I wrote this satirical piece the other night out of frustration with Chicago’s Porchlight Theatre, which is doing In the Heights with white actors playing leading characters of color. Companies like Porchlight have oversimplified what it means to do diversity, believing apparently that saying they “tried” is enough. This is an oversimplification because it is actually complicated, difficult, and time-consuming to build alliances and trust and find new people to work with. But since theaters that do this are being simplistic, I thought maybe they could use a similarly simplistic program to help them achieve diversity.

Welcome! If you’re reading this, you’re a white artist who has decided to do a show that has characters of color in it, and you’re wondering, “What do I do next?”

When you committed to producing a show that has characters of color in it, you committed to expending the resources – both financial and temporal – necessary to hiring artists of color to play those roles.

If you don’t already know a lot of artists of color, there’s no time to waste, so let’s get started! Just follow this simple 6-step technique, and you’ll not only find artists of color with whom to collaborate, you’ll also protect yourself from the media shit-storm that will happen if you don’t!

  1. Start by contacting the professionals of color in your community and letting them know you plan to produce this show. Ask them for advice, recommendations, thoughts, endorsements, warnings, and anything else they are willing to offer.
  1. Offer something in return.
  1. Do not cast white actors to play characters of color.
  1. Do not produce the show if you can’t “find” actors of color to play the roles.
  1. If you can’t “find” actors of color to play characters of color, ask yourself, “Where am I looking?” If you are looking in the same places you’ve always looked and only ever found white actors, you’re not looking in the right place.
  1. Look in different places.

Easy enough! But what about the artistic staff, you’re wondering?

  1. Interview directors, choreographers, designers, and stage managers of color.
  1. Hire them.
  1. Acknowledge their expertise.
  1. Do not produce the show if your entire artistic staff is white.
  1. If you can’t “find” any artists of color to work on your show, ask yourself, “Where am I looking?” If you are looking in the same places you’ve always looked and only ever found white artists, you’re not looking in the right place.
  1. Look in different places.

I know that’s a lot to do in a short period of time, so you better get started!

Godspeed, white ally!

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 Originally published by tcg on August 27, 2014
Post image for #Ferguson: They Who Have the Guns Have the Power

Torie Wiggins as Mimi, Meggy Hai Trang as Anita, Keisha Kemper as Harry, Burgess Byrd as Shilo, Ken Early as Maddox, Darnell Benjamin as Knox, Jon Kovach as Overseer Jones, and Sola Thompson as Vivian. Photo by Daniel R. Winters

(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MOThis series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia AlickMica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

I was on a plane back to Los Angeles from Cincinnati the day Michael Brown was shot. Having been on the road for 11 weeks, it was a few days before I could focus on anything other than sleep. When I came to and took in the full weight of what was going on in Ferguson, I was saddened and horrified, but not surprised. And as with all of these kinds of shootings, I was very aware of my privilege as a white woman – I have never had to fear the police – and also as an artist who has the chance to make and remake the world through theater. Theater has the potential to remind us who we are, who we have been, and who we might become.

The play I just directed at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati , Harry and the Thief, by Sigrid Gilmer, has become the lens through which I am interpreting the unfolding events in Ferguson; through which I am finding relief from my anger about police brutality and the evolution of America’s prison-industrial complex, especially as it affects poor people of color; and through which I am able to see Ferguson as what it is: American history repeating and repeating and repeating itself.

This is not just because the play is funny (it is) and I really, really need a laugh right now (I do). It’s not just because the writing, acting, and design are really, really good (they are). And it’s not just because the play reminds me that America’s original sin – that of slavery – reverberates and challenges and corrupts our culture on every level and at every moment in our history, including now (it does). It’s because the play creates an alternate reality in which the people with the power to decide who lives and who dies are black.

Harry and the Thief, a play in which a woman travels back in time to provide weapons to Harriet Tubman, is the definition of “empowering:” It uses the fact that Tubman’s life was so fantastical as to seem fictional to create a world in which black people have much more power than they had then and now. In real life, a teenaged Tubman intervened in an argument between a slave and the overseer to whom she had been hired out that day, and she was hit in the head with a two-pound iron weight for her trouble. When she was 27, she ran away with her brothers, who promptly got scared and forced her to turn back. Two weeks later, she left on her own and made it to freedom. When Tubman became involved with the Underground Railroad, she gladly accepted the title of Moses, declaring that God had in fact called her to go down South and bring up her brothers and sisters. Though she was a woman, the majority of the slaves she led to freedom were men. She not only attended abolitionist meetings in the North but also spoke from the stage to audiences composed primarily of white males. Tubman, in short, had some serious, if metaphorical, balls.

