You’d be hard-pressed to find an artistic director who doesn’t talk about wanting to do more inclusive casting. But wanting and doing are different things. In almost the same breath as they’ve expressed the desire for more diversity, many artistic leaders begin to list obstacles that prevent them from reaching that goal: It’s hard to find actors of color or different physical abilities, it’s inauthentic to put them in the classic plays audiences know and love, it’s too easy to make mistakes and appear politically tone deaf.
But it’s not just plays, like the Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living by Martyna Majok, that are starting to demand more diverse casts (in that case, a cast of disabled actors to play characters with disabilities). Audiences and critics are demanding it too, both in roles written to be culturally specific and those that aren’t.
Here are five pieces of advice to help theatre in America look more like America today (and none of them include gratuitously changing a character’s race or ethnicity or claiming there “aren’t enough actors”).
Start at the top. When Bill Rauch started as a.d. of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2007, this year-round producing house’s resident acting company included 22 percent actors of color. It’s now more than 70 percent. That change was very intentional, because Rauch wanted to produce more diverse stories onstage and he wanted the company to match that vision. “It’s the result of prioritizing looking for the most thrilling artists working in the United States, and finding that the most thrilling artists were artists of color,” says Rauch.
White isn’t the default. If a script calls for a lawyer named Sam, let’s say, the role could filled by anybody, and so all should be considered—men, women, and non-binary individuals, folks who are Asian, black, and Latinx, people who use a wheelchair. This kind of thinking doesn’t have to apply only to contemporary plays. Emjoy Gavino, founder of the Chicago Inclusion Project, a nonprofit organization that facilitates inclusive hiring practices throughout that city’s theatre community, notes that a 2016 staging of The Grapes of Wrath at the local Gift Theatre featured a mixed-race Joad family, giving extra resonance to a scene in which Ma Joad and her son Tom talked about how the police were never on the side of people like them. Spoken by two black actors, the line had extra resonance in a time when black populations are disproportionate targets of police brutality. “It offered the audience a new way into an old story that was exciting and relevant,” Gavino says.
Fresh talent in new places. Finding more diverse actors can require more than just posting a casting breakdown that says “all ethnicities.” Visiting college drama departments with large minority enrollments and checking out productions by culturally specific companies are both good places to start. “You have to find new ways of gathering talent by going to different sources than you’re used to going to,” says Jim Corti, artistic director of the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, Ill. Corti says he has held auditions at local dance schools to suss out performers of color. Last year, the Paramount cast black actor Paul-Jordan Jansen in the title role of its production of Sweeney Todd, and Jansen went on to win a Jeff Award for his performance.
Diverse direction. Earlier this year Actors’ Equity Association put out a statement urging the boards of directors who hire artistic directors at nonprofit theatres to “think really hard about getting more qualified women and people of color into those jobs, because it will fundamentally change how those theatres do their work.” That is for the very obvious reason that diverse hirers will lead to more diverse hiring, and this will filter down; diverse artistic directors will hire more diverse directors, who will then bring in more diverse casts and creative teams. “If you have an expanding network of directors of color, they probably know more designers of color and more actors and so they’re naturally going to shift the world to their place,” says Christine Toy Johnson, chair of Equity’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee.
Collaborate. Many theatres already reach out to companies that specialize in producing plays by and about people of color when they are looking for actors to fill occasional roles in their productions. But deeper partnerships can expand opportunities for both actors and audiences. The Public Theater in New York City recently hosted an update of Richard III called Teenage Dick that was co-produced by the Asian American Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Apothetae, a company dedicated to plays about the disabled experience. Teenage Dick’s six-member cast included three actors of color and two disabled actors, only one of whom had previously worked at the Public; and the show played to larger audiences than either of those companies would have been able to muster on its own.