Why “Diversity is Encouraged” Is Not Enough
For nearly two decades, I’ve evaluated scripts submitted to festivals and contests, grantmakers and literary offices. I’ve read for major regional theatres with the goal of identifying playwrights with whom they may forge relationships; I’ve read for hyper-local producers with very specific thematic and demographic aims. As many of HowlRound’s readers are aware, every organization has different a process and method of evaluating submissions. They all also have different rules. Some insist playwrights delete their name from the title page. Some insist playwrights include a synopsis. Some insist playwrights include a character breakdown. Some insist playwrights detail how their plays address a particular mission.
For no particular reason, I have a habit of keeping a lot of those scripts, stashed on my hard drive in case…I don’t know, I get nostalgic for the time I urged an organization to decline that musical about Mormons in Africa. Really, I have those scripts because I’ve generally forgotten to delete them once I’ve downloaded them from gmail, New Play Exchange, etc. But now I’m glad I’ve kept them. In my role as a reader I’ve noticed a troubling trend of late, and it’s prompted me to revisit some of those old files to test my gut feeling, which my hard drive confirmed. In recent years, it has become all too common to see scripts with a playwright’s instruction that “diversity is encouraged” in casting. I usually have no way of identifying these playwrights who “encourage diversity,” sometimes because the scripts are anonymous, sometimes because they may share a common surname, always because I’ve never developed a habit of looking up who they are if I could. But my gut tells me many of them are white.
All too often, the default body in American theatre is white, and new play evaluators, casting directors, directors, producers, and indeed playwrights too often assume that if a character is not explicitly described to be non-white, then they are.
As diversity and inclusivity have become vital considerations in season planning and audience development, producing and granting organizations are scrutinized for equity and parity. As many organizations attempt to diversify their offerings (however rightfully impatient we may feel with the strides), they seek characters from a wide range of ethnicities, races, and cultural backgrounds. They do so not only because such works look like America, counter-historical supremacy, and reflect a more ideal composition of their audiences, but also because they represent employment opportunities for artists from underrepresented backgrounds. So why shouldn’t playwrights note that they “encourage diversity” in the casting?
Because it’s cheap. Playwrights: it’s disheartening to open your PDFs to find no character breakdown—to find no listing of how you understand the people who populate the universes you take pains to create. I don’t want to know your characters better than you do. Please tell me about your people: give them an age, give them a gender, give them a race, let them have a history. Another version of “diversity is encouraged” is “characters are race-neutral.” I don’t understand a “race neutral” character any more than I would a “gender neutral” character, and it risks robbing a character of a true identity. Ambiguity doesn’t suggest your play will enter a larger conversation.
All too often, the default body in American theatre is white, and new play evaluators, casting directors, directors, producers, and indeed playwrights too often assume that if a character is not explicitly described to be non-white, then they are. The character list for Death of a Salesman reads:
It could also read:
willy loman, white
the woman, white
uncle ben, white
howard wagner, white
miss forsythe, white
I don’t have a bone to pick with Arthur Miller. And certainly there have been productions of his play that feature actors who are not white, and we can debate whether they all should. (Edward Albee’s estate has certainly weighed in.) We can discuss the value and future of new plays that have wholly white casts, but what would happen if playwrights always specified their characters’ races? Would “, white” lead some white playwrights to recognize they create only white characters? Would “, white” remind evaluators and potential producers that a season of “, white” plays risks not fully representing their community? Would “, white” remind us all that “color-blind” casting is too complicated to be a policy or reflex? At the very least, “, white” would remind us that we too often assume characters are white unless a playwright explicitly says otherwise, while the non-white characters are marked again as other (the “Negro Woman” in A Streetcar Named Desire). This assumption has lasting implications for how a play is considered and produced, including who is cast (read: hired). (The same, by the way, could be said of characters with disabilities.) We continue to discuss the extent to which playwrights can create characters with whose perspectives they have limited familiarity. That’s a debate we should have as, hopefully, more and more playwrights create characters that are of backgrounds different than their own.
So, playwrights, please stop “encouraging diversity”—go ahead and create it. True inclusivity requires labor, and mere “encouragement” is not working.