Unhappy Thespians: A Manifesto on Training Theatre Students

I delivered this position paper/manifesto on a plenary panel at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Denver on August 1st. The session was called “The Elephant in the Room”; speakers were encouraged to discuss issues we feel the field ignores at its collective peril.

The other manifestos can be found at http://www.athe.org/conference/ (look under the 2008 conference, manifestos for the plenary session–eventually, an audio link will also be available). My presenting colleagues included Jorge Huerta (UC-San Diego), Mark Heckler (Valparaiso), Susanne Bourgoyne (Missouri), Sandra Shannon (Howard), and Doug Paterson (Nevada-Omaha). The session was chaired by ATHE president Steve Peters.

In his wonderful, uncharacteristically generous report on the Educational Theatre Association’s International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska, in July, Charles Isherwood describes how 2,000 self-described “theatre geeks” eagerly rehearse and perform and gossip, preparing themselves not only for their roles in the festival, but for lives in the theatre. Isherwood notes the T-shirts for sale in the auditorium lobby “with the words ‘Theatre Geek’ emblazoned upon them above masks of tragedy and comedy; these young drama enthusiasts,” he says, “are clearly happy and proud to declare themselves thespians” (7/13/08, NYT, Arts and Leisure sec., 1).

While an article about such a festival could be snarky and sarcastic, Isherwood instead records how impressed he was by performances of classics and contemporary plays and musicals, at which he consistently found tears in his eyes, and chronicles the long-standing quality reputation of the festival’s productions. The students learn, but also teach one another, trying out songs from less acclaimed musicals and mounting interpretations of a fairly standard range of classic and contemporary plays. The general impression Isherwood imparts is of a group of students and teachers happy to be involved in the festival, doing high-standard work for appreciative audiences. His article concludes, “Theatre geeks rock!”

My concern—which I currently see as the proverbial “elephant in the room” for our field—rests on what happens to these happy thespians after they graduate, when they apply to our college and university theatre programs eager to continue the fun they experienced as theatre geeks in high school. How is it that our programs tend to dissipate all that commitment and energy and pride, instead of stoking it and refining it and channeling it into new and different ways of continuing a life as a theatre geek? Why is it that so many of our undergraduate majors become disillusioned so quickly, dropping our programs for communications degrees because they decide that media might offer them more lucre, even if it’s not as much fun? Why do we impede their fun in ways that makes changing their majors likely?
What kinds of pressure do we impose by assuming that we’re grooming them for acting careers in professional theatre, instead of encouraging them to refashion their theatre geek-dom into careers as dramaturgs, arts administrators, critics, grant administrators, philanthropists, or maybe most importantly, theatre aficionados who will attend performances regularly and support theatre financially? And most importantly, what structural, cultural, and ideological influences pressure our departments to create this situation?

I just finished a nine-year tenure in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the largest departments in the country. During my stint there, the undergraduate major was reduced from a high of around 450 students to approximately 300, by various assessments meant to admit a stronger, leaner class. I also saw the growth of the MFA program in acting. Moribund when I arrived, thanks to the leadership of nationally acclaimed actor Fran Dorn, the three-year program soon gained a competitive reputation.

But despite what might seem these successes, the students in our undergrad and graduate acting programs never seemed very happy. Many undergrads left, and many grad students complained about the narrowness of what they learned. The grad students suffered a schedule that prevented them from taking advantage of the department’s other curricula, including our flourishing graduate program in Performance as Public Practice, which aimed to expand applications for theatre and performance studies outside professional, mainstream theatre into community-based and socially active settings. With pre-professional programs intent on feeding the US regional theatres, if not Broadway, the majority of our students weren’t encouraged to imagine other ways of plying their trades, or of using their studies creatively and with more agency than mainstream theatre employment practices for actors often allow.

