Seattle Theater Has a Race Problem

There’s not a question mark in that title for a reason. Seattle Theater has a race problem. Today I’m specifically talking about a race problem when it comes to casting, but there’s a larger conversation that has to do with hiring directors, playwrights, dramaturgs, and designers. Basically, take anything I’m saying and you can apply it to any section of theater.

Who are you to say anything about this? 

Excellent question. I’m a white, cis-gendered female, queer playwright in Seattle. This does not make me uniquely qualified to talk about race. In fact, I was hesitant to say anything because people of color don’t need anyone to speak for them. But actors have careers to worry about. If they speak up, they might be labeled “difficult,” or, “hostile,” or any number of things that would make their very limited casting options possibly smaller. So I decided to speak up. I’m not going to call out any particular theater org in this, but no company is immune to what I’m describing. I’ve seen it all over town from the big houses to the fringe-iest fringe. I’ve also seen theaters get this right one season or one show and then completely get it wrong the next season or next show. No one is immune.

I highly encourage theater orgs to do an internal audit of their past five seasons (or even, past five shows) and see what their numbers are. Even better, write a blog post about your findings. Share them. Announce where you’ve been and how you’re going to change where you’re going.

And if you’re a white actor reading this, I want to be clear – no one is saying that you don’t deserve a certain role. You fought for what you got. No one is questioning that. But there should be room at the table for everyone. Let’s make it a fair and equal fight.

Okay…But you aren’t perfect. Your shows aren’t perfectly diverse. 

Yup. That’s true. I’m not perfect and I’m gonna lay out my numbers for you. Having a “commitment to diversity” as so many theater companies say they do should be more than lip service. Having a “commitment to diversity” doesn’t make you immune to fucking up. Having a “commitment to diversity” means that you actively care and try to do better. You don’t just use diversity for stats on grants. It means that when you fuck up, you accept that. You don’t offer excuses. You don’t try to defend yourself. You own it and you try to do better. Because turning a blind-eye to it helps absolutely no one. And saying, “Yeah but we didn’t mean to do that” contributes in no way to fixing the problem.

The first full-length play I ever had produced in Seattle had seven people. 4F 3M. We cast two actors of color. Neither role was a lead role. None of the characters were written to be a specific ethnicity. These characters were not caricatures of race. But two out of seven is not great. I can do better.

The second full-length show I had produced was 4 characters. 2F 1M and 1 trans male character not to be played by a cis-gendered male. We cast one actor of color. The role she played was a lead role. None of the characters were written to be a specific ethnicity. Her role was not a caricature of race. One out of four is not great. I can do better.

I have a third full-length show slated to be produced in the fall of 2016. There are currently seven roles for women. Again, none of the characters are written to have a specific race. However, I have already told my director that we need this to be a diverse show. Because if it’s not, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. It becomes an irrelevant piece focusing on the stories of white, young women instead of what I’d like it to be, which is a story about being a young woman (and also monsters). Period. If I omit voices of color from that play, that play might as well not be produced.

I can do better. Seattle theater can do better. So let’s do better.

But I see plenty of “diverse” shows in Seattle. 

Do you? Do you really? Cause I’m looking at the September surge of plays straight into November and far more of them feature all-white casts than don’t. And this hasn’t been the only time in Seattle history that that’s happened. The majority of the time that’s how it is. And often, when actors of color are cast, the roles are caricatures sometimes verging, or going full-overboard into stereotypes. Or, actors of color are relegated to the side characters. They very rarely take center stage unless the role is specifically written to be played by an actor of color.

And let’s be honest, even if SOME shows in Seattle are diverse, wouldn’t it be better if every show in Seattle was? I don’t need another twelve character play featuring all white men, do you? (I’d like to add here that diversity in body types, as well as gender presentation, and physicality would be nice, too. We’re not carbon copies of each other. Why do we continue to see mostly slim, able-bodied, white, perfectly feminine or perfectly masculine people on stage?)

But not every play is about race. 

True. Very true. So then why cast all-white productions? If it’s “not about race” then why choose to have an all-white cast? Casting a show with a person of color does not mean the show magically BECOMES ABOUT RACE. It means that you’re making a show outside of a limited world view.

