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Tabloid Theatre! The Dramaturgical Question in Celebrity Casting

Oh, what a tangled web we weave in a conservatory program like the Boston University School of Theatre.

Theatremaking is often personal. The process of honing that craft is, in my experience, always personal. We work from what we know, adapting our raw material—depending on one’s approach images, memories, imaginative prompts, etc.—to suit the task at hand. No matter how safe the space is, there is a collective understanding that we witness and collaborate on this process in our studio classes and rehearsals. Naturally, interpersonal relationships and the knowledge we share of each other’s lives often informs what we perceive in the work we see.

FICTIONAL EXAMPLE #1: “Hey Mary-Beth! Wow. Sue Ellen sure did some great work in that challenging studio class today. I know from our experience as friends that she’s been working through some daddy issues lately, so it’s great to see her ‘put it in the work’ like she did today.”

FICTIONAL EXAMPLE #2: “Well, to be honest, I loved Gary’s performance. I know he had a tough time coming out of the closet, so it was very liberating to see him play Angel. He seemed very… released! Ha! No tension! So happy our conservatory program did RENT!”

FICTIONAL EXAMPLE #3: “This scene study class is tremendous, but today sure was something else. Such strong work. You know, Keith and Francine just went through a tough break-up. It was just tragic to see them be so in love again in their Romeo & Juliet scene. I’m really torn up about it! SUCH GOOD WORK!!!”

Friends, romans, countrymen—we’ve all been there. (And these are all positive examples!) Speaking for myself, I’ve gossiped about real-life parallels to the work I’ve seen in my peers. It often feels simply like another means by which to process the difficult work we do day in and day out.

How, then, does this phenomenon speak to the ‘theatre at large?’

Daniel Craig & Rachel Weisz in Broadway’s current revival of Pinter’s BETRAYAL

Well, I’ve been spending much time considering the impact of celebrity culture on the dramaturgy of a theatrical experience. I recently brought up  Broadway’s current revival of Harold Pinter‘s Betrayal in our Dramaturgy class. The production is a hot ticket for its stunt casting of real-life couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as Robert and Emma, respectively. Knowing giggles bemoaned this choice, as quips of “that’ll do wonders for their marriage,” and “let’s bet how long they’ll last!” bounced around the room.

I haven’t seen the production, but I sure can theorize!

The promise of watching a beautiful, real-life couple work their way through the knotty affairs of Betrayal is pulling audiences in en masse. The play is Broadway’s sixth best-selling production, only behind five blockbuster musicals. 

Dramaturgically, we must ask how this impacts an audience’s theatrical experience. They’re not watching Robert and Emma on that stage. Audiences at all familiar with the likes of Craig and Weisz are projecting what they know of the couple onto Pinter’s characters.

Ultimately, this informs the play in a very unique way. Of course, all actors are collaborators in the creation of any given piece of theatre. An audience will see Joe Schmo’s Hamlet and not purely Shakespeare’s. And that’s not just the actor’s fault. It is impossible to experience any character as the author’s pure intention. Whether reading a play on the page or seeing even the most nameless of actors perform a part, the audience rather essentially collaborates in creating the characters, circumstances, stories, etc. that are experienced.

However, that’s a broad look at personalization of the theatrical experience.

Celebrity casting is its own specific phenomenon. Familiarity with an actor who stands tall on the pedestal of fame involves the audience in the creation of a theatrical experience in a manner much more obvious and aware.

As a trade-in for ticket sales, celebrity casting gives audiences license to see what they will in the actors onstage. This conclusion comes attached to a particular opinion that holds ‘the celebrity’ (or the icon, the image thereof) as property of the public. Audiences make stars; therefore, audiences have a certain ownership of them. This is an endlessly fascinating enterprise with a life cycle all its own to which artists from Warhol to Bowie to Gaga dedicate their life’s work.

Now, if the public owns the celebrity or their likeness, and the celebrity assumes the role of a character onstage—does the public not therefore own the character onstage? Can audiences not do what they will with such ownership?

Angelina Jolie in Clint Eastwood’s CHANGELING

I’m reminded of watching Clint Eastwood’s film Changeling with my mother. The film stars Angelina Jolie as a mother searching for her abducted child. My mother had a very specific reaction to the film because of her ownership of Jolie as an inspiring celebrity mother. Such a reaction strikes me as well in-line with the filmmaker’s intent to have the audience sympathize with Jolie’s character. Dramaturgically sound, this checks out.


But what happens dramaturgically when casting enters trickier territory? What happens when public knowledge of the actor is at odds with the character? Take two recent Broadway Celebrity casting choices that should’ve raised BIG RED FLAGS dramaturgically—Katie Holmes as Anne in the 2008 revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs as Walter Lee Younger in the 2004 revival of Lorainne Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. If audiences cannot separate Holmes from her buzzed-about marriage to Tom Cruise or Diddy from his hip-hop mogul career, how does that fundamentally change the stories in which they play intrinsic roles?

To bring this question back to my community, I think personalization, relation—who we are in our community of creators and peers making work together—has a place in our dramaturgical conversation. All theatremaking is experimentation, but we must consider all the variables that may impact the results our audience experiences, or something like this may occur:

FICTIONAL EXAMPLE #4: “I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at school last night! Really interesting. I mean, I thought it was a good production, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how Juan is, like, vehemently opposed to drinking and all Brick does is drink! Everyone laughed when he mentioned his CRIPPLING ALCOHOL DEPENDENCY like OMG HE IS SUCH AN ALCOHOLIC and like I’m sitting there with Francine and Mary Beth and Sue Ellen, like we’re all Juan’s friends… It was funny! It just didn’t seem like he committed to it… or like… it just didn’t work because it kept taking me out… Something could’ve been done about that, no?”

Concise critique, no? Hey, I’ve heard it and plenty more. Tabloid theatre, perhaps?

This phenomenon has vast reach, and the answer to all my questions might simply be more committed suspension of disbelief on the part of creative team and audience alike. However, as responsible theatre artists, we must ask the questions and find specific answers in order to make choices by which we can firmly stand.

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