Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dear Don Rubin

Further to the last post regarding  Non-Traditional Casting and Criticism I have received permission from Tony Nardi to post this email.

Dear Don Rubin,

I just heard about your  event at Tarragon Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 21, to debate the subject of “Non-Traditional Casting and Criticism.”  I hope I can make it. I hope Rocco Galati (Constitutional lawyer and producer of the filmed version of "Two Letters... And Counting!") can make it, as well.
It's too bad I wasn't informed earlier about this panel. Given the subject of Letter Two, which specifically takes issue with cultural stereotyping by critics, directors, actors (even those from non-Anglo and non-Franco
backgrounds), and from a centuries-old infestation of colonial mindsetting, it would have been interesting to be a part of it.
I confess, I find "Non-Traditional Casting and Criticism" problematic. It presumes that there exists a normal, standard position, set by a casting God, and another standard that deviates form the norm, and, that there are
people who are "like this", 'this tight' with the casting God and could define normal for all the others. Is casting a white Canadian male as Treplev or Trigorin with a phony affected English accent considered traditional (normal) casting in Canada? The answer is ‘yes’. Has been ‘yes’ for many years.

Is it traditional (normal) for white Canadian actors to slap a phony English accent on almost every role in any classic of world theatre in translations published by Penguin? Yes. It has always been ‘yes’. We have a history of a (white) Canadian theatre scene that has, for the most part and consistently, been pathologically inauthentic ­ and therefore largely irrelevant. Even Domiano Pietropaolo’s translation of Pirandello’s Six Characters … was
performed (on stage and on CBC radio) with stiff upper lip English accents by Shaw Festival actors, and, it
was directed by an east-European director.

We have a Playwrights Canada Press that has refused to publish Canadian plays written (and produced professionally) in languages other than English and then refuses to publish the plays once they have been translated into English. This practice, according to many English Canadians, is okay. It’s the norm. It’s the tradition.

I did some research two years ago. Eighty percent of the plays performed yearly in Ontario (professional or amateur) are classics or hits from the English or American repertoire. That, too, is traditional. This, of
course, wouldn’t make sense to the Group of Seven. It wouldn’t have made sense to Tyrone Guthrie, either, when he left Stratford  in the late 1950s with the parting words that no theatre culture in Canada could thrive ­
would thrive, or become vital and relevant, unless the theatre artists reflected the landscape, the ‘climate’, and the people with whom they shared both.

The problem is tribal. Cultural. Non-traditional casting sidesteps the issue. Because the issue is tribal, cultural, and political and no one wants to touch it. Like with education. Could you imagine a Canadian politician
going on television and telling Canada that the government in Ontario violated the 1867 constitution for decades by taxing illegally those who sent their children to Catholic schools? The constitution guaranteed public
schooling across Canada  for those attending both protestant (public) and catholic (separate) schools. So how about we give the millions of dollars back to those immigrants or French Canadians living in Ontario all those
years right up to the mid 1970s?

It's tribal.

In the mid 1970s Canadian author Neil Bissoondath was assigned to York University’s Bethune College (an institution devoted to Third World Studies), though his major was in French language and literature. He should
have been sent to bilingual Glendon College. What happened?  He was a recent immigrant from a Third World country (Trinidad). His adviser assumed he would be most comfortable in an environment of mainly non-whites. Mr. Bissondath in his 1994 book Selling Illusions partly excused the custom (in classic Oreo cookie fashion) by saying “the concept of ‘sticking with your own’ was just then in vogue at York.”

Apparently, we don’t have the same problem today, he and others argue. Yet, a January 12, 2009 Toronto STAR headline read:  Study (done at York University) Shows High Tolerance For Racism.   The racial slurs that were encouraged, excused or totally ignored - daily - at the university apparently shocked many.

And that’s at a university, your university, where, in a 30-year span, since Bissondath’s graduation, society’s more ‘enlightened’ have apparently been gathering, learning and hashing out progressive, non-traditional-casting ideas.

A flat tire cannot be changed when the car is travelling at 100 miles an hour. Impossible. The bi-cultural Canada  wheels with the multicultural paint job speeds down the highway with a couple of flat tires, but the car radio yahoos at full volume.

Canada’s nationhood is (still) predicated on cultural privilege (cultural background). Those belonging to the so-called two founding nations have entitlement. The others are on the outside looking in, even when they’re in
looking out.

Why are the two “founding nations” excluded from the list that defines multicultural Canada? Why do we have a bi-cultural Canada  for the two founding nations and a multicultural Canada for all the others?

I agree with these words by author Pat Duffy Hutcheon, though I do not agree with his proposed solutions.

