Supporting diversity within the rural theatre community

The final blog in a series of three from Guest Blogger Rebecca Anne Bloom

I never grew up and saw myself as a ‘colour.’ Race was something I learned about, yet I didn’t consider myself to be anything but … myself. It wasn’t until I was in the acting industry did I start to recognize racial discrimination against me.

The first instance was when I auditioned for a film noir play based in the 1960s. The director told me that I wasn’t cast because realistically, there wouldn’t be a black detective during that era. Over the years, I have been prevented leading roles in plays by well known playwrights like Norm Foster or Neil Simon, as well as musicals such as ‘Mary Poppins’ or ‘Anne of Green Gables’ because I was a person of colour. Typically, based on the cast components or era of the play, one visualizes Caucasion actors for these productions. It’s hard to be the BIPOC daughter for a Caucasian family. This then bares the question, why do theatres choose these pieces time and time again? And why is casting not diversified? I can’t say I have a definitive answer, but I have theories.

Five arms stretch inwards so that the hands are on top of each other. They are over a desk with a laptop and papers on.

Photo by fauxels (https://www.pexels.com/@fauxels?) from Pexels (https://www.pexels.com)

The case for diversity

There are two ‘camps’ that I have come across in my time as an actor, the one who eagerly tries to hire a diverse cast and the one that is a concious or unconcious racial bias. The later is typically more prevalant in rural communities, because BIPOC individuals and performers are a smaller section of the population. However, both ‘camps’ can be equally problematic. 

When talking to rural theatres, I have been told that hiring BIPOC and LGTBQ+ performers is difficult for many reasons. One, there are not many in the surrounding area. Many theatres also feel that up-in-coming actors from the GTA are not interested in being cast in rural Ontario. The cliental of many theatres are also an older generation, who may be uncomfortable with ‘out of the box’ productions – shows that present BIPOC and LGTBQ+ storylines. And, as I mentioned before, some plays are not created for a diverse cast. It is simply easier to select a ‘tried and true’ play and cast familiar actors. Especially in the time of the pandemic, theatres aren’t looking to produce shows that push the societal envelop and have a lot of financial risk. 

For those that are looking to be more diverse, I’ve noticed that they either select a single person to be the spokesperson of diversity. Or the act of finding or hiring BIPOC inviduals is like a mathmatic formula. Casting has an audition notice that states in politically correct terms that they are open to all ethncities, sexualities, and genders. In my case, I was asked to be part of a diversity performance and specifically questioned about whether I was a person of colour and part of the LGTBQ+ community. When I said yes, the person went on to explain who else was selected, almost boasting about how ‘diverse’ it was. In all those situations, in an attempt to be more inclusive, the BIPOC or LGTBQ+ individual is still made to feel like an ‘other.’

Is there a solution?

You may have reached this part and asked, “okay, so what is the solution then?” I think the answer is simply, if you are a theatre company in a rural locale, make sure you are providing opportunities for BIPOC and up-in-coming performance professionals. When you are picking productions and casting, ask yourself some critical questions.  

  • Are there any problematic elements of the play? Something miminal like a line comparing a person to a monkey may seem harmless, but that example has racial underpinnings. 
  • Can I cast anyone in this role, regardless of race or sexuality? If not, why and is that imperative to the play?
  • Am I allowing new talent into the company? 
  • Am I allowing for all voices to be heard?

Last month, Globus Theatre had a delightful reading of a new play by Ellen Denny called Pleasureville, about a city gal who moves to a small town and opens a sex shop. It was a fresh take on life, and had a female and non-binary cast. Pleasureville: a play reading was an easy way to push away from the typical Caucasian male narrative in plays, and offer a storyline that actually isn’t new, but very – ordinary. Afterall, diversity is something that occurs every day, and we should let art speak about this truth too. 

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