Artistic Directors Discuss Diversity Dilemmas

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Michael John Garcés, Tim Dang, Seema Sueko, Christopher Ashley, Marc Masterson, Jessica Kubzansky, Barry Edelstein, Sheldon Epps and Michael Ritchie

Fox News’s Megyn Kelly recently sparked a firestorm of controversy when she asserted that “Santa [Claus] just is white” — a point that she went on to “debate” with her all-white guests on the self-billed “fair and balanced” TV network. While Santa does not (spoiler alert!) actually exist, the issue of who plays what role is very much a real one.

At a panel discussion on Monday, eight artistic directors held forth on how to diversify casts, staffs and audiences — preferably without alienating the older, wealthier and often whiter audiences and donors who still provide the bulk of their companies’ revenues. The forum was at Pasadena Playhouse, before a multi-cultural audience.

“Diversity: Through a Director’s Eye” — co-presented by the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, East West Players and the Pasadena Playhouse — was moderated by Michael John Garcés, who sits on the executive board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and is the artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company.

Introducing the event, Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps said “the panel is a continuation of a very vital conversation that began a few months ago at the East West Players, under the auspices of [East West artistic director] Tim Dang… We want to continue this conversation through the eyes of the director and artistic director, and move forward to some positive answers and some action for greater diversity in all of our theaters.”

Michael John Garcés

The panelists — most of whom also have credits as directors of individual productions — included Epps, Dang, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley, San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre artistic director Barry Edelstein, Theatre @ Boston Court co-artistic director Jessica Kubzansky, South Coast Repertory artistic director Marc Masterson, Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie, and Seema Sueko, who is the incoming associate artistic director at the Pasadena Playhouse and formerly executive artistic director of San Diego-based Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company.

Sueko is from Honolulu and is of Pakistani and Japanese ancestry. She and Kubzansky were the only women on the panel. Epps, who is African American, and Dang, who was born in Hawaii and is of Chinese heritage, were the only non-white artistic directors on the eight-person panel. The moderator, Garcés, has a Cuban background on his father’s side and was raised in Colombia.

Laura Penn, executive director of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), set the tone for the ensuing panel by providing a historical context for diversity in the American theater, although she then exited the conversation. Penn noted that the discourse regarding diversity on the stage began back in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement brought issues of integration and equality to the forefront of many discussions.

The topic picked up steam in the late 1980s. Penn pointed out that “Miss Saigon [and the cross-cultural casting controversy it provoked when it arrived in America] rocked our world, yet it would be many, many years before the commercial theater sector began to understood the economics around multi-culturalism…We all know it’s time. In less than 20 years nationally whites will be the minority… What’s working? What aren’t we doing? How can we work together to increase diversity in Southern California theater?”

As he kicked off the conversation, Garcés encouraged listeners “to expect to be offended and to work through that,” as extremely touchy topics would be considered vis-à-vis a highly competitive industry with a high unemployment rate. Near the top, Garcés asked: “What do we mean by the word ‘diversity’?”

“In diversity, something is conjured in a visionary’s mind… in terms of how are we going to tell this story and who are we telling this story to,” Dang replied. “It’s very important to be very inclusive of who your audience is… I think that Southern California is ground zero for the rest of the country in terms of what the face of the future of America is… 91% of LAUSD are now youth of color… That’s our future audience.”

Epps echoed the sentiment, saying: “Diversity became important to me 16 years ago when I started this job, because I’d walk around Pasadena and see an incredibly diverse, vital community, and to be quite honest I’d come to my theater and sit in the courtyard and frequently be the only person under 60 and the only person of any color… entering the theater to see a play. That was appalling to me on many levels. First of all, it meant that the audience was dying off, frankly, and if I didn’t do something about that, I might not have a job in seven or eight years. But also I was just appalled that the richness of the Pasadena… and the Los Angeles community was not being reflected on this stage in any way, and certainly was not being reflected in the audience that came to [the Pasadena Playhouse], and… it became primary to my mission to change that.”

Tim Dang
Tim Dang

SCR’s Masterson added that diversity “is a never-ending process of just being curious…
[which] comes with a certain openness, and not knowing the answer to things. So if I can put myself into that mind set I can do a better job of reflecting what’s around me.”

