Oak Brook theater defends same-sex couple, interracial casting in Shakespeare play

  • Courtier Touchstone (Courtney Abbott), left, and shepherdess Audrey (Sierra Schnack) fall in love in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Casting two women instead of a man and a woman has generated some controversy for the Oak Brook theater.

    Courtier Touchstone (Courtney Abbott), left, and shepherdess Audrey (Sierra Schnack) fall in love in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Casting two women instead of a man and a woman has generated some controversy for the Oak Brook theater. Courtesy of Maia Rosenfield Photography

 
 
Updated 8/19/2017 7:06 AM

First Folio Theatre executive director David Rice did something this week he hasn't had to do in 35 years as a theater professional: He defended his company's casting and his director's vision.

In an email statement to First Folio supporters and the press, Rice addressed complaints from some theatergoers objecting to the Oak Brook theater's casting of William Shakespeare's "As You Like It." The production features a same-sex couple and three interracial couples.

 

More than 2,000 people have seen the outdoor show, which closes Sunday, since previews began July 12. Rice received about two dozen phone calls, letters and emails complaining mostly about the relationship between courtier Touchstone (a role typically played by a man) and shepherdess Audrey (a role typically played by a woman). In First Folio's production, directed by Skyler Schrempp, the characters are portrayed as a lesbian couple played by Courtney Abbott and Sierra Schnack.

Rice heard reports from house managers that some patrons have left after the passionate Act II kiss between the characters.

"In light of where our society has gone lately, I had to address this publicly," Rice said. "I felt I needed to clarify what we stand for, which is representing everyone in our community."

Rice issued a statement in which he referenced First Folio's 20-year commitment to reflect its audience and community.

"We realize that some of the decisions we make may prove controversial to some. ... We also recognize that those same decisions will prove inspiring and supportive to others," Rice wrote. "The nature of art is that it will, in fact it should, engender discussion and even controversy."

"If it does not," he wrote, "we are not doing our job as artists."

Rice offered unhappy patrons refunds, which some refused. He acknowledged the company has lost some financial support, but says no corporate sponsors have withdrawn. Moreover, he said he received about 200 responses from patrons expressing support.

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This isn't the first time a suburban theater has come under fire for casting decisions. Last year, a Chicago-area actor criticized Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire for casting only one Latino actor in its revival of "Evita." Marriott executive director Terry James responded that the theater had made efforts to bring "new minority talent to its stage," pointing out that recent productions of "Man of La Mancha," "The King and I," "Dreamgirls" and "Sister Act" featured diverse casts.

Marriott's last production, the Chicago-area premiere of "The Bridges of Madison County," included interracial couples. Black actor Nathaniel Stampley was cast as the male romantic lead, a role played by Clint Eastwood in the movie.

A spokeswoman for the theater said via email, "Marriott did not have any issues with regard to the casting of 'The Bridges of Madison County.'"

Paramount Theatre's all-black production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" earlier this year prompted a "handful of emails, calls to the box office and social media posts questioning our colorblind casting ... but certainly not enough to necessitate an official response from the theater," wrote artistic director Jim Corti and chief executive officer Tim Rater in a joint email.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Corti and Rater expressed support for First Folio and theaters working to make "their casts, companies, staff and their audiences more reflective, inclusive and accepting of all people."

Goodman Theatre associate producer Steve Scott, whose Chicago revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" featured a multiracial cast, called the casting and Rice's statement bold and courageous. Goodman has weathered criticism over its cross-cultural casting since its groundbreaking, African-American production of Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" in the late 1970s, Scott said.

"We've had to address with individual audience members complaints about multiracial casting, casting women in men's roles," he said. "A lot of people are stuck in what they think is the right way to tell the story."

"As You Like It" and other Shakespeare plays reflect the times in which they are produced, said Scott, which means cross-cultural and cross-gender casting will become more common.

"There aren't going to be casts with a lot of white people. It's going to be mixed because that's a reflection of our society now," Scott said.

Still, challenging audience assumptions poses a risk, said Rice. Some people perceive challenging their viewpoint as challenging them personally and they get defensive, Rice said.

Others, he said, "step back, re-examine those norms and assumptions and perhaps change the assumption," he said. "That's what you hope will happen."

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