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're in a front seat at the TONYs or backstage at your high school, we're so glad you're here.
To kick off our conversation on who gets produced and why it matters, I sat down with the extraordinary Broadway actress Mandy Gonzalez for an intimate chat. Mandy joined us in our New York studios in between performances of [Hamilton, where she plays the role of Angelica Schuyler.
Mandy, welcome to TALKBACK. I wanted to ask you a few questions about your specific journey in this business. When did you first realize that you were not being fully represented in the theater and, and how did that impact or influence or inspire you?
Mandy Gonzalez: I think I was about 18 or 19 when I got my first agent—I'm from Los Angeles, and um, in LA it's all about film and television and, especially when I was, you know, growing up. And so I got my first agent, I was in college, but I felt like once I got that agent, like, I had made it, like now, you know, “watch out!”
And, uh, I remember getting called after…they told me that they were going to take me into their agency to come back because they wanted to talk to me about some stuff. So, I went back into the office and I remember the woman, she told me that she wanted to take me into this other like, small room near her office and in the room there was a table and a pad of paper and a pen, and a chair.
And she told me to sit down and really think about my name, because she thought that having the last name “Gonzalez” was really going to hinder my ability to get work, um, to have opportunity. And so, she wanted me to think about a name that better represented me, that made me more, I don't know, like, saleable? And so, I sat in that office and I remember looking at that pad of paper and feeling, like, just so ashamed that I even was sitting in there. I, I just felt like, dirty—I don't know, it was weird—and I remember doing what I was told because that's what you do, I guess when you're 18, 19, at least I did. And I, I came up with different names and I wrote them down on, you know, lines on the paper.
And, uh, I came up with the name “Mandy Carr,” with two R’s, because my grandma always liked, um, Vicki Carr, the singer. And so I thought, “well, Vicki Carr, like, I'll just be Mandy Carr.” Like, that makes sense and that has like a connection to my family and all that kind of stuff. And I went home and I remember sitting—um, cause I still lived at home—and I was sitting with my parents and I started to just feel that sense, just feeling ashamed. And I, uh. And I remember looking at my dad and telling my parents about this situation that had happened to me. And just like, the look on their faces and how they felt just like this tinge of sadness, I guess.
And I thought about it that night and, um, and I thought, “man, I'm Gonzalez. Like, this is who I am.” You know, my, my family fought really hard to be a part of this country and, you know I, I'm from a family of migrants, um, that came over from Mexico and, uh, and worked in the farm and, and so they worked hard! And I felt like, “this is who I am and I can't, I can't change that.” And so I went in the next day to that agency and I let them know, ‘cause they wanted to know, “oh, is ‘Carr’ spelled with two R’s?” And I said, “actually, ‘Gonzalez’ is spelled with two Z’s, [laughs] and you're just gonna have to deal. With me.”
And I felt like that experience taught me about…integrity, and it taught me about speaking up for myself and doing what felt good to me, and, um, and so looking back at that girl who, oh, thought, “well, with the name ‘Gonzalez,’ like, I won't be able to be this and that and all those different characters.” I'll, I'd like to tell her like, “you will be on Broadway as a princess, as the ingénue, as a young girl going to college, you will be able to have so many opportunities. Just stick with who you are.” Knowing where I am now, I feel like it wouldn't be as special if I didn't see “Gonzalez” in the program. My parents didn't see that. If it was like, a fake name, there would be a part of the journey missing…you know, my family's journey. So, I'm very proud that, that my parents are able to, to see that in the program, and that I'm able to see that, and my daughter can see it and, yeah, it kind of, it completes me in some way.
CTJ: Have you heard from fans about how it's made them feel to see your name in a program?
MG: Absolutely. Um, playing the role of Nina Rosario in In the Heights, a lot of young women write to me and, and tell me their story, and it doesn't matter if they're Latina or where they're from, but they tell me that they're the first ones in their family to go to college, the first born in-, here in America, and how seeing me on stage makes them feel like they can do it, too. And I remember when I was their age and I was looking for people that look like me and that, um, I could relate to and say, you know, “look at them, they made it.” And I remember looking and seeing, um, Priscilla Lopez, and—probably because she had a Z on the last-, on the end, and she was Latina—and I remember thinking, “well, she did it like, she's, she made it to Broadway, I can do it too.” I just had this fire in me.
And it was crazy when I got In the Heights and Priscilla played my mom, and I got to tell her that story and it was really like a full circle moment. And so, she has people like me telling her that, and, um, and I have young people telling me that are now in Hamilton, you know, that saw me in In the Heights, you know, and they were in high school or…grade school, I don't even know.
But, now they're in Hamilton and we have, um, an incredible cast member that just left—Carvens Lissaint—and he came to see In the Heights, he said, six times he did the lottery at In the Heights, and it changed his life, and he was like, “I can do that.” You know, when he saw Chris Jackson on stage, he was like, “that's what I wanna do.” And so for me, that's everything. I think the impact of seeing people that look like you on stage is, um… insur-surmountable.
CTJ: Yes, absolutely, the power of representation cannot be underestimated. I see it in the eyes of the young Asian American people I meet at Come From Away all the time. Do you remember a time when seeing someone on stage impacted you in the kind of ways that you’re now impacting others?
MG: I went to theater whenever there was a tour in town—my grandma would take me to see a show—and I remember always looking for myself. So, I didn't see that as much. I had to think about it and dream about it and, um, I remember in ‘96, when Rent was nominated for a Tony Award, and I saw they performed, uh, “La Vie Bohéme” on the Tony Award telecast, and I remember seeing Daphne Rubin Vega and feeling like, “that's what I want to do, you know, she looks like me. Her hair is like mine, it's curly and, she's Latina, and she looks like me!”
And that was the first time where I felt like Broadway wasn't too far from me. I had a lot of hurdles to still go through, but I felt like you can't take that away from, from having somebody that's representing you on stage to what that does to your confidence. I had a friend recently—she was actually my daughter's preschool teacher—they came to see Hamilton and she brought her son who was…I'd say he was about 12. And at that time, um, Michael Luwoye was playing Hamilton, and um, he said, “he looks like me. Mom, he looks like me!” And that was the first thing that she said to me. And then he got to meet him on stage afterwards, and you just, you can't take that feeling away from somebody, because when they feel like, ah, it's possible, you know, their dreams are limitless. It's, it's important.
