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Casting a Wider Net

White Institutions Must Seize the Moment

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.

three actors onstage

Tiza Garland, Avis-Marie Barnes, and Bert Rodriguez in a reading of Up the Ladder, Down the Slide by David Valdes for Orlando Shakes PlayFest. Photo by David Valdes.

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.
two actors onstage

Dylan Carusona and Elizabeth Rolston in Bound, written and directed by Tara Moses, for Theatre for the New City. Photo by Joe Velez.

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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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Thanks, David, for helping me see that maybe my issue is not about race, but the ‘system’ for all of us. It’s great to see it changing, if not fast enough for you, but should we really be seeking out people to join us? I still tell people, “don’t do it unless you have to.” I’m less concerned with the color of the artists, and more with what we’re getting them into. (And don’t even get me started on grad schools.)

What little is left of the theater today makes for a hard life, and it’s only going to get harder in the coming decade. Are we doing a disservice when we allow aspiring artists to believe that theater jobs can support a family, and these jobs are being denied to them? Maybe we should be guiding young people, no matter their color, into careers that will not require them to hold lifelong 2nd and 3rd jobs just to get by.

Maybe the reason young people aren’t beating down the theaters’ doors is because they don’t want to get in. If told the truth, would they really? I do it because I have to, but I can’t in good conscience pull others into it. If asked, I say learn to write code, not plays. Be an engineer, cuz that’s where the money is, and that’s gonna be the future for a long time.

And yet, I still think that NYC’s Indie Theater is a pretty cool place for my work. Clearly, it’s not for everyone (but that’s their choice, not ours). And sorry if I threw stuff at you just because I felt the need to stick up for it. But I don’t believe that all of the terrific artists who make it happen here deserve to be included in any generalized litany, no theater community does. Just going by google, I still believe that we’re talking about 2 different communities. www.litny.org/members. Good luck with yours and thanks.

Thanks for your perspective, David. It always saddens me to read about theater’s dirty secrets, but I’m sure it’s gotta be said, esp’ in today’s 1st-world, not-for-profit theater. I admit that “industry showcase” and “hotel lobby” aren’t our terrain, but I gotta say that in my 25 years working in NYC’s Indie Theater, I’ve never heard such claims. If anyone is willing to make the vow of poverty that we have, no matter their difference, they are welcome to play with us. However, I do find it hard to try convincing anyone to make the financial sacrifices we've made. There are just too many other opportunities out there where real remuneration is possible, esp’ if you come from a tradition where financial opportunities have been few and far between. I cannot fathom why anyone would try to lock our theaters’ doors to keep anyone out, there’s too much work to do; but, I also cannot see why anyone would want to break down such threadbare entrees. I just wonder if it’s important for readers to know that not ALL theater communities make these excuses that you're experienced? I love mine, and I’d feel bad luring anyone into this “$truggling Artist” fantasy, but if they cannot be deterred, NYC’s Indie Theater is open, both online and underground, if maybe beyond the bounds of capitalism. All are welcome down here.

Hi Ralph: I'm so glad that you are making indie theater and that your company welcomes all artists. The world needs both things to be true.

I will admit that I am very surprised you've never heard indie theaters making such excuses, which puts you in a fortunate position. I wonder how many of the BIPOC artists you known could truly say the same (in NYC or elsewhere)? I can't, even though my work has largely been in fringe and small theater, and most of my personal examples of these excuses come from the indie theater world you're part of.

You seem to frame this as being about size, wealth, or status of particular theaters, but I don't believe these are the actual determinants in commitment to anti-racist theatermaking. The "industry showcase" I mentioned was a conference of small theaters which try to pool resources to get new work done; as a group, they unite under an umbrella of stated commitment to diverse stories. If even so many of these companies (led by people who believe in creating antiracist work and are clearly not in it just for the money) don't make measurable commitments to doing better by BIPOC artists, who will?

Respectfully, I have to question your need to reassure readers that not all theaters make these excuses. It unfortunately echoes the way so many white people default to arguing that "not all white people are bad" in any conversation about racial inequities; the claim is both true and a truism which doesn't help. All it does is deflect from the problem being discussed for a moment. If your theater does not make these excuses, that's truly wonderful, but it misses the point: individual examples don't ameliorate systemic failings.

I envision a system--not a single theater--where BIPOC artists are not just welcome but sought out and valued, where when they visit a theater (or, these days, its website) they no longer find 99% white artists staging plays almost exclusively by white people. A quick look at a lot of theater seasons and websites--including indies in NYC--says we're not there yet.