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Buy Local, Eat Local, Cast Local

May 12, 2009

The anti-globalization movement has made inroads into making many of us change the way we shop and feed ourselves. People -- at least those that can afford it -- are trying to buy groceries that are locally grown or even growing the food they eat themselves and eschewing big chain stores for small, neighborhood businesses. Restaurants pride themselves on letting customers know that their beef came from the ranch 20 miles away and their asparagus was brought in fresh this morning from the farmer's market across the street.

Theatre has always been an intensely local medium. It's perhaps the most indigenous of all art forms, happening as it does in real-time and space and demanding that people actually get off their butts to experience the work.

In most cases, shoe string budgets necessitate the casting of local actors and production team members. Local casting isn't just about keeping budgets down though. Because of the close, collaborative nature of theatre, productions and companies spring up as a result of intimate relationships that grow organically between groups of people who share their world views and creative ideas frequently over pints in the pub down the road. They're not only cut from the same cloth but they also physically occupy the same civic space.

The two biggest companies in the Bay Area -- American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- usually buck this trend by casting at least a few of the actors in most of their shows from out of town. This policy (and I think the word "policy" is appropriate here even if it's an unofficial strategy on the part of these companies' leaders) doesn't make much sense to me, even if it does look good on a press release and promotes "diversity."

Even in hard fiscal times such as the ones we're in now, Berkeley Rep and ACT regularly look to New York and other big cities for talent. This can't be a good idea financially. But money isn't the biggest issue.

The crux of the matter as far as I'm concerned is this: If there are great actors in town -- and the Bay Area is stuffed with great actors -- why bother looking further afield?

In shows I've experienced at ACT and Berkeley Rep over the years, the locals frequently outshine the imports. Take Berkeley Rep's current fantastic production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, for instance. The cast is good all-round, but the most memorable performance of the evening goes to Bay Area actor James Carpenter's turn as the decrepit old drunkard Donny (pictured above with fellow cast member Adam Farabee). Surely local actors could have been found to play all of the roles?

There's certainly a case to be made for exposing Bay Area audiences to new faces. But with so many wonderful performers living and working right under our noses, we should make the most of our region's talent both on stage and as part of the production team.


  • I would love to see Actor's Equity or Theater Bay Area or someone come up w/a definition of 'local actor' like 'lives and works within a 75 mile radius' and then create a symbol that goes with it, which is displayed next to the actor's name in the program. I think this would raise audience awareness of the issue, and get them to look for the local artists, like they're currently looking for local produce in the grocery stores.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At May 12, 2009 at 1:39 PM  

  • Many designers would never be able to earn a living if theatres only hired local.

    By Blogger Megan Reilly, At May 12, 2009 at 2:09 PM  

  • I think there is something parochial about asking that all casts be found from within local talent. I'm not saying that use of local talent is 'bad' in any way (audiences I know LOVE knowing they're 'seeing their own' on stage), but I fear you're advocating an extreme position. Even in the cases you've stated, you're not talking about shows that are built with ALL non-local actors; you're talking about a mix of local and non-local performers. If you're upset that a *disproportionate* number of roles are going to out-of-towners, you have great cause to be concerned... but 'casting local' just for the sake of 'casting local' is shortsighted.

    Look; even the 'eat local' idea breaks down if taken to an extreme: I live in a cooler Canadian climate, and while I love to get veggies and meat at the local market, restricting myself to shopping there would eventually make me pretty damned miserable because the local market doesn't stock pineapple or banana or fresh crab or wild salmon. And potatoes are a staple, but even if I can get 10 different kinds here, I can only cook 'em so many ways. Moderation is key. Balance is nice. 'Anti-globalization' need not be precluded by 'wilful blindness'.

    Huge benefits can be reaped by bringing together designers, directors, and actors from different backgrounds -- they bring new ideas and techniques to a community, preventing it from getting stale and insular. As a critic, I hope you can appreciate the need for the kind of innovation and diversity an outside influence can bring. Further, mixed casting actually grows the network of the *local* talent, giving that local talent a chance to travel and work elsewhere. Moreover, "we can cast it here" is not always the same as "we can find the BEST ensemble to serve our audience".

    The key is balance, governed by a strong sense of providing value FOR an audience AS WELL AS providing opportunity for the growth and development of local artists. This does NOT have to be at odds with casting policy (official or not) that attracts out of town talent.

    One more point: a lack of opportunity for local artists is often the CATALYST for the creation of the close, collaborative production companies you refer to in your post. I've seen that first-hand in my own community.

    By Anonymous Kris Joseph, At May 12, 2009 at 2:43 PM  

  • Thanks Valerie, Megan and Kris for your thoughts. I don't wish to advocate for an extreme position. And Kris + Megan: you point out some angles on this that I hadn't given much thought to -- so thanks very much for setting me straight on a couple of counts. I understand that stage designers couldn't make a living if they only worked locally (at least, not a living 100% from their stage design efforts.) And I also see that productions and audiences often benefit greatly from cross-pollination of performers. The Berkeley Rep play I mentioned in my blog post is a case in point. I guess what I object to is gratuitous casting of external actors and production people when there are great possibilities sitting right under producers' noses.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 13, 2009 at 8:07 AM  

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