Pittsburgh theater artists unite to boost equitable casting practices
December 19, 2016 12:00 AM
Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
From left: Diep Tran, Adil Mansoor and Gab Cody participate in the Equitable Casting Town Hall on Dec. 12. The event, held at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland, was a collaboration of Pittsburgh theater artists to promote equitable hiring practices..
Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
Panelists at the Equitable Casting Town Hall, a collaboration of Pittsburgh theater artists to promote equitable hiring practices, included, from left, Ga Cody, Monteze Freeland, Siovhan Christensen and Sol Crespo.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Shakespeare wrote in a time when only white men could act in his plays, yet centuries later, his writing still speaks to the human condition.
Diep Tran, an arts journalist and associate editor of American Theatre Magazine, turned to a quote from “Hamlet” to sum up what a recent Equitable Casting Town Hall was all about: creating an environment where theater “holds a mirror up to nature” and reflects society as it exists just beyond the curtain.
In the wake of concerns about the “whitewashing” of local and national theater productions, Ms. Tran was invited to Pittsburgh to moderate a panel of local artists sharing their experiences. Twice the expected number of participants attended the Dec. 12 event at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland.
“The greatest accomplishment was the sense of community and conversation that it fostered,” said Reginald Douglas, City Theatre’s artistic producer, who helped lead groups in sharing ideas about potential solutions. “Having 140 artists from all different backgrounds and points of view all in one room, and willing to listen to one another and learn more about how these issues affect people personally and professionally, was extremely exciting and inspiring.”
Artists, directors, casting directors, programmers, educators and students engaged in a frank discussion targeting the hiring of white actors to play roles written for people of color, making equitable hiring part of companies’ DNA and the obligation to adhere to authorial intent.
“It was a great evening,” said one of the night’s organizers, Gab Cody, a playwright and a representative for the Dramatists Guild of America. “The repercussions are ongoing. We will gather as organizers in the coming days to discuss next steps.”
Other organizers included actress/activist Sol Crespo, actor-director Ricardo Vila-Roger, Bricolage Productions general manager Jackie Baker, director Stephen Santa and Tiffany Wilhelm of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.
Already, the Arts Council has been putting together a shared document of objectives. Awareness is the first step, with administrators recognizing their organizations’ “core values” — a term used often during the night. One goal for administrators was as simple as “getting outside of your comfort zone; look for and see companies, shows, performers that you haven’t seen before.”
How best to facilitate opportunities and share information was considered by all of the groups, including the creation of a central database for local auditions. Nurturing aspiring local theater artists of color, in schools and onstage, was another topic.
For writers, there was legal advice: Be specific about the racial identity of characters or stipulate that the play should never be produced with an all-white cast, and licensers and theater companies will be obligated to uphold the writer’s wishes.
“The playwriting breakout group was the beginning of a conversation we’ll continue to have both locally and nationally,” Ms. Cody said. “How do we, as playwrights, create space for more diverse bodies on stage? Women and people of color are statistically — and woefully — under-represented in all positions within the theater.”
A recent comprehensive survey by the Dramatists Guild showed that an overwhelming number of plays and musicals produced in the United States are by white men — even though Pittsburgh-born August Wilson remains the most produced American playwright for the second year in a row. Yet the U.S. Census Bureau in 2014 said there were more than 20 million children under 5 years old living in the U.S., and 50.2 percent of them were minorities — and the next wave of potential artists and theater-goers.
“We can’t have truly equitable casting until a wider array of voices are invited into the professional theater,” Ms. Cody said.
Ms. Crespo, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was one of the main voices for arranging the town hall. Her note to the room was, “See something, say something. That’s how we all got here.” As a group, the actors’ consensus was, “Show up, speak out, introduce, promote and empower yourself.”
City Theatre’s Mr. Douglas said “a company’s values are always on display” from programming to hiring, although some choices are not as obvious as others. He pointed out his company’s casting of Nick Ducassi, a Cuban-American, as a romantic lead in the spring production of “Sex With Strangers.” The role did not specify race or ethnicity.
On Thursday, the National Endowment for the Arts announced among its Art Works grants $10,000 to City for its next production, “The Royale” by Marco Ramirez. Art Works focuses on “public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning and the strengthening of communities through the arts.”
On the flip side of struggles has been the success of the diverse cast of “Hamilton,” held up as a beacon for awareness in equitable casting. During the current season, Denee Benton, Carnegie Mellon University class of 2014, is making her Broadway debut as the star of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” Her character is a Russian aristocrat from the pages of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
As a guest Dec. 13 on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Ms. Benton was asked if she was “an example of post-‘Hamilton’ casting.” She said that growing up in Florida as “a dark-skinned black girl,” she never could have guessed this could happen. Then she told the story of an African-American teenager who was backstage, “and she said, ‘I really have to bring my 6-year-old sister to see this show. Denee was a princess up there. I didn't know that we could be princesses.’”
The words reduced Ms. Benton to tears.
“Artists, and people in entertainment, we have such an incredible power to remind people of their worth, and to help people dream big, and it’s exciting to be a part of that,” she said.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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