CTJ: Yes, that's wonderful. Do you feel a certain responsibility to represent, and represent well? Is that fair?
MG: Hmm. I think I do feel a certain responsibility to…represent, I think, myself to the best of my ability, not just for myself, but for my family: my family that I have now, but also my family that pushed me to go. So, I feel a big responsibility to them. I think that it's important to represent my voice…and be honest. Because I want my cousins and people that are… young people that are coming up behind me to know that their voice is important. I think that that's my biggest thing, is that I want my family to be seen, the Gonzalez side…and the other side, to have a voice, to know that it was all worth it, I guess.
And so, I think that when it comes to, uh, social media, and …you know, stage door, things like that, when I'm asked questions or people send me letters, it's so important to write back. Maybe you can't answer all the questions, but it's important for, for you to, uh…to let people know that they're seen.
CTJ: So, I've always talked about how getting access into the room--both physically and philosophically—has been the challenge from the dawn of time, as in: We have to be allowed into the audition, but also the team needs to actually be open to considering us.
Do you have any experiences you'd like to share regarding when you have felt this dynamic shift? Or has it shifted? Or does it continue to shift in new ways?
MG: I definitely felt a shift of being invited to the room more when Hamilton started. And I think it's because people started to look at things differently. That – oh! You can have a diverse cast and people will come. If the material's good, it doesn't matter.
And I remember being called in—and this was before I joined the cast of Hamilton—but being called in for, um, a role that was…has always been, um, cast typically white. And I remember signing in my name and not seeing the people that I normally see for roles. And, uh, and I remember this, this one girl, um, and I won't name who she is, but she ended up getting the job. Uh, but she looked back and she was looking at the room…and uh, she said, “ugh, Hamilton. They're just, you know, they're taking everything.”
And it wasn't directed at me, it was like, to a friend, in the way that, “well, I hope I get this job because, you know, Hamilton's taking everything,” and it was just like, what? What are you talking about? Like, this is the first time I'm even allowed into the room.
I just got so annoyed, and I remember looking at another…actor that I knew, and she just kinda looked at me, because she knew who I was and she knew that I was part of that world. And I guess it, it made me feel like, “man, it's still different.” You know? And that, I don't know…sometimes it’s hard…you know, ‘cause you just want to be in the room and you just want to be known for just being good and doing the material the best you can do it, you know? And uh, and so that bothers me. That bothers me when people, other actors look at you and go, “ugh, you're taking this from me.”
It's just like, if you only knew how many times people have said to me, “oh, you're too dark,” “you're too light,” “we're not looking for ethnic,” “we're not looking for this.” Like, to just be invited to the room because you have an ability to do a job, like, how good that feels, and how that person made me feel… It's the same thing of being in that room and making me feel like I'm not enough. You know? And so that struggle I think hasn't changed because I think that it needs to change…all around.
It needs to not only change with the casting directors and the directors that are looking at things differently, but it needs to change with the other actors in the room to say, “yeah, you know, like, they deserve to be here, too.” And it's not about taking something from somebody else, it's just about opportunity. And now when I go to auditions for leading ladies and leading parts, I see so many different people in the room. My hope is that one day they can look back and just be happy with where they are, and not think, “well, why, why me?” Because I guess my feeling has always been, “why not me?” You know? And I hope that they can get to that point, too. And to know that there are certain parts…where you just, you just can't be part of it, and that's okay because there'll be another part for you.
But parts that are equal, should be equal.
CTJ: How do you think conversations about representation, for example on this podcast, can influence current and future theater-makers?
MG: First of all, it allows you to think…differently than maybe you thought before. It allows the conversation to be out in the ether, so it's happening. It allows your voice to be heard. People that feel frustrated, or people that feel that they're not being heard, I think it's important to also feel validated. So, it's not about saying, “well, you shouldn't feel like that,” it's about, “yes, you feel like that and
I feel like that,” or, “and this is how I deal with it,” or, “this is how we're gonna move forward,” or, “this is how, this is how it, it changes,” ‘cause you're looking for that ‘yes,’ you know? I hear you, and hold my hand and let's figure out how to do it differently.
So, that's why I think it's important.
CTJ: I strongly believe that we need our allies, and also that we need to ask ourselves how we can be better allies for each other. To that end, how do you think we can talk about the importance of representation and inclusion without putting people on the defensive? Or, do we need to worry about that?
MG: I think that if people are looking at things in a very like, small way, I think it's also important for those people to be a part of the dialogue…because maybe it'll change. I mean, you know, I don't know. Like some people think, well, you can't change people, but you know, maybe you can at least allow them to hear you.
And so I think it's important to involve a lot of different voices in the talk of inclusion, but I think that it's also important to involve people that are like you…that, you know, can understand that to involve them, that’s okay if you just wanna talk to them, too. But I wouldn't say to talk to people and shut out a whole other group. I don't think that that's a, a good way of thinking about things. I don't think “us” or “them” is a good way, but that's just me.
CTJ: What would a truly inclusive industry look like to you? What would it mean to you?
MG: I want that place of inclusion to be reality! [chuckle] You know, when I walked down the street, it be people that I see in front-- on the stage and behind the scenes, for it to be people that look like all different people. For my daughter, you know, depends on what she wants to do in life, but I want her to feel like she has an opportunity to do whatever she wants to do, as long as she works hard. If she works hard, I want her to have the same opportunity that somebody else has.
And so for me, that's what it would look like: opportunity for all.
I think that that's the beauty of, uh, the fact that I moved to New York from Los Angeles. At that time, I felt like I wasn't being given opportunities and that, I just feel so…I guess, um, grateful for New York and grateful that I had a place…to develop into an artist, because I was given an opportunity: all you had to do was stand in line, and you could audition.
