17 Characters, One Actor: Meet “Baskerville’s” Brian Owen

17 Characters, One Actor: Meet “Baskerville’s” Brian Owen

During the rehearsal process for a play, most actors spend time digging into the psychology and physicality of their character. How do they sound? How do they move? What was their childhood like? For Brian Owen, star of “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at Long Wharf Theatre, that process is a little more difficult than normal. That’s because he plays 17 distinct characters in Ken Ludwig’s madcap retelling of the famous mystery.

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When Critics Go Too Far: Jim Ruocco

When Critics Go Too Far: Jim Ruocco

When critics go too far, whether it be personal attacks, invoking vendettas, body shaming, etc, they deserve to be called out for it. It takes one to know one but these individuals can wield incredible influence on indicting the quality of a play, Those who mishandle that, should be criticized just as much as the productions they're writing about. 

So without further ado, I give you "When Critics Go Too Far". We've already done one on Chicago's Hedy Weiss(who thankfully is out of a job). Today let's look at Jim Ruocco of CT, who chose to trash certain local theatres in the midst of praising another one. 

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Faith & Character: An Interview with Max Wolkowitz of Long Wharf’s “The Chosen”

Faith & Character: An Interview with Max Wolkowitz of Long Wharf’s “The Chosen”

In Long Wharf’s upcoming “The Chosen,” based on the novel by Chaim Potok, two Jewish boys in the 1940s form an unlikely friendship. While this is the world premiere of Gary Posner’s stage adaptation, it’s a return to the stories of Potok for actor Max Wolkowitz, who plays the show’s narrator Reuven. Two years ago, he played the title character in “My Name Is Asher Lev,” another play by Posner adapted from a Potok novel in New York. After what he called a “beautiful” and “challenging” experience at the Penguin Rep Theatre, Wolkowitz says he is happy to make his Long Wharf debut and once again inhabit a teenage Chaim Potok protagonist.

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New Work, New Festival at Long Wharf Theatre

New Work, New Festival at Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre’s Contemporary American Voices Festival gives New Haven residents a rare treat – a chance to see exciting plays that are brand new and, more importantly, still being worked on. From October 20th-22nd, Long Wharf will offer three staged readings of new works by Chris Chen, Jonathan Payne and Jen Silverman. With two days of rehearsal and minimal staging, actors will give voice to new pieces followed by post-show talkbacks with the creative team.

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"The Unrehearsed Player" : An Interview with Actor Denis Arndt

"The Unrehearsed Player" : An Interview with Actor Denis Arndt

“Very seldom do you get to speak the words first,” said actor Denis Arndt on performing in the world premiere of Matthew Barber’s “Fireflies” at Long Wharf Theater, “It’s a great privilege.”

For someone who has been in the business a long time, Mr. Arndt recently has had more than a few moments of great theatrical privilege. Besides making his Long Wharf debut alongside two stage veterans, he was nominated for a Tony this summer for Simon Stephens’ two-hander “Heisenberg” with Mary-Louise Parker. It was his first Tony nomination and also his Broadway debut, an impressive career milestone made at age 77.

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Speaking at a Silent Retreat: An Interview with “Small Mouth Sounds’” Orville Mendoza

Speaking at a Silent Retreat: An Interview with “Small Mouth Sounds’” Orville Mendoza

The majority of plays are centered around, as Hamlet put it, “words, words, words.” From Shakespeare’s soliloquies to Mamet’s fractured urban poetry to Durang’s whimsical prose, dialogue is often the most important aspect to any given play. But what happens when your play features almost no dialogue at all? Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds,” which is playing New Haven’s famed Long Wharf Theatre from August 30-September 24, is such a work. It takes place at a silent retreat and only contains a handful of spoken lines, most of which comes from the mouth of actor Orville Mendoza.

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10 Ways to Cope With Theatre Withdrawal

10 Ways to Cope With Theatre Withdrawal

We’ve all been there before.

It may be for different reasons for different people. For some, finding the right role or gig might just be too hard, leaving us with a large gap of time in-between our creative projects. For others, work or family life may be taking up too much time. If you’re like me, it might be because you’re still in the middle of a major transition phase in your life that’s left you too busy to take up any huge new projects, at this point in time.

But at one point or another, I’m sure we’ve all known – to varying lengths or degrees – the unpleasant experience that is theatre withdrawal.

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History Repeats as Aspiring Chorus Girl Taylor Quick Finds Stardom in Thoroughly Modern Millie

Matthew Blank

“Ah, sweet mystery!” Such can be said of the enigmatic, homey, and utterly irresistible early 2000’s Tony Award winner Thoroughly Modern Millie. A complete throwback to a film that no one from any generation really remembers, it came bursting out of the regional world and won Broadway’s heart in that very tumultuous year following the events of 9/11.

It was a time where the world needed light and frothy as a tonic to the horrors of real life, a time where Mamma Mia! cemented itself as a classic and Millie brought its gorgeous thematic hybrid and star performances to the forefront of the culture.