Ann Petry on Harriet Tubman

Image from the cover of Ann Petry’s book on Harriett Tubman

This manly degree of strength is epitomized in the iconography, established long ago and exploited by Gilmer in the play, of Tubman wielding that most phallic of tools: A gun. Depictions of Tubman with a weapon have always been controversial, especially to those who would rather think of her as a religious leader than as a soldier, but they are truthful nonetheless. During the war she almost certainly carried the rifle shown in most images of “the General”. During her time as Moses, she carried a pistol, and as Gilmer dramatizes, she used that pistol to intimidate scared escapees into continuing. Significantly, however, no record exists of Tubman ever actually injuring anyone.

Just as the real Tubman never shot any of the fugitives in her care, in Harry and the Thief, when the fictional character of Vivian is provided with multiple opportunities to shoot the unarmed white overseer who repeatedly raped her, she chooses not to.[1] Though Mimi, modern gunslinger and time-traveler, questions Harry’s decision to even let the overseer tag along on their journey, Harry and Vivian see him as a person just as in need of freedom as anybody else. In fact Gilmer goes so far as to redeem both of the white characters in the play by having them be sorry, making the “fiction” part of her “historical fiction” the provision of a kind of closure to that period of our history that in reality, neither white nor black Americans have ever had.

In reality, black women, who are both more likely to experience assault and less likely to report it than white women, rarely have the chance either to punish or forgive their attackers. In reality, racists, rapists, and human traffickers rarely say that they are sorry even when they are caught. In reality, it is not militarized black women who are a threat to unarmed white men. Rather, black Americans are profiled, discriminated against, segregated, jailed, impoverished, and denied access to justice at astonishing rates. A black man in this country can be shot for holding a toy gun. A black woman who fires a warning shot to fend off an attacker can be put in jail for the rest of her life. A black teenager can be stalked and killed by a vigilante who is later found innocent by a jury of his peers. It goes on and on.

But Harry and the Thief does not just offer insight to people who already agree with me about race, guns, and power in America. It can also be enlightening to people who are wondering whether the alleged petty crime Michael Brown committed or the marijuana in his system somehow did make him a threat and to people who think that a few looters and a Molotov cocktail that didn’t light might justify bringing attack dogs to peaceful protests, using tear gas, and calling in the National Guard. Gilmer’s humorous flipping of the script can enable anyone to see that, whether in fiction or reality, it’s the people with the weapons that have the power.

Theaters looking to do something to spark discussion of Ferguson in their communities should take a look at Gilmer’s play. Whether your audiences are primarily composed of people whose legitimate rage over injustices committed against black people in Ferguson needs the temporary remediation of laughter, or people whose sympathy with a white cop’s fear of a tall black teenager needs the remediation of witnessing a truly disempowered person holding a gun on someone who is actually a threat to her very existence and choosing not to shoot, this play has much to offer. People in the second group might even be prompted to ask themselves, if a young fugitive slave who was forced to carry her rapist’s child against her will can believably hold her attacker, who has hunted her down at night in the woods, at gunpoint and yet choose to let him live, then why, in the middle of the day, can a white cop with a gun not manage to do the same for an unarmed black teenager who, to the cop’s knowledge, had done nothing worse than walk in the street instead of on the sidewalk? [2]

In Ferguson, the police and the National Guard have the guns. They have the dogs, the riot gear, the batons, and the tear gas. They have the power. They are the threat to the lives, safety, and freedom of the citizens living there, not the other way around.

If you’re in Cincinnati, check out The Know Theatre’s production of Harry and the Thief, which runs through Saturday, August 30.

[1] Vivian does use her gun to shoot Confederate soldiers during the war, which is completely different from shooting an unarmed man in peace time.

[2] This is according to the police department’s original statement. The shooter has since changed his version of events.

photo1Originally posted at Ms. in the Biz

It’s staffing season for television, and many of us are playing close attention to gender and race of writers getting hired. A report from the Writer’s Guild of America revealed that in the 2011-2012 season, female writers made up only 30.5% of TV staffs. Racial minorities fared even worse, comprising only 15.6%. (A UCLA study based on publicly available data put the number for women at 32.8% in broadcast television and 27.1% in cable. That study found that only 7.4% of cable writers are minorities while only 10% of broadcast writers are.)

