#5 – It’s the Most Traditional Thing You Can Do – On Diverse and Inclusive Casting

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[00:00:00] Christine Toy Johnson: Welcome back to The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK. I'm your host, Christine Toy Johnson, actor, playwright, and advocate for inclusion. This season, TALKBACK focuses on how the theater industry succeeds and fails when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our guests are all theater professionals working across North America. We recorded our conversations over summer 2019.

The Dramatists Guild of America hosts these conversations. In line with the mission of the Guild, everyone comes to our table with their own opinion and perspective and is free to express it. Whether you've been on Broadway or you've yet to see your first show, we're glad you're with us.

I'm here today talking with the amazing playwright Kristoffer Diaz about diverse and inclusive casting. Thank you so much for being here today.

[00:00:48] Kristoffer Diaz: Oh, it's my pleasure.

[00:00:49] CTJ: So I wanted to talk to you about all kinds of things, um, including your insight into the, a current project that you're working on, Hercules, and, uh, how diverse and inclusive casting has come into play in that project.

[00:01:05] KD: Yeah. You know, Hercules is a really specific thing, and as it relates to sort of this question, it's, it's, you know, it'll be an interesting, I guess, case study, um, but it's a very particular set. So the, the original concept for this particular production falls under the auspices of The Public Theater’s Public Works program, created by Lear deBessonet, and basically we, um, bring in folks from all over New York City, just regular folks from all over New York City: community members, uh, who are, um, uh, in each of the five boroughs and who work with community groups—sometimes related around performance, sometimes relate around other, uh, sort of, you know, identifying characteristics—and, uh, they work with Public Works throughout the year and then come in for this final massive, um, production where they perform alongside professional actors, Broadway actors, Equity actors. In this case, we've got Jelani Alladin and Krysta Rodriguez and Roger Bart—who was the original voice of Hercules in the Disney movie, and now is coming back playing another role, playing Hades, it's its own full circle casting conversation, which is not under the purview of what we're talking about right now, but it is super fun, too. Um, so, uh, there's a certain amount of diversity baked into the pie already, right?

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

KD: Through, y’know, when you're dealing with folks from throughout New York City and throughout the five boroughs and dealing with these groups that we're dealing with, we've already got true diversity, you know? And diversity in a bunch of different kinds of ways: we've got racial diversity, ethnic diversity, religious diversity, I'm sure—although I don't think that's a question that's sort of fundamentally asked as part of all of this—we have age diversity. I think, uh, as, as we record this, that our, our cast, our youngest cast member is gonna be five years old. Our oldest cast member’s probably gonna be somewhere in their seventies or eighties. Um, so, uh, again, it's really baked into kind of what Lear and company, um, have taken on, and it's really in the spirit of Joe Papp, um, you know, who, who wanted to see a theater that reflected what New York City looks like. And that to me is, you know, that's one of the best reasons to make theater.

[00:03:05] CTJ: Right, of course. Yes that, that sounds fantastic. Was there any conversation ever, um, where it was discussed that, that there had to be some kind of intentional inclusion? Or, or has it been something just accepted, like you say, “baked in?”

[00:03:23] KD: Yeah. So we, so, two parts: so, so we sort of talked about the macro, which is, you know, the 120 community-based cast members who are gonna be part of this or a, as of this recording going to be part of this—I guess when folks hear this, it will, it will have already happened and be a, been a great success, I'm sure. Um, I just jinxed myself.

CTJ: [laughing]

KD: This is the worst thing to do—but, uh, but we did cast eight roles with Equity performers, in addition to being joined by Broadway Inspirational Voices chorus, which has, again, also has its own sort of amount of diversity baked in. So, when we sat out to do the principals, Lear was very clear with me from the very first conversation that we had, and she said, one of the things that we wanted to do was think about Hercules as an African American man. It was built into kind of, uh, the, the concept that we were dealing with, which was, um, a, a young guy who is big and strong and powerful, but feels awkward and clumsy and uncertain of himself, feels like he doesn't belong in the world that he finds himself in. He doesn't know that he is ostensibly adopted. It happens to be that he's the child of the gods and is adopted by earth parents…

CTJ: Mmm.

KD: …mortal parents, but dealing with this sense of what does it mean to be out at, to feel out of place and to be, sometimes to feel out of place, not just because you feel small and awkward and unsafe, but to, also to feel out of place because you're, you're, you know, maybe too large: maybe people are afraid of you, maybe people, you know, think that you're gonna, gonna, gonna cause some kind of harm. So, that was a big part of what Lear wanted to bring into this from the beginning.

The other thing that we knew for sure, uh, was that the music of Hercules, um, which is, you know, it, it's beloved in a, in a very particular way for Disney films. You know, some of the songs that, that are known from the original, which are sung by this group of the Muses, are iconic, uh, and they’re, they’re gospel songs, and, uh, you know—including the song “Zero to Hero”, which is just this raucous gospel song, which to me is like one of the greatest numbers in musical theater history, even though it's never really been on stage before—and it's got these big, beautiful gospel voices. And in the original film, the, uh, animated versions of those muses really celebrate diversity of body and diversity of body type and, you know, physicality. So, so that was something that we wanted to deal with as well. You know, we knew that we were gonna have a certain amount of, uh, of an African American cultural presence in this based on what the music demanded. Um, and then the other, the only other thing that I'll sort of throw in that is, for me, you know, we have the character of Meg who is this, you know, strong, confident—she's not a Disney Princess. She's an iconic Disney character, but she's not a princess, she is a working-class spitfire. And to me, you know, from the very beginning, I was like, “I know this woman. Uh, it might be my aunt, it might be my mother, it might be Rosie Perez. I know the like, 5-foot-tall Latina woman who's gonna come in here and put Hades in his place, because she knows the way that it really needs to be.” And, um, it was never a mandate. We've done it in, in workshops where we've had Latina, Latinx performers, we've had Asian performers, we've seen it and heard it in a bunch of different ways. But again, we sort of knew that there were specific voices, specific folks that we were thinking about advocating for in a bunch of these roles.

[00:06:37] CTJ: Wonderful. I, what I love about hearing about this project is that you are really moving from people feeling like they're included to people feeling like they belong, and I think that's such a powerful place to be. So, by the time this does air, you'll know the answer to this more then.

KD: Yeah.

CTJ: It seems like you have…

KD: Let’s speculate.

CTJ: …you're, you're all taking this great opportunity to tell the story of Hercules in a, in a really powerful, um, way that will embrace a lot of different people, and I just wonder what you hope people will come away from it, uh, thinking and feeling.

[00:07:19] KD: You hope it's a good show.

CTJ: Yeah.

KD: You know…

CTJ: Right.

KD: Like it's, I mean, I think it's one of the most important things that, about Public Works, about the program that Lear has put together, which is that she's doing a show with a massive cast of folks from, you know, various communities throughout New York City. It's a community theater show, but without any of, you know, the, the idea that, that means it's gonna be lesser in any way than a, a night of professional theater. You know, we have these performers working year-round in various capacities to come in and understand the mission of what this theater company does, and they've been working with us for a long time to pull this particular piece together, and it's, you know, they're gonna be singing songs written by Alan Menken, who wrote every important…

CTJ: Right!