And now, 15 years later, with the world in a new form of uncertainty and tumult, we find that Millie is as beloved as ever. I’m not gonna launch into a full-blown political deconstruction because, quite honestly, I just like showtunes and I LOVE Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The show is currently being presented at the famed Connecticut Goodspeed Opera House. In viewing the credits, it struck me that the one person in the show who wasn’t a familiar name happened to be the woman playing the title role. I recognized Samantha Sturm from her numerous Broadway turns and Dan DeLuca for his work in Newsies. But this one Taylor Quick was unknown to me.

And it seems that the show is repeating a bit of history. We might recall that the musical was originally workshopped with Kristin Chenoweth in the lead, later to be replaced by Erin Dilly.

A fairly-unknown Sutton Foster left the Broadway company of Les Miz (where she had been a frequent Eponine) to take on an ensemble track in the out-of-town tryout of this financially-risky piece of material. In the end, she ascended to the role of Millie, won the Tony… and you know the rest.

Quick seems to be serendipitously following the same model, as you will see in her fascinating story here!

And no, it’s not some All About Eve shit… sometimes good things just happen to nice people.

Let's go back a little bit. Where did you grow up and when did the theatre bug first bite you? Did you come from a theatre family? Was your family supportive of this path, and was there a specific moment you realized you wanted this to be your career?

I was born and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was bitten by the theatre bug at the early age of 3. My parents took me to see Peter Pan and they said I didn't flinch during the entire show, which of course is unusual for a 3-year-old. They knew I really must love what I was watching.

My mom was a dancer and my aunt was in several Broadway shows and in soap operas. I was lucky to have them as influences, both physically and spiritually. I grew up in a dance studio starting at age 2, so my parents always knew I wanted to perform and that it was in my blood.

I wanted to be a ballerina for a long time and spent summers with the Joffrey Ballet School and American Ballet Theatre. Not until I stepped foot into the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, did I know I really wanted to pursue musical theatre. My family has supported me every step of the way, and I know not everyone out there has that so I couldn't be more grateful.

What are some of the standout roles from your childhood? Any particular mentors or inspirations you recall?

During my childhood, I did a lot of dancing and modeling. During college, I played Liesl von Trapp in The Sound of Music, which was my first supporting lead. Liesl really gave me the confidence boost that I needed. I played Flaemmchen in Grand Hotel and that role gave me the drive to move to New York City.

Besides my family, I was lucky to have some amazing mentors. Nicole Capri, the former education director at the Arkansas Rep, was the first person who told me I had the "it" factor for musical theatre. Her summer intensives there really molded me when I was young, because she treated us kids as adults.

One of my dance teachers at Shuffles and Ballet II, Allison Stodola Wilson has always been one of my idols. She is an amazing dancer and teacher. My angelic college voice teacher, Angela Turner Wilson, told me I could do anything I wanted to do if I set my heart on it.

Now here you are starring in a very difficult leading role at one of the country's most famed theatres. Tell me about your audition process, and where were you when you found out you booked it? Who was the first person you called/texted?

A little bit of a crazy story, actually. I just moved to New York City last September. In November (I was EMC at the time) I went to Goodspeed's Thoroughly Modern Millie open non-Equity dance audition for the ensemble. I ended up getting multiple callbacks. They even brought me into an invited call with all of these amazing dancers from Broadway, and I thought, "What am I doing here?"

I ended up making it to the final day of the ensemble auditions. We danced, sang and read some ensemble scenes, and were all out in the hallway and I thought we were finished. Every single person in that room was incredible. I remember thinking, "Wow, to be able to be a part of this show in any way at Goodspeed would be unbelievable. And if I don't get this job, at least I had a blast auditioning and learned something new about myself."

The casting director came out and handed me a scene for Millie, and I literally looked at him and I just blinked. I figured the leads would be Broadway vets, and I thought they were already cast.

I went in and, on the spot, read two scenes and sang for Millie. In December, I got the call. I immediately called my parents after. To tell me I booked it, my agent started playing the title song from the show and I cried. I still have to pinch myself from time to time.

How familiar were you with the show beforehand? Had you seen a production?

I grew up listening to the wonderful music by Jeanine Tesori. I've sang and performed some of the songs, and I have always loved Sutton Foster. I've seen a community theater perform the show and have watched the Tony performance over and over again.

What has been the most challenging part of the process, and do you have a single favorite moment for you character? I'd also love to hear about your scene work with your co-stars. Millie has so many fantastic moments. Has anyone in particular really helped you grow as a performer or further develop your performance?

The most challenging part I would say is the stamina. Millie, for me, is a marathon not a sprint. The first time we did a full run through of the show, I thought I was going to pass out after. I just had to rise to the challenge, which is why I equate the rehearsal process similarities to training for a marathon.

Oh goodness, favorite moment... that's difficult. I really do love the ledge scene with Jimmy.

(Spoiler alert) Millie finally surrenders herself and there's this charming Fred and Ginger moment. The scene/song makes my heart happy every time.

 Taylor Quick in Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Taylor Quick in Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

I also should say I love performing Millie's 11' o ‘clock number, “Gimme Gimme.” I really try to leave my heart on the stage.