And so I just think that that's what I would, I would like to say in the end is, look for those places. Look for-, if you feel trapped or you feel like you're not getting an opportunity, look for the one person that says “yes,” and don't discount that, because…it's important and it sets you on your path. You just need one person, honestly. Don't look at it as being sometimes not enough. That first person that gives you an opportunity, or that first person that gives you a chance, don't go, “well, ugh, but it's not, it's not that theater,” or, “it's not that show,” or, “I'm not the lead.” It's like, maybe just start. Don't limit yourself. And look at things and things-, opportunities that do come up, I find if you look at them with gratitude, it allows you to go to the next, the next one, instead of letting that anger paralyze you.
CTJ: Mandy, thank you for that personal look at the power of inclusion.
After the break, we'll look at who's getting produced in the theater. Our conversation features Pun Bandhu, a cofounder of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, Todd London, who manages a study called The Count for the Lilly's, and Porsche McGovern, who runs her own study on who designs and directs in LORT theaters. Stick around.
CTJ: [00:20:28] Welcome back. Let's just say it: we're talking stats. I'm hosting from Chicago, so I'll let our New York panelists introduce themselves.
Pun Bandhu: Hi, my name is Pun Bandhu, I'm an actor and producer here in New York City. And I'm also a member—a founder—of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. One of the things that AAPAC does is every year we publish employment statistics for the New York theater scene, for everything that's been produced in New York at an Off-Broadway contract and above, and we look specifically at hiring statistics for actors of color and most recently in our last statistics that we published, which encompassed the 2016-17 year, we've also included playwrights and directors as part of that.
Porsche McGovern: Hi, I'm Porsche McGovern, I'm a lighting designer. I write “Who Designs and Directs in LORT Theaters,” currently by gender, but next year it'll be by pronoun.
Todd London: Hi, my name's Todd London, I'm a long time artistic director and writer about the American theater. I'm currently working with the Dramatists Guild as the Director of Theater Relations, and part of my job at the Guild is to oversee The Count. The Count is a now five-plus-year-old study of gender and race in the theater, specifically studying who gets produced and whose plays appear on the stages across The Country.
CTJ: Great. Thank you so much. I think it's so interesting that all of these stats are now being collected—interesting and fantastic—and how we've needed to come together and sort of prove what we've always suspected to be true: that there is not parity in who is being produced and who is being hired in the theatrical industry. And I'd love to get your insight, each one of you, on how you think that the gathering of these kinds of stats has changed and/or influenced the conversation that we're having broadly about inclusion and representation.
PB: I think that's a really good point, Chris, that the stats are so powerful. They, the stats speak for themselves. And they almost always, in my experience, have taken people by surprise. We've had forums where casting directors have been like, “oh my gosh, I can't believe these numbers for Asian actors,” for instance, “are so low because I try to the best of my ability to, to do nontraditional casting as much as possible.”
Uh, we feel like we are trying to do a good job, and yet obviously we need to do a better job, you know, and, and I don't know what it is. I think our minds sort of focus on the anomalies? You know, like the, the very rare occasions when, uh, let's say an Asian playwright is produced, it stands out because it's so rare and, and you remember that, you hold onto it, and then you look at the entire year and everything that's been produced in that season, and you realize: actually, there haven't been that many Asian playwrights produced. You know, so, uh, I think having an overall scope and, and perspective on these numbers in a way that's objective, uh, is something that is so useful as a tool for people, to be able to measure their progress as well as where we need to go.
CTJ: Yes, of course, because the numbers don't really lie. So, so even though, yes, the intention is, is clear that people are trying to be more inclusive in their hiring, the numbers show that, that it hasn't really yielded, um, the kind of parity that they would hope for, or we would hope for.
TL: [00:24:14] Yeah it, it seems that there's a kind of intention bias in the theater. I get this from what Pun is saying, that there's a sense that when we do something right, or diversify a little bit, it has a huge weight because everybody wants to believe that they're doing the right thing, and that weight is disproportionate to the reality. And so in a way, um, the theater has for so long been blinded by its best intentions, and these statistics are a way of breaking through that self-blinding…or denial.
CTJ: With all three of these studies that we're talking about, uh, I feel like they've been groundbreaking because we haven't seen these kinds of numbers and, and these kinds of situations illuminated.
Porsche, can you talk about your study about designers?
PMcG: I chose to look at designers because I'm a designer and I couldn't find any stats about us at any sort of larger than a, a singular city level; there had been several of those.
It was really important to me to show that yes, you, you, you hired a woman-identified designer in this discipline…once. That means of your ten shows, 10 percent had a woman-identified designer in that position. I think what Pun and Todd were saying is, is correct, particularly, when I look at designers, people don't see us on posters, we're not the ones interviewed generally. And it's easy for people to forget that we work there, too.
CTJ: Right. Have you found that your study, since it's been published, has influenced the conversation about representation?
PMcG: I think it has. I really hope it has. Um, I've heard from some theaters directly that people have brought my stats into their meetings, and I always offer at the end of each article that if you want your individual theater’s raw data, write me from that theater’s email and I'll send it to you.
CTJ: That's a really valuable offer. It seems to me that these studies are largely grassroots endeavors. They're driven by the artists that are at the center of these conversations. I'd love to hear more about how you think we can really support each other. What's the value of us coming together in this way?
TL: Yeah, I'd love to talk about that. I just want to go back for a minute to the origins of The Count, because I think you're exactly right. It was begun by playwrights, specifically women playwrights, specifically Julia Jordan and Marsha Norman.
They met with a group of other theater artists, women artists, uh, years ago—I want to say 2011 or so—they met at New Dramatists, where at the time I was the artistic director. They had subsequent meetings and I think there was not a sense that they were going to do a count. They were actually looking at New York theaters, looking at the numbers of women's plays on stage or plays by women on stage, and they were trying to figure out what they would do. And what they would do became both the LILLY Awards and The Count. The Count began a few years later, and happened at a time when it seems there were people all over the theater who had the same idea, which was to start actually looking at what was, so we had women count, AAPAC started around then…
TL: When did you start, Porsche?
PMcG: The first article was 2014.
TL: 2014. So, with the-, from 2008 to 2014 suddenly I think there are ten or twelve different studies, not including ones in film and television, which are happening at the same time.