A number of causes collude to keep staffs primarily white and male, with one of the big ones being cumulative advantage. Originally an economic theory, cumulative advantage posits that “once a social agent gains a small advantage over other agents, that advantage will compound over time into an increasingly larger advantage.” In other words, the rich get richer. As social theory, cumulative advantage is what creates white, male privilege. When young white boys are encouraged by their parents, teachers, and communities to aim high while girls are told to focus on marriage and minorities on service-industry jobs, when white boys are praised over their lifetime for whatever they do while the hard work of the girls and minorities around them goes unnoticed, and when they are put in leadership positions more readily than girls and minorities, they begin their careers as grown men with the advantage of an impressive resume and an unparalleled sense of confidence. Women and minorities with the same levels of experience and confidence have inevitably had to work twice as hard with half the support.

In television writing, white male advantage continues to accumulate as they find themselves more easily staffed, more quickly promoted, and more readily offered opportunities to develop new shows than women and minorities. Though diversity programs have begun to open doors for new writers, the best known of which provides a financial incentive to shows to staff a diverse writer by paying that writer’s salary, these programs rely on the idea that the opportunity will be the beginning of an accumulation of advantage for that writer. In a recent interview, Director of Diversity at the WGA, Kimberly Myers, told me that success of these programs depends on the extent to which showrunners and producers support diversity hires:

You have to get everybody at the network level and the development level out of the mindset that diverse writers are only staff writers. It’s great to have a way in, but once they are in the ranks, are you developing pilots with them, and if not why not? It only works if the writers are properly integrated into the staff and not marginalized and supported—it’s a mentoring business, that’s how the business works.

Another reason more women and minorities don’t get staffed and promoted at the same rates as white men is the idea of “fit.” When a show is hiring, they’re looking for someone who fits into the culture of their writer’s room. In a recent article on how this phenomenon works in newsrooms, writer Aboubacar Ndiaye put it this way:

Fit is the unquantifiable variable which makes you think that you will be able to gchat stupid gifs with someone, or drink craft brewed beer/fair trade coffee/single terroir wine with them, or bemoan the sorry state of the local sports franchise with them. It is the bro/homegirl quality, the affability borne out of similar backgrounds and similar experiences. The truth is that we organize our lives around this feeling. We seek spaces that provide the maximum amount of conviviality, from the right kind of city, to the right kind of neighborhood, to the right kind of friends and romantic partners. But when this ethos is transferred into the workplace, it leads not just to a comfortable environment, but to an exclusionary one and a moribund one.

Even once a woman or minority writer has met the “good fit” requirement, actually being in the room requires that they continue to prove their fit daily. In an article on The XX Factor/Slate, Dan Harmon (Community) said that in his experience, female staffers “do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty.” Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under) shared that, “When I used to be in writers’ rooms with men, I would always try to be the most inappropriate person in the room, to tell the dirtiest jokes. It was a way of communicating that I could play with the boys. It made it harder for them to count me out.”

But this approach can backfire. Whereas men who are crass are seen as funny, crass women and minorities can be dismissed as inappropriate. Men who speak up about and defend their ideas are seen as visionary, whereas women and minorities who do the same thing are often seen as pushy or, when it’s a woman, bitchy. Being the only woman or minority in the room puts a person in the position of having to choose between a rock and hard place: S/he can conform to fit in or be themselves, but either way, s/he will face resistance from someone.

Imagine if all the energy these writers have to spend fitting in could be spent on, you know, writing. Imagine how much less time these writers would have to spend navigating sex and race if they weren’t the only ones of their kind in the room. Imagine how much better television would be.

Unfortunately, the continued lack of diversity in writer’s rooms makes me think too many people lack the ability to imagine that. So next time you find yourself in conversation with a showrunner or producer who just doesn’t see why having a diverse writer’s room is important, here’s a few reasons that may speak to them on their level.

 10 Reasons Your Show Should Staff a Diverse Writer

10. Because they generally earn less than white men, they can save you a lot of money.

9. Women will inevitably bring moderate to major room-odor improvements.

8. When viewers of color get pissed that the one character you wrote that represents them is an offensive stereotype, your minority writer can explain why they’re so angry. Better yet, s/he may be able to keep you from making that mistake in the first place.

7. When women viewers get pissed because all of your characters are defined entirely as mothers, wives, nurses, or sluts, women staffers can explain why that sucks. Better yet, she may be able to keep you from making that mistake in the first place.

6. Chicks dig dudes who hire chicks.

5. Being able to say, “Some of my best writers are minorities,” upon committing a racial faux pas can get you out of some sticky binds.

