Artistic Freedom Vs. Artistic Responsibility Forum – Neutral is as Neutral Does

About a week ago, on Monday, August 19th, I attended a forum for theatre artists, other artists, and the community called the Forum for Artistic Freedom vs. Artistic Responsibility. There’s lots of good write-ups about the discussion, including:

Mikado, yellowface debate at Seattle Repertory Theatre forum

All the coverage of “Mikado, yellowface” in the news

Seattle’s Mikado Theater Outrage Turned Into Arts Opportunity

Some other articles involving racism in theatre, especially theatre in Seattle, prior to the outburst around Seattle Gilbert&Sullivan Society’s The Mikado:

A Paler Shade of Moor

My personal favorite, J. Reese’s “White Fragility” Blog Post

The Twitter hashtag #SeattleAFAR has all of our tweets from Monday’s event.

And, to Seattle’s credit, this forum has sparked more discussion events, and you can see several of them through the Office of Arts and Culture’s website, and Theatre Puget Sound will also host an event addressing Inclusion and Equality in the Arts in November (free to RSVP).

One point everyone makes about this event is Valerie Curtis-Newton’s parting call to action. We need to actually DO something about this topic, not just sit around and talk about it – and yes, I agree, we as a city are really good at sitting around and talking about our problems, without actually taking any action.

We talked about racism in theatre a lot during Director’s Lab West this year, so I’ve been questioning myself on my own assumptions for most of this year. I’ve been questioning the media around me most of the time for a few years anyway, with the predominant question being, “Why are main characters almost all white men?” I mean, when the story has something to do with a “female” topic like dating or getting married or having kids, then the main character is female probably half the time. Not always, as those topics also involve men. But, in stories that don’t inherently involve those topics to further the plot, then the main character is almost always white and male. Romance plots are nearly always about straight people – unless they’re gritty indie dramas that are making some political point. In US media – less so in  British TV and movies – there are almost never mixed race couples.

A non-white main character is not the norm.

Mike Storie, producer for the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society (and the target of much of the community’s wrath for his statements around the issue), came to the forum, despite being out of town for awhile and exhausted upon his return, and made a statement regarding the conversation, The Mikado controversy, and future potential productions of the show in Seattle. Most of us felt it was unsatisfying because, while he seemed to learn that presenting stereotypes of other cultures with a white dominant cast is bad, he didn’t seem to take it to heart, nor did he seem to understand that other races are people and it’s bad to stereotype them.

Mike Storie, as one might guess, is a white man. His main point was that, as a white man, he cannot get into the heads of people of other races to understand their points of view, and similarly, they could not do the same for him (although I’d think constant exposure to the white-dominant, patriarchal society gives most of us a leg up on that understanding). I’m sure he’s trying his hardest to understand the problem, but I think the way he spoke regarding the yellowface controversy reflects the larger cultural problem we have, in the United States, of seeing people of other races as average human beings. They’re not just there to portray the viewpoint of the African American community, or the Asian American community, or the Native American community – all of which are as culturally diverse as white dominant cultures, by the way.

It is imperative that we learn, as a nation, to see all races, genders, and sexualities not as political topics but as human. Unless there are very, very specific needs in the show – such as African American girls in “Milk Like Sugar,” or Cambodian(-American) actors for the Khmer characters in “Extraordinary Chambers” – then there is no reason, at all, that main characters should be a specific race.

But that often means those characters default to white, and as a director, I personally am sick of seeing that.

I asked Twitter if there were any shows in Seattle that had no white actors in the cast at all, and I got some good responses, but none of them were productions, for example, of Hamlet or Death of a Salesman. Why? If those stories speak to us as Americans, we should be able to use anyone in casting.

The panel also made mention, which the audience mostly seemed to agree with, that talking about race is hard. Maybe it’s because I’m part of the Sesame Street generation, but I think that’s utter bullshit. So I tweeted that race, sexuality, and gender ARE NOT hard topics. Perhaps concerns about offending the other person make that difficult, and that becomes a wall.