KD: …cartoon song of our lifetime!

[both laughing]

KD: You know, um, uh, and David Zippel wrote the, the lyrics for, and, and you know, and they're gonna be performing with Roger Bart and James Iglehart…

CTJ: Right

KD: …and Krysta Rodriguez!

CTJ: Wonderful!

KD: You know, so it's this amazing, amazing thing that's happening, and I think that's the primary thing we want to take away from it. The other, you know, sort of like, if there's a quote-unquote moral of the show, you know, we're thinking about what it means to be strong. We're thinking about the fact that even, you know, somebody like Hercules who is the stronge—, you know, at least in our version, and carries this immense physical strength that no one else has ever seen, really becomes strongest when he's sacrificing for others, and when he's working together with a community. So, you know, if there is, it's this like, dual thing of, of we're not necessarily working towards diversity and inclusion in a conscious way upfront, but the stories that we're telling I think are really particularly geared towards, towards a similar kind of message in practice, if not in words. We’re hoping that folks sort of come to-, and, and, and I, it's funny—I'm supposed to keep this to four minutes, I will keep it to four minutes—I'm teaching a class, uh, in September about the contemporary Broadway musical and my, my thesis that I've just stumbled on in the last week is that over the last maybe 25 years, maybe since Rent—um, I'm, I'm biased to talking about Rent—but that the idea of a, the central sort of idea of the musical, which may be used to be like “a couple falls in love,” and romance is at the core…

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

KD: …tends to be more about this sense of community, right?

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

[00:09:36] KD: I think about, “you are not alone.” I think about it. I mean, you're doing Come From Away, right?

CTJ: Right.

KD: Like, like all these musicals that resonate, and, and we'll talk to Rachel in a little bit, in Hadestown, like, it's so much about the group of people around us, and I think that's, you know, we're, we're trying to, uh, carry that banner really, you know, as high, uh, and proud as we possibly can.

[00:09:55] CTJ: I want to ask you about another play of yours, [The Elaborate Entrance of] Chad Deity, where you specifically address representation inclusion through the lens of wrestling. What, what brought you to write on this subject, more directly as opposed to through the casting?

[00:10:10] KD: I was like, unsure if the theater thing was gonna work out for me when Chad Deity came around and, and I was taking on, you know, the idea that I'm not entirely sure I still hold onto in the same way now, but the idea that, you know, as a, as a young—at that time, you know, maybe 30 years old—Puerto Rican playwright, that folks just weren't gonna sort of understand what I was doing in the theater. And, you know, ironically Chad Deity is play that sort of disproved that at the same time of trying to like live in that. Folks, a lot of folks got it, and not just folks who shared identity characteristics with me. But, so I really wanted to get to this idea of feeling like, um, you know, because I was a person of color, a minority, all the different terms that, you know, throughout the years we've gone through all th-, all of these different terms…

CTJ: Right.

KD: …in terms of defining our identities, but because I found myself in a place where I, you know, existed maybe outside of, uh, the characteristics of, of folks who I saw in the rooms where these decisions were made, I wanted to write about that. You know, I've worked in a few theater companies and I, I saw sort of the inner workings of things and, you know, uh, partially because I was young and thought that I knew better than everyone else, and partially because there was some validity, I think, to this? I felt like people were making bad business decisions based on preconceived notions of what audiences were gonna connect to, and things like that.

CTJ: Mmm. Mmm-hmm.

KD: So, I wanted to get in there and grapple with it. I had had, at the time, some experiences with artistic directors who said crazy things to me, um, you know about race and ethnicity and things. Not, not racist things, but just…weird, dumb things.

CTJ: Yeah.

KD: Um, maybe racist things, you know what I mean? Who knows? Like, sometimes that line is messy.

CTJ: Right.

KD: So I wanted to deal with it, and I kind of felt like I was, this was gonna be my thing, I was gonna sort of like, attack it, attack it full on. If it worked, it worked, great. If it didn't work, like, go figure something else out to do.

CTJ: Do you feel like people then developed certain expectations of what you would be writing about from then on?

KD: Yeah, I think so. I mean I, I don't know if people did. I know that I ran from them.

CTJ: Mmm.

KD: I know that like, the plays that I wrote afterwards were consciously not specific about race and ethnicity…

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

KD: …a lot of times. I wanted to do shows where, you know, actors, performers of all different, uh, races and genders could come in and do this work and a theater company could take a play. You know, Chad Deity, um, is a very specific thing and, you know, as we deal with, you know, the casting of that show has to exist the way that it's defined.

CTJ: Right.

KD: Otherwise it changes the, the, the entirety of the show.

CTJ: Right.

KD: Um, although, you know, one of the things, that, that we've talked about that I'm trying to get off the ground or, or hoping that someone in the ether will do is a, is a, an all-female or, or female-identifying cast, um, with the same ethnicities involved, but sort of, you know, figuring out what, what, what kind of commentary does that make on masculinity? That's the sidebar to what we're talking about.

CTJ: Fascinating, yeah. Yeah.

KD: But, but, you know, I definitely, I was more of the idea of like, okay, I did this very specific thing and now I want to be able to write something that has a more broad space and that, you know, we've done the show 40-something times right now. We've probably had 25-30 different young Latin men play Mace from that show, and every single one of them who's ever done it has like, been nominated for awards…

CTJ: Wow.

KD: …and like, you know, done all this, almost ever, almost every single actor who's played that has been nominated for some kind of, you know, award. And I wanna be able to, for them to go into the next show and not just be able to do the next Puerto Rican show. Like I want to be able to meet them to be able to do a bunch of other, of other stuff. So, I think I ran from it a little bit, um, and I don't know if that, you know, helped, hurt, whatever, uh, career-wise, but, but I think there is definitely an expectation when you write something like that, that that's always gonna be what you write.

CTJ: Right.

KD: And it's not necessarily for me.

CTJ: When you talk about writing characters who could be played by actors of many different cultural backgrounds or experiences, do you find that you need to write that into the character descriptions? How would you navigate that as a playwright?

KD: Yeah, it's tough. You know, I, I think I haven't had enough success with multiple productions of those plays yet to sort of know how people react to it? You know, those first productions that you're in, when you're premiering something, it's less about like what you write and what kind of conversations you have with somebody. So, you know, I'm doing a show with InterAct in Philadelphia and Seth Rozin is the…

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

KD: …the artistic director there, and he produced in one of the early productions of Chad Deity, and he supported, um, my next play, uh, or one of my next plays—called #therevolution, which is an all-female cast—and you know, when we talked about it and I was like, look, like, I'm not sure what the ethnicities of this are. I know that they're prob-, the ethnicities of these characters are, I know they're probably complicated and messy and it's probably not all, you know, women in the show. And I think that every combination makes changes to it, and I want us to figure out like, who the best performers are, you know, based on what the roles are and not necessarily, you know, and then deal with the sort of fallout of what the story means to have this character played by an African American woman, this character played by a white queer woman. Like, you, you still grapple with that at a certain point. Um, but you don't necessarily, I, I haven't had to write it in as much yet. I think when you get those plays that are really, you know, sort of licensed and, and widely, um, going into those multiple productions, then it's really important to figure out what you're, what you're looking for.

