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Talking Back #1: Frank Sawa

July 15, 2015

Since our incredible kick-off, The Chicago Inclusion Project has continued to explore how we will sustain our efforts and where we can make the greatest impact.  Fully aware that we don’t have all the answers, we seek out others who may be passionate about our cause, and reach out to those who have experienced our intentions first hand.  For this reason, we’ve interviewed the actors who were involved in our first reading of The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, performed on June 1, 2015 at Victory Gardens Theatre.  We asked all participants the following:

 

Regarding “The Time of Your Life” reading June 1st...

 

This specific casting of “The Time of Your Life”...Did it tell the story, in your opinion?

How did it feel to read the role(s) you were given? Would you have asked to be seen for it?

Listening to it or watching it, did anything take you out of the story?

Was working on “The Time of Your Life” different from working on other plays for you?  If so, how?

 

Questions we asked the panelists...

 

In your opinion, what is the state of representation on Chicago stages right now?

What are triumphs we’ve seen?  Who has been doing it right?

What are challenges we still face as a community?

What would you like to see done about it?

 

Further…

If we had more time, what questions do you wish were asked at the panel discussion? or what concerns do you wish were addressed?

Each artist said “yes” to this project for different reasons. What were yours?

...Anything else?

 

The responses were varied and frank.  Some are summarized in paragraph form.  Some answered each question one by one.  We present them as they felt best conveyed their thoughts. We are eager to share them, so here is the first:

 

Frank Sawa (McCarthy)

 

 

Regarding TOYL reading June 1st…

 

I think the story was told beautifully and uniquely offering a strong connection to the sense of community both in the setting of the bar and the actual city of Chicago.  It was refreshing for me to see people on stage that I see everyday of my life whether at work or on the CTA.  I think it is incredibly important for people in the audience to be able to relate to the actors they see onstage and connect with them on a different level (whether that has to do with race, gender, or disability, people immediately gain a sense of familiarity and comfort when they see themselves in someone onstage).

 

As for the role I read (McCarthy), it was interesting to see the similarities I shared with my characters description with the stage directions (broad shoulders, hairy arms, immediate sense of compassion and charm).  It was great to read a character so grounded in his sense of pride and passion.  As for ever getting cast or considered for the role in the Chicago scene, chances are I would have a slim to none chance just based on the man's name (most theaters would most likely call in burly Irish looking fellows I would imagine).

 

Questions asked to the panelists…

 

The Chicago theatre scene is segregated and knowingly aloof to this fact at times.  I feel some theatre companies know they have very little, if any, room for diverse actors in their company or their seasons.  The lack of imagination in casting really needs to be addressed directly to artistic directors in every company.  Theatre companies that are doing it right (such as Timeline, Silk Road, Victory Gardens) should be examples to those companies who claim to struggle in finding diverse actors who are talented enough to be on their stages. Likewise, I feel companies who are more fortunate than others need to set a stronger example of inclusion within their own ensemble of actors.  We need to be more aggressive in showing the community that the same story can be told with different actors in those roles (of course within reason as far as the script itself is concerned).  I often hear that the reason a theatre doesn’t allow for more imaginative casting choices is because the audiences are not ready for that kind of change.  I say it is their responsibility to not only prove their audience wrong by casting those diverse actors, but also challenging the directors hired to allow the story to be the focus of the play and not the actor on stage telling the story.  

 

Further…

 

As for those companies who chose not to attend the reading or claim they are fully backing up the idea of inclusion on Chicago stages when casting shows otherwise, I would ask how could we, as diverse artists, do more to get a shot at auditioning for their companies and their shows? Is it a matter of lack of training?

 

Also, as Shakespeare and more classic works (i.e. Greek, Commedia dell’arte, etc.) offer the most opportunity for flexible and creative casting opportunities, I would ask any company staging such shows why they don’t hire more diverse actors in those roles?

 

I said yes to this project because I believe the next generation of actors has a right to see onstage what I struggled to find in the beginning of my acting career.  Someone like me.  As an actor of arabic descent, it was a struggle from the beginning for my own family to even accept the idea of me becoming an actor.  As I began attending plays, I noticed their was no one like me in the casts.  It motivated me to pursue acting and strive to perfect my craft.  I began to find myself in shows that would otherwise not hire a “brown” actor.  I have had the opportunity to play a multitude of different characters in my career and continue that goal of inclusion everyday.  Theatre needs to be a mirror to society…and that mirror is a melting pot of opportunities just waiting for a chance to tell a story.

 

Frank is currently in Inana at Timeline Theater through July 26.  See him later this year in Remy Bumppo’s production of Love and Information, opening September 24.

 

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