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 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.


An interview with dancer Kris Lenzo
Conducted by Producing Intern C. Hano


CH: What was it like to make the transition from an athlete to a dancer?
KL: It was exciting, it was a big change, and I didn’t really follow dance or watch dance before that. Once I started to perform myself I watched more dance and really enjoyed it.

CH: Can you tell us about the pieces we’ll be seeing at RIPPED?
KL: One piece is called “Passage Hawk,” and it was choreographed by Jim Morrow. We had both been in a piece together the year before, and the choreographer kept referring to “stand up dancers” and “wheelchair dancers.” “Wheelchair dancers over here, and stand up dancers over here.” It kind of bothered him the way he separated us, separated the two groups. So he wanted to make a piece where the lines defining those two types of dancers were blurred. It was really fun making it, we just kind of played around and included the chair as more of an apparatus and less of a chair. We never really use it as a wheelchair in the piece.

CH: How did it feel to have your daughter make a short film about you?
KL: I talked about a lot of things I haven’t talked about in a long time. It was fun to think back and revisit my past and think about how things were at different times and remember the process of getting a disability. I was remembering kind of physically getting used to a disability and psychologically getting used to a disability. I enjoyed it.

CH: How do you begin to choreograph a piece? What’s your process?
KL: It kind of varies, like sometimes I’ll have a song in mind and I’ll want to do something to the song. Sometimes I’ll do contact improv dancing and I’ll just get ideas of different movement from that. I’ll start moving in ways that I haven’t thought of and decide that I want to incorporate that into a dance.

CH: How did you come to work with fellow dancers, Anita Fillmore Kenney and Linda Mastandrea? What are they like to work with?
KL: Well I was dancing with Momenta, and Anita has been a part of Momenta for a long time. The first year I was with them she was dancing and then she went away to grad school for the next two years. When she came back, we wanted to do a duet together and we did Tango #4 by Sarah Najera. We did that in the Fall of ’06 and I really enjoyed working with her so we decided to collaborate and make a piece together the next year. We’ve been dancing together since then pretty regularly. And Linda, she had come to a concert at Counter Balance at Access Living, a dance series that Ginger Lane puts on. Linda was thinking about getting into dance and Ginger encouraged her. We did a duet that Ginger choreographed and we’ve been dancing together since then.

CH: What inspired your piece where you dismantle your wheelchair?
KL: I guess the moment of inspiration was to draw the line between the so called “wheelchair dancer,” and so called “stand up dancer.” The other [piece of inspiration] was to kind of look at things from different perspectives. That might be more my motivation and my storyline. I’m not sure if that was part of Ginger’s thinking. She’s really the choreographer and I had a lot of influence on the collaboration process.

CH: Do you feel like your art, your dancing, has changed over time?
KL: Yeah, I think I’ve just been exposed to more dances, to different types of choreographers, and I keep pulling ideas from them. Or I’ll work with someone who’s asking me to move in a way I haven’t moved before and I haven’t thought of moving that way before, I might incorporate that style. I guess what I’ve changed over the years, I’ve stolen from them.

CH: Do you have any advice for performing artists with limited mobility?
KL: I guess it would be keep trying new things, new ways of performing, and ask for feedback from artists who’s work to enjoy. Sometimes you could really be on the verge of something, but you just need somebody else to show you where you’re going. And just put the time in, stay healthy. Try to develop strength and mobility so you have more options. If that’s an option, if mobility can be developed.

CH: Thank you so much. I can’t wait to see your performance.
KL: Thank you.

Kris Lenzo performs at Victory Gardens Theater on January 17th. Click here for more information.

Evening the Playing Field at Access Night 2015


From left to right:
Liz Tregger (ASL interpreter), Mike Ervin (Access Project Coordinator),
Monty Cole (Artistic Programs Manager) kick off the evening.


