Diversity in Departments: Performing arts attempts to improve casting

by Nathanael King / Beacon Staff • March 2, 2016

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Melia Bensussen, chair of the performing arts department.
Melia Bensussen, chair of the performing arts department.

Emerson says it’s working toward creating a more inclusive environment, and each department has set goals to improve their curricula. Each week, the Beacon will feature the plans for an academic department. Previous installments include writing, literature, and publishing, visual and media arts, journalism, marketing communication, and communication studies.

The performing arts department is using its casting policies and production choices to improve diversity, according to Melia Bensussen, professor and chair.

Bensussen said that she holds monthly forums with the department. Last December’s assembly to hear comments on casting in the context of race and gender had more than 100 faculty and students in attendance, she said.

According to Bensussen, the department is working with admissions to improve pathways programs where students at both junior and community colleges are able to take a course at Emerson. She said she hopes that some of these students will eventually transfer to the college as juniors. Bensussen said it was a way to reach them in different kinds of communities.

The department also aims to include diversity statements in all syllabi and revise its casting statement.

“There’s no such thing as color-blind casting,” Bensussen said.

Bensussen said that due to personal biases, any sort of “blind” casting—overlooking an actor’s racial identity—is impossible and unrealistic. Bensussen said that because most plays are not specifically about issues of race or other demographics, their performers should rarely be limited by these qualities.

“We need to produce the plays that are classics of the canon, and show how production can change and wrestle with an established text,” Bensussen said. “We also need a stage for new voices.”

Sarah Hickler, an associate professor and head of acting, had a different opinion. She said color-blind casting is the reality in the professional theater industry, and that students should expect this when they leave the college.

“A lot of the students are thinking in a way that I think is a little antiquated,” Hickler said.  “There was certain a time in our theater history where actors of color were definitely delegated to the role of the maid or the I don’t know what … but times have changed.”

Andrew Sianez-De La O, a junior performing arts major and student of color, said he felt he had no chance to be in an Emerson Stage production of Dancing at Lughnasa in 2014 because it’s traditionally an all-white play.

“I think that what we should be working toward is not just creating diversity but harboring it,”  Sianez-De La O said. “It’s an ugly feeling to look at all these [acting] opportunities and be like, ‘There’s no possible way I can be in this because of my skin color.’”

Sianez-De La O said he thinks color-blind casting is ignoring the problem. He said the fact that so many young people share his frustration shows that biases based on race and ethnicity are still present. People of color still face significant barriers in casting, he said, and the backlash theater companies face over nontraditional forms is evidence of this.

“I just think you shouldn’t ignore a person’s background, because that alone can [add value],” Sianez-De La O said.

Bensussen said that the department was a work in progress.

“I think it’s a daily challenge to view the world anew and to view literature anew,” Bensussen said. “I think we all fall into the trap of habitual behavior.”