A discussion of inclusivity for young LGBT+ actors working today, with National Theatre casting assistant Jacob Sparrow
Pride month may be over, but the discussion on LGBT+ inclusivity and diversity in casting doesn’t end here. We caught up with Jacob Sparrow, casting assistant at the National Theatre, to discuss his top tips for young gay actors, the responsibility of theatre to kick-start cultural conversations, and the importance of diversity in the arts.
Be secure and happy in yourself. There will always be a social barrier until we fight to pull it down. If you’re in a rehearsal or at an audition and someone says “play this gay character and flounce around,” ask why. Is that a character trait? Where does that come from? Or is that just trying to shove a gay character in without thinking about the implications of what it means?
Theatre and the arts have often been seen as a safe space to explore sexuality and challenge convention. To what degree do you think this is still true?
Many LGBT people find a safe space in theatre because it is an open and artistic community. The danger in making that assumption is to think, “LGBT people are represented and we don’t need to do anything [more] about it.” If you look at the representation of gay men, for example, quite often the plays being produced are reinforcing negative stereotypes. There are a lot of plays around HIV and AIDS; a lot of contemporary plays around gay men on Grindr or resisting monogamy, and that is a part of our community that exists but, as a gay man, I really crave to see a wider representation.
It’s almost impossible to find representation of trans or bisexual people, and lesbian women are often narrowly represented in terms of stereotypes. Sometimes LGBT people are only allowed to exist within an LGBT play; it can’t just be “a play”, it has to be a “queer play”. That’s what frustrates me about it.
So do you think theatre needs to better reflect the diversity and change within our culture?
I think that it is our responsibility, and it is also about what we are doing for the young LGBT community; people who are struggling to come out or come to terms with their own sexual identity. They can go and watch a play like Angels in America, a masterpiece in terms of its writing, but it’s quite a narrow representation of what it means to be gay. We need to honour those past playwrights as landmarks of gay theatre, but also ask what’s current and contemporary.
Many gay actors around the world fear coming out as they worry about the impact it could have on being cast in straight roles, what is your opinion there?
I know many actors who are gay or lesbian and who are not out for that very reason. Look at Hollywood: 12 years ago everyone applauded Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger for playing gay in Brokeback Mountain, but when Neil Patrick Harris played Barney in How I Met Your Mother the reaction wasn’t, “Isn’t that interesting, he’s gay and he’s playing straight,” it was, “I had no idea, you can’t even tell he’s gay!”
It’s the stereotype that being homosexual is somehow a visible entity. Whilst it is inherent to your identity it’s not something that is necessarily aesthetic and visible. I think it comes from society as well. Sadly, we still live in a world without equal rights. Whilst we might have equal rights on paper, that doesn’t equal social rights. There’s still homophobia. There needs to be a fundamental shift in society as well as in entertainment.
I think theatre is a great place to start, as from there it can often bleed into film and TV, and theatre is often at the forefront of change in the arts. But I think that it’s also just about creating a safer space and not goading people into coming out. If they’re comfortable to, then they should, but it’s not something we should be witch-hunting gay actors for. That could be more damaging than progressive.
Do you think theatre and the stories being told today reflect the diversity and change in our culture, or would you like to see more variety?
I would love to see more plays with trans characters in them as they just don’t exist at the minute. The reason that I work in casting is because I’m passionate about diversity in theatre, yet it’s really important in writing too. But, if we commission five trans writers to write a play, are we saying that trans writers can only write trans stories? We certainly don’t make that assumption with white writers, black writers, female writers or anyone else.
You still do get plays with all white casts, or all men, or the only female roles in it are defined by their relationships with male characters. While they frustrate me, I think they should exist, but we should look to learn and move forward too. A play like This House, for example, had an all-white cast when it ran at the NT; on paper you think that’s negative because there’s no diversity.But within the setting, it is needed because the people they are playing are all white, and at that time our government was almost entirely white. There’s very little diversity in Parliament, and it would be counter-productive to cast that play regardless of race and gender because the source material, the point of the play, is that this country is largely run by white politicians.
So casting must reflect the validity of the writing, as there’s often a call-to-arms whenever there’s a production announced with an all-white cast. And quite often rightly. But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the decision making. I think we’re getting there. It’s also the responsibility of drama schools to make training more accessible.
Do you think that drama schools in the UK need to take more responsibility for encouraging diversity?