CTJ: I think that's so interesting, that case that you just talked about at InterAct, because I, I wanted to ask if there had been a situation where you'd been surprised by mixing up the casting to be something that you hadn't originally imagined.

KD: Yeah. You know, we developed a show in Chicago that ultimately did not go very well, in terms of reception: it was called The Upstairs Concierge and, and the Goodman Theatre had been really wonderful about supporting us, and we worked on it for three years…I say “we” because it was a real ensemble piece. We developed it with Teatro Vista, who's, who's sort of one of my, my home, um, companies back in Chicago—they helped bring Chad Deity to light—and um, we worked on it with a bunch of actors. The cast happened at that point to be largely Latin. I struggle with “Latinx” just because for a long time in my life it was like, “Hispanic” and then it became “Latino”…

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

KD: …and then I got really comfortable with “Latino” and now-, so as I stumble all over this, like, I'm grappling with all of my…

[both laughing]

KD: …with all of it. There's a lot…

CTJ: No, I think we all are! I think we all are.

KD: …there's many years that, yeah, there’s many years that go into, into my, my definitions, I'm trying to be as precise as possible. But, but the Teatro Vista, which has always been known as, you know, Chicago's sort of preeminent Latino theater, we worked on it together, and it's not a show that has anything to do with specific ethnicity. It was originally called Rebecca Oaxaca Lays Down a Bunt, it was about a baseball player.

CTJ: Mmm.

KD: Um, but it wasn't, had, it didn't really have anything to do with race, ethnicity. And then we did it in a couple workshops, we went to final production, the final production ended up being super, super, super diverse, um, to the point-, one of the characters was written as a man, this actor, uh, named Theo Allen, who's a female actor, came in to audition for a different role and we loved her, and we had somebody else playing the role that she auditioned for. And so we brought her in and we had her play this role who was a, a man and just had her play it straight-forward. In retrospect, it's probably, we should've thought about even, you know, the specifics of that more? And what does it mean? And, and, you know, get the audience-, the audience I think was kind of, um…wondering what we were saying…

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

KD: …with that choice? And we weren't saying anything, we were trying to be silly all the way-, every, every choice we made in that show we were trying to be silly. And we weren't trying to be silly by making the man a woman, we were just, we've cast the best performer for that role. And Theo nailed it, Theo rocked it. So, you know, at, some of the stuff that happens-, look, I, I like, I mean, it's gonna be interesting to have a larger conversation about this, too, but I have, at least in the point in my career where I am, fall on the side of advocating for specific performers.

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

KD: Like I'm less interested in saying like, “we need to get this ethnicity here because we don't have it,” or, “we need to get this here because you know, we're missing it,” then I am in taking those lacks into my mind as we have these conversations and really, you know, working for specific performers who are gonna, you know, be able to shine and be able to sort of like, knock it out of the park.

CTJ: Right. Well, I figured also…

KD: You know, I will say…

CTJ: Sorry.

KD: Yeah, go ahead.

CTJ: No, I was just going to say, I, I think it also speaks to how open you are to the difference in performers. So, you know, the, you're…

KD: Yeah.

CTJ: …you're open to envisioning different voices that look different ways, speak your words, and tell your stories. And that's a deeper, more profound thing that I think…

KD: Yeah.

CTJ: …is at the core. And what I think is really so important is to make sure our storytelling has a wider impact.

KD: Yeah, I mean, that's good to hear. I mean, and it is true in certain cases, right? I mean, like, you know, Chad Deity is a very particular thing and you can't do th-, and we've had people ask like, “can we do this show? We want to do it at a college, but we don't have an Indian or Pakistani American performer to play VP. We do have, we have a Japanese American performer. Like, is that cool?” And I'm like, “no, that's not cool.”

CTJ: Right. Well, there are specific…

KD: ‘cause it’s a different show.

CTJ: Right? You have specific…

KD: It’s a different show.

CTJ: …instances…

KD: Yeah.

CTJ: …where it is important what, that someone is specifically a, of a certain background, sure.

KD: Yeah. Yeah. You know, so it definitely, you know, changes case-by-case. And you know, we did-, I did another show years ago called Welcome to Arroyo’s and did a few productions of it, and the, one of the lead characters is a Puerto Rican, young Puerto Rican woman, and I don't think in a-, at a production I've been involved with, I don't think she's ever been played by a Puerto Rican woman.

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

KD: She's been played, a couple of times, and the two productions that come to mind off the top of my head, we had her played by two different Iranian actresses, actresses of Iranian descent.

CTJ: Huh.

KD: I'm not sure if I would do that now?

CTJ: Uh-huh.

KD: One of them happens to be one of my favorite actors, and favorite people in the world—Tala Ashe—who, if she listens to this, will, will, will get a kick out of me saying that she's one of my favorite people, ‘cause I always gave her such a hard time.

CTJ: [laughs]

KD: Um, but um, you know, I'm not sure that I would do that again? Because it, I mean, I think the world has changed, I think my positioning on it maybe has changed, and there's a lot of great performers of Latin descent who would, would, would nail it. But at the time, she was the one, you know, and, and also, uh, the different productions that we've done, you know, we've gone for the, exactly the right performer—the person who we thought was the best performer. And they've always, they've always nailed it. Um, so I think it's tricky and it's complicated and I do think it evolves. My thinking on it has evolved a bunch of times, and I'm sure it will evolve, you know, a million times more.

CTJ: Thank you so much Kristoffer, for sharing your story with us. After the break, we'll be joined by Lynne Marie Rosenberg, Chisa Hutchinson, and Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin. We'll be right back.

[00:21:31] CTJ: Welcome back. Today's conversation on casting stretches from the Windy City to the Big Apple. I'm in Chicago, and I'll let our New York City panelists introduce themselves.

KD: Hi, this is Kristoffer Diaz. I am a playwright, sometimes television writer, and I teach at New York University.

Chisa Hutchinson: I'm Chisa Hutchinson. I am a playwright/screenwriter, and I'm not particularly good at anything else, so no more slashes, that's it.

Rachel Chavkin: I'm Rachel Chavkin. I am primarily a director, uh, occasional writer, uh, and artistic director of a company called The TEAM, and I live in New York.

Lynne Marie Rosenberg: I'm Lynn Marie Rosenberg. I'm an actor, writer, producer, and the host of a show on ALL ARTS called Famous Cast Words that looks at casting problems to, uh, talk about representation and, and inclusion issues in the media.

CTJ: Thank you so much. We are here to talk about diverse and inclusive casting. You know, I, I often say to people, “why are we still needing to discuss…

[all laughing]

CTJ: …why it's so valuable to have diverse and inclusive casting?” So let's start with that. Let's just start with Rachel. Thank you so much for what you have said and brought to light, uh, with your, your new Tony award, and, um, I would love to hear how you respond to that.

