Diversify, Defy, or Die

graphicGraphic by Danielle Szabo

By Daniella Mazzio, Staff Writer

Members from all across The Theatre School community gathered in the Fullerton lobby on February 11th to attend the event announcing the 2016-2017 season. While every season’s announcement has always brought its fair share of buzz, this was the first time a celebration was held to generate discussion around an upcoming season. Jackson Walsh — the president of TTSSGA — introduced the event stating, “We hope this will produce further discussion about the work we produce at The Theatre School.”

The event was centered on two questions: “Why here? Why now?”

It’s hard not to observe how diverse our school’s community is. Faces of all kinds, from all walks of life, and from a plethora of disciplines make up our community. Dean John Culbert described our community best — it’s not just The Theatre School, it’s “DePaul… Chicago… the world.” Yet, as vast as the TTS community is, there is still one magnificent thread that weaves through all of us: Theatre. With all of our different stories, we share one commonality in how theatre is a part of our lives. Whether it’s the focus of our worlds or a casual occasion, we all value it.

For every major achievement made in creating more diverse theatre, there is simultaneously another production committing some transgression. When announcing their upcoming season, the National Theatre made a call for more diversity that included a campaign to achieve a 50:50 gender ratio of directors and writers by 2021. Meanwhile, the use of yellowface in the theatre when producing, say, The Mikado, continues to be an epidemic. Hoards of theatre professionals and goers alike might roll their eyes at the supposed obviousness of a faux pas of this nature. However, once the arguments over “political correctness” start to simmer down, there is a realization that, like it or not, theatre is still a business. No one wants to break the status quo lest it interferes with their business model.

The Theatre School operates on a tricky line of being both a business and an academic institution. This then begs the question — does The Theatre School and similar conservatories best prepare their students by mirroring the business they’ll be entering? Or is there a responsibility to solve the problem at its roots?

The Theatre School’s 2016-2017 Mainstage season certainly isn’t shying away from diversity. Not only does the slate include several female playwrights and writers of color, but there is a wide array of stories being told. Two of the three upcoming Playworks shows deal with race and gender in tandem in relation to young people from both historical and contemporary perspectives. The Fullerton Showcase series — arguably the most visible — will include Wig Out, by TTS alum Tarrell Alvin McCraney. MFA director Nathan Singh selected Wig Out in response to a lack of queer people of color in the LGBTQ+ theatrical canon. We Are Proud to Present… (fellow MFA director Erin Kraft’s thesis) directly deals with young artists trying to grapple with their own privilege in storytelling. Faculty member Cameron Knight (who was just announced to be taking over as Head of BFA Acting) will be directing Romeo and Juliet in the fall. This is a production that sounds white-male-dominated on paper, but will be anything but in practice:

“We are setting the play in 2016 and suggesting a Chicago vibe….We won’t shy away from the issues most relevant today; suicide amongst college-age people, Black Lives Matter, [and] sexual identities. I’ve adapted the script so that major roles will be played by women. We will create a world that reflects our world today and tell this love story against that backdrop.”

In a production designed specifically for The Theatre School context, Knight describes how the idea came from “having conversations with [students] about what matters to them,” as well as Knight’s “commitment to empower women and actors/actresses of color in heightened texts.” This production will kick-off an entire Mainstage season focused on diverse stories.

Just a study of the ratio of male to female playwrights produced over the past fifteen Mainstage seasons points out TTS’ problem with gender parity alone:

Gender of Playwrights Produced Over Past Fifteen Seasons (2001-2016)gender playwrights

Breakdown of Gender of Playwright versus Gender of Director (2001-2016)

gender directors.png

While examining gender of playwrights is just the tip of the equality iceberg, these numbers don’t necessarily cover the variety of stories being told. A potential variety of narratives being told, however, necessitates the question posed by Erin Kraft (in reference to We Are Proud to Present…), “How do we responsibly tell other people’s stories?”

Rivendell Theatre Company is notable for being the “only Equity theatre in Chicago committed to advancing the lives of women through theatre.” Founder and Artistic Director Tara Mallen intentionally wanted to create an equity space for female artists. The conception for Rivendell Theatre Company was inspired by her own experiences as an actress carrying an equity card out of college. The lack of quality roles for women affected her and all of the female artists she studied with at Brooklyn College. “None of the women in my BFA program still act. But a bunch of the men do.”

