On Sunday, May 10, founder Emjoy Gavino and collective member Delia Kropp were on Scott Duff's "Out Chicago" radio program talking about inclusive casting and related issues.
Our chat begins at the 1 hour, 11 minute mark. It’s really fun and informative!
Listen here or read transcript below.
Scott: Chicago is home to the most exciting and vibrant theater scene in the country, however, sometimes what you see on the stage falls short of representing the diverse population of the city. So, enter stage left: The Chicago Inclusion Project, which is a collective committed to providing inspiration, motivation and resources for Chicago theaters and casting agencies to pursue fully inclusive casting. That's a lot, but it's a big lofty thing and I'm so happy that you're doing this. Joining us now are the founder and producer, Emjoy Gavino and performer Delia Kropp. Welcome to Out Chicago!
So, I know it seems like a stupid question...so why, why...why the need? What a dumb question, but what was the inspiration? What was kind of the tipping point for you?
Emjoy: It's been a long time coming. When I first started acting, I always thought I was going to be in South Pacific, in Miss Saigon, in the stage version of The Joy Luck Club. You laugh, but all of those are on my resume. That's how I started my career, because I looked at what was already in front of me in production history. I saw Lea Salonga and I said, "Well, I should learn how to sing because that's how Asian people get on stage."
Scott: For our listeners, Emjoy is Asian.
Emjoy: Oh, I'm Asian. You can't tell by the last name Gavino. Yea...and I put myself in a box. It wasn't just other people, but I did that. And so it took other directors and other people with a larger vision to show me that I could be more than that.
Scott: It's so interesting that you say that cause I've been talking about that- putting yourself into a box and accepting other people's limitations of you. Which, as a gay man, that's a huge thing and as a performer- well, we can talk about that later. But in terms of, you know, taking what other people say "this is what you can do" and you kind of listen to that. But finally you were like wait, no. I can do so much more...
Emjoy: I can do so much more and so can everyone and it's about reimagining ourselves. And I know Delia, you go through it in a different way as a performer.
Delia: Yea. For several years I performed as a male here. Then realized that wasn't quite working out for me. The male part. And it's been ten years since I'd done any theater, until the recent reading at About Face and now I'm very keen to get back into things. You find that life is just different as a female. The opportunities...very different if you're a transgender.
Ellen: Tell us a little bit about yourself Delia, so that our audience gets an idea of who are you.
Delia: Ok. I'm 58 years old. I've been in Chicago since the early eighties. I performed with several different theater companies here and the last show I did was for Redtwist ten years ago. Both as a performer and then later as a director. And, there's a reason for that. Long story, but you're very vulnerable when you're transitioning. You kind of need to go off and find a little cocoon sort of and make whatever changes need to be made. And now I'm back. And all my friends are actors and this is my world.
Ellen: Welcome back.
Scott: Yes, welcome back to the stage. I got to see you earlier this year with a staged reading of a new piece that About Face Theatre is developing-examining the relationship between queer youth and queer seniors, I guess is the best way...
Delia: Yea, and I read five roles and some were female and some were Trans. I'm basically looking to make a career as a female performer now. And there are challenges for that.
Scott: I can only imagine the challenges and roadblocks that you are running into. Do you find that since you've had this ten year hiatus and I'm assuming you have a great understand of yourself and you've had your own incredible journey as well as doing your own professional journey; do you find that the climate has changed a little bit?
Delia: Well, certainly. People know about transgender people more.
Scott: Yes! But I mean in terms of casting and finding work. Years ago, Alexandra Billings was the person who really kicked down that door. Steppenwolf was casting her a lot; she worked at Court quite a lot. So hats off to/those theaters I think have been really actively trying to be more inclusive to all experiences.
Emjoy: And they were able to see her for just the fabulous artist that she is. And that was a giant step-
Scott: It was a huge step!
Emjoy: -for lots of different people.
Scott: Yea. So, Emjoy Gavino and Delia Kropp are here. Emjoy, what has your experience been, getting this off the ground, this whole initiative? We're talking about The Chicago Inclusion Project.
Emjoy: It's been an over two year process of just kind of thinking about what can we do to further the conversation about bringing inclusion to our stages. Because it has kind of just been that: small conversations in dressing rooms or at bars and what can we do that's more than that? So we decided to use action. The only thing I could offer at this time was to get a bunch of amazing actors in the same room and do a reading. Cause I'm not a theater company- we're not a theater company. We're a platform to provide a conversation after we show you how beautiful the stage picture can be. And that's what we're doing with these staged readings.
Delia: Emjoy approached me further into the process, actually January 1st. And that's what attracted me- We're doing this. We're going to show people that this works. We're not going to have one more discussion on inclusion, we're going to really get it out there and let it fly.
Scott: So, I might be stepping into a big pile of something.
Emjoy: Step in it.
Scott: I just wanna step. So. I know a couple years ago...has it been two years since The Jungle Book happened? Director Mary Zimmerman did a production of The Jungle Book here and her work was widely criticized... by Jamil from Silk Road Rising, which is a fabulous theatre company, it's an amazing theatre company and they focus on Pan-Asian work. But he was very very vocal with what he called the-
Emjoy: the orientalism-
Scott: The orientalism, thank you. I can never say the word. What are your thoughts? Cause here's the thing: again, I say it every time I'm on stage, I say it when I'm on the radio: I am a white man. I am a white cisgender man. I am afforded every privilege I could even think about. So sometimes I welcome these conversations and welcome these platforms that are really like: let's aggressively talk about this. To me, I felt that Mary Zimmerman was a little unfairly attacked. My reason is because I think out of all of the Chicago directors and theatre artists, her long history has been really trying to be as inclusive as possible.
