Diversity Beyond Casting (2002)

Thursday – September 26th, 2002 @ 2:15pm EST

An online roundtable discussion, hosted by the Non-Traditional Casting Project, Inc.

included the following participants:

Gary Anderson

Producing Artistic Director, Plowshares Theatre Company

Detroit, MI

Oskar Eustis

Artistic Director, Trinity Repertory Company

Providence, RI

Henry Godinez

Resident Artistic Associate, Goodman Theatre

Chicago, IL

Kent Thompson

Artistic Director, Alabama Shakespeare Festival

Montgomery, AL

(led by)

Abel Lopez

Associate Producer/Board Chairman, GALA Hispanic Theatre

Washington, DC

Thursday – September 26th, 2002 @ 2:15pm EST

Abel Lopez :

First of all I want to thank you for participating and for being so patient with this process.  I believe all of you are familiar with the Non-Traditional Casting Project so I won’t say more about our work. However, you should know that this discussion is one of several that are occurring.

I know that all of you are involved both in your communities and nationally in these issues. As leaders in your organizations I wanted to focus our discussion on what you are doing and have don to promote inclusion. As you know, NTCP originally focused on casting but we have been concerned with all aspects of the artistic process and operations of our organizations.

I am familiar with much of what your theaters are doing and have done in this area. But I think it would be helpful to hear from you what the challenges and opportunities have been as you engaged in exploring these issues.

Thus, I would like to know what actions, other than casting, your organizations have taken to promote inclusion in your theaters. For example, in areas of board and staff, play selection, employment of directors and designers, etc. Please ask for clarification on any of the questions or comments I may make or pose.

Oskar Eustis :

Well, we have begun a long-term project with the Native American community that has so far resulted in a festival, a resident playwright (Bill Yellowrobe), an artistic consultant (Betsy Theobold) as well as a number of native actors cast in non-native work that we have done. We have also begun to deal with the Latino community by hiring a wonderful artistic producer, Maria Goyanes, to develop programming and projects aimed at our very large Latino community.

Gary Anderson :

Abel, our work at Plowshares has been more on ethnic-specific work while promoting inclusion in the audience and creative teams. We exclusively do plays by black writers but the set designer, costumer or lighting designer might be from another ethnic background. My board has three whites on it, including the board president.

Kent Thompson :

That’s a big topic.  My focus for the past 13 years has mostly focused on diversity in terms of race.  Specifically, African Americans.  Early on, I realized that we needed senior artistic staff that were African American.  So we have had 3 Associate Artistic Directors–Ed Smith, Claude Purdy (briefly), and Kent Gash.  All were directors.  I thought it very important that they direct a wide variety of projects–not simply African American plays.  So they have directed Brian Friel, Tennessee Williams, William Shakespeare plays and others.

Abel Lopez :

What has been the impact on the organization artistically, organizationally and within your communities?

Henry Godinez :

Twenty five years ago at the Goodman, it was A Christmas Carol that began the process of non-traditional casting. It has became a given in all productions now but still a bit safe for me. The Goodman tends to do Black plays or Latino plays to develop audiences.

Kent Thompson :

In addition, we quickly began hiring designers of color for projects elsewhere in the season.  In creating our new play program, the Southern Writers’ project, we commissioned new plays from more African American writers than any other race. And we began producing plays that would speak to the African American community more than one a year (Black History Month)–including during our Repertory season.

Oskar Eustis :

I have tended to try and give opportunities to early career directors: Kent Gash directed his first two professional shows here, Edris Cooper- Anifowoshe has done two, etc.

Henry Godinez :

The same is sorta true at the Goodman where Bob has assembled a collective: Regina Taylor, Chuck Smith, myself, etc.

Abel Lopez :

What has been the impact on your organizations and audiences from implementing these initiatives?

