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Dear (My Fellow) White (Chicago {Or Anywhere} Theatre) People

Every year, September in Chicago brings a whole new slate of white people plays.   

While our population skews non-white, most theatres employ majority white leadership, ensembles, casts, staff members, playwrights, and directors. It’s also majority male, straight, able-bodied, English-speaking, and cis-gendered, but this piece will focus on the whiteness. If our goal is to create diverse, dynamic, multi-cultural, and relevant theatre, dismantling this white majority is highly important.

All white actors, writers, directors, designers, and audience members have a role to play as allies pushing against the pervasive gaze of whiteness.

As white people, the first step is to listen when artists of color talk. So right now, read all of the essays that HowlRound published from TCG’s SPARK Leadership Program.

These essays, generally, speak to changes that need to happen at the leadership level. But this isn’t relegated to institutions. My fellow white Chicago theatre people working in storefronts, don’t assume you can’t do anything. All white actors, writers, directors, designers, and audience members have a role to play as allies pushing against the pervasive gaze of whiteness. Here are seven specific steps that you can engage in. It will require sacrifice of time, friendships, gigs, money. We all need to live these suggestions fully, myself included. Let’s hold each other accountable.

Chicago sign
Photo by Victorgrigas via Wikimedia Commons.

            1. Don’t give time or money to organizations that rarely program or cast non-white theatremakers. Some of the most lauded theatres in Chicago are producing whole seasons written by white people. This reinforces a narrative that stories exist solely for white people. Seeing their plays endorses that worldview. Don’t go. This might require missing a play that excites you, a friend’s first leading role, and traveling longer distances to see theatre.

            2. Re-Think your ensemble. Chicago’s theatrical tradition is rooted in the ensemble and they remain really white. The ensemble approach, by giving their members first crack at work, maintains the status quo. Individual white artists can combat this by leaving their ensemble, or leveraging their position to demand leadership be more active in season selection and the hiring of non-white artists. But be wary: one or two non-white faces approaches single-story territory. Avoid tokenizing. Hear plays by non-white writers—Victory Garden’s IGNITION Festival and Congo Square’s August Wilson New Play Workshop series are a good start. Engage young directors of color first as assistant directors and eventually hire them. Then, when inviting talent to join your ensemble, work to ensure they’re not all white. If you still don’t know any non-white artists...

            3. Audition. We know how basic this is and yet people keep casting all white actors in plays that don’t specify whiteness. Here’s a good rule: audition all your roles. If you’re really trying to reflect the world, unless the script states the character’s race, 68 percent of the actors called in should be non-white, since census estimates tell us that non-Hispanic or Latino white people make up 32 percent of Chicago’s population. There are many ways to meet actors of color: see plays at the Goodman, Congo Square, Silk Road Rising, Victory Gardens, Rasaka (to name just a few). Follow these suggestions when writing your casting breakdowns; attend universities’ annual showcases. Cast actors of color. In lead roles. It won’t dramatically alter your vision. Trust that Charles Mee knows what he’s talking about.

            4. Know your history. The history of whiteness contains oppression, silencing, and violence. Talk about that history. I know you’re busy. Making theatre is time-consuming: production meetings, season planning, auditions, rehearsals, tech, the run, your job. But commit one meeting every quarter to talk about your whiteness and ways you can use your access, privilege, resources, and opportunities to be supportive allies. Incorporate these meetings into your organizational calendar. Whatever you do, don’t ask the nearest artist of color to explain anything to you.

            5. Call each other out. If the script of your play takes place in a location populated by a non-white culture and the white director/costume designer wants you to wear a turban, don’t let them. It’s culturally appropriative and offensive. If you’re offered a role in a play, ask if there are only white cast members. If there are, don’t act in that play.

            6. Consider your influences. The history of Western art-making, from Pablo Picasso to the Rolling Stones, is rife with cultural appropriation. This is often seen with white pop artists. But Chicago theatre has its own recent history. Ask yourself about your design choices. Do they take elements and symbols of another culture while overlooking and silencing the work of said culture? They do? Make different choices.

            7. Pay People More. I have to address the institutions once. Every theatre with a budget available to hire full-time staff needs to pay them more. When I first began at Steppenwolf, I accepted an annual salary of $26,000. This was far below my income waiting tables. However, if I faltered financially, my middle-class parents could afford to send grocery money, help with a month’s rent, or buy me a new warm coat for winter. From Roscoe Village, where I lived, I rode my bike or took the train to work. With close proximity to good, safe public transit, I didn’t need to purchase a car and make expensive payments. My whiteness and economic privilege meant that I could afford to work a job whose median weekly earnings were consistent with minimum wage employment, despite my college education. This was considered one of the best, most sought-after jobs in the industry. By paying their staff so little, theatre companies limit the hiring pool to people in my similar circumstances. Not everyone is this city receives those same privileges. Ethical diversity and inclusion initiatives are crucial. But I wonder what our theatres would look like, and whose stories would be told, if everyone made 20 percent more than they do right now. I’m sure every Managing/Executive/Artistic Director wonders where they’ll find that money. Maybe produce less shows and pay all employees more. Maybe you’ll find that once your work starts actually reflecting the world, more people will pay to come see it. You’ll figure it out. You’re an artistic leader. Lead.