PMcG: I lied. It was 2015.
TL: Oh my God, there goes the podcast.
CTJ: I am also part of the, the founding group of AAPAC, and so, you know, we often laugh about how when we did start, we thought, “oh, we don't really need to think about doing this beyond this ti-, this little pocket of time. Uh, it'll, we'll be done with it and we'll, we won't talk about it anymore,” and here we are how many, how many years later, Pun?
PB: Yeah, more than 10 years. Um…it was something that we, we never thought that it would create the impact that it had, but because we were focused so much on, on New York City theater, um, because we felt like that was manageable: we could influence and create pressure on, on individual theater companies and people that we had relationships with.
But, it was so…direly needed. Our stats were being publicized and used nationwide and, in fact, globally. And, um, were being used in university studies, et cetera. It just became clear that this was something that people really found as a valuable resource to have underlying the conversations people were having around inclusion.
And… but to your question, Chris, about what we can do. The stats have been a springing board for us to enter into conversations with other organizations like the Broadway League and other groups that, that operate in the Broadway sector. Um, individual, you know… Casting Society of of America asked us to come in to speak to, to their leadership.
Because people do want to get better and on these issues. And, and so because of these statistics, we've been, actually been able to, uh, implement a lot of diversity initiatives, uh, and, um, and you see a huge impact, I think even in the last five years of, of the change that has, that has come about because of that.
These statistics don't live in a vacuum, right? They, they’re for advocacy purposes. They’re for research purposes. I think the intent is to move the meter, and one of the things that we at AAPAC are, are doing right now is there is a campaign against the Shed—which is a, the new cultural, multimillion dollar cultural center that's been built in Hudson Yards—and their production of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, which is a “kung-fu musical,” and at the center of the story is this grandmaster who carries the traditions of China.
Um, it's been billed as an Asian immigrant story, and there are Asian actors and performers in it, but he—the grandmaster—is cast as a white person. You know, it's complicated because they actually ca-, they actually hired an Asian director from Asia who was not aware, really, of the, the long history of yellowface in America. And, and so, uh, there's, there's an, it's an interesting conversation that, that theater-makers are having right now, and I think a lot of people are, you know, on the one, on the one hand I think most people’ll be like, will, will say, oh, you know, “blackface is wrong, yellowface is wrong.”
But this was a situation where they had hired an Asian director, they were trying to be as inclusive as possible, they did have Asian performers, there was an Asian designer, but they wanted to implement rainbow casting. And, and it's, and it's just, it, it stands at the intersection of conversations of, of authenticity and artistic freedom, right? Because people want to represent all races on stage and that's fine, but, you know, I just, you know, AAPAC just finds it really interesting that it seems like, that always seems to happen when it's Asian stories.
CTJ: I think at the core of a lot of this is a myth that some people just don't exist, that we don't exist, and that's why we're underrepresented. I think these stats help us expose and confront that myth.
PB: I think you're absolutely spot on. And I guess the point that I was trying to make was that the stats have really articulated very clearly for us that this is a fight for representation, that, in a vacuum, it's absolutely fine to do rainbow casting to try to make sure all the races of the world are represented on your stage.
But if it's an Asian story, and especially if it's an Asian-specific character or character that should be Asian, the, the numbers are, are still so low that we're not, you know… In a world where Caucasian actors still have the, the large lion's share of all of the roles, to give that role to yet another white actor, it just seems so much more inexcusable.
TL: I also think there's invisibility in representation, which in a way is, very deep and very specific. And then there's systemic invisibility. So I think as you talk about bringing these various studies together and what each of the leaders of this—and, and I don't really deserve to be called one because I'm taking it over from the people who actually started it and have done it for the last five years—but what you're really talking about when you look at this is: how do you make the system that allows that representative invisibility to happen? How do you make that system visible?
So we're working in a field that doesn't, or hasn't, seen itself in a sense and has been, whether it's blinded by best intentions, or suddenly we're going to make rainbow casting the thing without really examining how that plays out in terms of specific representation. So I've, I think these two invisibilities—the kind of structural one and the invisibility of certain races and kinds of people and certain voices on stage and so on—they live side by side, but they're not exactly the same thing. They contribute to each other’s…I don't know, the-, persistence, really.
PB: That is so well said.
CTJ: Porsche, I'd love to talk about how your study got started really looking deeply at who designs and who directs in our LORT theaters. Listeners, if that's a new term for you, it's an acronym for League of Resident Theaters.
PMcG: I mean…I'll say I started in a vacuum, right? This, this, this grew out of, uh, suddenly work opportunities…slowed to nothing for me, and I had a small child who napped for three hours a day. So, I decided I would finally figure out who designs in LORT.
It was my way of trying to feel connected to the theater field when I wasn't working. To tell you the truth in the beginning I, I never meant for anybody else to see it. I thought, this is something I'm going to do on my computer at, at home and that's about it.
And then I saw the numbers and I was like, “oh, they’re so much worse than I thought. Uh, that, that's a problem.” Like, I really was like, “oh, well, I'm a, you know, a woman-identified lighting designer, it's gotta be it well into the 30s, right? Lots of my mentors are women lighting designers.” Uh, so that first year when I got the first stat, it was something like 14 percent I was like, “oh! Oh, we're in trouble. Like that's, that's, that's really bad.”
So, you know, to tell you the truth, when I first sent out to theaters for confirmation, when I realized this is gonna be bigger than me and, and be a public thing, I was surprised any of them responded. Right? Here, here’s this person with no organization, no affiliation, saying, “here's what I figured out from your website, your last five seasons of designers. Can you correct or confirm this?” Um, I, I was surprised anybody said, “sure, you've got it all wrong,” in certain cases, because it's not, you don't have to fix it if the designers change on the website. You have to fix it in the program, but you don't actually have to fix it on the website, or at least back then. That's also why I eliminated the first few years of the study, because people kept writing me saying, “we had a projection designer, we just didn't credit them.” And I was like, “oh, well that's, that's a problem, if you didn't…you didn't credit them?” Um, so, that's why I moved my study up. Now it starts in ’12-13, ‘cause that's when projection designers really did start getting more credited in the regional scene.