Kent Thompson :

One impact on the organization has been greater inclusion, especially of African American  playwrights, directors, designers and actors. One impact is that we have gained African American audiences.  We’ve also lost some white audiences.  But the audiences have changed to better reflect the community.  It has been a rocky ride sometimes–with ticket sales taking a hit over controversy. And the theatre hasn’t figured out how to better shield the associate ADs from criticism.  Classic example.  Kent Gash directed a Guys and Dolls.  White Sarah Brown, black Sky Masterson.  Lots of complaints, poor ticket sales, etc. Sad since we had been doing non-traditional casting for ten-twelve years, but mostly in Rep season (Shakespeare & others).  I felt Kent got nailed for the theatre’s policy–non-traditional casting and trying to use the best actor regardless of race.  So… it continues to be a tough issue.  At least here.

Gary Anderson :

But Kent, isn’t that the problem? I don’t think the way to achieve inclusion is to shove minorities and women into plays written by white men for a white audience. It is the acceptance of someone else’s story as relevant to the dialogue.

Kent Thompson :

Yes, I think you’re right.  Of course, we produced Guys and Dolls because Kent wanted to direct it.  But that’s an excuse I think– Gary, I would argue that I am trying to make opportunities for artists of color to do the project they express a desire to work on but usually aren’t offered, such as… Ed Smith doing Night of the Iguana or Kent Gash doing Troilus and Cressida or Twelfth Night.

Henry Godinez :

Kent, 25 years later we still get ugly letters about having inter-racial Cratchits. For the African American audiences the impact has been huge; they are now a significant component of the subscriber base. The Latino audience demands more cultivation.

Kent Thompson :

Yes, Henry.  Chuck Smith was here when we were producing Guys & Dolls and said the Goodman would have gotten the same mail, etc.

Oskar Eustis :

In 1969 Adrian cast a black Sharon Tate (Barbara Meek) in his play about the Manson family and I never get any comments about multi-racial casting. We’ve been shocked to discover that there actually is a sizable Native American audience in Southern New England. The organization is still adjusting: because we are a company there is a great emphasis on continuity, and that has created some tensions: in order for the company to diversify, some white actors are losing their jobs.

Henry Godinez :

The funding community here in Chicago is ready to support Latino programming but I think it will take long term commitment to programming.

Oskar Eustis :

Our Latino community is relatively new: mostly Central American, very working class, and I know it will take a long time to cultivate them as an audience.

Kent Thompson :

Out Latino community is very, very small but increasing as workers pour in for agricultural purposes.  Interestingly, Montgomery just won the new Hyundai plant so we’ll have an influx of lots of middle class and up Koreans.

Abel Lopez :

Gary, have you faced any particular issues when you have incorporated white designers, etc in your organization?

Gary Anderson :

I don’t have any other problems besides explaining to a lighting designer what gel colors work best for black actors.

Oskar Eustis :

Well, surely we have to look at both sides of this at once: making sure artists from all communities have a chance to tell their stories specifically, and making sure that our cultural heritage is open for reinterpretation by every American, just because we’re American.

Henry Godinez :

I think you nailed it Oskar, and I do think some are less adventurous than say 10 years ago. Audiences’ development has demanded both.

Oskar Eustis :

We have to sell more tickets than we did 10 years ago: government funding used to be almost 25% of our budget; now it’s 2%

Gary Anderson :

I understand. I’m only saying that why we don’t do a white Walter Lee Younger (Raisin) and an Asian Woman in Yellow (Colored Girls) if we are really interested in inclusion.

Oskar Eustis :

Why on earth would I do a white Walter Lee? It wouldn’t make sense of the story.

Gary Anderson :

If the idea is interpreting culture, everyone’s culture, then my cultural works should be reinterpreted too, Yes?

Henry Godinez :

Can you do Long Days Journey Into Night with a Black or Asian brother?

Kent Thompson :

Yes, they should be re-interpreted–if we follow the logic of inclusion to the extreme.  However, that ignores the historical/social/cultural past problems and struggles…

Oskar Eustis :

Sure, but that suggests that we are in a time, now, when a play about a black American being discriminated against is no longer a race specific question; and it is. Of course you can do a multi-racial Long Days Journey Into Night because we no longer see the play as being about race.