4. Prostate exam jokes: Cliché. Gynecological exam jokes on the other hand …

3. White dudes making jokes about people of other races: Not cool. People of color making jokes about white people: Hilarious.

2. Even some zombies are women and minorities.

1. Women and minorities represent a paltry percentage of writing staffers but are far and away the majority of the viewing audience, and their jokes, stories, and perspectives make for damn good television.

At a recent summit of DC-area artistic directors, Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre made a reference to the infamous “pipeline” of new talent that runs from New York and London to America’s regional theaters, claiming that there are not enough plays by women in this pipeline for his theater to produce. The idea of this pipeline is nothing new, but importantly, it is not inviolable.

Pre-Revolution, the colonies actually had three equally important centers of theatrical production—Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—all of which primarily presented British plays. Theater in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania was limited by the Puritan philosophy that writing your own worlds into being is an offense to God, the ultimate playwright of our theatrum mundi. New York, on the other hand, being primarily a center of commerce, managed to develop a theater culture that continued through the Revolution (even when it was illegal) and beyond.

As the young Republic expanded, theaters founded without reference to one another sprang up in other parts of the country. It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth-century, when railroads allowed the exportation of both commerce and culture, that these theaters became stops on tours of shows created in New York. Then, in the early twentieth-century, a locally-sourced Little Theater Movement began in Chicago and took hold throughout the country, spawning a generation of dramatists that did not live in New York. Federalism reasserted itself in the sixties, when local theaters of a certain size joined together under LORT, an organization based in New York, and regional theaters once again became aesthetic subsidiaries of Broadway, Inc.

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, local artists are again asserting control over the means of production and claiming American theater for themselves. The huge Twitter response to the reference to the pipeline made at “The Summit” revealed a deeply felt frustration at the unwillingness of artistic directors to recognize that forty-year-old notions of what makes great theater are no longer relevant. Sure, New York still has more theater than most other places, but there is no longer any reason to believe that it is any better.

Furthermore, by limiting themselves to plays, playwrights, directors, and actors based in New York, non-New York theaters run the risk of presenting material that has little relation to the lived experiences of their audiences. As anyone who follows politics can tell you, inhabitants of different regions often hold sharply distinct if not altogether contradictory beliefs. The primary industries that drive the economy in America’s various regions are vastly different, meaning that the work lives of the people who live there are vastly different. Even the environment itself, from the weather to the landscape, has an influence on the thinking and values of people who live in it.

Additionally, theaters that insist on relying on talent that has already proven itself in New York perpetuate a theater that is inevitably elite. New York City is expensive. Self-producing, acting in showcases, assistant directing for free, and interning all require steady income streams from elsewhere. Very few people are able to do this without significant family support. Companies that aim to produce theater for a diverse audience cannot expect to do so while only producing plays written and directed by people born into privilege.

Of course some artists not born into privilege who work three jobs and do theater for free in New York do manage to find success in regional theaters. But even those people, unless they happened to grow up in New York, have uprooted themselves from their communities and families and transplanted themselves to one of the most difficult cities in which to live in the world. Yes, some artists are inspired by New York. Yes, some are glad to leave their previous lives behind. Others are overwhelmed and exhausted. How much American talent are we actually crushing by needlessly requiring that people spend years of indentured servitude in New York for the privilege of having their plays produced in theaters not in New York?

New York does have at least one quality that sets it apart in terms of its theater community. In New York, the big theaters pay attention to the small theaters. Even a small show can get reviewed, and if it does well, it can get the attention of the legacy theaters. The artists who created it will often be invited to remount the production at a bigger theater, or they may be hired, based on that success, to work there on something else. This is why a few emerging artists can develop a national reputation by working in New York.

But the synergy of the New York theater community is not an argument for regional theaters to only do plays that come out of New York. It is an argument for regional theaters to develop the same level of synergy with the other theaters in their cities. In fact, regional theaters could save a ton of money by developing new work with artists for whom they don’t have to provide housing and a per diem.

The lack of men of color and women in the pipeline is an excuse used to justify seasons that fail to achieve diversity and gender parity. But New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. If success there is the barometer by which plays are chosen for regional productions, LORT theaters would be producing plays developed by Intar, The Women’s Project Theater, and the National Black Theatre, to name just a few New York institutions devoted to developing work by underrepresented groups. Rather, the same dated notions of who and what makes good theater that lead artistic directors to rely on a mythical pipeline also keep them from recognizing the surfeit of diverse talent in New York and across the country.

