The volunteer-run Walterdale Theatre Association in Edmonton, Canada, canceled a scheduled production of Shakespeare’s Othello after a plan to cast a white woman in the title role, usually played by a man of color, allegedly prompted threats against the safety of the cast members.
The nature and the source of the threats was not reported, though Walterdale board president Adam Kuss issued a statement January 30 saying, “This is a heart-breaking decision, but as a community of volunteers and artists, we can’t continue with a production where the safety of members of our cast has been threatened.”
Kuss said the threats had been referred to police. Edmonton Police spokesman Scott Pattison told the Toronto Globe and Mail that no formal complaint had been filed.
Walterdale Artistic Director Anne Marie Szucs released a statement to Playbill.com saying, “Other members of the theatre community expressed their concern to us as well. We understand and appreciate those concerns.”
Shakespeare’s play is the story of Moorish army general Othello who is the target of a revenge plot by his underling Iago. Iago makes Othello believe that his beloved wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, leading Othello to murder Desdemona.
Szucs’ statement continued, “The vision we were presenting for this 400-year-old play was a post-apocalyptic world where traditional power structures were inverted and where the focus was on the battle between the sexes. We’re sorry this caused offense. We will continue to build on the respectful interactions we’ve had with community members on this topic, and continue to engage with and welcome any groups or individuals who want to get involved in our productions.”
Othello, the third show of Walterdale’s 2016-2017 season, had been scheduled to open on February 8. Patrons can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for ticketing information. No other show has been announced to replace Othello, on the Walterdale lineup.
Linette J. Smith, who was scheduled to play Othello, wrote on her Facebook page, ”I made a mistake, I am so sorry and I own it 100 percent. I did not think through in the accepting of Othello and the impact and pain it would cause. My initial response to playing the role was that with a woman in the role that there might be discussion about women in power roles, a conversation about the marginalization of women, and normalization of differently gendered relationships. While my decision was derived from a focus on gender, this was not enough for this role/play and I did not see the cost. In my naivety, I thought the casting might bring those ideas to the story but no matter how promising the benefits, the cost of excluding race was too much.
I have learned and am still learning. I have a responsibility to model the behaviour that I want to inspire. I did not do so in this case. I work hard to create an open, generous safe classroom space of inclusivity. I strive to bring diverse playwrights into the drama classroom and encourage students to see all the possibilities for the theatre. I have a mandate of inclusivity in all aspects of my professional and personal life and strive to bring challenging and topical content to the classroom and to the stage. Yet, I have to own what a poor example I set forth for them in thinking it was okay to step into Othello’s shoes. I pledge to do better, to grow and heighten my awareness and sensitivity and understanding of privilege.
I am grateful for the conversation that has happened with me around the choice of attempting the role and I encourage those talking about me to engage in conversation. I am listening. I chose to leave the role and have left some amazing artists in a terrible place. I am also so apologetic for that. I want to thank the stellar cast and creative team for the process and care with which they worked on the show.
I am so sorry. I will do better. There is so much to learn and I am taking the steps, with many more to go.”
Founded in 1958, WTA bills itself as “one of Canada’s oldest amateur theatre groups.” It performs at the Walterdale Theatre.