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Casting Controversy Shadows La Jolla Playhouse's 'Nightingale'

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.
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.
Casting Controversy Shadows La Jolla Playhouse's 'Nightingale'
GUESTS Christopher Ashley, artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse. Greg Watanabe, Asian-American actor.

CAVANAUGH: This is it KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. For many year, we've heard complaints from actors of color about the scarcity of roles available to them. There have been documentaries produced, even plays written about how tough it is for black, Latino, and Asian actors and the crazy casting decisions that have excluded them in the past. Right now, La Jolla playhouse finds itself in the midst of this ongoing controversy. It's a page to stage production of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale called the nightingale. It's set in China. Most of the cast is non-Asian. My guest, Greg Watanabe, last seen in the Mo'olelo production how I got that story. Welcome back to the program. WATANABE: Thank you very much for having me. CAVANAUGH: Christopher Ashley is the artistic director of the La Jolla playhouse, welcome. ASHLEY: Thanks for having me. CAVANAUGH: Greg, let me start off, what was your reaction when you heard about the casting choices for the nightingale? WATANABE: Well, I first heard about the casting, about the show at all, when I saw a blog posting by Aaron Quill. And she had stated pretty emphatically, in an entertaining way, that she took exception to the casting of the show because of its exclusion of Asians, that they were includes, there were two, but two out of 11 in the story that's ostensibly Chinese. That brought up a whole lot of feelings of cynicism in me because I feel like I've heard this before. And it felt like it was just another thing that was happening again. It reminded me of Ms. Saigon, it struck a tone of a lot of things that make me angry and sad. So those were the things that I was thinking first. That was my first reaction. CAVANAUGH: Christopher Ashley, can you tell us what was the reasoning behind the decision to cast non-Asian actors in most of the roles? ASHLEY: It was our and the creative team's intention to create a multicultural cast and to reinterpret the Hans Christian Anderson classic fable to blend both east and west and past and present. There was a very conscious decision to cast multiculturely. CAVANAUGH: The nightingale is a musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. Tell us what it is about. ASHLEY: It's loosely based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, a Danish writer, about a young emperor whose rebellious spirit longs to see the realm that he will rule. And when he meets a young fisherman who brings him a wild nightingale, it sings the song of his heart, he can no longer resist the world outside the walls of his palace. And the musical attempts to capture the wild exuberance of youth, the thrill of new-found freedom, and the regret of older age. CAVANAUGH: So just to be clear, this is not about a group of American explorers in China or anything like that. These are characters as written are Chinese. ASHLEY: I would not say that's true in this particular interpretation. A page to stage production is a workshop production, and the goal is to allow the artists to explore their story and try to find what it is and what the correct balances are for the show, and that includes the writing and the design, and certainly the casting. What this particular cast configuration is, it's in no way intended to be final. It's what they're guessing for this stage was the best way to tell this story. But conversation is very much a part of the page to stage process. There's a talk back every night, rehearsing, rewriting, and restaging every afternoon. And this is in no way intended to be a final on this story. And the writers are very, very interested in trying to create a story that is a kind of mash-up of east and west, of old and new, and not necessarily a specifically Chinese tale. CAVANAUGH: Greg, Christopher makes the point that this was written by a Danish author in a time when Europe had a rather fanciful idea was what was going on in the east. Does the fact that it is a fairytale written at a certain cultural moment in history make the casting any more acceptable to you? WATANABE: No. I think that just because there was chinoiserie at the time, which was a fashion of western art that was influenced by the art, I think we would look back on that and say, well, that's sort of orientalism. And just because that was the case then, I think that if you're presenting a show now that you have to take into account modern race politics. I think that you have to take into account the history of Asians in America. And even you have to take into account the history of Asian performers and the opportunities they have had in the United States. And I think that race tells a story. Race and setting tell a story, whether or not you want them to. And the characters still sound like they're at least Asian, if not Chinese. Now, if you want to cast multiculturally and say well, we're having a variety of different -- people of racial backgrounds playing Chinese characters then I think you need to own up to that. But you need to at least say these are Chinese or Asian characters. And then begin from there and to say, well, if we're going to do a show and we want to have a diverse cast because it seems like it's largely a children's-type show, and they often do those kinds of things to reflect the diverse match-up of America, at least make it primarily Chinese or Asian-American in its cast. Like I said, the story of casting sometimes tells a story, whether or not you intend it to or not. So what I saw was a bunch of white men, and then women of color. And watching -- and that tells a certain story. I felt like all I could seeing was a white guy playing a Chinese guy. CAVANAUGH: Right. Let me invite our listeners to join this conversation. Please do if you'd like to comment on this, we're opening up the phones. Let me just ask you, Greg, so you have seen the play? WATANABE: I unfortunately showed up at 8:00 to a 7:30 curtain, but yes. CAVANAUGH: What did you think of the production beyond what we're talking about here? WATANABE: Well, it's hard for me to separate that because it's so in my mind to be fair, it was very much colored by the conversation we're having here. But it's a very lovely production, and the actors are wonderful. And the music is very nice. And I feel like the story itself is very good in the sense that the essential elements of a young man having to make a decision between responsibility and love, those things are great. I don't see why that has anything to do -- why it couldn't be Asian-Americans performing those parts, and it's still achieving the same thing. CAVANAUGH: Christopher, one of the things that you have said as I've read what the response has been from La Jolla playhouse is that the creators have thought that color-blind casting is essential to this show. Why is that? ASHLEY: Well let me first of all speak for myself, which is to say I think color-blind casting, nontraditional