Thursday, March 6, 2014

Creating a Diverse World--choices, opportunity, and trade offs for playwrights and theaters

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.)

7 comments:

Julie Hennrikus said...

Thank you Pat, for this, and your many other thoughtful posts. You drill down on a "complicated" issue, and bring up the importance of agency, and being active in choices. Thank you!

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Julie. This is the stuff that keeps me up at night. In the end, as you point out, it's the ability to actually influence this profession, this world in which we operate that is both exciting and a little scary.

David Eliet said...

An interesting article with some good points. It reminds me of debates going all the way back to the 60's. Tyrone Guthrie directed a Strindberg play (I don't remember which one), and he cast a Black actor as the son of a white couple. It was one of the first attempts at color blind casting by a major theatre (the Guthrie) in the country. There was criticism from both the white and African American communities. I can remember having a rather nasty debate about color blind casting with one of my teachers in grad school. He was opposed to the whole notion including Black actors playing traditional white roles such as Willy Lohman or Hamlet(A Prince of Denmark could not possibly be Black). Even as far back as the Restoration era in England, there was an essay damning Shakespeare's Othello on the grounds that a "blackamoor" could not possibly have reached the rank Othello reached in his career. One of the problems of saying that such-and-such a character should be played by a person of color is, if you are a white writer, are you being culturally correct? What do you as a white writer know of black culture in America? I don't know maybe those times have past, but in the 80's and early 90's, at least, for a white writer to write about any person of color or a culture other than his/her own was considered "colonizing". I think there is a difference between color blind casting and writing a part for a person of color. I mean are you just saying this or that part should be played by a person of color, or are you really writing a part for a person of color, and has your experiences in life qualified you to do so? It's an interesting debate.

David Eliet said...

An interesting article with some good points. It reminds me of debates going all the way back to the 60's. Tyrone Guthrie directed a Strindberg play (I don't remember which one), and he cast a Black actor as the son of a white couple. It was one of the first attempts at color blind casting by a major theatre (the Guthrie) in the country. There was criticism from both the white and African American communities. I can remember having a rather nasty debate about color blind casting with one of my teachers in grad school. He was opposed to the whole notion including Black actors playing traditional white roles such as Willy Lohman or Hamlet(A Prince of Denmark could not possibly be Black). Even as far back as the Restoration era in England, there was an essay damning Shakespeare's Othello on the grounds that a "blackamoor" could not possibly have reached the rank Othello reached in his career. One of the problems of saying that such-and-such a character should be played by a person of color is, if you are a white writer, are you being culturally correct? What do you as a white writer know of black culture in America? I don't know maybe those times have past, but in the 80's and early 90's, at least, for a white writer to write about any person of color or a culture other than his/her own was considered "colonizing". I think there is a difference between color blind casting and writing a part for a person of color. I mean are you just saying this or that part should be played by a person of color, or are you really writing a part for a person of color, and has your experiences in life qualified you to do so? It's an interesting debate.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Very interesting questions, David.

I think colorblind casting can be a very good thing, as well as color conscious casting--assigning roles in a non-traditional way, but that makes use of the audience's built-in baggage around race.

As to whether a white person can write a black character... Obviously, writers can't be restricted to only writing characters just like themselves--otherwise my plays would only be filled with white men in their 40s. So the argument on its face doesn't have much validity. We all write about people who are not us.

That being said, I think if I, as a white person, set out to write a play that was about what it's like to be black, well, that might not be very useful--what could I bring to that subject that someone who is black couldn't?

But it's important to keep in mind that not all plays with characters of color have to be about race, or racial identity. Every character anyone writes has some sort of racial identity, whether we're consciously aware of it or not. We all do.

I worried about this a lot with my first novel, Tornado Siren, where the main character is a bi-racial woman. But I had a young daughter, who was (and still is) black, and I felt like I really needed to start thinking outside of my exclusively white experience.

The criticism that I feared did not materialize. The book is about the intersection of science and a world beyond understanding, and a love story. Yes, it deals with race (and not always gracefully), but that's not its focus.

In some ways, I think many writers are afraid of crossing this line, and they should step carefully. And we all make mistakes. But staying in our own little racial cubicles doesn't help anyone.

chasbelov said...

Patrick, thank you for writing about this. The scary part for me is fear of getting something wrong. I wrote Rice Kugel anyway for 3 white, 4 Asian, 1 actor of color; got some things wrong; got corrected at readings; and rewrote until I got it right. I wrote My Visit to America with 3 biracial actors and 2 monoracial actors, 1 of whom could not be white and is preferably indigenous American; got some things wrong; got feedback on the first 10 pages; and rewrote the whole play based on that 10-page feedback until I think I have it right (still waiting to hear on that one). Several other plays read "Diversity in casting encouraged."

Hemlock specifies the two leads have to be of different races. One of the characters is of Spanish-speaking origin. I put a scene in that made them clearly Latino, then got cold feet and took that out. Your essay is making me think I need to take that risk and make them Latino again.

Now I'm trying to learn to write a play that specifically has good multiple roles for women.

Anyway, thank you very much for your essay. I have black and Asian cousins myself and would want them to see themselves in my plays.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks for your comment, Chas. Sounds like you've put yourself out there a couple times. And like me, when you have a personal/family imperative to write more diverse casts, it can definitely spur you forward.