Elitism in Theatre: The Ignorance of Casting Professionals

Anthony J. Piccione

Last week, I wrote a column entitled How Educational Elitism Is Hurting Theatre, in which I described the challenges facing theatre students who attend schools other than the “top schools” in the country, such as Yale, NYU and Carnegie Mellon. I talked about how people tend to be looked down on or not given as much consideration when auditioning for a role or applying for a job, when they are stuck in this scenario. After taking a glance at the comments section for that column, I felt inspired – if not obligated – to elaborate a bit more on my thoughts on this subject, particularly with regards to how it affects finding work in the industry.

More specifically, I am talking about the issue of how someone’s educational background affects how much casting directors are willing to consider you for a role in a professional production, especially when it comes to Broadway. There are many directors out there who – when taking into consideration various actors for a role – only need to see that they attended an Ivy League school, and they are automatically given top consideration for some role in the production, regardless of how outstanding their audition might have been or how much better someone else could have been. Indeed, it almost seems like too much of a coincidence that when looking at the program for various Broadway shows, it seems that many of the same actors all attended some of the same exact schools in the nation. Is there really not enough talent out there that is phenomenal enough to appear on a Broadway stage?

If we are to look at this issue from a broader perspective, it is also easy to see how it has affected not just the audition process, but the job application process for positions in technical theatre. There have been plenty of stories of people who have spent years – if not decades – working backstage in a variety of capacities, some of whom never even obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre. Yet it is for this reason – that they didn’t live up to the high educational standards of some professionals in theatre – that is exactly why they have been unable to move up in the world of professional theatre, despite the outstanding jobs that they all do.

So there are two questions that are worth asking, in this situation: First, what is the root cause of this problem? Second, how do we solve it?

One way to solve it might be to hire new casting directors, especially ones that might be more open to considering people from diverse educational backgrounds, as opposed to the same students from the same schools. Indeed, perhaps the reason some may be biased is because they themselves went to some of the “top schools” in America. The problem is that it’s something that just won’t happen, as long as the people in charge of the business aspect of theatre – namely the producers – are biased in favor those who attended Ivy League schools, and other well-regarded schools in the country. Until someone is able to get through to those people, it seems that there won’t be any changes in the people who cast productions on Broadway anytime soon.

 Some people might argue that if a theatre professional – whether it is a director or a producer – wants to look specifically at those who attended some of those schools that are held in high-regard, then that is their right to do so. But this viewpoint ignores the fact that not only is a major reason that theatre professionals – particularly in Broadway – select alumni from the same schools is because of how those schools are held in high-regard. On that same token, a major reason they continue to be held in high-regard is because of how Broadway keeps selecting students from those same schools. It appears to be a never-ending cycle that the theatre industry is trapped in, and I think it is a big problem that Broadway professionals either are genuinely unaware of, or perhaps are willfully ignorant of.

The bottom line is that this is very much part of a form of elitism that has been making theatre more unfair and unequal to those who might come from different backgrounds and have had different educational experiences. I still have plenty more to say on this topic, and I intend to write more about it in the future. But for now, I just want to emphasize this specific issue, which I think is doing a great deal of harm to the prospects of future generations of theatre artists, and I believe will continue to do so until the message gets through to those who have the power to do something about it…

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Student, playwright, actor, poet and blogger currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com and follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and the New Play Exchange (https://newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione)

Photo: www.matthewsopera.com