Though New York remains the center of American commercial theater, companies across the country need not largely rely on plays created in that place for that audience. Today, the pipeline flows in many directions at once. Theaters genuinely interested in serving their communities would do well to develop twenty-first century ways of making theater.

Originally published by HowlRound

The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation recently hosted a panel discussion on diversity in Southern Californian theater at the Pasadena Playhouse. “Diversity: Through a Director’s Eye” featured Tim Dang, Artistic Director of East West Players; Seema Sueko, Associate Artistic Director of Pasadena Playhouse; Christopher Ashley, Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse; Marc Masterson, Artistic Director of South Coast Repertory; Jessica Kubzansky, co-Artistic Director of The Theatre @ Boston Court; Barry Edelstein, Artistic Director of The Old Globe; Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director of Pasadena Playhouse; and Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director of Center Theatre Group.

For a panel on diversity, the participants were not very diverse: Dang is of Asian descent, Epps is black; and Sueko is a half-Japanese, half-Pakistani, Muslim American. In other words, five of the panelists were white. Only two were women. None were Latino.

Early on, Jessica Kubzansky of Boston Court mentioned that her perspective on the necessity of developing a diverse audience, casting a diverse range of actors, and producing a diverse range of shows was completely changed when she attended a previous panel on which Tim Dang also spoke. To that end, I can understand why the organizers might have believed that inviting white male artistic directors of major theaters to participate might ultimately produce results: They, like Kubzansky did, could have heard something that will effect genuine changes in their programming.

And the need for genuine changes is evident. Of twenty-three plays in their 2013–14 season, Center Theatre Group did only two plays by women (one a woman of color) and five by male writers of color (four of which were one-man shows). In other words sixteen of CTG’s shows were written by white men. In a twelve-play season (not including the as-yet-unannounced Pacific Playwrights Festival shows), South Coast Repertory did three plays by women, one of whom is Asian American. Nine plays were by white men. Interestingly, La Jolla Playhouse, still in the shadow of last year’s controversy over yellowface casting in The Nightingale, has a far more diverse season this year.

This particular framing of the conversation about the need for diversity in the American theater has been happening since the 1980s, and all of the participants at this panel indicated that their audiences are increasingly tolerant of experimentation and risk. So why have these artistic directors, who proclaimed loudly and repeatedly their dedication to diversity, made so little progress? Why have they continued to find themselves in hot water for casting choices, such as with The Nightingale, and programming choices that continue to not reflect the diversity of our field?

Edelstein acknowledged that ticket prices create a major barrier to entry for audiences, and that as long as the business model of major American theaters relies on ticket prices, that problem will remain. Michael Ritchie of CTG admitted that, whereas he can read a play or watch an audition and decide to take a chance on a playwright or actor, he has a hard time trusting unknown directors. However, the biggest obstacles to progress were most evident in the assumptions underlying many of the statements made by the white male artistic directors, statements that on the surface imply an interest in diversity but, when examined, reveal a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to do the work that it takes to implement lasting changes.

Marc Masterson of South Coast Repertory shared that his desire to diversify stems from a “curiosity about the human condition.” He is “curious about what it means to be a humanist” and curious about the way his organization is and is not reflecting his community. As anyone who has spent any time fighting inequality will tell you, curiosity is not enough to get the job done. Changing the status quo requires strategy, action, and accountability, not passive curiosity. One of the prevalent claims of Western theater is that the white male experience represents the human experience—that white males are universal—and anyone who subscribes to this theory can presumably satisfy his curiosity without ever producing a play by or about women or men of color. In fact the SCR season reflects the limitations of relying purely on curiosity to diversify.

Christopher Ashley furthered the notion that plays by women and racial and sexual minorities are not representative of the universal human experience when he referred to us as competing “interest groups:” Women and racial and sexual minorities are not constituents of his theater, they are not artists invested in making high-quality work, they are interest groups lobbying him for resources:

“Sometimes different interest groups can feel in competition with each other in unhealthy ways. This past year there was a lot of conversation—for example, at the TCG conference—about breaking the glass ceiling of gender, or should we focus on race, who gets included in the conversation, and is it a really finite pie where there’s only so much progress to be made?”

Though resources are indeed scarce, every single feminist I know (and that is quite a few) are what’s called “intersectional,” which means they are as deeply invested in racial, ethnic, religious, LGBTQ, and economic justice as they are in gender. As a member of an oppressed group, I consider myself an ally to every member of every other oppressed group. Women and racial and sexual minorities are not competing with one another. We—a united majority—are competing with the assumptions that lead artistic directors to allot white men—a minority of the population—the majority of their theaters’ resources.

