Hedwig Cancellation Sparks Huge Debate
The cancellation of the Sydney season of Hedwig and the Angry Inch following objections from the Australian Transgender community about the casting of Hugh Sheridan has sparked a huge debate.
Music theatre Producer Craig Donnell says with the industry on its knees and more productions being cancelled, there needs to be a debate about casting.
My understanding of the decision to cancel Hedwig (which may not be fully informed), is that it relates to two areas - the concerns of the Trans community over the casting of a man that identifies as male in a trans role and a comment or comments to that community that caused offence.
I've had a couple of calls asking questions privately that people would dare not ask in a public forum, why? Because to ask might suggest a reduced understanding of the issues and nobody wants to be seen as ignorant for fear of being trolled, abused, called out or put down. So, I'm asking some questions, for me and for those afraid to ask but keen to see us do better.
What I would like to explore are the views on various aspects of casting and see what the competing views are. Please folks, we have all had a tough year so lets be respectful and kind - we won't all agree or immediately understand but it costs nothing to show some respect and abuse endears your point to nobody.
Since it's just happened - let's spend a minute with Hedwig - a character who is written as trans. Where does the line get drawn between an actor playing a part and a person getting the role because they have the same shared experience or identity of the character?
Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C Hall, Darren Criss and our own Michael Falzon have all played the role in recent years, cast because the producer/director thought they would be good in the role and sell tickets - none of whom identify as Trans.
John Cameron Mitchell wrote Hedwig and appeared as Hedwig for a season on Broadway in 2015 - he does not identify as Trans. I genuinely ask the question where did the line get drawn that leads us to this point, where productions get cancelled because the actor portraying the written character doesn't identify in the same way the fictional character has been written.
It's entirely possible I don't know all the details behind the cancellation, so lets look at some other scenarios for a minute - If they wrote a musical version of A Beautiful Mind - should the role of John Nash only be portrayed by somebody who has had a lived experience of paranoid schizophrenia?
Should the role of Albin (La Cage) only be portrayed by somebody with drag experience? Should they at least be gay as a minimum?
Should only members of the LGBTQI community play the role of Lola in Kinky Boots? What would happen if a straight man was cast?
I am truly not trying to be flippant - I am genuinely asking what are the collective views. Where do we draw a line, when did views change, what further change would we like to see?
What credit do we give to an actor being able to portray a role - no matter what the content/context/condition? Is it the role/talent/job of an actor to slip into somebody else's reality and make it their own for a couple of hours at every performance transporting an audience. Does Hedwig have to be played by a Trans actor for it to read to an audience or give it authenticity?
This issue has cross over to another sensitive issue in our industry. That of the depiction and inclusion of race in our productions.
Where are the lines drawn?
In Australia it appeared acceptable for Teddy Tahu Rhodes to portray a Frenchman in South Pacific but not the King in the King and I. Is that because one is white and just putting on a french accent and the other is Thai and should not be portrayed by a white man with a good tan?
Should a Thai role only be played by somebody from Thailand? Does the rule only apply to the role of the King or should all roles be cast with authentic Thai actors? Is it acceptable to the people of Thailand for the role of the King to be played by a Filipino actor or is that just how white people justify it? Whose opinion counts more?
Should a the cast of Billy Elliot only be cast with genuine Geordies? Or when it comes to doing accents is it acceptable that a white actor can do the accent of a white race only but never anybody of colour?
A white actor is doing a one person play that is set in different parts of the world and requires them to play many parts - must those parts only be white by nature? What if they needed to do the accent of an Indian, Chinese and African character in the play. Is that acceptable? How would that work in reverse? A BIPOC actor in the same fictional one person play - is it acceptable for them to do the accents of the BIPOC characters no matter where they are from, but what if they had to portray a white frenchman and an Australian with accents? Are the accents fine but if you attempt to change your skin colour that's when it turns racist? What are your thoughts?
A production I executive produced once received a letter from the Human Rights Commission advising they had received a formal complaint that during a scene set in the 70's where one of the female actors wore a light brown coloured 'fuzzy afro wig'. We were called to account for how this 'racist design' could be allowed to have made it to the stage. This was despite the many white 1970's women that wore their hair in a similar way in that era. The matter was resolved amicably but - how would you approach it - cut the wig because it may cause offence? Is that systemic racism in action?
Who gets to decide what should be respected and what shouldn't? Should a boy wizard only be played by somebody who identifies as a wizard?
Should an Australian be allowed to use an American accent to get the role of an American if there is a genuine American accented actor available?
Recently the Producers of Pippin imported an African American actor in the role of Leading Player. A role that has usually been played by a black actor. Let's assume for a minute that the role genuinely couldn't have been cast locally with a BIPOC actor (stay with me I'm leading somewhere), but a white Australian actor was available and knew the role well enough to step in. What's more acceptable - importing an actor and maintaining the ethnicity of the role or keeping it local regardless of the ethnicity?
The final questions I would ask of the forum covers some delicate ground, but in the interests of honest discussion, I'm genuinely interested in your views:
The recent Rob Guest Endowment situation...yes lets go there...
Where does the responsibility rest to attract and develop the number of BIPOC performers in our industry? Government funded education programs - NIDA, WAAPA, VAC? Subsidized Companies like MTC, STC, QTC, STCSA? Commercial Producers? Everybody?
Should quotas be considered across all of them?
How do we avoid tokenism?
Do we have a systemic racism issue in our productions, our writing, our casting, our teaching - and with our audience?
How do you successfully address or create awareness of systemic racism?
How can we be more immediately inclusive at a time when there are so few productions and theatres open?
Who are the appointed and approved change monitors and observers?
Finally - should the arts be the voice of change?
Do people care what our industry has to say or do they just want a 'nice nights entertainment'?
Should we be (or hold) the mirror the world needs to look into even if that damages support for our industry?
2020 brought our industry to its knees overnight. Now, as we stand on the cusp of restarting, we must unite like we have possibly never done before. We cannot afford for more shows to be cancelled - we must find ways to work together for the common good.
Over to you...
(Picture above from Hugh Sheridan's Instagram Account.)
Craig Donnell is the Managing Director of Impressario Productions and previously worked for the Gordon Frost Organisation.