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TBA Online: News & Features: September 2017

Towards Cultural Equity, Diversity and Artistry in Casting

Wednesday, September 20, 2017   (1 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Brad Erickson

For months, issues around casting choices have filled the news and ricocheted across social media. Often the conversation falls into two camps, one characterized by grievance, the other by defensiveness. For some, the whole enterprise of assembling a company of actors to embody a play can seem like a minefield, chalk-full of hidden dangers, something to be gingerly wended through, hopefully with minimal damage. For others the process can feel like Trump’s wall – something designed to keep them out.

How can we change that paradigm and look at casting as a powerful means of advancing cultural equity, social justice – and not coincidentally – artistry? That was the question posed by the panel looking at “Cultural Equity, Diversity and Artistry in Casting” convened by Theatre Bay Area on September 19 at the Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s Osher Studio in downtown Berkeley. Moderated by Lisa Evans, a theatre artist and social activist, the group examined the topic from a mix of personal and professional perspectives.  

Providing an overview, Evans described how, historically, marginalized communities have been presented in one-dimensional roles, playing maids or servants, or cardboard stereotypes. In recent decades, the theatre community tried to break that pattern through “color blind casting.” The conceit with this approach was to select the “best” actor for the role, regardless of race or ethnicity. But, as Evans asserted, casting is inevitably subjective and the identities of the actor creep into decisions being made. More recently “color conscious” casting has moved to the fore, allowing the actor’s full identity to come into the role. This approach looks at the personal characteristics of the actor as being an asset they bring to the work. 

Casting, Evans reminded the convening, is a type of hiring and necessarily falls under employment law. In most settings, discrimination on the basis of race or gender is illegal. How does the law look at selecting actors? Turning to the panel’s two attorneys, Evans asked for some guidance. 

Kathleen Antonia Tarr, an actor, educator and attorney, addressed the issues first. Tarr explained that the law does allow employers to seek out applicants with specific personal characteristics if the attribute being sought is a “bona fide occupational qualification” or BFOQ. Religion, for instance, can fall into this category, but never, Tarr emphasized, can race or color (except for Native Americans). How then can a producer lawfully include an actor’s background in matters of casting? Tarr pointed to federal law and U.S. Supreme Court decisions and asserted it is reasonable, as a producer, to say that you are looking for cultural understanding for a particular role (an actor simply being a specific race is not enough), but seeking an actor who can speak to their experience as a person of a certain race can meet that standard. (For much more on the legal parameters, Tarr referenced a law review that she authored with a link available here.)

Douglas Robbins, an attorney specializing in entertainment and employment law, also cited “bona fide occupational qualifications,” but with a slightly different take. Robbins asserted that race can be lawfully used as a factor in casting when the decision is made for artistic reasons. He pointed to a decision in a Tennessee federal court that ruled casting was a form of “speech” and that choices involving race or color could be made under that rubric. The necessity of casting for an actor’s gender, or “sex” in legal terms, is much easier to prove, Robbins stated, pointing to several cases from the legal record. 

Evans then asked each panel member to speak from their own perspective as a theatre practitioner and their own lived experience. Amy Potozkin spoke of her work as Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s casting director. It is her role to support the vision of the director and playwright, to listen to them about their priorities and ideas, but also to push them. Potozkin described having deep conversations about assumptions and unexamined biases, like what’s “sexy.” She sees it as her job to question assumptions, stereotypes, and the dominant culture. 

Actor Sarita Ocón framed the issue as one of sustainability: “How does this community survive?” Ocón pointed to recent examples of Latinx actors being sidelined from shows about their own community – a production of “In the Heights” in Australia and “Evita” in Massachusetts. “How can we bring more Latinx stories to the stage? How can we make sure more Latinx artists are hired, and not just actors?” Ocón asked. The Latinx community is working to push open doors to opportunity, Ocón asserted. Why does it feel that more progress is being made at a national level than here in the Bay Area where there is a growing community of literally hundreds of Latinx artists?” she wondered.  

