Ethics Quiz: The Uncast Star

WSS dancer

Northern Virginia’s most acclaimed and honored musical theater, Signature Theater (not to be confused with also well-honored NYC regional theater of the same name) is currently presenting “West Side Story.” A feature article about the sold-out production noted the fact that the show’s marketing prominently features  dancer Gustavo Ribeiro, a former member of the Washington Ballet’s Studio Company, whose career has been soaring of late, just like the photo of him mid-air that has appeared in Signature’s season announcement, show posters, program covers and in “West Side Story” reviews and features.

In addition to inducing potential audience members to believe this superb dancer is featured in the show, the fact that he is apparently Latino creates the assumption, suggests the article’s author, that members of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, are played by Hispanic actors.

They are not. Neither is Ribeiro in the show his image advertises. Nor, I strongly suspect, are any dancers of his caliber.

For your first Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of 2016, I ask you:

Is this ethical advertising?

My answer?

Absolutely not.

Neither the author of the puff piece on the dancer, nor the dancer, nor  Signature staff interviewed for the article seem to see anything deceptive in the practice, which isn’t surprising: show business at all level shares the ethical sensitivities of politics, cockfighting and the Colombian drug trade. Nevertheless, using a prominent and identifiable performer to advertise a show obviously suggests to potential ticket purchasers that the performer is, in fact, going to be in that production.

The article airily shrugs off the apparent misrepresentation with “everybody does it,” noting that

“In the ballet world, it’s common for a company’s marketing department to pick the dancers who appear in advertising photos; the artistic staff chooses who dances which roles.” 

Well, that’s not good, but it is also not the typical practice in theater advertising, even for shows that usually contain some ballet, like “West Side Story.”  Sometimes a promotional photo will include staging that never appears in the ultimate production, just as film trailers often include scenes that end up on the cutting room floor. Implying that a performer is in the cast of a show when he is not, however, is rare, dishonest, and also unnecessary. If the show hasn’t been cast yet, marketing graphics can employ artwork or drawings. If a recognizable model is used, how difficult is it to include a small note that explains that he is probably not going to be in the cast?

It isn’t…unless the objective is to deceive.

[Addendum: Some may ask, is the dancer/model complicit in this deception, if deception it is? No. The theater paid him to use his image. It is not up to the model to control how it is used. I would be impressed if he insisted that the theater include a disclaimer about his not being in the show, but there is no ethical obligation for him to do that.]

17 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Uncast Star

  1. “In the ballet world, it’s common for a company’s marketing department to pick the dancers who appear in advertising photos; the artistic staff chooses who dances which roles.”

    But ballet performances usually rotate their principals, because the lead roles are so demanding that they can not be danced by the same person in subsequent performances. So the dancer in the advertising poster is dancing in a main role, just not every performance.

    In the case of Signature, the dancer is in NONE of the performances. Pure deception.

    • Exactly, Ric. I should have noted that—at least the pictured ballet dancer for a ballet production is a member of the company. If you placed an international star on the poster, however, who was not in the production, there would be, uh, trouble.

      • Rotating dancers. Very similar to child actors on Broadway. I believe the standard package for “Billy Elliott” was four very talented young men playing Billy. The cast of Matilda must have half the kids from The High School of Performing Arts in NYC on the payroll.

        I would expect someone advertised to take a role in the production. On our last theater visit to NYC one of the shows we saw was If/Then and the star power is Idina Menzel who did not appear in our performance since she was in Hollywood for the Oscars. In situations like that I could care less as it means an opportunity for others.

  2. “show business at all levels shares the ethical sensitivities of politics, cockfighting and the Colombian drug trade.”

    Fantastic line. There goes your color commentary job for this year’s Tonys and Oscars.

  3. Seeing this poster, I wouldn’t think he was a Shark. I would assume he’s Tony — the lead role, and that a theater company had finally found a Tony who could dance. And I would be pissed to find out that this dancer was not in the show at all.

    • I almost mentioned exactly that. Tony NEVER can dance, because great dancers usually can’t sing that well. Even Fred, Gene, and Ray couldn’t sing well enough to play Tony. Neither did the movie’s Riff, Russ Tamblyn,

  4. I don’t think we need to pigeonhole this to the world of Ballet: Any advertising where you’re specifically selling something other than what is pictured in the advertisement is strictly unethical. And usually illegal.

    • They didn’t put a smarmy “scheduled to appear” disclaimer down in a corner. They probably should have said “not scheduled to appear.”

      • Nope, happens in the world of singing too. Obviously when it’s a one-soloist show the designated soloist must and does appear. However, it’s becoming common practice, particularly on PBS, to brand certain singing acts as “shows” rather than “groups” and having the soloists keep changing under the show “brand name.” It’s happened with Il Divo, it’s happened with Blake, it’s happened with the plethora of “three x” or “Celtic x” acts, and the stations aren’t all that diligent at making it known who the soloists will be on the tour they are hawking, they just want you to plunk down $250 for 2 tix or $350 for that plus a quick photo-op (emphasize QUICK) with the soloists.

        Particularly with Celtic Woman those changes can be problematic to keep up with, because often there would be a change between the shooting of the latest special and the following tour, so the ladies you were seeing on PBS were not the ones you’d see on stage. When fans would complain that their favorite was missing, they would be dismissed with a “you bought tickets to the show, not this particular configuration.”

        The only place this probably entered out and out unethical territory was in 2007 when CW used the image of guest soloist Hayley Westenra, who had already left the show in June and told the media she wouldn’t be doing anything further with it, in the advertising for a planned August and September tour of the UK. They did that precisely because Ms. Westenra was big in the UK at the time and they hoped her image would bring out her fans to bolster the audience. Well, the word got out rather quickly on social media (by then facebook was up and running) and sales for the tour TANKED, not to mention Ms. Westenra’s then-manager Steve Abbott having a long talk with the CEO of Celtic Woman and explaining exactly what the consequences would be if he used her image again. Another attempt at a UK tour in 2011 came to nothing. It was seven years before they finally cracked that market (nothing to sneeze at, the UK is a VERY big musical market although not as big as the US), and rightly so. To this day Hayley has nothing good to say about that organization, although she also won’t say bad things about the actual soloists she worked with, all but one of whom have since left the act anyway.

        P.S., what do you think about the tactic of rotation of soloists for a tour? Say you shoot a PBS special with 6 soloists, run the special it to get people to buy tickets for the tour, but you announce when the tour is about to start (and everyone’s bought those non-refundable tickets) that only 4 of the soloists will be on tour at any one time, say it’s a six-month tour and there is a rotation every few weeks, so the group in New York will be different than the group in Chicago which will be different from the group on the West Coast. If you are going to rotate soloists to prevent touring fatigue and unhappy spouses/families, when must you announce that rotation, and are you required to announce who will be where?

  5. Is his name being used in any of the advertising? Does anyone really know who he is? No to both, so I don’t see a problem with it. He was for all purposes acting as a model , who else but a dancer could make that pose.

      • Well the premise is wrong.

        Just because his friend thinks he famous doesn’t make him so. Ive seen lots of actors in this town who have the same people time and time again coming up to them after shows and telling them how great they are but that doesn’t make them famous.

        • The Bill,
          Your rationalizations are nonsense.

          Gustavo Ribeiro is rather well known (famous) in the dancing world specifically ballet and to use photos of him (whether they paid for the usage or not is irrelevant) when he is not associated with the show in anyway but especially since he is not a dance performer in the show, it was deceptive “advertising” and being deceptive is unethical – period.

          Using his photos selling dance leotards would NOT be deceptive or unethical.

          Accept it and move on.

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