The Politics of Casting and Why It Matters


In May 2014, I was invited to be a part of two contrasting performance projects, both of which were to do with asylum seekers and refugees. The racial politics inherent within each project were incredibly contrasting and I felt compelled to write about them, as an Actor of Colour.

Firstly, let us briefly clarify what I mean by ‘Actor of Colour’. By this I mean, that I am an actor who in my daily and professional life, cannot pass as White. The perceived race by which I am most often labeled is ‘Asian’ and this affects my construct as a person in Australia but most definitely as actor within the visually White-dominated Australian theatre, film and television industry. [1]

The first project I was invited to be a part of is called the Bureau of Worldly Advice. This project was commissioned by the City of Melbourne and involves me being an ‘official-looking Ambassador’ figure inviting people off the streets of the CBD to ask for ‘worldly advice’ from a panel of experts, made up of people who came to Australia as asylum seekers and refugees.

I found the creative concept of the Bureau refreshing because it aims to reverse the dynamic whereby ‘refugees and asylum seekers’ are often thought of in Australia, mainly, as powerless, voiceless individuals or devious queue jumpers.


The lead artist, Dagmara Gieysztor, understands the need and potential for artistic projects to challenge this common perception of refugees and asylum seekers, by putting the ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘refugee’ in the position of authority: as the ‘expert’, in their interactions with the broader Melbourne public.

The second project was a play produced by one of the most prolific independent theatre companies of Melbourne. What drew me to the play was that it was written as a critique of the inane nature of the bureaucratic system that processes asylum seeker claims.

From the outset, the director indicated that he wanted to cast me in the role of the sole asylum seeker.

As an Actor of Colour, I had reservations about what his rationale might be in casting me for this role. However, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and entertained the possibility that perhaps he wanted me for the role because he thought I was able to play it with the dignity that I had read in the character.

So, I went to the audition eager to have a conversation about why he thought I was appropriate for the role. His answer? ‘Well, because you’d look different to everyone else.’ My heart sank and I asked, ‘Is that because everyone else will be white?’ He said, ‘Yes, I was thinking so.’

I had wanted to be a part of this play because it critiques one of the biggest problems with the way asylum seekers and refugees are often conceived of in Australia: that they are ‘the other’.

But the director’s main rationale for wanting to cast me as the asylum seeker is precisely because he saw me as ‘the other’ in comparison to the majority White cast.

crossracial casting cover

In 2007, renowned theatre director and Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre, Lee Lewis, published a Platform Paper entitled Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre, in which she wrote,

“the experience of difference is a matter of how difference is perceived, how a person looks relative to the dominant national ideal from the point of view of that dominant position”. (2007:8)

I tried to engage the director in a conversation about how Actors of Colour are able to play characters with power and in positions of authority just as well as any White actor.

I said to him, ‘Theatre has the potential and in my opinion, the duty to challenge how we think about people of certain (perceived) racial and ethnic backgrounds.’

Lee Lewis corroborates this by stating: ‘A production…can either ratify views (the audience) already hold or work to convince them to change their views.’

And moreover, that: ‘Directors are selecting the bodies with which to present ideas bearing on the future: they are offering a physical vision of the future for the audience to accept or reject, and seeking to influence that choice.’

Thereby: ‘If the present reality is dominated by White bodies, the future imagined will be peopled by those same White bodies.’

However, Lee Lewis states, ‘If the stage shows us a multi-racial community today, we will, I believe, start to imagine- create?- one for ourselves tomorrow.’ (2007:20-23)

Sadly, the casting decisions and choices this director was making, supported the very status quo that he could potentially critique, by putting on this play.

There was no sense of the irony of how seeing me and casting me as ‘the other’ based on my non-Whiteness, propagated the ‘other-ing’ that the public already practices with regards to asylum seekers.

I would just like to clarify that I had worked with this director previously and on the whole enjoyed the experience as well as admired the work that we managed to create together.

However, my critique has nothing to do with the strength or quality of our personal working relationship and everything to do with a Systemic Problem with why casting someone based on their perceived ‘different’ race, in a visually and politically White-dominant society such as Australia, as opposed to whether they are able to rise to the challenge of the role, is problematic.

It is problematic, not just for the theatre industry, but for Australian society, nation-building and our collective imagination as a whole.

At the heart of this article is a call for more racial diversity on Australian stages, but for all the right reasons, and one of those reasons has to be about challenging the ways that we already perceive certain races and ethnicities of people. 

It would be nice if I could end this story on a hopeful note. But unfortunately, a third funny thing happened to me on the way to an audition last month.

Sitting in the waiting room of a main casting agency in Melbourne, I shared the silence of the room with a Fijian-Indian-Australian man. I was auditioning for a bit-role in an Australian TV comedy and so was he. When I asked him what he was auditioning for, he said, ‘Petrol station attendant.’

My heart bled a little for both of us.

The Bureau of Worldly Advice IS ON FOR 2 MORE DAYS ONLY!                                           Friday 20th June 2014, 4:30pm- 7:30pm and Saturday 21st June 2014, 12pm-3pm. 

[1] This piece does not have the scope to discuss the terms ‘Actor of Colour’ (my chosen term) and its relevance within Australian society in great detail, but I would refer you to Lee Lewis’ 2007 Platform Paper on Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre for a more complex discussion on perceived race in Australia, including terms such as ‘Third World-Looking People’ and how the construct of ‘Whiteness’ has shifted throughout Australian history.

Rani Pramesti

Author: Rani Pramesti

Rani Pramesti is the Founder of RANI P COLLABORATIONS. Rani is a performance maker, an arts producer and an advocate for the arts. In all three roles, she builds bridges across cultures, generations and disciplines. Since 2015, Rani has been working as an Associate Producer at Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC). She is currently the co-producer of FCAC’s Emerging Cultural Leaders program. Rani is also the lead artist of Sedih //Sunno, a performance-installation that premiered at Next Wave Festival (May 2016) and Metro Arts (August 2016) to critical acclaim. Rani is a proud Board Member for the socially engaged youth theatre company, Western Edge Youth Arts.