Written by Braden Cleary, Producing Intern

More than 1 in every 10 people in Illinois has some kind of disability. That means that with every sold-out performance at Victory Gardens, there could be up to 29 people in the audience who identify as having a disability. From an intern’s perspective, it was hugely inspiring to see 64 Audience Services professionals from 21 institutions from across the city come together for a common cause.  That is why it is so important for cultural institutions to understand accessibility services in order to create equitable and enjoyable experiences for all patrons, no matter what obstacles they may face.

The first annual Access Night at Victory Gardens aimed to do just that – bridge the gap between patrons who identify as having a disability and the front of house staffs at cultural institutions across Chicago. By interacting with hands-on workshops about American Sign Language translation, audio description, physical accessibility, touch tours, and live open captioning, audience services professionals came together to learn how to make their organizations more accessible as well as learn the language necessary to communicate about accessibility. The event ended in a question and answer session with a panel of disability advocates and audience services professionals who were able to provide honest insight from the perspective of patrons with disabilities. It acted as a great reminder that even though Chicago is huge, the arts and cultural community isn’t! If we all work together to educate ourselves about disabilities, we can “even the playing field” not only for patrons, but for artists too.

Here are the five most important lessons I learned at Access Night 2015:

1. Person first! When interacting with a patron with a disability, remember that they are a person too – “a man who is deaf or hard of hearing” instead of, “a deaf man.”

2. Always introduce yourself as an employe when offering assistance. “Hello ma’am, my name is Braden Cleary and I am an intern here at Victory Gardens. Can I help you with anything tonight?

3. If a patron or artist with a disability declines your assistance, accept it. Never respond, “are you sure?” Yes. They are sure.

4. When communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, never pretend to understand what he or she said if you really didn’t. Simply ask them to repeat themselves until you understand.

5. Accessibility assistance doesn’t stop at getting patrons into the building. Patrons with disabilities typically appreciate someone checking in with them at intermission and when the production is over.

But how can you make your institution more accessible? Access Night taught me that there are many ways to navigate this conundrum, but perhaps the most cost-effective way to introduce accessibility services (with theaters in mind) is through touch tours. Having a house manager lead a touch tour of the set and props before a performance is a great way to supply and accessible service with little financial investment. Those wishing to take further steps towards accessibility can think about accommodating restrooms, providing ramps as an alternative to stairs, hiring ASL interpreters and audio describers, and accommodating heavy doors. Even installing a doorbell could be a great alternative if your budget doesn’t allow for fully automated doors!

I encourage you to keep up with Victory Garden’s Access Project here in order to stay up-to-date on future accessible performances and events.

Announcing ACCESS dates for Strawdog Performances

Last month, we were thrilled to host Strawdog’s production of Fail/Safe in our rehearsal room as part of the Access Project. Now, we have three more opportunities for audience members to see Strawdog’s inventive and intense work under the Biograph roof with full accessibility, audio description, and closed captioning. You’ll also be able to use a free ride from Uber for the three performances.

We’ll be hosting their critically-acclaimed production of Great Expectations, a brand-new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the world premiere of the haunting devised work, The Pied Piper.

Great Expectations

Wednesday, December 10 at 8:00 PM

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Thursday, April 2 at 8:00 PM

The Pied Piper

Thursday, June 18, at 8:00 PM

Purchase tickets and find more information about Strawdog Theatre Company at

A Conversation with Small Fish Radio

In the beginning of August, Victory Gardens Theater will be hosting Small Fish Radio’s presentation of Mercury Considers the Last Layer as part of the Access Project. Our Artistic Programs Manager, Monty Cole, sat down with Trina Kakacek (Playwright/Adaptor) and MJ Kelly (Producer) about their upcoming live radio event.

Monty Cole: Thanks so much for talking with me today, guys. How long have you two been collaborating?

MJ Kelly: Well, we’ve been collaborating on other projects for about six or seven years. We’ve been doing Small Fish Radio since the spring of 2012.