Most discouraging to me was watching graduate students who’d been through three years of rigorous training in acting, voice, and movement arrive at the showcase moment of their MFA program tenure. Thanks to Fran Dorn’s professional connections, the students traveled to New York and Los Angeles to present work for casting agents, directors, and other people in the business. But when they returned, many of the students reported that the feedback they received concerned their looks more than their talent. More than one went on a crash diet; the first three-year class started nearly in unison a version of The Zone diet that reduced all of them to wan and wasted stick figures in a few weeks’ time. Men and women alike were told by showcase spectators that they needed to lose weight, fix their noses, their teeth, their skin, their facial bone structures, all in the service of hewing closely to the “type” in which they’d inevitably be cast.

For this a student needs three years of expensive MFA training?

Thanks again to Fran Dorn’s powers of persuasion, the MFA acting class boasted great racial and ethnic diversity (much more so than our woefully, predominantly white undergraduate program and even, to my chagrin, our Performance as Public Practice program). But I was regularly surprised by the casting choices made for our university theatre productions, which required students of color to perform in subsidiary roles (sometimes, frankly, in servant roles) while their white colleagues, although the minority students in their classes, received the leads. Apparently, not-conventionally-slender women of color and lesbians posed a particularly thorny problem in this context.

Why should a university acting program conform to the most egregious racial and body-type profiling practices of the mainstream profession? As an African American woman, Dorn herself has played across the canon of American drama. In the last ten years, I’ve admired her performances as Christine in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and as the Gypsy in Camino Real, both at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. I had the great pleasure of seeing her powerhouse run as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Austin’s Zachary Scott Theatre, and watching her in Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Austin’s State Theatre. But I rarely saw graduate students in our program color-blind cast in comparably meaty theatre-historical roles.

The undergrads fared far worse, as the very few students of color routinely turned up as servants or backdrops in productions that conformed to conventional casting and staging practices.

I don’t mean to launch an ad hominem attack on my former department or any of my colleagues, all of whom I respect and admire (and miss). In fact, I’m curious how and if other college and university departments do this differently, or whether we’re all held hostage to trickle-down effects from television and film casting practices that dictate such rigid conformity to type and to such narrow notions of beauty. Perhaps only “character actors” are allowed to think outside the box of their bodies. Perhaps the late Heath Ledger, for instance, gets so much press for his transformative turn as the Joker in the new Batman flick, The Dark Knight, after his Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain, because physically, he could rest on his laurels as a romantic (and heterosexual) lead. Why aren’t all actors considered “character actors”? Isn’t that what all of them play? Characters who aren’t them?

It pains me to think of all those theatre geeks who love the freedom and creativity of performing, the community wrought by long hours of commitment to a common pursuit, the thrill of the audience, the intimacy of the dressing room, the camp-like spirit of can-do-ship seeing their passion squelched by the awful authority of cultural convention. How horrible to think of all those students arriving in our programs only to be told—by implication if not explicitly—that their bodies are wrong, that their color, ethnicity, size, weight, face structure, or sex appeal will consign them to shadowy support roles to those whose genes make them desirable to a very narrowly defined culture of beauty and low expectations of talent.

How nice it would be if instead, we could encourage our students to be healthy, as well as creative and committed. What if we taught them how to create their own theatres, where they can make art outside the dictates of an unimaginative mainstream, as my colleague Paul Bonin-Rodriguez does in his undergraduate senior seminar on the entrepreneurial creative artist? What if we taught them to be critics and dramaturgs who bring to wide attention the violence done to our bodies and souls by physical standards impossible for normal people to fulfill without surgical intervention?

What if we taught them to be smart, activist actors, who tried to change the industry from within, as well as from outside? What if we encouraged them to keep reasonable hours, to eat well, and to give up smoking, instead of tacitly condoning anorexia that helps them look “right”? What if we cultivated performers who don’t fit norms, as my colleague Lisa McNulty at Manhattan Theatre Club is trying to do with the Butch Casting Project, dedicated to “celebrating butches, trannies, and genderqueers in the arts, media, and entertainment”?

Some of our students do find the courage and the imagination to apply their training outside of norms. For instance, Anastasia Coon, a lesbian UT MFA acting student who graduated several years ago, moved to San Francisco where, in addition to plying her own acting talent, is teaching genderqueers how to use their voices to conform to their new, chosen gender interpretations. Flordelino Lagundino, a Filipino MFA acting student who also graduated from the reorganized program, has since worked with Perseverance Theatre in Juno, Alaska, where he’s created community-based theatre projects with the local Inuit population.

