Not A Gimmick: The Lack of Diversity in Theatres.

by Abbie Cawser, September 24, 2021

Cameron Mackintosh is a well-known name in the UK, but this is less true in the US. While you may be unfamiliar with his name, his work is much more recognisable – Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton. He is a producer for some of the most famous and longest-running West End and Broadway shows in the history of theatre. With his reputation of featuring progressive themes of inclusion, revolution, and community in these shows, one would think that he’d be a proponent for the advancement of theatre into the 21st century, but recent comments have led him to face backlash throughout the theatre community. 

Recently, when asked about the potential for transgender actors in theatre shows, he responded, “you can’t implant something that is not inherently there in the story or character… to do that, it becomes gimmick casting. It’s trying to force something that isn’t natural.”4 This exclusionary mindset separates trans actors from the rest of the theatre community, suggesting that an artist who happens to be trans would not be able to play a role as effectively or convincingly as a cisgender artist.

Unsurprisingly, this faced a significant amount of backlash from a community largely based on acceptance and tolerance. Alexandra Billings, a transgender actress currently starring in Wicked on Broadway, asserted that

“I am an actor…I am these stories because I am part of the human fabric and no one has the right to take any this away from me.… I am an actor, Mr. Mackintosh, not a gimmick…. We have been playing these musical roles in the theater for centuries. The only difference is, now we are becoming visible. And that’s frightening. That’s upsetting. This is about you and your fear and the fear of many others, but it is not about the trans community.”

– Alexandra Billings

She was far from alone in this: countless actors from Mackintosh’s own shows, as well as the entire cast of a recent production of Rent (a show that features multiple trans/non-binary actors) stood up against his words, demanding an apology and highlighting the work that trans actors have done within the Broadway community.4

On September 6th 2021, there was a Trans March on Broadway, protesting Mackintosh’s comments and claiming that it should be transgender artists who lead the conversation, not Mackintosh.5 There are also plans for a concert entitled You Gotta Have A Gimmick, the goal of which is to put the spotlight on trans artists and allow them to share their talents separately from the discriminatory comments.

Following the backlash, Mackintosh posted another statement, apologising for his comments. He claimed that his words were misinterpreted and that it wasn’t transgender artists he was against, but simply their presence in classical shows; instead, he suggested, new shows should be written focused exclusively on trans issues. The problem with this suggestion, aside from the fact that it still gatekeeps classical roles from transgender actors and limits the subject matter that he sees as suitable for them to partake in, is that the creation of new musicals is not such a straightforward solution. Plays and shows have already been written with specifically transgender roles in mind, such as Jagged Little Pill, and Breakfast on Pluto.3,2

The issue? These roles are still being played by cis actors. 

By claiming that classical roles are not suitable for trans actors, whilst also casting cis actors in trans roles with the claim that fiction should be open to anyone, producers create a hypocritical paradox that only serves to exclude transgender actors. Additionally, certain new shows such as Tootsie (a show in which a male character adopts a female persona in the hope that this advances his career) create storylines that “profit from transgender stereotypes while casting cisgender performers, to share their experiences in the business.”2

The expectation that progress will come through new shows is an excuse that has allowed for the lack of diversity within classical theatre for decades. The majority of casting in older, more renowned shows is predominantly White, with the expectation that newer shows will create roles more “suitable” for actors of colour, actors with disabilities, and trans and non-binary actors. This lack of representation is far from limited to just sexuality and gender identity – race is also massively underrepresented. 

While the issue of needing more diverse actors is a frequently occurring one, an important discussion that is often overlooked is one of writers. In the last 3 theatre seasons, over 80% of plays and musicals on Broadway were written by White creatives, as outlined in “The Visibility Report: Racial Representation on NYC Stages,” which was published by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.1 Given that diversity is supposedly meant to be enhanced through new art (which has occurred to a certain extent, with shows such as Hamilton and Hadestown casting much more diverse artists, but has still not come close to resolving the imbalance), it seems unlikely that this will be possible in an industry where even new art is staggeringly under-representative. In 2019, a study done on gender representation within Broadway revealed that there were only 4 artists who openly identified as non-binary, with non-gender specific roles making up just 7.1% of all characters on Broadway.6 When this study was released, actor Shakina Nayfack wrote that she “just want[ed] to be playing good roles that don’t necessarily have anything to do with transness.” In short – roles don’t need to be written specifically for trans actors because they should be able to occupy any space and role they choose on Broadway.

While diversity is starting to emerge within shows, without the hiring of actors in classical shows – given these shows’ reputations of prestige and their security as a symbol of Broadway, especially amongst older audiences – progress will be slow, as these actors will still believe theatre isn’t a place for them. The responsibility shouldn’t be on young actors and writers to create roles for themselves when existing roles should be open to them.

(Dates and artists for You Gotta Have A Gimmick have not yet been announced, but follow @youcancallmesis on Twitter for updates)


References

  1. Asian American Performers Action Coalition, Racial Representation on New York City Stages 2018-2019’, American Theatre Wing, 2019 (http://www.aapacnyc.org/uploads/1/3/5/7/135720209/aapac_report_2018-2019_final.pdf
  1. Annie Lord, ‘Actor felt forced to quit musical after man was cast in trans woman role’, The Independent, March 2020 (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/trans-actor-breakfast-pluto-cillian-murphy-kate-odonnell-a9396421.html
  1. Christian Lewis, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Broadway’s Jagged Little Journey Toward Nonbinary Inclusion’, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2021(https://brooklynrail.org/2021/04/theater/One-Step-Forward-Two-Steps-Back-Broadways-Jagged-Little-Journey-Toward-Nonbinary-Inclusion
  1. Greg Evans, ‘Trans Actor Alexandra Billings Blasts Producer Cameron Mackintosh: “I Am An Actor, Not A Gimmick”’, Deadline, Aug 2021(https://deadline.com/2021/08/alexandra-billings-cameron-mackintosh-trans-casting-not-a-gimmick-1234824340/
  1. Michael Appler, ‘Transgender March on Broadway Protests Cameron Mackintosh Casting Comments, Calls For Greater Representation’, Variety, Sept 2021 (https://variety.com/2021/theater/news/transgender-march-on-broadway-cameron-mackintosh-1235057686/ 
  1. Sammy Gibbons, ‘Trans, nonbinary musical theater pros make ‘a place’ for their work that Broadway hasn’t’, Rockland/Westchester Journal News, Lohud, July 2021 (https://www.lohud.com/story/life/2021/07/12/transgender-nonbinary-theater-pros-fill-broadway-gaps/7811342002/

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