Act 2: Theatre students call for systemic action from the DPA, beyond current efforts
‘It starts with a mindset change’
Editor’s Note: This story is the second part of a two part series. Read part one here.
With American University’s Theatre Program in the full swing of the fall semester, many students hope that Program leadership learned lessons after the events of spring 2023. These Theatre students also have suggestions to remedy diversity and race related issues.
Theater programs and leaders beyond the University have been having conversations about anti-racism and diversity. When Black Lives Matter protests across the country erupted following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, many industries, including theater, were forced to reckon with the discrimination and biases baked into their institutions.
Rikki Howie has been involved in D.C. theater since 1992 and founded Confidence Theatrics. Howie said she created her company to bring awareness to the lack of diversity in theater today and help guide conversations about trauma-inducing show content.
“The formal DEI training that is out there is white-centered,” Howie said. “Training doesn't speak to the core of the issues we have in theater, because theater was built with exclusions involved and that’s all we have known. That is why we need to change how we talk about this issue.”
Eleanor Tapscott, the executive director for The Actors’ Center, a D.C.-based organization that provides resources and networking for actors, implored theaters to think about the stories they are telling and how to diversify theatergoers and the people seen on their stages.
“That doesn’t mean do an [Asian American and Pacific Islander] play in May because that is AAPI month or February because that’s when ‘we do our Black show,’” Tapscott said. “Those stories from these communities are relevant and at any time of the year so ensure you are making a conscious effort to expand work.”
The Department of Performing Arts and Theatre Program improvements
Mirroring the industry at large, Department of Performing Arts Chair Daniel Abraham said in an interview with The Eagle that the University’s Theatre Program has been taking significant steps to address concerns regarding diversity, equity and inclusion.
When it comes to show selection, Abraham said that there is a complex process for choosing shows the DPA will adapt for the upcoming season. According to Abraham, the Department wants to have a strong balance of different identities represented in playwrights with a variety of modern and historical works performed.
“There was discussion about greater transparency regarding the content of each show; why the selection was made; and to also provide students with an advance warning in terms of what kinds of situations and issues or triggering parts of the drama might be present so they can make their own decision on auditioning,” Abraham said.
Abraham said he is proud of the demographics of current DPA staff and their hiring practices, which he said focus on ensuring potential candidates not only agree with the DPA’s vision of supporting diversity but also bring a new voice to the staff.
“We are doing a lot more outreach to important [historically Black colleges and universities] graduate programs in the fields we are searching,” Abraham said. “[We] have done a lot more outreach to places that support organizations that represent faculty of color to make sure the word is getting out in a meaningful way.”
Student calls for action
Despite efforts to increase staff diversity and institute anti-racism into the program curriculum, students say they have ideas and suggestions they think would be more visible and effective than what is currently being done.
Carson Young, a senior in the Theatre Program, said that if upper administration in the Theatre Program increased transparency and communicated with students on problems immediately, it would help prevent any distrust between faculty and students.
Young said that one of the reasons students ultimately go straight to the College of Arts and Sciences’ administration instead of the DPA when reporting race, diversity and identity-related incidents is because the Department does not fix problems.
“I think that’s where a lot of the frustration for students is coming from, because students are saying, ‘you tell us to send problems to you first, but you don’t do anything about it,’” Young said.
Jae Gee, a senior in the Theatre Program, said that many Theatre professors are well-intentioned and doing the best they can with what support they have from the Department’s administration, but still have a lot of learning and listening to do.
“The frustration with DPA that I’ve had for a long time is that change is slow and it takes very big, dramatic and painful incidents with a lot of people for change to happen,” Gee said. “I think that it’s ironic when you're at AU and the whole slogan is ‘Change Can't Wait,’ and then I’ve been here in the DPA for three years and nothing has fucking changed. It is not the professors’ fault but the administration’s fault.”
In an email to The Eagle following his interview, former Director of the Theatre & Musical Theatre Program Karl Kippola wrote that students should first go directly to the person they are having an issue with and then a professor. If the situation is more severe or unsuccessfully resolved, students should bring the issue to the chair of the Department.
In a separate email to The Eagle on Sept. 11, Kippola said that he will be on a research sabbatical until January 2024.
Staff diversity remains a primary concern for students.
Lauren Riojas, a Theatre alumna, said that coming from Houston, Texas, she was unprepared for a lower level of faculty diversity. Riojas said she felt that if the Theatre Program was proactive with student concerns in a way that was not performative, it could “increase the different perspectives at the table”.
“You need more representation to make your [students of color] feel comfortable and to have other people have their voices be heard as well,” Riojas said. “That way, all of the rules aren't only being made by white men.”
Sydne Chesson, a Theatre alumna, and Claire Phillips, a junior in the Theatre Program, both said that one way to increase staff diversity is to look at places outside of Northwest D.C. and the Kennedy Center, or to search for people not classically trained in theater. Phillips also said that diversity is not only related to race but also gender, LGBTQ+ identities and socio-economic background.
“I think it starts with the mindset change,” Phillips said. “You can say that ‘there are no problems here’ and that ‘we’re diverse,’ but if the mindset of the people in the DPA — faculty and students — are not reflecting those values, then nothing's going to change.”
Vish Shukla, a junior Theatre major, said he has been fortunate to have participated in shows with a more diverse cast and crew. Shukla said that the DPA staff and students have been “open to hearing my experience as a South Asian man,” but that they can still make further progress.
“As faculty members in their role as educators, I think they’re doing what they can and I think there's always room for more growth,” Shukla said. “I think we could always be accepting more [Black and Indigenous] students into AU, not just in the DPA, too.”
According to Riojas, having incoming student scholarships is one solution that has worked in other theater programs to increase student representation. Many students of color are also low-income, she said, so having a POC-based grant would help students who really need it.
Gee believes that it is important to ensure policies are in place to protect students of color in theater productions from start to finish, because acting is intimate and requires high levels of trust.
“It’s very different to ask two people to sit on opposite sides of a classroom together for two hours than it is to ask them to perform together, to act together, multiple hours a night for 40 hours a week,” Gee said.
Simon Huynh, a junior Theatre major, thinks that increasing the number and diversity of students who choose the Department’s productions may lead to less bias in the types of shows chosen.
“Directors can also be more collaborative, especially with underrepresented communities and any sort of diverse community, if they want to have a show that's really indicative of diverse experiences,” Huynh said.
Students in the Theatre Program decided to start the University’s first “BIPOC-centered theater group,” the Radical World Players. According to their Instagram, the group is “a safe space dedicated to encouraging creativity and thinking of new ways to imagine theater.”
“We as [BIPOC] in the community are trying to communicate more with one another and have a space for ourselves,” Shukla, a member of the Players, said. “For the faculty, please continue to remain open to suggestions and know that all suggestions from [students of color] are made with kindness and understanding.”
Sarina Govindaiah, a junior in the Theatre Program, said that even though many issues within the Program were brought to light during the spring semester, it is important to continue to improve on DEI issues and anti-racism within the program.
“I think there is a lot of responsibility put on students and I think what happened on ‘Bat Boy: The Musical’ is kind of indicative of not only the theater program, but the DPA needs to be better,” Govindaiah said. “Dialogues and mediation outside of class don’t always work and there’s a lot more you have to do to force specifically white people to reckon with their racist notions, but also the racist history of theater.”
This article was edited by Sara Winick, Tyler Davis, Walker Whalen, Zoe Bell, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Sarah Clayton.