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Blog - Against Type

The arts should be a place where all people are visible, without just reinforcing stereotypes. In her new blog, Tanuja Amarasuriya questions the presence and impact of typecasting in theatre and beyond.

Against Type

I’ve just been reading about Ira Aldridge getting a Blue Plaque in Coventry honouring him as the first black Theatre Manager in Britain, in 1828. Earlier this week, I was reading about the abuse that Professor Mary Beard is getting for pointing to evidence that there was at least some ethnic diversity in Britain under Roman rule. Last week I was reading a couple of research papers by Dave O’Brien & Sam Friedman, about the relationship between class and career trajectory for actors, and between typecasting and inequality.

There’s a lot of really interesting testimony in these reports. In particular, how difficult it is for actors to say no to auditions or roles, despite it making them complicit with typecasting. Casting decisions are important “because of the role actors play in representing social and aesthetic reality; and how these representations, in turn, affect the ways audiences come to understand society.” Typecasting is pernicious because it reinscribes and reinforces social/cultural stereotypes and the circle goes round. As the report states:

“typecasting organises the supply of acting labour according to deeply embedded social assumptions (about race, gender, class, age, disability and sexuality) held by playwrights, screenwriters, directors, producers and casting directors.”

In short, it’s about time we all got woke.

When you look at the typecast tables in O’Brien & Friedman’s research, you see the clear patterns: working class actors tend to get cast as low paid characters, often victims or perpetrators of violence; one East-Asian actor talks of playing “endless maids”. There’s so much more responsibility we need to take as playwrights, screenwriters, directors, producers and casting directors. It’s not enough to put a working class accent on stage if all you’re doing is reinforcing a working class stereotype.
 
Reading these reports made me think about the language and assumptions that tend to prevail in the diversity discussions around theatre. There is a leaning towards the embodied or provenanced authenticity that comes with autobiography, self-presentation and true stories. There is devastatingly good work in these forms, and it’s without doubt a vital and direct way to present, confront and explore difference. Theatre might reach smaller audiences than TV, but there are certainly more opportunities to author and deliver your own work, on your own terms.

But we need to ward against pigeonholing ‘diverse theatre’ as social storytelling - because we need it to challenge and change our mainstream expectations, norms and tastes. We don’t just need different people to make themselves visible as who they are in the here and now. We also need to ensure that different people are visible in how we all envision the future and alternative ways of being. And we absolutely need to ensure that our understanding of the past is repopulated with different people, if historical evidence points that way.

Dave O’Brien pointed me towards his research in response to this personal blog I wrote a few months back about how this issue relates to me as an artist right now. I’d be really interested to hear about how other artists are negotiating these structures and biases, and where you see really good change emerging. You can email me on tanuja[at]theatrebristol.net

If you’re interested in this area, here’s info on a couple of discussion events which you may want to check out:

Wednesday 30th August, Edinburgh College of Art, Inequality & Culture discussion (being pulled together by Dave O’Brien, whose research I refer to) 

Thursday 12th October, Strike A Light Festival, Gloucester, Is theatre just for posh people?

[All quotations from Resistance and Resignation: Responses to Typecasting in British Acting (Friedman & O’Brien, 2017)] 

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