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At One California High School, Gender Neutral & Color Conscious Casting in “1776”

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Editor’s preface: Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company wrote an extensive Facebook post after seeing a production of 1776, directed by his sister, the author of this essay, at their old high school in California, 38 years after having directed his own production in their hometown. His reflections prompted Arts Integrity to solicit this post, about how the production had come together; it is certainly only one example of how 1776 and many works for the stage are being reexamined in high school productions, especially in the wake of the success of Hamilton. Amy Tichenor Moorhead, teaches dance and musical theatre at Piedmont High School in Piedmont CA.

The musical 1776 has been a favorite of my family’s for decades, but I never considered it for my high school’s annual musical until I realized the opportunity that lay in gender-neutral, as well as color conscious, casting.

Like most high school musical theater directors, I’m always looking for shows that have lots of roles for female actors. While researching online, I learned of Kansas City’s Musical Theatre Heritage all-female 1776 in 2010. There was precedent for this in our 2011 production of Les Misérables in which two women were cast in small roles written for men. I realized right away that there’s no reason women couldn’t play any of the male roles in 1776, and that in this way, we could fully embrace trans* and non-binary students as well.

Keith Edwards, son of the late composer and lyricist Sherman Edwards, told in 2010, “An inclusive society is roughly what the Founding Fathers desired with the launch of the Declaration of Independence, and although they did not emancipate slaves or women at that moment, they prepared the way for both.” Inclusion is always one of my primary objectives and though I don’t think of 1776 as a show frequently performed in high schools, it felt like a valuable way to include young women in discussions from which they’ve been largely excluded. With the addition of an ensemble, plus color-conscious and gender neutral casting, the experience could be powerful.

The announcement that I would employ gender neutral casting was met with enthusiasm, and the audition process began in September for our February 2018 production. The casting process is challenging, more of an art than a science. It revives memories of my own auditions which makes me sensitive to the actors’ hopes as well as despair in not being cast as they’d wished.

I entered the audition process with no plan about how I would cast each role. I asked the actors to indicate on their audition form if they were comfortable playing either male or female characters as well as playing opposite either male or female actors and almost all were fine with both.

I could have cast the show a number of different ways, but I chose the actors I thought were strongest for each role, taking the whole cast into account. I didn’t plan to cast Abigail/John and Martha/Thomas traditionally, and I looked seriously at other combinations. During callbacks, certain actors emerged for roles that I never could have anticipated and this is the marvel of the audition process.

I hoped a student with a decent Scottish brogue would audition for McKean, and it turned out there was more than one – a woman won the role. One casting intent I did have was that the Courier would be played by a woman, but it was ultimately cast traditionally. At the conclusion of casting, only 30% of the roles were cast gender typically.

With the rehearsal process underway by early October, I decided the production would be costumed in traditional dress of the period. I considered modern-day gender neutral costuming, like formal concert attire, but found this was actually going to be more expensive, and the cast was excited about wearing 18th century coats and trousers, with buckles on their shoes, cravats, the use of canes, and a few powdered wigs.

Though 1776 calls for a cast of 26, I chose to add an ensemble to help bring the streets of Philadelphia to life — and to be inclusive of more students who wanted to participate in this musical — bringing the cast to 48. About half of the ensemble were costumed as female and the other half were dressed as male.

In addition to costume and staging choices, the physicality of each character is vital, because in a classic musical like 1776 the characters need to be defined as following the social expectations of their particular gender. How to shake hands, how to sit up straight, how to stand tall, how to bow in the manner of a stereotypical 18th century male required extensive rehearsal for all in the cast. The issues of correctness are more about the time period and region, so the women worked just as hard as the men to achieve the proper physicality. Even though the male characters are dressed as males, the fact that many are female actors in male roles is still apparent and it allows us to see these eighteenth-century congressMEN in a new light.

Rehearsals provided ample opportunity to take note of gender equality. In scene two, Richard Henry Lee declares, “I’ll stop off at Stratford just long enough to refresh the missus” and the bawdiness continues when he launches into the song “The Lees of Old Virginia” with the lyrics “may my wife refuse my bed if I can’t deliver . . .” Seeing a 21st century teenage girl portray an 18th century slaveholding man – conceived by a man in the 1960s to be an energetic but righteous buffoon – was both entertaining and eye-opening. It also emphasized that women’s roles in the story of our nation’s founding are missing from 1776, and when they are present, it is as a partner in bed.

Early in scene three, Thomas Jefferson announces he is leaving for home on “family business”, Stephen Hopkins’s response required attention in rehearsal. Hopkins chimes in and tells Jefferson, “Give her a good one for me, young feller.” We tried several different deliveries in attempt to retain the spontaneous, lighthearted intent of the line and the female actor, ultimately, embraced the notion that Hopkins is completely unaware that he is being offensive and was not considered to be so at that moment in history, though he is today. He’s not evil, he’s just of another time and set of sensibilities.

Benjamin Franklin is probably the most inappropriate character by 2018 standards with riotously suggestive dialogue throughout the show. Upon the arrival of Martha to Jefferson’s room in scene 4, Franklin asks, “Well, Halooo, and whose little girl are you?” Hilarious (because impropriety is often a source of humor) – and creepy – whether  Franklin is played by a male or a female. With a female in the role, it is even more difficult for the audience to ignore the impropriety because we can’t overlook the fact that a female delivered the line.

