Theatre Department Changes Casting Policy To Encourage Diversity

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Presidents circle at the University of Utah Monday September 14, 2015.

When the U’s Department of Theatre announced it would perform the musical “Bring It On” during its upcoming season, it brought on a drama of its own.

The production, based on the early 2000 film by the same name, tells the story of Campbell Davis as she moves to a new high school in a more ethnically diverse district. The resulting racial tensions explode on stage in the world of competitive cheerleading.

But more than the high kicks and back flips, the issues of race and ethnicity pose a problem for directors at the U. How will the school fill the roles traditionally performed by people of color when the majority of its students are white?

This question, along with concerns from faculty and students, served as a catalyst for the department’s newly drafted color-conscious casting policy, an effort to mindfully fill roles with the “appropriate race, ethnicity or gender identity when a script requires us to do so.”

“If we do not have the constituency to cast a show appropriately from our student population,” the policy continues, “we will open our casting poll to community members of the necessary constituency.”

The policy follows trend with national conversations regarding race and casting, particularly after Kent State University cast a white student in the role of Martin Luther King Jr. for a production of “The Mountaintop” last year. In order to change an expressly-written racial role, producers are supposed to contact the copyright holder, generally the playwright, for permission, which Kent State did not do.

If the play has no explicit identity markers, though, dramaturges can legally cast actors of any ethnicity if it does not “fundamentally alter the story being told as intended by the playwright or contradict the script,” said associate professor Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell. Cheek-O’Donnell, who led efforts to put the U’s policy together, said it’s all about making conscious decisions when filling roles.

“I recognize that my privileged position as a white, heterosexual, middle-class, cis-gender woman may mean I will occasionally miss issues that are extremely important to people of color, gender queer people, people who are differently abled,” she said in an emailed statement. “A casting policy like the one we have adopted is intended to force us to remain alert and sensitive to the multiplicity of identities and points of view that exist in our community and to ensure that we do a better job of representing that diversity on our stages respectfully.”

She believes the policy, which is still in the draft phase and will continue to be amended by student input and stakeholder approval, shows the university’s commitment to equity and inclusion on stage.

Martine Kei Green-Rogers, an African-American assistant professor in the Department of Theatre with experience in critical race theory, co-wrote the policy with Jesse Portillo, also an assistant professor, who teaches a class on queer theatre. The two created the draft, available in full on the department’s website (http://www.theatre.utah.edu/about-us/students/), to ensure the thoughtful representation of all identities.

“This policy opens up opportunities for the department and our students as opposed to limiting them,” she said. “A bigger variety of compelling and interesting stories will be at our disposal to present on our stages since we will never be at a loss for the constituencies to cast them.”

Currently, 77 percent of theatre students at the U are white, according to data from the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis. That means of the 199 declared theatre majors — including all six undergraduate tracks — there are fewer than 50 students of color. Performing plays with mostly white characters to accommodate that population silences minority voices by not giving them space on stage.

Monica Goff, a sophomore in the Actor Training Program, has experienced this firsthand. As a multi-racial student with Filipino background, Goff said she is often the only person of color in her theatre classes. Her thoughts at auditions are clouded with the same concerns each time: “I don’t look like them” or “I don’t fit the image.”

She said it can be hard for actors like her to pursue theatre when there aren’t many examples of mixed-race performers on TV or in plays and hopes the new color-conscious casting policy will change that at the U.

Goff voiced her concerns to faculty at a town hall meeting held by the department near the start of March to address the issues surrounding “Bring It On.” About 100 to 125 people attended, but Goff said very few of those were actually heard. The meeting began with an overview of the new policy and the plays for upcoming season, leaving what she feels was “a very, very small amount of time at the end for student input.”

She was among the few who did speak, noting that she brought in a written statement about her personal ties to the issue so she wouldn’t be overrun by her emotions on the topic.

“It wasn’t as much of a conversation as I hoped it would be,” she said.

Cheek-O’Donnell, too, believes the meeting was not as open-ended to discuss concerns as it could have been because of time limitations, but said the department is establishing a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force made up of faculty and students to start an ongoing dialogue on this. Students will also now have the option of self-identifying with a particular race or gender, if they choose, when trying out for a school performance.

The department held auditions for “Bring It On” and other plays in mid-April, and while Goff didn’t try out for the production that first raised concerns, she was “excited to see so many people of color at the audition.”

“It was relieving to see that there were so many talented people who showed up that could be put in those roles and it would be appropriate,” she said. “Since we’ve had these conversations, I think that they’re moving in a good direction for the production.”

c.tanner@dailyutahchronicle.com

@CourtneyLTanner

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