I’m, I, I was surprised people read it. I kind of thought, “oh, designers will read it because, yay, it's about us!” And, um, nope. And then, poof, right? Like, maybe a director or two might read it. Uh, and then, you know, the shares kept going up, people started writing for more information. I'm really grateful that the community…believed me… I I guess, I guess I sort of thought since I was doing it all by myself, people would be like, “well, you're lying.” And that would be like…right? Since the confirmers are confidential, I have no way to like, prove it, right? Like, I can give everybody, here's all the raw data, but who wants to go through 3,000 different files with, you know, 18 data points per show?
PB: You know, I'm just thinking as you're, as you're talking, Porsche, it's like, why does this keep happening? And, and I, I would imagine it's because the directors that are hired are not of color, and they're used to working with their designers that they favor. And I guess it's an artistic leadership question, too: at what point does the theater itself, or the artistic director, are they able to be like, “no, we actually want you to, to look very closely at, at diversifying your teams”? You know…
PMcG: It's actually a bit of a circle, to tell you the truth, right? That, ‘cause I, I asked you in the beginning, like, so how do people get hired at your theater as designers, right? Like how does that happen? Do you just, does directors just come in with teams and you say, “sure?” And, so I talked to director friends and they were like, “oh no, I get to choose one designer of the four, Porsche,” or, “I might get lists, and I get to choose from the list.”
And then I talked to production management friends and they were like, “we only get to suggest people if somebody drops out at the last second.” And then I talked to artistic directors and they're like, “it's all the directors, we just give them whoever they want.”
PMcG: I was like, “wait, somewhere along the line, someone signs a check…
PMcG: Someone signs a contract.”
CTJ: This is actually a very…
PB: Passing the buck.
CTJ: …familiar, a familiar line of, um, logic that we've heard in many different areas. We've talked about how a lot of these studies—not only the three that we're talking about today, but others that exist—have been started on a grassroots level where there also has been institutional support. The, the Dramatists Guild began with funding the Lillys and The Count and continues to do that. Um, AAPAC, uh, started out very grassroots, volunteer, uh, on that basis, but has received foundation support from the Ford Foundation and also grants from the American Theatre Wing. And, um, I know that Porsche, you, you spoke about really taking this on yourself, and I wonder if we can continue this conversation about what role institutions might have in continuing this kind of work.
TL: Well, it seems to me that institutions, and especially this sort of network of funders and service organizations in our country are really deeply committed, increasingly to what, for want of a better word, we're calling diversity, equity, and inclusion. This work that, um, you know, Porsche and Pun and all of, all of the people who've been counting what the work is doing is furthering those efforts. And so what I've found in a short period of time with The Count is that as I reach out to organizations like the American Theatre Wing, like Theatre Development Fund—TDF—and also to our colleagues at AAPAC, Porsche, uh, Women Count, which was funded by the League of Professional Theater Women…
PB: TCG has their own statistics, as well.
TL: TCG is doing it, uh, I know I've been directed to some people who've been doing it at Equity, uh, we talked to SDC—Society of Directors and Choreographers—around disability, through the Lark and elsewhere, also through Actors’ Equity. It seems like everyone wants to join together in some way. We're going to be meeting in a couple of months with a bunch of the part-, of the potential partners to see what would happen if we aggregated some of these findings. What would happen if we actually work together and push together. Um, is there a way for a deeper and bigger picture of the field to emerge?
And it seems that everyone is eager to do it because, what started as Porsche in her kitchen and Julia and Marsha, you know, with lists of seasons from American Theatre Magazine and with AAPAC gathering together and asking what to do, is now truly part of this ongoing movement to undo racism in the theater, undo sexism in the theater, but also just to make a deeper aesthetic, to make a more vital field. And that's only gonna happen, um, with a continuous flow of different and new voices.
CTJ: I was at the LORT conference in May 2018 on behalf of Actors’ Equity where I presented the stats we've gathered about which actors and stage managers are being hired. The Society of Directors and Choreographers also gave a report as did United Scenic Artists for designers. And the clear takeaway is that we are far from parity in our industry, across the board. So I agree, Todd, it-, this is a great time for us to be holding hands and using our shared data to push for change in our industry.
TL: Okay. So, we're talking about purposeful partnerships, but there are also the kind of accidental partnerships that happen over time. I, I keep thinking back to the Kilroys’ List, which emerged…I think before The Count, and yet absolutely syncs with what The Count is trying to do—the Kilroys’ List being a list of plays, crowdsourced from literary managers and playwrights, of plays by women and women of color, um, specifically that have been overlooked in the field. And the list exists so that nobody can say, “well, we would produce these players if they existed, but they don't exist.” Voila! Kilroys’ List.
PB: And the ki-, but, you know, it's, I'm, I’m sort of getting frustrated talking about this because we have all of these statistics, we have all these organizations, we have all these people being like, “let's bring this to a level of consciousness.” And we've been doing it for so many years, and yet, you know, this, since this is a Dramatists Guild podcast, I'll just read our statistics from the 2016-17 season, the latest statistics we have about playwrights in the overall industry: Caucasian playwrights wrote 86.8 percent of all plays produced this season. And, uh, of that, 75.4 percent of them were written by men. Only 24.6 percent were written by females. 0 percent non-binding-, mi-, non-binary. And the statistics are even worse on Broadway. Uh, when you look at that sector and spe-, specifically, 95 percent of all Broadway plays and musicals were directed by Caucasians, and…95 percent were written by Caucasians. Um, and 89 percent of playwrights produced on Broadway were male. I mean, so, you have these statistics that are, that have been saying this and bringing this to the forefront, and yet, for some reason…the same stuff happens, you know? Yes.
Occasionally you'll, you'll, you'll, you'll, you'll s-, you know, yell “hoorah” when, when a play on the Kilroy List is produced. Um, and, and, and we are making progress and it's, it's good to keep that in mind, but, um, I don't know, like why, why aren't things changing fast enough? Why, why, why are artistic directors still saying, “yeah, well, we might have these female-written plays, but these male plays were better in our opinion, and this is what our audiences want to see.”
