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Color-Coded Language in Casting Calls

Theater is an institution long ensconced in the tradition of making the presence of whiteness hyper-visible and black representation invisible on stage. Most troubling is behind the curtain. Broadway theater claims to be inclusive of all racial and ethnic identities, but casting breakdowns for auditions continue to, albeit covertly, infer their preference to white over non-white actors. Color-coded casting is a restrictive measure to prevent actors of color from submitting for particular roles. Coding functions as a way to suggest age through descriptions like “classic-looking,” which means the actor auditioning should appear old, or level of attractiveness with descriptions like “approachable,” which means the actor should appear average-looking. Coding also functions as a double meaning- signally race or sexual orientation with descriptions like “street-wise female” or “strong female,” which means the character’s sexuality is non-heterosexual or the actor should appear Black or Latina. In casting, color-coded language must be covert.

Actors believe their job is to tell the stories of all humans, but why are white actors continually over-represented on stage? A study by Actor’s Equity (AEA), the national labor union representing professional stage actors and stage managers, found that diversity and inclusion are a problem in Broadway and production tours. Over three years, 77% of stage management contracts went to white AEA members, and only six contracts went to Black AEA members. Black stage managers who were women were paid 6% less than their white and Black male colleagues. White actors make up the majority of all onstage contracts-65% in plays and 67% in musicals. White actors receive higher pay in their contractual salaries, while Black actors report salaries 10% lower than the average principal in a play. Perhaps, these casting disparities are further driven by the fact that 79% of plays are written by white writers, and 85.5% of shows are directed by white directors. It seems racism corrodes the actor’s chances from the start when they attempt to submit for work on casting call sites like Actor’s Access. Color-coded language is foundational in the acting industry to restrict choice for non-white actors and to maintain its preference for white actors.

Ethnicity serves as the first filter when an actor is choosing parts for which to audition. Actor’s Access is an online portal where talent agents, managers, and actors submit headshots and resumes for auditions and casting calls. From a drop-down list, one must choose “all that apply” to their ethnic identity before receiving character descriptions filtered to match them. In my own Actor’s Access profile, blue check marks appear next to “white,” “Hispanic,” and “Mediterranean” under the header: Ethnic Appearance. The number of castings an actor receives each day are based on these blue checkmarks. According to old emails, I received 18 notifications in one day for casting calls, of which the majority wrote “open to all ethnicities.” Some wrote “Hispanic-looking (light-complected),” “blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian,” “brunette or dark-haired,” and “Jewish woman.” I would then choose headshots to submit for each project that I felt highlighted these ethnic or appearance-specific descriptions.

One casting that I received in 2017 was for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s production of Grease. The same cast of 16 actors would double for the cruise line’s original production, Columbus, The Musical. This casting is significant because it represents the type of castings that white actors, like myself, submit to without question but give non-white actors pause. Upon further inspection, the color-coded language in the Grease and Columbus, The Musical casting works to include white actors and exclude non-white actors, unless subtle descriptions suggest an exception. As I clicked through these old email notifications from Actor’s Access, it seems the demands and descriptions in the casting call for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s productions of these two productions have stayed the same over the years.

We can assume that the Grease cast is majority white because of the imagery from the famous film. A light blond and blue-eyed Olivia Newton-John pressing her school books against her pastel cardigan as Sandy or John Travolta combing his hair as Danny Zuko or the pink ladies who don blond wigs as Rizzo belts “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee.” We can also assume this by using Richard Dyer’s notion that the absence of race represents whiteness. In “The Matter of Whiteness,” Dyer writes, “As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people." Because race is rendered invisible in the Grease casting, and white actors are conditioned to believe that race is delineated only for non-white roles, white actors are more likely to submit.

We can also assume that this cast will be majority white because the breakdown explicitly states that all principles and ensemble members from Grease will double as the cast of the cruise’s original production of Columbus, The Musical. For example, the casting call states that the actor cast in the role of Sonny in Grease will need to play the characters Christopher Columbus, Pirate King, and Lead Shark in Columbus, The Musical. The actor cast as Kenickie will need to serve as that actor’s understudy and reproduce the same “punk” look and “rock star” vocal style of Sonny. In turn, he will also need to understudy the same three roles in Columbus, The Musical. The actor cast as Roger in Grease will play Marvin Columbus, and the actor cast as Doody will need to serve as his understudy as Marvin Columbus, the cousin of Christopher, who we know to be white. The constant replication of whiteness through the methods of casting gives white actors more opportunities to work.

White people get to be represented in ways beyond race; whiteness gets to be gendered, sexualized, and classed. In other words, those in the position of whiteness get to be made fully human. The absence of a specification of whiteness indicates that white is the race as opposed to a race. We see this in the contrasting language for Patty's role and beneath her in the casting call, Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama, which typifies the ways invisible whiteness and visible blackness in character breakdowns appear. Patty receives a robust description where we learn that she is “catty,” “sure of herself,” “athletic,” “attractive,” and full of “enthusiasm,” but Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama are not afforded the same kind of character description. Instead, we learn about the demands of the role. Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama must be able to “sing and command the stage,” perform a “20-minute self-contained cabaret act,” and possess a voice that can both be “soulful” and “over-the-top Jamaican.” Instead of receiving insight into her character, Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama is raced and therefore made less human.