The Old Globe’s Edelstein — whose previous theatrical home, New York’s Public Theater, was noteworthy for its non-traditional casting begun by its groundbreaking  founder, Joseph Papp — added: “It has to be a vital two-way exchange… The public-ness of the work means that it has to be available to the widest possible spectrum of who lives in the city… Wherever there are barriers to participating we’re working to take them down.”

Sueko said that when she moved to San Diego, instead of just “bitching” about the lack of roles available for actors of color, she co-founded Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, which casts minority thesps and “deliberately selects plays that… engages communities that are traditionally underrepresented or uninvited to participate in the mainstream of American theater.”

Several of the panelists observed that when older patrons express consistent disgruntlement over the inclusion of plays and themes outside their comfort zones, artistic directors might eventually have to say farewell to some of those longtime supporters of their theaters.

When the audience of more than 100 actors and others involved in SoCal theater got into the act during the Q&A, the conversation predictably became livelier. Josefina Lopez, founding artistic director of Casa 0101 Theater and author of over 20 plays, referred to “a lack of diversity” at the Mark Taper Forum, which is overseen by Ritchie, and she charged that he and other LA theater powers routinely consider New York playwrights at the expense of West Coast writers — which she labeled a form of “discrimination.”

“It’s not discrimination,” Ritchie replied, adding that his Center Theatre Group has “a very robust program for local playwrights,” that “diversity of voices, particularly playwrights, is something that’s discussed every single day” at CTG, that his predecessor Gordon Davidson “was one of the greats in terms of what the regional theater meant to the community” and “I chose to chase that job so that hopefully I could stand on his shoulders.”

However, he acknowledged that if one were to calculate whether the different components of LA’s population were “represented equally on our stages, we have failed that test.”

When Dang pressed Ritchie on whether the “pipeline” of new plays was “working for you…in terms of the stories that need to be told,” Ritchie replied that “I cannot claim absolute overwhelming success by anyone’s standards including my own.” When he took the job, he said, “I set a wildfire under myself” by eliminating the labs for ethnic-minority and disabled writers that had existed under Davidson. But he was convinced that those programs had enabled playwrights “to get up to the door” but not to walk through it, providing many commissions but not enough full productions.

Michael John Garcés, Tim Dang,
Michael John Garcés, Tim Dang, Seema Sueko and Christopher Ashley

The definition of diversity was broadened beyond the ethnic and racial dimensions during the Q&A period, when a questioner was asked to “please stand up” as she spoke into the microphone. Actress Regan Linton replied that she couldn’t — because she is a wheelchair user (the first to graduate from the MFA Acting Program at UC San Diego).

Ritchie noted that Center Theatre Group has a long working relationship with Deaf West Theatre, “but the wider range of disabilities, we really haven’t paid an equal amount of attention to.”

Playwright Evelina Fernandez of the Latino Theater Company, who did not attend the diversity panel, commented via email that the fact that the panelists [other than moderator Garcés] did not include any Latinos is, “given the current and future demographics of California… troubling. …Any panel designed to discuss diversity without Latinos/as represented is ignoring the 10-ton elephant in the room, isn’t it? Isn’t diversity really about ensuring the future of the American Theater? In general, I think panels are limiting and don’t provide for any in-depth discussion or action that can effect change. I, personally, would welcome a different model for this discussion.” Fernandez added that while Jose Luis Valenzuela, artistic director of LTC and LATC, was out of town, he had not been invited to participate in the panel. “But we’re used to that,” Fernandez wrote.

Lopez noted that moderator Garcés “was representing the Latino theater community… but he was [so] busy trying to engage the panelists that he didn’t really get to add anything about the Latino community’s needs or wants or, for that matter, his theater’s point of view and how their mission is to engage diverse communities. Yes, I really was disappointed Jose Luis Valenzuela was not there… it’s disappointing that the panel didn’t truly reflect LA and there was no artistic director from a Latino theater company on the panel. Latinos are the majority in LA, yet we are still invisible both in cinema and the theater, and this felt like another example.”

Lopez went on to say via email: “Garcés is a friend of mine, so this is no criticism of him, but if there is to be another panel on diversity, there needs to be gender equity and we need a representative of the Latino theater as a panelist, not just the moderator.”

And maybe one fine day in the not too distant future, we’ll have Latino, black, Asian, Apache, female, and LGBT Santas for Fox News to consider.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: