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Roundabout’s production of 1776 highlights bold choices in casting: this company includes multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender; they identify as female, transgender and nonbinary. How do these casting choices come about and how do they impact an audience?

The history of the diversification of American stages isn’t a long one, unfortunately; the 1950s and ‘60s saw the first intentional efforts to address the overwhelming racial inequity of American stages. The earliest theatre companies to establish integrated casting policies as an artistic practice were New York Shakespeare Festival (now known as The Public Theatre), Arena Stage in DC, and the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center. This was dubbed color-blind casting in the 1970s; the term non-traditional casting wouldn’t come into prominence until the 1980s, spearheaded by the Non-Traditional Casting Project (NTCP). The NTCP formed in 1986 and was sponsored by Actors’ Equity Association, which defined non-traditional casting as “the casting of ethnic, minority and female actors in roles where race, ethnicity or sex is not germane to character or play development” (this definition would later be expanded to include actors with disabilities). At the time, statistics showed that 90% of all plays produced in the US were performed by all-white casts; in regional theatres, it looked even more grim – only 9% of roles went to non-white performers. NTCP’s work was clear.

According to their mission statement, NTCP believed that lack of diversity on American stages was responsible for a “serious loss to the cultural life of the nation and has resulted in a theater that does not reflect the diversity of our society.” So in 1986, the NTCP gathered 500 people from across the country over two days in New York City for its first National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting. The idea behind the Symposium was to put the issue front and center before the industry itself in order to begin the transformational work it believed to be critical for expanding hiring opportunities for diverse artists. The Symposium featured panel discussions and performances of scenes from plays – classical and contemporary  — as well as musicals, all performed by members of a multiracial company of 75 actors and directors. The goal of showcasing diverse casts non-traditionally was to “jog the imagination” of those in attendance and to inspire new possibilities. Many in attendance, including the great actor Paul Robeson, believed that the theatre had a responsibility to address injustice in our country; others spoke about the need for theatre to lead in this area. In reflecting on the impact on audiences, one managing director stated: “We have an obligation to show them a vision of what the world could be.”

After two decades of ground-breaking work, and having received an Obie and an Honorary Drama Desk Award, NTCP’s name changed, but their mission remains the same. Now called the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, the organization continues to advocate for non-traditional casting, acknowledging there is still a long way to go. In its second-ever diversity report, analyzing data from the 2016-2019 seasons, Actors’ Equity Association found that white or European American performers took home nearly 64% of the contracted salaries of all performers in a year. Women took home under 45% of the total salaries, and other genders less than 1%. But the work launched by the NTCP has been fruitful, offering us a more nuanced understanding of the possibilities within non-traditional casting. These are among the definitions offered by Angela C. Pao in her book, No Safe Spaces; Re-casting Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in American Theater

Societal casting: Ethnic, female, or disabled actors are cast in roles they perform in society as a whole

Cross-cultural casting: The entire world of a play is translated to a different cultural setting

Color-blind casting: Actors are cast without regard to their race or ethnicity 

Other forms of non-traditional casting include gender-swapping, as seen in the 2013 production of Pippin with the character of the Leading Player, and inclusive casting, as seen in Hamilton, a practice which became embedded into the branding of that show. As ideas around non-traditional casting have developed, conceptual casting (or conscious casting) — when a non-white actor, female actor, or actor with a disability is cast in a role in order to give the play greater resonance  — has also begun to find a place on Broadway. 1776 is an example of this type of casting. To quote Alan Eisenberg, Executive Secretary of Actors' Equity at the time, in his 1988 The New York Times op-ed "Nontraditional Casting; When Race and Sex Don't Matter": non-traditional casting is “actually realistic casting” and conceptual casting is “when a director consciously chooses to bring an added dimension to a play or make a statement by casting…actors in roles they have not traditionally played.” According to these descriptions, 1776 would be an example of conceptual casting. Let’s look at what co-directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page have to say about their concept.

