Make your auditions more color inclusive

by Alan M. Berks • Nov. 3

Special focus | Process | Production

Is our work accessible to diverse audiences? How can we get everyone in the audience? are questions that Marketing and Development people have been asking at charitable foundations and at theaters for at least 30 years now.

But are we also asking, as artists, whether the process by which we create work is accessible to diverse artists? In theory, if we work in an accessible way, if everyone is actually on that stage, then diverse audiences will feel more welcome in the seats.

As a direct response to the Mulan casting controversy at Children's Theatre Company and the forum they held in April to address it, MinnesotaPlaylist.com added a new feature to our audition listings.

Whenever you post an audition, please consider the "Casting access information (for auditions only)" section before hitting submit. When you open that area on the submission form, you'll see the chance to announce that your casting may be inclusive of people of any ethnicity ("color inclusive"); may be open to people with disabilities ("ability inclusive"); and/or open to casting across gender ("cross gender").

Why?

Last year, I held two auditions: one for a play that I intended to write specifically for the actors that I hadn't cast yet and one for a new play I had written about the musicians I hung with in my twenties. During auditions for the first play, I saw a Minnesota Timberwolves cheerleader and an old man with a frightful ponytail and no acting talent because I thought, Who knows? They might make interesting characters. Mu Performing Arts Artistic Producing Associate Randy Reyes had already been cast in the second play (Music Lovers), and I honestly didn't imagine that the remaining parts were "color" specific. The Chicago bars we drank in were pretty colorful.

I posted both notices on this website, received a large number of replies, and saw only three artists of color—actually, for Music Lovers, I saw no actors of color at all. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

I know that some theater artists in the Twin Cities believe we just have to live with a largely white, homogenous acting pool. That was, in a way, one of the excuses for the Children's Theatre Company and Mulan. In Marianne Combs' blog about the controversy, she references a director (presumably at a different theater) who "expressed frustration that when he held auditions for his play, no Asian-Americans showed up." This sentiment was also expressed on callboard.org in direct response to Reginald Edmund's recent essay on this website.

But I work at Pillsbury House Theatre now, and I see as much theater as I can, and there really does appear to be a lot of actors of color around the Twin Cities. I see them in shows at Penumbra and Ten Thousand Things and Mu Performing Arts and Pangea World Theatre. And I see them in the building I work in all the time, in the offices around me, working on the Chicago Avenue Project, working with kids in the after-school and Breaking Ice programs—so where were they when I was casting those two shows last year?

After the CTC forum, MinnesotaPlaylist.com asked artists like Randy, PHT Associate Artist James Williams, Mu Performing Arts Artistic Director Rick Shiomi, freelance director Brian Balcom, and others: We post audition notices. A lot of them. Don't actors of color need them in the same way other actors do? Don't they use them?

Years of experience, apparently, have taught actors of color that there's as much point in auditioning for most shows, shows that don't specify the ethnicity of the characters, as there would be a giraffe auditioning for the role of aardvark. Auditioning is awkward and painful enough—why bother putting oneself through the process when there is literally zero potential you will be seriously considered for a role? Actors of color, we were told more than once, largely audition for theater companies and roles recommended to them by trusted sources rather than by reading general audition posts.

But, I protested, I hadn't even written one of these plays! I had no idea what I was looking for, and I've written scripts specifically for actors of color in the past. Anything was possible! And the other script was contemporary. Right now. America is becoming increasingly diverse. I grew up in a diverse urban place. Of course the casting would have been diverse if it could have been!

How are actors of color supposed to know that? I was asked in reply. Casting practices in the past have not indicated that, in most productions, "anything is possible" or that most directors see the stage as a place where our diversifying society is represented. The plays we produce are, for the most part, written by white men. For most directors then, it only makes sense to have white men play the roles they've written.

