For theater community, finding ways to reflect societal diversity onstage is more urgent than ever
Theater is often at its best and most powerful when it says to those who feel overlooked, misunderstood or invisible: You are seen.
Of course, theater doesn’t always manage to do that — either for audiences or for artists. For a form that can be so welcoming to fresh viewpoints and voices, it also has a traditionalist streak that in some quarters can serve to perpetuate (even unconsciously) dated ideas and attitudes.
But giving voice and visibility to people who might feel left out of the conversation was the main aim of “Breaking Bread,”” a recent gathering of theater people hosted by the Old Globe to encourage candid talk about race, representation and more on the San Diego stage scene.
The conversation at the meeting, sparked in part by debate that erupted on social media over a local production of the musical “South Pacific,” was freewheeling and at times passionate. (San Diego Rep is hosting a follow-up session tomorrow.)
But for me, an observer turned brief participant in the event, one insight came during a moment when talk was not permitted.
The get-together opened with improv-based exercises designed to help participants loosen up and find a comfort level with each other; among them was an instruction to pair off and tell a story to your partner about a personal experience involving race.
And then, the hard part: To repeat your partner’s own story back to that person, but using only motions and mime, not words.
Trying to do some kind of clumsy justice to my partner’s very personal narrative was, to say the least, awkward, and I found myself thinking: “I should’ve listened harder.”
The moment seemed emblematic of how difficult it can be to honor someone else’s experience when one has limited tools to interpret that experience — something you could argue is ultimately true for any act of theater.
But what’s true for a bumbling non-actor is also true for anyone striving to make authentic and inclusive theater: Listening harder is a really good start.
And to Freedome Bradley-Ballentine, the Globe’s director of arts engagement, there seems for the most part a genuine desire among people in local theater to do just that when it comes to representation onstage.
“There’s not this wall where people say, ‘I don’t want to do better,’” says Bradley-Ballentine, who helped organize the Globe forum. “People want to do better. They just need the tools to help them.”
The fact that the Globe’s capacious rehearsal hall was packed for the event, though, was also evidence that doing better hasn’t translated to doing enough.
As Bradley-Ballentine pointed out, “We had about 100 people who felt really strongly about this stuff. That means it’s a big issue. If 100 people can come in the middle of the week to talk about these issues, that means it’s something that’s really resonating with people. People have strong feelings about it.
“But I think people have strong feelings in a very productive way. Not looking to issue blame, but looking really to find solutions.”
Some of those who spoke up did so bluntly: “It’s hard to talk to a community when you’re not casting anyone from that community,” as one participant said of a perceived lack of outreach to minorities by some theaters.
From comments at the meeting and subsequent interviews with theater artists and administrators here, it also is abundantly clear that casting doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part and parcel of how a theater approaches its mission.
“In some sense, casting is just the most superficial way to do EDI,” says San Diego Rep associate producer and casting director Kim Heil, using industry shorthand for the pursuit of equity, diversity and inclusion. “EDI really needs to start in the inner workings of a theater company.
“The conversation cannot begin with casting, because then it just feels like tokenism. Every decision has to come from more than, ‘You know what, I think we can cast this diverse!’”
A shining example of that approach was the Rep’s own San Diego premiere earlier this year of Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” which was cast entirely with actors of Asian heritage and is a play that’s in many ways explicitly about exploding stereotypes.
Cygnet Theatre also set an admirable example by spending years helping develop the African-American playwright Nathan Alan Davis’ “The Wind and the Breeze,” a rap-inflected piece that had its world premiere at the Old Town theater in May with an all-black cast.
As those projects and others demonstrate, diversity is about much more than paying occasional lip service to slotting people of color into a cast, while rolling out dated and sometimes problematic “classics.”
For Taylor Henderson, a busy San Diego-based actor, the “Breaking Bread” discussion stirred an emotional reaction by virtue of the way it touched upon issues and struggles she faces every day.
She was “overjoyed” that the event was happening. But “it was one of those things where a handful of people came up to me afterward and said, “Hey, Are you OK? You seem very verklempt,” Henderson says.
As she explained: “You get tired after a while, you know? No one sees the exhausting side of trying to blaze the trail and go into uncharted territory. And to be a younger woman of color — especially at a time where (race) has come to the forefront of a lot of conversations.
“This isn’t new for us to become those people who others come to and say, “Hey, what is your experience like?,” or, “Hey do you know these people?” It becomes a lot for just a small group of people who try to do their best to be a thoughtful and respectful light to convey all of these things that we go through on a daily basis.
But, she adds: “We’re never going to be stop. We don’t have the luxury of being able to set it aside for any moment. I’m glad that people are taking notice and listening.”