In A.R.T.’s video Behind the Scenes: 1776, Paulus says she embarked on the journey of this show as a way of “looking at my own personal understanding of American history…and kind of reckoning with a myth that I felt I was taught and a miseducation.” She wanted to “...focus on what [and who] has been occluded” from history and part of that examination gave rise to the casting.

As quoted in, Page asserts that “[Diane and I have] explored the unsaid, unspoken, and unwritten history, and as a result I have found myself inside of the important piece of art, inside of American history, and I have learned something new about both.” In A.R.T.’s Experience the Art video, "Making a Musical: 1776", he talks about the show going from “a political tool into something that was self-affirming” and expresses that:

…This particular play places me and people who look like me directly in the middle of what the piece is and with this particular show we are looking at bodies who have historically been occluded from the narrative…how does the Black body put itself into the narrative of America and that’s really, really exciting. …I think the audiences will see something about America that lives inside of them and how might that empower them.

For both Paulus and Page, allowing the audience to see themselves in the story was paramount — an idea which hearkens back to the first NTCP summit, which asserted the need to “assist our population in better understanding who they and their neighbors are and help them in reaching the 21st Century.”

Paulus is quoted in a 2022 The New York Times interview saying that the production is very much about:

…Looking back to our history to understand the present moment…Our casting bridges the realities of the past and the present, from who was excluded from Independence Hall to an aspirational vision of an inclusive society.

And in an earlier interview she invites:

...the audience to hold that dual reality, of what the founders were, but also a company of actors in 2022, who never would have been allowed inside Independence Hall.

Crystal Lucas-Perry, who played the role of John Adams in the production at A.R.T. and originated the role on Broadway, told The Boston Globe:

I believe there’s something to be gained when we reexamine history in this way, by putting faces and bodies onstage that were not a part of the traditional makeup of this show. When we shift the gaze so you see a different perspective, we start to hear things that we didn’t hear before and see things that maybe we didn’t want to see but that have always been in the story from the beginning…I’m going to be reaffirming my place not only as a character fighting for the rights of other humans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but I’m also going to be cementing my own existence and that of my ancestors into the fabric of this nation.

And in an interview for, Elizabeth A. Davis, who plays Thomas Jefferson, said, “Our aim is not to put these people on a pedestal or to destroy them. Our aim is to look at them as human beings and to look at the enormous thing that was enacted and also the cost of what that enactment was.” 

After nearly 250 years, it’s exciting for all of us to grapple with and claim this great American story as all of our own. As Page told the Globe: “It’s empowering when you can turn your head and see something new about history that you’ve never seen before.” 

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Brown, Joe. “Nontraditional Casting Not Just a Character Issue.” The Washington Post, 23 Nov. 1987.

Newman, Harry. “Casting a Doubt: The Legal Issues of Nontraditional Casting.Journal of Arts

Management and Law, 19:2, 1989, pp. 55-62. 

Ebben, Paula. “Unique cast in Cambridge performance of musical ‘1776’ takes new look at U.S. history.CBS, 6 July 2022.

Eisenberg, Alan. “Nontraditional Casting; When Race and Sex Don’t Matter.” The New York Times, 23 Oct. 1988.

Geselowitz, Gabriela. “Actors’ Equity Association Diversity Report, 2016-2019 In Review.Actors’ Equity Association, 2020, p. 5.

Harms, Talaura. “Cast Set for the Broadway-Bound 1776 at, 8 April 2022.

Pao, Angela C. No Safe Spaces: Re-casting Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in American Theater. University of Michigan Press, 2011, pp. 3-6.

Rabinowitz, Chloe. “Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page Discuss Reckoning With American History in Broadway-Bound 1776.Broadway World, 7 July 2022.

Salomon, Andrew. “NTCP Changes Name, Cause the, 25 March 2013.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “‘1776’ in 2022: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of a Dual Reality.” The New York Times, 6 Sept. 2022.

Schuessler, Jennifer, “Hitting the Right Notes When Setting History to Song.” The New York Times, 27 May 2022.

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Wallenberg, Christopher. “A.R.T.’s ‘1776’ Aims To Give History a Shake.” The Boston Globe, 12 May 2022.