When audience member, local playwright, and Artistic Director of Casa 0101 Josefina Lopez asked whether CTG is conscious of the fact that they discriminate against West Coast playwrights, Ritchie replied,

“It’s not discrimination. Regardless of my responsibilities in my job, I also have my own personal morals, ethics, experience, and the things that guide my life as well as my job. I was lucky enough to grow up in family at a time and in a town that was as liberal as it could be. So the choices that we make at that theater have nothing to do with discrimination. On my staff, diversity of voices and specifically in playwrights is something that is discussed every day.”

As with Masterson’s “curiosity,” I contend that “discussion” is not enough, nor is being liberal. Everyone is affected by the patriarchal rule of white men—we all live under it and we are all subliminally influenced by it. The essential first step in changing the homogeny that still exists in the upper echelons of the American theater is acknowledging the legacy of privilege that led to the creation of that homogeneity.

Given that no fewer than three references were made in the course of the evening to The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, where I was privileged to work for two years under George C. Wolfe, I was floored to hear Ritchie further proclaim that, “I haven’t run the numbers, but it is my expectation that CTG has probably produced more diverse plays than any other theater in the country. I could be wrong.” In reality, only 30 percent of CTG’s season was written by women and racial minorities, and the majority of those were one-person shows, meaning that the majority of the actors on stage were also white. Very few people consciously discriminate, but Ritchie’s own theater’s track record and his lack of awareness of it betrays the notion that being raised liberal is enough to effect change.

Not surprisingly, the most practical advice of the evening came from the one woman of color on the panel. Seema Sueko offered,

“One of the biggest obstacles is intentionality and the assumption that we know what the community wants or needs, as opposed to having a real conversation. I don’t think we should assume we’re the solution to the community’s problems. Rather we need communities more than communities need us. And so we have to engage in genuine conversation where our action should be listening.”

In that vein, Kubzansky told the audience, “Those of you who have great ideas about how to make better reaches, I would love to know. Please see me because frankly it’s an ongoing quest, and I don’t know that we are always successful. So great ideas are gladly appreciated.”

Tim Dang encouraged his colleagues to diversify at the same rate as the population or risk becoming obsolete, and urged more mentorship of young directors and writers of color “in the pipeline” as well as a dispersal of authority over that pipeline. Edelstein echoed the statement with an acknowledgment that institutions must throw their resources behind developing young artists. Ashley, on the other hand, encouraged young directors to be more aggressive about getting his attention, suggesting the only reason that women and racial and sexual minorities aren’t getting more work is that they aren’t trying hard enough.

Sheldon Epps volunteered that “we have to be able to tolerate the messiness of the conversation about diversity,” repeating something the moderator had encouraged everyone to do in the course of the evening. So, as the audience-question period came to a rapid close and I had not yet been called upon, despite raising my hand and standing up, I moved towards the stage and shouted, “I’m being aggressive! Take my question!” They did not.

My question was going to be why the lack of gender parity on stage and in the choice of directors and writers getting produced was not a part of the evening’s conversation at all—but it was clear that an aggressive means of approach will not necessarily yield results any more than curiosity, humanism, and liberalism will.

Evelina Fernandez of the Latino Theater Company recently told me that she wishes Latino artists would create their own movement rather than pursuing success through major regional theaters. If this panel was any sign of the opportunities available for women and racial and sexual minorities in big Los Angeles theaters, we’re going to have to start more than a movement. We’re going to have to start a revolution.

Los Angeles is a very naturally post-modern city. There’s no center. There’s disparate elements jutting up against each other. It’s just so jagged and fragmented–even the start stop in the traffic. But I feel like it’s going to be the 21st-century American city because the internet makes it less important how the physical organization of the city works. This is the geographical articulation of our moment in time.

— Alice Tuan

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Originally posted at HowlRound.

The country’s longest running theater of color, Los Angeles’ East West Players, is approaching it’s 48th season. Founded in the wake of the Watts Rebellion (1965) to promote healing in the city by sharing stories from within ethnic communities, East West Players has premiered over 100 plays and musicals about the Asian American experience.

Artistic Director Tim Dang explained that in the early days of the company, Asian American actors were eager to play Chekov and Shakespeare in traditional productions, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began a writer’s program to develop work specifically by Asian American writers. Today they do new plays and musicals and classics resituated in an Asian context.

