What do you mean, Diversity?

Do you want to start an impassioned discussion? Get a range of opinions you didn’t even know existed? Mention the word, “Diversity.”   Boom, there it is.   The word that is fraught with contention, loaded with preconception and armed with rampant militancy. It is an ideal that is sought, a concept that is at times avoided, and for most part, profoundly misunderstood.DiversityPuzzle1

As a nation, we often talk about diversity. We claim to be the most diverse nation in the world, and that conversation revolves around inclusion and big tent ideas. But is that diversity, or is it assimilation? There’s a big difference. The diversity that is spoken of in the national consciousness is more about assimilation as a condition of acceptance. It’s an inclusion without proper honor to the difference, and rather condescending in most cases.

We look at individuals of some sub-set within our culture, whether it be race, religion, cultural heritage, or sexual orientation, and we want and expect that person to be a representative of what we perceive them to be. And as long as their general outlook on life is similar to our own, they are sort of welcome to the party.

This falls very much in line with a professor I had at University of Michigan. Dr. Summers asserted that Shakespeare’s plays have a universal appeal. (In his defense, this was at a time when everyone was trying to define all of humanity as being the same with just superficial differences, i.e., the only difference between men and women was plumbing.) He taught that the values that Shakespeare wrote of were so profoundly universal, that any culture on the face of the planet would recognize those values and identify those principals as their own.

The truth, of course, is that this logic is hogwash. Shakespeare’s writings were the essential values of Western Culture. And in many cases, his plots or suppositions of values would be totally foreign, and perhaps offensive to non–Western Europeans.

But perhaps this is why we have such a hard time with diversity in theatre. On an overview, we promote the notion that by representing alternative lives and experiences on a stage, we are representing diversity at it’s best. When we cast a show color blind, we pride ourselves in the effort we make at promoting diversity. When we depict lifestyle choices other than our own, and represent them on stage, we feel we’re opening the eyes of the world to possibilities. Here’s the tough reality – we are not, at least not completely.

Diversity, in its fuller sense, means that for us to grasp the nature of a character, we need to see the story as told through the eyes of that character. Simply stated, if a straight male actor makes a choice that say, Richard III is a gay, and then plays him as such, it is a misrepresentation. He imposes his definition of sexual orientation upon a character, but isn’t representing a gay Richard, nor for that matter how a gay actor might portray that role.

If a man, no matter how sincere the effort, plays a woman’s role we will not see that world through that woman’s eyes, because the man is not a woman. His worldview is that of a man. No matter how insightful, no matter how studied, no matter how earnest the effort, it is a different show.

The part of diversity that so often is overlooked is the very essence of the differences between people. Aside from the fact that casting is disproportionally white, the very foundation of story telling in theatre is so profoundly dominated by traditional Western European male values that we don’t even recognize what we’re missing.

The Importance of Being Earnest, when produced by Queer Classics last year, shed a light on Wilde’s script that I’d never seen. Deaf West is not just playing Spring Awakening on Broadway, but they’re getting ready to go on tour. Think of the possibilities. When hearing impaired actors perform in a musical, the truth of the story is even more pronounced. Marlee Matlin, in Children of a Lesser God uttered a line that has stayed with me for nearly 30 years, “Show me the music!”

Ali Stoker is in the cast of Spring Awakening.  She is the first wheel chair bound performer in Broadway’s history. When the world is revealed through the lives of those we do not know, there are levels of humanity that come through that writers have only vague dreams of achieving. Lisa Wolpe has spent years producing and performing Shakespeare with women playing all roles, and the effects and insights are compelling.

Sheldon Epps at the Pasadena Playhouse who is interviewed within this month’s pages has championed the cause of Diversity in our community for nearly 20 years as the Artistic Director of that organization. His perspectives and experiences are illuminating, and his insights into our progress should give us all pause to think.

Diversity2When we not only recognize, but celebrate the full range of voices that are available to us, when we accept the validity of a vision that does not conform to our standards, when there is profound equanimity in theatre and distribution of roles, directors, designers and other theatre staff as well, then we will have reached a goal of “Diversity”. Until then, we watch the faces on the stage and count who is representing whom without really understanding what those eyes can say.

So too goes our culture. A camera panning the delegates at a political convention, always dwell on minorities. Why? They dwell, because, all those variations, are supposed to represent our cultural openness, our willingness to accept. But just as on stage, until there is full equanimity, we’re really only fooling ourselves and disallowing the full range of voice and opportunity in our society.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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