The words flashed on the screen. “Oh, student theater? Yeah, that’s a very white space.” It was an anonymous narrative from a person of color at GW. Most of the students at the meeting looked uncomfortable, while a select few slowly nodded their heads in assent.
The Student Theatre Council at The George Washington University recently began an initiative to emphasize the importance of diversity in student theater and to make student theater at GW more inclusive. Their newly-formed Outreach and Inclusion Committee held a meeting March 25 to address these concerns.
George Washington University’s Student Theatre Council (STC) is an umbrella organization that oversees and coordinates the four student theater groups on campus. Michelle Berger of Forbidden Planet Productions, one of the student theater groups, raised a concern about the lack of diversity in GW student theater at the beginning of the semester at STC’s open public forum.
“People want to tell stories everywhere,” Berger said. “We need to make everyone feel included.”
Amelia Speight, president of STC, jumped at the idea and formed a group of interested students for the committee, and each of the 10 committee members spoke at the meeting. Thirty students were in attendance. Most of the attendees hold positions on the executive boards of the four theater companies. The other recurring trend was that the students in the room were almost exclusively white. Speight was not surprised.
“Honestly, I think we kind of wrote the slides to a white audience,” she said. “What made it clear for me that we really need to do this was talking to people of color in our community.”
Ayu Tanaka, an Asian-American member of the Outreach and Inclusion committee, said that she has felt pressured to audition for Asian roles because she feels that if she doesn’t show up to audition, the roles will be given to white actors. When shows are whitewashed, Tanaka said, the stories portrayed are less authentic. The problem Tanaka faces is that the Asian roles in student theater are typically either two-dimensional minor characters or comic relief. “I get cast in the same roles over and over again,” she said, tapping her pen against the top of her sticker-covered laptop.
Tanaka also mentioned that a lot of people of color shy away from student theater because audition forms ask actors to list all previous experience. In many organizations, it is standard for directors to expect years of training in dance, private voice lessons, and acting coaching. Tanaka mentioned that when directors cast roles based solely off of talent, it is not fair to people who do not have money to pay for the factors that contribute to natural talent.
Dominick Reynoso is a freshman who is new to student theater. While he has just begun to audition for shows this year, as a Latino, he has already felt isolated by the student theater community. “It doesn’t matter if the director is having me read for a bunch of characters,” he said, clasping his hands together. “I know in the back of my mind who I can play and who I can’t play.”
He said that he often feels limited by the types of characters he has been asked to play. “It’s hard because in the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘I would love to play this dream role,’ but that might not be what the director’s vision is.”
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking.” Speight said, “Not only are we not inviting people here, we’re not respecting how hard it is for people here now.”
While the lack of diversity in student theater is an area of concern, Speight does not see the situation as a problem, but instead identifies it as an opportunity. She said that addressing the lack of diversity as a problem would insinuate that STC is angry with the student theater groups on campus, and worse that it may prompt immediate and rushed action. Instead, she said that inclusion is a slow process that will take an extended amount of time to work through.
Also, identifying the situation as a problem, Speight said, implies that a solution can be reached. “There will always be more opportunities to be more inclusive,” she said.
The goal of this initiative, according to the slideshow from the meeting, is to be able to tell stories accurately and respectfully. Speight does not want to dissuade student theater groups from addressing provocative societal issues. She said that the most successful shows on Broadway today are the shows that deal with the real issues. “You want to grapple with big issues because that’s what makes real art,” Speight said.
In order to make student theater more inclusive, the committee offered a few actionable ways the groups can be more inclusive. Student theater groups can:
- Facilitate conversations about controversial topics like race
- Give clear directions to the hard-to-find audition spaces like the Lisner Downstage
- Provide information about how auditions work to newcomers
- Reach out to newcomers at auditions
- Eliminate the “previous experience” section on audition forms
- Publicize auditions to groups outside of the student theater circuit consistently
- Form relationships with cultural and social groups on campus
- Consider leaving a role blank if it cannot be cast authentically at the time of auditions
After the meeting, people lingered awhile and smeared cream cheese on bagel halves with plastic knives as the room turned to conversation. The discussion after the meeting lasted into the evening. When the sky darkened a bit and the last of the attendees ran off to rehearsal or filtered out of the room, they were still trying to iron out some details.
Everyone wanted answers. What happens if you don’t get enough people of color to audition? What happens if the people you have are white-passing, even though they are black? If a story isn’t about race and you add people of color, does that make the story about race? Should we cancel a show if we can’t find the proper people to fill all of the roles? The Outreach and Inclusion Committee didn’t have answers, but at least they had sparked a discussion.