Question. How do you think the theatre industry as a whole fares against accusations of Racism?
There is no need to kid ourselves, the American theatre is overwhelmingly white. Chicago's theatre, ensembles, critics, playwrights, directors, designers, administrators, audiences, funders--all are predominately white. (The irony of a white alpha male talking about diversity is not lost on me.) Our theatre is also predominately made up of charitable organizations that receive public funding to function.
This has come up repeatedly, and the usual reply is: I'M NOT RACIST, followed by: not enough people applied or auditioned, or we have to look after our ensemble, or insert caveat here.
Institutional Racism is a pesky problem.
Institutional racism is defined as the differential access to goods, services, and opportunities of society. When this differential access seeps into our institutions, it eventually becomes common practice, making it that much harder to rectify. Eventually, this racism dominates our public bodies, corporations and universities, and is reinforced by the actions of newcomers and conformists. Another difficulty with reducing institutionalized racism is that there is no true identifiable perpetrator. When racism is built into the institution, it appears to be an act of the collective population.
No one in the body needs to be a bigot for this to happen. And yet it does. Our theatres and ensembles are institutionally white, and often it is not out of malice or maliciousness. Hiring actors is one thing, doing co-productions is one thing. Having a significant part of your ensemble or organization look like your city is a whole different ballgame.
When I first started working in theatre I didn't even notice it. The township I grew up in (I'm not a city boy) is 97% white. I don't expect that to change anytime soon as there are not many jobs and no reason for someone to move there. I went to a small liberal arts college that was predominately white. So when I started in theatre it just seemed normal at first.
I was part of a company for a long time that was all white men. About six years in they added a couple of women to the ensemble. (Ironically, they worked with many female directors over the years.) Scripts were chosen primarily for showcasing the ensembles talents. It is a very talented group; however, if a show didn't have roles for folks it was not considered. So you get into a repetitive pattern that is very hard to break.
As I moved farther into my adulthood, the trend became more and more noticeable. Finally, I left the old company that I had been a part of for years and Jenn and I started Halcyon. Here's the thing. The old company is the very definition of institutional racism. The company members are all really good people. Those two things unfortunately are not mutually exclusive.
Not too long ago Adam over at Mission Paradox wrote about Diversity in the Arts. In the comments someone asked, "What are your suggestions for avoiding this situation when you're seeking to diversify your theater company?"
I took a moment to give my two cents:
I can only speak from my experience in Chicago; however, the only way to do so is to be aggressive about it. It needs to be part of everything you do.
If you sit back and wait for it to happen, it won't. Putting out an audition notice ad waiting for actors to come to you won't work.
Go out and find people; talk to other companies; ask for recommendations; go to shows of culturally specific orgs; see their work and scout their talent.
So many companies say they encourage minority actors and don't reflect that on their stages. So few actually show any diversity in their work, that most actors of color won't go to an audition and waste their time so they can be offered the "ethnic role".
Thirty seconds on a company's website will tell someone if it's worth their time or not. If the company is homogeneous, and all previous shows have been filled with artists who all look the same, you need to prove you're not just providing lip-service.
Once actors see that you are in fact following through with your words, not only casting inclusively, and casting actors of color in good roles, you will start to see a vast difference in who is coming to auditions.
Once everyone sees that the theatres across the country and in Chicago start following through with their words and diversifying themselves, you will start to hear fewer charges of institutional racism. It is telling that the Goodman, which is scarily a leader among larger orgs, can honestly boast that over the last twenty years fully one-third of their productions featured artists of color. We have a long way to go as an industry and as institutions if featuring one artist of color in one-third of your productions is worth boasting about.
How do you think the theatre industry as a whole fares?