Heights

Theatre and dance freshmen Max Torrez, Trey Curtis and Melinette Pallares star in “In The Heights.” The UT staging of the Tony Award-winning musical will start Wednesday and run through April 19.

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

For theatre and dance freshman Max Torrez, the more he is able to find the personal connection within a script, the better he is able to convey the emotions to the audience. Torrez stars as Sonny in UT’s staging of the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” being performed Wednesday through April 19 at the B. Iden Payne Theatre.

“I just like being able to tell a story,” Torrez said. “I feel that’s what acting is for. Art is a universal language and being able to communicate these fantastic stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is just mind-blowing for me.”

Torrez was among the few students who got cast in one of the lead roles in the first round of the musical’s auditions. According to director Jerry Ruiz, most students were initially cast in ensemble roles with local professional actors being considered for most of the lead roles. 

“The creative team wanted more experienced performers in those lead roles, and there was an unfavorable reaction to that from the student body,” Ruiz said. “The students really wanted to have a shot at playing some of these roles, and that’s when the department rebooted.”

Ruiz was hired as director in late December after the theatre and dance department decided to change the entire creative team and allow more students to be cast.

“I quickly saw there was a lot of talent in the student body,” Ruiz said. “I knew we would be able to cast people who were really appropriate for the role, who were the right age, and who could believably play these characters with their talent and musical and acting ability.”

Torrez is one of 34 UT students who have been cast in lead and ensemble roles for “In The Heights.” 

The musical is set in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, which is primarily inhabited by people of Latin-American descent, and tells the story of a small community of people in their late teens or early twenties who have to grow up and learn to face their problems.

Torrez’ character Sonny is a 15-year-old who likes hanging out with his friends and his older brother .

“He’s quite a character,” Torrez said. “He has a lot of growth because he’s forced to grow up in a short amount of time. He’s funny, he’s insightful and he’s smart. Back when I was younger, I was that kid.”

Torrez’ foray into acting began halfway through junior year of high school when his school director asked him to audition for a role.

“I was in football, and, when I ended up getting the role, the audience’s reaction after the first song I sang sealed the deal for me,” Torrez said. “I dropped football, and I took up acting, and I’ve not stopped since.”

Unlike Torrez, who instantly knew Sonny was the role for him, dance freshman Melinette Pallares auditioned the first time with only one goal — to be part of the musical. Even though she wasn’t cast the first time, she said she received a callback when she participated in the second round of auditions.

“I was just going to be happy with anything that I got,” Pallares said. “I was just happy to be there and gain the experience of auditioning because a lot of other schools don’t let their freshmen and sophomores audition.”

Pallares plays Nina Rosario, one of the lead characters.

Born and raised in Harlingen, Pallares moved to Austin last year to study at UT. Of Puerto Rican descent herself, Pallares found her dream role in Nina. 

“I automatically fell in love with Nina,” Pallares said. “My mother is Puerto Rican, and so I feel like I can really understand all of the cultural aspects of who she is and what her family is like. She’s also a 19-year-old freshman. She’s just trying to figure her life out — what she wants to achieve — and I feel like I’m in the same boat.”

After receiving intense backlash for the decision to stock a main-stage show with professional actors, the College of Fine Arts has recast its upcoming musical, “In the Heights,” with minority students at the University. Beyond recasting, the college also hired an entirely new creative team.

In October, The Daily Texan reported that nine of the 12 lead roles in “In the Heights,” a musical which follows 12 Dominican-American teenagers living in New York, had been given to professional actors. At the time, the musical’s director said the decision was made because of the limited number of students of color in the department. 

Producer Brant Pope, chair of the department of theatre and dance, said the department has gone beyond recasting the musical — they also brought in a new creative team, including a new director, choreographer and musical director.  

“We brought in a new directing team because there was such a bad feeling,” Pope said. “We just wanted to start fresh.”

Pope said the new team was better equipped to cast diverse actors, in part because the director and choreographer are Latino.  