RC:: Recently engraved.

CTJ: Yeah.

[all laughing]

RC:: Um, why is it import-, I mean…there's so many different levels to that, I guess—and I'm saying this, I didn't say this is part of my introduction, but as a, a white woman, uh, and raised on the East Coast—first and foremost, the people who are in the room are gonna embed their DNA in some form on the work that is being produced. Obviously that kind of starts with the writer in terms of the initial major thumbprint, but all voices hopefully are gonna end up in the product that is on stage, whether that's a commercially-developed musical or um, a downtown-developed solo performance or anything in between. So, um, if there is a, a lack of variety, it's boring.

And I think it's very important that we talk about it. Y-, certainly from a value standpoint I think that's relevant, but I think it's also equally important to talk about it from an artistic integrity standpoint, and that the integrity of the work is profoundly diminished if there aren't a wide variety of voices, uh, and so thinking about racial diversity, age diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, economic diversity being some of them. If you don't have a wide pool of voices weighing in on the work that's being developed, then the work is just gonna be more boring. And so fundamentally, if as artists, our job is to make, you know, work that is specific to us and then radically compelling to, you know, as many different parts of us that you might find in the audience as possible, uh, I think that diversity is important on that front.

CTJ: Thank you. Thank you, good night! No, I…

[all laughing]

CTJ: …I mean, I wasn't, I wasn't trying to really be that glib ‘cause how, obviously I feel that it's really important to talk about it. My question is always, it gets exhausting to have to keep explaining why we feel the way we do. But thank you for articulating that so beautifully. Uh, Chisa.

CH: Yeah! Diversity! [laughs] In theater! Um…I think seeing yourself in a piece of art, um, especially on stage because it's so, uh, representational, can be incredibly validating and, umm…reinforcing in, in ways that…that, that are lacking in other sort of aspects of life, really. So, when someone who's part of a population that is otherwise overlooked – you know, just ignored or, or dismissed – uh, sees, sees someone who looks like them on stage, it says to them like, “hey, we see you, you exist, you belong, you belong here in the world.” And I think that's incredibly important, again, for people who, who don't get that kind of messaging anywhere else.

I think that there are entire populations of people in this country who, because they don't get that message a lot, uh, don't really feel like they have anything to contribute? Don't really feel like, um, like they should even give a shit about society because society doesn't give a shit about them. So, I think it's our job as artists, um, to make sure that, that they get the message that actually, “no, you do matter, your life does matter.” And theater is a, is a nice shortcut for that. So, yeah, let's get some, let's get some underrepresented folks on the stage please…

CTJ: Thank you

CH: …and, and get them feeling like they can, um, that like, they're free to give a shit about society. That'd be great.

CTJ: Yeah.

CH: Yeah. yeah.

CTJ: And I think that so many times when we aren't being represented, uh, I've certainly heard this, that we're blamed for not existing, which is the other side of exactly what you just said, Chisa: about not feeling like we count or we matter enough to be seen or heard.

CH: Yeah.

CTJ: Lynne, do you have anything you'd like to add to this?

LMR: Yeah, I mean I,I have like this incredibly lofty belief that the entertainment industry in general—and that includes theater, film, and television—has the single greatest chance to do the most good in the world, and currently is doing some of the most harm. And I think it's through ubiquity, you know, it's just that we're everywhere, we’re the, the content that you're digesting constantly. Something that I saw on your website, Christine, is you were talking about realizing that there was an embedding of, of not seeing yourself represented.

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

LMR: That when you're creating your own content, then you start to not even think of yourself in a protagonist position if you're from an underrepresented community. Um, and although I'm a white woman, you know, I'm thicker than a lot of the skinny women who wind up in theater, and so I always saw myself as a supporting character. You know, you just, you, that's the way you come into the industry. “Well, you're not gonna play…the protagonist, you're gonna play second fiddle, or the comedic side arm.” And so the more that you see that, and the more that gets re-ingrained, the harder it gets to break out of that from a really sort of indoctrinated semiotics that we're getting used to seeing over and over again. So, and I think, Kris, something you said in your opener, was that it's bad business! Like we actually see this over and over again that when you do represent well, when you do put the people whose story it's about in the roles, the money's better and like, like forget the humanity of it…

CH: [laughing]

LMR: …forget the morality of it, that you should be doing this just ‘cause this is the world. Like if you look at Hidden Figures, if you look at Black Panther, if you look at Crazy Rich Asians, like, these things are making more money. And so the fact that we still keep having to fight for it suggests to me a much more deeper insidious, um, racism and bigotry than just like, “oh, well, we're not gonna make money that way.”

CH: And the fact that you just mentioned three films…

LMR: Well, right…

CH: …and, and not plays.

LMR: Well, and I will say right now, I think TV is doing much better than film and theater when it comes to representation. It's still majorly struggling, but I think it's…it, for some reason the digital platform seems to have broken open a storytelling module, so you can have shows like GLOW, you can have shows like Special, you can have shows like High Maintenance where people in a more fully, um, a broader pool can be viewed as human, and that you get to see yourself as human. It's like you were saying, Chisa, “you exist, I validate that you exist in the world.”

CTJ: I just want to clarify one thing that you said about what you saw on my website, that I, when, as a writer, I do write Asian Americans as protagonists all the time, but maybe,

LMR: Oh, yeah!

CTJ: Perhaps maybe what, what you were speaking about was when, uh, as an actor, I often am cast as a supporting person, and that, and that gets really deep into your psyche, um, sending you the messages that y-, that you get. And I just want to clarify that.

LMR: Yes, thank you for clarifying. That's exactly what I meant.

CTJ: Thank you. Kris, do you want to add to this, um, this thread?

KD: Yeah. I mean, having that part of the conversation of the like, why are we having this conversation since I got into the theater…

CTJ: Right.

KD: …20 years ago…

CTJ: Right.

KD: …with the people who had been having the same conversation…

CTJ: Exactly.

KD: …for 30 years. So, like, I get it and I get, and every new generation that comes up, they're like, “well, why, why didn't you guys solve this?” And we’re like, “we've been trying to solve it.” In some ways it's gotten a lot better than it was before. I mean, I will say, you know, when I look at like, New Dramatists where, where Chisa and I are, are, uh, well, I'm not anymore, um, resident playw—I'm very sad about it—resident playwrights, or you look at the not-for-profit, uh, playwriting world. Like, pretty nice.

There's a good mix of faces and they're, the folks who are doing really exciting stuff is good and better than it was 20 years ago, and not as good as it needs to be. But there's, there's a lot of sort of stuff happening. So I, I may be a little less pessimistic in some ways. But I, but to answer the question: I'm a Puerto Rican kid who doesn't speak Spanish, I grew up my best friends were, their last names were Weissman, Weisberg, and, and, and Budman. We watched Eddie Murphy movies and listened to hip-hop together. My kids are half-Filipino, like, my best friends in college is a Israeli immigrant, basically, like this is the world that I know, like I could keep going. This is the world that I know. I, I just, I like my, you know, like my story is not gonna be like…my abuelita on the couch, like, making me café con-, like, like, that, I didn't have that experience. My grandmother watched the Yankee game and like, cursed at us. Like, that's what she did. And she was wonderful. But like, it wasn't any of that, it wasn't any of the traditional stuff, and like, if that's not my-, and then my life is just like a bunch of different people. So like, that's what I want to see, and I, you know, we, I think we should, we should be able, if that's what a person creates, that's what a person should create. But like I, I think about like, Reggie Watts: if you asked Reggie Watts to sit down and like write his, like “diverse show” like, he would laugh at you probably, first of all, but he does magic by just being everything, and like, make the thing that you need to make.

