As the 2012 theater season winds down and I plan the next set of shows I'll be directing at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, I was thinking of the past season of shows that I saw in New York. I was shocked at how many plays-- contemporary plays-- lacked a Latino presence unless it was specifically a Hispanic character. So if the character breakdown was "Eric, male, 20s, lawyer", most of the time it would be harder to see a Latino for the role. Now mind you I'm talking about plays where race is not playing a major factor in the plot of the story. For some reason I feel that contemporary plays lack a colorblind casting element when it pertains to Latinos. If they are not actively seeking a Latino or the role is race-specific for the plot then they are not to be found onstage.
Except when it comes to the Bard. For some reason, people seem to be more flexible in casting color with his plays. I've seen productions where the Shakespeare play was set in Chicago in the 1920s and you have practically a Benetton ad of colorblind casting, but if you do a contemporary play in the 1920s it is whitewashed.
Is it just that William Shakespeare was that good of a playwright? I'd like to think so but I also think that what makes this possible is he truly understood the power of theater. He was a man of the theater and knew that when he couldn't fly in a huge set he would just trust the audience and his actors. We need to be in Verona so "here we are in fair Verona...." Pow, the audience accepted it. Not to mention all the roles in that era were played by males so when Romeo is courting Juliet the audience had to suspend belief and believe he was falling for a young woman. But Shakespeare also used this to his advantage as we see in his play Twelfth Night, or What You Will. "I am the man," says Viola, originally played by a male actor playing a woman who dresses up as a man, while Olivia who is a real woman in the play falls in love with her, but is also a male actor in drag. This is comedy gold. The audience ate this up. Hell, we still do. His plays are performed more often than any other playwright in the world.
So when you go to watch a Shakespeare show, it is built INTO the play that we are at the theater. The heightened language, the magic, betrayal-- everything that makes you want to direct, audition, or watch Hamlet for the hundredth time is in the text. He is a playwright for the theater and his stories can go beyond color or ethnicity.
Maybe directors, casting directors and contemporary playwrights should look to him more often. To look outside the box and remember that the power of theater is the fact that it is NOT television or film. On film, we cut to the real streets of Venice... on stage we can use the power of words. The power of the playwright still lives in his words and plot. Just because the breakdown in a contemporary play says, "Eric, male, 20s, lawyer", doesn't mean the character is ONLY one color or ethnicity. To remember to write for the theater and its conventions, not to attempt to make a movie on stage. Shakespeare knew that "the play's the thing...."
Alberto Bonilla is an actor, playwright, director, teacher and HOLA member. He currently teaches the Film and TV class at the Maggie Flanigan Studio and is a resident director at the Secret Theatre. He recently directed a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (for the Secret Theatre) and acted in another production of the same play for a different theater company.
[Views expressed in guest blogs may not reflect the views of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA), its staff or its Board of Directors.]