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Casting Controversy Shadows La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Nightingale’

Aired 7/18/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUESTS

Christopher Ashley, artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse.

Greg Watanabe, Asian-American actor.

Transcript

Bobby Steggert and Corbin Reid in La Jolla Playhouse’s Page To Stage workshop production of "The Nightingale," book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, directed by Moises Kaufman, running July 10 - August 5 in the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre; photo by Craig Schwartz.
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Above: Bobby Steggert and Corbin Reid in La Jolla Playhouse’s Page To Stage workshop production of "The Nightingale," book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, directed by Moises Kaufman, running July 10 - August 5 in the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre; photo by Craig Schwartz.

"The Nightingale" may be set in ancient China, but you won't see many Asians in the cast. In fact, the emperor in the play's ancient Chinese setting is white.

The musical, which has a multiracial cast and is based on a Hans Christian Anderson fable, is currently on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse.

The casting has angered some in the theater community and, as you might expect, Asian-Americans. Critics have taken to the blogosphere and social media in recent weeks, saying the casting choices are part of a long history of racial insensitivity and tone deafness on the part of the entertainment industry.

The creators (the composing team behind the Tony-winning "Spring Awakening") recently explained their casting decisions to U-T theater critic Jim Hebert:

"On the subject of casting, I have to say, we had a workshop that was fully Asian, and it’s not appropriate to the piece (we've written). It's not about Asia. What’s really important to the piece is to have completely color-blind casting. Completely multicultural. Which is what we have. We have an African-American mother of a white son in our show now. Our cast is not even predominantly white. It’s a mix."

"The Nightingale" is still in development, as part of the La Jolla Playhouse's Page to Stage program.

KPBS Midday Edition will talk about the casting controversy with Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley and Asian-American actor Greg Watanabe, who was last seen on San Diego stages in Mo'olelo's production of "How I Got That Story."

The La Jolla Playhouse will hold a community forum to discuss this issue on Sunday, July 22, after the 2 pm matinee performance of "The Nightingale.

We'd love to hear your thoughts.

Should Asians and Asian-American actors have been cast in a play set in China? Should the creators have artistic license to cast whomever they want based on their creative vision?

As an audience member, is storytelling more powerful for you if the cast members are authentic to the story? Or do you want to see more "blind casting" in theater as a way to enhance the story?

Comments

Avatar for user 'billiame'

billiame | July 18, 2012 at 12:04 p.m. ― 2 years, 3 months ago

I'm a local Asian American actor and generally I would agree that multi-cultural casting is a good thing. But over and over again I see that this type of casting never works in favor of the Asian actor. I wonder if they would have cast a Scottish fairytale with Asian actors. If they truly want The Nightingale to be multi-cultural, they should consider using multi-cultural costuming and character names.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | July 18, 2012 at 12:54 p.m. ― 2 years, 3 months ago

How about age-blind casting? I think that is more of a problem.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | July 18, 2012 at 12:54 p.m. ― 2 years, 3 months ago

What ever happened with Rough Yeagher's version of same?

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Avatar for user 'adhock'

adhock | July 18, 2012 at 5:33 p.m. ― 2 years, 3 months ago

OMG, it's a Play to Stage. Feedback is valuable, scorched earth--not so much! This production is a very good and enjoyable start. The actors were just fine--in fact, in terms of Bobby Steggert and Charlayne Woodard (in one person's opinion), very fine. The music was great. The staging was pretty advanced for something at this stage. Loved the puppets. My family and I saw this as a myth/fable. We thought that that multi-cultural casting added value. Would it have been good to include Chinese actors? Sure. But it's a work in progress. Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good. I really support the issues of minority representation in theater. But, let's be honest: If I had a shekel for every Jew that complained of every Goy with a role in "Fiddler," I'd be a rich woman.

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Avatar for user 'musicallover'

musicallover | July 18, 2012 at 7:12 p.m. ― 2 years, 3 months ago

I believe in casting for the role based on abilities.

Once aw an Italian opera set in Spain, sung in German, in a playhouse in Austria starring a Japanese actor. It was fantastic.

Jessica Sanchez will in all probability get the part of Kim in Miss Saigon for the movie. I am sure that somebody will get in a huff over it...instead they should just get over it. Talent is talent no matter what the race or nationality.

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Avatar for user 'moiici'

moiici | July 18, 2012 at 10:16 p.m. ― 2 years, 3 months ago

In conjunction with the casting controversy, I would like to raise another issue; the purpose of page to stage. Morphing from the first play "I am My Own Wife", which I felt embodied the stated purpose of this kind of production, "
The Nightingale" seemed to be a quite finished, slick "Broadway bound" production masquerading as a work in progress. The elaborate costumes and production techniques seemed to me not much different than a regular La Jolla Playhouse production cloaked in the guise of being page to stage to make the audience feel they actually had some input.

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Avatar for user 'medici'

medici | July 18, 2012 at 11:58 p.m. ― 2 years, 3 months ago

Meritocracy is a very ideal situation. The question isn't about the casts' abilities to convey a moving story.

I'm sure the actors in The Nightingale, in this iteration, are talented. That was never the question. The writing was never the question. The set designs, the costumes, were never the question. The question is one of *opportunity* in the Land of *Opportunity*.

Asian American actors aren't given many *opportunities* in theater, film, TV, etc. When other productions are being cast, are Asian Americans considered for all roles based on their merit or are they summarily dismissed based on their looks?

You would think a story set in China would be an *ideal* chance for Asian American actors to showcase their talents, but you'd be wrong.

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Avatar for user 'once'

once | July 23, 2012 at 4:25 p.m. ― 2 years, 3 months ago

Ragtime is based on a novel, and is mythical with characters encountering historical celebrities. So, let's cast Ragtime with the African American roles being filled by white Americans because the casting will be based on merit.

Then if anyone complains, state that no African American actor or actress is "good enough" for any of the lead African American roles.

Do you think that would happen?

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