I finally had an opportunity to ask Alex Palting a few questions regarding her current role as Alice in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's playful production of Alice in Wonderland. In our interview, she talks about diverse casting, being a minority actor and the importance of representation in theater communities.
Meet Alex Palting, a.k.a. Alice in Wonderland
Not A Ninja: First things first, tell us a little about yourself. Who are you? Are you originally from Maryland? Did you go to college here? Give us the deets!
Alex: I grew up here in Maryland, in Columbia where my family lives. I got my start on the karaoke machine at my Lola’s house, but started doing community theatre when I was about seven or eight. When I was ten, I was one of the children in Ford Theatre’s annual Christmas Carol production, and that was where I knew I wanted to perform for the rest of my life. I went to the University of Delaware and studied voice and music history, and did a post-grad certificate program at R.A.D.A (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London for Musical Theatre.
N.A.N.: So you knew from a young age that acting was what you wanted to do. What about acting and theater appealed most to you?
Alex: I knew I wanted to be an actor because of the sense of community I found. I grew up pretty shy and it was very unnatural for me to communicate with others, especially kids my age. But through the glimpses of theatre I had growing up, I found that I was able to connect with both my cast and the audience in meaningful ways. Ways that made people think and love and laugh and be challenged; ways that didn’t require me to pretend that I watched the same t.v. shows as my peers and, furthermore, ways that broke down this divide between “grown-ups” and “kids”, “boys” and “girls”, or anything else, really. We were all just people.
I also fell in love with the thrill of it all. Even when I was younger, I loved that feeling of stepping onstage high on nerves. Pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a role and just throwing your hands up to heaven and saying “What’ll happen will happen,” and then experiencing the magic that ensues - that’s pure grace to me.
N.A.N.: Did you grow up watching the Disney movie Alice in Wonderland or hearing the story?
Alex: Oh my gosh. I was deathly afraid of Alice in Wonderland growing up. The movie just freaked me out. I think anything that included a child being lost or separated from his or her parents really pushed my buttons. Alice… Spirited Away… Coraline… the list goes on.
N.A.N.: Why did you want to portray Alice? Or was there another character that you originally auditioned for?
Alex: I had never auditioned at CSC before, and this was the first opportunity I had to make it over there; Alice was the only character that they were auditioning. So I went in mostly with the intention of meeting the creative team and getting my face out there so that they’d remember me when an opportunity came along that I was right for. I had no idea it would be this!
N.A.N.: In the end, despite your childhood fears of Alice in Wonderland, what drew you to this story and the character Alice?
Frankly, when I first started my work on the script I found it to be a bit inaccessible. Alice was an unfamiliar story to me— I hadn’t grown up with a sense of love and connection with this world of caucus races and pun-filled diatribes. I had to re-train my “yes-and” to a degree that I hadn’t before. I don’t think the story actually came alive for me until the first table read. This cast is so creative and fun and even from that first day, it was so clear that each of them was bringing something out in the writing that was so special. So I walked away from the read thinking “people need to be shown this world that these immensely talented and heart-filled people are creating.” Enter, Alice.
N.A.N.: Can you connect to Alice now that you've lived in her shoes for the last few months?
Alex: I think that I connect to Alice’s openness to the world around her. Particularly in this production, one that asks for so much audience interaction mostly on my character's part, it’s important to connect both in the world of the story and in its context on stage. I also resonate with Alice’s internal conflict— the push and pull between practicality and pleasure. I think at the heart of it Alice is just trying to belong and maybe have some fun. In that respect, who isn’t?
N.A.N.: You've mentioned before that it was a unique experience as a Filipino-American to have young girls who were blonde-haired and blue-eyed approach you after the play and tell you they wanted to be Alice like you. Why were those experiences so unique for you? And how have those experiences impacted you?
Alex: There is nothing like the feeling of locking eyes with a child and seeing the thrill on their face when they see you looking back at them. I think that’s true of anyone, no matter what background or ethnicity. I find it so fulfilling to share my take on this character with children, who will hopefully continue to see diversity all around them without even knowing it’s diversity. The hope for a future that looks like that is what excites me. But I’ve really relished the interactions with young girls who come to this play because I’m hopeful that, as they grow up, they’ll continue to see heroines of all colors, ages, body types, personalities. Maybe then they’ll feel empowered that they can be whatever they want.
N.A.N.: Do you think it's important for theater companies to make more efforts to cast diversely, even with classic plays such as this?
Alex: I think it’s the most important when it comes to classic plays like this! However; this may be an unpopular view -- but I am not a proponent of casting actors of color just for the sake of diversity. From what I’ve seen, that kind of thinking could be more of a detriment to representation because it’s a "check the box" mentality.
While I’m so thankful that there is a movement in place all over the country and in the U.K. to put actors of color on stage, I think it’s just as important to continue to see more diversity in the choices of stories being told. There seems to be a lot of beautiful theatre that reacts to current events and injustices, particularly those that affect people of color. These absolutely deserve and require a voice. But would we even need to tell reactionary stories about oppressed people if theatre, film, and the media aided people in treating everyone simply as a human being with a different story? I don’t know.
N.A.N.: How do you think it impacts an audience to see a diverse cast or iconic roles cast non-traditionally? What does a theater company communicate when it makes that sort of an effort?
Alex: I am extremely grateful to the CSC and to our director, Ian Gallanar, for being so open-minded while casting. I feel so honored to be in a position where I can take ownership of a beloved character who was expected to look a certain way. I would hope that the theatre’s choice to cast an iconic character non-traditionally would cause viewers to re-examine their expectations… cause them to ask “okay, blonde hair and blue dress aside, what really makes Alice, Alice?”
My hope is that a company that casts diversely communicates nothing more nor less than, “we got ahold of the person we think tells this story best.” In my opinion, that is the purest form of diversity.
N.A.N.: How has playing Alice impacted you? (That is, if it has impacted you.)
Playing Alice has definitely been my most physical role to date. Coming from an opera background of "park-and-barking," physically owning the space in this way was an aspect of performing that was very new to me. But throughout the process, Ian and I both sensed that the character of Alice wanted to be physically vibrant and alert, like an Arlequino or a Mogli or a Puck. So I definitely had to train in a new way in order to do this two-hour marathon of cartwheels, body isolations, standing splits, sprinting, and tumbling.
I’ve grown so much from this process. I think I used to have this conception in my head of what it meant to be a leading lady, what it meant to be a beacon of colorblind casting, and all these other esoteric ideas. But I came to realize that the best service I can do to my cast, to this audience, and to the movement of diversity is to show up and do my work to the best of my ability and with as open a heart as possible. And that’s all.
N.AN.: So what's next for you? Any other shows or projects coming up that we should know about?
Alex: I’m spending the Summer on the West Coast! I have my own project in the works out there. But I will be coming back to play Liat in Olney’s South Pacific this Fall, then reprising Rani in Imagination Stage’s production of Princess and the Pauper after that.
Alice in Wonderland's final performance at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is Sunday, May 27 at 2 PM. To find out more and to purchase tickets, click here.
The cast of Alice in Wonderland at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.