Finding Diversity in Theater

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Young people all across the country are speaking up and calling for a more inclusive culture that celebrates a wide diversity of experiences. OUtlet reporter and freshman theater major Seth Eggenschwiller explores students’ push for their vision of a more diverse and inclusive theater division at Ohio University.

Here in Athens, diversity is a noticeable issue. Ohio University is a progressive environment, but the surrounding community is more or less white Appalachia. And as a freshman undergraduate theater student, I’ve noticed conversations about diversity and inclusion within the theater department have been pretty tense.

“There’s been some toxic behavior in this building this year, and it’s unfortunate, and I don’t think it’s coming from the faculty. I wish and hope that in the future there would be less arguing and finger pointing and more listening to each other between faculty and students because it’s a problem.”

“There’s some toxicity in the dialogue and being responsible in how we communicate our grievances. I think it feels like a lot of times the faculty is meeting this conversation with a lot of resistance and defensiveness.”

That first quote is from Dennis Delaney, the head of the director training program and the chair of the show selection committee, followed by graduate student actor Ellie Clark who helped form a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee within the department. Ellie told me about a specific event that made the new committee necessary.

“Fall semester of our third year here there was defacing of posters in the theater building,” she said. “White supremacy was written across some posters and some slander of the department and how things were being handled here. We lead an open forum with the student body discussing some of the issues and some of the issues that had come up this semester. And It felt like there was a huge release in the room, like people wanted to say everything because it was the first time the whole student body had been together. So we started the Diversity and Inclusion Committee so that we could start documenting things that were being discussed.”

A lot of the actors here are dissatisfied with the shows we do. They see problematic trends in casting, underrepresentation of actors of color, disregard of LGBTQ concerns, and even some harrassment. As a new student to the theater program, I was surprised at the level of contention, and how many people felt unheard.

“So I think what we’re tackling is that America was founded on racism and sexism. It really was. And it’s just the truth of the matter. Our canon is full of amazing plays written by heterosexual white men but it is hard in a school when there are students who feel like their story is never put on the stage,” says Ellie.

In other words, she told me that actors of color have to fight for their right to tell their story in a way a white actor might never have to worry about. So when the show selection committee decides to do shows with token black characters, classical plays with no racial diversity, or even plays that have racism woven throughout the text, underrepresented actors feel pushed aside.

But, according to Dennis, deciding on the shows we put on here isn’t easy.

“It generally takes most of the fall semester to figure out what the plays are going to be for the following academic year,” he says. “It’s complicated, this is not a simple thing, because we’re not just dealing with “let’s pick a bunch of great plays to do,” we’re dealing with variety, we’re dealing with timeliness, cultural timeliness in terms of finding plays that speak to the population of this town and this campus right now, whether it’s about race, whether it’s about diversity, about gender issues, you know we take those things very seriously.”

Staging a theatrical production is inevitably political. A piece of theater makes a statement, and artists are responsible for what they produce onstage. It’s encouraging to hear that my professors are interested in doing theater about topical social issues. But, after talking with Dennis, it became clear that “making a statement” isn’t the only concern in choosing productions.

He told me that “we’re dealing with production/design issues from PD&T, we’re dealing with casting issues in the performance area, and we’re dealing with more general issues that relate to what kind of season do we want to present to the community and to the campus.”

Theater students are responding to the problems they see around them, but the faculty members feel like they are becoming the enemy. So, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee is meant to mediate conversation between students and faculty. Neither sides are right or wrong, necessarily, but there’s a disconnect between the passion that young artists have about how they are represented, and how hard the faculty works for their students. And maybe one reason for the disconnect is the lack of diversity among the faculty, which theater division director Michael Lincoln knows is a problem.

“We have been unsuccessful in diversifying the faculty. We’ve tried several times in our past few hires and the most diverse we could get was hiring women, which in theater is not that hard. Frankly, not to make excuses, but I think in my experience, which is now 15 years, Athens is a hard sell, even for diverse students but more so I think diverse faculty,” says Michael Lincoln. 

As of right now, the School of Theater only has one professor of color. Obviously, this is not ideal when considering our program’s overall diversity. So the fight isn’t easy. But it seems to me that waiting for ideal situations, waiting for the diversity climate to just be easier, means becoming complicit as artists.

Ellie told me that “if we quit, like if the students are like “this is too hard I quit” or the faculty is like “this is too hard I retire,” then we’re complicit because when it got hard we stopped, right? So you have to keep going. And I think as artists, we never get to say it got too hard. We’ve got to keep learning and keep understanding our responsibility.”

Michael told me “I’m a guy over 60, so I was screaming about things in the late 60’s, when all that was happening, so I get it. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever solve this issue. Just educate me, you know? Tell us, you know, how we can do better! Because in a sense, every student, you could say, we’re trying to serve this student in the best possible way we can.

The dialogue this year around diversity has everybody on thin ice. No one wants to be the bad guy. But I think somehow the majority of the school of theater has failed to notice the elephant in the room, which is that theater is controversy. Theater is progression. Theater is anger, passion, fire, all that. And above it all, theater is endurance and respect for each other. It’s a beautiful craft. And it’s something we all share together.