CTJ: It sounds like you're saying the word “diverse” gets used as a catch all, or a code. Say a little more about that.

KD: To me, it's so tricky, you know, we get into that ide-, there's the idea sometimes that like [heavy sigh] when we say, when people say we need to diversify something, it's like, we're gonna bring in like one group of ethnicities, we're going to make Black Panther. And it's like, well, that's not necessarily, like, you're, you're helping to diversify the Avengers to some extent, but what becomes the diverse is this group of folks and this multiplicity. And that, to me, because of my life experience is like, like, I believe in the multiplicity and like I, I'm, I'm looking for that and I think that's what everybody's saying to some extent, and it is like, in this conversation does become about race and ethnicity, but it's about so many different things.

CTJ: Of course.

KD: What we talked about in the Hercules conversation, like, about age and you talk, you know, then we can go deep down that road. But to me, I think it goes back to what Rachel was saying right at the beginning: it's like, it's just more interesting, and it's just more like the world that I experience. I mean, I think it was George Wolf who, you know, used to say he wanted the public theaters audience to look like in New York City subway stop.

CTJ: Mmm.

KD: And I'm just like, yeah, of course!

CTJ: Yeah.

KD: Like, that's what I want the world to look like! [laughs] Not everybody does, but that's what I want the world to look like.

LMR: But I think also your room, when you're making theater, your room has to look like a New York City subway stop. And I think that's something that you've [Rachel] been so great at, especially with The TEAM and also with Hadestown and with Natasha and Pierre, is that you just have to decide that your room is going to look like that. You just have to decide in your casting practice, “this is what we're going to have.” You have to make the decision. It has to be really intentional, I think.

RC:: I think so. And it's being intentional about what excellence means.

LMR: Yeah.

KD: Yeah, can you keep going? Cause that’s awesome…

[all laughing]

KD: …yeah I want to talk about that.

RC:: Well it's just like, you know, again, I'm, I'm very, I’m, I'm passionate about talking about it from a place of excellence because, because too often it can get pinned as “values versus racial diversity” or a, you know, again, whatever type of diversity we're talking about, and it's just a really false and deeply harmful binary.

CTJ: Hmm.

RC:: And so when you begin to say, okay, so excellence is going to be…the vibrancy of, uh, uh, streams of life, I think that's like, uh, some philosopher, uh, this all these different modes of being in the space together, which for Comet was a huge thing that we talked about, you know, and that, that had to reflect Tolstoy. Um, because Tolstoy was this writer who's writing about every aspect of Russian life. Now, yes, all the characters in his novel probably looked across like, a spectrum if you drove from west to east across Russia or vice versa, you see really, really different-looking people. But, but the classes, the ec-, you know, so economic diversity and age diversity, all, and, just vibe diversity, all of that, you want in the room and that, and, and so that becomes part of the definition of excellence.

CH: I like this idea of thinking of diversity not as a value, because like…

RC:: Yeah.

CH: …that's not a value that everyone shares, but thinking of it more in terms of an asset or a benefit, or, you know what I mean? So that it's more, a, a more sort of concrete, um, bottom line…thing. So that folks who are like, you know, not all into the whole, like warm and fuzzy, like, “let's all love each other and inclusion and lalala,” right? Like, the people who are not into that can have something to, to grab onto and say, “oh oh oh, no, actually, oh no, it does work.” It works…

LMR: Hmm.

CH: …and it's better. Right? If there is some way, some language that we can use to like, get folks who don't buy into diversity as a value, if there is some like magic…word, some, some…

[00:34:53] RC:: Beyond “not boring.”

[all laughing]

[00:34:55] CH: …some password, some…
Beyond “not boring!”

CH: …that we can, that we can say to like, get them onboard…um, I, what is it?

[all laughing]

[00:35:04] CTJ: I know. It's, I think, you know, we started talking about this earlier, Kris and I, about how the language is fluid in so many ways, and I have been really advocating for moving away from the term “nontraditional casting,” which I understand…

LMR: Hmm.

CTJ: …historically…

LMR: Ehhh. Barf.

CTJ: …has been so important, but because it, because it indicates “not normal.” And you know, so that's why I'm, have been trying to say “diverse and inclusive casting,” which of course is not perfect either. But, uh…

KD: If I can, part of it is the “one size fits all” missive, right?

CTJ: Right. Yes.

KD: There's a nontraditional casting thing that actually has meaning. If you are doing Arthur Miller with an African American cast, that's nontraditional.

CTJ: Mm-hmm, right.

KD: That’s traditionally played by people who look a certain way. You're coming in with a take, you're coming in with a…thing. If you're creating a new musi-, if you're doing Hadestown…

RC:: Yes. Yes.

KD: …and you're casting Eva Noblezada, that's like, that's not nontraditional, you're casting…a killer!

[all laughing]

KD: You're casting like, the best performer on Broadway…

RC:: Yes!

LMR: A killer!

KD: …to murder the audience in the best possible way!

[all laughing]

KD: That's not nontraditional, that is actually the most traditional thing you can do…

LMR: Yeah.

KD: …is not hold back, like, we're not gonna cast like, Ethel Merman because she's X, Y, or Z. We're gonna cast the best person to do this thing. So like, language like, gets so…sloppy.

CTJ: Mm-hmm.

RC:: Yeah.

KD: You know, and it, and it really binds us.

RC:: Well, even the word “diverse,” right, like, now has become this shorthand for, “do you have…”

CH: For “black!”
[all laughing]

RC:: Right, exactly. “Do you have black people in your room?”

CH: “Do you have a black person?”

KD: Right.

CTJ: Right.

CH: “Just the one!”

KD: “Do you have,” and then “do you have like, four black people who have, who all went to Yale, who all have the same training, who like,” that could be really great too, but like our, our, what are we talking about when we talk about diversity? Are we talking about, you know, my—I'm gonna stop talking, I talked for 40 minutes.

CTJ: No no no, it’s great! I want to ask all of you to share your insight or specific experiences with this. Have you ever gotten pushback on your casting vision? How have you navigated that?

CH: Heh, I think any producer or director who offers me an opportunity to present my work knows what I'm about? [laughs] They know that I'm gonna be real specific about who I want cast in roles, as far as race or gender, well, you know, so I haven't really run up against much resistance on that front.