Kent Thompson :

I agree.

Henry Godinez :

Agreed.

Abel Lopez :

To follow up on a comment Oskar made, is it more difficult today to convince our boards to maintain a commitment to your programs when we are more dependent on earned income?

Henry Godinez :

When it’s about developing new audiences, I think yes.

Oskar Eustis :

So far, our commitment to diversity has resulted in clearly higher ticket sales- if it didn’t, I’d have a tougher fight.

Kent Thompson :

Yes, I think there are more questions about maintaining a commitment to NTC or inclusion or diversity now–as they worry about the bottom line more and more.  I cannot say that our commitment to diversity has results in higher ticket sales–yet. However, there are more questions about why we don’t do more “popular” fare, too.  So I talk about it in the context of what we’re trying to do–our mission, our vision for the theatre that must include diverse viewpoints, provocation, risk-taking, looking at the world through another’s eyes or we are not unique and/or artistic. After a few really tough years financially, I have a season that is more adventurous but I am painfully aware that I’m constantly negotiating the balance.

Oskar Eustis :

“Yes”, as in “yes it’s harder”?

Henry Godinez :

Yes, Oskar, it is harder. If you have to choose what to do in an open slot, will it be Jose Rivera or Edward Albee?

Oskar Eustis :

Henry: is that argument with your board or with your own artistic staff?

Henry Godinez :

Perhaps both. We are looking to begin a major thrust by jump-starting the initiative by hosting an International Latino Theatre Festival, followed by consistent programming throughout the next several years. The Festival is sexy to funders so it helps.

Oskar Eustis :

Offline I’d love to talk with you about your festival and programming- maybe there’s things we can learn/share from/with each other.

Henry Godinez :

Sounds great.

Abel Lopez :

Which is a great segue into another question. What issues have arisen for your organization with ethnic specific organizations and artists when you engaged in your/these efforts?

Henry Godinez :

We’ve found that we have to be present in the community and the community has to feel like it’s invited into ours.

Oskar Eustis :

Rites and Reason Theater at Brown University have, on occasion,  felt like we didn’t consult with them enough, and the Providence Black Repertory Company (a new organization here in town) felt a need to distance itself publicly from us when we did a Robert Alexander play, but mostly relations are very good. We have a long way to go in building up our contacts within the Latin community; the Native American community has been very excited and open.

Gary Anderson :

Detroit is the most racially polarized community in the nation. We found that when we have collaborated across racial lines there are some new audience members that are inspired but usually we also see an erosion in core audience.

Kent Thompson :

We have to leave the theatre and become involved in the African American community in town and in the state for our audience development to work–will the theater be committed over the long haul?  And will it go both ways–inviting them to the theatre. And visiting, having real connections with the African American community.  And we have to be serious about inclusion on the level of the Board of Directors. In Montgomery, there’s also a generational divide in the African American community.  A group of older leaders who were first generation successes and now a second/third generation of leadership. Their concerns are very different, equally legitimate.  You know—their focus is not on community.

Henry Godinez :

It’s important to tell others stories with the “others” involved. Gary, in Chicago it’s tended to pay off; our audiences seem open to that; the danger lies in marginalizing, it has to be true, honest and consistent.

Abel Lopez :

Is there a project or program that you implemented to promote inclusion that didn’t work? If there is, what would you do differently the next time.

Oskar Eustis :

Rhode Island is still 90% Caucasian, so for me it’s sometimes having to convince the audience that they are part of America and the world, not just their state.

Kent Thompson :

I’m thinking about the question.  But I’d have to say I think the biggest issue in Montgomery next to, maybe even ahead of race–is class.  Although our audience has more economic diversity than a lot of large theatres, we haven’t really addressed this. I haven’t succeeded in growing and developing our African American Board members.  Same percentages for several years.  Same players often.  Feels stuck–but we’ve started asking lots of questions and finding out why.

Henry Godinez :

I hate to keep going back to this but when it hasn’t paid off is when we haven’t followed up with more; when the momentum stops so do the audiences.