Delia: She is. In the big picture.
Emjoy: She's one of the more inclusive directors.
Scott: So what are your thoughts on that whole thing?
Emjoy: Unfortunately, I actually couldn't get to see the show. I wish I could offer more of that specificity to it. Having worked with her, I did Arabian Nights with her at Lookingglass and that was one of the most diverse casts I've ever been in.
Scott: And as an audience member, it's thrilling to see that on stage.
Emjoy: And there's no commentary at all on what we look like. But I do know they were seeking to make the cast look like the tapestry that the world has to offer because her point is- and I can only speak to the Arabian Nights thing- these are universal stories. You know, a fart is funny in every single country.
Scott: You shouldn't've eaten those chick peas.
Emjoy: Should not have eaten those chick peas. And that role was played by several-because it's been around forever-by several different types of people. So, I can't really speak to The Jungle Book thing because a lot of my friends- White and Black and Asian were all in that and they all had a good time.
Delia: My understanding was just that some people saw that there were opportunities for more diverse casting or other interpretations of the story.
Emjoy: Some of the criticism was on race specific things. And there is something about being conscious of that, and that is something that I think directors in general should be always thinking about. So I don't think it's bad that she was challenged, I think every artist should be challenged.
Scott: No, I think it was a great thing. I think the challenge is awesome.
Delia: When the result is so beautiful it's hard to take a director to task on something and that's not our job here.
Scott: No, no, no. But I love what you're doing. Your first reading, you're doing a staged reading of Time of Your Life.
Ellen: At Victory Gardens, right?
Emjoy: At Victory Gardens, directed by the artistic director Chay Yew. Our mission is very much a part of where he goes as an artist in embracing inclusion. And what's great about Time of Your Life is it is about the pursuit of happiness, it's the American dream, it's about following your destiny and what actor in any shape, form, country would not be able to tell the story about pursuing happiness and following your destiny? Every type of person can tell that story. And that's why we chose it.
Ellen: I love that play. It's one of my favorites. It is fantastic.
Delia: It's such interesting timing too because there's just been a wonderful production of Balm in Gilead at Griffin Theatre and which I had the pleasure to see. And in a funny way this is almost like Balm in Gilead for your grandparents. It's a big slice of life, mostly-not entirely- but the lore, strata, socioeconomic lore, and an incredibly broad panorama of humanity. Which is kind of what we're getting at here.
Emjoy: That's Chicago.
Scott: It is Chicago. Because we have people of different races, religions, sexual identities, gender, physical abilities... Oh, the actor at Lookingglass right now...
Emjoy: Michael Patrick Thornton! Who will be playing our villain in Time of Your Life.
Scott: Stop it. He is crazy good. Everybody on your line up is just fantastic. Who else is going to be...?
Emjoy: Let me tell you our list of all stars.
[Lists every cast member of Time of Your Life. Follow us everywhere to know who they are.]
Scott: So is this the beginning of a series you're gonna be doing?
Emjoy: Absolutely. This is a staged reading series. We're going to partner with different theatre companies. Next is Court Theatre; Charlie Newell is already signed to do that. Andy White from Lookingglass is going to work with us. Michael Halberstam- in their new space at Writers Theatre is going to work with us. Timeline, Remy Bumppo. We wanna bring this stage picture-not necessarily this play; it's a different play every time- but this stage picture to every corner of Chicagoland so that different audiences can see themselves up on that stage.
Scott: How does it feel to have this reception? I mean, because you have just rattled off a list of the top theatres-
Emjoy: My heroes. And I think it's [really] important that we just work with theatre companies that already exist because they're all hungry for the same thing and we just need to provide the platform.
Ellen: You're bringing it to them. That's wonderful for them.
Scott: I'm welling up with joy and pride. It really is remarkable to see a group of artists come together for such an amazing cause that's just simply visibility. We forget how important being seen is. It's a huge part of the LGBT movement. It's a huge part of the civil rights movement. Being able to see different experiences can only bring us all together.
Emjoy: To illuminate our sameness.
Scott: Yes! Exactly!
Ellen: Love that!
Emjoy: It's really what we're supposed to do in art. In theatre. We can do that.
Delia: And we have a bigger opportunity to do that in theatre. Even just aesthetically. In a movie or TV with that camera right up on you, you're pretty much gonna be casting somebody according to what the gender or race of what it says in the script.
[overlap about that]
Delia: But gosh, on stage-
Emjoy: You can do anything you want.
Delia: Here's just a case in point. My makeup kit as a young actor, 20 year old actor in 1976, we had our sticks of makeup: Indian red, China yellow, Africa- I don't remember the brand. It was assumed that as an actor, you were Caucasian and that you were going to play the African American.
Emjoy: So Ben Nye was default casting...
[banter about that]
Delia: It was in your makeup kit, assumed, basically that this white privilege was right there. And that's the world we're moving away from.
Scott: Especially with such amazing work that The Chicago Inclusion Project is trying to bring to light. And, again, not just have a conversation but to actually show and demonstrate the power of what this is. It's so wonderful. I'm just filled with joy.
Emjoy: Thank you so much.
Ellen: Maybe there's a role for you in the future Scott.
[promotes June 1 reading]
Scott: Emjoy Gavino, Delia Kropp. Thank you so much for being on the show and for changing the world.
Ums, hmms, laughter and stutters were not included in this transcription. Listening to the audio will give you the fuller, more fun experience.