Casting decision causes tension

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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

Update: Check out this chart put together by The Daily Texan breaking down the ethnic makeup of the College of Fine Arts.

Faculty members and students of the College of Fine Arts met Tuesday to address concerns surrounding the casting of performers from outside the University for the department’s upcoming musical. 

The department decided to contract guest performers of color for “In the Heights” because most of the characters are Dominican-American, and faculty members were concerned there were not enough students from appropriate ethnic backgrounds to fill the roles. 

“A week after auditions, we received an email from the head of our department that explained why they ultimately decided to cast outside professionals for nine out of the 12 lead roles in the show,” theatre and dance sophomore Ursula Walker said.

Faculty members in the department said they felt the limited number of students of color in the department put restrictions on casting choices, and said not all of those students met audition standards. 

Of the 1,271 undergraduates in the College of Fine Arts, 39.8 percent identify as an ethnicity other than “white only,” according to data provided by the Office of Information Management and Analysis.

Walker said she feels the decision to utilize outside talent does not take into fair consideration the minority students within the department. 

“I don’t think their intention was to offend anyone in the department with the decision,” Walker said. “I’m confused [by] their true intentions [of] providing this show to cater to the needs of people of color in the department because so many people [within the department] were overlooked.”

Lyn Koenning, music director for “In the Heights,” said she advised against casting only students within the department because not all of them fit the ethnic background of the play’s characters.

“The demographics of the students in my program [are not] the demographics of the characters in ‘In The Heights,’” Koenning said. “When the department first discussed casting roughly a year ago, I only had one person of color in my student program of five.”

Andrew Carlson, clinical assistant professor for the department of theatre and dance, said the forum was called in an attempt to do three things.

“One was to listen to students,” Carlson said. “Two was to … make sure anything that was unclear about what happened was resolved or was answered directly by the people involved in those decisions. And then third, to figure out how those experiences and questions can inform us as we make decisions about how we can improve as a theater department and best meet student needs.”

Carlson said the intention to produce the musical was not to sell tickets, but to serve the needs of students. 

“We wanted to make sure that students [of color] had an experience of seeing themselves on stage,” Carlson said. “That’s why it was brought forward and why it was selected.”

The musical is set to premiere April 9, 2014.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the date of the show's premiere was incorrectly stated. The show will premiere April 9, 2014.