“I think they were able to use [the] natural networking they had to encourage students who hadn’t auditioned before,” Pope said. “The second team worked a little more successfully with some of the performers that the first team felt they had trouble with.”

Pope said the audition process this time around was open to students of all majors.

Cassie Gholston, director of marketing for the department of theatre and dance, said the number of undergraduate students who are awarded roles has increased tremendously from previous years. From 2012 to 2013, there were 33 main stage roles, 33 percent of which were given to undergraduate students. This year, there are 72 main stage roles and 94 percent have been given to undergraduate students.

“There has never been a time when it’s been more exciting to be an undergraduate theater major,” Pope said. 

Theatre and dance freshman Trey Curtis, who was originally cast in an ensemble role, was recast and will now portray one of the main characters. Curtis said he was thrilled to audition again when more parts for students opened up. 

“It’s great that undergraduates can have the opportunity to perform on the main stage,” Curtis said. “As a freshman, I’m thrilled about it.”

Though Curtis said he was excited more roles opened up, he was not originally bothered by the number of professional actors cast. 

“Having professional actors can be really helpful because they could essentially teach workshops,” Curtis said. “‘In The Heights’ has some characters that are significantly older, such as the abuela, so it makes sense in a way.”

Theatre and dance sophomore Max Torrez said he was taken aback by the original decision to fill the majority of the cast with professionals. 

“I knew we had the kids to play those appropriate roles,” Torrez said. “I wasn’t surprised that we had guest artists, but I was surprised with the amount.” 

The play, written specifically for Latino actors, opens up many doors for minority students, according to Torrez. 

“Not a lot of roles are written specifically for minority students,” Torrez said. “It really opens up opportunities for them to showcase their talents.”

Photo Credit: Debby Garcia | Daily Texan Staff

After receiving backlash about casting professional guest actors instead of students in its upcoming musical “In the Heights,” the theatre and dance department has decided to reverse its original decision and recast roles for the musical.

Brant Pope, chair of the department and producer for “In The Heights” said he has begun the musical’s recasting because the original cast did not reflect student involvement in the best possible way. 

“If there’s a person responsible, it is me because I said that I wanted this to be an excelled production,” Pope said. “I didn’t say ‘do it with students [and] we’ll do the best we can.’”

Pope said the decision was not from a disregard for students, but from a desire to put on the best and most ethnically accurate production possible. 

“[The director and music director] honestly didn’t know how to combine wanting to cast this with ethnic authenticity and also have really excellent musical performers,” Pope said. “They didn’t know how to make both of those work. Their answer was to seek outside people and land on the side of authenticity rather than student involvement, and that’s when I decided I couldn’t accept that.”

Danny Herman, the production’s director, was not available for comment. 

Pope said the department always acknowledged the possibility of including regional or outside artists to play some of the production’s older-aged roles but no contracts were ever signed. 

“You have to plan ahead,” Pope said. “The director and music director talked to the likely subjects of two or three of those very mature roles about availability but we did not sign any contracts. It was an anticipation for a couple, not nine.”   

This semester marks the first time the department has moved away from graduate students to include only undergraduate students in acting. Pope said undergraduate students will be on stage in large numbers for the first time in 30 years, as there will be 74 roles for undergraduates up from 19 roles two years ago.

“We’ve completely committed to undergraduate actors,” Pope said.

Theater and dance sophomore Ursula Walker said she hopes the department will continue to respond to student concerns.

“It shows that they care about our concerns, and I’m hoping this means that they’ll continue to consider our concerns and incorporate our ideas as they go through the casting process in the future,” Walker said.

The new cast will consist of an ensemble of 24 undergraduate students, and leading roles consisting of eight undergraduate students and four guest performers. 

Dominique Gonzalez, theater studies junior who plans to re-audition for the musical, said the decision to use less guest actors is a good idea.

“Giving the other five roles back to the students is a fantastic thing because now these students will get a chance to learn the roles of musical theater,” Gonzalez said. 