I would also argue that having an all-white show is making a very bold statement about race. It’s saying, “People of color do not exist in this world.” Why would I want to see that? (Shout-out to the recent production of Is She Dead Yet? which I would recommend reading up on here, here. It was not an all-white production, but was a mostly-white production for a very specific reason.)

But it’s integral to the story that the actors are white.

If you’re doing a show in 2015 that requires an all-white cast, WHY? Just why? What does that story have to say that hasn’t already been said? If it’s REQUIRED, you better have a damn good reason (see the example above). And you should post a message about it on all your materials. Imagine if theaters that had all-white casts actually put on the program and website: “We chose to make this an all-white production because white people are the only ones who exist in the play for a reason that we will delve into now…”

But we didn’t choose. Actors of color didn’t show up to auditions. 

BULLSHIT. This is probably the biggest lie that gets thrown around. “We want to cast diversely, but no actors of color came to audition.” “I asked some people, but they couldn’t do it.” This is the thing I hear all the time. It sounds vague enough to maybe be true. You didn’t have to get into specifics and you get to say you did your due diligence. If actors of color aren’t showing up for your auditions, you need to look at why they aren’t. Have they come several times before only not to be offered a role? Have you historically cast mostly-white shows even if the audition breakdown is open? Were the roles you were considering them for flat stereotypes? Did you contact anyone who might have connections to POC communities in earnest to express your desire to cast not only this play diversely, but your future plays as well? Ask yourself these questions. If actors of color aren’t showing up to your auditions, there’s a reason. And you need to find out what that is if you ever want to change it.

This cycle has to stop because actors of color leave town for places more open to casting them. It feels like every couple of years Seattle theater realizes they have a POC community and so they actually invest in telling those stories. And because actors of color are oftentimes only considered for roles that specify race, they are shit out of luck the next season when the community pats itself on the back for such a diverse season of theatre, but now back to regularly scheduled exclusivity.

We have some truly talented actors in town and I’ve seen many of them leave or threaten to leave in the last two years simply because they aren’t getting work. Because they are only considered, or most often only considered, for those roles that specify race. If you’re not open to casting actors of colors in roles that are “default” white, put it on your audition listing. I dare you.

Okay. We did have a few actors of color come to auditions, but they weren’t ready.

Sure. Okay. But let’s be clear, that’s SOME actors of color and that’s because they’ve rarely or never been given an opportunity. It’s a perpetuating cycle. Do you know how actors get better? They act. They get an opportunity to be in the rehearsal room, on stage, perform, wash it off, and do it again. They get seen in that production and they are offered another role after they audition again. They learn again in that role. They get better. They get seen. Etc. That’s the way it works for all actors. But if you don’t have that first opportunity, you don’t get to play at all. This is a larger problem that we as a community need to work on solving. (Some interesting ideas are being tossed around which I hope we actually get to see come to fruition). Also, white actors who are “not ready” audition plenty. I still see several more of them on stage.

That being said, if you’re not seeing actors of color who are ready, you’re not looking hard enough.

But it’s a period piece. 

So? Diep Tran had this to say after seeing HAMILTON on Broadway:

“I wept. Openly. I’m talking about tears-rolling-down-my-cheeks weeping. Because I had just seen a three-hour musical about the founding fathers, and the main characters – Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson – were played by actors of color. Because the last song was given to a Chinese-American actress playing Eliza Hamilton.

It wasn’t historically accurate by any means, and it was one of the most powerful images I’ve seen this year.”

We tell stories. We suspend our disbelief. Don’t give me that bullshit again. If you can’t imagine 1776 without it’s all-white mostly-male cast, save us all some time and DON’T DO IT.

But Shakespeare – 

I’m gonna stop you right there. Unless you’re going full-out period, as Shakespeare intended, and not letting women be in your show at all, don’t give that to me. And if that is what you’re doing, see above. DON’T DO IT. What possible relevancy could it have if it needs to completely ignore whole populations of people to make a point?

But, but, there’s a person of color in our office/show/cast/design team and he/she didn’t say anything. In fact, we’ve worked with people of color before and they’ve never ever told us that what we’re doing is wrong. 