Where I do encounter frustration is when I've got a play—as all my plays are—that requires a specific race of character. Somebody’s Daughter is a play that requires three Asian American women, one Asian American man, one black man, and there's only one role for a white guy. And it got read to death. Everywhere. Everywhere. People were like, really responding to the story, but they could only do readings, and those readings would be like…I had one event producer email me the day before the reading to say, “oh, so listen, about casting: we were able to find two Asian American women. Would it be okay if we, uh, if we just had a, it's just a reading so we could just have like a, a white woman read, um, the, the last role?” And I'm just like, “uuuuugghh!” So, at this point, this is like, I don't know, the fifth reading of this play, and I'm thinking like, “no one is ever going to produce this play,” [laughs] like, “it’s never gonna, they can't even cast it properly for a reading. Like, it's just, it's going to get done nowhere.” And I think…

LMR: But they're just not doing their work!

CH: I know!

LMR: And that’s what drives me crazy!

CH: Well, here’s, and then, okay so, my plan was like, “okay, you know what? I bet if I had somebody really badass, like Lucy Liu, attached to this play like, it would get done in a heartbeat, right?” So, whatever, I'm at my day job, I'm bored, I'm angry, I Google “Lucy Liu agent” and like [pop!] up pops Lucy Liu agent's information. And I'm like, “okay…cool…” And I'm like, typing a little email to Lucy Liu's agent being like, “hey there, Lucy Liu’s agent…”

[laughter]

CH: “…uh, I've got this play with a role in it that I think could be really great for your client. Um, would you like to give it a read?” You never send the script, of course, like, yeah. So, and I'm thinking like, “okay, yeah, maybe I'll, in a week or a month or whatever, I'll get a polite ‘thanks but no thanks,’ but at least I tried, right? At least I like tried to put in some work.”

Like, 10 minutes later, I get an email back from Lucy Liu's agent, and she's like, “yeah, sure, I'd love to give it a read.” …And she read it by the end of the day, and she said, “you know, Lucy would probably love to do a play, you know, between shootings for Elementary or whatever.” And I'm like, “okay!” And she's like, “is anyone interested in this, you know, has anyone, who's doing it?”

And I'm like, “well…no, not yet, but…let me just use this email as leverage…”

[all laughing]

RC:: Yeah!

CH: “…you know, to like, get someone in.” And I did.

RC:: “I’m in early stages conversations with a bunch of different producers.”

CH: Yeah yeah yeah, with a bunch of different pl-, a bunch of different places! So…as far as like, doing the work, right? I, literally, all, 5 minutes Googling, right? I Googled for 5 minutes. I got the information that I needed, um, I got two readings with Lucy Liu out of it…

[laughter]

CH: …which was crazy. And we were like, so close to signing her for, um, at Second Stage for Somebody’s Daughter, we were so close! And then she got offered a directing gig with Netflix. Okay, cool, cool, whatever. But I still got the production, right?

RC:: Yeah!

CH: Um, and it's just, it, literally a couple minutes Googling. Like, it's really, it’s, it’s not that hard.

LMR: But also, I mean, what kills me is like, I have, I could give you 40 actors—I've seen that play, I know that play—I can give you 40 actors right now that you could call in. I mean, that's what just drives me bananas!

CH: Mm-hmm.

RC:: Yes.

[all laughing]

CTJ: Yes. Yeah. Okay.

CH: Um, do the work!

CTJ: Yeah, do the work.

LMR: Well, it's interesting, So, I get pushback sometimes, so people come to me for casting lists sometimes because of the, um, I had this Tumblr that I kept of offensive casting notices, and that became a Joe's Pub show that I did. And, uh, because of that work I've done, people have come to me asking for casting lists, which is great! I lo-, that's my favorite thing to do, like, second to performing, my joy is connecting people to work. Like, that's it. And um, for the first time I had a TV show ask me for a casting list. And the list I gave them maybe had like, two white guys on it, you know—it was for improv, so it could be anybody, it was an improv comedy show—and everyone I gave them was a POC, trans, or disability. I mean it was like, they just came off my list and I was like, “these are the people I'm gonna give you,” and that I got pushback on. They were like, “so…we saw your list. They're like, amazing people, but…” And you know, they called some people in, but it was interesting to see…most of the people they called in were the like, straight white guys that were on my list. Yeah. You know, it's like even when we have one person doing the work, everyone in the kitchen has gotta be making the same soup.

CTJ: I can't tell you how…

LMR: Thank you.

CTJ: …many people, how many people call me for recommendations of Asian American actors, but they'll say something like, “do you know any Asian American actresses?” “Uh, could you give me a few more characteristics that you're looking for?” So, they're, they have fundamentally that kind of perspective on “Asian person. I don't know anything more about what they need to be.” That's, that's a problem.

RC:: Oi.

CH: Like, not even an age range?

CTJ: No. I know.

CH: [laughs]

CTJ: I know, just give me some quality, something that indicates, you know, it's a human being with different facets. That'd be awesome. Um…

RC:: Well, and that's…

CTJ: Yeah.

RC:: …that just, this is like, not a pushback in any way, but that's been, from the directorial seat, a lot of the interesting conversations that have come up have been working with white writers who have been very…values-driven, absolutely wanting to have a racially diverse cast. Uh, in particular has been how that has played out. And then just talking with them about how to make sure that, that the character is, because as much as there's not, I mean, I'm glad, you know, and I'm not surprised that none of us have used the phrase “colorblind casting,” much less than the “nontraditional” phrase. Um, but…

CH: No one in this room about to use “colorblind!”

RC:: Right, exactly. And, and I think that, you know, thinking about that from a new play perspective and from the writing perspective, uh, is just a, a big one that has come up for me working with white writers who are interested in, not only hiring artists of color to play the work, but to make sure that the character feels custom to that, and like do you then look to the performer to help you with that specificity? Just — then there hasn't been any sort of single answer to how I've seen white writers try to meet that challenge. But I can say that is the, actually the primary ongoing, again not pushback, but just a thing that comes up in thinking about racially diverse casts.

CTJ: Right. We've had, in other episodes of this podcast, we've had some amazing conversations about, uh, writing outside your lived experience, um, and also cultural appropriation versus appreciation where, where these very things come up about, uh, and helping people to kind of wrap their heads around how other people have navigated, um, those kinds of situations and come up with some really rich stories and casting. So, listeners, you'll have to dig through all of the episodes for that. [laughs]
Let's talk a little bit more about surprises that any of you have encountered when you maybe have approached a project with a certain cast in mind and somebody’s come in and changed your mind and how that's how that's gone? Anybody have any specific, uh, situations they want to share?

KD: Yeah. So, we were doing Rent Live back in January of this year and, you know, those characters are so iconic, um, particularly Mark Cohen. And we had Jordan Fisher—who's African American or mixed-race, I'm not entirely even sure—uh, but who basically announced like, “my lifelong dream is to play this part.” And he was fantastic and he was the best possible choice for it and it raises levels of complexity and sort of layers to who that character is, uh, simply by presenting who he was, and we made no changes to the script based on it, we made no changes to other casting based on it, just him showing up on stage and I thought, you know, did some really compelling stuff for us, and that actually updated the script in some way without us — updated the event — without us having to do any specific work to the text.

