There are these two media theorists, Blumler and Katz, whose “uses and gratifications” theory states that people purposely consume media that satisfies their needs and desires. For pop culture lovers and casual Netflixers alike, that can take a number of different forms. Whether you’re a pre-med watching Grey’s Anatomy, a South Asian student watching Master of None or an Asian pre-med watching Dr. Ken, the point is clear – we we want our backgrounds, identities and histories to be told.
The Oscars may be #SoWhite, but they are not alone. The need for authentic diversity in entertainment is an imperative shared by Hollywood executives and Northwestern theatre faculty alike. On the stage or on our screens, the stories we see shape our notions of race. If Emma Stone plays an Asian woman, if stories about people of color are rarely recognized, if histories of Black and Brown people are told with only white faces (looking at you, Ridley Scott), this is the world that will continue to exist. For this reason, theater departments like Northwestern’s are opening up avenues to discuss diversity not just a checkbox, but as a priority for the next generation of actors, directors, producers and writers.
In the theatre program at Northwestern, giving students of color opportunities and highlighting these histories are a priority. For Chair of Theatre Dr. Harvey Young, his research and work focuses on the intersections of race and performance in contemporary theater. As a professor, University diversity council board member and a strong advocate for race and inclusion, he works to build a consciousness of diverse narratives and characters in the next generation of creators.
Young champions his long-term vision – one where the stories of people of color are told on their terms, where actors of color are empowered to choose the roles they want, and where people in the theater community of all races are conscious of who and what their works are representing.
“Screenwriters are often told not to write about race unless it’s consequential to the story. The default assumption is often of a white male protagonist, and race is only introduced through that protagonist’s encounters,” says Young, “At Northwestern, there’s been a push for new play development... If you’re limited to staging the same old things again and again, there’s things you can do with colorblind or non-traditional casting, but you’re never going to be able to tell someone’s lived experience.”
Through his Theatre in Context class, a required course for all theater majors, he encourages students to write about their experiences, emphasizing a mindfulness of their artistic choices and whose voices are tacitly included or excluded. Because all theater students take the course, diversity and inclusion are centered in the current curriculum.
Young acknowledges that the nature of theater is ultimately rooted in appearance – the actors’ perceptions, the set, the lights are all integral to creating the world on the stage. But the public nature of the stage blurs a thin line between creative vision and implicit biases, making decisions, such as casting, implicitly political.
“In terms of producing works on campus that specifically call for actors, sometimes the pool is limited by the number of people available to act or by the number of people who want to play those roles. That creates kind of the odd dynamic that exists within any given casting cycle, as there are multiple pulls in terms of what people want to play.”
This “odd dynamic” is typical of the Northwestern experience as an actor of color. While there is a need and desire for more characters from the margins on the stage, there is an equal emphasis on the freedom for all students, regardless of race, to pursue roles beyond their self-identified race. The professional theater world is historically much less forgiving than a college theater community when it comes to casting non-traditional actors in conventionally white roles, so the desire for students to avoid reductive “Asian girl” or “Black male” roles during their college careers is reasonable.
At the same time, “you don’t want to lose the ability to tell a story and affect someone’s experience as a spectator,” said Young. As a result, the theatre department and the Wirtz Center for Performing Arts make conscious efforts to remain committed to showcasing underrepresented narratives, allocating resources to hire professional actors to fill the gaps and honoring students’ preferences.
While there’s not much the school can do to regulate casting decisions of MFA candidates or outside directors, it can provide resources for students to pursue these avenues independent from Wirtz or the school itself. The continued interest in probing issues of race and diversity has gained significant traction within student organizations, which have much greater freedoms to put on non-traditional shows featuring underrepresented narratives.
The School of Communication makes additional funding available to students who wish to start their own student groups or highlight works not represented in the Mainstage roster. “The more we can do to help people realize the benefits of thinking about diversity, the more we can provide resources that support readings and full productions in that vein.”
Ultimately, students are here for just four years, reminds Young. During that time, the theatre department can only try its best to introduce students to as broad of a range of works as possible. Substantive and long-lasting change to a culture of theater is inevitably and regrettably slow, and students may not see this change within their brief Northwestern experience. But until then, at the helm of one of the country’s most renowned theater departments, Young hopes to be planting the seeds of change.
“Everyone comes into [the theatre program] thinking about race and what it means and how our bodies register it onstage. What does it mean to not give a person opportunity? To hold onto these limiting, reductive notions? My hope is to introduce students to these concepts that will get them to think about how our own biases are creating a less diverse theater for the future.”