Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series. The first article, “Theatre Multiculturalism: How Far, How Deep,” was published on September 25, 2015 and can be viewed at https://iexaminer.org/2015/09/commentary-theatre-multiculturalism-how-far-how-deep/.
Thank you for the likes, questions, and comments. The most common debate seems to be on the inclusiveness of the term “multiculturalism.” Why? Because it goes beyond the usual people of color desire for ethnic American theatre to include non-American ethnic theatre such as American European ethnic specific material and non-American African, Eastern European, Irish, etc. material. The common ground is the solid importance of theatre in our lives. It helps us to see our authentic API selves and experiences on stage to celebrate us, counter stereotypes, build pride and emotionally move audiences, hopefully to action.
Seattle’s great numbers and diversity of theatre guarantee some type of multicultural offering every weekend. Plumbing the question of just how far and deep the existence of multiculturalism is can be tricky. In reaching out to established theatres, three responded and demonstrated a more-than-basic commitment to multiculturalism and all of its challenges: Book It, the Seattle Rep, and Village Theatre.
Book It Theatre’s mission is to transform great literature to great theatre. They reach a 5,600-plus audience, producing four or five shows a year at a small 194-seat theatre space. They typically present books by authors of color, cross cast, and are challenged with scheduling local directors of color.
Beyond the in-house plays, Book It reaches children and youth through their work in the schools. They tour three discrete staged stories to 20 schools each year and are incorporating multicultural and bilingual stories so “children have a chance to see themselves and identify with the stories on stage.” Recent successes include La Mariposa by Francisco Jimenez; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin; and Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine. The Secret Garden is currently on tour in Spanish and English.
The most established theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, has a longstanding reputation for quality as a regional and national theatre. Its vision is to “create productions and programs that surprise, entertain, challenge, and uplift our community through a shared act of imagination.” They serve around 110,000 audience members per year, producing eight or nine plays annually that features classics, Broadway hits, and new work.
The Rep’s record for multicultural casting the past two years is impressive. Two plays depicting President Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency during the Civil Rights movement in All the Way and The Great Society garnered multicultural casts. An all African American cast performed August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and a diverse cast performed at the world premier of Lizard Boy by Filipino American author and lead actor Justin Huertas, a play about identity. The upcoming season includes Disgraced by Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar and Brownsville Song by Korean American playwright Kimber Lee.
People of color directors are regularly employed at the Rep. Timothy Bond, an African American director staged The Piano Lesson and this coming season Desdemona Chiang, an API director, will stage Nick Payne’s Constellations and Latina director Juliette Carrillo will stage Brownsville Song.
The Rep has a New Work Development Program that includes a Writers Group, commissions, workshops, presentations and productions of new plays, musicals and performance pieces, involving writers, directors, and actors of color. The themes often connected to race, class, age, disabilities, gender, sexuality and identity.
Village Theatre’s mission is to be regionally recognized and a nationally influential center of excellence in family theatre to promote a season of top quality productions, to commission and produce new musicals that achieve national exposure, to train young people in theatre skills for career opportunities and enriched lives, to develop a broad-based appreciation for live theatre and to promote positive values through art.
It serves around 200,000 people. Mainstage productions include five plays with about two musicals, two established musicals and one musical play in two theatre houses in Issaquah and Everett. Village Theatre has three other programs of note. The Village Originals creates six to ten staged readings and development workshops for new musicals with diverse writers. Kidstage produces eight musicals with youth performers and Pied Piper presents seven touring musicals by other companies for young audiences and schools.
Cross casting is the norm at the Village Theatre. Examples include Mainstage productions of Xanadu, Les Miserables, In The Heights, and Cabaret. An all African American cast will be performing in a new musical entitled My Heart Is A Drum.
As to developing new musicals, the Village Originals program has produced the Great Wall by API rock star Kevin So, Cubamor, Barcelona, Kingdon and, of course, My Heart Is A Drum. It will be producing a new musical by African American writer Cheryl L Davis entitled Bridges about parallel civil rights stories in Selma and California. Frequent directors, choreographers, and musical directors for Mainstage include artists of color Jerry Dixon, R.J. Tancioco, and Daniel Cruz along with guest director Schele Williams for My Heart Is A Drum.
Book It, Seattle Rep, and Village Theatre experience the same challenges with regards to casting people of color talent for two reasons, the small pool that the theatre community draws from, and the limited developmental and performance opportunities for artists of color.
Karen Chilcote from the Seattle Rep says it well: “There is a large disparity in roles offered to people of color, those actors are given less experience and fewer resources to build their resumes and their technique. Theatre is such a risky business, there’s an urge to stick to who you know as a safe bet. One of the great fortunes of color-conscious casting is the opportunity to branch out of your comfort zone and grow in that experience, but, like all casting, there’s a risk involved. Luckily, theatre is a form where risk-taking is fundamental to relevancy.”
At the end of the day, theatres produce multicultural material to be relevant and attract people of color audiences who are becoming the majority population. Chilcote, again, candidly spoke of the challenge attracting reciprocal audience for integrating their repertoire: “It’s not enough to simply put artists of color on your stage; you need to see audiences of color in the seats, too. And it takes more than simply announcing that you are doing a play by a writer of color and feature actors of color in the cast—you have to build an authentic relationship with the community you are trying to serve and you have to do it over multiple years and multiples projects. … You have to provide that work consistently, year after year, and with great authenticity and integrity.”
This article is intended to stimulate dialogue. Please send a letter to the editor to [email protected].