Jeffrey Lo, a playwright and director and associate casting director for TheatreWorks, spoke about the need to bring questions of equity and inclusion to the fore. “How can we create a space to have difficult conversations?” Lo asked. “How can we create space to make mistakes and learn?”

For actor Tracy Camp the issue is a matter of “life and death.” Camp described her son, a black 14 year old, and her daily fears for his safety. She related a story from her son’s childhood, when he was just three years old, watching the movie “The Lion King.” The young boy identified with the film's villain by saying, "Scar is brown like me. Camp responded, “So is Simba,” and her son replied, "No, he’s yellow," distancing himself from the hero of the story. Within a few year,s he told Camp he wanted to be white. This is the effect of casting choices, Camp asserted. The answer, Camp posited, is diversifying everything not just the cast – especially the people making decisions. 

Systemic change is exactly what director Evren Odcikin wanted to address. Odcikin asserted that casting is only a small part of the puzzle. Casting is part of a “domino effect,” he stated. “Who is making the decisions? That’s the question. When leaders are of color, then change comes quickly.” Odcikin pointed to California Shakespeare Theater, with Eric Ting at its head, as a recent example. Odcikin referenced Raymond Bobgan, artistic director the Cleveland Public Theater and a leader in the arena of equity, diversity and inclusion, as stating, “Everyone talks about equity and diversity like it’s charity work. It’s not. It’s quality. Some of our finest artists are of color,” Odcikin remembered Bobgan saying. “So if we are not creating opportunities for them, we are not doing good theatre.” Odcikin told the convening that with actors, opening doors of access can mean giving people a chance who might not audition as well – partly because as a person of color they don’t have a chance to audition as much as their white counterparts. Their personal experience, Odcikin emphasized, can bring much to the performance that goes beyond what they might have lacked in the audition.

Questions from the convening attendees addressed a number of concerns. One asked, “How can we get more people of color and other marginalized actors at auditions?” Odcikin warned that if an organization does not already have a good record with diverse casting, it must work harder to bring people in. You have to build trust, and that is going to take time and effort, and the process will take longer, Odcikin advised. “And you must actually cast a person of color!” Odcikin added.  Sarita Ocón wondered if actors of color are up for the leads or only minor or servile roles. Tracy Camp related her experience of auditioning for nontraditional roles (going out for parts that are usually played by white actors) and not being called back. That discouragement keeps actors of color away. Panelists related stories of white-led theatres occasionally reaching out to them for help with finding actors of color (assistance which is never compensated, they pointed out). When seeking this kind of help, the panelists advised producers to be specific about the types of actors they were seeking, and to look for help early. “Not a day before the audition,” Odcikin said, “a month before.” Ocón related her own stories of being asked for recommendations for other Latinx actors, and she challenged artists of color to open up their personal networks to recommend new POC artists when asked. Lisa Evans suggested that it can be useful to look beyond the usual theatrical settings for 
potential actors of color in order to find talent from the broader community. 

Inevitably, questions arose around the many leadership transitions here in the Bay Area and around the country – 28 major companies nationwide, and counting, that are seeking new executive leaders. Panelists reminded the convening that in these transitions the real decision makers are the boards of directors and the search firms.  While boards and the search firms are mainly led by older whites, these leaders are becoming aware of issues of inclusion. The panel urged staff members of theatres in transition to speak up, to advocate for diversity in leadership, and to offer themselves, when appropriate, as a resource for reaching a diverse pool of candidates.  Ocón shared that Latinx artists are working to publicize leadership openings on their personal social media portals, helping to spread the word about opportunities and recruit a broader group of applicants. 

Wrapping up, Lisa Evans, reminded the convening that we must “acknowledge where we are and lean in to color conscious casting.” We must work together to create a culture of having conversations around cultural identity and competency, and even more, we must remember that the core issue is to achieve diversity at every level.


The panel discussion was recorded and will be available soon on Theatre Bay Area’s website. 


Jerome J Gentes says...
Posted Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Great recap, Brad. Wasn't able to attend, so I enjoyed this, and look forward to the recording.