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Theatres are almost always non-profits. Non-profit theory literally focuses on idealism.

Everyone has compromises, but the "pay more" argument is incredibly strong and necessary. Look, unpaid full-time internships are unequivocally wrong and make it so only rich young people can enter into this field. If you cannot afford to pay your artists and staff, you're the one who probably doesn't have the experience of running and financing a professional theatre.

People have gotten so delusional about the pay issue that the NYC press fawns over a theatre that doesn't pay its actors in a blatant act of exploitation, but just opened a multimillion dollar theatre.

Is anyone suggesting "internecine conflict"? I think we're suggesting working together for social justice and equality. But we can't work together if we're all white.

Thank you to everyone who has engaged with this piece. I'm truly grateful for the opportunity. And I want to acknowledge the incredible privilege that provides me with said opportunity.

Part of what I'm trying to suggest here is that it's time to push against the "classic" models of making theatre in this country. These models maintain the predominantly white status quo. I believe that artists working both inside and outside of large institutions can and should aggressively push against them. Simply because we've been making theatre for decades in the same fashion, doesn't mean we need to continue doing so. I sometimes think that theatre practitioners pride themselves on their creative problem-solving when dealing with making their plays work, but refuse to shift that lens of creativity towards completely altering how we make, think, talk about, cast, present live theatre. I'm asking all of us to undergo a full-scale redesign of the way we make performance, because I believe the way that we make theatre reinforces white supremacy.

To the suggestion that the pool of non-white, non-union talent in Chicago is really, really small, I respectfully disagree. And I don't think it's small enough to justify not giving those individuals an opportunity. The current success of plays at The Raven, Pegasus, and The Hypocrites bear this out. I left casting just over two years ago, wherein I saw close to a hundred plays and auditioned a fortune of actors every year, and I don't know over half the actors in those three plays. That indicates to me that they might be young, or new to the city, but they're out there. You have to work harder to find them. As to the "casting the best actor for the role" argument, just read this: http://howlround.com/on-the...

If the Goodman Theatre is instructive, it's in showing us that there are a multiplicity of ways to cast a holiday show. As Oregon Shakespeare Festival is teaching us, there are a multitude of ways to interpret and interact with Shakespeare. I know that those institutions have the most money, but I still think that everyone has a role to play as an ally. Will it be hard? Probably. But we're white. Almost everything else in our lives are easy.

As someone who does have the difficult and incredibly challenging experience of running and financing a professional theatre, I dont think there is a lack of experience at work here. Just a different set of producing ideas, strategies and priorities. There are companies who have decided, "you know what, instead of producing 5 shows this season, lets produce 3 shows more effectively and put the money we save into personnel, into strategies to bring more diverse audiences into our theatre, etc etc." A pretty big company comes to mind who did that a couple seasons ago, and it a) greatly reduced their budget deficit while b) cementing them as one of the true champions for diversity in this city. They were also able to bring their board along to support it because it was a clear and effective business strategy with these larger philosophical goals wrapped into it. And their visibility, audience base and artistic work has thrived, not suffered. And then they were able to go back to a larger season with a great deal more support and visibility and financial security behind them. I see no conflict in this article - only ideas that can be implemented into current practices. To say "those who have built these theatres are as a rule socially aware" is also a generalization. If you are that producer, fantastic! But there are a lot of organizations who do not do enough to reflect the diverse world we live in. And sometimes its not about money, its about outreach strategies that can be implemented within the budget restrictions that currently exist - its a reformatting, not an extra element to finance.

From an arts administration standpoint, I say hooray to all of these comments! When I was offered an intern at Disney Theatricals (in LA) to mentor and help me, HR sent me 100% white women. They said that no one of color had applied. I asked how they reached out, and how much they pay. Very few young people these days can actually afford to work for free. I champion the call to eliminate unpaid interns. We used to have "assistants" and although the pay for low for new young "apprentices", at least they could afford to pay some rent and buy food while they gain experience. It is essential if we want the best choices for all of our theatre jobs. And this is especially true for commercial producers!! - Mitch Weiss, 38 year Broadway manager and author of "The Business of Broadway" (www.JustLearnSomething.us).

thank you for the straight forward, nuts-n-bolts, no-shame-inducing, resource-thick piece. It's both a great reminder and call to action.