I continue to believe that university theatre programs should push at the envelope of cultural expectations about the arts. If we defy conventional beauty and body image standards; if we routinely commit to color-blind or cross-race cast our productions; if we teach students to critique representations of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and other identity markers in our own and mainstream productions, along with their aesthetic and ideological values; and if we teach students to reach outside conventional theatre to form their own companies and to create their own plays and performances, then we’ve truly added something to the national dialogue not just about the arts, but about citizenship and democracy. Supporting the status quo is untenable.

Teaching to transgress and transform (a la bell hooks),
The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

24 thoughts on “Unhappy Thespians: A Manifesto on Training Theatre Students

  1. Jill, ya got u-self a ton of “what if’s there, and we got ourselves a ton of supply and demand issues out here.

    The university’s job is to prepare students for a career, or at least a job; and while you have proposed some great ideas, they do not reflect the showbiz that I’ve spent 25yrs in. It’s unfortunate, but it is a Business. Without a social work, sociology, psychology or business degree, most of these great options are moot. No one spends all that $$$ to be “maybe most importantly, theatre aficionados”.

    Based on the lies that we’ve allowed young folks to believe about our own positions in life, students are banking on that slim shot that they’ll be the one out of one thousand to sign that $mil contract with warner brothers. Not gonna happen.

    We need to find a way to limit the # of students allowed to pursue degrees in theater, and be more upfront about how little $ we’ve made in this biz.

  2. R Lewis, thanks for this considered post, and your input here. I agree that universities should prepare students for jobs, but I do think that some of the jobs I’ve suggested are valid and could be trained for as part of a theatre degree.

    The other option, of course, is to do away with (some, not all)theatre majors, and make them very strong minors, instead, that students can combine with other degrees.

    This is the situation I’m facing in my new position at Princeton. I’m curious to see how I’ll feel about working in a university without a theatre major, but with a very good minor/certificate program, from which a number of students have in fact gone on to successful theatre careers.

    Interesting, too, that Harvard, having hired Diane Paulus to direct ART, is now considering whether to institute an undergrad minor.

    Much food for thought here–thanks for chewing on this with me.

    My best, jd

  3. I took a splinter of this conversation and put it up for discussion on the Portland Dramaturgy Cabal blog, specifically focusing on the dramaturg-mentor relationship of a “refashioned” theatre geek.

  4. Hi Jill,

    Thanks for posting this. I think there was an article in American Theatre several years ago that basically said the following:

    It is not that our MFA programs are doing a poor job training actors. Instead, it is the pressures of the actual business world of acting and entertainment that have created an almost right angle situation.

    The overarching theme of the piece was that MFA programs were still, in many respects, training actors to go out into the repertory-style professional life that no longer exists.

    In other words, if the truth is that a successful actor, in both theatre and film will make their money and career doing what they almost naturally have as skills…well…then, you are right, Ms. Dolan, who needs an MFA for that.

    Today is different. You may have gone to the best training in the country, and be one of the top actors from a highly rated conservatory, but casting has changed a bit.

    For instance, let’s say you are called to audition for a role as an entitled, rich young jerk. Next to you, in the audition waiting room is an actual WASP from Connecticut, one who may not have taken a few acting classes as an undergrad, (or maybe none at all.) I hate to break it to you, and some may argue, but there is a chance he could get the part. And let’s say he does get that part, and does an admirable job. Well, depending on the visibility of the production or film, he will most likely start to get the role as the rich arrogant jerk in every production in the region.

    Film has been this way for quite a while, theatre is increasingly like this.

    By the way, with regards to Harvard, one of our Local bloggers, Thom Garvey is examining theatre and arts at Harvard, and also how university funded theatres operate.


  5. I disagree with RLewis, first that a university’s job is to “train” students (dogs are trained) for a “job.” Exactly what job is being talked about — Actor’s Equity has 86% unemployment at any point in the year. That’s what we should be training students for? It is unconscionable — like teaching students to do punchcard data processing. The whole system needs to be questioned, not supported. And why has this situation come to be? Because we have come to define theatre so narrowly that we think it exists only in a few cities in this country, and exists only in a specific form.