Oskar Eustis :

We’ve also had real difficulty with increasing the African American representation on our Board: relatively small volunteer pool who are DEEPLY in demand everywhere in the state. I also share Henry’s point: when we’ve done one-show development or one-project development it’s been very disappointing.

Kent Thompson :

True for us, too.

Gary Anderson :

Class is tied up in the issues here too. But they usually break down along racial lines as well. My audience is 85% black, 12% white, and 3% other. We partner because it is part of the way we do business. The issue is how to grow a community that is less divided. That’s part of our mission. It just isn’t easy to do.

Abel Lopez :

What do you need to help you do better in this area?

Oskar Eustis :

Well, we need long-term projects that cut across the theater’s departments: we’ve had such success with the Native American project that we are trying to replicate it in the Latino community.

Henry Godinez :

Funders that demand diversity in audience development; in the long run it makes good economic sense.

Oskar Eustis :

Funders that don’t see their funding as temporary: long-term funding for initiatives that are consistent with the core values of a theater would make a huge difference.

Henry Godinez :

That is right on Oskar. We recently had a funder who told us that their long-term funding was based on this very issue.

Gary Anderson :

We would need a more equitable climate in Detroit. That would include everything from a community commitment to trying a different church on Sunday to real equitable funding of schools. It’s not just the theatre, it’s the way our nation conducts its business everyday.

Abel Lopez :

Is there anything NTCP should be doing to help the field?

Oskar Eustis :

Promote socialism? Just a thought.

Henry Godinez :

Not socialism, but on-going commitment to diversification on all levels.

Gary Anderson :

Right now we are debating a regional arts tax that guarantees the largest arts groups funding while most of the other groups would have to compete for any money at all. Is that fair? I don’t think so. I have to go, bye.

Gary Anderson has left the conversation.

Abel Lopez :

Thanks Gary.

Oskar Eustis :

Bye, Gary. I know I’m out of step historically, but socialism will be back on the agenda someday. How on earth will we ever be able to unite as long as it is in the economic interest of the powerful that we are separated?

Kent Thompson :

Yes, I was going to say–we need to celebrate funders that give to sophisticated and sustained efforts at diversity–that include programming, staffing, Board leadership, etc. OVER TIME.  Regardless of size, etc.

Henry Godinez :

Bye Gary. NTCP could lobby the larger funders to see that we need to address this in the communities and in the “main-stream”.

Kent Thompson :

I think we’ll only figure out the issues by our art–presenting the world with views that are alternative to the economic interests of the powerful.  It probably won’t be popular with Boards and maybe funders but it might be with audiences. But I reckon that means we all need to invest in political theatre on some level

Oskar Eustis :

Call a convocation of the larger funders with representatives of the field to discuss the needs of the field in regard to diversity and try to create a “white paper” listing the things we agree on. Well, I’m all in favor of our all investing in political theater.

Henry Godinez :

I agree Oskar; our political leaders need to be aware that we can and will speak out to our audiences.

Kent Thompson :

I do think our best shot is as a “coalition” let’s just not call it a “white paper”.

Oskar Eustis :

Deal.

Abel Lopez :

Along these lines, in the area of diversity and inclusion, what are the issues for you these days?

Oskar Eustis :

There are some theaters that are specifically connected to their ethnic communities; any theater that isn’t, certainly any large, tax-exempt theater, needs to be striving to look like America, not just onstage but throughout.

Henry Godinez :

Getting our best playwrights to stay in theatre and not get sucked into Hollywood. Getting our A.D.’s to take the risk.

Kent Thompson :

Issue for me is that I perceive the two main cultures (white and African American) as pulling further and further apart.  And the African American culture/audience is shocking (only to me) in its conservatism.  But Kia Corthron’s new piece should stir that up.  But I need to expand the spectrum on our stages so that diversity NO LONGER means simply African American and European American.  Grapple with other stories, other cultures–America at large.

