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October 02, 2008

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Laura A.

Thanks for doing this. I look forward to reading more about it.

Duncan

That's been bothering me a lot, too- As a playwright and producer I've lately been trying to be more conscious of being multi-ethnic in my casting, both when it doesn't matter to the script and when it does (and writing scripts where it does matter).

Director

I've noticed the same trend. I have to wonder if it's voluntary segregation or if it has more to do with who auditions? If all white people audition, then how can you cast a black guy?

At my alma mater, we had a drama department made up of about 80 actors. Maybe 20 of them were Black, the rest were white. The black actors didn't audition for the mainstage plays, unless it was specifically about black people. (Each year we did a Southern Playwright's Competition Winner, which almost exclusively focused on racial tones).

There were plenty of opportunities for blacks to play parts in other plays, especially Shakespeare, but they never even showed up to auditions. How does a theatre deal with that?

Is it possible that theatre just lends itself to a white social class? Or are we just not aware of more black theatre shows? Or is it something else?

I'd hate to think it's blatant racism, but at the same time... it's hard to know, you know?

I'm like you: grew up around black friends, gay friends, straight friends, crossdressing friends... I like to think I'm color blind.

I don't understand the lack of blacks, Hispanics, Asians in theatre. The only explanations that come to mind are the ones I mentioned.

The question is: how can you tell what the cause is? You can't fight it until you know the answer of that question.

Jennifer Gordon Thomas

If it's any consolation, it's even more white in LA. When I got to LA my first question was "Where are all the black people?" The streets of NYC are such a hodge-podge that you think it would carry over into ALL business. I have to say, working at The Source for 5 years, the faces that walk thru that door are mostly white. We're a producing organization so most of the shows that come thru the doors are other companies...it becomes more racially diverse when we do the festivals, like Estrogenius and Homogenius, but again, it's mostly white. Is it our location? I have no idea what the answer is here.

isaac

Director,

Because I recognize in your comment a lot of my own thinking around eight years ago, I apologize in advance if anything I say here seems... harsh... please understand i'm talking to the-me-of-before as much as i'm talking to you.. here we go:

I don't think it's always necessary to know the root causes of something to be able to- even in some limited away- attack its effects. Also, I think in this case the causes are a mix of things semi-unknowable, blindingly obvious (the institutional hangover of racism) and totally cyclical.

Also, I think "self-segregation" is largely a convenient way of looking at the problem that lets white people off the hook. It is quite literally blaming the victim (it is also, in case you're wondering, how I viewed the issue when I was college).

This might seem frustrating, as self-segregation is a very real phenomenon, I'm just saying that... well... so what? If it means that people have to work harder to find actors of color, I'm not particularly sympathetic to that plight. Just work harder, damnit!

The first three shows I directed in NYC were basically all-white. I didn't start really paying attention to this issue until a hispanic friend who runs a venue in the Bronx and I were talking about how white theatre is and he goes "well, what about your plays, Isaac, they've all had all white casts!" And while i could go "well, one of them had a biracial guy in it who looked white" or whatever, the point still stood: the work I was creating didn't reflect either my lived experience or my values.

So I did the work necessary to have integrated casts, and I make it a point of work that I direct that it has an integrated cast, period (the one exception to this I can remember being a reading that I didn't cast). And you know what? It's not that hard to do. That's part of what makes it so frustrating. Here's a freebie example: Send out an e-mail asking for referrals from other directors for talented actors of color and then audition them for your next show.

Director

Agreed, 100%! I was merely making some observations and asking some thoughts that popped into my head.

Here's another question, and I'm just speaking in terms of.. i dunno, as an actor: should the director choose a black guy over a white guy for a part, all other things being equal, just to make a multi-ethnic cast? Are you advocating the equivalent of Affirmative Action in theatre?

Joshua James

I've frequently cast shows I've directed with folks of different colors, and written plays that were specifically multi-racial.

And as a result, especially the latter plays, I've had a hard time finding a home for them.

