Fri 24 Feb 2012
Kat Hermes as Juliet
We have what several people have said is a fairly non-traditional cast for this production of Romeo and Juliet; we have a man playing the Nurse, a woman playing Benvolio, a Tybalt who is more physically imposing than the “king of cats” is usually played, and as Juliet, we have me — a woman who is hardly a typical ingénue and who our audience is most used to seeing in comic, male roles.
All of this has me thinking a lot about the idea of “type-casting.” The phrase can have negative connotations both for actors and audiences, carrying with it the implication that an actor who is type-cast is not being challenged; he or she is “playing him/herself” or is doomed to only play a specific kind of character. But there is little doubt that Shakespeare’s company would have done a great deal of type-casting. It was, in fact, common practice. Audiences would not have been at all surprised to see the same actor playing the same kinds of roles across a variety of productions. Considering, by modern standards, the extremely limited rehearsal time Early Modern theater companies had, having actors specialize in a certain type of role was extremely practical.
The dislike many modern actors feel towards type-casting may have a lot to do with the fact that the “type” referred to is often a physical type. I mean that, depending on their appearance, there are some “types” of roles they’d never be considered for no matter what their ability, and some they’d be forced to play again and again regardless of interest. But there is another way to look at type-casting which may be closer to the way that Shakespeare’s company would have practiced it.
Though certainly appearance would have been a factor (especially since casting boys in women’s roles was a legal requirement), when descriptions of a character’s physical traits such as height and coloring are written into Shakespeare’s plays, it is not because he demanded a character look a specific way and expected to find an actor that fit his description, but because he already knew what actor he was writing for. Actors were cast by character type, rather than physical type.
Casting by character type, that is, giving actors the sort of roles that they can fit themselves into intuitively and excel at, is something that Pigeon Creek does especially and unusually well. I think our reliance on cross-gendered casting is a big part of this, as is our focus on language and storytelling over spectacle. The fact that the company is actor-run probably helps as well, since you learn a lot more about another actors capabilities sharing the stage with him or her than you can in an audition or even by watching his or her performance in a full production.
I remember a discussion about physical type in one of my college acting classes. We were talking about the professional advantages of knowing your “type” (i.e.: knowing what parts to audition for and how to present yourself at auditions) and trying to argue the limitations presented by focusing on one’s physical type instead of one’s character type. I pointed out that in a hypothetical production of Romeo and Juliet, by physical standards, I would pretty much only be eligible to play the Nurse, a role that I would be terrible at. But, I went on to say (with all the arrogance of the late-teenager), I would be an amazing Juliet if I ever found a casting director willing to look beyond physical type and consider me. One little piece of my joy at being cast in Pigeon Creek’s Romeo and Juliet is getting the chance to find out if my nineteen-year-old self was right!