TL: I do have a thought about that. First of all, I, I would be remiss in…if I didn't point out that Count 2.0, which is the seasons of, uh, I think 2014-15, ‘15-16, and ’16-17 does show, um, a strong improvement; small-strong, you know, 8.5 percent change in, uh, plays by women, 5 percent by writers of color. So the, I think the creators of The Count have taken great pride in that, that somehow the needle is being pushed.
The numbers are still way too small, you're absolutely right. Um, but the other piece of this that I think is key that we've been talking about a lot at the Guild and actually acting on, is that the field leaders are changing, certainly in the nonprofit theater. So, um, one of my initiatives there that syncs up with this is to, um, start to provide or find national support for the new leaders of color who are taking over at theaters like the Long Wharf and Center Stage and Woolly Mammoth and St Louis Rep-, Repertory Theatre of St Louis, and so on, and is—uh, True Colors in Atlanta—is there a way that we as a field can support their efforts?
Because those are, many of those artistic leaders are leading with race. They're leading with the desire to make culture change, because you're right: we keep, we've been hitting this same wall since Marsha Norman and Wendy Wasserstein and Beth Henley were making the cry for more, you know, women playwrights on stage in the ‘70s, and then, um, you know, and in the ‘60s with Black playwrights, and you know, and so on and so-, and when did East West Players begin? You know, and, um, so it, we keep hitting the wall, but the leadership is now changing, and generationally we're changing, and we're dealing with a true crisis in our democracy, and horrible as all that is, it is also opportunity, I think.
PB: And, you know, just speaking about that, I think the crisis of democracy, where we are in this moment in time…it is a crisis, and I think people, audiences are looking for something different and more, something deeper that does speak to that. And if you think about the, the projects that have been the, uh, the hot tickets, uh, this season, or really talked about: Fairview, which won the Pulitzer Prize…
TL: Yeah. Jackie Sibblies Drury.
PB: Thank you. You know, Michael Jackson's A Strange Loop, A Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris that, uh, there was actually a, an article in American Theatre this week about how all these sort of brand name titles, uh, of things that Broadway producers used to rely on, you know, the, The Cher Show or, you know, Tootsie, or, you know, um, are, are, haven't been as bankable as, uh, plays that have been created by, uh, women, like What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck or Hadestown, for instance—Anaïs Mitchell’s, you know, masterpiece—uh, so it does speak to this moment in time where there is an interest in different perspectives. And it sounds like what you're saying, Todd, is that the, the LORT theaters are following on, that it's all happening simultaneously, that that's happening in that, that, that transformation is happening as well.
TL: Well, the hope is they'll be leading.
CTJ: I want to, to piggyback on a couple of things that were just said, and bring Porsche back into the conversation: I want to talk about the pipeline and how it is influenced by who gets to decide where it is and how it is, and Porsche in your study, you talked a lot about what the numbers look like when the leadership at the theater has been female-identifying or et cetera, and I wonder if you, you might be able to talk about that a little bit.
PMcG: Well, the pipeline thing makes me crazy, to tell you the truth, because I…
CTJ: Me. Too.
PMcG: Yes, we should concentrate on creating access to the pipeline. But people already exist who already have the experience to do this work. Um, and what I find often happens in the pipeline conversation is, it allows people to…not take responsibility, right?
That, “oh, I can only hire the people I see in front of me. And there'll be different people in five years when all the grad schools turn out all these other people.” But, you know, yes. Should there be more access to pipeline? Of course there should be. Should the pipeline be wider? Does everybody have to go to the same three drama schools? Of course not! What I struggle with with designers is, you are not just hiring their particular talent at their particular discipline, you are hopefully hiring all of them as a person, and hopefully in your spaces they can bring all of who they are inside. And what I'm hoping with the new LORT shift in artistic directors is that'll be more possible for more people.
PB: Porsche, I have a question for you. Just hearing you talk, like where, how has race been beneficial for you or, or how do you use that as part of who you are as an artist? In terms of, cause it's clear to me, you know, I as an actor can't hide what I look like and I'm usually cast because of what I look like. Um, you know, a writer usually likes to write from her perspective, and so race is a part of that. But it seems to me that a designer, and to a certain extent, directors as well, can sort of, you know, more…
PB: Chameleon, you know, if you're, if you're doing a Chekhov play, if you're designing a Chekhov play, like can you, like, can you articulate for me…
PMcG: I mean for me, it, it's in the way I work. It is perhaps not so much in the product you see on stage. I'm not sure I use lights through an Asian American lens, right? But I think it, it's in the way I work, it's in the way I talk to my crew, it's in the way I tell directors, “don't yell at me. If you yell at me…I will shut down and I will be fairly useless to you as a collaborator for at least two hours. Like, don't yell at me, it's not gonna work out well for either of us.”
Um, it's also, I think, in how I treat my assistants. I look at my assistants and go, “we are in this together, right?” I look at my entire team and think, “we are in this together. Yes, I am asking you to do things for me, but if you think I'm wrong, if you think I'm being ridiculous, I hope you'll tell me.”
Right, I hope I have created the kind of atmosphere where an assistant can look at me and go, “you know, Porsche, I know what you're trying to do here, can I try something different?” “…Okay. As long as it, as long as it ends up doing in the end what I wanted to do, sure! We have half an hour, go for it. Tell me when I should look.”
So I, you know, maybe for me, ‘cause I'm Asian American, right? Part of it is the manners thing, right? My mother is from the Philippines, I have great manners, right? I have great manners. It's something we worked on really hard when I was a kid, but it's also food. I bring my own food, I have to have my own food, I would like to bring food for everybody! Right? It is not the…
PB: That’s like the main difference in a, in an Asian American rehearsal room, it's like there's always like, food being shared, right?
PMcG: Like I, I need there to be food. You know, like I know some people can subsist on like, some coffee and…I don't know, a sweet every now and again, and I'm like, “no, no, no, I need my…right? I need to sit here for 45 minutes with my food. We can't talk about the show right now. We can talk about anything else you want.”
