Theater Department maintains diversity in casting

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In an effort to encourage students to audition for roles they normally would not try out for because they think they might not match a character’s ethnicity, the Theater Department and its directors remind students that actors should not be excluded.

Nine shows are scheduled for the 2005-06 season, and some directors said the plays they selected lend themselves to an ethnically diverse cast, with the need for student representation on the student stage high, especially at a school like CSUN.

“We are strongly attempting to represent the whole student body,” said Peter Grego, chair of the Theater Department since July.

According to Grego, one way to ensure that the actors are aware of this is to include a statement every time the department announces auditions for a show. The statement includes a paragraph explaining the commitment to be fair in casting.

According to the statement, “(The department endorses) the goals of diversity, inclusion and principles of equal opportunity for all who study and work in theater; and condemn racism, prejudice, discrimination and exclusion in the theater.”

The Actor’s Equity Association, the Casting Society of America, the Dramatist Guild, the League of American Theater and Producers and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers wrote the statement.

As chair of the department Grego is responsible for reviewing casting decisions the day before callbacks. He said he ensures casting diversity at that time.

Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” currently in rehearsal, has a very diverse cast, according to Grego.

Director of “Twelfth Night,” Melissa Shalsma said she prefers the classics, such as Shakespeare, because of the ability to be free on all levels, including casting.

According to Shalsma, race has not been an issue with “Twelfth Night,” or in the short plays written by Samuel Beckett that she has directed in the past.

Grego said that in some plays the writer specifies casting. In those instances, it is illegal to change the script, he said. He also said that in theater the writer has the last word.

“Shakespeare doesn’t write what the set should look like, or what the characters should look like,” Shalsma said.

Those people who respect the classics have a responsibility to represent diversity, she said.

Shalsma is a part-time faculty member in the department and is also the artistic director of the Independent Shakespeare Company.

In a school environment, Shalsma said she finds it important to create a good educational experience for the audience and for the students involved.

In the case of the recent play “Dancing at Lughnasa,” the setting was Ireland in 1936. According to director Ken Sawyer, the eight-member cast was not full-blooded Irish.

“When I go to cast a play, I look at the talent more than anything,” Sawyer said. He considers how an actor bonds humanly to the role, rather than racially.

It is important for students to be bold enough to audition for a role if they think they can connect themselves to it, Sawyer said.

“The students must seek out their own roles and have enough faith to do it,” he said.

Sawyer is a guest director at CSUN and part of The Road Theater Company in North Hollywood.

“‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ was interesting because it had a large women’s role.” Shalsma said.

Grego said many of the students who audition are not theater majors, which allows for even more diverse casting options for directors.

Grego said he would make sure the statement to encourage diversity is included with all the audition announcements as long as he is chair of the department.

Students also have a chance to submit ideas for plays on the Theater Department’s website.

“Why not give the audience a representation on stage?” Shalsma said.

Melanie Saxe can be reached at melaniensaxe@hotmail.com.