Written by Josh Orlando
Theatre is about telling human stories. It investigates what it means to have a human experience, it’s about who we are in relation to one another. In theatre, we “hold the mirror up” (Hamlet 3:2, 17) to society and we discuss one of the most human experiences of all, identity. Theatre has always been about representing human identity through performance. Every character from every play ever written represents the identity of someone else. And I think this is precisely what keeps theatre in fashion. I think that people crave desperately to see themselves reflected in the narratives on stage. Perhaps to feel special, or maybe to feel less alone? We learn the importance of representation in theatre when we finally see it. When we see ourself in a character on stage, we feel legitimized and relevant, we access normalcy. This is because we are able to identify with what has been represented. This character instill us with possibility, they reverberate our reality. And that feels great!
Can you remember the last character from a play that you were able to deeply identify with? If not, you’re not alone. People of lots of different identities have discussed feeling underrepresented recently. The representation that we see art, entertainment, and media, directly impacts our larger psychological sense of self. Over the years people have learned to become deeply critical of the mainstream narratives that the public is taught to consume as normative. Whose stories are worthy of being told? Who gets to tell them? And what happens when they are not told accurately? The identities that we see represented in theatre have major political impact on the world.
Theatre has profound responsibility as a story-telling platform. And representation matters deeply in a highly politicized world. You will notice that the individuals whose stories are underrepresented in theatre are those whose identities have been marginalized from society. In fact throughout theatre history, there is a major lack of representation with almost every minority group. The blatant truth is that people of color, LGBTQ+ actors, actors with disabilities, and/or of plus size, were not seen in lead roles on stage until very recently. The lack of representation of these identities in theatre perpetuates a stigmatized and stereotypical viewpoint of them in the real world. People fear what they don’t understand and they don’t understand what they are not exposed to. This is why accurately representing identity in theatre is imperative. It will impact everyone whom it reaches.