Call me naïve, but I thought the goal was cast the best talent in the right roles. I cast an Asian actress as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz once... cause she had the best voice out of all the auditions! Isn't that the way it's supposed to work??? My first exposure to Shakespeare was in NYC with a pro-production of Romeo & Juliet... Juliet was Japanese with a strong Japanese accent.... totally took me out of the production... the accent didn't work for the role... casting on color... may not be best for the show.... but, I thought getting the best talent was what it was about! The first show I produced in L.A. got praise because I used people of color and equal amounts of roles for women. I chose the gender that way, but the color choice had nothing to do with it... I picked them on talent.

This is crazy. You're almost advocating PC CASTING. You put out a call and get a pool of actors. You make your best choice based on talent. Me personally, I just call my friends who I think are best and most talented for the roll and not waste time with auditions, but I want the best performer for the right roles. Advocating picking by color is as bad as NOT picking because of color. I don't care if Juliette is black, Hispanic or GREEN... I want her to be able to act and be heard!!!! I find more actors have no vocal skills or power and that's a major concern! More of a concern than worrying about what color they are!

You're not alone; that's a common reaction.

Think about this. Your friends, what race are they? When you put out a call, and you look at the pool of actors who respond, what race are they?

Just take that test I gave you the link to. There's a reason that unconscious preferences are called "unconscious." If the test shows you have no preferences regarding color, then your belief about your choosing the best performer will be confirmed. If not, you can actually increase your ability to cast the absolute best. Either way, you win.

If everyone went back to talent and away from politics of it all.... They'd really accomplish something! Might even remember what we all got into this for! There's never enough work for anybody! I just can't believe theatre artists are supporting reverse quota concepts...what happened to the most talented getting the role!!!

Nobody is suggesting we stop casting talent. The idea is that we give talented people of color an equal opportunity, something they have never had. It sounds like you do that already, so good for you. It seems odd that you are working so hard now to misconstrue the issue here.

Not trying to misconstrue the issue. I'm passionate about about the process changing for the better, but not as a recruiting and numbers scheme as comes across to me in this article. It's the hardest business to crack in the world and yet one group seems to always think the other group has it easier when the truth is if you're not related to someone established in show business odds are you wont make it, doesn't matter what color you are and I hear white actors and writers complain the other way for the last 10 years...especially here where the studios started their diversity programs. There's never gonna be enough opportunity for any color in this business!

Whether you are trying to or not, you are. If you think white people (men) don't have an enormous advantage, then you are choosing a false reality that leaves your race and gender in the clear. Your opposition to the idea of the people in power (YOU and Me) extending a hand in an effort to provide opportunities to those of us who need help is the product of fear. Most actors/designers of color haven't had the opportunity that you have to "remember why they got into theatre in the first place," because they rarely if ever have had the opportunity to do it.

I don't agree with you, but that's not important. When I started in this people would blame their lack of opportunity on the fact they weren't Jewish. There was a long time in NYC at least where people would complain about their lack of opportunity because they weren't gay. Then it was because actors were being judged on "bankability". There's always gonna be reason and in turn it creates another disdain for another group.

Cast on Talent not color.

Good luck, I'm done with this thread. Good talk! Thanks

Just take the test. Bread is right. If you're talking about "reverse quotas," your understanding of race relations in this country isn't good enough for you to have a truly diverse membership in your company. You drive away people of color without knowing.

Just try that test.

You might be asking too much. "Alliances" are by definition supposed to be a two way street.

By being an ally for diversity and inclusiveness, one makes their organization far more relevant, exciting and appealing to broader audiences, thereby securing their sustainability for a growingly diverse population and new generation of theatre audiences and creators. That seems like a pretty good deal to me.

Thanks for these thoughts. I remember being very moved by a number of shows I saw in London on my first trip there years ago, at the incredible diversity of casts in shows that had been super white in all other versions I'd seen. I can do better at this, I can be more aggressive in finding more opportunities on my end as a director. I know you're not suggesting this, but having been in the situation before, candidly I'd offer that I'm not interested in compromising skill for diversity's sake (see below on limited pool in non-union situations).

I have some questions of clarification for you on your Point Number 5.

-I haven't asked anyone to wear a turban and haven't had occasion to -that's very specific. I wouldn't want something as specific as a turban, for instance, unless it was the most dramaturgically sound thing for them to wear. Are people asking actors to wear turbans in instances where it's not dramaturgically appropriate? Help me understand what you're cautioning against on this one.

-The second part of point number 5 seems unrealistic in the industry. The director or producer's answer for the most part is, "well, I don't know, we're having auditions, I'm asking you to audition, the other roles...are... not cast yet". I get that you're trying to suggest something actionable to change color ratios in casts. I have to say though, the converse of this makes me cringe. And while no one would ever do that and work again in this town, objectively speaking it would be no more extreme than what you're suggesting. My point is, I'm not sure you've arrived at what could be considered practical language for an auditioning actor in the real world.

