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Color-Coded Language in Casting Calls

Art: Olive Barros 2018/19

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.

It seems that not only should Black characters in all-white casts arrive in the story as magical, but their talent must be exemplary...

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 i