“‘Do it better’ is relative.” talking casting & classics with Edgar Chisholm

This post is the penultimate in my series of interview this year’s Fire This Time writers’ group writers on the plays they’ve been developing. I went into this profile project without any expectations, or at least I thought I did, until I read Ed Chisholm’s play and it was far from what I was expecting. Tom & Ted Go to the Races has the feel of a classic American play. It’s all it’s own in character, concept, and narrative, but the structure of it feels like a play out of the pages of O’Neill or Miller. It’s a real triumph to make use of that narrative structure to tell a story with contemporary characters, and I’m so glad I got to read it.

Thanks so much, Ed, for letting me read your script

In Tom & Ted Go to the Races, the play is set at the race track. Given the circumstances of the characters, both in their lives and at the track, the stakes couldn’t be higher. How do you maintain the tension throughout? It never drops, and I had a knot in my stomach for the whole read.

I look at this play and its setting like Tom: “this ain’t no doctor’s waiting room, this here’s the Operating Room– The ‘O-R’!”  As in an Operating Room, things are happening all over and at many different levels, and there is no time for waiting.  I skip around from event to event, like a camera changing focus.

Do you have any personal traditions when you finish a script? My personal goal is to toast a finished script with a glass of champagne, which I’ve done a couple of times.

I spend the first weekend after finishing the first draft treating my family and myself to dinner and a weekend of nothing but FUN!

In structure and tone, the script has the feel of a classic American play. Who are some of your biggest influences in theatre?

Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Strindberg and Hemingway.

In Miss Julie, do you think she kills herself when she exits at the end? I know that’s the given take, but I want to imagine something different.

Unfortunately Strindberg formulated the play to “prove” his misogynistic views using Darwinism. In the play the superior nobility within Miss Julie is able to re-assert itself  after nature allowed Jean’s baser, natural male energy to dominate her female energy. After the initial domination, Miss Julie’s higher, more sophisticated nobility allowed her to preserve her family’s dignity and status by doing  what the commoner Jean could never do. Her death is portrayed as a heroic act. In my adaption of it, which is set in 1888 post civil war Louisiana, she is painted into a similar corner after another servant discovers that she has had a consensual sexual encounter with John her family’s Black coachman.

There’s been alot of chatter in the theater industry about representation of different identities on stage, and you have a character who is wheelchair bound. In a production, would you insist on having a disabled actor play the role?

I would not insist but I would ask that a tangible effort to be made to also audition wheelchair bound actors. Final choices  for all the roles should always be based solely on merit, ability and other key production defined important factors.

Would you feel the same way about casting actors of a different race than a script calls for as you would about a disabled actor, namely, that if an actor who does not conform to the character description could do it better, they ought be given the role?

“Do it better” is relative. I would qualify it by saying  “Do it better and  Do it respectful.” True, there are not enough roles being written for minority actors. Theaters don’t do enough plays featuring people of color. As a result, people of color rarely get to see plays that reflect their own diverse human experiences. Racism has kept the world from realizing the incredible strength of the true diversity of our nation and has suppressed the careers and  talents of many actors and playwrights of color for hundreds of years. It has probably done a similar thing to non-racial minorities. It must be disheartening for a disabled actor to witness able-bodied people get nominations for playing the disabled slightly imperfectly (see The Cripple of Inishman or My Left Foot).  It has been the same story for racial minorities as well (See Laurence Oliver’s Oscar nomination for a black face Othello). I am very sympathetic, yet I don’t believe in mandating that a role is only played by one type of person, especially if the play itself is not ABOUT the experience of being that particular modifying description. (With the caveat that “real” people have to be played by people from the correct backgrounds otherwise it adds confusion. i.e. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Tom and Ted is not about Ted being in a wheelchair.  (If it is, then I have some rewriting to do.)  I hope it’s about a man whose greed overcomes his good sense.   Casting mandates, in my opinion, will have the effect of producing less plays about those descriptions which are under the restricted mandates. Who wants to write a play that will rarely get done because the description says the lead character is a black double amputee with a missing eye and it is mandated that it only be cast so? Any play I’ve written, at its core, is by, for and about humans sharing their particular experience of being human. My human who is  dealing with a drinking problem happens to be black but she could also be white, Asian, female, or disabled. I want my play to get done as often as possible. If producers can find a  respectful way to cast any human to play one of my humans— I have no problem with it. The key word is “respectful.”  I know it is possible, my play “The Long Dance” about a couple married 50 years one year after their divorce has won multiple awards with  both a “white” cast and a “black” cast. I originally wrote it with Ruby Dee and her husband Ossie Davis in mind as my ideal cast.

You can find out more about Edgar on his linked in, and follow him on twitter @edgarchisholm.

miss julie shot
Listing in the NY Times in 2014 for Edgar Chisholm’s Miss Julie adaptation
Listing in the NY Times in 2014 for Edgar Chisholm’s Miss Julie adaptation

4 thoughts on ““‘Do it better’ is relative.” talking casting & classics with Edgar Chisholm

  1. I want to see this play!!! Please post it’s production and/or email me. I saw his Miss Julie (incredible!) I don’t agree with his casting opinion. If a play is about a Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis I don’t believe anyone of a different race can play them (Although I wish Ms Dee was my race so I could play Her. She’s beautiful and So interesting).

    1. I saw a reading of it… incredible! It uplifts the common man while revealing what it means to be human with all its vanity, comedy and profane glory. Wonderful.

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