Peter Jay Fernandez – Actor (2005-2006)
In addressing the issues of Diversity and Inclusion within the industry, I should first state the obvious. There are still (and will continue to be) many more professional artists than there are job opportunities for said jobs, so that competition will remain intense. However, I do believe that things have improved for people of color, women, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians, among others in the realm of the theatre. The questions one has to ask are: in what ways? and to what degree?
As for the first question, I have, using the last five years as a gauge, seen or been involved in a fairly wide-reaching effort to include and encourage production of work by and/or about the aforementioned groups of people. (I dislike using the word “Minorities”. It gives the impression of diminishment). I’ve also (along with many others) been the beneficiary of what I would consider a clear spike in nontraditional concepts and casting within the industry. Despite considerable resistance from some “camps” for either artistic, financial, personal, or any combination of reasons thereof, I’m seeing more European, World and American classics, new plays and musicals being mounted with a nontraditional approach. Such work has been a growing presence on Regional or Resident Theatre stages (both large and small) for quite some time. Lacking the pressure of instant critical success and the prohibitive cost of producing virtually anything in New York, the regions and their audiences are more able to address the need for a more representative and inclusive theatre. In my travels over the last five years in such cities as Chicago, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and New Haven, to name a few, I have seen vibrant evidence of this. Shakespeare, August Wilson, Sophocles, Derek Walcott, Chekhov, Regina Taylor, Tom Stoppard, Sarah Ruhl, Nilo Cruz, Kia Corthron, and a host of others—old and new—are being represented in imaginative and inclusive ways. Audiences are becoming representative of this. I will also say that even with the dwindling financial investment of our federal government in the arts, young writers, directors, and designers are producing exiting and diverse work all over the country. It is a very rocky road for them but they are traversing it with clear eyes, focusing on the melting pot in which we live. As always, we see more risk taking in the not-for-profit arena and that is a good thing. In New York, theatre companies like Lincoln Center, The Roundabout, and Manhattan Theatre Club can afford to push the envelope and are doing so in their smaller spaces and, to a lesser degree, on their mainstages. They are now beginning to compete with smaller companies like The Vineyard, The Atlantic, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, The Signature and Classic Stage to present the voices of the non-European or non-white male on a more than token basis. The Public Theater would be a unique exception, due to its number and types of performing spaces. Such artists as Diana Son, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jose Rivera, Tanya Barfield, Daniel Beatty, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Cheryl West, Jessica Hagedorn, in addition to those previously mentioned, are finding growing support and exposure in what many would consider “mainstream” houses. Meanwhile, theaters such as La Mama, The New Federal, Intar, The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, Repertorio Espanol, Pan Asian Rep, and The Classical Theater of Harlem, among others, continue to give strong voice (while juggling funding) and artistic homes to the artist of color in all of his and her facets. While the commercial end of the industry (particularly Broadway) continues to chase the tourist dollar presenting big budget musicals and British imports, there have been some bright spots, indicating that some producers are willing to gamble on a more diverse picture. Some examples are: The Lion King, Bombay Dreams, Anna in the Tropics, Gem of the Ocean, A Raisin in the Sun, Flower Drum Song, The Color Purple, On Golden Pond, King Headley II, Lennon, and two large-cast Shakespeare plays, Henry IV, and Julius Caesar. Some successful and some not, they have given the commercial theatergoer a healthy taste of the multi-layered, multicultural world that we live in and come from.
All of that said, we come to the second question. To what degree? In such a precarious and insecure industry, while I have seen growth in terms of inclusion and representation, we are still a long way down the road from an all-inclusive theatre. Disabled people are still woefully under-represented on our stages and behind the scenes. Those who fall outside the mainstream idea of “sexuality” continue to fight the stereotypes that persist, and while a large number of culturally diverse actors, singers, and dancers are finding work (though never enough), it is a rougher road for writers, designers, and directors. In my experience, most producers continue to be white males. Most artistic directors of the larger theatre companies are white males and while more ethnically diverse writers (male and female) are being produced in high-profile venues, a large number of these productions are being directed by white males. In short, the majority of those in positions of power in the American Theatre continue be white males. Education and money directly affect the nature and path of diversity in the industry (and yes, I would include Television and Film, but that is a discussion for another time). At a time when our federal government actively discourages the importance of the arts in our schools, we have to ask where future audiences for a culturally diverse theatre will come from. It seems we must continue to explore alternative sources of funding by educating or re-educating those who can afford to support the theatre (and the arts in general) with their finances, on the absolute necessity of the arts in our and our children’s lives as a humanizing, worldwide language. We who share a love for what we do, must also become proactive with the use of our time, our finances, and our votes to ensure that the three-dimensional artist of the future has a place in which to find his voice and an educated audience to hear it.
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