Originally located in a church basement in Silver Lake, East West Players moved to its current home in Little Tokyo in 1998. Dang relates,

We thought would be easy to become part of the neighborhood and grow our audience from a 99- to 240-seat theater, but that did not happen. We definitely had to work very hard to get our audience come to a new destination and to make sure other Asian ethnicities didn’t think we were just a Japanese theater.

Today their audience is 54% Asian and 46% non-Asian. 75% of all Asian Pacific performers in the acting unions living in Los Angeles have worked there. The company has become a leader in Hollywood in advocating for Asian American story lines and characters and has contributed to the national dialogue around whitewashing (casting white actors to play ethnic roles).

To meet the demands of their multicultural productions, East West Players has developed a very specific casting policy which states that if a character has to speak a foreign language or is from another country, the actor has to be of that country’s descent. If the character is Asian American and only speaks English, they consider any Asian actor for the role. Dang thinks this casting policy will continue to evolve as America’s racial landscape does:

In two decades 50% of Americans under the age of 30 will be mixed race. Mixed-race actors now have trouble getting cast because they either don’t look Asian enough or they don’t look white enough. Interestingly, Equity has okayed the moniker “ethnically ambiguous” for casting. So when we look for actors now, we look for Pacific Highlander, South Asian, and ethnically ambiguous. And as more and more children are born out of interracial marriages, East West Players’ casting policy will have to continue to evolve.

The head of the playwriting program at the California Institute of the Arts, Alice Tuan–who grew up in Los Angeles but ironically has never had a full production here–articulated a similar notion of the shifting moment she is experiencing as a writer:

Originally, I wanted to write myself into the culture. I spent 20 years building a body of work presenting the perspective of ‘If we all are citizens and self-determining and self-defining then we are constantly narrating who we are in the culture.’ Now life has gotten more subjective because everybody has more possession of what determines and defines their lives: blogging, texting, internet-ing. People are really expressing themselves a lot. And so as things are shifting the reason for narration is changing.

Tuan’s play Iggy Woo was read as part of a spring reading series produced by Artists at Play, an three-year-old Asian American theater company whose model Tuan says reflects the fact that 20th-century institutions can not always represent the complexities of our time.

2aatAn affiliation of four producers (Julia Cho, Peter J. Kuo, Stefanie Wong Lau, and Marie-Reine Velez), Artists at Play has done one full production per year and a reading series as part of their mission to present theatrical productions “missing from our local landscape” that tell the stories of underrepresented communities.

According to the producers, the script for their first production, Ching Chong Chinaman, by Lauren Yee, had been passed over by traditional institutions because of it’s satirical portrayal of offensive stereotypes. Cho says that’s what it made it perfect for Artists at Play:

Ching Chong Chinaman would have been a huge risk for a theater with a subscription base. For us it was a way of making a mark and establishing what we’re about. This play delves into stereotypes in an absurd, inappropriate way that turns them on their head. We’re focused on finding new plays that tell new stories in new ways.

Though the shows that the producers are drawn to are by and about Asian Americans, they hope to move beyond a term that they say feels limiting because of the assumption that Asian American theater is always about the immigrant narrative and generational cultural identity. Velez put it this way:

The last show we did and our upcoming production involve Asian American characters but their race doesn’t dictate who they are, it’s just a part of who they are. We explore the intersections of Asian American identity–like sexuality, class, all the different aspects that make a whole person.

Cho elaborated:

Our next play deals with interracial dating and contains specifically Asian characters, but you can broaden it out to be about interracial dating between any races because there’s always assumptions people bring to the table based on the stereotypes of those races.

The youth of the producers and the collective rather than institutionalized structure of Artists at Play is reflected not just in their content, but also in their fundraising and use of social media. For each production, they create an Indiegogo campaign. They’ve held several “Epic Yard Sales” during which they sell items donated by audience members. They once held a rock-paper-scissors tournament in which supporters paid to participate. At present, Artists at Play has no plans to rent an office, nor do the producers want to quit their day jobs. They meet in person once a week and use Google Hangout to work together online.

Los Angeles’ geographic size, it’s status as home to the entertainment industry, and it’s 15% Asian population mean that the city has plenty of room for Asian American artists and theaters of all kinds. And yet, you can see more diversity in a quick glance around any neighborhood than you can on the non-ethnic-specific stages of the city. Cho wonders if Hollywood has a trickle down effect on Los Angeles theater:

Maybe it’s an LA thing because the industry is so afraid to take chances. Asians are still seen as the other. People can’t wrap their heads around justifying the presence of this person who looks different. But it’s 2013 and theater involves suspension of disbelief. Shouldn’t we be able to play and take risks and have a family of actors that are all various shapes and colors? It’s theater. Why can’t we do that?