First and foremost, this cast is GOLD. I have learned so much from working with them and observing. I would say each and every one of my co-stars are all amazing, and such polished actors. I can't single out just one. Being able to feed off of them helped me mold Millie. Our fearless leader, Denis Jones, who directed and choreographed the show really helped me perfect Millie. I could go on and on about him in the best of ways.

Let's talk more about Goodspeed. I can't think of a more beautiful place in the country to be doing top-notch theatre. It's also pretty out of the way, which forces the performers to create their own community on some level. How have you found the experience so far, and what is your favorite element of the Goodspeed experience?

I had heard of Goodspeed's amazing reputation, but being here made me realize why everyone wants to work here. The place is like Disneyland. I have nothing but great things to say. Everyone here is so kind and they treat us so well. The housing is incredible. The town where Goodspeed is in, East Haddam, is tiny, but gorgeous. Being only a 2-hour drive from NYC we are able to drive back, if we have to, on days off. The opera house is directly on the Connecticut River. My favorite element of my experience would have to be looking out my dressing room window before the evening performances. I have the most beautiful view over the river, and at sunset it's breathtaking. Every time I see it I realize how lucky I am.

Favorite food options in the Goodspeed area? After a 2-show-day, what do you CRAVE?

There is a Thai food restaurant in an adorable town called Chester (nearby Goodspeed) that's my new love. After a 2-show day, I'm usually pretty exhausted, but I will wind down with some peanut butter. But then again, I crave peanut butter pretty much 24/7 :)

Millie is a beast of a role. How do you stay healthy, sharp and energized for that schedule?

For this role, I have to get 9-10 hours of sleep a night. I drink TONS of water. I steam my vocal cords several times a day. I take in a lot of vitamin C. Every morning, I have a cup of coffee to give me an energy boost. Before every show I make sure my body is stretched and my breath is under control.

  Samantha Sturm  and  Taylor Quick  in Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Samantha Sturm and Taylor Quick in Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

If my body is stressed out in any way, I'm not as sharp. I can't go out and socialize a lot, or my battery goes down. If I'm not too tired, I will go to the gym. I try not to use my voice too much outside of the show. When I'm not performing, I'm resting, eating, or sleeping.

Millie is an incredibly challenging role and I believe she is one of the most demanding roles ever written. She almost never leaves the stage and sings/dances/acts all in an equal amount. It's a lot, but it's an absolute blast.

Tell me more about your relationship with the character. Did you put in any specific research? Do you find certain elements of her that resonate strongly with you?

I did! I looked up pictures of flappers in the 20s. I wanted to see the way they held themselves and what they wore. The fashion was very monumental at this time. I also researched both Julie Andrews and Sutton Foster in the role, but I really wanted to make Millie my own.

Millie Dillmount's journey and my journey parallel very closely. Millie has just moved to the big city from Salina, Kansas. She is fresh, hopeful, and tenacious. I just moved from Little Rock, Arkansas, with an optimistic eye. Millie has these big dreams and her energy is palpable.

Everyone she comes in contact with can see it and feel it. When I first moved to the city, I put my nose to the grindstone every day, praying to get a shot. Our director, Denis Jones, looked at me in rehearsal one day, and said "You know, you are a real life Millie."

It's been about 15 years since the show popped up and served as a much-needed tonic in post-9/11 America. What is it about the show that you think has given it such longevity?

Since the original production opened on Broadway about 7 months after 9/11, I believe the show gave audiences a chance to escape the world for about 2 and a half hours during that tragic time. The show is still being produced because it delivers a lighthearted and charming, and not to mention very comical, snapshot of the carefree age during 1922.

The music is full and fluid. When an audience finds itself rooting for a character, that's when you know a show has had an influence. People want Millie to succeed. To not have a smile walking away after seeing Thoroughly Modern Millie, is impossible.

Once this is done, any side projects or future endeavors you can talk about?

I don't have any projects in concrete yet. I do have some potential jobs, but I plan to go back to NYC to keep learning, honing my craft, and pounding the pavement.

What is your ONE dream role, male or female? The role where, if it was the last thing you did, you would die a happy lady?

This is always the most difficult question for me. I have many, but I would love to play Nellie in South Pacific. I'm crazy about Rodgers and Hammerstein's music. A little like Millie, she's the strong female protagonist and has a charming sense of quirkiness to her. Plus, she's from Little Rock and I'm from Little Rock. Although, Millie is and was a dream for me, so I could die happy right now.

Finally, to any aspiring performers or artists of any race, age, or background, what are your best words of advice?

Always be kind to everyone, never take yourself too seriously, and rejoice always.

