Kenneth H. Washington – Director of Company Development, Guthrie Theater (2002)

I welcome the occasion of this discussion for it is a discussion that is vital for the American theater and for the health of the American nation.  It is not my aim to provide answers to the complexities of questions surrounding these subjects, but I would like to offer a context and framework for at least some of the questions that need to be discussed and ultimately answered.  I begin by quoting a statement of introduction that was attached to a picture/resume that recently came to me in the mail:

I am hopeful that the long overdue focus on true and inclusive multiculturalism will finally take hold in the theatre community.  It has been extremely disheartening to learn through casting director workshops right here in New York City that racist stereotyping still persists in the casting and selection of plays which are produced.  The use of the term “traditional” and “non-traditional” casting makes a mockery of everything this country is supposed to represent in this post-September 11th – 21st Century reality we are now living in.  I have been wondering why it has been acceptable to state that the theater community’s position on “tradition” is to cast only White actors if the play is being done in its actual time period.  It is ironic that other countries, which come to the United States to perform their works, have long integrated their casting process although significant work remains to be done in that area.  I was born in Germany and raised here and travel abroad a great deal.  I have been amazed at how far behind America is in multiculturalism in the depiction of images as opposed to some other areas of the world which have come through racist and oppressive regimes.  One would expect America to be the leader in that area.  There has been an intentionally hurtful deletion of the majority of the rest of the world in order to maintain a cultural superiority.  Many actors such as myself would appreciate a fair opportunity to gain theatrical experience which is not restricted to so-called  “Black” musicals and plays.  Why is it that I am not permitted to act in a production of my favorite playwright, Tennessee Williams’ plays unless there is an all “Black” cast?  I do not wish to be cast as a token passing silently in the background of a scene as has become the fashion on many television sets.  That is not real inclusion.  It has been continually frustrating and demeaning to be faced with the disdain of New York casting directors who expect actors such as myself to have valid theatre credits while knowing, and admitting that many theatre producers are “not ready” to deal with multi-racial casts of good plays.  To add insult to that, our soap opera and television credits are dismissed, meanwhile those are the areas in the entertainment business who will hire us!”

It is my fondest hope that there may finally be concrete and real movement toward change.  We live in a global, international society and it is time that America begins to reflect that in the theatrical community.”

This statement in many ways crystallizes the dilemma of many actors of color in this country as the United States continues to explore its definition of what it is to be a “multicultural” society.  It is a good time to acknowledge here that along with the ambivalences of many audience members about non-traditional casting, there are undoubtedly many actors of color who have no interest in performing the “western classics” – and with both scenarios, for many reasons.

For sake of discussion, consider these generalizations: 1) Does the U.S.A.’s brand of multicultural society mean many distinctive groups of people living equally but separately under one large umbrella?;  or 2) is it one large group of heterogeneous humans living homogenously together with a common set of values that define “American”? or 3) is there a dominating culture which sets the standard and tone and defines what it is to be American – meaning that of the Europeans who came to this world in the 17th C. – to which all others are meant to emulate?

In many ways this country seems schizophrenic when it comes to matters of race and culture.  One only has to note the continued insistence by many that this nation is a “religious” one, “under God,” where “prayer should be a natural part of the school day” as the debate rages over the idea of separation of church and state and faith-based initiatives.

The dilemma we face on this subject nationally is the same dilemma that the theater faces.  The reflection is no accident.

An example:  It is not too long ago that African American students in many of the country’s actor training programs had to insist on opportunities to explore a larger range of work in their training than that of the European classics, and their “mainstream” American successors.  In fact, students of color were being courted and recruited in the name of inclusion, diversity,  multiculturalism with expectations that they would become a part of the mainstream (undefined) “multicultural” society – presumably the latter of three generalized modes mentioned above.  In one respect, these students were being trained for a world that was largely non-existent; for the reality awaiting beyond the classroom had limits on “integration” that did not exist in school.  As one recent graduate of a well-known program explained, he had trained primarily in Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen, etc., and now felt he had to learn now how to speak an August Wilson play.

The dynamic relationship of training programs to the profession, however, is another discussion.  I note it here as part of a larger confusion and dilemma in terms of the “goal” being sought – preparing students for what?  For what kind of marketplace?

