Making Curriculum Pop

So I'm sure I'll add to ths later, but this great NYTimes Learning Network Lesson plan came to me today - nice link to Miller's work.


Developed in Partnership with
The Bank Street College of Education in New York City

CASTING DOUBT: Investigating Nontraditional Casting Choices in Theater and Film

Willy Loman Is Lost, Still Looking for Stimulus Plan and Some Dignity, By CHARLES ISHERWOOD,May 7, 2009

Shannon Doyne, The New York Times Learning Network


Fine Arts
Language Arts
Social Studies

In this lesson, students consider "color-blind" and nontraditional casting decisions, including a revival of "Death of a Salesman" with an all-black cast. They then make their own creative casting decisions for a text they are studying and consider the possible impact of such choices.

1-2 class periods



Note to teacher: This lesson deals with race, gender and age in casting roles in plays and films. You might consider reminding your students about the hazards of stereotyping people and groups. Tell students you will stop them if they express assumptions based on stereotypes, if they attempt to speak "on behalf" of all members of a group to which they belong, or if they encourage others to do the same. Encourage everyone to be respectful and open-minded.

Begin by asking how many students have seen "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which was last weekend's top-grossing film, or if they are familiar with the actor Hugh Jackman as Wolverine from the other "X-Men" movies. If you have the technology on hand, you may even want to show students one of the "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" trailers. Ask: Who would be other good choices for this role if Hugh Jackman did not play it? Brad Pitt? Robert Downey Jr.? Daniel Craig? Will Smith? Who else? Write students' ideas on the board. Could a female actor play Wolverine? Why or why not? How about an older actor? How do you think each actor we named would change the part, and perhaps even alter our perception of the story? How would audiences respond? Why?

If students are not familiar with the character of Wolverine and the "X-Men" franchise, you may wish to instead use a movie main character your students are likely to be familiar with, such as Spider-Man from the "Spider-Man" series (played by Tobey Maguire), Frodo from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (Elijah Wood), or even Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe).

Then, give students copies of the handout
"Recasting a Role". Tell them to work with a partner to choose characters from any play or movie except the role of Wolverine (or whichever character you worked with earlier). Encourage them to really get creative with their unconventional recasting decisions, but to think carefully about the effects the new characters will have.

When everyone is ready, have students share their ideas. Group together those who worked with the same story to discuss their obvious and unconventional recasting ideas. Have groups summarize their ideas for the class.

Tell students that today they will read an article about a new production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," which features an all-black cast, and the effects of "color-blind" casting.

As a class, read and discuss the article "Willy Loman Is Lost, Still Looking for Stimulus Plan and Some Dign..., focusing on the following questions:
a. What is noteworthy about this production of "Death of a Salesman"?
b. How does Charles Isherwood describe Charles S. Dutton's voice? Does he ultimately think Mr. Dutton's vocal techniques are effective or ineffective?
c. August Wilson is quoted in the article as having said, "To mount an all-black production of a 'Death of a Salesman' or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our humanity, our own history." What does this mean? Do you agree or disagree?
d. How is your opinion of "color-blind" casting supported or challenged by the idea that for Arthur Miller, who wrote "Death of a Salesman," was considered a both a "social critic" and "a general observer of the moral failings universal in man"?
e. How do you know that the Lomans are "supposed" to be white?
f. Should a director remain faithful to the writer's vision for a play or movie adaptation? Why or why not?

Choose a fictional text for the entire class to work with—a story they recently read or are currently reading, for example. Explain to students that they will cast each of the roles in creative, non-traditional ways and consider what issues arise from such decisions. You may wish to remind them of the old movie industry adage that "directing is 90% casting."

Begin by asking questions about the work: Is it about a universal experience everyone can relate to or identify with in part or as a whole? Or is it specific to a certain group, gender, time period, etc.? Opinions, of course, may vary.

If you are working with a classic and/or well-known work, ask students whether they think it is easier, or even expected, that directors use unconventional casting, to make the experience seem "fresh" for the audience. If you are working with a newer text, ask: Do you think unconventional casting might be distracting to viewers unfamiliar with the themes and message?

Encourage students to explain their ideas, supported by evidence from the work.

Then have students turn to or generate the list of characters. Give them time to work independently or in pairs to cast each of the roles using established actors, people they know (or know of), or a combination of the two, using another copy of the "Recasting a Role" handout. Encourage students to strive for unpredictable castings such as those they came up with in today's warm-up, in order to give the audience a new take on the work or the characters.

If you are working with a well-established story, you might consider having students research the actors who have played the parts in the past. If the work has been adapted for film, you may wish to show clips or screen stills before students start working on their new castings.

Individually, students write a paragraph about each of their castings. In each, they should list the character's defining characteristics, explain why their casting "works," and describe how the casting puts a new spin on the part, or is otherwise unpredictable in terms of race, gender, age or other characteristics. How does this casting choice affect our understanding of both the character and of the entire work?

When students return to class with their castings, place their desks in a semi-circle. List all the parts on the board. Beginning with the leads, have students share their ideas and justifications. Have them vote on their top choices, then list these on the board.

