Sun. Sep 27th, 2020 Magazine

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Casting a Wider Net

8 min read

A literary manager stopped me in the hotel lobby following a reading of my play at an industry showcase. “I’m desperate to do your show,” he told me. “But we just can’t. Not with the resources we have.”

I heard that exact sentiment all weekend long. But it’s not as if the play required a helicopter or high-tech projections or even an old-school revolve.

The impossible-to-find resource? People of color.

The literary manager made clear that there was no way he could cast a play with Black, Latinx, and Asian characters all at once. It’s a claim I’ve heard so often that I’m primed with a stock reply: As long as American theatres believe that diversity is beyond them, it will be.

I’m hardly alone in this predicament. Ask any playwright whose work requires non-white characters, especially if the cast is not all of a single race, and they’ll bend your ear with similar tales. Rising playwright Preston Choi has noticed a difference. “My first play to get produced was an ensemble play with race and gender flexibility for all characters…. My more race- and ethnicity-specific plays, despite getting traction and attention at festivals and in development processes, have taken longer to actually get to the next stage.”

The reluctance to produce shows with casts that are all or largely non-white disproportionately affects shows written by Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) playwrights and composers. And the problem ripples outward beyond writers and actors. Predominantly white institutions (PWIs) all too often seemingly forget about directors, designers, stage managers, and dramaturgs of color entirely.

The literary manager made clear that there was no way he could cast a play with Black, Latinx, and Asian characters all at once.

The Limits of “Good” Excuses

I can imagine that some white artistic teams might feel unfairly judged here, as difficulty in hiring is a real thing. Depending on one’s local demographics, it absolutely can be harder to find non-white talent. But hard and impossible are not interchangeable terms. Hard means expending more effort and expense to solve the problem, while impossible is a self-sustaining excuse not to try.

There are three common (and related) arguments PWIs like to make in their defense. The first excuse is that people of color don’t come to auditions even when the call is posted widely. That argument is so ingrained that it can eclipse attempts to defeat it. When playwright Liz Salazar tried to “proactively recruit more people of color” at one theatre, she was met with “stubborn apathy” from the steering committee. “I would present options, lists of tactics and approaches to reach out to and engage with communities in the area to put us on their radar,” she said, “and still got the same response: ‘They just don’t come to auditions.’ Whenever I would pitch a show that would require actors of color, the committee would recoil.”

The second excuse is that, when they do audition, the artists of color have less experience and “polish” than a theatre’s usual applicants. Tara Moses, a Seminole and Mvskoke director and playwright, recalls being told by a theatre that there were no Native designers working at “this level”—despite having provided the theatre with a list herself. Theatres often use merit-based language—“polish,” “level,” “standards”—to reinforce the need to hire the talent they’re most familiar (and comfortable) with.

The third claim is that the subscriber base is heavily white, so, while a theatre’s season may have little diversity, this appropriately reflects the audiences who pay its bills. When director and playwright Kareem Fahmy has proposed passion projects with Middle Eastern characters, he’s been told, “There aren’t enough people in my audience from your community.”

All three claims boil down to the same thing: it’s easiest to do things the old way, which is to say the white way.

As long as American theatres believe that diversity is beyond them, it will be.

Flipping the Notion of Deserving

I know a fair number of PWI theatre leaders who already understand that this is problematic. They’ve shared with me the difficulty of breaking the pattern, and I’ve heard their frustrating stories about how early attempts to diversify the talent pool has generated little or no interest.

It is crucial that theatres go well outside their usual pool to attract non-white talent, but for these attempts to succeed the theatre must first be worth auditioning for. I’m not talking about having a storied history or critical acclaim. I mean that non-white talent must feel like the theatre deserves their time, not just the reverse.

How to accomplish that? PWIs need to connect with communities they’ve neglected and do so in meaningful ways by forming collaborations, not just saying, “Hey, here’s our one Black show a year. Hope you make it.” They also need to start investing in nurturing new talent; the perpetual favoring of so-called “polished” white actors means actors of color never get enough stage time to develop or reveal skills of their own—and this favoring also reinforces racist notions of what “good” performance looks like.

