There is no shortage of talk these days about racial diversity and gender parity in theater, film, and other media. In the theater-verse, the talk has been swirling around The Summit, a series of discussions with theater leaders in Washington, DC, including one meeting featuring artistic directors, where, in response to a question about lack of plays being produced by female writers, one artistic director said that there weren't enough plays by women in the "pipeline" from NYC and London, that feeds the regional theater scene. (See Elissa Goetschius's excellent report on 2AMt for more details.)
One of the key things that Elissa points out is that despite the claims about lack of supply, the leaders at those theaters are making choices about what and who to produce. The claim of not enough material in the "pipeline" seems to be intended to let the companies off the hook--the implication is--"if there was enough material that was good enough and commercial enough, we would obviously produce it." The explosive response on Twitter was electric--posts and comments full of names of talented female writers built a huge list of active women playwrights that companies could potentially consider. But most of all, the anger was, I think, due to the apparent abrogation of responsibility by the people in charge of making choices. Making choices is their job. And the results of those choices, which are public for us all to see, can not be pawned off on circumstance.
In the playwriting world, there are plenty of white, liberal playwrights expressing their anger against the people in charge of choosing seasons and the apparent exclusionary results. And part of that anger, I'd suggest, comes from a frustration and powerlessness many writers feel about how plays are picked.
Which is fine. However, I'd like to see (white) playwrights think about taking a close look at themselves when it comes to the subject of racial diversity. The cool part about being a playwright is that we each get to make our own worlds. We don't control the outside universe and what plays get produced, but we do completely control the plays we write and who is in them. As a result, we get to pick, to some extent, the racial make up of the people with whom we work on developing our plays.
But it's a choice. And I'm not sure a lot of white playwrights realize how much influence they have on the racial composition of our artform. If you want to work in a racially diverse atmosphere, and you're a white writer, you're going to need to write plays with multi-racial casts.
For me, I'm a white father with two black kids, so race is a part of my everyday life. Working with a racially diverse group of actors is really important to me. It's important to my family--my son, who is 14, lights up when he sees a black actor on stage (or on film or reads a black character in a book)--he's always looking for a chance to see a reflection of himself. I don't always write plays about race, but I try hard not to have all-white casts. I write novels, too, and I always write books that are not exclusively populated by white people.
You might say, "Well, I don't specify race in my cast list, so that means the roles can be played by actors of any race." That might happen. In some of my historical plays, I've actually written a note as part of the cast list, saying something: "though these people were historically European, they can be played by actors of any racial background." This can kind of work.
But you know what's really going to happen. The roles will very likely be cast white. The only way to guarantee that you have people of color acting in your plays is to be racially specific. (And to say No, when a producer asks if the role can be played by a white person.)
Which comes with trade offs. It means your play is less likely to be produced. I know this and accept this, because I have a compelling personal interest in a racially diverse theater. But it's still sometimes hard to accept that my latest script is going to have a much harder time getting on stage, and that I could make it a lot easier by making the characters all white.
Why does this happen? It has to do with how many theatre companies form. I submit a lot of scripts, and often burgeoning ensembles in New York and Chicago come to my attention. Time and time again, I check out their web sites, and see all these young faces, many fresh out of college, eager to work together and change the world of theater through innovative takes on classics and exciting new plays. And often, in the About Us section, they have photos and bios of all the company members. Time and after time, every member is white. I don't bother submitting my work to them.
We, in theater, need to understand that in our profession, the issues we face around racial diversity and gender parity are the results of choices. And those choices send messages. It's not just small companies. Even though large institutional theaters might program work by diverse artists (in my recent survey of Boston theaters, the largest companies programmed much more racial diversity), they often make very different choices about whom they hire for their leadership and administrative staff. It's great to have a mission statement that talks about diversity, but if your staff is all white, that sends a message that's a thousand times louder than any carefully crafted prose.
And people notice. Some of us notice if we only see white people at your theater, some of us notice if we go to a conference and it is filled with white faces (who might be talking a lot about diversity). I'm a numbers guy and the father of black children--you can bet that I never enter a room and don't take a quick racial survey. Never. And I'm a white man--I carry a big sack of privilege with me into that room (see Peggy McIntosh's famous essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack). The message is only incidentally being received by me, but it's being sent loud and clear to the people of color in that room--we do not take racial diversity as seriously as we say we do.
If you're a white playwright, this might not matter to you. If you're a white theater-maker, it might not matter to you. But if you say that it is important, understand that you have the power to do something about it. You don't get to blame the "pipeline." Geena Davis has a great essay, Two Easy Steps to Make Hollywood Less Sexist. The basic answer is that writers can add more women to the films that they write.
The same can work for racial diversity in theater. Ask yourself if your characters must be white. Right now, the vast majority of work being premiered on stage is written by white writers. If those white writers diversify their characters, they will diversify the acting pool, which will ultimately help diversify the leadership pool, all of which will diversify audiences.
I'm not saying that you need to write "about race." I'm saying you might want to consider changing some characters from white to people of color and see what happens. There are scary parts about this--you will get fewer productions, you might be challenged on how you choose to write those characters, you might find out things about yourself that are uncomfortable. You might change.
And you might change the world of theater in which we work.
But no matter how you proceed, understand that you have made a choice. And the results of that choice are a lot more visible than you might realize.
(In case you're interested, I wrote another post a while back called, A White Guy Writing about Race, about my play Pieces of Whitey, about well-meaning white people. Which actually did have an all-white cast, but for very specific reasons. Which did not entirely pan out.)