Post 240

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off:
Reflections on the Cancellation of Othello

The stories surrounding this play are more interesting than the play itself would have been. After all, we’re all getting kind of used to these modern adaptations of Shakespeare, aren’t we?

To summarize briefly, someone threatened the woman who was to play the lead role in the Shakespearian play Othello, and when she backed out of the role, the theatre — Walterdale Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta — cancelled the show. Othello is a male role, and is often played by a non-white actor. Here the director was looking to fill the important male roles with women. The cancellation was publicized by the theatre and has become a big news story across Canada. Well, it was a big story, but that was yesterday.

There are so many aspects to this cancellation, and it’s a fascinating little drama in its own right.

Here’s the scoop:

1603: William Shakespeare writes Othello. It’s a story about how a Venetian general is tricked into believing that his wife was unfaithful. He kills her and commits suicide.

1995: For the first time in a major screen production, Othello is played by a black actor (Laurence Fishburne). Prior to that, actors had used make-up to change the colour of their skin. Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins and Orson Welles used that approach.

September 2016: A theatre group at Queen’s University (Ontario) hold auditions for its Othello production. A white woman is chosen to play Othello, the dark-skinned Moorish man.

September 23, 2016: Walterdale Theatre posts an audition notice for Othello:

The Play: Come join us in a muscular, gender-bending, Mad Max-inspired take on Shakespeare’s classical tragedy. Set in post-apocalyptic Venice and Cyprus, Othello succumbs to Iago’s villainy and destroys his and Desdemona’s lives.
Casting Requirements: Our production will utilize inclusive casting; we are open to casting all roles with artists who may not reflect the original description in terms of ethno-cultural identity, gender, or sexual identity. Tattoos and body piercings are welcome as is openness to altering your hairstyle. Most actors will need to be physically able to handle movement and stage combat requirements. Adults (18+) only please.
Lead Characters: Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio, and Brabantio.
Other Characters: Duke of Venice, Montano, Bianca, Lodovico, Gratiano, and Ensemble.
Audition Expectations: You will be auditioning with a group of 5 other actors in a two-part audition: prepared and cold readings AND movement . . .

October 2016: Linette Smith auditions for the play (not specifically for the role of Othello).

October 2016: Director Anne Marie Szucs offers major male roles to women. She states that she wanted to present a drama “where the focus was on the battle between the sexes.” The actor playing Iago, Randy Brososky wrote: “You see, all the meaty roles of power were re-cast as women — another underrepresented group in theatre, especially in Shakespeare … On top of that, with the partial gender-bending, there were straight, gay and lesbian relationships throughout, all completely normalized without any judgment.” Of course, when you have women playing male roles, heterosexual relationships would become ambiguous.

October 2016: Linette Smith accepts the offer of the role of Othello. Rehearsals begin.

November 16, 2016: The Othello production at Queen’s University is cancelled. The article written by Graeme Hamilton of the National Post said this:

A Queen’s University student theatre company has cancelled a production of Shakespeare’s Othello set to open this month following an outcry over the decision to cast a white woman in the title role of a black man.

“For the safety and mental health of our entire team we unfortunately feel the need to suspend our production of Othello,” the artistic directors wrote on Facebook Wednesday. They subsequently apologized to the Kingston, Ont., university’s black community for what they called an “oppressive” artistic decision.

After September auditions, Queen’s Vagabond Theatre made what its directors acknowledged was a risky decision: Lauren Broadhurst, a white woman, was chosen to play the title character. Since Paul Robeson played him on Broadway in 1943, Othello has typically been performed by a black actor.

Maggie Purdon, the play’s director, said she researched the play extensively before the casting and interpreted the text as being about the struggles of an outsider rather than about race.

January 2017: According to Anne Marie Szucs, “Other members of the theatre community expressed their concern” to the Walterdale Theatre people about the casting choice.

January 27, 2017: Walterdale Theatre continues to promote the production:

A classic tragedy infused with jealousy, ambition, love, deception, and betrayal, Shakespeare’s Othello will be transported to a post-apocalyptic, muscular, survivalist, gender-bending future. Iago sets a vengeful trap for Othello that eventually destroys everyone in their paths. Equal parts classical excellence, Mad Max, and David Bowie – definitely not your parents’ Shakespeare!

January 2017: Someone leaves a message for Linette Smith which says, “Get ready for the pain. Get ready for the backlash.”

