The casting conversation

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Students perform "The Labyrinth of Desire" in Sept. 2023. Photo by Marco Calderon via Zenfolio.

Muhlenberg has recently been ranked as #2 on the Best College Theatre list in the Princeton Review, a category determined by student rating of campus production quality. Muhlenberg markets its theatre program as a haven of opportunity for aspiring performers, with promises of an extensive education coupled with collaborative experiences that enhance a performer’s scope of their chosen art. Of course, this is the marketing towards those intending to dedicate their educational journey at Muhlenberg to a major in theatre. Muhlenberg depends on its theatre program, and preserving the idea that opportunities at Muhlenberg are rich and constant. 

Students and families of students have held conflicting views on how much opportunity is fostered for students interested in theatre at the College. This past year, parents had taken to expressing their concerns about what they deemed a lack of opportunity to the Provost of the College. Students have expressed their own disappointment with how difficult it is to get cast in theatre productions, and how the difficulty in casting coupled with what seems like little opportunity, is leaving them disillusioned with the theatre department. This stands as an issue the student body is divided on, with some rallying for more opportunities to be provided for those interested in theatre, and others defending the opportunities offered, citing that opportunities are there, it’s just a matter of taking them. 

Anna Item ‘25 provided insight on the matter stating, “A lot of people discount or forget opportunities like New Play Reading Series (NPRS) and the Red Door Play Festival when considering acting roles available across a semester. NPRS, Red Doors, Muhlenberg Theatre Association (MTA) Studios, departmental productions and now BergImmersive all combine to create many opportunities for performers at ‘Berg. I do think that we should all consider representing actors with different skills: different identities, different vocal ranges (we especially need more love for altos and baritones/basses), vocal styles (both legit/classical and contemporary/belt), acting styles (comedic and dramatic, classical and contemporary) and dance styles when we produce musicals.” 

A large issue students and parents alike call attention to in terms of casting opportunity is how there have been the same names being seen in cast lists. Rachelle Montilus ‘24 voiced her thoughts on the matter, saying, “There are opportunities on campus. But I think it’s also difficult because, just because there are opportunities out there, students shouldn’t be forced to take advantage of those if they don’t feel it’s for them. The MTA could do a bunch of shows, and the department could do a bunch of shows, but if it doesn’t cater to the demographic of the students and what the students want, then what do those opportunities mean?”

“Casting is so strange because there is always that first level of favoritism. [It’s a] double-edged sword because for sure I believe professors have the right to work with students they know to be reliable and have seen their talents in class. I think they should feel empowered to do that. When you trust your cast, I think it always puts you in a better position to succeed. So that’s already something that changes things completely,” Montilus continued. 

While there are people frustrated with what seems like a lack of opportunity, others are echoing the idea that opportunity is at every corner, it is up to the students to make the most of them. 

Charlotte Alexander ‘25 reasoned, “I believe there are a good amount of opportunities here at Muhlenberg. There is almost always an opportunity for students to get involved with something theatrical based, be it from a mainstage or Red Door production, to a new play reading, to a student showcase. I feel like it has really picked up, especially with regard to student-run performances. ”

“I’m on the Season Selection Committee, and one of our major goals is to choose shows with large casts to create as many opportunities as possible. We are also trying to vary the season with plays, musicals and classical works, focusing on female-led productions,” Item said. “We also want to make sure that there are plenty of roles for female-identifying and trans/nonbinary performers since our performer base skews heavily in that direction. Much of the Theatre & Dance Department’s limitations are due to larger administrative, budget-related things. We would love to do 15 shows a year or something, but we don’t have the faculty, spaces or money to do so!” 

The idea that casting in theatre prioritizes certain identities over others is prevalent in the minds of students when castings are released, with one anonymous YikYak user posting, “Wish I was a white man 🙁 Shit is so easy.” 

Regarding the discussion around casting and opportunity at Muhlenberg, a topic that is pulled to the forefront of many minds is how Muhlenberg empowers marginalized identities in the performing arts. 

Montilus said, “I think that Muhlenberg is fighting a small battle with casting that I believe is actually a larger battle. I think the theatre department sees their casting issue as not enough students of color wanting to be in shows. And so, when the theatre department wants to do shows that are ‘diverse’ they can’t do them, because their definition of diversity is a show that calls for ‘x’ amount of people of color. It’s hard for them, I guess, to understand that diversity can look like many things and be many things. So instead of really putting on shows that tell diverse stories, I feel that the theatre department has a habit of forcing their performers of color to tell these stories for them.” 

Item added, “The theatre department has had a pattern of selecting shows which tell traumatic stories of racial violence, asking the same small pool of BIPOC actors to re-enact racial violence and grappling with their identities onstage over and over. One of the focuses of the Season Selection Committee for next year’s season is to choose productions with roles that do not exploit student identities.”

When deciding what shows to produce, and therefore what casting will look like for those shows, the department seems to lose sight of what is productive and what the student body feels they can actually benefit from. In paving the road with good intentions, the impact proves to be more harmful than helpful. 

“I think they’re trying every year to improve their lineup. But I think that casting is an issue because the theatre department needs a diverse actor base, but they don’t wanna do the work to actually cultivate that actor base,” Montilus continued. 

Conversations surrounding casting opportunities revolve around the shows and productions the department chooses to produce. On show selection, Bird Palermo ‘25 said, “I personally am interested in musical theatre works that are newer and done less frequently, because as a playwright and composer, I want to support others who are creating in my field. I am interested in musicals that push the boundaries of what musical theatre can be. I would love to see more of this anywhere on campus. However, I am glad that the department doesn’t just put on the most common or recognizable plays and musicals. I have seen a lot of great theatre I would not have known about otherwise.”

With a theatre program that the College relies on and markets so heavily, there are many conversations to be brought to the forefront in an effort to push Muhlenberg Theatre to provide students with the opportunities they feel they were promised. 

Montilus reflected, “Muhlenberg sells you this dream of cultivating your skills as a performer, but then they don’t guarantee you any opportunities to perform. Give these people their money’s worth. They need to make someone’s degree worth it.” 

Shinam ‘25 is a political science and sociology major at Muhlenberg. She is immensely excited to be apart of the Weekly staff! When she isn’t writing, she can be found reading a book or watching a comfort show with her favorite fast food!

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