A community gathering on race & casting
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Last night, Victory Gardens Theater hosted a Town Hall conversation centering on race and casting attended by 250 artists and arts leaders in the Chicago community that began with a panel conversation before opening the floor as an open forum for asking hard questions and sharing best practices and actionable takeaways.
Our panel consisted of moderator Morgan Greene (Chicago Tribune), Monty Cole (Artistic Programs Manager, Victory Gardens Theater), Emjoy Gavino (Founder and Producer, The Chicago Inclusion Project), Bear Bellinger (Performer, Activist), Adam Belcuore (Associate Producer and Director of Casting, Goodman Theatre), and Sandra Delgado (Actor, Playwright and member of the Alliance of Latino Theater Artists in Chicago).
This journey is a long one and we are thankful for our community and their willingness to share thoughts and engage in this necessary conversation. The following is a transcript of last night’s conversation in four sections:
1. How do we define casting?
2. What are some problematic and effective practices?
3. Short term solutions for improving the system?
4. Open questions and responses from artists present.
How do you define the act of casting:
- Adam: For me casting is a design profession…that you have an opportunity to design a vision…to find the resources to help tell the story. It’s a collaborative field, and you can bring a creative and thoughtful and responsible approach to that, but I think it’s a design profession, much like your set, lights…
- Monty: Casting is like…imagining a bunch of alternate universes…in which each actor that comes in could be that part, could be the lead, could be the supporting role, whatever… and depending on everyone on the team, the ultimate production will be the manifestation of one of those universes.
- Bear: I almost think of casting as gatekeepers – who decides who gets in the room even in the first place. That lens is powerful but we don’t talk about it often enough.
- Emjoy: Casting is the liaison between director and people you’re ushering into the production. Most often I think of myself as an advocate.
- Sandra: Casting for me is being part of a small theatre company…for twenty years, and when I first branched out of Collaboraction I realized I…was in this Latina box. Casting is getting a call from a theatre company you’ve wanted to work with forever and they say, ‘We’re doing a farce’ and you saying, ‘Ooh wow I’ve never done a farce before!’ and them saying, ‘We’re thinking of going Latina with the maid’ and you saying, ‘No…’”
Problematic and Effective Practices:
- Bear: I will read the entirety of every script I’m called in for to know the context and whether I feel comfortable being true to that story. We all love the idea that we can all play any role but the stage picture itself matters, especially in representing other cultures.
- Monty: Each company should have its own set of values. When a company doesn’t have diversity in their mission, it’s reflected in their production history. There needs to be an initial conversation between playwright/director/AD and then the casting director gets to work.
- Sandra: There is a brainwashing that white is the default. There’s an assumption that characters listed in cast breakdowns without a specific ethnicity are white. What I’d like to see is what’s in our DNA – making theatre a reflection of the world I see when I walk outside.
- Monty: When is it right for white people to be in the play? When is it problematic for people of color to be in it? What helps the story?
- Emjoy: I ask the director: “How diverse can we be? How fixed are you on this, this, and this? For example, these people have to be 24, these people have to look related. But nothing else is mandatory. That opens up a whole world.
- Bear: There are some shows that are going to be white shows, and that has to be something we have to be okay with, and we have to say, ‘Okay, what else can we do now?’
- Adam: Where is our unconscious bias? We need to be challenging our initial vision whenever possible, to see if it’s rooted in a set of assumptions that are antiquated. This needs to be talked about beyond the theater. When we’re at the bar having cocktails, can we talk about race? Can we talk about representation? I took a workshop on unconscious bias. That’s a helpful thing to learn about yourself!
Short-term solutions to improving the system:
- Emjoy: What are the stories you’re telling, and how inclusive can that be? That’s the number one thing.
- Bear: Who are the people in that room making those decisions? If you’re looking at your staff or your ensemble and it’s a bunch of white guys, there’s something wrong.
- Monty: How do we find and support artists within the disability community? It’s amazing how little we know about the talent, and how hard it is to get the resources to find the talent.
- Emjoy: We’re so fragmented that we don’t even know how to get to the artists, and they don’t know if we’re looking for them. If there are literally no people in this enormous city, in the country, then maybe look outside that community.
- Monty: If you don’t have someone who can play the central role, don’t program that play. How properly are you representing this community by not doing it right?
- Bear: Maybe we didn’t find someone with cerebral palsy to play that role, but then what are you doing to foster connections with that community? There should be at least one person in the room.
- Sandra: You have to create your own content. A lot of institutions are just waking up, and they didn’t realize they were asleep.
- Bear: The idea of starting a Minority Actor Database was that we all have people calling us saying, ‘Oh, I’m looking for an actress of this minority, of this race or background so we wanted to start a database of self-identification and let people opt-in to whatever they feel comfortable identifying as. Then we can use this to share with folks looking for these actors.
- Bear: You self-identify…in a multiplicity of ways and then it gets filtered into a spreadsheet. Then casting directors and other folks can email email@example.com with what they’re looking for.
- Emjoy: It’s more than just looking at an actor’s last name and thinking that maybe they’re of a certain race.
- Bear: I’d say we are reflecting our future, not our past.
- Adam: Casting isn’t the solution, necessarily…There’s diversity needed on many levels.
Open questions and responses from artists present:
- Audience member to Sandra Delgado: Through Actor’s Equity EEO & Diversity committee, what are they doing to increase actual opportunities for actors of color other than one meaningless clause?
- Sandra: Not enough. Hosting Shakespeare workshops, meet and greets with casting directors. We know the theaters that are behind the times. That’s something we’re working on.
- Audience member: It’s not about authenticity, it’s about color. The first American I ever played was a month ago at the Goodman. And I’m an American. What the goal for a lot of people of color…is not when you’re looking for an Indian guy you look in a database and find him…but when you need a guy who’s in his late twenties who just graduated from law school, that’s when we get called in. I want to get called in, and I don’t. And when it says Boyfriend, there are people in wheelchairs who are boyfriends. I was told I couldn’t audition for a play because they were only seeing Americans.
- Audience member: But who is listening to the story? Who’s actively being mined and bussed into the audience?”
- Audience member: We’re in the business of telling stories. You need to be able to tell those stories that are underrepresented.
- Audience member: Advice to underrepresented artists who break ground in first production?
- Emjoy: Stay strong.
- Bear: Don’t be afraid to speak up. You have to find your people.
- Monty: Lead by example.
- Emjoy: To show that it’s possible for people who don’t know that it’s possible.
- Audience member: I’ve been ten years in the game wondering what is my identity because so much of it has been hoisted on me. I am not just these surface labels and I had to decide that for myself and stand by it.
- Audience member: There is also importance of mentoring. You can be a dark brown girl with natural hair and be a lover.
- Bear: Keep growing your community. If I see another person of color at an audition who I don’t know, I’m going up and introducing myself.
- Audience member: I keep asking myself, I don’t wanna be the difficult one, I don’t wanna talk out loud. You wanna do your artistry, but you can’t. If you wanna know about a Latino playwright, go to their plays! Support smaller theater companies who’ve been doing this work for years. We need to be seeing each other’s plays.
- Bear: We can continue to be the marketing team. On supporting work that’s doing it right. Word of mouth matters.
The conversation around race and casting is ongoing. As with everything else, possible outcomes are determined on an individual basis and in providing this platform for artists to share, discuss, and question the role they play in the casting process, we hope individual artists will continue the dialogue and lead charges and initiatives that will bring us closer to a more equitable state in casting and beyond.