"This is a skill that is vital for surviving in today’s theatre industry, especially if you aren’t a Tom Hiddleston or an Emma Thompson (i.e. white, able-bodied, middle class, thin)"twitter/itstonyslattery

I’ve heard a lot of muttering about ‘pre-casting’, so dark in tone I’m surprised the mutterers didn’t spit on the street after spewing their bitterness. Cambridge theatre hates nepotism… but it also provides the perfect disguise for it: procedural fairness. Let’s start off by saying something obvious: nepotism is bad. It excludes, it intimidates, it elevates people who were probably already very privileged. But, the way it’s discussed in terms of theatre in Cambridge is, in my opinion, utterly misguided. The process of putting on a production at this university places a great stress on openness and fairness — which seems great, right? In theory, yes, but in practice, it actually creates something insidiously difficult to overturn; a veneer of fairness – a procedural fairness – that often still results in people casting their friends or previous collaborators despite having watched fifty ‘open’, ‘fair’ auditions. This is an outcome that not only disadvantages BAME, disabled, trans and fat performers, but gaslights them in its insistence of its own democratic nature.

“Nepotism is not performing artists openly collaborating. Nepotism is holding ‘open’ auditions in the name of fairness, and then casting your friends.”

In the real world, most performers are not doing cut-throat West-End shows; they are meeting each other, making connections, supporting each other, and creating new work through devising, company work, improvisation. This bracket of performers often includes those who are less ‘castable’ in mainstream projects: BAME people, trans people, working-class people, fat women, disabled people. The supposedly fair and anti-nepotistic procedure of putting on shows in Cambridge is actually stifling these same groups of people, and the diversity of the types of productions we see being put on. The system here explicitly encourages a procedure that starts with a self-appointed Director/Producer pitching shows, and then deciding who else gets to be a part of the project via ‘open’ auditions and applications. This means that the visions of performers for what theatre can be is hugely undermined — if you are a Black performer who is desperate to play Hamlet, then you need to wait for a director who happens to have that same vision before you have the opportunity to even audition for that role. If you’re disabled, and you know you would make the perfect Helen of Troy, all you can do is whack out the Magic 8 ball.

In real life, directors, you won’t have this strange pass to decide what theatre looks like – you will either be at the mercy of producers, or you will go down the much more likely (and fun, in my opinion) route of collaborative devising and theatre-making. This is a skill that is vital for surviving in today’s theatre industry, especially if you aren’t a Tom Hiddleston or an Emma Thompson (i.e. white, able-bodied, middle class, thin) – and we aren’t learning it at Cambridge. Tell me again what is so evil about a Black performer asking their director friend to collaborate with them on their vision of performing Hamlet? As long as they’re open and honest about their process, I see no problem myself. I mean, if directors can self-appoint, why not actors?

"When we create an environment in which open auditions (the true openness of which rely solely on individual judgement calls) are accepted as the only moral way to put on a production, then we create a drought of theatrical diversity" (Pictured: the 2013 Footlighs Pantomime)twitter/emmahollows

I started this article expressing my distaste for nepotism, and now I seem to be advocating it. No: I simply believe this word is outrageously misused in our theatrical community. Nepotism is not performing artists openly collaborating. Nepotism is holding ‘open’ auditions in the name of fairness, and then casting your friends. Nepotism is when an establishment shows favouritism to familiar faces. Nepotism is not a group of young hopefuls setting up a company. Is it nepotism if two young economics students set up a company together out of their gyp? No, it is collaborative entrepreneurship. Now, if a young group of hopefuls create a company, take that company out into the world, begin to earn a profit and create work on a larger scale, and then audition people for their production and subsequently cast and pay their younger brothers… yeah, that’s nepotism. But we’re a few (hundred) steps away from that, so why don’t we all just calm down for a second.

“Our current system isolates actors, erases their theatrical visions and pits them against each other. ”

I’m not saying we scrap open auditions. Open auditions are definitely good; they mean you work with a greater range of people, you perform parts that maybe you wouldn’t have expected to perform, and they are a key component to a diverse range of opportunity. Open auditions become absolutely crucial when we’re talking about establishment productions; for example, I am not saying that CUADC or the Footlights should have a green light to fund and create closed projects with a select group of their mates. While it would be vile of them to do that, it would also be vile for them to hold open auditions and for the outcome to be the exact same.

Even if we assume that open auditions are always carried out fairly, in standardising the procedure for putting on shows across the whole theatre scene, you narrow down not only the people who perform in the productions, but also the range of productions themselves. If we had more explicit routes for company-made work that may deviate from the three-week standard rehearsal process, we would open up the types of productions that demand more time and devising work, and empower performers to change the landscape of Cambridge theatre in an exciting way. When we create an environment in which open auditions (the true openness of which rely solely on individual judgement calls) are accepted as the only moral way to put on a production, then we create a drought of theatrical diversity, and we deny underrepresented performers agency over their careers.


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Mountain View

2aaecf The Marlowe Showcase was entirely white- let's talk about it

It feels mightily unfair that the way our systems are set up, productions can justify all-white casts by saying ‘no BAME people auditioned! We just cast the best people for the part!’ — doesn’t this tell us that the productions that are going on are disenfranchising huge numbers of people? Our current system isolates actors, erases their theatrical visions and pits them against each other. There has got to be a better way. When we listen to underrepresented members of our theatrical community, we cannot kid ourselves that our current systems are fair. I think a better way is to be honest about the times that we do want to collaborate and devise in a company of performers, rather than have a de-facto elite company formed by the same people who get cast in everything. You guys, if you love working with each other that much, then do it! Sling on a show together… and let others sling on shows in the other slots. If we were open about process and collaboration, then maybe when productions say ‘open auditions’, we would trust a little bit more that they actually mean it.