*

See Thoroughly Modern Millie at Goodspeed through July 2! Tickets and info can be found at www.goodspeed.org. Title Photo:  Diane Sobolewski

~~~~~

Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.

Whitewashing 'In the Heights' in One of the Most Hispanic Areas in the Country (Updated)

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief

In the past couple of weeks, the issue of casting shows racially correct has been a hot button issue not only on this site, but the entire industry as well. As more and more theatres are pushing for racially diverse materials and casting, the spotlight becomes a bit more glaring on the theatres that aren't and the feeble excuses they're coming up with. 

Last year, there was major controversy coming out of Chicago where a professional production of In The Heights cast a white Italian actor in the role of Dominican, Usnavi. In response to the outrage, Porchlight Theatre stated that the decision was largely based on casting difficulty. Given that Porchlight is located in Chicago, home to over 2 million Latinx people (6th largest in the country), this excuse fell way short and was deemed unacceptable by the Latinx community and even the creators of the musical. 

For reference, Latinx is the gender-neutral alternative to Latino, Latina, and even Latin. Used by scholars, activists, and an increasing number of journalists, Latinx is quickly gaining popularity among the general public. It’s part of a “linguistic revolution” that aims to move beyond gender binaries and is inclusive of the intersecting identities of Latin American descendants. In addition to men and women from all racial backgrounds, Latinx also makes room for people who are trans, queer, agender, non-binary, gender non-conforming or gender fluid. 

Now, a year later, casting issues regarding the piece have sprung up again, this time in Bridgeport, CT where the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (DCT) had cast AT LEAST one white performer in a Latina role, Puerto Rican Camilla Rosario, altering her appearance to resemble a Puerto Rican woman. To many, this is considered "brownface" which generally falls under the umbrella of "whitewashing”.

I am now being told that the roles of Daniela and Piragua Guy were also white. It has been reported to me that these white actors were cast over Latinx performers who also auditioned for the show. The level of wrong here is off the charts. 

While I certainly know of this theater, I'll admit that I didn't know about this particular casting until it was brought to my attention by several audience members and others in the theatre community. Many were wondering why I hadn't said anything about this, considering the multiple articles we've done condemning whitewashing. 

One email read, 

"As a member of the Puerto Rican community I was deeply offended to see a white actress playing the role of a Puerto Rican mother. Not only was she wearing a wig and makeup but spoke in a very poorly done accent as well."

 Another read, 

"I've seen plenty of shows here before that were cast correctly when it comes to race. It's disappointing to see that they couldn't follow through on the one iconic Hispanic musicals in a heavy Hispanic area."  

An email from a fellow Latina actress stated,

"The overall production was excellent, so it's really sad for me that I was so distracted by seeing white people playing basically me, made up to look like me. Had this been in any other town maybe it would have been unnoticeable or okay, but not here, not with me." 

So, as I do with all emailed complaints or reports and to be fair to all theaters, I did the research, contacted the theater for a response, and will address the issue. 

From what I see, from DCT's website and promotional materials, it does appear that at least one white performer was cast as a Puerto Rican woman in the show. It also is evident that her appearance was altered to look like a Puerto Rican woman. However, I am being told now that she's "40% Native American", which doesn't mater because she's still, "0%" Puerto Rican. 

While I do not believe that this theatre company or the creative team are in any way maliciously racist (given their commitment to producing racially diverse material in the past), I can certainly understand why some would be offended by this, with no explanation from the theater as to why it happened, and especially in a city such as Bridgeport, CT (which we'll get into in a moment). 

But, before we get into this particular situation, let me provide some context into the issues of "whitewashing" and "brownface". 

***

There is no question that the use of "blackface" (the makeup used by a non-black performer playing a black role) is unacceptable in every way. The use has been shunned in the entertainment industry. It's use rightly ignites outrage and people have lost their jobs and been expelled from schools for donning it. No matter what their intent, whether it be mocking blacks or trying to "educate", it's always wrong. 

However, while the line is clearly marked that "blackface" is terrible and should never happen, it's a bit blurry when it comes to other races, especially Latinx and Asian. Hollywood has employed the use of white actors playing Latinx roles in the past. 

Hollywood.com stated, 

"Many non-Latin actors have played Latino roles, with varying degrees of success: Hank Azaria, Johnny Depp, and Anjelica Houston have all played Latinos. There have even been white actors in historical representations of Latino history. Ethan Hawke played a Uraguayan in Alive and Ben Affleck’s character in Argo was based on half-Mexican CIA agent Tony Mendez."

Most famously, Rita Moreno, who happens to be Puerto Rican, even had to darken her complexion for West Side Story.

Because of this practice of "brownface" and "yellowface", it trickles down to the theatre community where it is interpreted as generally acceptable and, therefore, practiced often. While these portrayals are rarely done in a disrespectful way (playing up racial stereotypes), casting white performers as Latinx or Asians is still unacceptable.

If you're wondering why this is a problem. Jon Oliver laid this out pretty well. He's white. He gets it. 

The great hypocrisy in all this is that while theaters would NEVER employ the use of "blackface", and would cancel a show before even considering it, the stance softens when it comes to "brownface" and "yellowface". More and more theaters across this country use white actors in shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Miss Saigon, and In the Heights

One point of defense I usually get from a theater is "Well, are we supposed to only cast Germans as Nazis in The Sound of Music? Or Jewish people in Fiddler on the Roof?

First of all, saying this greatly diminishes the problem and plight of performers of color. Secondly, it reveals a gross lack of knowledge when it comes to countries of origin within race classifications. 

