So, what is non-traditional casting? The most famous example is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton, with tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, reimagined with actors of color - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and, of course, Alexander Hamilton are all portrayed by non-white actors. A truly innovative masterpiece, theatres around the country have embraced non-traditional casting as a way to re-experience the familiar through a new lens, and bring to the stage traditionally underrepresented persons.
For Co-Artistic Director Seth Kaltwasser, the choice to do 1776 with a female cast was timely. “I’d just recently fallen in love with the score [of 1776] and was curious about the possibility of reimagining the show to fit inside a black box venue. It seemed an odd fit, at first, for Festival Theatre’s summer season, as the applicants for our intern and apprentice company are college-aged performers, and our casting pool is always filled with an abundance of talented young women we’d like to cast. Unfortunately, very few musicals feature a large quantity of roles for young women. With this in mind, and because we were choosing our 2017 season in a year when America had its first female presidential nominee of a major party, Jackie and I felt there was a great opportunity to tackle this project now, and in doing so, hopefully expand the conversations that 1776 will inevitably inspire.”
As for the decision to double actors as accompaniment, it was a matter of economy. “We’re a black box, there is no place to hide a pit orchestra. I’ve learned that, as a director, you can’t fight your venue; you have to embrace the unique qualities of your space. So, in staging a big musical in a small space, you start to think about boiling the music down to its most essential qualities. Also, it’s a goal of ours to always engage our interns and apprentices at a very high level. With actor doubling, we wheedled a cast of 27 characters down to 14 performers. From that economic perspective, the next question was obvious: what if the actors also played the music? It felt like an exciting challenge.”
To meet the unique challenges of this concept, Seth and Co-Artistic Director Jaclyn Johnson had to secure a summer company up to the task. They would need to be especially strong musicians, singers, and actors to meet the demands of this artistic undertaking.
When I first heard our production was with an all-female cast I thought, ‘what a cool
opportunity to tackle a role I would NEVER been able to play otherwise,” says apprentice Marjorie Gast. Gast portrays Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, plays violin, and is a piano accompanist for a number of songs. “One of my favorite parts about our show is to watch the rotation of piano players circle in and out behind the piano - because all of the musicians have their own sense of musicality, each accompanist has a different flavor she brings to the show which I find to be truly charming.”
The rehearsal process brought about many surprises and discoveries.
“As a woman in 2017 portraying a male historical figure, it was interesting to see what made no difference versus what made a HUGE difference,” says apprentice Erika Kuhn, who portrays several members of Congress. “As a modern woman, taking action and fighting for what you believe in is not a stretch. However, there are several little moments in the show that draw attention to the gender bend purely because a woman speaking those words trips up a social expectation where a man's voice would've been the norm.”
As activist Marie Wilson says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Diverse representation is important. And it means a lot to the young women in the cast.
"I love the idea of claiming the words of our Founding Fathers for ourselves,” says apprentice Emily Garst, who portrays Abigail Adams and Andrew McNair. “With an all-female cast, we explore the birth of our nation with fresh eyes.”
"I would definitely do this sort of thing again!” says Laila Sahir, who plays Thompson and piano accompaniment on a number of songs. “Reimagining a piece of theatre is incredibly empowering. It shows that there isn't a ‘right’ way to create and that innovation is important and necessary for continued growth and vitality in the arts. There's no one 'right' way to tell a story."