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Creative Appropriation

David Singleton /" data-tippy-arrow="false" tabindex="0">iPhoto caption: Photo by David Singleton /
/By / Apr 13, 2017

For the past two weeks, I have been observing Ravi Jain and his ensemble rehearse Hamlet. The room looks and sounds like Toronto: more women than men, a wide spectrum of skin tones and accents—and even languages, since Horatio is played by a deaf actor communicating in ASL. Hamlet is played by a woman, Ophelia by a man. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by women, Claudius by a man, Gertrude by a woman. Diversity here is a given, not a matter for debate.

The week before last, I attended a discussion on diversity hosted by Bad Hats Theatre at Canadian Stage. It was an animated, if sobering, conversation in a room full of young actors: I learned that students at some of our theatre schools are still told that they “are never going to play Juliet,” simply because their skin isn’t white enough. I heard an actor who identifies as non-binary ask what roles there were for them, and how actors like them could be included in casting calls. I heard questions about appropriation and concerns about actors playing characters of a different ethnicity than their own, or playing disabled characters when they themselves were not disabled. I heard anger about the continued dominance of “Eurocentric” plays in the repertoire. I heard a passionate plea to let “people play people.”

A few days ago, I was flicking through a recent book on directing Shakespeare in America. In a chapter on contemporary approaches to casting, almost all the directors quoted expressed hesitation about putting female actors in roles originally written for men; other directors argued for “non-traditional” casting in terms of race; only one made a strong case for broad inclusivity that encompasses “gender, ability and sexual orientation.” That same director also distinguished plays in which “cultural specificity is not chief among the concerns of the story or plot or themes” from others in which ignoring the importance of such specificity “would be to break the back of the world of that play.” His examples of non-specific drama: Shakespeare and Chekhov. Of a culturally specific play: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

A rehearsal hall, a public discussion, a book about staging Shakespeare. Three different angles on diversity, on its meanings, its necessity, its value as a theatrical practice, its importance as an ethical pursuit. What can I contribute to this discussion? My own claims to diversity are minimal at best: I am an immigrant, a new Canadian as of last June, but beyond that, I am all privilege. I am white, I am a straight cis male, I grew up in a middle-class household and have never experienced desperate economic hardship, I am a tenured professor at a large university. In many ways, I should not have a voice in this debate at all.

It certainly is a debate on which I reflect as an outsider. But I also come to it as someone immersed in European theatre—it is what I grew up with, it is what much of my academic research focuses on, it is what has shaped my theatrical thinking and instincts. And from that perspective, I can’t help but feel that the aversion to the “Eurocentric” (which in practice seems to mean “Shakespeare”) has made it more difficult for Canadian artists to diagnose our theatre culture’s problems and to recognize where European approaches can offer us a way forward.

In many ways, I should not have a voice in this debate at all.

To be clear: the demand that our theatres must reflect the diversity of our communities ought to be beyond debate. Especially for publicly subsidized institutions, that simply has to be a given. Of course we need more plays written by people whose points of view and experiences are not those of white middle-class men; and we need more roles written specifically for women, for actors of colour, for Indigenous actors, for disabled actors, for queer actors. We particularly need more of those plays and roles on stages and in seasons not explicitly dedicated to such work: as crucial as companies such as Nightwood and Cahoots, Obsidian and Native Earth, b current and fu-GEN are, and as much as they need more and stronger institutional and economic support, real diversity means that the voices these companies represent also must be heard at Tarragon and Passe Muraille, at Canadian Stage and Soulpepper, at Shaw and Stratford—and beyond the GTHA as well.

But diversifying our stages is not a challenge we can address solely by commissioning lots and lots of new plays. For one thing, especially if we take the principle of intersectionality seriously, we won’t be able to be as inclusive as we need to be if we rely on work written specifically with particular kinds of actors in mind. After all, the more precise the characterization, the smaller the number of performers that can match it. However, a less fine-grained version of cultural specificity, particularly in casting, risks slipping into generalizations. Is it not potentially as alienating, say, for an actor of Korean ancestry to play a Chinese character as it might be for that actor to play a character originally written as, say, a New Yorker of Italian ancestry? If respecting the cultural specificity of plays is an engine for greater diversity, is it not a violation of that specificity to cast in broad ethnic or gender-based categories? But since it is precisely the underrepresentation of entire categories of theatre-makers that the system needs to address, I would suggest that we need something beyond new, culturally specific plays to break open the existing professional practices and habits of mind.