A challenge in Chicago, directing at non-union storefronts or union houses with lower wages, and say, one contract, is that the pool of non-union highly-skilled non-white actors is real. real. small. Really talented highly skilled non-white actors turn union super fast in this town. That talent pool (the non-white highly-skilled non-union pool) is as small as the non-union over-50 highly skilled pool of actors of any color. The pool is small, and they're booked.

As to your final point, amen. The fix, in my opinion has to start with the problem of executives in a theatre making disproportionately more yearly than their artists do. If I'm ever lucky enough to have my own shop or to be in a company where I can have a say in what execs make, the direction I'd want staff salaries to move is this: Staff makes weekly equivalent of a contract actor. This isn't applicable in small houses where contract actors work 24 hour weeks and staffs of 2 or 3 work 70 hour weeks. But once a house gets to 40+ hour work weeks for actors, I'd love to see staff making equivalent. It doesn't fit the economic model of supply and demand but it pushes towards institutional values being in the right place. Offered in the spirit of many of your other great points on institutional values.

While I respect many of the people leaving comments and find their points valid, many of you are doing the intellectual equivalent of "all lives matter." While that is true, that author states that his piece "will focus on whiteness." Our business is full of smart people. We are able to talk about multiple issues at the same time but we are choosing to focus on this particular, thorny issue. Let's do the work that is being asked of us by this article and focus on the thoughts expressed and find an appropriate response in each of our communities. Do not ignore this reality because you feel more comfortable complaining about other noble causes. Be a leader, analyze your theater and your community, and let's change the culture.

"If our goal is to create diverse, dynamic, multi-cultural, and relevant theatre . . ." There seems to be a lot of goals in that premise. Where is the goal, "to entertain"? This conversation, while important in a larger cultural context, seems to further marginalize live theater. It is tough to be didactic on such an important issue within an industry that is not highly regarded as a cultural driver.

I'm not sure I fully agree, Chuck. Part of the responsibility to entertain is to reach audiences. The best way to do so is by telling stories that resonate with your audience. And part of that is telling stories relevant to your audience's experiences. If you are only telling stories that speak to one demographic, I dont think as a company one is then truly doing the most they can to "entertain" by reaching a multitude of audiences. Thats the best way to achieve that goal on the large scale. And its the best way to keep theatre relevant across cultures. Creating diverse, dynamic, multi-cultural and relevant theatre does not negate entertaining, it reinforces it. If I can't see myself, my experience, my humanity on stage, then I won't care, and if I dont care, I wont be entertained. Now, as a white male, this affects me far less, because my stories are on stage. But then I put myself in the shoes of those whose stories are already marginalized in the theatre, and I can't imagine that their experiences in the theatre are entertaining nearly as consistently as mine are. So yeah, I dont think the conversation marginalizes theatre - rather, it identifies various action items that can further expand it.

Josh is right. The conversation doesn't marginalize theater.

Truly entertaining theater, to me, is different from the stories Josh mentioned. After 13 years of being married to an African American man, white me now enjoys plays about race, plays that are about the experience of his family, plays with multi-racial casts.

So what if there are a lot of goals in that premise about theater?

Don't just pay the full time folks more. The same issues very clearly raised here apply to temporary employees as well. Pay your actors a living wage, pay your designers and directors a living wage.

While paying a living wage is all well and good (and a goal we should all have when producing theatre) when you put out the ad for those positions how are you ensuring that a POC population is seeing those ads? Are you actively working towards networking with folks who are non-white to be able to offer these opportunities? I've heard over the years the same excuse many times from different companies when they can't get POC's to show up to auditions/submit to work "they're just not coming to my auditions/no one is submitting...I put out the ad, its an equal opportunity- so it has to be white cause they didn't show up"...and the fallacy here that you've done your due diligence; however if your organization is not seen as a place where a POC has a fair shot at succeeding (ie your season is full of white writers, past productions full of white actors, and a staff/board full of white people) there is no reason for them to spend time to help you become more diverse. Providing a decent pay is great and will help in retaining POCs on staff/ensemble levels (I know we struggle since there *feels* like there aren't as many in town and they're constantly booked at places that can pay...but there are always more out there, we just don't know them), it just feels like a solution to how to keep POC's working at a predominately white institution vs. how do we diversify our predominantly white institution. Yes, let's pay those who might not have a comfortable socio economic status to buoy them through the internship etc to make those connections. But are we reaching out to diverse communities to do so?

It is not only race. Theatre is incredibly ableist as well. You have so many characters who have physical disabilities but you don't employ actors who are disabled. The rationale is that you don't need to have any experience to portray them. The fact that this is believed demonstrates how little you really know about it.