Most companies that I've run into are run by white folk. And they want to cast their people. I've been shut of the casting process so often, even with readings, that's it's one reason I have less and less to do with theatre these days.

Usually a group of people starts a theatre and does a show or shows that reflects their talents.

Nobody really does a play because they think the play is awesome . . . they do a play because they think THEY'LL be awesome in it, or awesome directing it, and will pick a play reflective of what they want, rather than the story or people that are not representative of something other than they are, even if it's really great.

In other words, other than George Wolf, how many black or hispanic AD's do you know?

Ben TS

Some years back, John Simon famously wrote a review of Hedda Gabler where he complained that the production's Judge Brack, played by James Earl Jones, was black. Now, obviously black people were a bit of a rarity in 19th-Century Scandinavia. But you know what? It's also anachronistic for the Tesmans' villa to be lit by a gazillion ellipsoids. It's fucking THEATRE. It's all convention and artifice and suspension of disbelief.

I think that the "minorities strongly encouraged to attend" clause should be at the bottom of every audition notice, not just Shakespeare. Why can't there be an O'Casey play with black people? I think Boy's Life was mentioned earlier--why do all those yuppie characters have to be white? I work with a lot of yuppies, and that culture definitely cuts across color lines.

Point is, I think even those of us who are enlightened need to re-examine some unchecked assumptions. For all the color-blind casting that's gone on over the past few decades, it's often stubbornly refused to make it's way into contemporary theatre. Sure, we can have a black person as King Lear or Oedipus, but I'm pretty sure it's nothing but a sea of white headshots on the table of the casting directing working on the next Neil LaBute show (he's a pretty prime example of the subtle racism at play in realistic theatre--why have I never seen a non-white character in any of his plays? There's nothing inherently white about the lifestyles of the characters). It's only when we really see race as just another piece of theatrical artifice that we'll really make strides in the right direction.

RVCBard

Great post, Isaac. Hits the bullseye on a lot of what irks me about today's theater scene.

For my own part, I don't write plays that are race-specific. They are VERY open to being staged in a variety of ways with a variety of types of people. Unfortunately, I don't know if I, as the playwright, can trust a director I don't know to understand that. That is, unless I make it explicitly multi-cultural. And I don't know if that would actually work because there are a myriad ways to realize that idea.

So, I'm at an impasse. Do I wait for someone like Isaac to come around and want to direct my stuff, or do I become a control freak to make sure my work isn't whitewashed by default?

Tony

It's telling that 85% of Equity membership is white. I don't know if there's any statistics nationally on college programs, but from my experience they aren't much more diverse.

I was reading a program note for a show at the Goodman not too long ago and the proudly stated that in the last 20 years fully one-third of their productions featured actors of color.

The scary thing is they are actually a leader among regional theatres on that, a lot of other institutions have a far worse track record.

I think to some extent the problem is enhanced by the insularity of many in theatre. A lot of folks just never think about it. And a lot of work is done for the people doing the work.

daryl

I believe the "minorities strongly encouraged to attend" clause does appear on all audition notices for equity calls. The clause is not there because the producer is truly willing to consider minorities in all roles but only because it is required to be there by equity rules. For instance, there is an equity call today for Frost/Nixon at Caldwell Theatre Company in Florida. The clause is there on the listing. I think it's safe to say that if a minority auditioned for that show he's not going to be considered. This sort of disingenuousness breeds cynicism in minority actors to the point that they don't even bother auditioning unless the breakdown discribes a character as a minority.

CB

It is indeed convenient to simply dismiss the issue as self-segregation. I am sure that you don't get a ton of people of color at general auditions for non-race specific roles. Why do you think they would self-segregate? I think if you're a black actor, and you have rarely or never seen a person of color on stage at a particular theater, you are going to figure you're wasting your time even trying to get in there. I remember one African-American woman I knew in grad school who was said of her vocal classes, "Why should I worry so much about perfecting my accent when the only role I'm going to be offered is Hooker #2 on Law & Order?" Self-defeating, perhaps, but understandable when you do take a look at the demographics of who's on stage out there.