But here’s why potentially offending someone hurts: we, as the potential offender, don’t want to own up to our own shit. We don’t want to say something possibly offensive and have someone call us on it, because that would hurt our little feelings too much. That, by the way, is privileged crap. Say it, but when someone says, “Hey, I’m offended,” here’s some easy steps to follow:

  1. Say you’re sorry. We all learned this in kindergarten, you guys.
  2. Ask them what was offensive.
  3. Listen to their answer

That’s pretty easy, but emotionally it’s hard work. We’re told that we should never be wrong, and so we tip-toe around being potentially wrong all the damn time and it’s stupid. That tip-toeing is what makes us more wrong than anything else.

I’m not saying I’m not racist. I’m saying that I try to employ these steps to my life as much as possible, and I fail spectacularly most of the time. The only thing I’ve learned from discussions about race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc etc etc is that there is so much out there that I don’t know, and to make more interesting art, to live a more fulfilling, less fear-filled life, I need to listen.

If we can just present non-white, non-male, non-cisgendered, non-straight (and yes, narrow) people as the norm, alongside white cisgendered straight men, then that will go a long way. Seattle is a white dominant city, and economically white people tend to have more spending power and more interest in “niche” art forms like theatre because they’re expensive and show-off-y, so there is an argument for presenting white-dominant casts as a reflection of the audience, but I don’t find that argument valid and I think the practice needs to stop.

I’m writing this from Alaska, where I’m visiting family, which includes a 1 1/2 year old and a 4-month-old. The older girl watches a lot of Elmo, which means I’ve been subjected to a lot of Elmo. I noticed, though, that kids shows actually put in an effort to have a diverse cast – African American babies, Asian American toddlers, parents of all colors and sizes (though still cis-gendered and straight, so there’s that). But at some point in our lives, that type of forced inclusivity in TV and movies stops – I guess because there’s no financial pressure there, so we can suddenly go back to presenting a Euro-centric ideal of the world.

I call bullshit.

Another argument that gets brought up a lot – it was brought up at DLW, and it was brought up in an op-ed by Mike Storie, and it was side-mentioned at AFAR – is what I call the argument of resources. It goes something like this: “We had an audition, and we totally would have done color-blind casting/cast the best person for the role, regardless of race/cast an Asian American in these Japanese roles, but we didn’t get anyone good enough so we cast white people.”

This argument completely overlooks how intimidating and disappointing casting sessions can be, because the “actor of color” goes in and probably KNOWS that they won’t be seen as the best actor for the role because of the casting director’s expectations.

So as those responsible for casting, we need to 1) work on the assumption that the best person maybe won’t be white because maybe that’s not necessary, and 2) if you actually want a diverse cast, you may have to go do the legwork yourself, ie train actors, ask multiple sources for actors (not just Valerie Curtis-Newton, although she’s awesome), and hold multiple auditions that are advertised in multiple locations.

The argument for resources is invalid – it is a way only to validate our racial laziness, and I don’t accept that.

So basically, we white people should just shut up and do the hard work that we’ve asked other racial and ethnic and cultural groups to do. We need to show up, listen carefully, and expand our expectations. We need to question our assumptions. We need to go into movies or our Netflix account and wonder not if the story needs another token black cast member, or if it barely passes the Bechdel Test, but instead we need to ask if the plot line in front of us inherently requires this presentation, or if the main character is supposed to be “neutral” – if “neutral,” what does “neutral” around us actually look like in the real world, and how is it presented in media? Most importantly, what can we do to make “neutral” a broader, more inclusive, and therefore more interesting, term?

These questions were only scratched, but I hold hope that Seattle listened. I, for one, will make a point of extending the reach of my casting when the main character is “neutral.” We white people need to see someone other than white people in our media, and we need for that not to be a huge political coup.

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