January 2017: Linette Smith becomes afraid. David Staples wrote about his interview with her. She said:

“It was very scary. I didn’t know the individual. It was just for me from a place that was terrifying … I just didn’t feel safe when I got the message.”

I asked Smith if the person might only be implying that Smith should get ready for the emotional pain, as opposed to threatening physical violence.

Smith said in that moment she simply felt vulnerable: “I just got very nervous about what people might do.”

January 2017: Linette Smith decides to withdraw from the production.

January 30, 2017, 10:58 p.m.: Linette Smith posts an apology on Facebook for accepting the role of Othello:

I made a mistake, I am so sorry and I own it 100%. I did not think through in the accepting of Othello and the impact and pain it would cause. My initial response to playing the role was that with a woman in the role that there might be discussion about women in power roles, a conversation about the marginalization of women, and normalization of differently gendered relationships. While my decision was derived from a focus on gender, this was not enough for this role/play and I did not see the cost. In my naivety, I thought the casting might bring those ideas to the story but no matter how promising the benefits, the cost of excluding race was too much.

I have learned and am still learning. I have a responsibility to model the behaviour that I want to inspire. I did not do so in this case. I work hard to create an open, generous safe classroom space of inclusivity. I strive to bring diverse playwrights into the drama classroom and encourage students to see all the possibilities for the theatre. I have a mandate of inclusivity in all aspects of my professional and personal life and strive to bring challenging and topical content to the classroom and to the stage. Yet, I have to own what a poor example I set forth for them in thinking it was okay to step into Othello’s shoes. I pledge to do better, to grow and heighten my awareness and sensitivity and understanding of privilege.

I am grateful for the conversation that has happened with me around the choice of attempting the role and I encourage those talking about me to engage in conversation. I am listening. I chose to leave the role and have left some amazing artists in a terrible place. I am also so apologetic for that. I want to thank the stellar cast and creative team for the process and care with which they worked on the show.

I am so sorry. I will do better. There is so much to learn and I am taking the steps, with many more to go.

January 31, 2017: Walterdale Theatre’s Media Release is received by the media and everyone on Walterdale’s email contact list. The Release states that the production is cancelled:

For Immediate Release

Monday, January 30, 2017

Walterdale Theatre Associates cancels production of Othello.

It is with deep regret that Walterdale Theatre Associates announces the cancellation of Othello, the third show of its 2016-2017 season. Othello was due to open on February 8, 2017. Patrons can e-mail for ticketing information.

“This is a heart-breaking decision, but as a community of volunteers and artists, we can’t continue with a production where the safety of members of our cast has been threatened,” said Adam Kuss, President of the Board of Directors of Walterdale Theatre.

Both online and in-person threats were received by members of the production from people who were angered by Walterdale’s decision to cast a white female in the role of Othello, traditionally a role filled by a person of colour. The matter has been referred to police.

“Other members of the theatre community expressed their concern to us as well,” said Anne Marie Szucs, Artistic Director of Walterdale and Director of Othello. “We understand and appreciate those concerns. The vision we were presenting for this 400-year-old play was a post-apocalyptic world where traditional power structures were inverted and where the focus was on the battle between the sexes. We’re sorry this caused offence. We will continue to build on the respectful interactions we’ve had with community members on this topic, and continue to engage with and welcome any groups or individuals who want to get involved in our productions.”

Walterdale Theatre is a volunteer-run community theatre that has operated in Edmonton since 1958, and offers opportunities for people from all backgrounds a chance to engage in live theatre. Walterdale casts plays based on an open audition process which welcomes everyone, and roles are filled by those who attend the auditions for each play.

Decisions about the artistic vision of each production are the responsibility of the Director, the Artistic Director and the Board of Directors of the theatre . . .

January 31, 2017: The news media publish the story, including a link to Linette Smith’s apology on Facebook.

January 31, 2017: People react.

I have found that due to the wide variation in human temperament and experience, a single sentence will provoke a very wide range of reactions. The sequence goes something like this:

Originating Comment: I am sad because I ran over a cat.
Sympathizers (usually first to respond): Oh, don’t feel sad, it’s not your fault. You’re still a good person!
Advisors: Did you find out who owned the cat?
Critics: You should have been driving more carefully! Next time slow down!
Defenders: That’s not nice for you to say she should have been more careful! Maybe it was the cat’s fault!
Jokers: Now its a flat cat . . .
Cussers: Cats suck.
Advisors: If you switched to riding a bicycle, this never would have happened.
Critics: I lost my darling cat Moochie Moochie and I’ve never been the same; some drivers are just reckless.
Complainers: Why are we even talking about this?
Jokers: Is the cat still stuck to your wheel?
Defenders: You are just heartless @Joker! Go troll another site!

