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Theater and Inclusivity: the Past, the Present, and the Future

Jillian Shweky

Staff Writer


When you go to the theater or to see a movie or even watch television, most people have an expectation that the actors that are playing each character somehow fit a perceived look and feel for that character. Would you expect to see a shark playing Nemo?

Type casting. The concept all actors have a love-hate relationship with. On one hand when a character you are auditioning for perfectly fits your height, size, hair color, and voice type it feels great, but when there is a character you know you would be perfect for but you are theoretically a couple of inches too short or not the ethnicity the casters were envisioning, you will likely go into the audition feeling just the slightest bit defensive or even as if you have already been rejected. Taking that shot in the dark by auditioning with the knowledge that you may not even be considered based on even just one characteristic about you is definitely disheartening. For actors of color focused on theater and Broadway, there are exponentially fewer opportunities available, but it seems that the theater industry for one is evolving and becoming more and more inclusive.

Broadway began this evolution in the nineties with shows like Rent, with a cast full of actors of diverse backgrounds. When Hamilton came along, the casting directors utilized the concept of “color-blind casting” where they disregarded the color of actors and only considered an actor's talent. Seeing that these were extremely successful shows, actors of color were brought to the forefront in a positive light. In addition, works by African American playwrights also began making their way to Broadway. However, a blanket precedent for inclusion in the Broadway community had still not been set.

After the rise in protests against racial injustice and Covid, Broadway producers, directors, and creative teams promised to end the excluding and devaluing of actors of color. Due to this vow, more people of different races are getting representation on the stage and behind the scenes. For the post-Covid reopening of Chicago the Musical, two Latina actresses played the principal roles.

Despite the value of bringing diversity to entertainment, some people within communities of color see possible drawbacks in blanket diversity casting policies. According to Newsweek.com, the flip side is the feeling that if diversity casting is not done well, “it is just as insulting as no diversity at all—perhaps more so. Forced and haphazard casting that changes character nuances and motivations as well as entire plot lines beyond recognition undermines both actor and viewer. Doing diversity casting right means using it to enhance a work of fiction, rather than weaken its entire premise. Failing to do this right reduces (actors of color) to their skin color, rather than allowing them to inhabit a character that makes sense in its entirety.”

Similar to “color-blind casting” is “blind casting” which is casting without the consideration of not only color but body shape and sexuality. “Blind casting” is still a rarity as Broadway does not seem to have lost its reluctance to embrace size inclusivity, mostly for women, a reflection of society's negative view of plus-sized people being considered unhealthy. The theater industry has a somewhat engrained view that a plus-sized actor would not have the stamina to do eight shows a week. Additionally, some people fear that casting a plus-sized actor in a traditionally slim character’s part would distract people from the storyline or message of the show and headlines would focus on the actor's body type. Though there is some representation of plus-sized actors playing roles typically played by slim actors, like Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl, having a cast with body diversity is nowhere near the norm.

The Actor’s Equity Association, the trade union for Broadway actors and stage crew, has been at the forefront of the fight for diversity. Although they report that “2020 was the year in which theatrical leaders across the country loudly and collectively promised to do better,” they also note that since 2013 when they began tracking data on this topic, only marginal improvements have been made.” Statistically, “less than 30 percent of all the Broadway performers on stage in a recent season were members of minority groups, and representation among Latino performers has reportedly fallen to less than three percent.” according to the Broadway League, the trade association for Broadway shows.

So what does the future hold and what can be done to move the needle? For one, some states are offering the shows tax credits for conducting more racially diverse casting and hiring. Illinois can already claim a victory in that the current shows touring in their state are showing that 50% of the crews and vendors are from “protected classes.” With any major shift in culture, time will tell, but it seems that the organizations that represent the different factions on Broadway and state legislators are all taking up the fight.


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