Ten Ways to Increase Equality in Theatre

by Sonya Joseph

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts lately from my friends who work in theatre about what they are doing in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Several have asked me for input. I haven’t really responded —I’m 53 years old, have been working in and around professional theatre, television, and film since my early 20’s, and frankly, they all could have listened earlier, asked for my input earlier, or just done better anytime over the last three decades. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see theatre companies I’ve worked for in the past initiating conversations about diversity and starting Zoom readings of black plays (although as an Indian woman that doesn’t really help get me up on stage) but will any of these plays really see the light of day when the pandemic is over? Will actors of color get work? Breath not being held.

But, there remains the fact that I’ve had more than three decades of experience in this arena, so I do want to share my thoughts.  

I’ve come up with a list of 10 things THAT WILL WORK to make the theatre (and film and television) a more diverse place.

  1. Audition actors of color. “But wait!” says every theatre in America, “we already do that.” Or they’ll say, “We invited them but nobody showed up!” In the mid 1990’s I heard this complaint from every artistic director in town. No. You did not invite them. You tacked on a statement about being “committed to inclusion, diversity, and providing equal employment opportunity” on to the end of the audition notice or added “all ethnicities encouraged to apply” as an afterthought. Eddie Levi Lee, of the marvelous Empty Space Theatre in Seattle, took my suggestions to heart and started wording casting notices with detailed information about what roles were open to color-blind casting, and it worked. Figure out what roles you are going to cast regardless of race, and put that information in the casting notice. Otherwise, don’t expect us to waste our time.

  2. Don’t debate; do. Back in the 90’s and 00’s, there was this great debate going on. August Wilson was all for people of color having their own theatres, their own plays, and just doing their own thing. There was another camp that was all about color-blind casting. And for years it has felt like getting the “right” answer to this debate had to happen before anything could change. So, until we know what is the right thing to do, let’s just play it safe and keep casting white people. C’mon people. Do. Both. Mount plays where playwrights of color create roles for actors of color, AND cast people of color in plays that have traditionally cast only white actors.  

  3. Now here’s something that is going to help all actors: white, black, brown, and purple. Educate students and their parents about careers in the theatre. My poor father fought tooth and nail to keep me out of the theatre because, in his eyes, (and the eyes of pretty much everyone who doesn’t work in theatre) he envisioned me working for a pittance at a meaningless day job unless one day, by some luck of the draw, I managed to “become a star.” We all know that isn’t all there is. Regional theatre can pay quite well. Actors also work as writers, directors, teachers, producers, administrators, and more. I’ve made a good living at various points in my life from theatre alone, and no one would recognize my name. Can you imagine if we made these kinds of assumptions about doctors? As if only plastic surgeons were considered to have “made it” and every other kind of doctor was believed to be going door to door asking, “Hey, I’m a doctor, is anyone here sick?” That isn’t the reality and neither is the star scenario. We are a vital part of the economy, and this will only improve with greater diversity.  And getting there starts with educating parents. We need their kids to help build more diverse communities of artists.

  4. We need to build audiences. Back in the day, one or two of the theatres in Seattle chose a play by a playwright of color, they cast actors of color, mounted the play, and nobody showed up. And then of course, that was the reason they never did it again. If you market only to white people who only like to see shows about other white people, you’re only going to get white people butts in your seats. I never saw a play until I was in my teens. Nobody thought to ask me. And let’s face it, if you have a more diverse audience, you are less likely to go belly up. If you build it, they will come. Hire marketing staff who are from diverse communities.

  5. Honor diversity funding. A friend of mine and I temporarily brought down a regional theatre in Seattle in the 90’s when we pointed out that a huge portion of their grant money came with stipulations that hiring be diverse. We can see the programs and photos of the homogenous actors and do the math. If you aren’t honoring these commitments, you are actually breaking the law. I would like to point out that there is funding, and thus success, to be found in hiring equality. Funding encouraging diversity exists for a variety of reasons:
    • Hiring equality increases class equality
    • Diverse representation leads to larger, more diverse audiences
    • Diverse perspectives foster organizational strengths

  6. The unions need to create better programs to attract and retain actors of color. If the unions won’t let us audition, you, as individual theatres, will have to find a way to do it. I know that the union gives priority to people in the union for auditions, but since we are abysmally underrepresented, that leaves actors of color in the cold. Make sure you audition non-Equity actors, and that they proportionately represent our communities. And when actors of color DO get union status, those unions need to make waivers available so they can continue to work. I know many actors, including myself, who had to join a union for one specific job, and then we were prevented from taking non-union paying jobs with roles for actors of color because they were non-union. How does a union that throws up exponentially huge obstacles for people of color to join and then prevents us from taking paid work once we have joined serve us? Or the theatre as a whole?

  7. Media needs to continue highlighting the problem in positive ways. I came of age as an actor in the days of newspapers. It was obvious to me that the big theatres (doing big, white, classic shows) were on page 1 of the arts section, and the little scrappy, underfunded diverse theatres had a snippet on page 7. Giving airtime to theatres that are not part of the solution isn’t helping. Highlight diversity. Make it a priority in how you choose what plays and theatres and actors to feature and review. It’s been so unbalanced for so long, turn things upside down for a while. Make a theatre’s diversity policies and actions a criterion for front page status. But (and here’s the tricky part) don’t make it look like the problem is solved by never showing white actors. Like a college theatre program brochure that uses pics from that one production of Othello and that other production of The Wiz for 15 years to demonstrate how “diverse” they are.

  8. Diversity needs to be measured by screen and stage time, not payroll.  If you hire a black stage manager, yeah, that’s great, but you don’t get a diversity chip for that. If you hire an actor of color for a one line role and throw the footage on the editing room floor, it doesn’t count. Yeah, she got paid for a day of work, but she won’t get residuals or a credit on IMDB, so it doesn’t matter.

  9. Recruit from local Shakespeare companies and ethnic theatre companies. Shakespeare, for some reason, doesn’t give a damn about the color of a person’s skin. There are a couple times when a white woman’s baby comes out unexpectedly black (oops) or a man’s dark skin is pointed out specifically, but aside from these few instances, Shakespeare seems to offer a wealth of opportunities for color-blind casting so actors of color tend to gravitate toward classical theatre. There are probably Latinx, African American, and Asian American theatre companies in your city. Know what your local Shakespeare and ethnic theatre companies are up to, and make sure your casting staff goes to see these productions. There’s no excuse for saying that you couldn’t find the right person. Seek, and you shall find.

  10. Respect the imagination. Sanford Meisner defined acting as, “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” The audience knows that these circumstances aren’t real. Trust them. They already gave you money to be there, so take them on a ride that includes imaginary circumstances like skin color not being an issue. Frankly, I’ve always wanted to play Blanche Dubois. And if you think an Indian woman knows nothing about living in a post-Civil War world, trying to make ends meet when society gives her very limited ways to do that and judges her when she steps out of bounds, then it’s you who knows nothing. I may be limited and constrained by this practice of casting by color, but really, just wait until you see what you’ve been missing.