Open forum discusses Concord Floral casting diversity

Students, faculty and alumni address representation on campus theatre

Drama students, faculty and alumni gathered in Kingston Hall last Friday.
Credit: 
Screenshot from Livestream.

Drama students, faculty and alumni gathered in Kingston Hall last Friday to consider Queen's Drama department’s track record with diverse casting in the wake of the Concord Floral casting controversy.

Concord Floral, a 2014 play by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, is an eerie suburban thriller, centred around an abandoned greenhouse in Vaughan, Ontario — a late-night hub for local teens whose lives quickly spiral out of control.

Hosted and funded by the Dan School of Drama and Music, it’s directed by Queen’s professor Greg Wanless and featured on syllabi across the Drama department.

According to the event’s co-host Vishamayaa Jeyamoorthy, the initial casting of the play has sparked debate for being mostly white and has become worthy of attention.

“[It] has room for a diverse cast, and has been cast diversely in the past,” she said.

After discussions between students, alumni and the production team of Concord Floral, the decision was made to create a dual cast, this time chosen with diversity in mind. Despite general acceptance of the solution, the overwhelming question of the open forum was, why wasn’t diversity factored in from the beginning?

In the Queen’s Drama department alone, the infamy of last November’s Othello casting, where a white woman was cast in the traditionally-Black titular role, has placed the issue of race-based casting at the forefront of the school’s casting discussions.

As Jeyamoorthy explained during the discussion, “In early meetings [with the production team] … the response, I was getting was, ‘it just didn’t occur to us.’ There are a lot of well-intentioned people who have the privilege of not having to think about [diversity] from the get-go, but they are also the ones who have the responsibility to start thinking about it.”

This was a sentiment echoed by many other students and faculty members present on Friday, including Professor Kim Renders who stated, “We can’t wait for people who are underrepresented to step forward and say, ‘excuse me, you’ve made a mistake.’”

However, as co-host Madison Lymer noted, “the initial [casting] decision wasn’t an anomaly, it was a part of a long history of white being the default on stage.”

The discussion surrounding the practice of affirmative action, ensuring that a certain percentage of a hired group is made up of a specific minority, is often divisive.

Many, including Professor Renders and students such as Carly Altberg, were in support of affirmative action, seeing it as the push the department needs to begin normalizing the featuring of diverse actors on stage. As well, deliberate diverse casting for major productions can provide motivation to first-year drama students of colour who are questioning their future in the department.

Lymer stated, “You grow diversity when you show it, and that’s why it’s so important to get diverse people on stage so that people can see themselves and feel like they can join us. Policy helps us grow diversity in the long term.”

Drama student Harriet Bramwell disagreed, claiming the new casting choices made it seem as though the new actors didn't have value until it came to their skin colour. 

This uncertainty was the reason why cast member Ben Sterlin stood against the practice.

“I, as a student of colour, want to be merited on my abilities, not on the colour of the skin with which I was born ... University sets you up with the skills to interact with the real world, and if we deviate from the real-world model so much, when they graduate, students will be lost,” he said.

This raised the question of whether skill should be the focus of casting in university drama programs. Drama student Sara Cheraghlou said, “The people in casting panels need to think what are they doing for the student in front of them, and for the university environment, by giving those experiences [to students with fewer opportunities].”

As Lymers noted, “In casting rooms we have to ask ourselves, why is the white actor the stronger actor, and is it because they might have had more opportunities along the way?”

At its core, the discussion was a chance for a community at a crossroads to decide how best to proceed so that others can move forward in a changing student theatre landscape. 

Vishmayaa Jeyamoorthy is a staff writer for The Queen's Journal. This conflict of interest was declared prior to the interview.

- With files from Iain Sheriff-Scott

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