    We should be training our students to create their own theatres, as you suggest, and to create them in towns across this country instead of trouping off to Mew York, Chicago, or LA to join the ranks of the unemployed.

    Also, we need to EDUCATE students, not train them, so that when they do get an opportunity to create art, it is art that actually has something to say, that reflects something important to the audience.

    Finally, we need to educate students to become an active part of their community, so that they understand exactly who they are performing for and with, and what might speak to them. The idea of the “universal artist” whose work applies equally to all members of our society is appropriate for the mass media, perhaps, but not for the theatre.

    Read “Utopia in Performance” if you want an idea of what theatre COULD be. Or Robert Gard’s “Grassroots Theater.”

  6. I think there is a lot of agreement with what Jill is saying here; I just think we all come at it from different angles. While I agree that theater training should be about a lot more than acting, it is the pot-o-gold dream that most adhere to.

    And I bet Scott might even agree with me that it would be more than cool to have young artists majoring in producing or artistic directing. But with positions in dramaturgy, casting, or development, there just are not that many opportunities that could feed a family (how about an mfa in volunteering? lol. We always need those positions filled.)

    I do want to whole-heartedly support the idea of more theater minors. Teachers of them may disagree, but that sounds like a good way to create future educated audiences. My gf just graduated with her social work degree with a minor in theater and is starting grad school for art therapy. So, there are positive options. I just don’t think we need more actors right now to bolster Scott’s depressingly accurate stats.

    Lastly, I loved the Donkey Show – having its creator run ART is just rich.

  7. I think you make a strong argument for moving theater departments away from preparing people for jobs and toward preparing people from becoming performing arts entrepreneurs. The development of a “professional” approach to theater, where cast members are temporary hired talent, is historically recent. So give people the tools to understand how to creatively fund, how to market, how to organize, and how to get their work in front of people.

  8. Jill,

    Thank you so much for raising this “body image” issue. To be honest, I have never heard it openly raised in any school I have taught at. Yes – the elephant in the room. Perhaps what we need to do is to OPENLY discuss the issue & set about being proactive in this regard for our art form. Since many college/university theatre programs provide theatrical entertainment for the community, we have the opportunity to begin the process of helping our communities to RE-IMAGINE cultural representations of people (esp women & minorities) on the stage. Rather than complaining about H-wood & B-way expectations, perhaps we need to be part of an effort to challenge them.

    I know this sounds idealistic, but …

    As a side note – I wonder – do British Universities similarly “suffer” these issues? Or Europeans? The reason I raise this question is that I spend most of my recreational time watching foreign films. As a feminist film viewer I feel much more valued, shall we say, by their film culture. And – I have noticed – that body image issues seem to be much less of a concern in such films. Women of all shapes & sizes seem to get better roles. As do older women. I can not help but wonder if this translates onto their stages as well &, thereby, into their training programs.

  9. This problem isn’t going to be solved by telling more theatre educators, or education administrators to do the right thing by their students.

    Theatre education programs are an institution that profits and perpetuates itself just fine under the current system. The few actors who make it big give millions of students something to dream for. Theatre education programs will maximize their income from tuition if they encourage these dreams. Any institution’s primary objective is to perpetuate itself, and expoliting students is the best way for education programs to perpetuate themselves today.

    The few educators who object to exploiting their students in this way will be taking a pass on that income, and like everything else in a capitalist system, doing the right thing gives you a competitive disadvantage, which over time will result in your replacement by less scupulous competitors. This is an institutional problem, one that will only be solved by escaping the flawed institutions.

    Those enthusiastic thespians would do best if they mounted their own productions, conduct their own self-guided workshops, got some grotwoski or brook from the library, and taught themselves not only how to do theatre, but also how to make theatre a vital and lively medium again. Cuz the theatre establishment ain’t ever going to do that for any of us.

