The New Age of Theatre: What Do We Need to Do to Accommodate?

Ed Ramsey

Recent debate about a production of Albee's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', in which the Albee estate withheld production rights due to the fact that a black actor was cast in the role of Nick, is just another of many examples which in my opinion prove that we need to accept certain things and move on.

Much of 20th century American theatre is and probably has to be this specific about casting choices because of its tackling of race and social dynamics which in that period of time, always in some way linked with race issues. No matter how irritating it is that there are plays of the past which just might not allow for our now far more open minded approach to casting, it cannot be denied. But here might be a good point for me to explore my own writing style and talk about a specific aspect of it which I believe offers a solution to this problem. I didn't invent this myself, I take inspiration in this idea from playwrights like Beckett and more recently Sarah Kane, as well as a decent amount of expressionistic theatre. 

Effectively, we are in a new age of Theatre casting: and we need to write more appropriately for it. 

I start my writing of plays in different ways. Sometimes I begin with a story, other times the message, sometimes I begin with a monologue and build from there. But I find myself increasingly rarely deciding on character biographies really anywhere during the writing process. What I mean by this essentially is, that I am fascinated with the idea that the only things we know about the character, should be the things they say, and that other characters say about them. I find this reminiscent of when we weren't surrounded by social media and offers a means to listen for real again- for the eventual audience, yes, but also the director themselves. And I also think that this approach has more honesty to it. 

The brilliant side effect of this manner of character writing has also meant that someone of any race could play most of my characters and in one play literally anyone no matter the gender, sex, race, sexuality, or even age, could actually play certain characters. This style helps free us from these cases of conflict surrounding casting decisions. It's wonderful that directors want to cast more diversely, but often with some already written plays, they can't. This style guarantees that freedom, and I personally find that exciting. 

What I find even more exciting though, which is why I hesitate to give some of my characters names, is the opportunity as an actor and writer to explore a character and personality without ever knowing their name. Stanislavski would have had it differently I know, but as both an actor and writer, I'm far more interested in what the character says, does, loves, hates, believes, what he or she has experienced: the meaningful stuff; than I am in the trivial things such as names, what they wear or eat, age, and all that, which is often circumstantial and very rarely tells us a huge amount about the character. Obviously costume design for instance can give us glimpses into the character's lifestyle, but from there that information has little meaning because what we don't know is how much of that lifestyle the character really wants, how much of it they'd change if they had the opportunity, and other such concepts which would affect their personality more than their lifestyle would. 

Now, I don't want to argue that everyone should write in this way. And I also didn't want to talk about my own work as long as I did, but I just thought it would be the easiest way for me to explain what I meant. Diversity is fantastic and is absolutely what we need right now: diversity in everything. So, writers should always be allowed and encouraged to write how, what and who they want, there should always be a diverse spectrum of the ways in which playwrights construct their work. I am merely offering an already established idea that I think needs to be more popular in playwriting. The debates can be too overwhelming sometimes. This is not an easy way out, but rather a style that finally accommodates the eagerness to cast with diversity.

Photo: DU Clarion