And yes, at least for me as an Asian male, I also believe it is wrong for performers of color from one race who are cast as another. While some might, I would never audition for the role of a Latino or Middle Eastern or historically white male. 

But that's enough context, let's get back to the issue in Bridgeport. 

***

Rather than cast a Latina actress in the role of Puerto Rican, Camila Rosario, Director Christy McIntosh-Newsom chose to cast white actress Julie Bell Patrak. However you can see Ms. Petrak's transformation from THIS to THIS

While Ms. Petrak reportedly(The show closed on May 21st and I didn't see it) didn't play up Latina stereotypes, her appearance was still altered to portray a Latina woman. Ms. Petrak even commented on her transformation in an interview where she said, " I’ve also been diving into the dialect…it’s all about bringing in an authenticity and truth to the story."

However obvious or subtle, if an actor has to change their appearance to pay another race, that actor should not have been cast in the role. With all due respect to Ms. Petrak, while her portrayal might have been as respectful as possible, it was never going to be authentic. Also, there is no such thing as a Latinx "dialect". According to Latino performer Luis Eduardo Mora, "You can have an accent from a specific country or region."

But I'm not going to pile on Ms. Petrak too much here. For all I know she is just an actress who either auditioned for the role or accepted the role when asked by the director.

Now some of you might be saying that since the role of Camilla is so small (Is it though?), it doesn't matter. However, the ethnicity of these characters were written a specific way for specific types of performers and anything against that severely undercuts the authorial intent by the writers, one of which is Lin-Manuel Miranda who happens to be Puerto Rican.

But moving beyond the fact that whitewashing occurred, the questions become "Why?" and "How?" 

It's important to state who the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (DCT) are. The theatre has been around since 1975 and is currently run by both Hugh Hallinan as Executive Producer and Eli Newsom (Ms. McIntosh-Newsom's husband) as Producing Artistic Director. This also isn't some small-time community theatre and referring to them as such would be offensive to the sizable operation they've had success in building. While operating, currently, as a non-profit theatre with open call auditions, the theatre does offer and has employed Equity performers and pays performers for their Children's Theatre productions. 

But why did this happen?

Unfortunately we may never know. Not unless the DCT comes out with a statement following the publication of this article. I reached out to Mr. Hallinan and Mr. Newsom to let him know that it had been reported to me that audience members and others in the community were complaining that whitewashing was occurring in this production and I wanted to know how this came about with the casting process. This is the response I received, fairly quickly, from Mr. Hallinan:

It reads: 

"Chris,

Under no circumstances does the Downtown Cabaret Theatre employ the practice of "whitewashing" when casting its productions.  It's a silly and unfounded accusation and barely deserves a comment."

Beyond the fact that Mr. Hallinan's response was arrogant and dismissive towards the complaints from his audience, it's also problematic because it suggests a gross ignorance when it comes to whitewashing. My concern now is if Mr. Hallinan doesn't truly understand what whitewashing is, otherwise he'd plainly see that it occurred within his theatre. That is, unless he wasn't aware of what was going on in his theatre, which is even more troubling. I asked for a follow up comment from Mr. Hallinan, but that was never responded to and I haven't heard a word from Mr. Newsom either.  

There are also about fifty different ways Mr. Hallinan could have responded to me that would have, at the very least, explained why this happened. While they're certainly not obligated to release that information,  I could have (while still disagreeing with the final decision) understood the position the theatre was in. But Mr. Hallinan doesn't think I, therefore you, deserve a response to that. Oh well. 

But this leads into next question, "How did this happen?"

As usually the case when issues like these happen, the excuse from the theatre is that they had to make such casting choices based on the limited pool of performers auditioning. Again, with specific to the situation at DCT, Latinx performers were passed over for Latinx roles byt white performers. 

I have made it known my feelings when this happens, by saying that if performers of color do not show up for roles of color, or the theatre can't find any, then the theatre should replace that show in the season. You wouldn't do Fences without any black actors, so why would you do In the Heights without enough Latinx performers? I would say the same is true for Avenue Q, but many theatre companies don't abide by that. 

It also doesn't matter if it's ten roles or just one, cancelling a show should always occur before whitewashing is even an option. If a theatre was doing Violet, which requires a black male in the role of "Flick", I am willing to bet they would go to great lengths to find a performer to fit that role and cancel the show if they couldn't, before ever considering putting a white actor in "blackface" to play it. 

But the “not enough actors” excuse isn't viable anymore, especially not in Bridgeport, CT. 

While the ability to find Latinx performers might be an issue in cities with a scarce Latinx population, that is far from the case in the Bridgeport area. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, the area boasted the highest Latinx population in the State of Connecticut with approximately 177,000. Two things to note here. The first is that this number ranks the Bridgeport area with the 46th highest Latinx population in the country, right behind Detroit and just ahead of Oklahoma City. Second and perhaps most ironic, is that Puerto Ricans made up the largest pool of the Bridgeport Latinx population, at just under 34%. 

So while there may not have been enough Latina actresses to show up for the auditions(which has been reported that wasn't the case), there was certainly a sizable population to reach out to, especially with New York City(2nd Highest as of 2014) just a short train ride away. I don't know to what extent the creative team did to try to find Latina actresses to come out for the role. I inquired about that, but my questions weren't responded to. 

In case you were wondering how the creators of In The Heights feel about this issue, look no further than the comments from co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes. In an interview last year with American Theatre Magazine regarding the Chicago casting controversy, Ms. Hudes said the following: 