Hollywood Fringe PicOriginally posted at HowlRound.

This year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival–only the fourth in it’s history–featured 212 separate productions in 50 different spaces for a total of more than 1,000 performances. They took in $258,000, all of which went directly back to the individual productions. For a city not known for its theater, that’s no small beans.

The Hollywood Fringe, like most Fringe Festivals, places a premium on being uncurated: Provided you can afford the $250 registration fee, the rental of a theater, and your own marketing and production expenses, anyone can participate.  Unlike with the New York International Film Festival, which is curated and provides space and publicity for its shows, participants in the Hollywood Fringe are required to be their own producers, from choosing a suitable venue to targeting their audience to setting their own ticket prices. As with individually mounted productions, every show keeps 100% of their ticket sales.

This focus on entrepreneurship constitutes one of the central aims of the company behind the Hollywood Fringe. Los Angeles is flush with actors and directors, but despite all the film producers, the city has relatively few theatrical producers. Festival Director Ben Hill says he structured the Fringe as a collective of self-produced shows in order to solve that problem:

To run any kind of theatrical endeavor in this town you can’t just throw a bunch of actors together and think that fantastic things are going to happen. You need at least one person that is business-minded, that knows how to put a marketing plan together, to create the financial environment in which great art can thrive. Otherwise all the actors are always stressing about money and they shouldn’t be. They should be stressing about creating great art.

In addition to providing participating shows with discounts from marketing vendors and affordable theater rental prices, the Hollywood Fringe offers artists a kind of producer-training program in the form of town halls and workshops that guide artists through creating a budget, a Kickstarter, and a marketing plan.

As a result, the Festival hosts productions of all sizes, from one person sitting in a chair to multi-media productions to musicals with live bands, reflecting an astonishing variety of ways to make theater. The downside to this structure is that groups with more money can afford a nicer space, better design, more marketing, and ads in the Fringe program, which constitutes an advantage over other participants in attracting audiences and winning the coveted Festival awards.

The awards ceremony was the first time I had the opportunity to see all of the Fringe participants in one place, and though I thought I had seen a number of shows, I was astonished by the number of productions I hadn’t even heard of. Because the central Fringe organization provides no marketing for the actual productions, the only way for shows to get the attention of the press is to have the money and know-how to pitch us on their own. I therefore chose what to see not based on content, style, or on what the HowlRound audience would be interested– in fact the Fringe website provides little guidance in sorting through hundreds of offerings–but rather on which individual shows invited me.

At the ceremony, I was disappointed to see that though I had attended a number of shows by people of color, I had actually seen most of the shows by people of color at the Festival. Furthermore, many of the shows I saw were by black writers, but I was unable to find any productions by or about Latinos or Asians at all. When asked why he thinks the Festival lacks the same diversity that characterizes the city–Latinos make up 48% and Asians 15% of the Los Angeles population–Hill responded,

The thing about open access is we don’t invite, we don’t solicit. We put the flag out there and say gather round the flag. It’s just a matter of who responds. We don’t recruit, but everyone is invited.

This perspective, common to people in positions of privilege who have been taught to assume they are always welcome, fails to take into account the fact that without a pre-existing sense of belonging to a shared community–a problem the Festival says it aims to redress–not everyone is in a position to see the metaphorical flag. In terms of future outreach, Hill believes that,

The best thing we can do in terms of outreach is to have a giant, huge, and successful festival so people can read about it and say, ‘Oh that looks really interesting, I can produce whatever show I want, I want to do that.’

Unfortunately, the longer the Hollywood Fringe is known as a relatively homogeneous event, the less likely other groups will be to participate. If Hill and his team want a Fringe that reflects the reality of life in Los Angeles, they will have to make a concerted effort to diversify before the Festival gets any bigger.

Though I question whether anything so market driven can actually be “open-access,” as the Fringe calls itself, the emphasis on producer-training is sure to serve the Los Angeles theater community immeasurably. Judging from the bonhomie among the parts of the Los Angeles theater community involved in the Festival, it is well on its way to achieving what Hill calls their larger purpose:

Los Angeles is tricky when it comes to theater because it’s so vast and dispersed, a problem public transportation hasn’t been able to solve. There is no one place to see theater. So one month out of the year we provide a true sense of place, a sense that if you come to this place you will see people you know, you’ll see people you saw theater with, made theater with, talked about theater with. And any time when artists are congregated in the same place for any period of time, that’s when movements happen.