Some people are so funny, and you will find the full range of human expression whenever you read an online comment board. The anonymity adds to the experience.

But back to the Othello situation, there’s such a mish-mash of responses. Everyone wants to take a side, but the problem with that is that there are so many sides! Do you sympathize with Linette Smith? Yes? If so, then do you approve of everything? Do you approve of her accepting the role, her abandoning of it, her unwillingness to press charges and her public apology for accepting her role? Maybe you approve of three out of four? Do you sympathize with the person who threatened her? Maybe you approve of the viewpoint but not the method?

It’s complicated, and it seems like so many of those who comment don’t know whom they’re cheering for and why.

I’m here to help.

Here’s a short survey of actions. Please indicate whether you approve or disapprove of the following:

1. Othello, as originally written by Shakespeare
2. Shakespeare’s tragedies, in general
3. Shakespeare’s plays, in general
4. The fact that all roles, in Shakespeare’s day, were played by men
5. Modern-day adaptations of Shakespeare, in general
6. Modern-day adaptations of Shakespeare, where casting is used to change the focus of the original play
7. Transporting Shakespeare’s play to a post-apocalyptic, muscular, survivalist, gender-bending future.
8. Casting men as women and women as men
9. “Colour-blind” casting, where, for instance, twins have different skin colour
10. Casting white actors in roles for “people of colour”
11. Casting “people of colour” in roles typically played by white actors
12. Using threats to intimidate actors
13. Issuing a media release to publicize the cancellation of a play due to threats
14. Police authorities choosing not to pursue those who make threats
15. Victims of threats choosing not to make a formal complaint
16. Apologizing for taking a role which is traditionally given to men “of colour.”

Probably one of my least favorite themes in the comments that I’ve read is the one which over-emphasizes theatre’s ability to change and transform people. Although I do believe that watching a theatre performance can, on occasion, affect someone profoundly, this happens far less often than those in the theatre industry want to imagine. It is very difficult to accomplish, and in the typical theatre context, where subsidized theatre allows directors to experiment and be “artistic” without even having to worry too much about paying for the overhead, usually audience enjoyment is put in second place behind the enjoyment of those putting on the show. In other words, it is far too often a self-indulgent exercise, where directors congratulate themselves for “pushing the envelope,” instead of an effort to serve the audience with honest entertainment. It is for this reason that directors everywhere compete with one another to present the most ‘edgy’ versions of the classics. Many shows are poorly attended but the government grants still pour in.

In other words, I am not impressed with the state of most theatre, and I weary of the actors and producers who congratulate themselves for changing the world, when the truth is that they are conforming to it. Those who genuinely seek to challenge and to inspire are snubbed by the theatre world.

So to those who say that the point of theatre is to challenge and to provoke change, I respond that the first step, in any plan to persuade or change, is to engage. Theatre that is self-absorbed does not engage, because it does not look beyond itself.

But anyway, here’s my take on this whole thing.

The idea behind Othello-Must-Be-Played-By-A-Black-Actor is that the role of Othello is the exclusive territory of black actors. The idea is that in light of past (and present) discrimination against blacks, it would be insensitive to rob them of this lead role.

There aren’t a lot of roles for black actors, is the thinking, and so people should leave them what few roles there are. It’s called ‘being sensitive,’ but perhaps it’s more properly called ‘being sympathetic.’ People are being asked — to a lesser or greater extent — to feel sorry for a group of people who have been hard-done by, and to protect their interests.

It’s tricky, because on the one hand, we are encouraged to think and act as if there are zero differences, and to really forget about all issues of race, but then on the other hand, we are to think of them as quite disadvantaged.

It’s tricky.

Those who have really absorbed the multicultural viewpoint are, ironically, more likely to be accused of racism. They’re so ‘colour-blind’ that they may actually forget that one ethnic group needs more coddling than another.

POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: We had better set aside seats for aboriginal students.
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: Because, you know, they need a boost.
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: They get discriminated against. It’s harder for them to get into law school.
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: Well, when they do their undergraduate work, professors don’t treat them the same, and it’s harder for them to get good marks. And besides, some have a really hard life, and so it’s important for us to even things out.
EVEN-STEVEN: Do people, nowadays, still discriminate against the aboriginal students?