"The fact is that creating true artistic diversity often takes hard work. Concerted, extra effort. It takes time and money. You cannot just put out a casting call and hope people come and then shrug if they don’t show up. You may need to add extra casting calls (I do this all the time), to go do outreach in communities you haven’t worked with before. You may need to reach out to the Latino theaters and artists and build partnerships to share resources and information. You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you’ve exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run. When faced with these expensive obstacles, an organization’s status quo sometimes wins because it’s cheaper and less trouble. The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost. It can be very disheartening, as an artist and as an audience member."

It's important to note that Lin-Manuel Miranda stated in response to Ms. Hudes, "“I honestly can’t improve on her words. She speaks for us both.” 

Later on he expanded by saying, 

"When I see a school production with not a lot of Latino students doing it, I know they're learning things about Latino culture that go beyond what they're fed in the media every day. They have to learn those things to play their parts correctly. And when I see a school with a huge Latino population do HEIGHTS, I feel a surge of pride that the students get to perform something that may have a sliver of resonance in their daily lives. Just please God, tell them that tanning and bad 50's style Shark makeup isn't necessary. Latinos come in every color of the rainbow, thanks very much."

Couple of things to take away here. 1. He's referring to school productions and DCT is a quasi-professional theatre. 2. He expressively doesn't want people making themselves up to look Latinx. 

It should also be noted that, while Ms. Hudes stated she has less of an issue when it comes to schools and amateur theaters producing this in low Latinx populated areas, because of DCT's location and the fact that they regularly seek and cast Equity performers, that does not apply here and the desired casting of the creators should have been respected.

Did the DCT reach out to the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (who holds the production license) for permission to cast it that way? I don't know. But what I do know, is that there is no way the R&HO would have approved it, unless DCT misrepresented the type of theater they are. 

Again, without comment from the theater, which they refused to give, it's impossible to know what they did before settling on a white actress to play a Puerto Rican role. 

However these comments given by the director of the show, Christy McIntosh-Newsom, provide some insight into her justification in casting white performers in Latinx roles. It should be noted that it's unknown if she made this comments in response to this article or beforehand.

She stated, 

"Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a beautiful show about people yearning for home. What makes the show so familiar and so impactful is that this is a feeling that every single person can relate to. Is home the place we were born? The place from which our ancestors came? Is home defined by our genetic connection or by the place we choose to set the roots?" 

She isn't wrong that a theme of the show is about home, and there are plenty of quotes where Miranda wants people to relate to the story being told on stage. However he's also mentioned plenty of times who he wants playing those roles in non-school productions. 

If there is any doubt about that. One need look no further than the casting requirement notes from the lisencsing rights page from the Rodgers & Hammertein website. 

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The R&HO doesn't decide the ethnicity of these roles, that comes from the creators of the piece and should always be honored. Again, we're not talking about a small town in the middle of nowhere with a scare Latinx population. We're talking about one that(as of 2014) was the 46th highest in the county. 

***

So, what if no Latina actresses showed up to audition for this role? What should this theater have done? Well, in addition to putting out casting calls on all social networks and trade sites, they could have reached out to community groups, church groups, local universities (University of Bridgeport in town and Fairfield University is 8 minutes from the theater), conduct casting calls in the Bronx, Harlem, or any other commutable area of NYC and consider hiring an Equity performer for the role. After all that? If you can't find one Latina actress, cancel the show. 

While expensive and daunting, if you're going to do racially diverse shows, you have to cast them racially appropriate. There is no substitute. 

But, DCT didn't do that. So given the scenario, what should they have done after casting Ms. Petrak as Camilla Rosario? At that point, they should have explained themselves and reached out to the Latinx community. There should have been a lengthy explanation of why Ms. Petrak was appearing in that role in the program, which should have included details of the exhaustive search in finding appropriate casting and statements of support and endorsement from local community groups such as the Hispanic Cultural Society in Danbury or even the church San Lucas y San Paulo in Bridgeport, and an invitation for Latinx performers to audition for future shows. I am told there was no explanation given in the program. 

You have to do this, because it demonstrates how seriously you took this situation and the lengths to which you went. While it might not excuse your actions, the audience will at least understand why you had to do what you did and it might even soften the criticism. 

Without explanation, that leaves the audience up to assume what led to this casting and risks greatly offending them, which is a terrible gamble for a theater to take. You cannot roll the dice with how to handle the lack of racially appropriate casting, especially not with iconic theatre pieces for that particular community. 

From what has been communicated to me, DCT not only failed to appropriately cast In The Heights, but failed to explain why. Both are unacceptable, but doing one without the other is even worse. 

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I am happy to see that more and more theaters across this country are interested in producing more diverse material and drawing in more performers of color to their theaters. However, when theaters produce these shows, they have to be cast racially appropriate. There is no falling short on this option. The reason why articles like these are written are to re-iterate why this practice is wrong. 