It is my experience that theaters around the country are genuinely seeking to deal with this dilemma of the nation that is inherently a dilemma of the profession.  The economics of the mass media further aggravate the situation.

My work, that includes many years in the academic world, has also been reflective of this larger society.  One of my responses to the world I lived in was to make sure that students explored work related to their own ethnic background, along with work involving another heritage.  It was perhaps my naïve way of dealing with the multi-ethnic soul of the country.  I have continued to find significant pedagogical usefulness of this strategy for the actor personally, and for my larger goals in teaching characterization that I was pursuing as a teacher.  Is there perhaps a usefulness of such assignments pedagogically and sociologically that is unrelated to that of the profession?

One colleague sums up the dilemma in theater terms as “the tyranny of realism.”  Indeed one of the ironies of verisimilitude in the theater is the notion that this is the place where we get to see BENEATH the surface of the human characters in motion onstage.

My perception of the current climate, current attitudes and current opportunities overall is one of confusion.  However, I do find that in my workplace as well as the places where I spend working in guest stints, that there is genuine interest in pursuing the challenge versus ignoring the challenge.  My guess is that that is the same at other large, mainstream, institutional organizations.  I find that the workplace in general is also searching for ways and means to interest people of diverse backgrounds – indeed of all backgrounds – in employment in the theater.

To me, the primary remaining barriers of achieving inclusion are firmly embedded in the society’s ambivalence about race and culture, including factors of diversity and inclusion. Who can/should/be allowed to do what (play what roles)? (direct what plays)? (design what shows)? Also, one cannot overlook the audience’s relationship to the larger society in terms of taste and degrees of openness, tolerance, debate, discussion, comfort and the organization’s dependence upon finding, keeping, renewing an audience.  The audience mirrors the society.

The Guthrie early in its history has the story of a production of The Dance of Death that included the casting of a family that was played by two white actors (the parents) and an African American son.  At the time, 1966,  I am told that many patrons could not understand or accept the idea of such casting.  Sir Tyrone Guthrie, a colleague remembers, challenged the audiences to recognize that all of the people onstage were playing someone else.  It seems a simple notion; but a theatrical performance is perhaps always experienced in the context of the time and place in which it is done. (In the very first show at the Guthrie, in 1963, an African American actor played Horatio.  Interestingly, the 1966 story shows that there were limitations on that earlier idea of casting.)  Former artistic director Garland Wright insisted that casting reflect the world we live in and indeed the country we live in, and that early notion of “non-traditional” casting got a new life.  Current artistic director Joe Dowling has continued a practice where diversity and inclusion are given the highest priority in both programming and casting and employment, while allowing directors to respect the assumed demands of realism as it relates to verisimilitude.

The initiatives of recent years:  1) the establishment of a new literary department with a major additional emphasis on the inclusion of and the development of relationships with “living playwrights” along with the theater’s mission dedicated to the classics, and  2) the new actor training programs – A GUTHRIE EXPERIENCE FOR ACTORS IN TRAINING and the UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA/GUTHRIE THEATER B.F.A. Actor Training Program –  assure a new diversity as they inherently and by design embrace the faces of our contemporary society.  Inclusion and diversity are the very cornerstones of these programs

As for my own personal stake in all of this:  Ultimately in consideration of these matters I am left with my own history as a child when the joys and wonders of “playing pretend” had NO BOUNDARIES in terms of whom I could pretend to be.  I can never forget the absolute freedom of that time.

However, I have learned the naiveté of that freedom.  And the memory tugs strongly when I see multicultural groups of young people, such as the founders of MUD BONES, for example, a group of highly-trained actors driven by a shared desire for opportunities to perform the great classics that they find rarely available to them, organizing to create their own opportunities.  And so we find yet another kind of offshoot and reflection in reaction to the theater’s and the larger society’s dilemma.

Finally, I feel strongly that this country’s history is fantastically rich in stories that reflect  the wonders of its unique history and ambitions – both the positive and the negative – and I, for one, long for the day when we can collectively, bold-facedly, embrace and accept it all, as a prerequisite for defining our future and the ideas of inclusion, diversity and multiculturalism.  I truly believe that the theater has a huge role to play in that process!