Linda Waugh studies the nature of marked-unmarked relations in phonology and semantics in “Marked and unmarked: the choice between unequal in a semiotic structure” and distinguishes what makes something “marked” or narrowly specified to something and “unmarked” or nonspecific. Waugh examines the complexity of the subset of unmarked terms through a dialectic between the ‘zero interpretation’ and the ‘minus interpretation’. She describes the ‘zero interpretation’ or non-signalization of x as the “interpretation that is the most general, widest, and most broad (…) where the presence or absence of the unit of information is for the most part irrelevant” to the ‘minus interpretation’ or signalization of x as the “interpretation that signals the absence of the unit of information associated with the marked term; it is the direct contradictory of the marked term." Waugh’s characterizations of both interpretations offer us insight into understanding the racial coding of the Grease casting.

In this instance, the unmarked ‘zero interpretation’ of the casting is the absence of race because it is neither suggested nor assigned to each character. “Caucasian” or otherwise is usually demarcated next to the character name on castings, but there is no specific race for characters like Danny Zuko or Sandy. Waugh writes that the ‘zero-interpretation’ neither affirms nor denies the marked term but is simply non-focused and nonspecialized, giving little reference to the marked term (the character). Therefore, we can believe at first glance that this casting call is open to all races because it is missing general information. The ‘minus interpretation”, however, directly contrasts with the marked term (the character), and it is the coded descriptors that signal the absence of information in relation to the marked term.

Sandy is described as “like Sandra Dee of the Gidget movies,” who is famously known for her blond hair. Vince is described as a “typical ‘teen audience’ disc jockey,’ and Patty is described as a ‘typical cheerleader at a middle-class American high school” who can be “catty, but in an all-American Girl sort of way.” These descriptions fill in the marked term's missing information because their coded descriptions indicate specific white ethnic identities. We can infer that Sandy is white and blond if she is based on Sandra Dee- a famous blond, white actress. We can infer that both Vince and Patty are white based on words like “typical” and “all-American” and “middle-class”- based on our knowledge of race during the 1950s when Grease takes place. We know that whites predominantly made up the middle class, disc jockeys hired to play at schools would play for white teen audiences because schools were likely segregated and that the term "all-American" has the subtext that one is free of ethnic or racial mixing. In the 1950s, to be “all-American” meant to be non-raced and, therefore, white.

We can also infer that Patty and others are “all-American” white because only three characters' ethnicity types are delineated: Sonny and Rizzo in Grease and Bahama Mama in Columbus, The Musical. Sonny is described as “Italian-looking” with “shiny black hair and dark, oily skin,” and Rizzo is described as, a “thin Italian” who is “tough” and “outspoken.” Bahama Mama is described as “soulful” and needs to perform an “over-the-top Jamaican accent.” By delineating Sonny and Rizzo’s ethnicity and its stereotypes and Bahama Mama’s specific dialect as Jamaican, the casting call highlights, in subtext, the characters’ differences from “all-American” whiteness. By inspecting both unmarked interpretations related to the marked term (the character), we can see how people of color would hesitate to submit for any role other than those clearly marked as appropriate for someone non-white or less-white. The language is color-coded in that it indicates a preference for white performers.

White actors feel they can submit to all roles. They are more likely to submit to roles that are “marked,” “unmarked,” or those for which the casting call notes “open to all ethnicities.” This particular coding suggests that non-white actors will be considered, but “all”-means any white actor can also submit. “Open to all ethnicities” is a catch-all that encourages white actors to explore the diversity of their appearance and appropriate race-specific characteristics. At theatre conservatory, my acting teachers and mentors, most of whom were white, encouraged me to think broadly in terms of my ethnic identity so that a white Italian girl like me with dark hair and a Latin name might be considered for more than just “white” roles. I was told that I appeared ethnically ambiguous, which gave me the confidence to choose not only my own ethnic identity: white and Mediterranean, but Hispanic, Mixed Ethnicity, Eastern European, etc. I was told to add ethnic monologues to my repertoire, learn Spanish, and choose Puerto-Rican in my dialect class. I willingly abided until Latino dramas, and musicals eventually dwindled, and productions were back to casting mostly white-specific roles. With a change of hair color and a few adjustments to my repertoire, I was now re-branding myself as white, and if I was lucky, I could be seen as WASP white.

As a white actress, I never felt that any role was outside of my reach. I believed I was special and could safely perform songs as Maria, a Puerto-Rican, in West Side Story, and the following week as Clara Johnson, a southern WASP, in The Light in the Piazza. For example, the casting call I mentioned above that called for a “Hispanic-looking (light-complected)” woman also called for the “blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian” woman in the same casting call notification. I submitted to both. Because of my proximity to whiteness, I felt comfortable submitting for the Scandinavian, and because the Hispanic role was delineated as “light-complected.” Whiteness gave me status, and I benefitted from its accompanying privilege.

In “Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl Harris writes of her Black grandmother’s “passing” or presenting herself as white at her retail job in 1930’s Chicago. She describes her grandmother’s experience as “self-annihilation” in order to survive among the white employees and her constant shift from invisibility (as a passing white woman) to visibility (a Black woman living the black experience at home) each day. Crossing the color line was one way to gain upward mobility for Black people and is a well-known feature of the United States, which is structured on white supremacy and racial subordination. For Hariss’ grandmother, “Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges” and “the status of being white [has] become a valuable asset that whites sought to protect and that those who p