The spotlight shines on Northwestern student theater — for lack of diversity

The controversy surrounding the casting decisions for The 25th Annual Spelling Bee can only be expected — and it’s time for the theater community to step up

The end of September 2017 was probably a bad week for Northwestern student theater.

First, the production of Pippin was canceled hours before doors opened to the public due to rights issues; next, Arts Alliance and the Student Theatre Coalition have been involved in a controversy over the casting decisions for one of their shows, scheduled to take place later this fall quarter.

Spelling Bee involves a character, named Marcy Park, with a heavy history of being played by Asian women actors. A petition began after the Arts Alliance team did not call back any actors of Asian heritage for the role.

The issue surrounds the production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, scheduled to open on Nov. 30 as their fall mainstage production.

The background

In Spelling Bee, Marcy Park “speaks six languages, is a member of all-American hockey, a championship rugby player, plays Chopin and Mozart on multiple instruments, sleeps only three hours a night, hides in the bathroom cabinet, and is getting very tired of always winning,” according to a character breakdown from the Broadway Rose Theatre Company, an Oregon musical theater company. She is described as “the poster child for the Over-Achieving Asian.”

Back row, center: Deborah S. Craig as Marcy Park. Image from Playbill.

She is traditionally played by an East Asian woman actor. In the original 2005 Broadway production, Marcy Park was played by Deborah S. Craig, noted on IMDb for the “distinction of creating the first Korean American character on Broadway” for her portrayal of the character.

But not all productions have cast women of Asian descent in the role. A 2011 production of Spelling Bee in London did not cast an Asian woman as Marcy Park, but a white woman instead.

And the script from Music Theatre International, the licensing agency for Spelling Bee, does not expressly stipulate that Marcy Park or any other character must be played by actors of a specific race or ethnicity.

The campus controversy began when the callback list released on Sunday, Sept. 24, by the show’s director Yianni Kinnas, a Communication senior, did not appear to include individuals of Asian descent for the character of Marcy Park.

In response, Communication seniors Shea Lee and Nina Jayashankar started a petition asking Kinnas to recognize the history of the character and cast “a woman or nonbinary person of Asian American heritage is cast as Marcy Park” or decline to cast any person and hold open calls the following week.

After the petition was published, Lee, Jayashankar, Kinnas and the show’s producer Casey Watson, met on Thursday, Sept. 28, along with Arts Alliance executive director Andrew Restieri, artistic director Mary Kate Goss, and community engagement directors Camille Casmier and Lily Santiago. According to Lee and Jayashankar, the meeting also included six other people who supported with their views.

The Daily Northwestern published a news article on Friday, Sept. 29, about the controversy, quoting individuals that were present at the Thursday meeting. The same day, the cast list for multiple productions in fall quarter, including Spelling Bee, was announced. Communication junior Christina Layton was cast as Marcy Park.

A disagreement over creative interpretation

On the night of Friday, Sept. 29, I met with Lee and Jayashankar to discuss the matter; on Saturday, Sept. 30, I met with Kinnas to hear his views.

“Historically in Northwestern theater, there are not many roles that are specified for Asian-American actors,” Lee said. “That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions, of course. There are incredible Asian-American actors who have been through this school and found success, but it is very hard one.”

Lee said Asian actors are not often cast in roles when the script does not specify that directors should do so.

Both Lee and Jayashankar said they were under the impression that Spelling Bee had a specific stipulation that Marcy Park must be played by an Asian actor.

“Both of us, in productions we’ve seen, have heard specific dialogue referencing race,” Jayashankar said, referring to productions of Spelling Bee.

While the script from Music Theatre International does not have a race-specific stipulation, the script gives instructions for different lines to be said if Marcy Park is played by an Asian actor.

Kinnas does not dispute the history of Asian actors playing Marcy Park, but said he sees the character in a different way.

“For me, this show is about competition, and about how Marcy Park has been pressured her entire life to do everything and be successful at everything,” Kinnas said.

Kinnas said he thinks Marcy Park is a character who doesn’t understand why she can’t appreciate her constant successes, but later realizes the pressures of other people aren’t important and so focuses on things that matter to her.

“That story is something that I think is inherently relatable to the Northwestern student,” Kinnas said.

This show is about… how Marcy Park has been pressured her entire life to… be successful at everything. That story is something that I think is inherently relatable to the Northwestern student.

Yianni Kinnas, director

Kinnas said a seventh woman actor, who was of Asian descent, was called back for Marcy Park after the petition began, but declined to name the actor and said he did not cast her for the role.

An issue of diversity within student theater

During both interviews, I asked the theater students to describe the diversity of Northwestern’s student theater community in their own words.

“We’re aware Northwestern’s student theater is mostly white,” Lee said.

“I do believe it has been getting better every year,” Jayashankar said. “There are more people of color in this department every year.”

