“It’s always better to be conscious than blind, in life and in casting,” actor and activist Lauren Villegas says. Villegas is the founder of Project Am I Right, an organization which seeks to raise awareness within the acting community about accepting jobs playing characters with different ethnic backgrounds, gender expressions, and able-bodiedness than themselves. “I got a note from an actor I’ve never met...he’s been using his ethnic-sounding name to get parts playing Latino for years and decided to remove those roles from his resume and stop pursuing those parts,” Villegas says. “I maybe cried a little.” Members of the theatrical community have been stepping up to create initiatives like Villegas’, to fill what they perceive as a void in the industry. Russell G. Jones’s organization, Blindspot, wants to help by offering salons for communities “seeking to achieve greater critical thinking around inclusivity.” As for what steps need to be taken, Jones says, "I would suggest that all of the people who are making decisions about who ends up onstage actually engage in some anti-oppression work and anti-racism work.” He believes everyone wants to do the right thing, but may need education to achieve it; he has made it his mission to help make it a reality.
The push for more diversity onstage is one the industry as a whole aspires to, but the question of what that means in practice remains unanswered. Often, the goal is stated as being “color blind,” but as actor and author Bear Bellinger puts it, “The difference between color blind and color conscious casting is the difference between continued erasure and acknowledgment. When we take away color, through color blind casting, we act as if our day-to-day lives aren't constantly affected by the skin we are in.” Instead, he advocates for a switch “conscious” casting. “Color conscious casting acknowledges the differences that we see and experience daily and asks, how can these differences enhance the story?”
After the recent controversy surrounding the casting of a black man in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Portland, the debate over who plays certain roles has again found itself in the spotlight. The Dramatists Guild issued an official statement saying, in part, that the Guild supports a playwright’s “fundamental right” to approve of casting choices to ensure they are consistent with authorial intent. Still, the Guild says they are “actively engaged” in making theatre a more inclusive place and removing barriers to opportunity for underrepresented communities. The statement ends by saying, “We remain firm in our belief that our art form can’t achieve its full potential until it embraces our cultural and demographic diversity.” Award-winning playwright Julia Jordan supports authorial intent, but still maintains a commitment to fighting back against the “default white” standard in her work. “As I have become more involved and aware of the gender disparity in the theatre, I necessarily have become more aware of the issues surrounding race, the intersection, the similarities and the differences,” Jordan says. “The author can make it crystal clear when an actor’s race is not at issue.” She points out that women of color continue to be the least represented playwrights, as well.
On the other side of the table, you have casting directors like Tara Rubin, founder of Tara Rubin Casting. Rubin finds power in a stage that mirrors the world. “We want the actors onstage to reflect the mosaic of the world around us. We want young people to see people who look like them onstage and think, ‘Wow, there might be a job for me, I can do this too,’” Rubin explains. For their part, the Casting Society of America is moving beyond just articulating this mission. Rubin says they have been engaged in town hall meetings and workshops with actors from historically marginalized groups, with the hope of fostering a relationship with those communities and including more actors from them in their work.
As the artistic director of Firebrand Theatre and a former casting professional herself, Harmony France agrees with Rubin. “I see us theatre practitioners as part of the main line of defense against hatred and divisiveness. We can shine a light on it,” she says. “The only way to get rid of the fear of people that aren’t like you is to get to know them. Theatre changes hearts. And hearts can change minds.”
5 TIPS TO INCREASE DIVERSITY IN THEATRE
Villegas, Jones, Rubin, and France weigh in on the concrete actions to take to make theatre more inclusive.
1. Be proactive and participate in outreach to groups that represent actors of color, like Asian-American Performers Action Coalition or the African-American Artists Alliance, to bring them into the casting process.
2. If you’re a playwright, lyricist, book writer, or a creator, ask yourself if the race of your characters is relevant to the story, and if not, specify that.
3. Do your research on racism and internal bias before beginning the creative process. Understanding the history of these issues within the business will help create an inclusive and positive environment.
4. As an actor, be conscious of the roles you accept and be self-reflective about whether your racial or ethnic background or physical abilities would be appropriate for the part you’re playing.
5. Be careful of engaging in tokenism or promoting harmful or damaging caricatures. Truly color conscious casting gives members of marginalized groups opportunities to play real, developed characters, not one-dimensional stereotypes.