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Spring Awareness for a More Inclusive Dramat

In the fall of 2016, only nine people of color auditioned for the Yale Dramatic Association’s (Dramat) staging of the musical Wild Party, while 75 people auditioned in total. As the second show the Dramat ever put up by a Black playwright, the intention was for the organization to support inclusive and diverse theater. However, a white woman was cast to play Mr. Black, a character written as a Black man. The director, Zi Alikhan, a man who, according to his website, was raised by two immigrant Indian parents, substituted one type of oppression for another, which caused many people to feel uncomfortable due to the incomparability of the two types of oppression. This was the beginning of a complex diversity issue within the Dramat, which gained the reputation of producing white-washed, establishment theater. The Dramat released a statement after the incident, due to backlash from both the theater community and the student body, which included, “We also know that the circumstances surrounding casting represent a much larger problem, extending beyond this particular production and the Dramat as an organization. There are serious, systemic challenges to meaningful progress toward diversity and inclusion.”

Furthermore, the show’s playwright, Andrew Lippa, responded to the controversy, in an “Arts Integrity” article, saying:

“I have had no hand in the casting at Yale (other than being the playwright!). I applaud these student producers’ efforts to recast their production per the character description in the script. I have always, and will always, support and defend the rights of living dramatic writers (and all plays still protected by copyright) in all casting decisions.”

Lippa made it clear that his intention was for the part of Mr. Black to be played by a Black actor, as the character was originally written.

Soon after, the Dramat held an open forum about the casting issues, which resulted in the reopening of auditions for Wild Party. During an interview with The Politic, Alejandro Campillo (‘21, they/them/theirs), a Latinx member of the trans community and current Vice President of the Dramat, discussed how Wild Party ultimately did not do justice to its POC characters: “…the two other Black people in the show were not cast as an important member of the cast but a moot character and a gangster-ish character, so it just meant the Black representation in that show was very skewed.” Following this controversy, the Dramat began to make significant changes, including requiring all auditions to be videotaped for review by the executive board, in order to ensure fairness and equity in the casting process, and necessitating that directors submit their casting trees to the board for review before casting calls go out. A casting tree is a spreadsheet with the first, second, and third choices for casting for each character in a show. The executive board can then reject the casting tree if it is not diverse enough. 

The Dramat also worked with the Yale Drama Coalition, an umbrella organization for the theater community that makes the rules and regulations of casting protocol, to push back the first audition cycle to give first year students more time to acclimate to Yale and, therefore, make theater more accessible. Another initiative that stemmed from Wild Party was the decision to create a new position on the executive board of the Dramat called the “Outreach Coordinator.” The official job description is: “The Outreach Coordinator facilitates the Dramat’s outreach efforts both within and without the Yale community, including its collaboration with Pathways to the Arts and Humanities.” In practice, the job includes sitting in on all auditions for the Dramat in order to ensure a more inclusive audition and casting process, as well as reaching out to cultural houses to encourage more diversity.

The 2017 fall mainstage was Dreamgirls, a musical about the competitive world of the entertainment industry with a primarily POC cast. It was chosen in part as reparations for the controversial casting decisions made in Wild Party. The Dramat’s official statement regarding the reasoning included, among details about the plot and large ensemble: “Set in one of the most pivotal moments in American history, it also presents exciting opportunities to talk about appropriation, the pressures of commercialization, and the ways in which Black women make space for themselves in a white male world.”

In discussing Dreamgirls, Campillo said, “[The Dramat picked the show] without ever really bridging that gap with the Black Yale community. So what ends up happening in Dreamgirls is there’s not enough Black men who audition. They hire three professional Black, male actors. There’s also a myriad of problems just because it was too quick of a jump. Not to say it shouldn’t have happened, it was just that the process was not great. But the final product was good. But in the theater community, people knew how terrible that process was, so it further alienated POC communities.” In other words, the Dramat hadn’t taken time to build the POC community’s confidence in the Dramat’s ability to sensitively deal with race relations, and instead leapt directly into a musical with a mostly Black cast, which made recruiting for auditions difficult.

