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Casting and Fear

As a playwright, I have to make it my goal to know the scope and mission of various theatre companies. Trying to find the right companies for my work–and tailoring submissions appropriately so that their relevance to the company is obvious–involves serious study of theatre companies’ websites, and sometimes (with a little bit of good luck and miraculously aligned schedules) meeting up with artistic directors and directors to discuss their hopes and dreams, the types of work they’d like to put up.

One of the most obvious divisions among companies I’ve looked up is their attitude towards race and diversity. There are basically three categories, as far as I can tell: folks who “ignore” race (a.k.a., put on mostly plays with all white people with no shame); folks who are “conscious” of race but clearly terrified of it (a.k.a., have their one “black play” or “Asian play” in their season and market that play hugely toward “diverse” audiences but also devote large amounts of resources towards convincing their mostly-white subscriber base that don’t worry, this theater is still mainly “traditional”); and folks for whom inclusivity and diversity are actually a core value, not something they pay lip-service to but something they actually LOVE with a burning passion (a.k.a. these folks may question the terms “inclusivity” and “diversity” because they imply that POC have to be invited to the table, when in reality it’s their table to begin with).

The way I see it, change in the American theatre will happen when folks in categories one and two stop being so darn terrified of multiracial casting. The way it is now–based on what folks have said to me–is that they’re either terrified of scaring away their subscriber base by doing a “risky” play (a.k.a., something that actually acknowledges that racism exists, or, even scarier, a play that lets POC be onstage with the main conflict being more complex than “slavery happened and now it’s over”), or they’re terrified that if they DO take a chance on one of those “risky” plays, they “won’t be able to cast it.”

It’s the economics argument and the pipeline argument. Anyone who’s been around theatre for more than a year is probably familiar with both. And you’re also probably familiar with the usual comebacks: for the former, well, what’s more important to you–money or morals/honoring your community? And for the latter–a) there ARE talented POC in the pipeline, and b) if there somehow “aren’t,” woman up and cede some space to POC anyway–just because they haven’t had a decade of super-expensive actor training at a special school doesn’t mean they’re not talented.

But, coming back to the three categories of theatre companies, I have a crucial question. Do at least two or perhaps all three of these categories assume that a play is either all-white or extremely racially specific (i.e., that Japanese actors can only act in plays about Japanese-American internment in WW2)? What about casting a play that isn’t only “about” a “racial issue” with POC actors? Of course, racism and a long, long history of prejudice in the US make it impossible for anyone to be “colorblind”–how a play is cast will affect how it is received. But that doesn’t mean we should box all POC actors into one corner labeled “excruciatingly racially specific and limited to only stories about racism.” It means we need to cast more POC actors in both stories that are about racism and stories that are about vacations, mysteries, the Antarctic, and whatever the heck else you can think of.

I think right now many folks, especially in category #2, have a fear of “doing it wrong,” and steer themselves toward category #1 because at least then they know their white subscribers will be happy. But pleasing the traditionalists isn’t enough. It never has been, but especially now that every theatre in the country has suddenly discovered that their entire season is definitely totally about defying Trump, they really need to step up and walk the walk.

So my question for all of us theatre folk who don’t run our own companies is: how do we steer category #2 toward becoming category #3? Because if we’re going to call theatre a liberal/progressive space with a straight face, category #3 companies have to become the majority.

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