How to Cast Actors of Color: a Helpful Guide
This is a two-part guide to casting actors of color, or any underrepresented group, really. Part One is a snarky yet sanguine list of guidelines for how to find actors of color when race is integral to the role. Part Two is an impassioned plea for why casting actors of color in non-ethnic-specific roles will save the theater.
Now get out there and cast that play!
*If a role calls for a character of a particular ethnicity, you should cast an actor of that ethnicity. Stop doing stuff like this. If the play is set in a place where all logic dictates that the characters would be of a particular ethnicity, you should cast actors of that ethnicity. Stop doing stuff like this. Quit hiding behind some vague artistic vision. No lame excuses of “we couldn’t find any.” No re-appropriations of the term “color-blind.” Find an actor of that ethnicity. If you can’t find one, look harder.
* A too-small pool of auditioners is no excuse for changing a character’s ethnicity. Allot more time for casting hard-to-cast roles. Bring in far, far more people than you think you will need. Don’t put yourself in the bind of seeing too few people, then being discontented with your options. If that does happen, gather enough people to do another round of auditions.
*If you need to rely on the expertise of an ethnic-specific theater company, let’s bear in mind here that casting directors get paid good money to do this kind of work. Offer to compensate the theater for their time. Short of that, don’t just go in there all panicked and demand immediate casting suggestions. Casting your play is not their job, the theater is not operating on your timeline or in any way beholden to your agenda, and honestly given how under-staffed they are you’d be lucky if they even respond to your emails. If the theater does end up helping you, thank them profusely, put their name in the special thanks of the program, mail them a copy of the program, and since it looks like your interests align so well why not advertise their next show on your eblast. Most importantly, remember the suggestions they gave you for next time. Don’t just storm in there two years later with the exact same breakdown.
*See more plays by companies that produce ethnic-specific work, and more plays that feature artists of color. I’m shocked that more casting directors don’t do this religiously, just as a cover-your-ass thing. Do your homework. Don’t put yourself in a bind where you’re at the mercy of a couple of friends’ random suggestions. The best way of building your rolodex of actors is seeing more plays.
*If you want help from me specifically (or a minority artist friend), let’s bear in mind here that I was not put on this planet to help you with your math homework. Even though I’m really good at math! As much as I love giving a shot to undersung actors, I’ve got my own problems. As a show of good faith, list for me all the people you’ve already contacted so that I know you’ve undergone best efforts. Respect the value of my opinion and time.
Whenever I go to talkbacks and artist chats for my plays, I’ll frequently hear at least one or two audience members expressing pleasant surprise about the ethnic diversity of my casts. But the makeup of my plays is not happenstance: there is racial diversity built into the DNA of most of my scripts, even as most of my scripts are not specifically tackling race. We live in a complex, pluralistic society and I believe that the worlds I create onstage should reflect that – not just in terms of race but in terms of age, sexual orientation, political views, backgrounds, perspectives, and all that.
But beyond the diverse backgrounds of my characters, I get inspired by a diverse group of actors. I get drawn to specific actors because of their peculiar talents, and sometimes my plays are inspired by wanting to see particular actors in combination, and oftentimes that chemistry is non-race-specific. I write a lot of comedies, and it turns out that the funniest people come from all backgrounds (and genders!). I imagine that the same holds true for dramas; pathos is non-race-specific.
Yet right now the majority of the theater I see in New York fails to reflect the prismatic nature of my city, or the US, or the world. If theater is meant to be a window on society, then based on the demographics I’m seeing onstage it would appear that the New York of the stage is a lot more racially homogenous (and wealthy!) than the New York I see in front of my face. We keep saying “I want a theater that looks like the subway car” but the only way to do that is to present a world that is relevant to a subway audience – more integrated along class and race lines, more accessible to the people.
Casting directors: EVERY TIME a role is non-race-specific, I urge you to throw a diverse mix of artists into the casting pool and just see what happens. I know that there are so so many actors vying for your attention and that categorization is necessary, but too often I hear of talented minority actors who’d be perfect for a role but they can’t even get seen for the part. I don’t mean to in any way single you out, but the reason I focus attention on casting directors specifically is because casting is – as you know – a numbers game. The fewer artists of color the director and playwright even see in the first place, the fewer that will make it to the stage. So as a policy I urge you to just think a little wider when you’re thinking of who'd be perfect for a role. When an actor loses a plum role to somebody else, that’s hard. But when they never even had a shot to begin with, that’s devastating.
Directors and playwrights: EVERY TIME a role is non-race-specific, I urge you to actively agitate to see actors of color in the role. It’ll expand the perspectives being aired in the room, which is good for the art. Don’t hide behind excuses like, “If I cast a minority in this role it will change the meaning of the role itself,” or “This is a historical drama and there were no ethnic minorities in existence at that time.” Strive to create a world onstage that reflects the nuances and vitality of the world we live in today.
I promise you, this will be good for our audiences. As an industry we cater to the narrowest possible demographics in terms of our audience, and that audience is drying up. I keep hearing “we need to get more people of color into the theater” but you can’t do that by programming “the ethnic slot” play. It’s too fragmented and half-hearted an effort, plus it’s condescending to even think that ethnic audiences will solely choose art based on race. I couldn’t bring in an all-Asian audience if I tried.
But if we create art that is relevant to more people, more people will see it. Which means that we have to stop thinking of race as a checkbox on a headshot, or a slot for one play a season, or a niche audience to target with niche art.
More Americans will come to see theater if the America depicted onstage looks more like the America we actually live in.
