Transcending Transcendence

by August Schulenburg

in American Theatre magazine

An interesting conversation is breaking out over at the American Theatre magazine article, Casting Without Limits. In that article, Richard Schechner advocates for casting without consideration of “gender, race, age and body type.” Schechner identifies four benefits to this open casting:

First, it would give actors the chance to play roles that have been off limits by virtue not of skills but because of gender, race, age or body type. Second, it would drive a wedge between actor and character, encouraging spectators and performers to critically examine interacting performance texts rather than assuming a simple-minded identification of the performer with the role. Third, it would further stress the already weakened link between theatre and realism. Fourth, performers and spectators alike would be more able to see gender, race, age and body type not as “biological destinies” but as flexible, historically conditioned performative circumstances.

All four benefits exist between the play and its context in the world,  not within the play itself. One commenter seized on this distinction, writing:

What the avant-gardistes ignore is how deeply unpleasant it is to be continually confronted with actors miscast in familiar roles. It is becoming harder and harder to achieve that willing suspension of disbelief essential to losing oneself in the experience, the transcendence which is the reason we love theater in the first place.

When does transcendence become escapism? Does that suspension of disbelief always mean a suspension of critical thought? How can we push open casting without closing audiences off? Join the conversation over at the American Theatre article!