Behind The Curtain: Racism, Bias, and Discrimination in the Theatre Industry
When you see a live theatre production, it is an enthralling experience, and the memories last forever. Running your fingers through the crisp pages of the Playbill, the feeling of the seat cushion across your legs, the background noise of staff and excited theatregoers, and your eyes taking in everything. The bright lights shining the stage, making it the dominant presence of the quaint theatre, each telling its own story through the history of the theatre, and show you’re about to see. Set pieces and marking tape across the stage. Everyone else crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in seats, snapping pictures for memories, first-timers in awe of experiencing the thrill of live theatre. The orchestra preparing for another show, tuning instruments and making last-minute alterations. Shuffling backstage of cast and crew members ready to begin. Then, it all goes dark. The lights dim briefly, and then reshine, emphasizing the stage once again. But instead of seeing an empty set, the stage is filled with cast members ready to tell a story. The curtain opens.
A short time later, the curtain closes and opens once again, re-introducing the cast for their curtain call to a rave of applause. As the members smile and take their bows, the show comes to an end. Many theatre enthusiasts choose to go out to the stage door for a chance to meet and interact with their favorite actors, who all of course have smiles and high energy before and after performing.
However, behind the smiles, and behind the thrill of live theatre, there is a layer of negativity within the industry. This has arisen from the ongoing problem of racism, bias, and discrminination within the industry.
Julia Stanley (she/her), a freshman theatre student at Washington College (WAC) in Chestertown, Md. and a hopeful special education and theatre educator, discussed her experiences as a performer. “Theatre is a place where people can express themselves freely, ask big, philosophical questions and bring up topics that are swept under the rug by society…as a cisgender white woman who is tall and plus size, I have felt like there is no place for me in theatre, being someone who doesn’t subscribe to traditional beauty standards or femininity standards because of the way I look and sound. You look at the industry as a whole, and see so few roles made for women like you, and so few people willing to bend their perception of a character and let you play them.” Said Stanley when asked about her experiences with racism, bias, and/or discrimination in her various theatre courses. She additionally said although Washington’s theatre department had made news regarding a show they intended to put on. Stanley said about the show, “it is a comedy dealing with racism, and many students said nowadays the representation of racial issues within a comedy/satire was uncomfortable and an inappropriate lens to discuss race. The college chose to cancel the production. I wasn’t a student at the time, but the theatre dept. is making a real effort to diversify what they teach, and how they cast. I am actually playing a traditionally cisgender male role in a production this semester.” Although Stanley hasn’t been to campus in-person yet due to COVID-19, she feels mostly confident about WAC’s take on racism, bias, and discrimination, inside and outside the theatre department. She said “the college has had issues in the past with racist community members…I think the community has work to do in terms of education. But, although my college is a primarily white institution, they have been bringing in speakers, having those hard conversations, and integrating more Black history, art, and perspectives into curriculums.”
Annie Hubert (they/them), an arts student at Carroll Community College in Westminster, Md., shared their experiences as an non-binary actor in various theatre programs inside and outside of school. “I didn’t start doing productions until high school at age 15, and that’s where I found out it’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It has helped me find myself, especially my identity when it comes to coming out as non-binary in quarantine. I feel like it’s difficult during quarantine and the arts being held back, but my high school director allowed people to tell their personal stories in their fall production of this year, and my college director did the same. A lot of stories about racism and discrinimation were told.” When asked if anything affected their motivation to continue in theatre, Hubert said “myself. I didn’t know if I was good enough to do it. Also, as a non-binary actor, I’m scared that people won’t allow me to play certain roles, even though I feel totally comfortable playing any role of any gender, as I just remind myself it’s just a character and not myself.”
Despite the issues of racism, bias, and discrimination inside and outside the industry, everyone I’ve spoken to loves what they do. “theatre is a place where you have to live truthfully in a fake reality. It’s escapism, but often I find that I learn a lot about myself through theatre too. It’s deep, complex, and challenging but that’s what makes it so rewarding.” “It’s my number-one passion and it allows me to express myself. I love telling stories of characters and causing emotions in audience members,” said Stanley and Hubert on their love and appreciation for theatre. In front of the negativity actors may experience inside and outside the industry, the smiles and encouraging applause when you step onstage to take a bow makes it all worth it.