Roles both onstage and backstage already tend to be more readily available and in a greater abundance for white men than for any other group. This reality is even clearer when looking specifically at equity theatres. While many theatre professionals might make the choice to go non-equity, they shouldn’t be limited to that choice based on lack of opportunity elsewhere. Especially if we consider the work benefits of being equity, as well as the financial disparity that can occur when working in non-equity theaters. Equity theaters also by nature have more visibility than non-equity theaters. Storefronts like Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. might have long and respected histories, but even after thirty years can still lose out due to financial struggles and energy loss.

The Theatre School’s Mainstage productions act as TTS’ equity productions within its immediate community. Studios, Intros, Labs, and ESPs all receive their fair share of attention but ultimately are produced more for the internal community of students, faculty, and their immediate friends and family. Whereas the Mainstage productions truly do reach out beyond The Theatre School. Mainstage productions also are by nature more fully produced with rigorous schedules for production meetings and intensive opportunities for design and tech students. It’s even considered the pinnacle of directing opportunities, given that all of the MFA thesis shows are granted the biggest space in the Mainstage seasons.

John Culbert referred to this upcoming season as the “most public season,” emphasizing the notion of TTS’ relationship between their Mainstage productions and the external community.

Studio, Intro, and Lab productions sometimes have some of the most diverse teams and story-telling. One of Rivendell’s most popular projects touring right now, Women at War, was even initially developed as a TTS studio with Tara Mallen — a show that would’ve been hard to come to fruition in a MainStage setting. In spite of the dynamic, creative, and diverse work being done, there remains a lack of visibility and resources for these productions, mirroring the disparity in professional theatre.

Ultimately, TTS’ Mainstage productions make a statement to the community and to their students about whose voices are most producible, which stories are most accessible, and what roles our students can hope to have. While perhaps providing an honest portrayal of the landscape these students will be entering, it forces students who don’t fit into these narratives to wonder if their studying is even worth it if their work is going to be boxed and limited right out of the gate.

Alternatively in a university setting, the casting pool is limited to whatever the diversity of the student body might be (which is an entirely separate issue of its own). With the available demographics of a casting pool, a choice might have to be made between the two ideologies. Rabbit Hole has the potential to be as much about a black mother’s experience as In the Blood is intentionally written to be, but if both productions occur within the same quarter a choice might have to be made. On one hand, there’s the chance of having a play very specifically about a black mother’s experience put up against a very white production of Rabbit Hole, at the risk of limiting the two to be categorized as a “black play” versus a “white play.” The other option is to produce a more diverse Rabbit Hole that universalizes the experience, but alternatively forces a program to cut the play very specifically written by a black woman for a black woman.

There’s also an issue at hand of a university having less ability to make a choice for the production team or cast that is deliberately a diverse statement. They risk not giving each student a fair and equal opportunity. Yet, on the other side of the argument, how are academic institutions ensuring each student is getting a fair and equal opportunity if the roles available to them on and offstage are limited?

Diversity is often a catch-22. It’s not always as easy as producing more August Wilson, or putting on more plays with female protagonists. Diversity is about taking diverse experiences and making them universal as much as it is about taking universal stories and making them diverse.

Ultimately, there are no answers yet. The world of professional theatre still favors white male artists for white male audiences. This same trend is being reflected within academic theatrical settings as well. Perhaps it is not a conservatory’s job to change the tides for the entire business, but The Theatre School is a conservatory that has made clear they take diversity seriously, with a diversity statement that reads:

“The Theatre School is committed to fostering and nurturing the reality of who people are, who they have been, and who they want to be….We give voice; we represent people and ideas. Our community engages in lively exploration, between and beyond categories….We examine, appreciate and share the complexities of culture through artistic collaboration, and in doing so, create a safe and supportive environment for our students, faculty, staff, audiences and visitors.”

For The Theatre School to uphold these statements, more effort needs to be put into answering these questions. Tara Mallen’s own experience speaks to the responsibility universities have. “The truth of theatre, and many things, but I can only speak to theatre … is you can only learn so much in a classroom. Where you grow as an artist is by practicing your art form. And if you’re spending all this money to go to a university, that university better make sure that you have opportunities.”

Until the 2014-2015 season, not a single male MFA director for either the New Directors or the Showcase series had directed a play written by a woman in the past fifteen years. The transgressions might not be intentional, but there is an issue at hand that is directly affecting those immediately entering the theatre industry — those who will be future artistic directors, and who will branch out ideas of diversity. This is only a small example of the sort of impact a further look at diversity within The Theatre School could have in the professional world.

Diversity is not an easy topic nor something that can be fixed overnight in an imperfect and unbalanced world. Regardless, TTS has a responsibility to its actors, its playwrights, its directors, its designers, its technicians, its stage managers — to let them know they have equal value in their passions. Despite the level of challenge in these questions, The Theatre School has a responsibility to try to find the answers.

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