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Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre cancels ‘Othello’ production due to threats over controversial casting

Edmonton theatre cancels production over alleged threats
WATCH ABOVE: The Walterdale Theatre says it's been forced to cancel its production of Othello because of threats allegedly made against it over a casting decision. Shallima Maharaj explains.

An Edmonton theatre said it has been forced to cancel its upcoming production of a popular Shakespeare tragedy due to alleged threats over a controversial casting choice.

“It is with deep regret that Walterdale Theatre Associates announces the cancellation of Othello, the third show of its 2016-2017 season,” said a news release sent out Monday. The show was due to open on Feb. 8.

William Shakespeare’s Othello is a story of love turned bad by unfounded jealousy. The play tells the tale of a powerful general of the Venetian army, Othello, whose life and marriage are ruined by a deceitful and envious soldier, Iago. Despite his powerful position, Othello’s status as a dark-skinned foreigner in Venice marks him as an outsider and exposes him to racism.

WATCH ABOVE: Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh star in the 1995 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello.

The Old Strathcona theatre said members of the production received both online and in-person threats from people who were angered by the decision to cast a white female in the role of Othello, traditionally a role filled by a person of colour.

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“This is a heartbreaking 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,” Adam Kuss, president of the Board of Directors of Walterdale Theatre, said.

Walterdale staff said other members of the theatre community expressed their concerns as well.

Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017.
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017. Charles Taylor, Global News
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017.
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017. Charles Taylor, Global News
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017.
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017. Charles Taylor, Global News
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017.
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017. Charles Taylor, Global News
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017.
Walterdale Theatre, located at 10322 83 Ave. in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. January 31, 2017. Charles Taylor, Global News

READ MORE: Royalty, Obama and fans mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s death

“We understand and appreciate those concerns,” Anne Marie Szucs, artistic director of Walterdale and director of Othello, said.

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“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 offence,” she said.

The theatre said it casts plays based on an open audition process which welcomes everyone, and roles are filled by those who attend the auditions for each play.

READ MORE: ‘Holy grail’ of William Shakespeare works go up for auction

The actor who was set to play the main antagonist, Iago, spoke out on Facebook. Randy Brososky said as excited as he was to play “one of the most iconic villains of English theatre,” he believes cancelling was the right choice and explained why.

He said the casting call was open — as usual — to all sexes, genders, ethnicities and ages, as the director was hoping for a very diverse cast.

“When the cast list was revealed, I saw that Othello was being played by a white woman. A dear friend, in fact, and a person I respect.

“I knew it was problematic that the role of Othello wasn’t being played by a performer of colour. But, intoxicated as I was, I convinced myself that what we were presenting instead made it all right,” Brososky wrote.

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“You see, all the meaty roles of power were re-cast as women – another under-represented group in theatre, especially in Shakespeare. Othello, Cassio, Brabantio, the Duke. Even Roderigo. All roles usually played by men. On top of that, with the partial gender-bending, there were straight, gay and lesbian relationships throughout, all completely normalized without any judgement. I saw value in normalizing women in power, and non-heterosexual relationships.”

Brososky went on to say he initially thought the changes were creative, given the relevance to current events in the world.

“I was wrong,” he said. “The cost of not making sure there was a performer of colour in the title role was too great. And it is a complete intersectional fail for me to have believed you could have swapped sexism for racism in this show.

“I should have known better. You can’t substitute one type of oppression for another. Life doesn’t work like that.”

Brososky said he didn’t want to dismiss all the hard work that went into the production, but that the changes were too problematic.

The actress cast in the leading role said she too made a mistake.

“I did not think through in the accepting of Othello and the impact and pain it would cause,” Linette J Smith wrote in a statement posted Monday night on Facebook. She explained she thought the gender swap might generate discussion about women in power roles, the marginalization of women and the normalization of differently gendered relationships. But Smith said she didn’t stop to think about what was being lost.

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“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,” she said.

As a high school drama teacher, Smith said she strives to “create an open, generous safe classroom space of inclusivity” but in this case, admits she did not walk the talk.

“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.”

Smith said she chose to leave the role and apologized for having “left some amazing artists in a terrible place.”

WATCH ABOVE: A video clip of Shakespeare’s psychological masterpiece, Othello, being performed in Montreal in 2013.

Walterdale Theatre said decisions about the artistic vision of each production are the responsibility of the director, the artistic director and the board of directors of the theatre.

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The theatre said it will continue to build on the respectful interactions it has had with community members on the topic, and continue to engage with and welcome any groups or individuals who want to get involved in its productions.

The theatre said the matter has been referred to police. Edmonton police said Tuesday afternoon they are not investigating the alleged incident.

Walterdale Theatre is a volunteer-run community theatre that has operated in Edmonton since 1958, and is in the heart of Old Strathcona. It is one of the main venues for the annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, which is North America’s oldest and largest festival of its kind.