Seattle Theater has a race problem. Look at the Gregory Nominations. Look at the artists performing on stages right now. For every 20 white actors in shows, you might find one actor of color represented in a production. With odds of making money or getting hired like that, do you really expect an actor of color to tell you that they don’t like what you’re doing? That they don’t see themselves represented on your stages? That your representation of their race was offensive in a particular show? If they did, would you make excuses and blather about all of the above instead of listening to them? Do you understand the term White Fragility? And do you honestly expect POC exclusively to educate you instead of educating yourself? I’ll tell you right now that we (meaning the entire community) talk. So just because it’s not being said directly to you, doesn’t mean things aren’t discussed. I have heard in the past two months several unpleasant things about companies with people I like and admire in them. But no one is immune. Just because we’re in a liberal city doing theater doesn’t make anyone exempt from understanding the many different sides of this infinity-sided die.

One of my friends was told not to come into audition because they wanted to cast the show “traditionally” (whatever the fuck that means) and so they would not consider them for a role. If reading that doesn’t turn your stomach, you don’t belong in theater.

Well, what do you expect me to do about it? 

I expect you to speak up. And I’m not talking about actors outing companies. They are often not in a position where they can do that (though if you are someone who feels called to do so, then do). But nothing is going to change unless we start speaking up. That means if you’re a party to a conversation in which something questionable is said, you speak up. You hopefully speak up in the moment, but even if it takes a day or two to register, you speak up. That means if you’re on an artistic team in the casting room and they’re about to make a final decision, you ask them why it’s an all white cast. You ask for them to see more people. As a director, you should be asking to see as many actors of color as possible and not just for small roles, but for leads. As a playwright, you should talk to your director and casting director about how you’d like to cast. If diversity is important to you then make sure you are actively making it important. You’re not waiting until it’s too late to do anything about it.

NYT just put out this great article about Oregon Shakespeare Festival and their commitment to racial diversity and gender parity. It’s incredibly important. And if you don’t think it is, you shouldn’t be making theater.

Most of these decisions are unconscious. No one that I know in theater actively thinks to themselves, “I don’t want to cast people of color in these roles.” But that’s why I bring it up. Because when you’re making final casting decisions, it should be a discussion. You should be making an active choice. You should be thinking about what your choices are saying to the larger community. And if you want to make it at all-white cast, I want you to tell your patrons/board/community why. If you can’t articulate a reason that is not one of the aforementioned B.S. reasons, STOP.

I also expect you to listen. If someone says they see a problem, listen to them with an open heart even if it’s hard, even if it makes you uncomfortable. I’ve been called out before for saying or doing some stupid shit. It’s always uncomfortable, but you get better and you learn, or you end up showing that you are someone who really doesn’t care.

Run the numbers of your organization. Run them and look at them honestly. It’s a great way to have an unbiased look at how you’ve handled diversity and it will hopefully help you do better in the future.

Do better. Don’t shout down voices of dissent. Don’t make excuses. Our community as a whole will be better for it. Seattle theater has a race problem. It goes deep. The only way out is to talk about it and turn the talking to action. Put the money where your mouth is and do better.

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22 Comments

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  1. Great write up! Seriously, thank you!

    But there was one bit of text which caught my attention though it’s not about race–I’m hesitant to even bring it up because I do not wish to derail this conversation and I’m a very white girl.

    You wrote the following line, “2F 1M and 1 trans male character not to be played by a cis-gendered male.”

    Yay! For trans representation played by a trans person! (Seriously, very happy about that.)

    On reading it, it is unclear whether that first male role is for a cis man only or if it could also go to to a trans man. If it’s the former, we have a case of the implied default of a cisgender man since you’re specifically calling out a trans man in the second half. If it’s the latter then better clarification is definitely needed.

    Other than that, terrific essay!

    – amber

    • Great point! Seth doesn’t have to be played by a cis-gendered male in the play, but Bach specifically cannot. I guess I was using male in that swath to cover the wide spectrum of gender identity. But I will revisit this. I definitely don’t want those descriptions to exclude Trans* actors.

  2. So uh, one thing I never really learned well in the years I spent getting my degree in theatre was how to find auditions. If any of y’all are hurting for actors of color to be at your auditions, do me a solid and help me find your audition.
    Sincerely,
    A guy who could use some help

    • Seattle does have an audition listing site called Theater Puget Sound. But you have to pay to use it. Something like $50 for the year. Most fringe companies list them on their website, which is not always the most efficient way to do it.

      • Oh, that must be that tps thing everyone was talking about but no one ever explained XD

      • Yeah. It’s a great, but flawed system. It’s nice to have so many things in one place. And you can look at the listings without paying if you need to. When you pay, you’re able to see the contact information though, so that’s helpful.