PMcG: “This is, this is my little barrier that…”
PB: But I would also imagine like, for Asian-specific projects as well, you have a particular viewpoint on, you know what sunrise, you know, at the Shaolin temple looks like. You're, or you know, you…
PMcG: You know, I don't really get to do Asian shows? I do race shows.
PB: That's interesting.
PMcG: But I, I very infrequently have done shows specifically about the Asian or Asian American experience.
PB: I mean, like I, I, I would imagine that designers actually have more flexibility, and because of that, I, I, you would expect that they would actually be hired with more frequency.
PMcG: Well, but you also get the reverse, right? Like, when I got hired at OSF for a Shakespeare play, I had friends be like, “oh, it's an Asian Shakespeare play.” And I'm like, “no, there, it's not an Asian take on a Shakespeare play. It's a mostly-women version of Two Gents, actually.” And I had friends be like, “but why, why you?” And I'm like… “why n-,” I mean, they know me because I was a fellow there, so why, why not me?”
PB: Yeah, exactly.
PMcG: Why not me?
PB: That happens across the board, I think, for all artists of color, you know, it's that, it's that exceptionalism, right? It's, it's the, we are the exception to the rule, and so when we are hired, there ha-, there has to be a “reason” for it. This has to be a story about race. This has to be, you know… a friend of mine was doing a workshop where she, you know, it was about six New Yorkers and all of a sudden the playwright comes in with new pages and, um, suddenly her baby, they're talking about her baby having, you know, being, being Asian and my friend was like, “well, why, why did we suddenly have to make the audience know that my character is Asian?” And, and the response was, “because we need to justify why, why you're part of this piece, you know?”
And, and you know, my friend was like, “can’t I just be part of this piece because I'm a New Yorker?” You know what I mean? Like, it's so interesting, and I'm glad that Caucasian playwrights are writing characters that are of color, um, and populating their, their landscapes with, with diverse peoples. Um, but at the same time it, it does feel weird that you have to justify hiring us.
CTJ: Porsche I want to ask you another question—sorry to shift a little bit. I wanted to know if you’ve, have felt any backlash at all?
CTJ: Oh, that, was that an audible gasp through the airwaves?
PMcG: Yeah, it was, uh huh! [laughs]
CTJ: Uh, are you comf-, if you're comfortable talking…
CTJ: …about that, I'd love to know what your experience has been in people responding to the study that you've made.
PMcG: I mean I, I get my fair share of trolls, right? I get a decent amount of hate-email…that I then bring to my local police department just in case anybody goes completely nutter butters. Um, so that they have a record of like, “here you go.” Here's all the crazy people who sent me things that are scary and terrifying, um.
Within the industry, uh, you know, you, it's so easy to get rid of a designer. You just never hire us again, right? Poof, we went poof, right? Like the genie. Um, I've heard from friends that they've suggested me for shows and people have been like, “no, she's trouble. She'll make trouble for us.” Which I find…sort of awesome? Like I’m sort of glad to be the troublemaker? Um…you know, I, I've had people be like, “you're not gonna write up about doing our show, are you?” And I'm like, “I'm kind of busy lighting your show, right? Like, I don't actually have time to your write and light your show at the same time. It's called tech.”
Um, so yeah, there's been some, there's been some negatives, but there's been, there's also been tons of positives, right? I've had tons of people, write, who are like, “I, we never thought about our designer pool before. Now we're actually looking at it. Oh, you want us to look at your sheet, Porsche? We have our own that we already did!” And I'm like, “…you did your own Excel! I am, I'm so happy, um, that you, you took the time to look at who you're hiring.” Um, and people invite me to do fun things like this. So, it's not all bad. Some of it's bad, but not all of it.
CTJ: Wow. I really didn't expect that answer, but thank you for sharing that. I, it is my greatest hope that in having these kinds of conversations and coming together, both personally and organizationally, we can help just push information out there without the kinds of repercussions that you've described, because it really is from, from my perspective—and please chime in—um, an effort to make a, a more gorgeous tapestry in the theater. It's not about trying to cut people down or to shut people out, but actually to widen the scope of it.
PMcG: Yeah, but I, I also, you know, there's that thing about “when you've been privileged, equity feels like oppression.”
PMcG: Right? And I think that's actually where a lot of my hate mail comes from.
PMcG: The like, “you're trying to make sure I can never have another show!” And I'm like, “yes, I who do so much hiring at the theater I clearly lead, I'm going to prevent anybody else from getting a show.”
TL: I think there's another aspect to it too, that I hear when Porsche talks about your assistants and the way you work in rehearsal and it, and it's alongside the kind of gorgeous tapestry that you're talking about, Christine, which is…it's a sin to squander gifts. And we live in a field that is squandering the gifts of many, many talented people. It's like, you don't shit on gifts!
And we have a field that has been dominated—and I've benefited from it. I'm a white man of a certain age and I've been a good son to other white men and a good father to other white men and have, you know, I've had a career, though I don't direct or write plays or anything like that—um. But at the same time, we have so many incredibly talented people in the field, whether we're talking about designers or directors or performers or playwrights, and so many voices and people whose experiences have not been seen.
Um, there's this beautiful, uh, I was looking back over the first publication of The Count, and there's this great graphic which is a word cloud of the first names of playwrights that came from the seasons that were studied, and right in the center in big bold letters is “DAVID” and surrounding it is Richard and John and Robert and Bruce and Steven and Tom and George and Brian and MICHAEL in big letters and JEFF in big letters and MARK in big letters, and then you kinda see…Lynn, and Theresa, and smaller Sarah and… Yasmina is pretty big. But then Christopher and Arthur are just as big. So it's like, all these men names.
And, uh, Marsha Norman wrote a beautiful introduction to this first publication of the account, which is basically, you know, “if you think about it, that four out of every five things you ever heard have been said by men. What would that do to your experience?” And that's the way it was in the theater, that's the way it is often in the theater. So, for playwrights, if 20 percent consistently—now maybe we're up to 29 percent—are plays written by women, what experience are you getting? What resources are we wasting? What voices, what stories are we not hearing? How much less rich is our experience of this rich world?