  10. The experience you had in UT is not uncommon as I experienced the same dynamics at the Rutgers MFA Acting program (see below). There the third students also talk more about the need “to lose weight, fix their noses, their teeth, their skin, their facial bone structures, all in the service of hewing closely to the “type” in which they’d inevitably be cast.”

    The business aspects are talked about in one class in third year and a class on the entrepreneurial creative artist are not even on the radar. That should be the most important class! Having just read the 4-hour work week I realize that I need to focus my efforts on an entrepreneurial goal to create an automated income flow so that I can create theater without having to include a forty hour work week on top of it. Working out what that looks like and how that can be done would be a GREAT class for an artist.

    Walters’ ideas of creating an ensemble based theater in a non-NY-LA-Chicago town are not even on the radar of a undergrad or graduate program. Classes are so jam packed that one barley can keep up, let alone have in time to thing outside the box. The MFA theater programs have gone the way of the American regional theater, doing what it takes to keep up with the status quo system that was created years ago and no longer works in the current culture or to the benefit of the artists involved.


  11. The point isn’t the degree, it’s the skills they learned with it. Limiting the number of students in a theatre program (or English, or Geography, or Music) doesn’t solve the unrealistic demands on actors and theatre practioners.

    As a graduate student at a Canadian university, I was a teaching assistant for an introductory theatre studies class. Part of the class structure was teaching the students about theatre history and convention, and the other half was dedicated to challening, breaking down, and outright rejecting these conventions.

    I remember one specific tutorial I was tasked with. My course instructor had required the TAs to hold an open discussion with their seminars in order to come up with an their own theatre company. The parameters were loose (no limit on budget, location could be anywhere, any time). The purpose of this exercise wasn’t to prime students for a job in the theatre/entertainment industry, but to get them problem solving, challening social and ideological constructions of what the “industry” is. This is what university should be preparing them for – not a harsh reality check where they will learn they are not fit for any role other than one dictated by their sex/gender, sexuality, race, height, weight, hair colour, but by their abilities inside and outside the industry.

  12. This is a great topic. I’ve really enjoyed your take on theatre training.

    In a University setting, people are told to respect the arts, enjoy them, etc.

    The majority of people going to graduate school are looking to find a way into the business (school reputation, connections, showcase) and have their safety net (an MFA to teach). They will spend 2 or 3 years learning skills and be expected to progress in an effort to be competitive in a rough job market. It’s only rough if we’re talking about making a living from acting. There is lots of theatre to be made, to create, etc.

    I also think programs could offer people an opportunity to broaden their horizons and experience the joys of this profession. In our country, acting is an individualistic endeavor. We have a star system, we admire individuals more than groups. It’s a style of thinking that can change if we are willing to be okay with not being a success, making it, and being the best.

    The really hard part is getting rid of the learned behavior. People who teach in programs were taught the same model and most likely, for fear of getting it wrong, resort to a similarly intense (and sometimes downright cruel) style of training people with an emphasis on getting “premiere” acting work. This work will strengthen the reputation of the school and will allow them to attain a level of noteriety. And the cycle continues.

    I’m all for diversity, but I’m more for talent. If black students and other minority students are getting put in servant roles for being black, that’s crazy and I can’t see any left wing theatre practicioner allowing that. If they’re being put in those roles due to not winning the role I think that’s something entirely different.

    The business is the business and it’s not going anywhere. The industry is not really concerned with talent unless an actor is over 35, since the other marketable thing i.e. looks is diminishing somewhat. Talent, however, will ultimately win out in the end.

    The theatre was never really meant to be a part of colleges and universities. Administrative types were so set on allowing and embracing art into education, that they may have made a blunder by instituting such intense programs. The logistics of these careers don’t really hold up to other things that students can learn and study for thousands of dollars.

    People like Jill and Scott have the luxury of knowing where they will make their money and who they will ultimately serve i.e. the university and it’s students. For people to actually realize what they are taught in these classes, they will need to have another line of work to live.

    I think it’s a dilemma that people are beginning to realize. It doesn’t make sense to offer all these students an acting conservatory with hopes of them being a famous actor. There are about 20 or 30 schools that would have you think different. Children, nowadays, want to stay in school, they want to gain a degree with hopes of attaining more success.

