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.

VG Staff’s Favorite Restaurants in Lincoln Park


Brittany Barnes, Development Manager:

My favorite restaurant in Lincoln Park is Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! I like it because it’s ALWAYS delicious and it offers a variety of options for vegetarians, pescatarians and meat eaters alike.

Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!
2024 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614


Laura Baker, Bar and House Management Coordinator:

SIMPLY IT! They are so very friendly and courteous. Lots of food for little money. The Pho is healing! I go there every time I have a cold.  And they always give a little plate of fruit with the check. Every time I pick up take out, they’ll give me a tea or fruit infused water. I just love their service and their food.

2269 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614


Christopher Schram, Director of Development:

North Pond – for its commitment to supporting local and regional farmers, its seasonal menus, its romantic setting, its historic building, its great service, and its awesome views on downtown.  It’s a splurge, but it’s worth it.

North Pond
2610 N Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614


Daniel Dempsey, Development Associate for Institutional Giving:

It’s a new twist on a Chicago favorite, Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. It’s perfect for large groups, and delicious! Very friendly staff that makes you feel at home. Start off with the Mediterranean Bread, as you wait for the Pizza Pot Pie.

Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company
2121 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614


Rachel Tornquist, Marketing Associate and Graphic Designer:

The Wing Factory – they have $1 drinks from 6-7pm… what’s not to love?!

Wing Factory
2464 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614


Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager

I like The Pasta Bowl because their homemade pasta is delicious and they have gluten free options. It’s affordable and has a casual vibe!

The Pasta Bowl
2434 N. Clark, Chicago, IL 60614


Joanie Schultz, Associate Artistic Producer:

Aquitaine!! The salmon is awesome. And the scallops are really good too. Really everything I’ve had there is good. My husband and I love that place.

2221 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614


Olivia Simas, Marketing Intern:

My favorite Lincoln Park restaurant is Pasta Palazzo down on Halsted. It’s a cozy neighborhood restaurant with delicious fresh pasta that is honestly more affordable than my usual order at Chipotle.

Pasta Palazzo
1966 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614


Emma Couling, Audience Services and Ticketing Coordinator

I quite by accident discovered this fancy pants French Patisserie when I was going on a walk through the zoo a few months ago–it’s gorgeous

Vanille Patisserie
2108 N. Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614


Emily Herrington, Marketing Assistant

My favorite place in Lincoln Park is Lincoln Station, right across the street from Victory Gardens. The food is a fresh take on pub-style comfort food and the prices for food and drinks are really great. The vibe is always low-key and easy-going. I always go for dinner when I have to stay late at work, and I almost always take advantage of the $5 baked potato deal on Thursdays!

Lincoln Station
2432. N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614

Introducing VG’s New Community Engagement Managers

Happy Holidays!

Before we get into filling our stockings and singing cheesy holidays songs, we wanted to take a moment to introduce ourselves.

Hello. We are Jaclyn Tidwell and Nikki Patin, Victory Gardens Theater’s new Community Engagement Managers. We started at the beginning of November, so some of you may already know us. Hi again.

As Community Engagement Managers, our goal is to connect all of the vibrant communities in Chicago with our work here at Victory Gardens Theater. However, that doesn’t just mean getting people here to check out our productions. It also means us showing up to support what’s happening outside of Victory Gardens. To that end, you might see us taking meetings at your favorite cafe or getting some planning done at your local library or applauding a performance of teen poets at a community event.

Connecting with communities is more than what we do here at Victory Gardens Theater. It’s been a way of life for both of us for a very long time.

Though Jaclyn was born and raised in central Illinois, she called Nashville, TN home for 10 years prior to moving to Chicago this past summer. During her time in Nashville, Jaclyn connected to the community in many ways. In the Nashville theat​er​ community, Jaclyn worked as an actor, writer, and organizer with Actors Bridge Ensemble, Nashville Children’s Theatre, and Nashville Repertory Theatre. Jaclyn also served weekly as an art studio mentor at the Oasis Center, a youth intervention program for teenage men caught in the juvenile justice system. In her past role at the Arts & Business Council Nashville, Jaclyn developed three year-round projects that connected business and community volunteers with low-income residents of Nashville to provide education, mentorship, and support. A highlight was designing Periscope, a small business incubation program to create business training and economic opportunity for artists. Jaclyn also managed partner relationships working with a range of community organizations including the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development, Nashville Entrepreneur Center, Metro Nashville Arts Commission, The Land Trust for Tennessee, and the Center for Nonprofit Management. As a professional theat​er​ artist, Jaclyn produces high-level theat​er​ and contemporary arts exhibitions, creates community events, and co-founded the inaugural Sideshow Fringe Festival, a progressive four-day performing arts event. Jaclyn holds a B.A. in Political Science and Theatre Performance from Belmont University.

A native Chicagoan, Nikki first began to connect with communities in Chicago as a spoken word artist and educator. Nikki has performed, taught and spoken at elementary schools, high schools, colleges, universities and community events such as the University of Chicago, Adler School of Psychology, Northwestern University, Nancy B. Jefferson High School (located within the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center), Francis Parker High School, DePaul University, Chicago Humanities Festival, Beastwomen, The Black Women’s Expo and many others. Nikki is also an outspoken advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. She has worked closely with Rape Victim Advocates and Center on Halsted as an educator and case manager. Nikki has also supported numerous arts education organizations in their efforts to connect young people with arts, including Urban Gateways, the Chicago Park District and Free Write Jail Arts. In 2014, Nikki was part of a historic delegation of Black women who traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to speak on behalf of Black women sexual violence survivors before the United Nations. Nikki holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from the University of Southern Maine and is the Executive Director/Founder of Surviving the Mic, an organization dedicated to creating safe and affirming creative space for survivors of trauma of all kinds.

With our experience and passion for engaging and supporting communities as well as a wealth of dynamic experience, we make an excellent team and we’re grateful for the opportunity that Victory Gardens has given us to collaborate with each other and with YOU, the beautiful people who make up the communities of Chicago.

So, keep an eye out for us. If you see us out and about, feel free to introduce yourselves or even snap a selfie with us!

We look forward to engaging and connecting with you.

Happy Holidays!

Nikki and Jaclyn