Most theater institutions are going to say they're color-blind, and they probably mean it sincerely. But they're like Stephen Colbert when he sits across from an African-American and says, "I can't even tell you're black, because I'm COLORBLIND!" It's easy to simply say you're colorblind, and that you didn't even notice that you don't have any people of color around because it's just not an issue for you. When I see an integrated cast in a production that is not race-specific, I'm pretty sure that the director made a specific effort to cast it that way, for whatever reason. Call it affirmative action if you want, I guess, but I think that's better than the disingenuous neglect that Daryl and others have mentioned.

Kerry Reid

Just gonna paste in a link to an article that ran in Time Out Chicago last year dealing with this very subject:
http://www.timeout.com/chicago/articles/features/16419/color-bind

And to say again that the only way to fight it is to keep talking about it. I noticed that Remy Bumppo cast an African American actor as the youngest daughter in their current production of "The Voysey Inheritance," and it worked very well. If an Edwardian (by way of Mamet) social comedy can do nontraditional casting, it's obvious to me that the field is pretty open for other plays to do the same.

Seth Christenfeld

Ben TS: there is an explicitly black character in LaBute's This Is How It Goes, and one of the women in the NY production of Some Girls was played by the very Latin Judy Reyes.

GAC

Hey Parabasis,
Thanks for your comments about the lack of ethnic actors in our theater..I am an actor of Hispanic background and I notice it all the time..which is why I mainly work in regional theaters..its a real sore point among me and many others as to how difficult it is to get work here in NY.The regional theaters are a little bit further ahead in the idea of non-traditional casting.But the only time I get to be seen for a mainstream theater in a non-ethnic role is for a classic or if the role is a Julio,Roberto,Tito..etc.
Its up to all in the chain..agent, casting director, director,art.dir,writer, producer to insist that actors of color be allowed the opportunity to be seen and seriously considered for jobs, if just one in that chain doesn't go along, the whole thing crumbles.
Oh and one other to that list..audience members such as yourself who are aware of this and are willing to speak or write about it and publicize it..Write to the theaters and tell them how you feel, tell them if you are going to pay upwards of $50 for a ticket you want to experience something that encompasses the world as it truly is on the street and outside the doors of the theater.

Ben TS

Seth,

Mea culpa on the LaBute. I never saw TIHIG so I was unaware of that.

I should clarify that my beef is not with LaBute, specifically (although I'm not a fan), as much as with the fact that he's one of a number of contemporary playwrights--Mamet's another--who are revived countless times throughout the country, yet are seemingly never cast non-traditionally. Because there's a very real assumption that Mamet and LaBute are fundamentally white people theatre. Because it's realistic and middle-class and, ya know, WHITE.

Hell, even I hold that assumption to some degree. I've played the game a lot recently where I've read scripts and asked myself if I would cast a black person in given roles. And pathetically, it's made me learn alot about how enlightened I really am when it comes to this issue. Because I think there's this little thought in the back of our minds that if you cast a minority in certain roles the play will be become about race. Since the play is already about incest/stock brokerage/rock music, the play cannot be about more than one thing at once, can it? THAT's to me what needs to change. It's great that classical theatre is multicultural now, but that ethos needs to extend to modern plays as well.
We need to see minorities in contemporary, realistic drama that is NOT about race, that has integrated casts, and where it simply isn't an issue.

MZH

http://minktails.blogspot.com/2008/10/break-it-down.html

isaac

MZH,

I love it! I'll write more about it now that i'm back in town.

Usman Ally

Remy Bumppo is taking it a step further with our thinkTank series this year. In March of 2009 three Slam Poets, including myself, Kelly Zen Yie-Tsai and Idris Goodwin will be performing a hip hop theatre infused production called American Ethnic, where we will be discussing among other things, this very point!

I'm an actor in town, and I've worked on quite a few of Chicago's stages with much of the same frustration as is being articulated here.
Contact me for more info on the show, as we give an artists perspective on how minorities are misrepresented or underpresented both on the stage and in film.

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