Absolutely! We don’t read and cast a play thinking, “OK, that role will be a funny part: they’ll be northern and maybe a bit chubby.” That’s not how casting works anymore. A lot of plays are built on the traditional character stereotypes – the leading lady, the ingénue, the comic relief. But I think that there’s a lot more freedom in plays.
I’m always amazed by the creative process of working with directors who might say, “This is what I think for that role,”, but others might be completely open in the way they see it. We are facilitators of a process and so it is our job to flesh out that idea and meet actors who do fit the brief, as well as bringing new ideas to the table. For one role in particular, it was entirely open and we met older women, children, disabled artists, cabaret performers, and that from a casting perspective is so exciting.
I think, particularly in musicals, those binaries still exist. When you look at training in musical theatre you can often point out exactly what they’ve tried to achieve with each graduate. I find that quite frustrating at showcases. The demand for diversity at the moment is incredibly high and I think drama schools need to address that balance.
Should actors use their platform as a voice for change, as famously happened at a production of Hamilton, or is their job simply to entertain?
With Hamilton, I would have absolutely done the same thing. I think that it’s not just the responsibility of actors or people who work in the arts to say that, it’s the responsibility of everyone. If you disagree with something, speak out in a productive way. If you look at something like Act for Change and the way that they have been campaigning, that’s been the start of something which has really helped speed up the journey to diversity.
Myself and others within the National Theatre have spoken out in favour of more representation of LGBT in the programming. There was a huge minority of gay characters, if at all. Focus has been on diversity within age, gender, ethnicity and disability, which are all incredibly important, but because being LGBT isn’t something necessarily visible, yet it’s still something that exists, it needs to be represented.
In terms of what theatre can do for society, I think that it’s amazing that after Brexit and all the hate crimes against non-white communities, when you look at the programming of the National, The Donmar, The Court, as well as Fringe and regional theatres they’ve created incredible productions with diverse creative teams and stood up and spoken out to say the current situation isn’t acceptable. That’s so exciting and I think it’s what makes London theatre really bloody good.
And do you think it is theatre’s job to lead the way in exploring topics like equality and giving voice to minority groups, particularly given the shift in global politics we have seen lately?
I think it’s more important than ever. We have sadly created a country and a world where we are fighting for equal representation. Theatre needs to say that it continues to be open and accessible; exploring stories from all cultures and all creeds. And they are equally as important as one another. It is leading in TV and film too, perhaps not as rapidly as theatre, which is so important because often they are more accessible than theatre. If you look at something like Dr Who and the diversity of that cast and the representation of BAME and LGBT characters, it’s exciting to see that progression and hopefully it is a catalyst for change.
With the advancements in LGBT+ rights, to what degree do you still think events like Pride are necessary and do they have a positive impact?
I think it’s still incredibly important. As I said before, in the UK we are equal on paper to our heterosexual counterparts but we still don’t have real social equality. I find it remarkable that I can legally marry someone of my own sex and adopt, but if I were to kiss someone in the street I’d have to be aware of where I was and what that means.
Something that really struck me was [the events in] Orlando, and the way that was dealt with in the press. It was labelled as a “terrorist attack” and not a “gay attack” because there are still a lot of readers who aren’t pro-gay. So we’ve still got a long way to go, and I think that Pride is still important in terms of identity and community.
What advice would you give to young actors or industry professionals who fear their sexuality may hold them back or present a block in a highly competitive industry?
The best advice I can say is to know yourself well; be secure and happy in yourself. There will always be a social barrier until we fight to pull it down. If you’re in a rehearsal or at an audition and someone says “play this gay character and flounce around,” ask why. Is that a character trait? Where does that come from? Or is that just trying to shove a gay character in without thinking about the implications of what it means?
Really be yourself, don’t try to be something that you’re not. You’ll spend a six or eight-week rehearsal process developing a fully-rounded character. You can’t possibly play a role as just one thing. It’s definitely the duty of the casting director to not be so closed-minded as to say: “That actor is gay so they couldn’t possibly play a straight character.” That’s like saying, “That person’s a woman, so they can’t play a male character”. As an industry, we need to stop adhering to such binary terms. But there is progression, which is excellent.
I see actors worry about so many things when walking into an audition – “Did I shake hands with the right person?”, “Am I wearing the right shoes?” – but beyond everything else, just read the play. Be passionate and able to talk about it. It’s an artistic process, not about filling slots or applying a binary label. It’s much more creative than that, which is what makes it exciting.
With thanks to Mark Bonington for conducting this interview with Jacob on Spotlight’s behalf. Thank you also to Jacob for giving up his time to speak to us about this important topic! You can see what Jacob is up to here.