CTJ: Before I ask you another question I, I want, I always want to ask if there's anything else that you, we haven't talked about yet that anyone of you is really eager to enter into the conversation?
PMcG: Lemme just toss out, I, I don't have institutional support, but I started this Patreon like four months ago and I just want to say thank you to all the supporters and sharers and it makes me cry thinking about people willing to support the study.
CTJ: That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. Yes, I think that as frustrating as this work can be—and it is, because we're still doing it—uh, but as frustrating as it can be, it alwa-, it's always so, um, inspiring and, and, um, encouraging to me also to, to know of all of the colleagues that we have that stand in support of this work and stand in support of making the theater a more inclusive place.
TL: I do want to say one thing, Christine, and maybe it's not even for this podcast, but, um, as a kind of accidental historian of the Art Theater, the regional theater and the Off-Broadway theater, um, one of the true facts that is often overlooked is that this theater movement, the Art Theater, began in American settlement houses at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century.
So, our sense that the theater is something other than commercial begins in reform houses in urban environments whose function is to bring immigrant experiences into American life. At the Hull House Theater in Chicago, the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of New York, and elsewhere, that's where the modern theater enters America.
And, you know, now here we are a full hundred-plus years later, and we're trying to make sense of the fact that this is a country made of people from other countries and trying to keep, you know some people out and trying to end—inadvertently, but consistently and systemically -- keeping certain voices out. But the roots of our theater are in, what then was an, uh, an attempt at both a kind of melting pot and a way of, um, honoring people's origins.
So, it was that complicated thing of like, let's melt everybody into one thing, but also let's make sure that everybody remembers where they come from. And we've been dealing with that ever since. But to say that this is a new issue in the theater or a new movement, or that what the people who are trying to count and point and show true maps and true pictures of what is, um, let's not deny history, which says that theater is the effort of different people to come together and tell their stories across culture.
CTJ: Let's expand on that a little bit and, and talk about how we can move forward, the best ways that we can move forward. How do we, um, yeah, that's, that's all I can say. How do we move forward from here?
TL: I do think, you know, I was trying to figure out, there's some twist of the phrase “safety in numbers.” There's some reality in numbers and there's some…hope in banding together among those of us who are dealing in numbers around all this stuff. Uh, and I think you can feel it happen.
I mean, we're sitting around a table, and you're in Chicago, and we're talking about this now, we have numbers in front of us. We have 10 years, or 12 years or 14 years of numbers in front of us. We have a new generation of artistic leaders who are coming in. We have a national discussion around race that is as painful, but also as real as we've had in a long, long time. And so I've, I can only hope that this kind of sense of, not just aggregating numbers, but sort of constellating efforts, um, will help us move to actually change the culture.
You know, our thea-, the theaters that we're studying aren't very old; they're 60 years old or younger. And um, they grew out of nothing. I mean, they, this theater movement—um, that includes Off-Broadway and includes LORT and it includes resident theaters of all stripes—is young, and it changed the culture, but it changed the culture of the arts. It didn't change the culture of the culture. And so, now is that next phase of the movement, which is to change the culture of the country in a deeper way. And, and the first things that have to go are the kind of racist and sexist and, uh, homophobic structures of the country. The violence, our violence against each other.
CTJ: Yes. I want to acknowledge also that we are needing to expand our counting of artists with disabilities and, um, non-binary identification in, in gender and et cetera, and these are things…
PB: Native American stories,
PB: Middle Eastern stories, they consistently are so low.
PB: Very, very not represented.
TL: But all this work leads to greater inclusion. I mean, I see it looking back at The Count, and they set out to count women, and they then, they had to deal with race. And then they had to deal with, um, gender that wasn't on the binary. And, you know, and I think the great thing about this work is it's always limited and it always leads to more inclusion. As opposed to exclusion, which always leads to greater exclusion.
PMcG: God, I have no idea how to move forward. Uh…I mean, you know, really it's, it's: hire more women designers, hire more designers of color, hire more disabled designers, hire more designers who come from marginalized and underrepresented identities and communities, but also just look at who you're hiring. And yes, I know many, you know, I as a lighting designer, I walk into a theater for 10 days, maybe 14 days. But that show I've done for you is now a third of your season, a sixth of your season, right? So it may not feel like, well, you know, “the designers, we get drawings from them, right? They're not here that long.”
But they're still part of your community.
PB: For my part, I, you know, I'm emboldened by the, the works that are being anointed right now, the stories that are coming to the surface, our stats we look at, we compare Broadway to the nonprofit sector, and I think Broadway started catching up when they realized that diversity was actually good for business. All of these more, as Todd you called them “art stories” have found a space on Broadway. You know, it's still a long ways off, but that level of diversity has brought in different audience members to Broadway that never has come to Broadway before.
And, uh, you can see that, that Broadway keeps on getting more and more people and being a bigger business every single year because of that. It's a very positive story overall, but there are still so many stories out there that are invisible and not heard, uh, that are part of the American fabric. And, and I think as we stitch together our democracy again, we have to, we have to ask ourselves the question of whose story are we telling? And I think part of that is, you know, as you were saying, Porsche, that being conscious of who is getting the opportunities.
CTJ: Thank you. How can people continue to support your work and the work of your organizations in doing research? How can people see the reports for themselves?
PB: If people wanted to help fund the AAPAC study, this is, it is completely volunteer and we are actually are looking for more money in order to hire designers to revamp our stats and our database. You can go to our fiscal sponsor’s page: it's fracturedatlas.org and just search for AAPAC, A-A-P-A-C, to make a donation.
TL: The Lillys, they should give to the Lillys.
PMcG: If folks want to support, um, who designs and directs in LORT theaters—by pronoun now!—they can visit patreon.com/porsche, P-O-R-S-C-H-E. Thank you!
TL: Yeah, so The Count is a collaboration of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Lillys. To support it, go to the Lillys website, L-I-L-L-Y-S.org.
CTJ: Okay, thank you, Todd and Pun and Porsche for joining me today and having this really fascinating and vital conversation.
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.
As always, to be continued.