Ever since I began doing theatre around the age of 10, I never had any problem getting cast in shows. At the time, it made me think that the reason must be that I'm a good actor. But as I've aged and my frontal lobe has fully formed, I began to see that, while, OK, I may be alright in terms of a local community theatre production, it wasn't so much that as a couple of other uncomfortable truths.
I'm male and I'm white.
The problem with men
Anyone who does local theatre -- whether it's in high school or at your neighborhood playhouse -- knows that it's always a challenge to find men to fill out the roles. Whether you're the director, producer, or just another actor in the cast, you cross your fingers that (half decent) male actors will come out for a particular show, otherwise it might not actually happen. And a musical? Even harder to find dudes who sing (outside of their shower or car).
The problem is, many men have been raised in complete ignorance of theatre or in a culture of toxic masculinity that views theatre as effeminate. Because of that, the odds are ever in the favor of male actors having more of a chance getting a role. This truth should make us a tad uneasy, too. Maybe more than a tad.
Men were the primary playwrights for centuries, and so they wrote what they knew -- male characters in settings and situations common to them. Every woman who has done theatre has likely had to play a male character at some point in their career, and most female actors don't object to this. Sometimes, male roles are gender-swapped, adding extra depth to a character. However, it is time for women's stories -- among other groups -- to take a more prominent seat at the table; Lillian Helman, Lorraine Hansberry, Paula Vogel are some of the rich voices who helped pave the way for more modern writers like Yasmina Reza, Lauren Gunderson, Annie Baker, and Lynn Nottage.
When a theatre company is picking its season, or even individual, one-off shows, a large part of the decision-making process is knowing the pool you will have to pull from for your talent, and it's likely that a good percentage of it is women. Not only do more plays and musicals have to be written for women, but by women, too.
But the actor shortage extends further, and perhaps more disconcertingly, past sexual identification.
With few exceptions, most community theatre seasons consist of shows that, as written, feature primarily white characters and casts. I'm sure you can think of a play or musical you would love to see performed locally, but haven't, because of this very problem. (I, for one, am always hoping for a local production of Aida.)
I recall when I was in middle school in my upper-middle class suburb that we did a production of The Wiz, and I'm still ashamed about how it was whitewashed. More recently in my area, there was a theatre company that did a production of In the Heights, a show about a predominately Latinx neighborhood and their culture, yet almost everyone in the cast was white. The producers said the themes of this show (and others, like Once on this Island) are universal, but I think this color-blind approach is not the anti-racist angle the company is hoping to promote, but a form of cultural appropriation. It's perfectly fine to love a show and want to be in it, but it's another to actually do it if it's truly about a certain group that is not your own.
So what is one to do when you want to stage, say, Othello or Ragtime, but you do not have any actors of color to audition?
Thanks to virtual theatre groups like ours, as well as streaming TV services for theatrical productions, people in different parts of the country can now participate in and see a play or musical that could not be done in a local group where there is less diversity. But otherwise? The correct solution is not the one you may want to hear: Don't do that show if you can't be authentic and respectful of the culture it depicts.
My friend once wrote about how some theatre companies refer to "The List," a non-tangible roster of actors of color to "recruit" for those more diverse parts in a show. While I understand its existence and know that no harm is meant by it, it nonetheless implies a level of racism -- that theatres call on actors of color only when needed, and don't actively involve them otherwise, from acting on stage to all other aspects of a production.
A theatre company must not only think about the diversity of the cast in the shows they select, but also the inclusion of who sits on their board of directors, who comprises their member body, and who they hire as part of a production's creative team. With people of many different backgrounds -- be they gender, race, sexual identity, etc -- the possibility can increase that a theatre can do more diverse productions without it looking like it was in poor taste.
We, as theatre creators and purveyors, should not rest on the old ways of doing things. It is important, if not critical, that everyone gets their voices heard and represented. We cannot simply do Susan Glaspell's Trifles or an August Wilson play once every few seasons and say we've done our best to be inclusive. Everyone who loves theatre has to encourage each other to do better -- to give ourselves and audiences a world onstage that is both respectful and reflective of the one offstage.