While it might seem unfair that I'm singling out the Downtown Cabaret Theatre, since they are not the first nor will be the last that will cast In the Heights with white performers, given their location and history it's hard to understand why it happened. It is my hope that, going forward, the leadership at DCT takes this to heart. 

If the DCT or anyone involved decides to respond to this, I will gladly update this post with their response. 

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UPDATE: In the spirit of providing solutions to problems, and in relation to the post below, going forward OnStage will gladly promote and post any casting notice for any theater that is in need of diverse performers at no charge.

We are very fortunate that both our Facebook page and blog site itself have quite a reach. With over 2 million newsfeeds reached this past week we can certainly help any theater find the performers that they need.

I realize that there are a lot of theatres out there that would like to do diverse material but might not have the pool of talent to cast it appropriately so we want to help out anyway that we can. Please reach out to us with any postings and questions at onstageblog@gmail.com

Update #2: It's come to my attention that members of the DCT community are deflecting the issues stated in the article to my personal theatre history. So in the interest of full disclosure, yes, back in 2012, I did cast a white actor in the role of Mohammed in the play "The Tale of the Allergists Wife". I did so only after an extensive search and getting approval from Samuel French Inc from correspondence with author Charles Busch. I also never asked the actor to alter his appearance or perform in a stereotypical accent. In fact I insisted that he shouldn't unless he do the thorough research in getting it right. 

Considering my feelings now on the subject, I would certainly would have done things differently or pulled the show since that would have been my decision. If you feel that this somehow disqualifies my position on this issue or excuses DCT for what they did, I'm not going to stop you. 

I'm not allowing comments on this blog thread, if you want to comment, do so on social media. I won't cater to anonymous cowardly comments. 

Spotlight: The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts

Cindy Cardozo

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

There is no doubt that we live in trying times. For many of us, a trip to the theatre is more than a respite from the anxiety of our days. It is a place for refuge and reassurance that we are not lost and we are not alone; it is a place to connect with others on an intellectual and emotional level through sharing the commonalities of the human condition. And it is a window through which we can gaze at the society we live in and imagine the society we aspire to create.

We need not always look to Broadway for these grand experiences. Many do not live close enough to New York City to take in a Broadway show, and many who do simply cannot afford the rising ticket prices. Luckily, we have local community theaters that provide quality, thoughtful, and thought provoking entertainment. One such venue is The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, located in Brookfield, Connecticut. Now celebrating its 60th anniversary season, TBTA has, in the words of its President, Lou Okell, "...been and oasis of creativity while giving all who step through its doors a sense of coming home since 1957."

I first visited The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts to take in their first show of the current season, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.  I was not only blown away by the amazing performances of its cast, especially Anna Fagan as Maggie, James Wilding as Brick, and Will Jeffries as Big Daddy, but also taken by the setting of the theatre itself. I was interested in learning its history, as well as its plans for the future. I was able to pose a few questions to Theatre President, Lou Okell and Artistic Director, Will Jeffries. What follows is part of an educational and enlightening interview. 

Can you tell me about the physical space of the theatre? How many people does the theatre hold? Can you tell me a little about its history? Having never visited Brookfield before, I thought the area has a nice New England feel to it.

Lou: "This is the second gymnasium for the Curtis School for Boys. The present stone building was built in 1907. The Curtis School closed its doors in 1943. The gymnasium remained empty until it was purchased by the Brookfield Country Players in 1958/59 and remodeled as a community theater. 

The organization eventually grew to include a wide range of cultural offerings and, in 2003, changed its name to "The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts" (TBTA) to reflect this commitment to be a center for creativity for the greater Brookfield region. The new lobby, dedicated in 2005, has been used for informal gatherings, workshops, cultural events, and art shows. As part of our 60th anniversary celebration, we have remodeled the lobby and rededicated it as an art gallery with a Board member acting as curator for fine art shows throughout the year.

Will: "The theatre seats 135. I had the same reaction as you when I first walk into the space, that it felt like a classic New England summer stock theatre, and I was immediately at home as both an audience member and actor on the stage."

Can you tell me about your subscriber base? How do you continue to inspire young talent, still provide acting opportunities and challenges for more seasoned performers, and provide entertainment that is relevant for young and old alike?

Lou: "Our shows appeal to a wide ranging audience. Our subscribers and members reflect this diverse appeal. We have certainly had shows that were targeted for a specific age or group as part of a well-rounded full season. Our motto for 2017 is "all are welcome". 

Will: "This is such an important question for all theatres, and can be a real conundrum. We want The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts to be an entertainment destination for our audiences. We want them to feel that if they come to our shows, whether they know the show they're attending or it's new to them, that they are going to see a performance of high quality in every element, the acting, sets, lights, costumes, and the atmosphere of the theatre. Some shows they may respond to more than others…but that's what art does. Whether they laugh or cry, or both, love it or hate it, or both, we want them to feel all the feelings that good theatre allows. And want them to know that when they come to our shows they are going to see a good piece of theatre, done as well as we can possibly do it.