While the Thomas and Martha engage in a lengthy kiss, Franklin explains, “Of course she’s his wife. Look how they fit.” I had thought this line would be even funnier delivered by a female actress, but it never got the laugh that I expected. Perhaps because we know more about Thomas Jefferson than we used to, and times have changed. Later, Franklin jumps up from his nap at the invitation to go to New Brunswick “for the whoring and the drinking” – and once again the idea of women as “little brides” or whores is highlighted by the young women in the male roles saying these lines. It’s arguable whether the casting or the fact that it’s 2018 made the line more, or less funny.

Abigail Adams, a more fully-developed character than Martha Jefferson, still revolves around her husband John. She does reference their sick children and their farm’s struggles, alluding to how difficult it must have been for the women left at home. I initially planned to bring Abigail’s home to life with little children scurrying around to suggest all she would have had to contend with while still scraping out time to correspond with John. I had to let this staging idea go given the complexities it presented with the congress set and the placement of Jefferson’s house, and given Abigail’s primary role within the script as her husband’s main source of strength and support.

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“The Lees of Old Virginia” in the Piedmont High School 2018 production of “1776” (Julie Reichle Photography)

Piedmont High School is predominantly European American (68%); however, the audition pool contained African-American and Asian-American students, as well as students of Indian  and Pacific Islander heritage. As a white, cisgender woman I gave a great deal of thought in casting deliberations as  to how to cast the individuals not historically granted access to privilege and power. In prior years, I have practiced color blind casting. But as Diep Tran, associate editor of American Theatre magazine told the Los Angeles Times, “Color-conscious” means “we’re aware of the historic discrimination in the entertainment industry . . . and we’re also aware of what it means to put a body of color onstage”. Snehal Desai, artistic director of the Asian theater company East West Players in Los Angeles, the longest-operating theater of color in the United States, said in the same article, “The thing about colorblind casting is that it denies the person standing in front of you. It ignores identity, and for people of color, that further alienates us”.

In casting a high school production of 1776, does color matter ? Yes it does. I was aware of the critical need to becolor conscious. On casting Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda told The Atlantic, “This is a story about America then, told by America now…and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story”. One-quarter of the actors featured in my 1776 production were students from communities traditionally underrepresented on stage, playing historical characters who were, in real life, white.

There are two roles in particular that gave me pause. In the casting of Joseph Hewes (North Carolina) and Dr. Lyman Hall (Georgia), although I knew the actors would be wonderful in their roles, it occurred to me that the audience might be troubled and unsure how to interpret African-American students portraying Southern delegates, that is, stepping into the shoes of slaveholders. As Jessica Gelt wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Color-conscious casting implies an understanding of the profound implications of skin color.”

I wrestled with how the Southern delegates were arranged on stage. Initially, I followed the Director’s Stage Guide’s furniture positioning for the scenes in the chamber which called for Hall and Hewes to be upstage left. I worried that the audience might see the casting of Hall and Hewes as resulting in an unfortunate accident which placed these two students in the back, behind others, rather than a conscious casting choice that would cause people to think. I tried several subtle variations on the arrangement of the delegates in that up-left corner, and eventually placed Edward Rutledge (cast typically) between them, and further upstage than Hewes. We did have a stage level change that gave some flexibility.

I worried about what the audience would think about the casting during Rutledge’s “Molasses to Rum to Slaves”. Even more than worrying what they might think, I worried that they wouldn’t think about it at all. At the conclusion of the song, the stage directions call for Rutledge to walk out as Hewes and Hall follow him. I directed Hewes and Hall to exchange a look and a nod before they began to follow Rutledge to suggest that they were making the independent decision to walk out rather than to simply be followers of Rutledge, under his authority.

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From the 1980 Tichenor family production: “But, Mr. Adams” (l-r) Austin Tichenor (John Adams), John Tichenor (Benjamin Franklin), David Stein (Roger Sherman), Chris Stevens (Robert Livingston), and Bruce Turner (Thomas Jefferson)

I noted previously that 1776 has been a favorite of my family, dating back to when my brother Austin directed it in 1980. It was a community theater production that we produced with alumni and then-current students from Piedmont High School, performed in the same high school auditorium as my production 38 years later.

Austin cast himself as Adams, my other brother, John Tichenor, played Franklin, our dad played Hall, I assisted the choreographer and dressed the wigs, Mom sold tickets and cleaned the toilets — it was very much a family affair. In a post on Facebook after seeing my production, Austin noted an example of the benefits of diverse casting: “When Dr. Lyman Hall reveals his famous epiphany (“A representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion”) the moment retained all its irony but gained added resonance by being spoken by a young African-American woman. It became a fantastic and moving moment about the power of representation: Not only on our stages but in our governments.”  Just the reaction I’d hoped for.

With a gender neutral, culturally diverse cast, 1776 facilitates dialogue about our 2018 political panorama and reminds us of our responsibility for making sure that all voices are heard as we move forward. Rehearsals presented frequent opportunities for discussion and making connections to our country today – and there would be even more if we were doing the show this summer. The experience provided us with an opportunity to consider gender, racial and ethnic equality through the lens of musical theater.

As I continue to unpack the adventure five months later, the production still informs my thoughts about casting and directing.  I’ve realized that my casting process must be color conscious rather than color blind and even more than before, I will consider the gender spectrum. Instead of auditioning two distinct groups, men and women, I will look beyond the strictures of gender expectations, and, as I have in the past, the racial and ethnic default to casting roles as white unless specified as characters of color when choosing actors for roles. Yet I will be carefully aware of how the words and messages of the text resound when embodied by actors who do not replicate the characteristics of those who may have created the roles.

As I anticipate RENT, which I’ll be casting in September, a show that embraces characters all along the gender and sexuality spectrum, I’m eager to see what revelations we’ll come to when we cast consciously.