      • Just fyi, the TPS auditions listing site is free to use. It’s just the benefits like the TPS Generals and the other related discounts that you have to pay for. Here’s the link to auditions: http://tpsonline.org/auditions/auddb.php?action=active_list

        That said, (and I hope this doesn’t make me uncastable), while I think you make a lot of really good points, you so briefly touch on the following:

        “(I’d like to add here that diversity in body types, as well as gender presentation, and physicality would be nice, too. We’re not carbon copies of each other. Why do we continue to see mostly slim, able-bodied, white, perfectly feminine or perfectly masculine people on stage?)”

        This, to me, is where the biggest lack of diversity in theatre is found. Look at 99.9% of the shows, and your lead female is going to be a slim, average height, standard-pretty woman. But no one posts articles about body-type discrimination in theatre. Instead, you see countless audition postings where they specifically state that they are looking for a “pretty/gorgeous/slim/athletic” type female. What I want to know is, when is this topic going to be approached? I know I for one would love to see some changes made in this area!

      • I completely agree, Rebecca. I would love to see body diversity talked about and I’d like to see more body diversity on stage for sure. The same as above, I would also like these to be lead roles and not just side characters.

      • Just fyi, the TPS auditions listing site is free to use. It’s just the benefits like the TPS Generals and the other related discounts that you have to pay for. Here’s the link to auditions: http://tpsonline.org/auditions/auddb.php?action=active_list

        That said, (and I hope this doesn’t make me uncastable), while I think you make a lot of really good points, you so briefly touch on the following:

        “(I’d like to add here that diversity in body types, as well as gender presentation, and physicality would be nice, too. We’re not carbon copies of each other. Why do we continue to see mostly slim, able-bodied, white, perfectly feminine or perfectly masculine people on stage?)”

        This, to me, is where the biggest lack of diversity in theatre is found. Look at 99.9% of the shows, and your lead female is going to be a slim, average height, standard-pretty woman. But no one posts articles about body-type discrimination in theatre. Instead, you see countless audition postings where they specifically state that they are looking for a “pretty/gorgeous/slim/athletic” type female. What I want to know is, when is this topic going to be approached? I know I for one would love to see some changes made in this area!

  3. Great read! Definitely something that needed to be said.

  4. I love this article. Thank you for articulating what so many actors wish they could. The problem is rampant in Portland as well. It is a slow climb, but speaking up is a big part of change. The artistic directors and casting folks need to care about producing stories that are spoken in the voice of someone other than themselves — the people in charge are white and so naturally they seek out stories that reflect themselves. I think it is a valid point to add that actors of color don’t necessarily want to reenact white stories, it is of deeper interest to get to tell our own stories once and a while. And by once and a while, I mean more than maybe once a year!

    This brings up the case that there aren’t enough actors/writers/directors/designers/composers, etc, of color. It is true that we haven’t been sought or used, so we are on the fringes of the mainstream…we leave cities (which I am considering)… We don’t feel welcome, we don’t belong… so why seek jobs that exclude us? I encourage all artists and technicians to continue to walk toward you life’s work- if you need help, get therapy- don’t lose yourself to the story we are told on 99% of American stages… The story is the lie that says we don’t exist. And if you are one of the artistic directors, please use the time and resources you have to internally address change within your company. This doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of the marginalized and disempowered, it belongs to you, too. To us all.

  5. Great piece of thoughtful writing Courtney. Thanks for bravely posting.

  6. Don’t mix “race” and “diversity”. Diversity is not just about black vs. white, It’s about ethnicity, culture, subject matter, language. So the problem is not whether black person is casted in a white American play. Even if they are, that’s not diversity. That’s just a mix of skin colors that tell the same “white american” stories with “white america valuess” for your white Americans out there that could care less about another point of view. And even if a black person writes a “white american story from a white american point of view” and casts a “black person” in it, so what? It’s just a shallow solution of the problem or better a feel good camouflage.

    • Absolutely. It’s a much larger problem than only casting and it should include choice of material, hiring practices in artistic and administration. I wanted to specifically address the casting issue in terms of Seattle, but it’s at every level. And diversity should include much broader things than race including body diversity, culture, and language. You are absolutely right.