CTJ: Thank you. Rachel, I know we only have you for about 10 more minutes, so I wanted to follow up on something you started talking about earlier about how your room needs to really reflect all different kinds of experiences, and I wondered if you wanted to speak more about that and how that, how you assemble your team and how that ends up influencing the way you, um, populate the, the world of your, the play you’re directing?

RC:: Yeah, I think the room is — First of all, there's like, many rooms…

CTJ: Right.

RC:: Right? The room refers to multiple rooms, the room is the design process, which is actually, as a director, where I spend probably aggregate about 75 percent of my time is, I was at Mimi Lien’s this morning for, for preproduction work on a show and, and that's actually like, just a huge part of the brain. And so — and actually, I think it's the area of the theater field that is the most behind is, particularly the racial diversity of the creative teams that are thinking about this show beyond just director. Uh, because I think in some ways, at least casting has, as you said, Kris — I think there's reason to be optimistic in terms of people understanding that a racially diverse cast is a good thing.

So, fundamentally the room is sort of whatever group of brains are meeting the play and I definitely—or, or a musical—and I definitely think that that wants to, in part, be content-led. Um, so if I'm working on a piece that particularly, for example, like, speaks to aspects of Southern life, I definitely want to make sure, because I'm from Tidewater, Maryland, and Washington, DC, which, DC's definitively a Southern city, but it's also kind of a weird own place because of the, you know, being the seat of national government, blah, blah, blah.

So, if there's a trailer that is a center point, for example, of some of the storytelling, I'm gonna be thinking about both where that trailer is set and wanting to make sure if there's not Floridians, necessarily specifically on the team, that there are people who know what the inside of that trailer should feel like and smell like, and what you hear if you're sitting in the trailer at 4 in the afternoon. Uh, I, I need to know that.

And then similarly, that's gonna bring up economic diversity. And that being something with that, I think about with my dramaturg, uh, or the associate director or the assistant director, or who the choreographer is—if there is a choreographer—and as well, of course, as the people on stage who are carrying the life forward and embodying it. Um, because, um, you know, I think the goal is honesty, and that doesn't mean, um, replication or realism, exactly. But it means that there has to be some knowledge, some recognition on the artist’s part of the type of life that they are manifesting. And it's why it’s incumbent upon artists to be as broad and like, consumptive as possible of the world because we have to keep broadening ourselves, to know more, uh, so that we can carry more stories forward. But yeah, that's what I would say in terms of how I think about building a room. It's like, what does that piece require?

LMR: Well, and I wonder for your devised processes as well, how that is different than a scripted process, in terms of who you collect together.

RC:: Well with the devised process, I always liken it to building a, a bus while you're driving it downhill.

CH: Nice.

[all laughing]

RC:: You know, it's so messy. So, you sort of have to know—ish, what part of the hill you're pointing towards? But for the devising process, it's, um, I would say a thousand times more important because, at least with a team, every single person is sharing equal responsibility as a writer. So, there's no distinction between who necessarily is representing or playing that story and whose story it is.

LMR: Hmm.

RC:: So, for Reconstruction, we've had—which is the piece that The TEAM is working on right now—we've had endless, and, and these conversations are actually not separate, they are truly the process of this show—will become the product for it, the conversations about how do we de-center whiteness in the room? Can we de-center whiteness if the director is white? How should we actually approach decision-making differently? Because the aim of the show, I think in part, is to reconstruct our brains in the room as a microcosm of America's brain for a post-white-supremacist world. So, if we're going to do that from a company that has historically been white, uh, either entirely or majority, that is a big reformation process.

And so actually all of those conversations are becoming very intricately tied to the content that we are making. And as a result, we have not been able to have those conversations in any ethical—much less effective—way if whiteness is the dominant voice in that conversation. So, it's a, it's been a very circular conversation for that, but it's, it's, yeah. The, with the devising work, it's, yeah, just even more so.

CTJ: Thank you so much. I know, Rachel, you have to go and I just wanted to say thank you so much for adding your incredible insight into this conversation.

RC:: Thank you all.

[miscellaneous overlapping goodbyes]

CTJ: We’re grateful to Rachel Chavkin for joining us. Now we're going to carry on.

Okay, so I have a specific question for Chisa that I already asked Kris, so if you forgive me, I'm just gonna start with that and then we'll, then I'll include Lynne and Kris in another question, okay? Chisa, I wanted to ask you if you find it necessary or useful, when you're writing the character markers in your script, to specify what cultural background they have or presence or absence of disability, et cetera, if, because there are different approaches to this, and I, I wonder what yours is.

CH: Oh, I do absolutely. Every time. Every single time. Even if it doesn't necessarily come into play the way that people expect it's going to, I write it in because that's how I see it. And that is what is informing my creation of the character, right? Is, is how I envision them. So, this, uh—oh, oh! There was a, um, a two hander that I wrote called Dead and Breathing, and I specify two black women: one of them is older and wealthy and sick, and the other is young, but younger, and trans. And I had a critic mention in a, in a review, “Oh, um, I don't, I don't understand why the playwright wasn't, you know, I've read the script and in the character description, she specifies that these characters need to be this color and this gender and this, and, you know, I didn't feel like it was really necessary. You know, I mean, I feel like the nurse could have been my wife, you know, who's white.” And, I’m…

LMR: [snort]

CH: …on the one hand, I'm thinking like…”okay, cool, cool. So I've done my job if I've gotten you to see how this black trans woman is just as fucking human, [laughs] I got you to recognize that this black trans woman is just, is just a human, right? And you know, living her life and that you, yes, you should see the similarities, you know, between, between her and, say, your wife, who is also a nurse. That's great.” Right? But on the other hand, I'm thinking like, “Oh…dude, like, [sigh] if you don't think that her being black and trans has led her to be the compassionate, you know, compassionate enough to take on hospice care, for example, right? If you don't think that that has informed, the path that she has walked, right? If you don't think that that, that, that it matters, um, in a way that doesn't necessarily require her to be dwelling on the fact that she is black and trans and talking about that all the damn time, then…you've missed half the point.”

Um, and that's very frustrating. But yeah, I guess the, the short answer to your question is, yeah, I do, I do specify, um, at the very, very top of every play, what color, what gender, what, and you know, I throw in some other characteristics, human characteristics in there also, you know, like what age and also, you know, are they sarcastic, do they have a sense of humor? Are they, you know, um, because I, I need people to, to acknowledge that, “Oh, hey, yeah…black people are, are people!” [laughs] They're just humans living their lives, whether or not they spend the next 90 minutes talking about race.

CTJ: Right.

CH: That has nothing to do with it, right? It's, they are who they are. Deal with it.

CTJ: And it's how you envisioned the story being told, not by, not the way someone else who might want to cast it in a different way envisions it.

CH: Yeah, exactly.

CTJ: Well I, and I know Lynne you’ve, you've had a lot of experience seeing casting notices that are…

LMR: I sure have.

CTJ: …unusual, do you want to talk about that a little bit as it pertains to what we're talking about?