Oskar Eustis :

I’ve also got to figure out how to get my Latino audience to feel connected to Trinity– it’s a huge challenge.

Henry Godinez :

We have to show our audiences the universal truths between all peoples, that we really are all alike in many ways; stories about family, love, whatever –  that just happen to have people that look different.

Abel Lopez :

On that point, does it create greater problems for our theaters to represent so many stories? A tension with those we first addressed?

Oskar Eustis :

Well, as I said at the start, if Trinity is going to actually be a theater that represents our region and nation, some white company members will lose their jobs. That’s just real; dealable with, but real.

Henry Godinez :

I don’t think so if the themes are familiar. Oskar, think about an Open House; have some food, music, invite them to just come to the space. Just an idea.

Abel Lopez :

And ask Celia Cruz to perform!

Henry Godinez :

ABSOLUTELY!

Oskar Eustis :

I’ll try and get Celia Cruz but I’m not sure how connected I am. I’ve also thought about offering the Dominican Festival our theaters for next year for their street performances and party. Think it might work?

Henry Godinez :

THAT’S A GREAT IDEA!

Abel Lopez :

Again… if you find other ways to engage them during the year.

Oskar Eustis :

We’re trying to figure out if Repertorio Espanol would have an impact on this specific audience.

Henry Godinez :

Perhaps if we help build community we can also begin to build our audiences, and things like inviting a community to use your space might be a way to do both. The Latino community is tough because of the generational thing too. I say, go for the young people. They tend to be more open, more interested in inclusion.

Abel Lopez :

There is an incredible company from the Dominican Republic that is good and is family-oriented. We brought them to Washington twice.

Oskar Eustis :

What’s their name?

Abel Lopez :

Teatro Gayumba.  They travel with 2 to 4 people and go into schools.

Oskar Eustis :

I’ll call you and get contact information.

Abel Lopez :

Is there something that you haven’t been able to articulate during the discussion about any of the questions or issues that you would like to share with us as we begin to wind down?

Kent Thompson :

Not at this time.

Henry Godinez :

Folks I’m sorry but I have to run to class; it’s been an honor and a pleasure. Can we keep this alive please. Thank you. Ciao. G

Abel Lopez :

Thank you, Henry.

Kent Thompson :

Bye, Henry.

Oskar Eustis :

Bye, Henry.

Abel Lopez :

I hope you are adding to the number of artists of color and disabilities!

Henry Godinez :

Bye all!

Henry Godinez has left the conversation

Abel Lopez :

I thank you for taking the time to participate.

Oskar Eustis :

We’re working with John Belluso on a big project about disability as well. What a pleasure it’s been to talk to you all.

Kent Thompson :

Good to talk with you.  Thanks.

Abel Lopez :

It was a topic that I have wanted to explore with all of you and am glad that Sharon and NTCP provided the opportunity.

Adam Moore :

Sharon and I send our thanks.

Kent Thompson :

Thanks for including me.

Oskar Eustis :

Same.

Abel Lopez :

I know that Sharon and the NTCP board and staff welcome your views and ways that you can participate in their work. If there are any other thoughts and ideas, please provide them to any of us.

Oskar Eustis :

I will continue to cogitate.

Kent Thompson :

Me, too.

Abel Lopez :

You have been patient with us as we experimented online, I hope we can continue the dialogue through NTCP and any other organizations that impact our field and should be part of the conversation and efforts to be more inclusive, representative and responsive to the cultural needs of our nation.

Oskar Eustis :

Yo.

Abel Lopez :

I think it is fair to say that it is part of our commitment to both excellence in the arts and our role as vital members of our respective communities.

Kent Thompson :

Thanks.  Bye.

Abel Lopez :

Thank you all. Sharon and Adam I hope to see you soon.

Abel Lopez :

Ciao.

Oskar Eustis :

See you soon!

Oskar Eustis has left the conversation.

Kent Thompson :

Keep in touch.

Kent Thompson has left the conversation.

Abel Lopez has left the conversation.

end

Return to: National Diversity Forum Main Page