Is it actually the case that only certain plays are culturally specific? Did Chekhov and Shakespeare in fact write plays without a particular cultural frame of reference? Not really: Shakespeare’s drama, while not as topical as that of many of his contemporaries, is a product of its time and that time’s religious, political, cosmological, and poetic cultural frameworks; Chekhov wrote plays about wealthy, or formerly wealthy, Russians inhabiting a very particular landscape, plagued by historically concrete worries and fears. Even Beckett’s drama, in all its apparent abstraction, springs from a specific political and cultural moment. The difference between those plays and others is not inherent to the writing: it is a difference of reception. We have decided—or rather, our anglophone theatre culture has decided for us—that some plays can be treated as if the context of their writing and the staging conditions for which they were composed need not be taken especially seriously, whereas other plays must not be treated this way.

In part, that’s an aesthetic decision: to maintain the fiction that Shakespeare remains universally accessible, for instance, we ignore the cultural specificity of his plays and allow modern actors to work as if Shakespeare understood modern psychology. But, in part, it is also a political decision, and how far we go in ignoring cultural frameworks also depends on our politics. To support the casting of women in Shakespeare’s female roles hardly qualifies as a revolutionary attitude; on the other hand, you would have to be downright reactionary to insist on male teenagers playing those parts (because that is whom they were originally written for). Both, however, are aesthetic positions with political ramifications. By the same token, arguing for a more aggressively inclusive casting practice can be aesthetically adventurous; politically, it is almost always progressive. But politics and aesthetics are not necessarily aligned. It is perfectly possible to stage an aesthetically conventional production while challenging the status quo politically by casting a woman in a male lead: think back to Stratford’s Richard III a few years ago. The same is true for cases where we insist on respecting the cultural context of a play as written. Such an insistence can be politically progressive and ethically laudable—for instance, when attempting to cast a play driven by underrepresented voices according to its cultural frame of reference. And yet, this approach necessarily limits the scope for theatrical experiment; its political progressiveness may come at the price of formal or aesthetic conservatism.

Did Chekhov and Shakespeare in fact write plays without a particular cultural frame of reference?

Here’s the thing: diversity, in our current historical moment, is never a politically regressive proposition; it can, however, be an aesthetically orthodox one. Art that takes progressive political positions does not necessarily do so in a way that also challenges or reinvents the formal rules and conventions of how art is made. In contemporary theatre, there is nothing radical in thinking of dramatic characters as somewhat abstracted versions of real people. Similarly, there is nothing radical in the idea that a production should strive to find actors who match the characters they play in their gender, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, or able-bodiedness. On the contrary, as an understanding of what theatre can and should so, this is an extremely limited notion: it relies on the straightforward realism enshrined in the theatrical heritage of most English-speaking countries, with which it shares a belief in the close correspondence between social reality and staged world, and a view of performance as the realization of the work imagined in a playscript. In content, such work may leave behind a Eurocentric canon populated and produced by white men, but in form it adheres to a long-standing anglocentric tradition of theatrical representation. Ironically, it is this anglocentric tradition that has ossified the canon of European drama, whereas on the European continent, that canon remains a wellspring of theatrical innovation and experiment.

One of the central aspects of the theatrical experimentalism so common in Central Europe is a total commitment to a playful performance of identity on stage. This attitude finds a striking contrast in an argument that came up repeatedly at the Bad Hats discussion: that a character should only be played by an actor essentially like that character, and that any deviation from that ideal risks committing appropriation. But if acting is anything more than self-expression, it necessarily must be appropriative: even without formal experimentation, actors routinely play with identity, with taking on personae unlike their own, with imagining what it might be like to be someone else. The view that it is preferable for autistic characters to be played by autistic actors (as one participant in the discussion suggested) relies on the same logic as the notion that it is preferable for autistic actors not to be cast in non-autistic roles; saying that only actors of colour can play characters of colour is analogous to saying actors of colour can’t play English kings and queens. The aesthetic theory of theatrical representation is equally conservative in all these cases; the only difference between them is that two are politically progressive, serving the need to diversify casts, while the other two are reactionary, shutting the door on non-traditional casting practices.

This troubles me: what if we finally achieved truly diverse programming and casts on all our stages, but at the price of a reaffirmed uncomplicated realist paradigm? A paradigm under which actors mostly played people as much like themselves as possible? Where their choice of roles would be strictly defined by who they are in real life, or who they could credibly sell themselves as—the only difference being that there would be more characters of colour, more female, more Indigenous, more queer, more disabled characters? This would be an enormously important political and social advance, to be sure; but is it an obviously desirable goal from an aesthetic perspective? And once we’re there, what would we do with roles such as Richard III or Shylock? Would Richard only be played by disabled actors, and Shylock only by Jewish ones—just as Othello is almost always played by actors of colour now? And would that be a desirable outcome, politically or aesthetically?

What, however, might be the alternative? I think we should consider turning towards continental European practices, and away from the anglo-American modes of theatre-making that still inform most of our work. What is needed is something more like radical systemic change. A shift away from a theatre that grants the text primary power in creating the world of a show and sees actors and directors as mere interpreters that only “discover” things in that text. A refocusing of emphasis on performance as the defining force of theatre. A rethinking of what it is actors do, and what kind of authority they should be given. In slogan-form: Free the actor. Invention, not discovery. Creation, not interpretation.