casting, multicultural casting, they're all related. They're really important tools in overcoming a theatre which is for, by, and about white men. And they're not always the right tool, but they're a really, really important tool. I would in no way say that the particular balance we found in nightingale in this cast is the ideal casting match-up for this show. Really in a page to stage, it's about a discovery process. And I wouldn't even necessarily say this particular mix moves forward. I think this is a real journey of discovery like every page to stage is. But I would passionately defend color-blind casting, multicultural casting, nontraditional casting as necessary tools in America right now. And I think there's many times when that kind of thinking actually can lead to additional roles for Asian-American actors. We had a production at La Jolla playhouse called surf report, which was originally written for a Caucasian mother, father, and daughter. And an extraordinary Asian-American actress came in and auditioned for the daughter, and the creative team cast her and didn't write in any particular reason why this is an Asian actress. They said why can't she play this role uncommented on? So I think issues of color-blind casting can go both ways. But I would passionately defend it as an important tool. CAVANAUGH: Judy is on the line from university city. Welcome to the program. NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I went to see the performance the other night and really enjoyed it. But what? I went with several people, two of them were Chinese students, university students visiting from China for one month. I just want to comment that they're not telling a Chinese story. It's a Hans Christian Anderson story about China, but it was rewritten too. So it's not even the actual story. And it projects a future, a different future on China than they might assume for themselves. And the way that it was written, it was using westernized humor. There is some valley girl humor in there, and gay humor. And I was thinking that if the characters in the play were Chinese, that it could be offensive to the Chinese students. We were projecting their story on them, whereas the diversity of the cast made it seem more that we were laughing at ourselves by -- we weren't insulting them. CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Thank you for your call. The concept that I'm understanding is that you're saying is not so much whether it is culturely sensitive to China but culturally sensitive to Asian-American actors in the casting. Is that correct? WATANABE: Well, that's closer. I wouldn't say that I have no concerns about having a cultural sensitive to China. I think that my problem with the kind of argument that your caller put forward is that I think that it is being portrayed as a Chinese story. And I understand that people are saying that it's not, it's a fable, it was written by a Danish writer. But it's clearly a Chinesy, if not Chinese. The derivations of it are all very Asian, there's researches to the empress dowager, which is very specifically Chinese, there's mention of the Mongol invasion and building of a wall which is very clearly China. It keeps on referring back to the whole production as a whole, its Chinese roots. So it's very jarring for me when I see very little representation from Asian-Americans on the stage or Asians on the stage. And I think that one, you're already telling a Chinese story. So any offense that you may make to it, it's not going to be Emiliorated by the fact that you're putting nonAsians in it. The offense that you're making is going to be egregious faux pass or not. You really need to keep in mind that it's a Chinese story. CAVANAUGH: It seems like there's a lot of weight being put on this production because of this choice. Are you leaning in the direction of maybe taking that weight off the production in future stagings? ASHLEY: Well, the future stagings will be outside the La Jolla playhouse in general. So that will really be other people's decision. But I guess I would like to say two things. One is the caller is bringing up things that we did talk about in the creation of this production. Questions of authenticity and how do you avoid culturally stereotyping, that was certainly one trap we were trying to avoid. And I in no way want to belittle the importance of addressing the lack of Asian-American roles in this country. There was a study done recently that said that last year 2% of the roles on Broadway were for Asian-American actors, and that statistic is going down, not up. So it's a real issue, and a real issue that those of us at the playhouse fully acknowledge, and there's a real possibility for hurt and upset here that was in no way our intention to play into. But we did talk a lot about how do you avoid something that's really inauthentic. CAVANAUGH: I'll take one more call. Andrew from Ocean Beach. Welcome to the show. NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. Great show as usual. CAVANAUGH: Thank you. NEW SPEAKER: I just had to comment, and I completely agree with his concern of the casting members. I am a mixed race, you wouldn't even look at me and -- God knows I'm what I am. But it's like the characters make the movie. It's not the writers who make it. When I watched good times, great show from the 70, it would be a trip to see them all white guys or Cheech and Chong, it would be change if they were two Asian guys. The characters make the story. And I think that's where it went. CAVANAUGH: Thanks very much for the call. I'm getting out of time here. I think Christopher, this very weighty issue aside, lots of people have said lots of good things about this production of the nightingale. So I want to end it with you, Greg, what do you think is going to come of this controversy? Do you see more solidarity within the acting community or is this putting a spotlight on an issue that just doesn't seem to want to go away? WATANABE: I have great hopes for the possibilities for this. Because I hope that everyone can be educated on sort of the issues of representation, and the kinds of stories that are told by race, and I think if they educate themselves more on the history of representation on American stage, that would be really great. If Asian-American actors become more activated and involved in the idea of self-identity and how that can empower them in their working that's really great too. If in individual cases, theatre companies realize they have a responsibility and communication happens for the stories they tell, and the people are having their stories told by them, they maybe perhaps can take some steps to try and involve the community in that story telling so we can participate. Because ultimately, actors on stage is just another way, an extension of our participation in that story telling, which is ours, and I think that the other explanations of it being written by white people, this is clearly a Chinese story. And if you want to set it in Germany, go ahead and do that and change it. But if you're going to keep it culturally specific as it is, then you need to address that. CAVANAUGH: Thank you both so much.

"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?

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