Kinnas put it most simply: “It’s not the best.”

And all of them agreed that it was the responsibility of the Student Theater Coalition and theater boards to ensure that marginalised communities were fairly and respectfully represented.

We're aware Northwestern's student theater is mostly white. 

Shea Lee

But the lack of diversity within the university’s theater program has been the subject of a Daily Northwestern opinion article as recently as October 2016 and of an In: Focus article in May 2016.

The promotional cover image for WAVE Production's fall production of Stop Kiss. Image from Facebook.

There have been improvements since then. This fall, StuCo member board WAVE Productions is producing Stop Kiss, a show written by a Korean-American, Diana Son, about two queer women in New York City.

In addition to participating in the auditions process normally used by student theater boards, the production team also held an open call, specifically asking for queer women and people of diverse backgrounds to audition for the cast.

In their petition, Lee and Jayashankar had asked Kinnas to hold an open call for Marcy Park. Kinnas said he did not do so because of he did not believe Marcy Park needed to be played by an actor of Asian heritage.

The silent erasure of Asian-Americans in media

Kinnas described the entire week as a learning experience. He said he was surprised at the strength of the response to the callback and casting decisions, but stressed that this week was important because it had started a serious conversation within the student theater community about the representation of marginalized groups.

It would be difficult for anyone to say that Northwestern’s theater community does not need to seriously evaluate its issue of diversity in casting. But it’s unfair to specifically blame Kinnas, and his creative interpretation of Spelling Bee appears reasonable, even if I would have made different choices.

Productions such as Stop Kiss are incredible achievements for the portrayal of diverse voices on the student stage, and WAVE Productions should be commended for their efforts to try to ensure a diverse cast.

But I’m not happy to imply that the only way for marginalised communities, such as people of color or those who identify as LGBT, to be recognised and cast in stories about themselves is to write and produce their own shows.

I’m worried that this casting decision reinforces an idea that characters can only be played by Asian actors if the characters are Asian stereotypes — but as soon as a character becomes “relatable,” she can suddenly be played by an actor of any race.

What next?

There aren’t panaceas for many social issues, and there’s no easy solution to solve the issue of diversity in student theater, either.

But there are things that would probably help. Lee and Jayashankar suggested that production boards introduce diversity committees to serve as a permanent resource for the theater community to make better-informed decisions with regards to diversity of cast and production in the future.

And I suggested to Kinnas that the production of Spelling Bee acknowledge the history of the character of Marcy Park in the show’s program and present reasoning for the casting decision. Doing so would go a long way to ensuring that audiences new to Spelling Bee understand the tradition and heritage of the Marcy Park character.

Then, there are things that student theater boards could do to improve the situation. If the issue is with the lack of diversity within the casting pool, then why not expand the casting pool?

At present, casting calls for student theater productions normally go out over the StuCo listserv, TWIST. But StuCo could commit itself to using other ways of marketing their casting calls and reaching out to non-theater majors, such as printing audition dates on theater programs, placing advertisements in student publications, or running workshops to encourage non-theater students to participate in productions.

But no matter what StuCo does, a long-term solution to the problem of a lack of diversity in student theater requires a change in the culture and attitudes of the theater community itself.

However much a creative interpretation, casting decisions are not made in a vacuum.

These determinations are still made within a background of social context, and failing to know or address that context is largely unacceptable at a university committed to supporting the diversity and inclusion of underrepresented communities on campus.

Final thoughts

Readers of earlier drafts of this article will be aware that I previously called for the cancellation of the Arts Alliance production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Many students, including Lee and Jayashankar, urged me to reconsider this view. I am not longer convinced that would be an appropriate solution.

The reporting and drafting of this piece have taught me that the Northwestern theater community is comprised of hardworking, dedicated, and passionate students.

No one I spoke to disputed that it is critical for theater productions to accurately and respectfully portray diverse communities on stage. But there were disagreements about how it should be done, who should be responsible, and whether the creative license allowed directors to make race-blind  decisions, or whether a compelling reason is needed to break casting traditions.

The final publishing of this piece was delayed because I found myself repeatedly questioning my actions. Is it right for me, as a student journalist, to criticize the actions of a peer student community? How would I feel if theater students produced a show criticising the lack of diversity in journalism?

It is not my place to command another student community on how to solve their problems and shortcomings. But the lack of diversity in theater at Northwestern is not new, and I feel it is right for all members of our university community to call on one another to uphold the values that we all share — particularly when this issue has been highlighted before.

Northwestern University is committed to "implementing ways to create and support a diverse and inclusive campus community." No part of our campus — not theater, not journalism, and not engineering — should be considered an exception to this rule.


Updated: This post has been changed to indicate new information about the racial and ethnic identities of the six actors called back for the role of Marcy Park. According to new information, one of the actors is of South Asian descent but appears to be white. I apologize for the error.

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