What is needed is something more like radical systemic change.

It may be difficult to connect this alternative vision to the caricature of “director’s theatre” that dominates the English media coverage of theatre in Central Europe. And it is certainly the case that when it comes to diversity, we have nothing to learn from those European theatre cultures. But when it comes to liberating actors’ impulses and creative authority, there is a century of lessons waiting to be taken seriously. And it is not just performers that should heed these lessons, but directors, artistic directors, and especially funding bodies.

“There are no roles for me” is a perfectly understandable response to a canon of plays written primarily by and for white people, and mostly by and for men. But it is also, paradoxically, the implicit affirmation of an anglocentric theatrical status quo. At heart, it means expecting the actor to submit to the text, expecting the play to supply a preconceived role. There is no need to perpetuate that attitude. In the Netherlands and Belgium, in the German-speaking countries, in much of Eastern Europe, it has long been replaced by one that asks: “What can I do with, or to, this text?” It is a given in the theatre made in those countries that characters (if they exist at all) are things that come to life in performance, not things that performance “discovers” in a text; that a character always has at least as much of the actor in it as of the author. I think we, too, need to liberate ourselves from the idea that the text constrains performance. It can’t. The text requires performance. It depends on the actor more than the actor on it. Otherwise it would be a novel. And if authenticity is a benchmark, the actor’s body and its presence on stage always win over any text, no matter how honest or heartfelt or real that text might be. The actor always exceeds the role as written.

In principle, every part should be “for” nobody in particular—and thus for everybody. And actors should not be expected to disappear into their roles either. Why not have a queer Antigone? An Ethiopian Oedipus? A female Mephistopheles? Vladimir and Estragon in wheelchairs? A Vietnamese Hedda Gabler? A Syrian Lopakhin? A non-binary A. Wingfield? Or perhaps some of those actors want to vanish into their parts—perhaps their “real life” identity should not have to define their performance, or our response to it. No actor ever fully matches the part she plays. But some divergences are marked, whereas others appear unworthy of notice: critics and press releases rarely take note when the part of Orestes is played by a straight white man of Scottish heritage. Audiences, too, barely seem to notice the distance between such an actor and the ancient Greek figure he purports to represent. That invisibility should be available for any actor, of any identity, playing any role—if it is invisibility they are after. An Indigenous actor playing Orestes, for instance, should be authorized to turn his performance into a reflection on his own cultural background, transforming the play in the process. Or, if he so chooses, he should be allowed not to.

What can I do with, or to, this text?

A mismatch between performer and role is almost inevitable. Understanding this friction makes for more complex, more surprising theatre: it allows us to appreciate the incomplete blending of actor and character and leaves room for performances that shatter the frame we expected. A show does not have to pretend to be like reality. It can alert us to the gap between actor and character and use that gap to comment on, rather than just depict, the world. This is not news. Even Brecht wasn’t the first to make the point. And most actors know it, too. It is audiences that will need to learn a new set of expectations. But there is only one place where that learning can take place: in a theatre driven by empowered performers.

In other words: the European theatrical practice we should adopt is creative appropriation, as a means of diversification. This is a vital qualification: appropriation in and of itself could, after all, be simply a means of keeping white middle-class men in control—now with access to all the roles, all the time. Once we recognize appropriation as a source of empowerment and greater diversity, we might also reconceive of the canon not as a prison, but as a treasure trove. Copyright laws being what they are, thousands of great works of drama from past centuries invite the open-ended engagement that recent plays refuse. The encounter with those works should come with a great sense of freedom: mine the play for what you can use; discard the rest. Add new material. Consider what is there, but remake it in your own image where necessary. Build the performance you want to make. Give the text over to the bodies and voices you want to see and hear. Be yourself as much, or as little, as you want to be, or as the show requires. Put the performance first. Quite literally no one can stop you.

This is not a counter-proposal to the insistence on new plays from underrepresented voices. It is a call for a complementary approach to diversity. A suggestion that if we grant performance full creative autonomy, staging the canon can be at least as much of a progressive, inclusive, intersectional, feminist intervention as the faithful realization of a new work staged in full accordance with an author’s directives. It is a call for the recognition that in the theatre, appropriation is not only necessary but can also be a radical political and aesthetic innovation. To end on another slogan: don’t let yourself be appropriated—start appropriating yourself.

This article is a personal response to Bad Hats Theatre’s “TALK 2017 – Diversification” event, hosted on March 27, 2017, at Canadian Stage. TALK is an ongoing dialogue series for the Toronto theatre community, actively seeking more sustainable structures for artistic development. 

Holger Syme

Holger Syme

Holger teaches at the University of Toronto, blogs at, tweets as @literasyme, and watches, thinks about, and sometimes makes theatre on both sides of the Atlantic.



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