Trina Kakacek: The first time we ever performed live was at the Chicago Fringe Festival in 2012.

MC: And what exactly brought along Small Fish Radio?

MJ: Well we saw that there were a lot of playwrights that we knew — a lot of writers and storytellers and singers just looking for a place to be heard. We thought this would be a new medium to use to give people exposure. So we decided to give voice to small fish in a big pond. It’s a way of giving emerging artists the opportunity to get their work produced. We fundraise and we pay every one of our artists. Even writers.

MC: Wow! Not every company in Chicago can say that. And the idea of using radio theatre to reach people with disabilities is pretty wonderful. It’s practically audio described by itself.

MJ: Yeah, we felt that way as well. We like the format. We normally have a variety show format, where we have a couple of short plays, a couple of stories, poetry, music — all together with some banter between hosts and the ensemble. We have a core ensemble of four actors and Mercury Considers the Last Layer is a bit of a departure in that we’re doing a full length adaptation. So we’re giving that a try.

TK: And it’s going really well so far. It’s actually quite a bit easier to do than the variety show format.

MC: What connects Small Fish Radio to the disabilities community?

TK: I was a part of [the Access Project] for about 15 years. I think because we’ve had so many friends in the Access Project it just became really natural for me to be able to write for that community.

MJ: Michael Herzowi is the lead actor in Mercury. He’s one of the actors in our troupe and he uses a wheelchair.

TK: We all kind of had a soft spot for radio theatre and I have a soft spot for live sound effects. MJ here read for, what was it? Lighthouse For the Blind?

MJ: Chris Radio–Chicagoland radio information service, which is now housed at Lighthouse for the Blind, so I read newspapers for the sight impaired for a number of years. So, we’ve always felt that this medium was allowing for not only our artist to be heard but for people who may not be able to get to the theatre to hear it. To hear the work. We’re not doing old time radio. We’re doing new work. Some of it is written specifically for [Small Fish Radio], some of it has been written and we’ve adapted it.

TK: We like the idea that it’s portable so you can take it with you. You can put it on your phone or your computer. And it’s portable theatre.

MC: So you can get it on itunes is that correct?

MJ: Yes. Small Fish Radio is our podcast and if you look up “Small Fish Radio Theatre” you can find it there.

TK: We also have archive options where you can listen straight from the website.

MC: Lets talk about Mercury a little bit. How long have you been writing this exactly?

TK: I wrote it four years ago maybe five. And then it got work-shopped at Infusion Theatre as a part of their new play development workshop a couple of years ago. Then I let it sit for a while. And we’re dealing with a big play and I wanted to make it shorter but I wasn’t’ sure about how to do that and then we decided to try it as a radio play because it does lend itself to that. It has a lot of sound; it has a lot of stage directions that are very visually descriptive. It kind of rewrote itself over the weekend. It was amazing. I thought it was going to take me weeks, but it took me two days to adapt it to radio because it was so much like a radio play already.

MJ: The stage directions in the play–the staged play—are very descriptive—very visual.

TK: And they’re funny.

MJ: And they’re funny and some of the things are even, “How are you going to do that on stage” kind of visuals.

MC: That’s great!

MC: The last thing I want to ask is, how do you find this to be a part of the Access Project? It’s come full circle in a way.

TK: The bottom line is that, the Access Project is this play’s home. It’s where I went from being a fiction writer to being a playwright. I went in there a million years ago with my first play, which looked more like a book that happened to have half the dialogue in it. I learned to switch from writing novels to writing plays there at the Access Project.

MC: You two have any final thoughts?

TK: I’d like to thank you guys for having us. I’m really excited that this play gets to be produced for the first time in its home.

MC: Definitely. It seems right.

TK: It does seem right.

Mercury Considers the Last Layer plays in the Zacek McVay Theater at Victory Gardens on August 3 at 7:30. ASL interpreters and Open Captioning will be available. Tickets are $10