Gainesville’s live theaters are casting nontraditional actors for famous roles, bringing a fresh perspective into the spotlight

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When Rhonda Wilson was cast as the villainous, man-eating plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” she was excited to test how the traditionally male role would bend to a woman.

Wilson said the role of the plant is usually cast as a male who has a rhythm-and-blues, masculine voice. However, when Wilson saw the role played by a woman in a professional production of “Little Shop of Horrors” in New York, she loved the gender switch. She was inspired to audition for the villain when Gainesville’s Star Center Theatre held the production in 2019.

Wilson said after she was offered the role, she was excited to play the character in a different way by gender-bending it. She said most people were ecstatic to see her take on the role and she was only a little concerned about how certain audience members might interpret the change.

“Some people are purists of theater and don’t like changing stuff,” Wilson said. “When you try to change the race, place, gender or something like that in an old show some people have a problem with it because audiences grew up seeing things a certain way.”

Wilson is the founder of Star Center Theatre and a middle school theater teacher at Kanapaha Middle School. Wilson said throughout her experience in theater, she’s noticed some artists assume they don’t have an opportunity to play a role based on factors like race or gender. She said it’s up to the theater to promote nontraditional casting by discussing shows in consciously inclusive ways.

“Are theaters actually looking at what is being picked for the season and not just saying, ‘Oh, well anyone can come out’? You have to be more intentional about it,” Wilson said. “You have to make it known that stories of other cultures are just as important as all these other things we’re doing.”

While some people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and women have avoided auditions for shows known to be cast in specific ways, the trend of nontraditional  theater casting has opened new opportunities for them.

Jay Nixon is playing the role of Fagin in “Oliver!” at the Gainesville Community Playhouse set to open on Nov. 19. Nixon studies education at the University of Florida and is currently a theater teacher at Resilience Charter School.

He said “Oliver!” is set in London and follows the adventures of an orphan, Oliver, who goes from one caretaker to the next until he comes into the hands of Fagin, who gives the group of orphans a place to live and teaches them how to pickpocket.

Nixon said his character Fagin is typically cast as an older white man and isn’t usually portrayed by someone like himself, a 20-year-old Black, transgender actor.

“Nontraditional casting is going against the norm of what we usually see on stage for something that’s been done, you know, over and over again,” he said. “I think nontraditional casting is something beautiful and should be embraced because theater and the world is changing. I mean, that’s what theater is supposed to be like.”

Nixon said race, gender, sexuality and similar factors shouldn’t be important to a show’s cast if it doesn’t change the storyline.

“There are only certain musicals where casting has to be specific to race or gender. For example, ‘Hairspray’ must be done a certain way because those features are essential to the plot,” he said. “If those features aren’t essential to the plot, then who cares?”

As a director, Wilson said she often casts in ways that are untraditional to the source material.

“I always tell the theaters I work with if you have the opportunity to cast a role differently than the movie or source, please do it,” Wilson said. “Doing so speaks for the theater community and to artists. Give artists an opportunity. Don’t cast them because they’re different. Cast them because they’re the best for that part and you want to make a statement.”

Wilson said the theater is responsible for educating artists and audiences to accept what is currently considered nontraditional casting as the norm.

For certain old shows, anything other than an all-white and male cast would be considered nontraditional casting. Monica Cross is currently cast in a few roles in “Mixed-Tape Shakespeare,” a collection of Shakespeare’s most-recognized play scenes, for UF’s Driveway Theatre Project. Cross, who is a freelance playwright, actress and director, said every time she participates in a Shakespearean role, she’s doing something unique to the source material.  

Derek Wohlust, 51, is the director of “Mixed-Tape Shakespeare.” He said he didn’t intentionally cast the show differently from the source material, rather his goal as the director was to cast the best person for the role.

He said Cross’ talent and love for Shakespeare stood out to him.

“I cast Monica as Lord Macbeth not because she’s a woman, but because I wanted to see her play the part. She’s a great actor, she loves the source material and I do too,” Wohlust said. “It wasn’t like I purposely set out to rock any boats. This is the person best suited for the role.”

Wohlust said from his experience most people are on board with his casting choices even if they’re not traditional to the source material. He said he hopes for those who question nontraditional casting, the change will cause those members of the audience to take the time to consider why they’re experiencing a negative reaction.

Wohlust referenced his interest in the casting of the musical “Hamilton” on Broadway, which features a diverse cast. The production casts actors and actresses of color to play many of the nation’s historic white figures like George Washington and Aaron Burr. Wohlust said “Hamilton” has an impact on where nontraditional casting stands today because it pushed boundaries. He said while “Hamilton” has great influence in this way, he hopes audiences will one day be able to watch shows without focusing on the nontraditional aspect but rather the “really great actors playing really great roles in a really great musical.”

In Wohlust’s performance of “Mixed-Tape Shakespeare”, Cross’ character Lord Macbeth retains the male pronouns written for her character in the script. Cross said while she takes on the role, she doesn’t change Lord Macbeth’s pronouns but also doesn’t go out of her way to change her appearance to embody a male.

“​​Every person’s body creates assumptions for an audience,” she said. “We can either try to ignore those assumptions and pretend they don’t exist, or we can actively challenge those to create thought-provoking performances that perhaps expand our understanding of the assumptions that we have. Personally, I don’t think every time I play a traditionally male part I am saying something profound about gender. But I do think that with the life experiences I have, when I come into a particular role, I bring that and perhaps expand the audience’s boundaries.”

Cross said there’s a scene where Lord Macbeth commits murders and ponders whether it was a “good, manly thing to do.” Cross said by bringing her experience as a woman who hasn’t been socialized to be aggressive in the same way she observes men have, there’s a chance gender-bending the role could change the context of the scene.

Whether nontraditional casting is being done at theaters to intentionally make an impact or the casting stands for itself, casting is evolving in the same way live theater does.

Nixon said he’s excited for audiences to see “Oliver!” at the Gainesville Community Playhouse because his cast and crew is bringing a fresh perspective to the arts. Nixon said challenging casting expectations is what live theater is all about.

“Theater breaks norms and gets a group of people together to create a story. And it doesn’t matter if one person’s Black, one person’s white, one person’s Hispanic; it doesn’t matter,” Nixon said. “The people can change constantly, but the story stays the same. So as long as you can tell a story, however you want to tell that story — tell it.”

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