A lot of people in the theater talk about mentoring. “Who have some of your mentors been?” “When I was coming up, I had a great mentor.” “We need to mentor the next generation of artists.”
Great mentors are the stuff of legend. “Joe Papp taught me how to produce.” “Lloyd Richards taught me how to develop a play.” “Paula Vogel taught me to write.” “Liz LeCompte taught me directing.”
And I get it. Artists are craftspeople, and we don’t learn our craft in a vacuum.
But here’s where I question the limitations of mentorship:
1) It seems like more mentors talk about the importance of mentoring than “mentees” want to be mentored.
2) There’s a push towards more formalized mentorship opportunities within institutions, and it’s hard for me to see the value of these kinds of programmatic grant-funded educational forms of mentorship, especially given the proliferation of MFA programs, internships, fellowships, and apprenticeships that are steadily forming a wedge between training and honest-to-goodness art-making.
It seems to me that what working artists need most right now is not mentoring but modeling. What are novel, viable models for play production? What models for play development are actually effective? Who has the model for making a play premiere feel like as much of an event as a film premiere?
More importantly, what do other industries offer us in the way of models we can co-opt for the theater? How can Louis CK’s self-produced comedy tour be applied to theatrical ticketing? How did YouTube and Neflix get so effective at distributing content? How do sports teams galvanize such civic pride?
Mentorship is inwardly-focused. It is by nature an approach to craft and problem-solving that look inward to personal history and personal inclinations to find solutions for moving forward. The mentorship mentality is in some ways an extension of the same kind of inward focus that guides many institutions today: staff retreats, core values seminars, trust-building exercises. These kinds of activities seek to answer inward questions: What do we value? What do we do best? What’s our company’s aesthetic?
Whereas modeling is outwardly-focused. It asks: How do other people handle this problem? What’s working and not working in the theater, and how do we fix it? How do we build structures that are useful to artists, how do we engage with the community and with technology, and how can our buildings augment the work instead of putting us under? These kinds of questions are hard to answer from a mentorship standpoint.
Plus, as we all know, no two artists’ paths are the same. The young artist can ask, “What did you do to get where you are today?” and invariably the veteran’s answer will be some crazy non-replicable cocktail of grit and timing and circumstance. The young artist can ask, “What would you do in my situation?” but invariably that situation will be a nightmarish highly personal jumble of fate and commerce and artistry that the veteran will have never encountered.
But modeling is another story. Models can be replicated, iterated upon, and refined. Everyone keeps talks about 13P not because those writers are all such great mentors (although they are such great mentors!) but because 13P offered up a startling new model.
These concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. And again, mentorship is a beautiful thing. It’s just that I think we’re now over-focused on mentoring to the exclusion of modeling. When a bunch of people get in the room together, our first inclination is to swap experiences rather than swapping best practices. Which is a problem, because in some ways mentorship takes care of itself from generation to generation, whereas the basic not-for-profit production model has remained largely unchanged for about 50 years despite rapid, sometimes catastrophic changes in similar industries (such as the music industry, or the film industry, or the symphony, or the ballet).
Ultimately, the biggest limitation on mentorship is that we’re all in a leaky boat. The mentee asks, “Hey, how’d you get out of this leaky boat?” and the mentor says, “Oh, well I bailed, and I scooped, and I patched, and I bailed.” And maybe that story is somewhat encouraging, somewhat inspiring. But at the end of the day the both of them are still in a boat that has leaks in it.
Modeling builds us new boats.
Theaters large and small should have the humility and the foresight to hire a diversity officer. Corporations have one. Hollywood studios have one. You should have one too.
Hire a diversity officer and vertically integrate them into all your activity: season planning, casting, hiring and board cultivation (Think of the NFL Rooney Rule.), audience development, marketing, and staff training. I guarantee they will never be lacking for things to do.
We in the theater like to think we're so open-minded and so inclusive that we don't even need a diversity officer. But the statistics for inclusion of women and artists of color belie that argument. Moreover the mark of someone who is truly open-minded is one who has the humility to recognize when they need an outside perspective. I keep hearing "it's getting better," but it's called "best practices," not "better practices." By the time it gets best, we'll be dead.
You need a diversity officer because -
1) national demographics are shifting
2) if the theater hopes to shape the national discourse, then the plays we put out should reflect the diversity and values of all Americans
3) theaters are publicly-funded institutions that are accountable to the populations they serve
4) the only way to attract new audiences is by widening the perspective of the stories we tell;
5) many efforts at wider community outreach feel half-hearted at best and tone-deaf at worst; and
6) as forward-minded as we like to think that we are in this industry, the theater is actually lagging behind corporate America when it comes to putting women and people of color in power positions.
If you can't afford to hire a diversity officer, get an artist to volunteer as one. But really consider whether you can or can't afford one. Because I would argue that what you really can't afford is to alienate your audience and lose the faith of the artists who comprise your community. While nobody seeks to offend, we all have our blind spots. In the past year alone, I've witnessed...
- one member-based theater that offended their female artists by putting out a season of plays that was nearly entirely written by men
- several theaters that offended the Asian community by staging stories set in Asia without casting any Asian actors
- one play with a depiction of a transgendered character that was so offensive to a transgendered audience member that he wrote a protest letter to the producing theater
A diversity officer would have been able to help in all of those situations, and those were just the situations that erupted in controversy. Behind the scenes, a diversity officer would be able to contribute perspective on all of the hundreds of microdecisions that go on in a theater every day.
Because those microdecisions add up to a theater's integrity and values. And I think we can all do a lot better.