Beyond that, PWIs need to aspire to loftier, more ethically driven goals than keeping the same patrons in their seats. Fahmy questions the value system of theatres that “serve their very small, very white circles and are lacking in imagination to broaden who they are, who they work with, and who they program.”

Theatres often use merit-based language—“polish,” “level,” “standards”—to reinforce the need to hire the talent they’re most familiar (and comfortable) with.

Online for Opportunity

The necessary prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 (and the inescapability of the tragedies that spawned it) has motivated more and more PWIs to examine their role in fostering racist systems. While some have settled on doing little more than issuing carefully worded statements, others have truly committed to doing better, wrestling with how to get around the human “resource” problem they’ve always seen as insurmountable.

The pandemic is providing some answers. The Zoom theatre era is the perfect time for theatres to shake up how they operate by taking advantage of the fact that talent no longer needs to be local; they can pay out-of-town talent without also shouldering the cost of travel and housing. By hiring artists from anywhere in the world, theatres may now take on shows they admire but were previously afraid to attempt.

This end to geographic dependency kills a bunch of the old excuses. In fact, the forced move to online performance could—and should—yield some real change for PWIs. Here’s how they can make it happen:

  • Expand the work being produced. This is the moment to champion plays by BIPOC, queer, and differently abled writers. This is a time to tell stories audiences haven’t heard (while resisting the urge to focus only on stories of trauma). And, as Fahmy reminds, this goes beyond choosing a few Black artists. “Latinx, API (Asian/Pacific Islander), MENASA (Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian), Indigenous… There are great plays and writers and directors from all of these communities.”
  • Expand the faces we see. To do justice to the work of people of color, cast widely with an eye toward diversity as broad as the nation’s. When race and ethnicity are required by the text, honor it—full stop. Welcome mixed artists and stop telling them they need to “more” of an imagined version of their heritage. Include differently abled performers. Look for ways to make the space safe for all who are hired.
  • Expand the talent we don’t see. Hire directors of color for shows about lives of color—and for shows that aren’t. Bring in BIPOC and queer dramaturgs and video editors. Start marshalling lists of technical designers and stage managers for when onstage performances return. Face it: more community representation yields more integrity in production.
  • Expand the leadership. Bring non-white artists and administrators aboard—and do so fully, with the same compensation and decision-making roles as existing staff. Tiffany Vega-Gibson, a producer and arts administrator, has been pressing theatre companies in New Orleans to hire BIPOC artists in all areas. “The way I put it to them,” she said, “was that they should not go a single minute of their entire day without interacting with BIPOC folks.”
  • Expand opportunities for other theatremakers. There’s a value in an organization knowing what it doesn’t know, including when a show is beyond its inherent cultural framework. Partner with BIPOC theatres and artists for co-productions or provide the venue for their work. Actively look for ways to be key-makers, not gatekeepers.

In an ideal world, starting these practices now will create not just an appetite for work like this but an expectation that this is what American theatre should be.

The Benefits of Making Change

Beyond the clear moral value of widening the circle, there are tangible benefits for PWIs that use this time to make anti-racist and anti-bias theatre (or, better still, become less white). Doing the work can mean:

  • Creating a bigger pool of known talent from which future work may be created, while attracting new artists who have seen their peers onstage.
  • Reinvigorating the institution itself as it discovers new collaborators, new kinds of stories, and new methods of storytelling, instead of relying on habit and tradition.
  • Reframing theatre for existing audiences, helping them see differently what theatre can look like, sound like, and mean.
  • Attracting new audiences to theatre as they discover more shows relevant to their experience and feel more welcome because their peers are involved offstage as well as on.
  • Building interest in new work as audiences discover the rewards of plays they’ve never before seen and the excitement of being on the front wave.

The advent of online theatre makes all these goals more easily achieved. But consider this only the dress rehearsal for the long-term task of making such an expansion permanent.

In an ideal world, starting these practices now will create not just an appetite for work like this but an expectation that this is what American theatre should be. If audiences and funders alike fall in love with inclusive work made during the pandemic, it will be easier to get them behind truly equitable theatre once actors are again free to tread the literal boards of the stage.

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