    Then again, I would say, f^#$ it do what your heart desires and screw the outcome.

  13. Jill:
    I am someone who works more with kids and high school students who celebrate, embrace, and find community in this “theatre geek” idea I do worry about them going off to our universities. In Cincinnati I am busy finding the teens in the top high school theatre programs who are not being served (the chubby girls, the butch looking girls, the boys who are too effeminate etc) and working with them to create a teen company (literally in my basement right now) where they can actually try their hand at acting. What you describe on the college level is often worse and more demeaning in high school.
    In Cincinnati they have an awards night for the high schools around the city called the cappies and every high school determines their season shows, casts, and defines their actors by what they can win at the cappies. What is left behind is all those teens that don’t fit into those magical Thesbian musicals Charles Isherwood described. These teens are yearning to be seen and heard and have just as much of a right to be in the theatre. Many of my teens will not and do not want to pursue an acting career, but they are being educated on any other possible career in theatre. In high school theatre there is no such thing as a dramaturg, performance studies, or even the academic side of theatre. The only options given in high school are actors or techies/crew and all teens must fall into one of those two categories.
    The challenge is to create a new model for high school theatre, to create a section of the organizations like the Thesbian society (based here in Cincinnati) for the dramaturges, for the students who could already write amazing papers or for burgeoning critics. If these teens are allowed to know about the diverse ways to be in the field that are not on stage then we empower them before they hit the university system.

    Amber Feldman

  14. I just want to thank everyone who left these perceptive remarks on this post. I was away for nearly three weeks after I posted, and unfortunately unable to answer each comment as it came in.

    But I do want to say that based on everyone’s input, it does seem that the basic good old theatrical conflict here is between a notion of our programs as “professional training grounds” and a those that teach theatre as a liberal art. If we’re engaging the professional side of things, we’re bound to have to buckle under to pre-existing expectations of casting: the “right” look, the “natural” talent, and all the other ideologically coded choices that keep perpetuating the status quo.

    I meant, in my ATHE “manifesto,” to raise these issues just as you all have received them: as a situation that’s endemic to theatre education (and certainly not just at UT, which, aside from what often seemed to me to happen on its “mainstage,” supported many subsidiary programs with a less conventional commitment to theatre practice) and that comes to us from the wider culture and an industry that itself capitulates to (or creates) impossibly narrow definitions of appropriate appearance.

    I’m really glad for the discussion here and would be happy to continue it, here or in other forums.

    Thanks for engaging, best, jd

  15. I have been following your blog for the last four years as a theater graduate student and now as an ex-PhD student newly turned development personnel for a non-profit organization. I had to comment on this entry because I agree wholeheartedly and would even extend it to other theatre programs,non-acting, where academia sucks the love out of their students.
    I left the field of theatre history because I loved theatre too much. In academia, I felt that theatre practice and enjoyment was prohibited and I was disgusted. I couldn’t go to a show with my peers without hearing the one hundred and one things wrong with that production. I was strongly dissuaded from practicing theatre because I was told it distracted me too much from my studies (ironically I chose the program because I felt I would be supported). I did well in academia and was on the road to success but I just missed the joy of theatre too much and I think that’s sad.
    Maybe someday I will go back and I hope at that time I am better able to hold on to the love that brought me to theatre in the first place. Until then, I can only hope that other students are supported whether they be actors, graduate students, or designers.

