Engaging Tough Questions to #ChangeTheStage

By Nicole Smart
Originally Published in the Autumn, 2017 issue of Equity News.

“Do you think the pendulum has swung too far when it comes to casting and inclusion?”

It was our first question in our first in a series of Town Hall discussions on Expanding the Pathways to Inclusive Casting. The member who asked the question had submitted it to moderator E. Faye Butler ahead of time, so we knew it was coming. It was a tough question. But I’m glad it was asked.

Our Chicago office was packed full of members for the September Town Hall, and many of them made their own feelings clear about the question. They weren’t happy.

But ultimately we cannot facilitate real change by asking the same old questions and doing the same things we’ve always done. Real change comes when we open ourselves to really engage with a full range of viewpoints. With that comes vulnerability.

Nicole Smart (center) with (l-r) Lydia Diamond, Christine  Toy Johnson, E. Faye Butler and Ron Himes.Playwright Lydia Diamond was the first panelist to respond: “No, the pendulum has not only not swung too far, it isn’t swinging enough.”

There is no question that the topic of diversity and inclusion is a sensitive issue. So, how do we facilitate those conversations to #ChangeTheStage?

Creating a more inclusive and diverse industry requires participation from the entire theatre community. Convening this panel was one step toward extending the conversation beyond our own membership. Moderated by our own Central Regional Board member E. Faye Butler and featuring Equity’s Executive Director Mary McColl and Christine Toy Johnson, chair of our National Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, the panel also included Jim Corti, Artistic Director of the Paramount Theater; Erica Daniels, Managing Director of Victory Gardens Theater and former Casting Director and Associate Artistic Director at Steppenwolf Theatre; Ron Himes, Founding and Producing Director of St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre; Miranda Gonzalez, Artistic Director of the Urban Theatre Company; and Jen Liestman, Artistic Associate/Resident Casting Director of the Guthrie Theatre.

We also push that conversation forward by putting the data in front of members and employers, so that everyone can see what’s happening. Prior to our town hall, Mary McColl, Christine Toy Johnson, E. Faye Butler and I sat down over coffee with a reporter from the Chicago Tribune to discuss Equity’s study. What we found is that Chicago mirrors the trend nationally – women and members of color are underrepresented, and when they do find work, they are earning lower salaries. If you missed it, you can read the story – which ran on the front page of the Chicago Tribune – online.

I hear stories directly from our members who are Latinx, African American, Asian American, MENA, Native American, disabled, transgender and non-binary, women and seniors about how they face serious obstacles. The hiring biases they encounter make it incredibly challenging to find work.

These situations will not change overnight. But we will keep moving ahead with our work. There will be more town hall discussions on diversity and inclusion to come, including in the Eastern and Western regions. And if you missed the discussion in Chicago, you can watch a video of it in the Member Portal.