'Who’s in it?’ - Unpicking our obsession with star-casting

'Who’s in it?’ - Unpicking our obsession with star-casting

I don’t really mind seeing an Eastenders regular try to make it in the West End, and having a Love Island contestant star in a musical only makes me feel slightly uneasy. This is the natural progression peoples’ careers take, and the snobbishness surrounding this kind of casting is another kind of problem.

In some respects, theatre is a business like any other: money needs to be made; tickets need to be sold. A fairly unknown or new play (like My Name is Lucy Barton with Laura Linney or The Uncertainty Principle staring Anne-Marie Duff) needs a big name to attract its audience, and it is often a positive sign that a well-respected actor has chosen to be part of a specific production. As someone who watches neither Eastenders nor Love Island, these casting choices mostly fly over my head. It is a shame though that within theatre, particularly shows opening in the West End, fewer risks seem to be being taken. Unless, of course, the show already has such a status that allows it to, pretty much, do what it likes with its casting - the most recent example being Hamilton in the West End. Obviously, Russell Crowe could be billed to play every character and the show would still, I have no doubt, run for a long time (if only to see that man attempt to rap ‘Gun and Ships’), such is the show’s monumental fan base. However, it is notable that two out of the four friends that make up the male lead roles in Hamilton were played by actors who were practically newcomers to the West End, with Hamilton himself (Jamael Westman) only having been in two plays prior, and Tarinn Callender (playing Hercules Mulligan) landing the role whilst still at drama school.

But this is not what I’m so concerned with. Our obsession as both an industry and an audience with casting ‘stars’ in lead roles in order to draw in revenue reverses the very nature of the theatrical world. When we go to see a show just to see a famous actor, we are choosing to see them, and not their character. You might think I’m over-analysing, but I have found this to be a very real problem.

Imagine being backstage, having spent the last two months finding and developing your character, and here you are on opening night. You think the thoughts the character would think. You recite your first line under your breath. You walk out on stage playing, say, a neurotic scientist suffering from grief, or an obsessive mother forcing her children to live the life she never could. As you step on stage you are met with applause. But this applause is not for Frankenstein, nor for Mama Rose. This applause is for Cumberbatch or Staunton. This happened when I saw Staunton’s magnificent performance in Gypsy and I wanted to somehow stop every clapping hand in the Savoy Theatre. We were not suspending our disbelief; we were openly pointing to the fallacy of the world they had tried so hard to expertly inhabit. Mama Rose deserved no applause: she hadn’t done a thing. We were seeing Staunton.

This is, undeniably, exacerbated in a culture obsessed with celebrity and where information about them is so easily accessible. Interviews. Instagram. Auto-biographies. We live in a country where a person may be a celebrity first, and then become an actor, rather than the other way round. We know so much about their personal lives, and this is what we choose to see. Again, I personally don’t have much of a problem with reality-star-turned-thesp, other than it encourages us to see a disconnection between the real and the theatrical (Brechtians may like this, of course, but I do not).

 ‘But if they were really good at their job, they would be able to make you forget who they are’ I hear you cry. A good actor can become anybody. Yes? Not quite. This is the paradox of acting. Acting is not about what masks you can put on, or about who can cry most convincingly. Acting is about what you have inside of you. Acting, as strange as it may be, is more about the actor than the character. If they are a good actor, you would think they can just play any part. But this is not, and has never been, the case. You are either an Iago or an Othello; a Glinda or an Elphaba (with the exception of Louise Dearman, who is the only person to have played both roles). When we see an actor do their job well, we are seeing them appear on stage entirely themselves. This lies in the very foundation of their training; at drama school, you might not even pick up a script for the first six months but instead share stories and memories with your fellow actors: not just to get to know each other but, crucially, to get to know yourself. Who you are is the most important discovery - not who you can pretend to be. At drama school auditions, you are often told to ‘be yourself’. As a 17 year old, this direction angered and confused me- myself? But I’m trying to be Juliet! How do I act as myself? It will come to you as no surprise that I didn’t get in.

So let’s not clap the next time our favourite actor walks on stage - let us try and respect the world they are about to create. The theatre (particularly the Stanislavskian realism that populates so much of our culture) is about truth. We must respect this endeavour and let them- and ourselves- inhabit that world, without being reminded with our own gratuitous applause how many Twitter followers that ‘star’ may have.

Minnie Cunningham