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Diversity Tops the Agenda at Los Angeles Theater Network

By Jessica Salans


LATN Diversity2Kate Motzenbecker, left, Jon Lawrence Rivera, Lesley Asistio and Annette Lee (photo by Jessica Salans)


There is an evolving language in the discussion about diversity on L.A. stages. On September 13, around 30 members of the Los Angeles Theater Network (LATN), the intimate-stage advocacy “think tank” founded in 2014 by Playwrights Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera, gathered in the back bar of the Bootleg Theater to take up the diversity gauntlet.


The proceedings were peppered with the vocabulary of diversity activism: names like Black Lives Matter, the movement that was formed in support of all the lives that have been lost to cop-on-black violence; terms like “allies,” used for white activists on the racial justice and cultural diversity fronts; tactics like “shaming,” defined as being vocal about the unwillingness of large theater organizations to make long-term investments in supporting diverse productions; and conversely, “celebrating,” which is to publicly acclaim the companies that are “doing it right.”


Shaming, Rivera said, is telling directors who says they don’t want to make their show “about race” by casting it with actors of color that they are making it about race by hiring an all white cast. “Hello! It’s 2015!” he said mockingly.


The gathering’s featured star was Tim Dang, producing artistic director of East West Players (EWP), who took the floor to speak about the national rollout of his “51% Preparedness Plan” diversity campaign that he unveiled at the start of this year.


LATN Diversity1Los Angeles Theater Network talks diversity at Bootleg Theater (photo by Jessica Salans)


That plan proposes that U.S. stages need to reflect the changing demographic in the country. It notes that by 2042 minorities will become the majority in this country and sets the goal that the theater workforce and those performing on stage should be 51% people of color (POC), 51% women and that 51% should be under the age of 35 by that time.


EWP diversity liaison Leslie Ishii, who focuses exclusively on diversity solutions, offered that she believes most people want to take the initiative but many may not know where to begin. She added that when one finally does “take charge,” one offsets one’s own victimization by finding space to advocate for others.


The meeting was not without dissenters. Ann Colby-Stocking, a great actress, a brave woman and the only attendee representing performers with disabilities, pointed out that there was nothing about hiring people with disabilities in the Plan. She noted that, after receiving her MFA at UCLA in 2001, it took another ten years before another disabled person graduated from an MFA acting program at a U.S. university. “We are the most discriminated group in American Theatre,” Stalking declared.


Freelance director Ivan Rivas, a former Actors Equity Association (AEA) staffer, countered that when he worked at the union, U.S. regionals were reporting that persons of color simply weren’t turning up for audition calls in the same numbers as white performers.


That brought a quick rebuttal from Artists at Play producer Marie-Reine Velez that there is a lack of trust by persons of color and disability actors toward theater companies operated under Caucasian leadership. Velez and others cited the recent case of Boston Court, which put out a call of “all ethnicities” for last year’s smash hit Stupid Fucking Bird but then hired an all-white cast.


One area of consensus was on the importance of education — for those in the theater to educate themselves and begin the robust dialogues necessary for change.


Before adjourning, the meeting reaped at least one pledge from directors to cast persons of color and disabled actors in their shows in the coming months. “Don’t say, ‘We can try.’ Just do it!” Rivera exhorted the assembly.



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