I have been open about my personal and regional demographics. I’m an “old white guy” living in dark red dot in a blue state. I can’t see crops or livestock from my windows, but both are less than a half-mile from my front door. I routinely have deer, and even a fox or two in my yard. Yet even though I’ve lived in Miami, Manhattan and Chicago, in my life right now, I am more surprised on any given day while on my way to work to see a person of color than a wild turkey. My county is 94.6% White, non-Hispanic, 9% Latino, less than 1% Black and 1% Asian. Our town is magically more colorful in the summer when 20 or so theater professionals join us for a theatre festival. All but ONE of my current friends who are Black are those very same theatre professionals. The sum of my “friends,” Facebook plus reality, that are people of color (including Latinos, who have been in our area since the railroads were built) reflects the community in which I live. Racial statistics are almost identical for the county in which our areas most successful community theatre resides. There, the Black population increases to almost 3%. I just don’t live in a racially diverse community.
I recently attended a production of Mary Stuart at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The title role was expertly performed by a talented actress of Asian descent. At least 2 Black actors joined a cast of 13. 10 White actors to 2 Blacks and one Asian. Chicago’s Cook County has 8 times the population concentration of Blacks overall ( 24%) and 2.5 times more Latinos (25%), It must be shamefully be noted that in a city so full of trained actors there were several Canadians in the cast, and a credit for “New York Casting.” Shakespeare shows have a longer-standing practice of non-traditional casting (gender, race, etc.). Plays set in fantasy locales need not care about about the gender or skin color of a fairy or an island-dwelling monster. Polonius’ monologue to his son Laertes may just as well be spoken by a loving mother named “Polonia” sending her son off to school. Only in Othello does skin color become a casting essential.
As I continue my quest for “relevant theatre for remote venues,” I desperately want to have our local theatres reflect the complexity of the wider world. When I was one of the producer/directors of a regional comedy improv company, I credit that it was my influence that kept us from being a complete sausage party. Don’t canonize me yet; we had 3 women to 7 men in our 3-year run. When we opened, we even had a Black performer on the team. He was also in my cast of Mister Roberts. Within our run we added an another actor of Mexican descent (one of our producer/directors was also Mexican). I routinely have an assistant director who is a woman. Please don’t knit a pussy hat for me just yet. This is mostly because I have only met 2 humans who could stand my improvisational (re: spastic?) direction style. Even my redheaded blue-eyed wife will never do it again.
Local theaters usually have no shortage of women chasing available roles, but non-white casting may be a Sisyphean effort. When a local theater did Rent in in 2014, Collins, Mimi, and Angel were white. There are no racial specifications for the characters, but if any show flips a finger at racially-specific casting, it would be Rent. OK, Mimi’s last name is Marquez! One would hope that any non-specific racial casting would be filled with persons of color. Please note, the local production of To Kill a Mockingbird almost didn’t happen because Black actors simply didn’t attend the auditions. I fear that the director was nearly reduced to walking down the street with a script in one hand, and running up to unsuspecting people with the greeting, “Hey, you’re Black, would you mind reading this?”
The local professional summer stock closed last year’s season with a slightly genderbent and culturally-colorful Seussical, a nearly entirely gender-flipped Comedy of Errors, a cross-dressing dancer in Sweet Charity, and a beautiful production about two women finding love in Stop/Kiss. Alas, the feminist genius behind that vision moved on and away after artistic differences. Add to this the perspective that it is a professional theatre, and so is cast from colleges, conferences, and cattle calls from across the country. This year’s fare is more commercial, but still challenging. Non-traditional casting, if implemented, will have to be very intentional.
I return to my own quest. We have a growing sector of non-white populations in rural America. They are part of our story. Women keep theatre alive out here. They are not only our patrons, but our teachers, actors, directors, board members, administrators, costume chiefs and tailors, stage managers, conductors and pit musicians, prop masters, set painters, and housekeeping staff. With all this participation, it is harder to sell ticket to a show where women, and actors of color are the heros. As I have said before, even if we want to, we have not yet, in the category of non-whites, been able to fill the costumes. Women have, in several facets of your naughty and enlightened understandings, been able to fill out their costumes…and admirably.
How do I continue my quest for equanimity? First, I read lots and lots of plays written by women. As I may have opened Pandora’s box, I predict that I’ll be doing this almost exclusively for several years. Next, I will continue to fill my production teams with women. This fosters new directors and enlightens my creativity. I am also raising two very theatre savvy and issue-conscious women (one’s bedroom wall). In the world of non-white casting, I am open to non-white casting in roles where it is not distracting. I’m sorry, if one of the brothers in Seven Brides… is Southeast Asian, it stands out rather emphatically and begs some saucy questions. I did have a very enthusiastic Asian male attend my auditions for Proof (2005). I could not cast him because alas there is no role in Proof for a 5 foot tall 16-year-old male. I’m sorry that I never saw him again. Hell, I have wanted to do Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for years, so badly, that I work it into a conversation with any poised Black man or woman who crosses the county line and is unlucky enough to be with me in a grocery store cashier line:. “Have you ever done any theater?” Yes, it’s creepy. Of course this conversation still begs the question, “Why don’t YOU, Mr. Pleasantville Thespian step aside?” Right now, the current method of getting a show on the region’s non-professional stages is a submission from a director. Only recently, have play selection committees been proactive about seasonal offerings (and have members under 50). I will not apologize for my gender, or my ethnicity.
I cannot do it alone. I’m still one of those old white guys. I was told by a play selection committee how brave its theatre was for doing Cabaret and Chorus Line. I shot back that their audience members had been their 20s when the original productions had hit Broadway. Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and First Nation peoples please come into the theaters, read for parts and volunteer for production roles. Women, you are leaders. Form your own teams, read your sister’s plays, and submit your own concepts. And…For God’s Sake..do not make me ever have to see another production of The Marvelous Swim Club of Church Basement Nuns. I’m waiting.