BROWNOUT Event Summary Report (2007)

Prepared by Ephraim Lopez and Christine Bruno

Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts’ roundtable, BROWNOUT: A Panel on Casting, Training and Presenting Actors and Works of Diversity, took place on June 14, 2007. The roundtable was a collaboration with Caridad Svich and the NoPassport Coalition as well as the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the Graduate Center, CUNY, where it was also held. The NoPassport Coalition/Collective, led by playwright Caridad Svich, is an artist-driven Pan-American alliance dedicated to action, advocacy, and change through cross-cultural diversity and difference in the arts. The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at CUNY is dedicated to bridging the gap between the professional and the academic performing arts communities. The main impetus for the program was: Does a “White aesthetic” exist in the arts and entertainment field and if so, how does it permeate the status quo of the industry?

Panel participants included: Debra Cardona (Classical Theatre of Harlem/Moderator); Zakiyyah Alexander (Writer/Performer); Daniel Banks (NYU), Stephanie Gilman (Freelance Director); Antonio Ocampo-Guzman (Northeastern University); Eduardo Placer (Actor/ recent UCSD MFA Graduate); Tlaloc Rivas (Freelance Director); and Elsie Stark (Casting Director). Caridad was scheduled to be part of the panel, but was unable to attend due to a death in the family.

The total attendance was approximately 50. The audience included actors, writers, playwrights, directors, casting directors, journalists, and producers.

To date, the program has directly impacted participants in the following ways:

  • Caridad’s opening remarks entitled, “Which World Us?” were requested for printing in Back Stage.
  • Both Stephanie Gilman and Antonio-Ocampo-Guzman were asked to write editorial pieces that were subsequently published in Fall 2007.
  • Actor Eduardo Placer was called in by the casting director at the Pearl Theatre—who was in attendance at BROWNOUT—and is now scheduled to perform in at least two shows during the current season.
  • An edited transcript of BROWNOUT will appear in American Theatre Magazine in April 2008.

From my own interaction with the acting community, I sense BROWNOUT was a hugely successful event that helped to solidify the Alliance’s role as a leader—particularly with respect to the Latino artistic community—on these issues. Moving forward, the goal is to continue to identify key issues and organize smaller, more targeted events around these concerns. As is often the case when discussing issues of diversity and inclusion, the audience and panel raised more questions than answers.

The evening was divided into three sections: two panels followed by a combined panel/question-and-answer session.

I.  The first panel focused on who we see on stage and where we are now. The panelists for this section were Zakiyyah Alexander, Daniel Banks, and Tlaloc Rivas.

The first section covered a lot of ground and set the tone for the discussion. While many topics were raised, a considerable amount of the conversation centered around the idea that the accepted cultural image/norm in the industry is “White.”

“We’re basically seeing a neutral picture right now, and that picture has been a white one. What that means is that any love story or any story about people being people and doing ordinary things is somehow a white story. Everyone else must find their way into believing that that story can also be theirs. If we see people of color represented in the culture, we’re often shown their struggles with their environment, or their inner turmoil with their families and their troubled lives—how difficult it is to be us”

—Zakiyyah Alexander

“There’s a way in which our language still confers entitled status to one group of       people, and again I’m not basing this specifically on skin color but it’s the dialectic through which we operate. There’s one entitled group of people and then there are disenfranchised groups of people that have to fight that entitlement. And we have to work hard to make the language inclusive, which is…it’s wonderful to see the way that word is now replacing the term “diversity.” We need to shift our language so that we’re not constantly speaking from—and I love this term—from the ‘optic’ of the dominant culture.”

—Daniel Banks

The truth of Daniel’s words resonated loudly, both with his fellow panelists and with the audience. If you’re not white, how do you define yourself without first identifying what you’re not and more importantly, what you’re not seeing on stage and screen? The conversation pointed to the lack of opportunities for artists of color, specifically the fact that there is a sense in the theatre world that there is only one slot per season available to artists of color. However, Zakiyyah noted that this slot is often “the ‘onus’ slot—the slot of identity, truth and honor.”