  16. I have been following your blog for four years and have enjoyed your comments. I had to comment on this entry because I agree so wholeheartedly but I would also argue that it extends to other graduate students, theatre historians, those theatre geeks that did find another venue.
    I have recently left a graduate program, a PhD program, because I missed theatre too much. I was tired of the negativity in academia and having to fight to practice theatre (as a director). I dedicated my life to theatre because I loved it. I love the art of telling a story and I love stories, making theatre history a perfect match. The stories of our past coupled with the art of telling a story, could it get better?
    That passion was broken in academia. I couldn’t go to a show with peers without hearing a hundred and one things wrong with the show. It seemed to be a mark of your own craft to demean another’s work. I preferred to find the positive, find something I loved but it got too exhausting trying to convince others of the same.
    In classes, students strived to bring other students down, to pick apart to show their own superiority. In a discipline that relies on collaboration, I was horrified.
    I was dissuaded from practicing theatre as well. I was a historian, my place was with the books, I was told. This was despite the fact that I excelled in my classes, presented at conferences, and had a piece published. It was never enough.
    Not all programs are like this, but a great many are, as I found out when I visited the universities that offered me packages.
    I write this not to incite pity but in hopes that changes can be made. People don’t dedicate their lives to theatre without that passion and continuing to find ways to fuel that passion must be done in theatre departments.
    Maybe someday I will return to academia but only when I know it’s safe. From the looks of things, it won’t happen for a very long time.

  17. I somehow stumble upon your blog and I enjoyed reading it immensely. From the perspective of a person who was one of those “theatre geeks” both in middle and high school, attending arts schools, state festival and a proud member of the International Junior Thespian and later Thespian society. Theater gave me a freedom during these years. Although I knew that the chances of me being cast in a main stage production at my “prestigious” high school was slim being a black woman. The shows that were produced rarely had any substantial acting roles for my “type”. I could remain active in the department through theatre competitions were I as well as others could mount monologues and scenes that would never be done as whole productions. I also spent a considerable amount of time doing costume, set, props, SM and any other theatre position.

    I attended a well respected theatre program for my undergrad degree. I was quickly disenchanted with Theatre. Theatre no longer was fun or even rewarding. In an incoming class of 300, almost 20 attended high school with me, and 4 actually graduated with a degree in theatre. These were white kids who actually fit the description of the characters in the shows that were being produced, but they too quickly lost their passion. It is very disheartening to be a part of a program that ignores or dismisses the role African-Americans played in theatre and who lacks any African-American staff. There is no they’re telling affirming that you can be yourself and make art that reflects who you are and most importantly means something. I think University Theater Programs need to show that there is more than one way to make it. There are other avenues that one can take and still be a part of the Theatre world. I think the growing popularity of Performance Studies is a great move towards a non-traditional approach for theatre studies. Because if I have to wait for the 1-2 Broadway shows every year or so that has my “type” of character I will be waiting the rest of my life.

    Again. I really enjoyed your blog.

  18. “Justtab,” I think your story is more common than not, especially for young people of color in the theatre. Although at UT, as I describe in the blog, people of color were occasionally cast in lead roles in a “color blind” fashion, they were the exception that tended to prove the rule.

    It’s always seemed to me that university theatres offer places to experiment, to push the envelope of our expectations about casting, to take a risk, to have a vision about reconfiguring what we look like and how we interact. To subscribe to convention and its constraints misses a huge opportunity for promoting social change, as well as artistic innovation.

    I’m sure many folks working backstage, as you did, share your story, and your reasons for retreating to behind the scenes instead of down center. How sad, how wrong. I’d be interested to hear what you’re doing now.

    Thanks for reading and for writing. My best, jd

  19. jill, thanks for writing this. much of the reality is that performers of color and queer performers really must cast themselves, at least in austin. i can’t say how many auditions are mostly casting white men from ages 20-35 or for “attractive women (you really have to be attractive!).” it’s a shame also that the exact productions that seem to have openings for queers or people of color are also the ones who tend to cast unexperienced actors or production staff. this can be transgressive in some instances (which, as an unseasoned actor and multi-disciplinarian, i appreciate greatly). but sometimes it just results in lack of professionalism or a bad production all around.

    things may be changing, however. i just came back from a viewpoints/suzuki workshop in vancouver, where a mixed white/first nations woman kept insisting that i would be able to land many roles there because i have a “diverse look.” i didn’t know whether to believe her, but i wanted to.

    there are many good examples with casting oneself. but the problem is that when we cast ourselves and produce our own work, it becomes just that much more difficult to concentrate on craft. logistics eclipse other concerns and the feat becomes just the “showing up.” i suppose we could take time out to get an mfa, just to work on craft. it’s awful expensive, though.

