the dominant majority gatekeepers to stop truncating details that struck them as irrelevant.

      Speaking as a majority-passing son of immigrants, with a foot in both worlds, I urge you to consider that there is a legitimate issue here and that, I assume, as a member of the dominant majority culture, it might be more difficult to understand than you realize. There are a lot of smart, talented, responsible storytellers raising this issue.

  • ren_man

    1) and when will professional theater catch up to educational theatre (esp. in high schools) where if they can sing it, act it, dance it (we hope), and hey we’ve even got a costume that fits – they get the part. Which can lead to some very interesting mixes of ethnicities in the same play such as when I did Sound of Music and Captain Von Trapp was Black, Maria was white (and German!), and a total polyglot after that. It works! (even if the set failed and sent Maria sliding down the stairs! oof!)

    2) BAD EXAMPLE ” It is the mentality that loves West Side Story, but cries foul when songs sung by characters who speak Spanish are translated into and performed in Spanish.”

    We cry foul because the act is EXCLUSIONARY to the majority of the audience when performed in a country, such as the USA, where ENGLISH is the predominate language. If we were in Spain, Mexico, or any other country we would EXPECT it to be in Spanish; in Japan in Japanese, in Korea, Korean; and on and on.

    • Pherdnut

      Language carries more with it than strictly literal meaning. I’ve never met anyone with the opinion you hold, that ever bothered to learn any other language properly. Try suppressing that part of you that loses its cool every time you hear non-English and listening to something like Don’t Cry For Me in Argentina in Spanish some time. It’s not the same song. And no, my second language isn’t Spanish.

      • ren_man

        how little you know of me and how quick to ASSume.

        When I visit a foreign country I DO NOT expect them to talk to me in English. I expect ME to talk to them in THEIR language.

        Oh, and Spanglish church services are the best!

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