LMR: I will, although I do want to say one thing on this question too, which is, um, so I'm not a produced playwright necessarily, but I do have two full length plays and I feel as a cisgender, able-bodied, straight white woman, that my responsibility when I write anything is to either write something that anyone can play and then put in my script requirements “non-all-whiteness” and “non-all-cis-ness,” you know, to really insist in the writing of the script that, um, this should encompass, uh, you know, your room should be well fleshed out.

And then in my, the work I've done with, uh, my Joe's Pub show, and then now the interview show I'm doing, is that my job is to use the privilege I have been given and use the platforms I have been given—whether it's ALL ARTS or whether it's Joe's Pub—to let other people stand on the podium and talk. So that I'm creating structures that gives other people a chance to speak when they're sometimes not given a chance to speak.

But, when you write things like that in a script and then you get to the casting process, what I have learned is that you have to state like five or six times in a breakdown that, “no, no, we're really looking for all ethnicities, we're really looking for all body types, we're really looking for all abilities,” because otherwise you will get sent the same 20 white ladies or, or whatever it is. And I have had friends of mine, actors of color, say like, you know, and I've even talked to unfortunately, some representation that says, “yeah, no, when it says ‘all ethnicities,’ we still generally send our white actors.” So, you have to specify over and over and over again in a breakdown: “no, for real.” [laughs] “Like, no, seriously, you know, this is, this is real.” But, my god, I mean, the breakdowns I've seen are just—the couple that sort of started it all when I started collecting breakdowns years ago, one was—I have these memorized after so many years—"Asian woman, 20s-30s, doesn't have the hard features of most other Asian women. She is more elegant and sophisticated and knows it.”

[gasp]

CTJ: Oh dear.

LMR: And then another one, the other, the other one that started it all was, um, “Leroy, a young LeVar Burton at heart, aware he's the token black friend, but totally cool with it.”

CTJ: Okay. [laughs]

LMR: And those were real! Those were for real, they came out of for-real casting services, and those were, when I saw those, I mean, I had been collecting, you know, shitty breakdowns that I saw as a white woman and shitty breakdowns I had seen that friends had sent me, but it was those two that kind of made me go like, “I gotta do something [wheezing laughter] about this! Like, I can't keep reading this crap and, and wake up in the morning.”

KD: See I'm cool with that pl-, I want to see that play.

LMR: The, the Leroy play?

KD: Yeah, like, like if it's about that, like, do that.

LMR: Well…

KD: Like, that shit's real!

LMR: I would’ve…

KD: That's real. But that's not what…

LMR: I would agree that…

KD: …that's not, it doesn't…

LMR: No.

KD: …sound like that's what they were doing.

LMR: Yeah, no. I think what it was was like a, you know, some sort of crap TV show where you got a bunch of white people and then one black guy. If that story is written by Chisa and we're investigating what that means, investigating what that tokenism means, I'm interested in that, but that's not what we're dealing with.

KD: Yeah, for sure.

LMR: Yeah.

CTJ: Wow. Yeah. Uh…

[laughter]

CTJ: Let's see. Well the…I want to give you a chance to, each one of you, if there's something that we haven't talked about pertaining to casting that you want to bring up, let's, let's give you a chance to do that. Otherwise, I have a, I have a follow-up question but, I'd rather hear from you first.

CH: I don't know. I guess I would just say, stick to your guns. Yeah. Again, people who, who know my work, they know that I'm gonna, I'm gonna have some specific demands about what, and then I'm going to say no, and I have said no. I've said no to productions because people wanted to, to cast, to miscast my plays.

CTJ: How have they approached you about that, with that information?

CH: Either through my agent or through the, the publisher.

CTJ: Hmm.

CH: This one really, really super egregious example was through the publisher: they just sent me an email—and they did it just to say that they did it, but they knew what the answer was gonna be—um, that play that I just mentioned with the two black women, and one of them is trans, the, they wanted to know if they could cast two men. And, um, [laughs] two men! And they suggested in their email to the publisher, “well, you know, you could provide us with the names, with male names, or, you know, we could provide them ourselves, like George and Peter.” And I was like, “Ohh, that's…” and I literally, I just wrote back, “Absolutely not. Thank you. Bye.” If it's important to you, it should be important enough to turn down an opportunity to have your play presented, because at that point it's not your play that they're presenting.

CTJ: Right. Right.

CH: So, I say, stick to your guns. If you're flexible, that's cool, but if not, if you really are seeing a character in a particular way and they want to cast it differently then, it's not for you.

LMR: I think, yeah, I think saying no is such an important reiteration over and over again that you, cause we're, in this industry, I think we're often told, or feel disempowered, whether we're actors or writers, whoever we are, you know, there's a paucity and you've got to grab on to anything that comes up. And I think that's a load of goods that we’re sold. Um, and I think, you know, yes, it would be amazing to be Francis McDormand accepting her Oscar and talking about inclusivity rider, which is also the name of my porn-, that's my porn name: Inclusivity Rider.
[laughter]

LMR: Inclusion Rider, that's what it is. Um, you know, yes, that is an amazing use of platform, but anywhere you are, you have the opportunity to say no and say why you said no, that no matter where you are in the industry—you're a 20-year-old who just came out of your certificate program—like, you still have the opportunity to say no to something and to stand up for, for what's right in a more general sense.

CTJ: And also to say yes to all the good things, right?

LMR: Yeah. Yeah, and to say yes, and to amplify whatever you see that is, is really going well.

CTJ: Okay, great. Thank you so much to our panel for your insights on inclusive casting. Thanks for joining us as always, to be continued.

This has been The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK, a production of the Dramatists Guild of America and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is lovingly produced by Sarah Storm, Christine Toy Johnson, and Amy Von Macek. It's edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Terry Stratton, Adrien Glover, and John Marshall Cheary.

TALKBACK is distributed by the Broadway Podcast Network. Like and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. For episode transcripts and exclusive content, visit us on the web at dramatistsguild.com. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using #DGTalkBack.

I'm Christine Toy Johnson. We'll see you next time.

In this flashback to summer episode of TALKBACK, host Christine Toy Johnson welcomes playwright Kristoffer Diaz to talk about his work on the musical Hercules at the Public Theater just before it premiered in New York City and addresses presentation through the lens of wrestling in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.

Then, Christine and Kristoffer are joined by Tony Award winning Hadestown Director Rachel Chavkin, actor and activist Lynne Marie Rosenberg (Famous Cast Words, High Maintenance), and playwright Chisa Hutchinson (Proof of Love, Somebody’s Daughter, She Like Girls) to discuss a production’s responsibility to require both authenticity and diversity in their actors and among the staff.

This episode features Kristoffer Diaz, Rachel Chavkin, Lynne Marie Rosenberg, and Chisa Hutchinson. The Dramatist Presents: Talkback is a production of The Dramatists Guild of America and BOOM Integrated . This episode was produced by Sarah Storm, Amy VonMacek, Christine Toy Johnson, directed by Sarah Storm, and edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. It was recorded by Eric Dabdoub for JMM. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Tari Stratton, Adrien Glover, Robin Lai, and John Marshall Cheary.

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