The next year, the fall mainstage was Spring Awakening. The Dramat’s character descriptions all included, “female, female indentifying, or non-binary actor of any ethnicity” or “male, male identifying, or non-binary actor of any ethnicity.” Judging by these descriptions, the cast seemed as though it would be more diverse than ever. However, according to Mikaela Boone (‘21, she/her/hers), the current President of the Dramat, the director, Ivey Lowe, did not want to represent interracial violence and insisted that the two lead roles, Melchior and Wendla, be played by actors of the same race. The Dramat board was initially unaware of Lowe’s concerns and rejected her original casting tree because it was not diverse enough. After the tree was accepted due to increased diversity, “A lot of POC people said no…. And once one person says no, it kind of turns into a little bit of a domino effect,” according to Boone. 

Due to the nature of the casting tree, after a director’s first choice actor says no, the director calls the second choice actor for that part, and then, if necessary, the third. Thus, this process may lead to a domino effect in people turning down parts as they learn that others previously turned down the part. Boone went on to say, “[Spring Awakening] ended up having a cast of white and white-passing people—there were three POC people in the cast, but they were all white-passing, which made people pretty angry.”

One of the people who auditioned for Spring Awakening was Campillo. During an interview, they said, “Over the rounds of casting and callbacks, I was pushed into more and more feminine-identifying roles, until the very end, when I was coming in for callbacks for the leading ladies, and then I got cast as a feminine gay guy, which I didn’t audition for.” Campillo wasn’t interested in that part, feeling as though they had been typecast due to their presentational gender, so they said no. Campillo went on to say, “…then it was in the subsequent conversations that I realized, ‘oh, I don’t think she [Lowe] ever really understood where I was coming from.’” Campillo felt it was an institutional issue, not an issue with Lowe in particular: “I think [trans actors are] a different and new boat in the theater realm, a new thing for lack of a better word…. I think it’s less about Ivey or about any one person but an institution or system that wasn’t designed for that.”

Campillo then began working on Spring Arising, a concert of songs from Spring Awakening as well as other songs that showcased POC and trans performers. Campillo said, “I realized that the fall mainstage was going to reflect a very specific type of Yale that was going to be damaging to so many first years who hadn’t seen other shows and didn’t know Dreamgirls happened, and think, ‘If that’s what Yale theater is, then it’s not for me.’ So that’s how Spring Arising came to be.” Campillo worked with their co-associate director, Madi Cupp-Enyard ‘20, who, in an email interview with The Politic, said: 

I did not audition for Spring Awakening due to my previous dissatisfying experiences with the Dramat, but Ale reached out to me knowing I shared those opinions with them and with the idea of creating something positive from the experience they had. Most importantly, both of us knew our experiences [were] not unique – while many people have felt wronged in some way by the actions of the Dramat, I do believe it is a systemic issue rather than personal or specific to the decisions of the people on any given team. The biggest step they can take moving forward is recognizing the importance of “Diversity AND Inclusion,” meaning not only getting people of color or gender minorities into the space to audition, but actually casting them and making them feel welcome. Too often, institutions get minorities to show up but don’t consider what will need to change in the space when those people show up to make the space truly diverse, not just placing POC in a white institution. The Dramat already puts on beautiful shows. It has immense potential to also do social good with its resourcesit just hasn’t yet tapped into that potential. 

Joseph Bosco (‘20, he/him/his) was the Producer of Spring Awakening and the President of the Dramat in 2019. He recalled his memories of Spring Arising in an email interview with The Politic: “As someone who cares a lot about accessibility in theater, finding out about Spring Arising was pretty hard… But being an ally is about listening and learning from your mistakes… so we used Spring Arising as an opportunity to sit back and listen to things that we could improve upon….” 

It is interesting to note that the Dramat board, at the time of both Spring Awakening and Spring Arising, was made up of 6 people of color and 4 white people, with the most powerful positions on board (President, Vice President, and Treasurer) all being POC. Based on the Spring Arising team’s suggestions the Dramat implemented outreach workshops in order to try to attract more diversity to the theater community. 

