Pre-Casting: Why It Happens and How You Can Survive It

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  • Nailah Mathews

Pre-Casting sticks in the craws of every unprofessional theatre artist, and probably in a lot of professional ones, too. Spawning drama that makes every stage manager worth their kit roll their eyes into next weekend, pre-casting somehow manages to worm its way into any given conversation about theater.

High school and undergraduate university productions, regional theatres, children’s theatres alike, all seem to struggle with this one concept that actors all loathe somewhat equally. Of course, being pre-cast is flattering, but no actor is happy knowing someone else got a part we were right for, too just because somebody knew somebody else; our egos are too big to allow it. But how do we survive pre-casting and all the evil that comes with it?

By calming down for two seconds, and thinking critically about why it happens.

Theaters are places where art happens, that much is true. But what art happens, where, and by whom is determined by the theater’s bottom line. Money makes the world go around, and until an economic revolution happens, we kind of just have to deal with it.

Pre-casting happens because theaters need to pay their artists. It’s been a long time since we’ve had anything even remotely looking like a federally run program designed to bolster the arts in trying economic times (this article is absolutely a love letter to the Federal Theatre Project) and theatres have to pick shows that they know will make them a decent amount of money. One way of doing that is by considering what actors they currently have in rotation, and who could play what. It’s not personal; it’s economics.

A theatre has to look realistically and who’s around so that they can know which shows they can afford to/expect to produce in a season. If they picked shows blindly out of a hat, then a predominately white theatre does ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille,’ and then we’re all unhappy.

Even in smaller theatres that have to work with specific budgets are victims of their bottom lines. Having recently graduated from an undergraduate theatre department myself, I know how much it stings but also why it has to happen. But as one of only three black girls in my department, it’s difficult to feel flattered when the role you’re pre-cast for is a formerly enslaved woman.

And despite how beautiful the part is, and despite the fact that the part is the emotional linchpin of the play, it’s difficult not to feel insulted. Pigeonholed. Chosen for tokenism. Playing a black woman whose entire role in the play is to provide emotional support and tongue-in-cheek sexual advice to two other white women in a play written by another white woman; I’d rather a department pick something classical and cast it color-blind than have to get stuck in a situation where I feel I may have to compromise my own morals just to enjoy making theatre with the people I love.

But I know that choosing that show was my department’s attempt at giving me an opportunity to dig hard into a part, and show off my abilities as a dramatic actor. So why does it still sting? Pre-casting tells actors that our talent either matters entirely or not at all. That their work, their drive, their dedication to their practice, is either the only deciding factor in whether or not they cast, or it’s bullshit. Nobody wants to think that their work is bullshit.

You survive pre-casting by realizing that it happens for an important economic reason. Plenty of theatres use the money they make from big-budget musicals, for example, to furnish the smaller productions that enforce the theatre’s mission. Those big shows need names that crowds know and love so that they make the money that these theatres need so that they can take chances on actors that no one has ever heard of before.

But it’s similarly important to take a good hard look at the way pre-casting effects students and actors of color, both emotionally and professionally. There are plenty of stories where black women are the architects of their journeys and not props to help the white leads stand on their own two feet. Theatres nationwide need to step up, and especially those in predominately white environments, so that the actors of color that do exist in those spaces are seen and heard and celebrated as more than just the token background Asian, or the Latina nurse with red nails and a lousy attitude.

Pre-casting happens to us because it’s how theatre remakes itself. It doesn’t have to define you as an actor. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t good enough, or that your face is the wrong shape, or that you bombed your audition. It’s a necessary evil that is entirely possible to overcome, provided you’re patient enough to wait until musical season is over.