Gasoline meet fire

Now, I've been meaning to write this announcement of our new audition feature for weeks, but this is where I've been tripped up every time—First where I make sure I avoid saying "But some of my best friends are. . ." and, second, where I try to characterize what Minnesota directors appear to be thinking. Or what other people have concluded they're thinking. I can hear the individual howls of protest from all kinds of male and female (but white) directors That's not me! You don't know me! And, they're right. I don’t. All I know is that the lack of diversity on our stages isn't so much a scarcity of diverse acting talent as many people think. It's a result of something else. Why? And what is there to do about it?

So, a few months back, we added this "Casting access information" section to the website. We'd like to see if this feature, if enough people know and think about it, can improve communication between directors and a more diverse pool of artists.

We hope the feature gives directors and producers an avenue to explicitly state their honest intentions and then, in the process of stating their intentions explicitly, to perhaps think more deeply about their assumptions about a character.

Of course not all roles can or should be color inclusive and culturally-specific casting does not make anyone a bad person. However, when it is in a director's vision to be color inclusive, when a play or a character or a cast can be more accessible to more diverse artists, then this feature is an opportunity to clearly communicate that to actors who might otherwise have stopped paying attention to your general audition posts.

Why "inclusive?

We gave the language we chose a lot of thought and settled on the term "color inclusive" over, among other options, the term "color blind." It's an editorial decision we're making based on feedback we received. There are some fascinating arguments and essays from the 1980s that you should read and that still rage today about color blind casting—but we don't want to reargue them here. Basically, we agree that "color blind" too often means pretending that people don't actually have color at all—which is whiteness—while "color inclusive" suggests that an actor can bring their whole life experience to a role. We think the latter is preferable to the former.

And ethnicity is not the only form of diversity in our community of talent or in the world that we attempt to convey on stage. People with disabilities are also left to assume that there is no part for them unless explicitly explained in a character description. In the case of some disabilities, they also have to wonder whether the rehearsal environment itself can even accommodate their different needs.

However, if the best performer in the room also happens to be blind or use a wheelchair, do we really believe that physical difference overrides talent? We often don’t let physical difference dictate our casting choices when it comes to height, or eye color, or weight, or hair—or the lack thereof. We often reconsider our notions of a part when presented with a particularly compelling performer. Consider a whole series of parts from Neil Simon to Shakespeare to Racine, then consider the world you see on the bus or walking down the street or in your office everyday. Why is the stage so much more ability-homogenous than your life when we're supposed to be, in part, holding a mirror up to the world?

In all honesty, I admit I would think twice before casting an actor who uses a wheelchair in a part that doesn't explicitly call for an actor with a wheelchair because I would wonder whether the audience would be distracted. I would. But, I'd like to believe that by thinking twice I would see my hesitation as simply a lack of imagination as well as a lack of faith in the magic of theater and the talent of an good actor to make us see a real, complete, distinctive person with all their potential abilities and disabilities.

Of course your production may have specific needs. Perhaps you believe that a Neal Simon play is specific to Jewish culture and Jewish actors. Or you think some of the characters are accessible to any actor who can convey a sense of awkward cultural and identity displacement? If you're looking to cast actors in a script that is specifically about people in Poland or Sweden or Zimbabwe than please do include these adjectives in your character description in the audition posting.

Also, use the "more information" box in the "casting access" section to clarify what kind of ability difference you can accommodate. Are your rehearsal and performance spaces, for example, accessible to artists who use wheelchairs? If you want artists who are deaf to participate, will you provide an ASL interpreter? If you're unsure how best to accommodate the needs of people with various abilities, visit the extremely helpful people eat VSA Minnesota for advice.

This blog post has already gone on too long or I might be equally detailed about our decision to include the label "cross gender" casting. In brief: At the CTC discussion forum, Michelle Hensley talked about being more open to how talented actors just make an audience believe—and that she had learned from experience that women were just as capable of playing roles that had been previously reserved only for men.

We agree, and we hope we've made it easier for you to tell actors that you will consider them for opposite gender roles.

We look forward to any feedback you may have. Feel free to comment here or send us a private email.