You'd be surprised at how many times I've been asked this question. It's time for me to finally give an answer.
As an avid theatre kid, I wrote this letter to myself the day my instincts pulled the "racism" alarm regarding my high school's Drama Department. I read and revised it almost every day for a period of months. I am including it in the beginning of this post as a disclaimer that I have not only looked at this question from multiple perspectives but belittled myself in the process of trying to justify what seems to be a status quo in the world of theatre. So, in case you haven't guessed yet, my answer to this question is HECK YEAH (heck instead of "hell", because I am way too concerned about my digital footprint to be cursing like that on the internet.)
I am by no means here to point fingers or avoid personal responsibility for my own mistakes and lack of talent. On the flip side, I hope you understand that where I stand on this issue is the last position I ever wanted to be in. Nobody wants to admit that something so intrinsic to who they are can have such an impact on how they are valued and perceived. Even though popular culture has conditioned America to support the underdog, nobody wants to be the underdog. In fact, it may seem silly, but writing this is one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. I have friends and directors who fundamentally disagree with what I am about to say, and this knowledge has kept me from saying what I believe for years. But newsflash: I am a graduate now. I am no longer a high school theatre kid. That chapter of my life is over, and with it goes the desire to value what is politic over what is true, the desire to say "it's ok" in a people-pleasing manner that has unfortunately become the trademark of my own personality.
I want to start off with a few things about theatre that I know to be true in both high school and the real world. (Yes… high school is "real" too, but you know what I mean.)
I will not deny that some of these truths serve a useful function in the real world. In fact, you might already know what that function is: the process of elimination. The job market is so saturated with talented performers that directors would be wasting their time if they considered an actor who doesn't look the part, as they can always find someone who has both the looks and the talent. However, no high school theatre department has a talent pool that even compares to that of the real world, so when these elimination tactics are adopted (with good intentions) by high school theatre directors, they become at best unfair and at worst a breeding ground for systemized racism. This statement may seem like an overreaction, but it really is not.
Let's revisit a couple of those truths I mentioned earlier.
I supported this mentality during my early years of theatre, largely because I was brainwashed into believing that it makes sense. But since then, that support has transformed into opposition. For starters, what even is a "real family" supposed to look like? Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's children look nothing like them. In fact, those children don't even look like each other; they are a family of at least three completely different ethnicities. And yet something tells me that if Hollywood had created a movie about the famous couple starting a family before they adopted their children, those children would have been portrayed by kids who are both white and attractive. Because that is what Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's "real family" is supposed to look like. But it shouldn't take keeping up with celebrity news to know that looking like a family and being a family is no longer interchangeable today. You want your show to reflect real life? People get adoptions in real life. People have affairs in real life. People remarry and keep kids from both marriages in real life. Who are we to create this standard of what a family should or should not look like? Who are we to tell a group of people that they could never be a real family, simply because it isn't genetically possible for them to be related?
I know this opinion seems biased because I am always that one cast member who shatters the illusion of a perfect family. But every time I am blessed with a director who breaks that rule for my own benefit, there is always that one person who implies someone else should have been cast in my place. And why should they have? Why should ethnicity alone be the reason why I don't deserve my role? Why should I apologize for being leveled up to the same playing field as everyone else?
What's even more startling than the flawed logic behind this casting norm is how much it puts minority students at a disadvantage. It took less than a day for me to realize that I had found my way into one of the whitest departments at my high school, and I considered it a diverse year whenever counting the number of minority students actively involved in the theatre department required two hands instead of one. Because of this, saying that a cast of family members needs to look like an "actual family" systematically puts non-white people at a disadvantage in the casting process. Newsflash: this is a theatre production. Audience members know that the people portraying these characters aren't related in real life and tweaking the cast doesn't make that any less true.
Even when family relations are out of the picture, directors tell me that they consider looks before talent simply because that is how shows are cast in the real world. I quote them word for word when I say that they will pre-conceive an image of what they think the character should look like, they will single out people who fit that image, and they will cast accordingly. I am not a mind reader, so I can't pretend to know exactly what that image is. However, I can say that if we are speaking in terms of the coveted lead, that director has the image of someone who is both Caucasian and pleasing to the eye. There are times when even I, as an Asian female, struggle to picture a non-white or non-attractive person playing the romantic lead. If that is the case, imagine what directors who are both traditional and Caucasian would think. Unfortunately, this conundrum affects not only Asians, but shorter males, larger females, plain-looking children, and anyone else who wouldn't be physically stereotyped as a leading man or woman. To be frank, this means that people who aren't white and/or attractive have to outperform their competition by a significant margin to be seen as someone who deserves the lead.