Spring Arising was staged after only one week of rehearsals and showcased the beauty of POC actors playing roles that were previously played by white people, as well as womxn singing songs typically performed by male-identifying characters and vice versa. Boone, who saw Spring Arising, discussed its beauty: “It was really inspiring. It got a lot of people who aren’t really involved in theater involved in the concert, which is interesting, but also it launched those people into being more involved, which is really cool.” 

Around 300 people in total came to see Spring Arising over all of its performances. Campillo said, “It meant that that first theater class had a very different perception about Yale theater, and I think we see that this year in the way the theater landscape was set up. It was a lot less hierarchical, and I think there were a lot of first years who went on to direct and produce in a different way than I’ve seen in my grade and other grades, which is really exciting.”

Spring Arising brought many of the Dramat’s diversity and inclusion issues to light. Boone discussed how it specifically inspired her to try to institute change within the Dramat: “Well, I know it affected me personally, it’s part of the reason I wanted to run for Dramat board – that I really respected the work those people put into the protest concert.” She questioned whether the Dramat was actually trying to be racist, not that it being unintentional is an excuse. 

“I have privilege in this, I know no one else is thinking of running for this position, meaning MS1 [2019 Fall Mainstage Producer], I think that I am in a unique spot. I think I have the perspective on this and honestly as a white woman, as sad as it is, I have the power here to affect change in this white space, white institution, to try to make it more accessible,” Boone said.

Boone produced Sweeney Todd, the Fall 2019 Mainstage, which showcased many POC actors as well as first years and a cappella singers who had never participated in theater before. By holding audition workshops and working with people individually, Boone and Noam Shapiro, the professional director hired by the Dramat, helped make auditioning more accessible to people who had never before participated in theater.

Now as President and Vice President of the Dramat, Boone and Campillo are committed to continue making the Dramat as accessible as possible. Specifically, Campillo discussed the new Dramat policy of asking “what roles are you comfortable playing?” on the audition form, with gender as the example next to the question to make it clear. This gives actors much more agency in expressing which characters they feel comfortable playing. In explaining current diversity goals, Boone discussed her and Campillo’s work this semester to create uniform policies passed down through a simple rule pamphlet about the ways in which those who both produce and direct Dramat productions interact with people in and outside of the audition and rehearsal rooms. Because the Dramat contracts students to create the exes and professionals to create the mainstages, it can be difficult to ensure the expectations of the Dramat are met, so it’s very important that they be clearly defined. 

“We basically are having to do work now to restructure and remarket the Dramat to not only our grades but also for earlier grades to feel like it’s a place for them. I think we’ve been quite successful,” Campillo said, “This past season has been truly diverse in a really beautiful way because a lot of times the Dramat was doing diversity through all-Black, all-Asian, all-women shows, which is important and beautiful but if you just have that and then your other shows… it’s segregated, that’s segregated theater.”

One of the challenges that comes with being a Dramat board member trying to implement change is the constant turnaround of board members. All of the board members’ terms are a full year; however, the year expires at different times for board members. The positions of Secretary, Production Officer, Marketing Director, Outreach Coordinator, and Spring Mainstage Producer are elected at the end of every spring semester, while the President, Vice President, Treasurer, Special Events Coordinator, and Fall Mainstage Producer are elected at the end of every fall semester. This means that the board is constantly changing. 

According to Boone, “…one of the hardest things about the Dramat is that there is a complete turn over… every two years, meaning that we rely on our predecessors without fully understanding their contexts or intentions (good and bad). It makes it hard both to cast a value judgment on prior shows, and it also makes it hard to serve on board because some people in the community are angry about something that happened before you even got to Yale and hate the Dramat without knowing the individuals involved.”

While discussing future changes for the Dramat, Campillo said, “I feel like the Dramat needs to reevaluate everything, and that doesn’t mean everything needs to change, it may only mean ten percent of things need to change, but I think there’s so much institutionalism in the Dramat of ‘this is the procedure,’ which the Dramat is good at, but it also meant that we don’t think about certain practices as being bad because that’s just the norm.” The Dramat still has a long way to go to prove its inclusivity, but it’s important to note its progress over the last four years.