In this scenario, it didn’t occur to EVEN-STEVEN that this type of student is in need of special treatment. Is his ignorance a good thing or a bad thing? If he is fully convinced of the equality of races and of students, and is stunned at the discrimination, doesn’t that, in some sense, signal progress? And if everyone were like EVEN-STEVEN, would that perhaps be an improvement? If everyone asked, “but WHY would anyone discriminate based on SKIN-COLOUR???” then wouldn’t that be an improvement?

Instead, we are asked to do a very special and perhaps impossible balancing act; we are asked to be mindful of past discriminatory patterns and show special consideration, but at the same time, we are to proceed as if there are no differences based on race.

I am not sure if special consideration (and lowering of standards, in some cases) have a positive net effect in the end for disadvantaged groups. It means that if you meet a graduate of law school who is aboriginal, you may wonder to yourself if he would have gained admission had he not been able to rely on his race.

But back to Shakespeare, the current Sensitive Thing seems to be to reserve the role for those who have darker skin.

Despite the current craze for “colour-blind” casting, directors must remember that the role of Othello is off-limits for Caucasians. When it comes to this Shakespearean role, politically-correct thinking dictates that one must not be blind at all. Have your eyes Very Wide Open!

So although the biggest criminal in this story is the fellow who threatened Linette Smith, a very large number of individuals are validating a key part of this criminal’s views. They are agreeing that casting a Caucasian in the role was insensitive to non-whites.

Although distancing themselves from his threatening behaviour, many people are agreeing that it was insensitive to cast a non-white person in this role.

Linette Smith says that her acceptance of the role was wrong — very wrong.

Her apology is rather extreme. The contrition is over the top. If you hadn’t known the context, and just considered the words, you’d really wonder what heinous crime she’d committed. She apologizes for accepting the role — this role which should be reserved for non-white actors — and for leaving her fellow actors in a jam by leaving the production.

But let’s just pause a moment and consider the role itself.

Othello is gullible, jealous and raging. He humiliates, physically abuses and ultimately murders his innocent and sweet wife by strangulation. He maims his enemy Iago instead of killing him, so that Iago’s suffering will be greater, and then kills himself. Then the play ends.

Sure, it’s Shakespeare, but it is ironic that actors “of colour” are so anxious to have this role. Arguably, if the role is done well, it will bring negative stereotypes to life. Arguably, instead of seeing this as The Plum Shakespearean Role for Black Men, it might make more sense to a) campaign to have this play performed less often, or b) minimize the potential negative-stereotype damage by having the bad Othello played by a Caucasian.

Consider how the show-biz world is so careful to cast black actors in the role of a wise friend, or a wise judge. The show-biz world does not want to have a black man on screen hitting his white wife.

It’s odd. The take-home message with respect to Othello? If you want to be respectful to the black community, make sure that the abusive and murderous protagonist is played by a black man!


In any case, I don’t criticize Linette Smith if she was genuinely afraid for her safety. If she really was scared, then I wouldn’t criticize her for bowing out. Maybe her effusive apology is meant to appease the person who threatened her.

As for not making a formal complaint to the police, that’s her choice.

I repeat that the real villain here was the person who threatened Linette Smith. It’s a shame that so many people are wringing their hands at the failure to cast a non-white. All of this self-criticism comes perilously close to saying that this villain, this bully, was justified in — at least — his anger.

Too bad for you, is what I say.

Not every production of Othello will feature a black man as the protagonist. Sometimes the best actor for the role will have red hair and freckles. Sometimes the best actor will be of German-Japanese ancestry. The director has to choose the best man for the job.

But of course, that is where I draw the line.

No women, please.

No women playing the role of the jealous husband and murderer of Desdemona. That’s just going too far. It is disrespectful to the playwright and I’d argue it’s disrespectful to the audience as well. You can ask patrons to use their imagination, but don’t ask them to throw their eyes and ears and brains out the window. The play is not about evaluating the masculine traits of this woman or the feminine traits of that man, so don’t make it about that. Don’t distract the audience from the story that the playwright wrote.

(And on that note, if you want to direct a play about post-apocalyptic times where all the power structures are re-arranged, overlaid with themes from MadMax and David Bowie, then go find one. Othello isn’t it.)

The moment you realize that you don’t have a man for the male lead is the moment you realize it’s time to call the whole thing off.