What a sampling of theater artists and leaders have to say on the topic of diversity in casting:
Ciarlene Coleman, San Diego actor and co-founder of MaArte Theatre Collective
I’ve spoken with other actors of color, and a concern we always have when a house announces its season, or when new auditions are posted, is: “Will there be a place I can fit in?” It’s something I think about a lot. The routine I sort of go through is, OK, let’s see what shows they’re doing — and scan to see if there’s anything not only in my age range, but in the realm of my ethnicity. I’m really excited to get a more focused discussion on these topics, and to really talk about specific goals for our community, and how we can move forward.
Jaime Castañeda, associate artistic director, La Jolla Playhouse
It’s a a different conversation when you’re talking about developing a play from scratch. Certainly my experience has been about new work. What’s interesting about it is that (play development) conversations also become casting conversations. In all the variations of the conversations we’re having around diversity in casting, it’s also the question of who’s making the decisions. (And) it becomes the question of, “What story are we telling?” Having dramaturgical conversations about race can maybe lead to creating a character that wasn’t there in the initial drafts of the piece. … In several of the cases where casting issues have come up (elsewhere), they say, “We cast the people who audition.” But that would be like us saying, “We only program plays that are submitted to us.” That’s not really how we create art; that’s not how we do theater.
Sam Woodhouse, artistic director of San Diego Rep, a pioneer of diversity here
When we started the theater in ’76, most of the plays that were being produced were by writers who were dead. That was the story of much of American theater — it was looking backward rather than forward. And the truth about American culture since then has been this dramatic infusion of multiple voices into the stream. What prompted the choice to ensure we were doing plays by Latino artists and African-American artists was simply attempting to create a truly regional theater. Living here in a place that used to be part of Mexico, and producing 17 minutes from the border, it just seemed the most obvious choice in the world that we should have what are now called Latinx stories and Latinx actors on our stages. The other impulse was simply trying to create theater that looks like what America looks like.
Taylor Henderson, San Diego actor
I’ve been fortunate to have gotten a lot of opportunities to play roles I’ve always wanted to. However, they were roles that were specifically made for a woman like me to play — I played Gary Coleman (in “Avenue Q”) for a number of years. I got to play Joanne in “Rent.” (Both are typically played by black women). I’ve gotten to do things that I’d always dreamed of doing, but of course were sort of built for me. On the flip side, when I see a production and it’s, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be in that show,” or “I would’ve loved a chance to audition, but they’ve precast the show eight months out” — it’s like, how do you combat that? In the past year and a half, it’s been a firm effort in trying to shake the thought that, Oh, I’m not right for something, because it’s been done a certain way so many times. It’s a push-and-pull on both ends to be like, no, I can see myself in all these places. And then forcing the theater-makers to see you in all those places.
Freedome Bradley-Ballentine, arts engagement director, Old Globe
Having this conversation is something that’s really necessary in our field. These thing don’t happen in isolation, and this won’t be the last of these types of conversations. Decisions (theaters) make can sometimes be seen as hurtful, as minimizing different experiences, or of making a community feel invisible. But I think when you start talking about that, people will say, “Oh, I had no idea. I never had to think about that.” So I think these conversations are necessary in just building awareness around these issues of representation.
Kim Heil, associate producer and casting director, San Diego Rep
We’re in a time when, perhaps, if your theater company does not have a stake in the work of EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) — for instance, if your audience is primarily white, and doesn’t feel they need to see stories about people of color or underrepresented communities — then no one is going to hold that theater accountable for not doing it. And therefore, perhaps, there isn’t a need for that company to do it. And yet you could argue that we’re in a time when this work is especially important, given the climate of the country and how divisive things are, and that what we strive to promote in theater is empathy and understanding. And entertainment — but also this sense that you want to expose people to a different perspective on the world. So I feel diversity is a natural way to achieve that, and if a company isn’t looking at that, that’s pretty egregious.
Jose Llana, Broadway actor, star of nationally touring “The King and I”
I have to say, I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ve been working professionally for exactly 22 years. And in my time in New York, I’ve seen firsthand the change and progression of where the immigrant voices are, and the ability for people of a certain race to play their own kind. And the decreasing amount of “whitewashing” compared with what has happened in the past. The fact now you can’t produce a large professional production of “The King and I” and not cast an Asian-American man (as the lead) is progress. I don’t criticize the original Broadway company of “The King and I” for only having a handful of Asian-Americans. There weren’t that many working professional Asian-American actors. Even the ones who were there, they were all pretty much only allowed to play certain kinds of roles. But that’s changing — and the only way it’s going to continue to change is if people of color and our allies speak up when something is wrong.
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