We want the theatre artists who come here to ply their craft know that they will be treated well, with respect, and that their artistic contributions will be valued and appreciated. We know that people come to do theatre for different reasons...for some it's a hobby, for some an opportunity to be social and enjoy the camaraderie. Others have a more serious need for artistic expression, and a more rigorous standard to which they hold themselves. All of these are valid, and all are welcome here. We believe that it is possible to push the boundaries of your artistry to new heights while still being collegial and having fun as a working group, and we believe that if your priority is the collegiality and fun, you can have that here...because we know that theatre is much more fun if you are doing something which is also really great."

Can you talk about your upcoming shows for the rest of the season?

Will: "We tried to put together a season of variety, with important as well as lighthearted pieces, classics and newer shows, and a big honkin' All-American musical. And all of it with a special nod to the fact that this is our 60th Anniversary Season. So the number one straight play on Broadway 60 years ago was CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.  I have wanted to direct BENT (April 28 - May 13) for many years, as it is a play that is iconic for its examination of the treatment of gays in Nazi Germany. It is an edgy and important piece, and we feel that it is part of TBTA earning its artistic credibility to do shows like this along with lighter fair. The Tony Award for Best Musical 60 years ago was DAMN YANKEES (July 14 - August 6). FROST/NIXON (September 8 - 23) is a brilliant play, and I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to play President Nixon in a production 3 or 4 years ago in Westport. It was a big hit for the theatre, and the audiences loved it...and it hasn't been seen anywhere around here since, so the timing is great. To do this play you need somebody to play Nixon, and I guess when they took me on as Artistic Director, they got him, too. And finally, NOISES OFF (November 3 - 18), the great British farce about a struggling theatre company, is a show some in our company have wanted to do for years, and now that we have a new stage floor that can handle the rolling scenery, we're going to give it a go!  A sidesplitting end to a hopefully great season.

It's funny, in a way, that I see our plays this season in a bit of a different light now than I did when we first selected them. This has to do with the current political climate and the most unusual situation in which our Country finds itself, but all the shows have an added layer of significance to them...CAT spends a lot of time addressing the issues of greed and mendacity...living with lies and the liars who tell them. BENT deals directly with the issues of anti-Semitism, discrimination, and persecution of "the other" – in this case, the LBGT community. DAMN YANKEES, while a lighthearted and frothy musical, nevertheless is centered around a guy who makes a deal with the Devil to be the greatest ball player ever. FROST/NIXON deals with the perils of political and personal corruption, and a downfall of Shakespearian proportions. And NOISES OFF, a rollicking farce, is about a struggling little theatre company trying to get itself together and stay that way. Every show has moments of great humor, and moments where life in the story is hard for the characters...just like real life."

(Writer's note: BENT is unfortunately relevant in these days where we are getting more and more disheartening news reports of gay men being tortured, detained in concentration camps, and being killed in Chechnya.)

Can you also elaborate on plans to showcase new plays/authors based on audience pick?

Lou: "CHRISTMAS IN JULY (July 1) will feature new works by upcoming writers and composers. Board member Carol de Giere, our curator of new musicals, has been actively involved in promoting new musicals through her work with Stephen Schwartz and the National Alliance of Musical Theatre. Invitations to submit have been posted in trade publications and at new musical events and workshops. We currently have more than seven proposals to review. Carol and the Board of Directors will select three or four musicals from all submissions. Each show will have up to 45 minutes to present their musical to our audience. At the end of the evening, votes will be cast and the winning selection will have a full staged reading performance in December. This sort of staged reading is a benefit to composers and authors to help prepare their new writing for the next step in getting it fully produced."

For more information about submissions: http://musicalwriters.com/musings-blog/submissions-christmas-musicals/

Given the current political climate, can you provide your thoughts regarding the relevance and need for theater and the arts and the need for continued support from donors and patrons, especially in light of glaring cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts?  

Lou: "Community theaters are a vital part of any creative community. They provide a space to strive for excellence in the arts, to learn new skills, practice the craft of theater, and provide worthwhile live performances to the community. They also have a unique opportunity to provide a space for free speech and open discussions of current issues by offering a range of shows that are not only entertaining but thought provoking and timely. We feel we have done this with our choice of shows and events for 2017. 

As a non-profit community theater staffed entirely by volunteers, funding this work remains a constant challenge. We have been fortunate to have generous and loyal patrons support the work we do for the past 60 years and dedicated volunteers to make it all happen."

Will:  "...Theatre at its best holds a mirror, as 'twere, up to nature, so we can see our selves, our families, our neighbors, friends, and even our foes. It is worth noting these days that there are those who think art is frivolous, and provides no results that they can see. This notion is much less about the results of the Arts than it is about the capacity for vision of those who say these things. As I see it, theatre is food for ones soul, and the very lifeblood of ones heart. Those who think that eliminating what meager public support for the Arts there has been in our Country...far less than other Countries...are probably people who are most in need of the restoration of the soul which the Arts provide, an irony I would consider delicious if it was not so sad.

The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts is a place where all are welcome, all are respected, and all are safe. If you want to come take part, we'll find something you can do. If you don't know how, we'll teach you. If you know how to do something, you can teach us. If you don't know us, come say hello. Come see a show.  Come be in a show.  Come join the Family."

In addition to the shows listed above, The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts also offers staged readings of plays, a teen show and Improv nights. For more information visit their website at http://brookfieldtheatre.org