The question was then posed: Can this image of neutrality that is the driving force behind that competition shift? The panelists felt that it can, has, and continues to move forward, but that change is, nonetheless, slow-moving. Some major points about what can be done regarding this were that writers—all writers, not just those of color—need to take responsibility for writing stories with a diverse landscape. The best way to ensure this is to be specific about your world, but if the world is not specific in terms of ethnicity, ask for diverse representation with regard to casting. It was also suggested that those in positions of power need to more accurately reflect the diverse landscape of America. Daniel Banks reminded us to take stock of longstanding cultural institutions such as Pregones and Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre to see what has allowed them to be viable for so long.

II.  The second section of the evening focused on training and casting. Participating panelists were Elsie Stark, Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, Eduardo Placer, and Stephanie Gilman.

Debra began with the following question:

Do you think theatre training programs prepare their actors of color for more culturally specific work, or is it general classical training?

From this, the discussion covered two broad topics, the first of which was the training itself. It should be noted that the conversation focused only on formal training programs. Interestingly, none of the panelists broached the topic of continued development of the artist outside of the academic environment.

There was consensus that: a) Training is absolutely essential to the actor; b) Training programs as a whole do not embrace an inclusive vision of the world; and c) Students graduating from these programs are often ill-prepared to navigate the business side of the industry.

When discussing the importance of formal training, the issue of access was raised. As Stephanie Gilman points out, [As a director] “when I’ve been in a casting session for a regional theatre, almost all the people I see went to grad school. Which grad schools? Yale, Julliard, NYU, and sometimes Carnegie Mellon. Who gets to go to those schools and how much debt are they in?” Stephanie admits that her general opinion of academia as “racist, elitist, and exclusive” has much to do with her experience of working with talented actors in other parts of the country who lack the resources to become working professionals outside their communities, which includes the opportunity to attend a grad school program. Eduardo responded that his training experience was extremely positive and that a number of schools, including UCSD (his alma mater), have financial resources in place for students of color in particular.

What is the environment like in those programs for students of color? Attendance statistics seem to favor a more diverse student population, but once there, is the cultural uniqueness of the students being “trained out of them?” If so, can the same be said about students of Caucasian/European heritage?

“I’ve noticed that most training programs are very Eurocentric in their vision and have no understanding of what it is like to be an artist of color from a different country or speak with a different accent…Am I training actors so they can be the best artists they can be, or am I training them to get jobs in the mainstream? I know many Latino actors who have gone to amazing programs and have shifted the way they speak so much that now they are not able to be cast. ”

—Antonio Ocampo-Guzman

Regardless of a particular program’s method of training, all panelists agreed that too often, students graduating from these programs are ill-prepared to navigate the business side of the industry.

“I tell young actors this all the time. 80% of what you do has to be based in your    talent and your training. But you better have another solid 20% that has a business head. Let’s be very clear. This is not about art anymore. [Yes,] you have to be talented. You have to have the chops.. But it’s a business.”

—Elsie Stark

The remainder of the conversation centered around a discussion of what Antonio terms “phobias of the mainstream.” Both of the evening’s panels noted that the standard in the industry is based on a White cultural aesthetic, the primary examples of which are language (including accents), stories, and characterizations. The central idea raised was that educators and industry professionals are trying to mold artists of color into sounding, writing, behaving, and acting according to the traditional White model. Ironically, casting artists of color is often based on the visual and linguistic characteristics that differentiate these actors from their White counterparts.

III.  The Q & A that followed addressed similar concerns and raised additional issues including:

  • Are marginalized communities themselves fully embracing diversity and inclusion?
  • Everyone has an accent.
  • What can be done on an individual level to improve the current climate?
  • What can be done on the organizational/collective level to improve the current climate?

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