Several sentences in the letter posted to the Facebook page of the Atlanta Lyric Theatre could easily serve as a model for statements by theatres nationally. They read:
Moving forward, it is the policy of Atlanta Lyric Theatre that ethnically specific casting, or the casting of any other actors of color, will occur in those shows in which ethnicity is a central component to the telling of the story. Additionally, The Lyric will continue its policy of considering people of all backgrounds for roles that are not ethnically specified. We are proud to be part of a diverse theatre community; and our stage will represent that inclusivity.
It is the hope of Atlanta Lyric Theatre and the members of the Latino community with whom we spoke that there will be a deeper understanding of the need for an ongoing discussion about race in theatre and in all aspects of our lives, and to encourage others to have positive and constructive face-to-face conversations.
The letter, dated June 30, was prompted by the casting of The Lyric’s production of West Side Story, which had closed the preceding weekend. The letter further states that while “the intention of The Lyric was to cast appropriate roles in the show with Latino singers, dancers, and actors, some roles in the show did not accurately reflect that ethnicity,” that “Atlanta Lyric Theatre regrets not casting all ethnically specific roles in ‘West Side Story’ with Latino performers,” and that the company “acknowledges that we could have done more to reach out to the community in an effort to insure Latinos were well represented.” As a professional company that casts not only locally but in New York, sometimes using Actors Equity guest artist contracts (there were four AEA actors in WSS), The Lyric certainly shouldn’t have wanted for options.
While The Lyric doesn’t specifically say that they “apologize,” the effect of the letter is to make clear that they realize they were in error and that they publicly pledge not to disregard race in casting again – though it should be noted that the cast was, in part, Latina/o, that there was not a complete racial erasure by any means.
Not to diminish the importance of The Lyric’s statement, there are a few comments that hint at what preceded it, but elide thornier topics. The Lyric begins by writing that they “initiated a meeting…with members of the Latino community to have an open dialogue about race and its impact on actors and audiences.” It is surprising that, having cast their production as they did, The Lyric spontaneously decided to address ethnic authenticity in casting.
Responding to questions via e-mail, The Lyric’s artistic director Brandt Blocker described the origins of the dialogue and the group the theatre met with:
The two Latino actors who originally voiced concerns around the casting of WSS were invited. One is a local freelance actor (who has performed in a Lyric cabaret in our studio space, but never on our main stage) and the other is originally from the Atlanta area but currently lives/works in NYC (and had no prior affiliation of any kind with The Lyric). Prior to the meeting, we requested them to please invite others in the local Latino theatre community who they felt would want to participate in our discussion. Our understanding is they invited the artistic directors of another local theatre company, but unfortunately they did not/were not able to attend. The Lyric also invited and in attendance were our Latina WSS choreographer, our Latino WSS production assistant (who is also a local freelance actor), as well as an active local Latino freelance director/choreographer (who was not involved in the WSS production, but has directed/choreographed shows for The Lyric in the past).
Elsewhere in his response, Blocker said, “The Lyric has been in contact with the Latino community here in Atlanta throughout the entire production process.” As to the final statement as issued, Blocker wrote, “The statement was written by The Lyric along with input, feedback, and ultimately, blessing, from the members of the Latino community with whom we met. It was intended by both parties to be a joint statement in the hopes of demonstrating the power of productive conversation when it comes to conversations regarding diversity and inclusivity in our industry.”
It might have made the statement even stronger had it been made clear that The Lyric was responding to concerned expressed from outside the theatre, rather than seeming to emerge unilaterally from within. Also, this is not solely a creative issue but one for the entire Latina/o community in this case, and ultimately for all communities of color in the Atlanta area. Going beyond the artists affiliated with the production and other Latina/o artists known to The Lyric’s artists, perhaps reaching out to more broad-based Latina/o organizations, would have insured the message went even father and that The Lyric benefited from even greater community knowledge.
In a review of comments on The Lyric’s Facebook page, one commenter asks what happened to a conversation about race and casting that had begun on one of their posts (that same commenter later praised the letter regarding future policy). Given that the only Facebook comments that remain in connection with West Side Story posts are positive or neutral, it’s impossible not to wonder whether members of the Latina/o community expressed their concerns there initially, vocally and emphatically, only to have that dialogue expunged.
Blocker responded to this, saying, “Several individuals on the Lyric’s FB page removed their comments that were attached to this post of their own accord, and as a result, any sub-comments attached to their posts were also deleted. After our meeting last week with members of the Atlanta Latino theatre community, we mutually agreed to remove the original posting because the remaining comments, with so many pieces deleted, were fragmented and confusing to a reader who had not had the opportunity to read the entire thread as it originally unfolded.” However, the fact that any question remains on their page asking what happened to the dialogue suggests that while a defined group may have agreed to remove the conversation in the wake of the new statement, there were others who were not directly party to that meeting who were left feeling perhaps too much had been removed.
As a corollary to Blocker’s statement above about the origin of the new statement, other groups that opt to issue statements that speak to artistic policy regarding race should consider making very clear that the company leadership fully stands behind it it. The Lyric letter was posted without any signature and without any personal e-mail through which people might respond, only an “info@” address. The letter would carry even more weight if it were signed by Blocker and perhaps by the present board chair Paula Grothe. Then it would make absolutely clear that the policy has been discussed and agreed upon throughout the organization, and not only in response to a particular circumstance, even though the intention is clearly and laudably stated. Blocker writes that, “the staff, creative team, and board of directors have enthusiastically embraced this policy, which is set to be ratified by the Board at their next meeting on July 24th.”
Finally, while the run of the play was short (June 10 through 27) and it’s not clear when The Lyric first began to hear from the Latina/o community, acknowledging the new policy while the show was still running would have been a major step. Also, not releasing the statement at a time when many people had begun a long holiday weekend would have helped to bring attention to their new commitment.
These are meant as constructive criticisms, specifically because there’s so very much that is positive in The Lyric’s letter. Certainly The Lyric has put itself on the line and the creative community in the Atlanta area will surely hold them to to the standards now set. As for other companies evolving their thinking on this topic in response to artists, or proactively making clear their intentions without any inciting incident, they would do well to take full responsibility in every sentence of what they say. There’s no shame in admitting you’re wrong, and that you are committing to not repeating the same mistakes again, be it with the Latina/o, black, Asian, Native, LGBT, disability communities and artists – or any other.
P.S. One last tip for The Lyric: it may be wise to remove those photos of the “Indians” of Peter Pan from the company website. While you cannot deny your company’s history regarding ethnic and racial representation, making these particular images so readily available is at cross-purposes with your new policy.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School of Performing Arts and interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.