Before you accuse me of personal ignorance, let me say that I do know the minor and supporting characters are just as important, if not even more important, than the lead when it comes down to the final production. I know that students who don't look the part will eventually have to resort to whatever their type is. The real world holds high standards in physical appearance, sending people home after just one glance at their headshots. But right now, we are not in that real world. We are in a school in which students are building their resumes and improving their craft.
The fact that my ethnicity created a few road bumps in my theatre experience didn't bother me as much as it could have, simply because I didn't intend to make theatre my main source of income. Believe it or not, I do have other passions, and I quite frankly decided that I wasn't going to invest money in a career in which looks and connections hold just as much weight, if not more, than hard work. But what about ethnic actors who do have this intention, this all-consuming dream? I've had directors in community theatre, a level of theatre already stigmatized for having less qualified participants, tell my ethnic friends that they are not wanted in local productions because of their race. It is no wonder then that the number of ethnic children involved in theatre is few and far between. For how can people continually cheated out of opportunity compete against others who have been spoon fed roles from an early age?
There are times when looking the part is important. Sometimes the script is littered with references to the person's height or attractiveness. Sometimes the character's physical attributes are an important part of who they are, as in the "Hunchback of Notre Dame". If that is the case, then yes, please try to find someone who looks the part. Otherwise, being a carbon copy of what the character "is supposed to look like" shouldn't be more favorable than having talent or dedication, at least not on the high school stage. If this is an institution of learning in which a student's development starts with the opportunities they receive, allowing a less talented or less hard-working person play a role simply because they have the right look can never, in any ordinary circumstance, be justified.
This wouldn't be a big deal if it wasn't for the fact that people become better actors primarily by getting cast. The funny thing about theatre is that getting a lead means much more than getting a bunch of lines, although that is a part of it. Getting a lead is about attaining personal growth and confidence, two things that often prove to be beneficial for future auditions. And due to this fateful opportunity, actors who land leads land other leads that help them land other leads, and the process continues until they have snowballed themselves into a respectable position in their department. This effect is inevitable, but the dangerous thing about it is that it produces a self-serving bias: the director may think that their favorite actors get leads because they are talented and confident, when their favorite actors are talented and confident because they get leads. All I can say is that it is a shame physical attributes have prevented otherwise gifted and hardworking people from sharing in the snowball effect of being cast, accruing talent, and gaining well-deserved respect.
However, despite this obvious discrepancy in privilege, problems with rigid type-casting in theatre are still brushed aside as inevitable or even necessary. This is quite honestly because the actors who benefit from this system are unwilling to accept that personal talent was probably not the most significant factor in their own success. People like to think that they get leads because they are awesome, not because the audition process was a deck stacked in their favor. I am guilty of this mentality myself. Whenever I get a big role, I think it is because I worked hard and did this or that, OR because "wow, I'm such a good actor!" But whenever I don't get what I want, the emphasis shifts to how I didn't look the part, someone else had seniority rights, etc.
So why can't we take our personal emotions out of the equation and accept that looks, and therefore race, will inevitably matter more than talent when the very talent we seek is so subjective and impossible to measure? Why can't we at least acknowledge the fact that some actors are more talented than others because they had physical attributes that gave them the privilege of improving and building a name for themselves? Why can't we admit to what is real regardless of whether we are the ones benefiting from that reality? And more importantly, how does the only department with stereotyping problems of this magnitude have the nerve to pride itself in being the most accepting group on campus?
I must admit that I still feel conflicted about my decision to formulate these thoughts into words. A part of me feels uncomfortable for saying, "Hello. I am a girl who was, at the end of the day, loved and respected by this group filled with amazing people. I know better than anyone that this department was, and still is, blessed with amiable directors who care about their students and make decisions according to what their personal experience has taught them. And now I am going to tell you why that department is racist." Because while there were definitely times in which I was overlooked, there were also times in which the tables turned, and I was the weak link in a favorable position. I am, to some extent, a beneficiary of the very system I criticize, and to say otherwise would be ignoring a large part of what made me the actor I am today.
But perhaps racism isn't an issue that can be solved by micro inspecting our own experiences and pinpointing what went wrong and what went right. Perhaps it is about solving something much greater than our personal triumphs and disappointments. After all, have you ever asked yourself why we try so hard to turn theatre, a place in which "anything is possible", into a pseudo-reality in which physical attributes are an accurate reflection of personality and cast members look like a nuclear family that epitomizes the American Dream? Maybe it's time to be honest with the very people we are so vulnerable with on-stage, and to stop choosing petty formalities over issues that matter. Or maybe it is time to ask ourselves how neglecting uncomfortable discussions about race and pretending there isn't a problem does any good to a generation of thespians who are slowly, but surely, diversifying.
Grace Lu is an International Studies Major at Texas A&M University (gigs!) with a concentration in Environmental Studies and minors in Bioinformatics and Chinese. She writes for Her Campus at Texas A&M and her personal blog at https://coolgaljournal.wordpress.com.