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Friday, October 9, 2015

Whatever Helps You Sleep At Night

Fresh off of arguing the inaccuracies of "the best actor for the role" and another in a never-ending chain of discussions about representation and questioning the idea of "default" and all of the entitlement that comes with it, Creatively Independent posted this essay on meritocracy and bias, merely by coincidence. Afterward, I reflected on a recent experience in which the veil was lifted on the notion of acting being nothing other than a meritocracy.

I recently auditioned for a commercial for an amusement park in the greater Twin Cities area that featured a father and a son. Maybe I was too animated for a television commercial. I'm more of a clown and physical actor, and without direction, sometimes I can play a bit too big for the camera, so that is a possible factor. Maybe I'm not fatherly enough or don't look old enough for people to buy that I was a father and I can buy that. Maybe my shoulder-length dreads would have made it too much of a problem-solving issue for hair and makeup to make it look like I was stuck upside down. It could have easily been for any one of those reasons I almost didn't get the callback in the first place. That happens all the time, but this audition was different. My agent clearly explained the client wanted to schedule a callback, but it might not happen because they didn't have any Black kids.

While not getting a callback or not getting a job is typical in the business, sometimes the reasons behind the outcome can also be more frustratingly, disturbingly typical than we want to accept. Even if I had not been the "best actor", I was nearly denied the chance to prove it on the field of battle as an equal, even after passing the first test. I also might have been the best actor and didn't get the job, but I won't ever know. I can always improve, but when the issue became the color of my skin and the existing reasons in society why I wouldn't have worked out, that's notably bigger than a one-man job.

By extension, it was also a statement on the composition of families in the United States of America. I almost didn't get a callback because mixed families apparently aren't a thing or obviously blended families due to remarriage isn't a thing or adoption isn't a thing. Having a kid that didn't obviously spring from the loins of this man wasn't a leap they wanted to make and because it's a business, was likely not a leap they were willing risk trusting or expecting their intended audience to make. You have to match because at least in matching, you don't have to ask the more conservative members of your audience to consider the idea of a "nontraditional" family as being valid and worthy of consideration. Remember: we live in a country where a Cheerios commercial depicting an interracial family was considered groundbreaking and controversial — in the second decade of the 21st Century.

If the world of theater truly were a meritocracy, colorblind casting might not be as much of a thing, and representation might not be as much of an issue. If acting were truly a meritocracy, one might have to look at how representation repeatedly shakes out on stages across the country and then admit that when one says "the best actor" one usually just means a white actor, and is at peace with all of the messiness holding and supporting such ideas might contain. Or maybe we just need to be more forthcoming about admitting the cultural factors that add up to the need to cling to the idea of a meritocracy to make us feel better.