Canada has been applauded as the first immigrant country to become thoroughly pluralistic -- in guiding philosophy as well as the obvious fact of an ethnically diverse population. However, I intend to argue that the
actual situation is much more ambiguous and complex, and that the earlier vision driving the country has altered drastically and rapidly over the past several decades until, today, it seems to many Canadians that we have
arrived at a place envisioned by very few and sought by no one. In the vague hope of achieving an intercultural society with room for all-comers, we appear to have been propelled from the dark vision of two non-communicating founding nations within one country through a failed attempt at an inclusive biculturalism. In the process, we have seen our long-time vision of equal opportunity for individuals within an integrated intercultural nation change drastically to what looks suspiciously like one of race-based apartheid in a mere geographical territory housing a multitude of isolated ethnic groupings. A look at the course of this revolution may prove enlightening….A successful pluralist culture is one that is continuously enriched and altered by innovation from within, and by the subcultures being carried into it by immigrants.”

Well, we’re nowhere close.

Here's some logic that derails.

“In fact, most new Canadians have chosen to come to Canada precisely because of their perceptions of what our culture, as a whole, represents. The attribute most often mentioned is our internationalist outlook: an outlook precisely opposite to that fostered in the sheltered subcultural enclave. Most immigrants do not want a replica of what they left behind. Least of all do most of them desire a re-playing, in a new setting, of the old religious conflicts, caste rules and blood feuds that they were trying to escape.”

If this is true, why should new Canadians leave their cultural baggage at customs while the “old” (English) Canadians (those who were here first) still cling to their inauthentic Victorian and pre-Victorian pasts?
Last I checked Canada’s flagships theatres were still the Shaw and Stratford festivals.  Is this not pathology? And has pathology not become the norm, the standard? And we are using this standard (interesting and telling than anyone would think it IS a worthy standard) to gauge how to include (position) non-Anglo and non-Franco Canadians within in this bi-cultural, Anglo-Franco, Plains-Of-Abraham tribal nightmare?

I wish Douglas Campbell were alive. He would be a much-needed tonic at any roundtable on theatre and non-traditional casting. I wish Nathan Cohen were alive. I quoted him in Letter Two. And Douglas moderated Letter Two at Espace Libre shortly before he died.

As for the following question taken from the release:

“Could critics and audiences, for example, accept the notion of a female Hamlet or a female Lear?”

What year are we in? Is this a serious question?

Did Sara BERNHARDT not play the title role of Hamlet in 1899? Did she play it in French with a stiff upper lip English accent, or in English with a pointu’ French accent? She travelled the Americas.

This is why no one takes theatre seriously. We entertain questions that often sound better in a parlour, with a gin tonic in hand, low lighting, and at about 2:00A.M.
Could you imagine doctors today holding conferences and discussing medical advancements introduced in 1899 as if they were just brought in today? Would those doctors not be helped to a straight jacket and a permanent visit to the Clark?

Here’s a word on Tony Howard”s book: Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction.

“Tony Howard’s lively and informative study draws our attention to the fact that the extensive history of Shakespeare’s most famous character includes an extraordinary and rather unexpected presence of women including, remarkably, the first Hamlet on film and, in all likelihood, the first Hamlet on the radio (1). Howard tells us that since the mid nineteenth century more than two hundred professional actresses across the globe have played the role of the procrastinating protagonist and his Women as Hamlet impressively examines a wide selection of those performances in the theatre and on film as well as looking to representations in other media including the visual arts and fiction. The project starts by situating some of the most famous female Hamlets among the number of en travesti roles on the professional stage. This includes, of course, Sarah Siddons in the
eighteenth century along with Charlotte Cushman and Sarah Bernhardt in the nineteenth.”

I could understand if the press release that came my way today had been written in the 1950s, just about the time that Tyrone Guthrie left Stratford and Canada. I cannot understand its content or context today. The problem is not with casting, traditional or non-traditional. The problem is with the tribal war being waged by Canada’s two founding nations, reserving a first class seat for themselves and bunks in cargo for all the others.  It’s the 'mainstream' thinking (and those who have bought into it from all cultural backgrounds) that produces the results (theatre culture) we have. And if we do not think differently about our theatre, we won’t have one, or, if we do, it won’t mean much to most Canadians, which is just about where we are now ... where we have been for awhile.

Come to think of it perhaps we ­ in the theatre - should all buy a comfortable coffin, like the famous coffin Sara Bernhardt apparently often slept in, in lieu of a bed, “claiming it helped her understand her many tragic roles”. Maybe we’ll have a better understanding of our Canadian reality if we slept in one of those comfy coffins.  Our theatre, after all, is a string of mausoleums with bars and liquor.
By the time we leave the theatre we’re too drunk to discuss Peter Brook’s dead theatre and actually make fun of it, like we just invented the wheel, live theatre, and non-traditional casting.

BTW. Kamal was invited to moderate Letter Two in 2006 and 2007. He never
called back.

Tony Nardi

edits: corrected typos and a couple of capitilizations

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