  7. Courtney — thank you for your article. When I was fresh out of a very selective professional actor training program in the late ’70s, I came to Seattle and auditioned for Greg Falls at ACT, Dan Sullivan at Seattle Rep, and the directors at Empty Space and Intiman. The results were unanimous — “thanks, but no thanks.” Last year, I attended a local play and once again saw and was bored by the same casting choices that were made too many years ago. I emailed that director (below), who then tried to defend her choices by stating that they sometimes cast non-white actors in other roles too. Oh well, the dinosaurs are tiresome.

    Hi (name of director),
    I had the pleasure of seeing (name of play) last Friday. The technical production was well executed, however the acting was stiff and forced. Hopefully by now the journey-level cast has further developed their relationships and found their levels.

    One thing that became abundantly clear was the monochromatic choice made in casting. Contrary to the play’s themes of disparity in society, sex, wages and inclusion, you selected only white actors. This is a choice, a convenient and overused crutch, that continues to dumb-down the intellect of your audience.
    We, you and I, live in a multicultural, multiracial society. Is this not obvious to your theatre’s schools outreach programs? Perhaps you could put a disclaimer in your program notes that the director made an “artistic” decision to cast a segregated group of actors.

    Here’s hoping, and it is truly the hope of all, that your future casting policy will encompass actors (I paraphrase MLK) not by the color or their skin, but by the content of their character.
    Thank you,

    • Do you have their reply? Did they use the excuses above, or something else? I’m very interested in how theaters and directors respond when they are called out. I like the idea of writing them emails when they choose to cast a production with all-white actors in order to see how they would respond. And then if action is not taken to make those correspondences public. I honestly like to believe the best in people first and that if they hear the community they will listen. And I fully believe that if they choose to ignore a call to action that the should be publicly outed.

      • Courtney — here’s the reply. I dislike pandering. The reply might as well been written on a template. Again, the play I saw was an all-white production, so how could color-blind casting been demonstrated, or been evident? Even the term “color blind casting” is repugnant and condescending, as their non-white actors examples are lumped in a specially coded grouping in this theatre’s special preserve for special people. This director illustrates the height of White Fragility. I could go on and on….

        Dear ____,

        I was so sorry to read of your disappointment in our casting of ___________. Over the course of a Mainstage season and in our Road Company, we apply color-blind casting as much as possible; I’m sorry that this play didn’t demonstrate that for you.

        Last year alone _____________. and __________ were the only (name of theatre) actors nominated for “Gregory Awards” for work done on our stage, and our school touring team that you mentioned in your letter is also multi-ethnic in make-up.

        I thought just a few photos from our most recent plays might demonstrate our casting practices. All the roles below were originally written for Caucasian actors to play.

        You might also be interested in our work on recent plays such as __________, _________, _________, ___________, and _____________ (later this season) that have roles specifically for actors of color and focus on themes of race, tolerance and reconciliation.

        Thank you for taking the time to email us with your concern. I hope you will come and see our production of ____________, which includes some color-blind casting.

        Best wishes,

  8. Have you seen the work that the Intiman’s been doing this summer? Now they did a good job of setting an example of how casting people of color in this region should be operating.

  9. Thank you for this great piece. One of the bravest pieces I’ve read on this topic in and about Seattle – and I’ve read a lot.

  10. Last year at Massive Monkees in Chinatown,Maria Batayola and her team produced my play “The Romance of Magno Rubio” as a staged reading. Five characters, all Filipinos. All the time. Director, Ben Gonio, Pinoy as well. Just so you know. We’ve sent the play to umpteen theaters in Seattle. Gotten all of one response. Village Theater is reading it. The work has been done all over the world, but never in Seattle with its large Pinoy Peeps. Carlos Bulosan, the writer of the original short story, is buried in Seattle. U of W has his papers. Check it out.

  11. You know what also needs diversity? Theatre production departments. I’ve worked behind the scenes in various parts of the U.S. for 30 years and I can count on my fingers the people I have worked with that did not have a primarily European heritage.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this! I think it’s really important to note that “diversity” doesn’t just mean “black.” Many seem to check off their “diversity” box as long as there are black actors and black stories on their stages each season, regardless of the surrounding community’s racial makeup. Here in the Southwest it is equally (if not more) vital to make sure that the Mexican/Mexican-American and Native American populations’ are represented and that their stories are brought to light.

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