Pope said the department believes guest actors working alongside students is beneficial to the learning process, but in this situation, it was not in the right proportions. He said the production was chosen from the season selection committee because it filled a need for the music theatre program and students. 

“It is a tremendously popular title that would anchor our season,” Pope said. “‘Dial “M” for Murder’ and ‘In The Heights’ are two box office draws that will allow us to do new plays no one has ever heard of. Not only are we dedicated to our undergraduates but we’re dedicated to building a Latino component in this department. We feel that the obvious demographics in Texas mandates this.”

“Dial ‘M’ for Murder” ran from Oct. 4 to 13. The current production’s recasting is currently underway and the musical is set to premiere on April 9.

Read this Daily Texan Editorial Column about the casting of 'In the Heights'.

Theatre department faculty hold a Q&A panel after an open discussion among theatre students regarding their opinion on casting ethics at the Winship building on Tuesday evening. 

Photo Credit: Debby Garcia | Daily Texan Staff

In the past two weeks, the UT theatre department has found itself caught in a casting controversy, and racial inequalities may be to blame.  According to a Daily Texan article published Oct. 30, the department chose “In the Heights,” a drama about 12 young Dominican Americans living in New York, as the upcoming musical. 

However, according to the department, there were not enough students whose races matched those of the characters of the play and met all the audition requirements, so many theatre students were left without leading roles. 

Consequently, the majority of the main parts will not be played by UT students. Instead, nine out of 12 of the lead roles were contracted to actors outside the University.

For theatre students, this situation is not only frustrating but infuriating. The casting decision bars students from getting the on-stage experience they need to succeed in their industry. If the students only have one musical per semester, being unable to participate in “In the Heights” is, for white students, a valuable opportunity gone. 

But non-white students face this problem on a regular basis. Generally, lead roles in productions set in a specific place and time period are racially restricting. The main cast of characters tends to be all of one race: Try and remember the last time there was a mixed-race version of “Oklahoma!” 

However, many non-white students who finally saw an opportunity to act in a lead role were not cast.

In more modern musicals, such as “Rent,” a multiethnic cast is necessary, but musicals written to be multiethnic may not be the norm. The solution may lie in non-traditional casting. According to Angela Pao in her book “No Safe Spaces: Re-casting Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in American Theater,” a trend toward recasting classic musicals with a multiethnic and multiracial cast is growing, with the aims of increasing employment for non-white actors and challenging racial stereotypes. This trend is often criticized for disrupting the “reality effect” of the performance, causing the performance to be either too realistic or not realistic enough by making the audience aware of its unfulfilled expectations between the character and the actor’s appearance.  

Pao, interestingly, argues that recasting does not threaten the realism of the performance per se, but rather “the normativity of white social and cultural dominance.” In other words, our pre-existing notions of how people of different races and ethnicities should interact in the United States may cause us to feel a disconnect between what we see onstage and what we experience in our culture and is furthered by an underlying “whiteness” of American identity.

If theatre is supposed to be a reflection of reality, the controversy in the UT theatre department speaks to a larger problem in our society. In order to give students the opportunity to play lead roles, the department had to overlook other students’ needs and choose a play that requires a cast that could not accommodate as many people as possible.

That a musical with ethnically varied characters was not chosen — and might not have been available — shows the deep racial divides that still mark our society but go relatively unnoticed. That recasting a musical with an ethnically varied main cast, as Pao advises, was out of the question shows that even the leaders of the department may be normalized to the white social and cultural dominance that Pao writes about.  

This controversy extends past our University and into the societal norms that we have come to accept. Rather than blaming the department for its choices in production and casting, we must look critically at the factors that drove those choices. That is the only way that the citizens of our multiethnic University will actually have the opportunities they deserve, both on the stage and in the world at large.

Franklin is a Plan II, linguistics and Middle Eastern languages and cultures senior from Sugar Land.

Read updated coverage on the decision to recast 'In the Heights' here.