  20. kt, thanks for your astute post. I’m struck by the fact that in the Canadian context, you “look” different–as an Asian-American transman, yes?–and that opens up new possibilities for casting in a culture that has a different “read” on what difference means. Would that American culture were more open and expansive about identity and representation.

    And you’re right, so many people of color and queers, especially in MFA programs, are forced to cast themselves, to create their own work, to serve as directors, writers, producers, front-of-house . . . in short, to be one-person bands. While much transgressive, smart, aesthetically radical solo performance has been created by such folks, they should also have the opportunity to work on other people’s projects through less self-initiated casting procedures.

    And as far as working on “craft” in MFA programs, well, yes, but . . . craft is exactly where ideology hides. Isn’t it exactly “good acting” that people proclaim when women “act” as appropriately heterosexual and deferential? And when people of color act in accordance with dominant cultural standards? I don’t think, sadly, that craft is free of the same ideological constraints that make casting such a problem.

    Thanks for writing–write again soon and good luck with your work.

    All best, jd

  21. “Badger Girl,” thanks so much for this, as you make a truly important point. Yours isn’t the first story I’ve heard in which just the attitudes and actions you report have been shared by graduate students in other programs (my own, at Wisconsin, CUNY, and UT, at different times, included).

    I think this comes from several things: One is the way our field, as many of my colleagues, including David Roman, have written, has had to elevate itself as an academic pursuit by exiling emotion and affect from our scholarship to prove our legitimacy. David, in fact, wrote a lovely “Comment” about this very issue when he was editor of THEATRE JOURNAL. My sense is that with the current attention to “affect” in the humanities, people are getting a bit more willing to loosen this stricture and allow “love” to propel scholarship once again.

    At the same time, my sense (or perhaps it’s just my hope) is that the commitment to certain kinds of post-modernist theories that promoted critical negativity is now on the wane. This, too, should allow criticism from more positive directions to become, once again, a part of our academic vocabularies.

    That said, I think it’s unfortunately true across fields that academics too often feel they have to make their reputations or their claims on the (sometimes broken) backs of their colleagues or other artists. In an economy of scarcity–which the academy tends to be, especially as far as jobs are concerned–it’s easy to fall into this temptation.

    I admire your commitment to resisting cynicism, and to protecting your genuine love for theatre.

    Please don’t stop writing or participating in the conversations you began in graduate school. We need more people like you in the field.

    Thanks for writing–stay in touch and comment again soon.

    My best, jd

  22. As a graduate of NYU/Tisch for musical theater (undergrad), what you write about is gospel. I spent YEARS going to auditions and ensuring that I didn’t stand out. I wanted to be a “pretty girl in her 20s with a pretty voice.” That’s what NYU taught me, for the most part. It was never about embracing who I was or what I brought to the table – it was about blending in & trying to figure out what “they” wanted.

    But it was only when I decided to walk into the room dressed as what I was (not what “they” wanted, whatever that is) – with a polka-dot dress that looked like DOTS candy & a matching headband – & decided to start with my big, belty, funny song that I started to get noticed. A lot. I knew who I was, which made them know what they were getting – and I think they appreciated me for it.

    I wish that all theater schools would have a class on embracing YOU. Not “what’s your type & does your headshot look like that?” but “what do YOU bring to the table & how you can let them know it right away?” It was only when I STOPPED being like everyone else & took those risks – to look different, to read sides differently, to sound different – that I made headway with my career.

    I write more about this in a blog post if you’re interested: http://tinyurl.com/65tgyq

    Thanks for delivering such an important manifesto.


  23. “Whenigrowupcoach,” thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experience. I completely agree that people–and the theatre–would be much more interesting and actors no doubt much happier if they were encouraged to cultivate their individual talents as performers, instead of subscribing to some cookie-cutter notion of what they’re supposed to be about when they audition. Your example is certainly instructive; you succeed when you stand out in interesting ways. I don’t understand why people teaching in these programs would prefer to homogenize their students (and therefore, the art we all engage) instead of looking for their individual talents and unique contributions. Very glad you’re out there now with a new attitude, good work, and a blog, which I’m looking forward to visiting.

    Thanks for writing,

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