Ask: Do some of these casting ideas make us rethink the castings for other parts? How might they change how the play is interpreted? Do they update the play? What do you think the playwright (or author) would think of the new castings? Does anything about the play (or novel or story) seem implausible in light of the new castings? Here, you might remind students of Charles Isherwood's observation that it is "jarring" to think about a black Biff returning to Texas to be a rancher in 1949.

To wrap up, have the class compose a list of actors they would cast in a new production of the work. Or, you might have them compose multiple casting lists that each present a new take on the work. Post the list(s) in your classroom.
Related Times Resources:
  • ADDITIONAL TIMES ARTICLES AND MULTIMEDIA: Slide Show: 'Death of a Salesman' Still photos from the current production.

    Article: Once Pure White, American Classics Cross a Color Line

    About three well-known plays from the 1950s back on Broadway in 2008 with mixed-race casts.

    Article: He Writes About What He Knows

    Statements by David Henry Hwang, an Asian-American playwright, about "Yellow Face," a play about a director who has accidentally cast a white man in the role of a mixed-race character—and the director's efforts to keep it a secret, thus protecting his own reputation.

    Audio Slide Show: Race and Identity
    Images from "Yellow Face" with audio commentary by David Henry Hwang. Theater

    Provides reviews of past and present Broadway shows and current news about the theater.

    When It Comes to Casting, Love Conquers Color
    Article about a spate of colorblind-casting in both theater and film.

    Equity Was Right the First Time
    Op-Ed by the actor Paul Winfield on the Actors Equity stance on the casting of minority roles.

    Arthur Miller, Moral Voice of the American Stage, Dies at 89
    The Times obituary of Miller.

  • LEARNING NETWORK RESOURCES: Lesson Plan: The Play's the Thing A Lesson for the Drama Classroom

    Lesson Plan: That's Moor Like It!
    An Experience in Modernizing Shakespeare's "Othello"

    Lesson Plan: The Bard in the Big Apple
    Setting Shakespeare in the Modern World

    Student Crossword: Now Playing

    Teaching with The Times: Literature

    Teaching with The Times: Film in the Classroom
  • ARCHIVAL TIMES MATERIALS: Face-to-Face Encounter on Race in the Theater Article about the 1997 Town Hall event in which August Wilson and theater critic Robert Brustein debated the racial politics of American theater.

    Stage: Black 'Salesman'; Baltimore Production of Play by Miller Sho...
    1972 review of the first all-black production of "Death of a Salesman" in the U.S. Argues that this cast makes the play "an insightful drama about the superimposition of white standards on repressed black people."

    Play to Be Performed With Black and White Interpretations
    1975 article about a one-act play being staged with two different casts and directors—one all-black, the other all-white, "in the hope that audience members, seeing varying views of the same material, will glean insights into frames of reference other than their own."
  • TIMES TOPICS: Arthur Miller
    Charles S. Dutton

    Yale Repertory Theater

  • OTHER RESOURCES: Internet Broadway Database Comprehensive, interactive database of Broadway show information and credits for productions on Broadway today and dating back over more than a century.

    The Broadway League
    Official Web site of The League of American Theaters and Producers; provides information on Broadway shows, theatres, special events, and more in New York and 140 cities across North America.

    1. Read "Race is an Issue in Wilson Play, and in Its Production", then hold an in-class debate about August Wilson's wish that no white director be used for major productions of his work. Find background information about Wilson and if possible, read one or more of his plays to prepare for the debate.

    2. Read "Visible Young Man", a review of Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor." In the review, Touré calls the novel "post-black." Investigate what this means, by reading a portion or all of the novel, this interview with Whitehead conducted by Deborah Theisman, the fiction editor of The New Yorker, and other worthy sources. Write an essay that summarizes your ideas, supported by your research.

    3. Check out a reliable list of major film roles that were nearly played by different actors, such as the Web site or the listing at HowStuffWorks. Choose one example of an actor who turned down a role, and write a mock review of the film as you imagine it would have been with that actor in it. Would it be better, worse, just different?

    American History - Charles Isherwood writes in his review of the all-black "Salesman" revival that it is "jarring" to hear a black actor playing a character who in 1949 mentions returning to Texas to be a rancher. Research events in late 1940s America to come up with a list of ideas that would be more plausible for a young black man to dream of at that time.

    Media Studies - Watch "I'm Not There," a movie that is loosely based on the life of musician Bob Dylan and which uses actors of different ages, races, and genders to portray Dylan at different points in his life. Using your own experience with the film, what you already know about Dylan and his life, other research about him and reviews to write your own review. Be sure to address the castings.


    Grades 6-12
    Language Arts Standard 1- Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the writing process
    Language Arts Standard 2- Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
    Language Arts Standard 3 - Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions
    Language Arts Standard 4- Gathers and uses information for research purposes
    Language Arts Standard 6 – Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
    Language Arts Standard 7- Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies for reading a variety of informational texts
    Theatre Standard 5- Understands how informal and formal theatre, film, television, and electronic media productions create and communicate meaning
    Theatre Standard 6- Understands the context in which theatre, film, television, and electronic media are performed today as well as in the past

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