SPEAKING UP with Tlaloc Rivas
In our Speaking Up series, we chat with Chicago artists about their work in the community today, representation on our stages as well as ways we can achieve artistic and audience inclusion in our theaters. Tlaloc Rivas directed the Chicago Premiere of In Love and Warcraft currently running at Halcyon Theatre. He generously took the time to chat with us about his artistic process and the moment we find ourselves in Chicago Theatre..
Tlaloc, In Love and Warcraft features a remarkably diverse cast. How important was it for you to make this happen? What steps did you and your artistic team take to create that ensemble?
Halcyon Theatre’s mission is to eradicate borders. They have a powerful commitment to making the stage as diverse as the city of Chicago, presenting new voices from inadequately represented communities.
That vision closely aligns to my own objective when casting. Although Madhuri Shekar names no specific ethnicity for any character in ILAW, she indicates her preference that the lead role should be played by a performer of color. That simple but important distinction tells us that story will be played out through the prism of a woman of color. If it were played by a woman from the dominant culture, it completely changes the power dynamics of the relationships Evie (the main character) has with everyone else. Suddenly, those quips and exchanges she has with her clients (she is a hired hand in “fixing” relationships) are not so witty. If Evie were played by a white actor, she could come off as condescending, or worse, demeaning.
Once you free your mind from casting restrictions, everything else starts to flow into place. The right actors are suddenly right there in front of you when you’re not looking through the prism of “expected” casting. Here it’s worth noting that if you’re looking to cast cross-culturally, you must have that discussion with the playwright (if they are alive and available to respond).
In your opinion, what is the definition of color-blind casting? Color-conscious casting? When are either appropriate?
I despise the phrase “color-blind” – it really should just crawl into hole and die – because it denotes erasure. If it’s impossible to ignore someone’s ethnicity and cultural background in daily life, why would you do it as a theatre artist? As a casting director? As a college instructor? It makes no sense.
Terms like “color-conscious,” “inclusion,” and “diversity” are all challenging and worthy terms, but in today’s conservative mind-set (and that includes the U.S. regional theater), they are subject to knee-jerk defensiveness and further opens artists of color up to micro-aggressions. Just read any recent article on how we must have more gender parity in theatre seasons and then read the comments. Actually, don’t read the comments. The point is, until the decision-makers and season-deciders actually reflect the diversity of this country, little will change unless we keep speaking out about it. My preferred term is 'free casting' - that once I'm in the audition room, I cleared my mind from all preconceived ideas of what a character should move, look, or sound like. Because I want to be surprised, have my assumptions suspended, and embrace each performer's audition fully.
An important article in this regard, that should be mandatory reading for every director, producer, casting agent, etc. is Daniel Banks’ THE WELCOME TABLE: CASTING FOR AN INTEGRATED SOCIETY. You can find a link to it here: http://dnaworks.org/documents/Publications/The_Welcome_Table.pdf
Also: Read Lauren Gunderson's essay on why she insisted on diversity in casting for I AND YOU, despite attempts by casting and artistic directors to question that requirement: http://iandyouplay.tumblr.com/post/91394901218/on-insisting-that-i-and-you-is-cast-with-diversity
What is your advice to minority artists just starting out?
Create your own work. Do not wait for permission. Do not wait for acceptance. Find a tribe of collaborators and artists that you want to work with. Enlist supporters who will be your champions, no matter how much your work sucks at first. Define what success means to you. Remember: the vast majority of theater critics across the U.S. are white, and most of those are Men. Their opinions are often Western-based and biased towards their mostly White readers’ preferences – a perspective they may not be prepared to see, i.e. where you’re coming from with your work. So don’t rely on critical responses or trust them entirely… even if the critics love your work.
In your opinion, what is the state of representation on Chicago stages right now? How do you think it differs from other cities you've worked in? What are triumphs we’ve seen? Who has been doing it right?
The cultural dynamics of Chicago are in flux, and like any other major city there still remain the schisms of economic and racial segregation. But the biggest difference I’ve seen the last ten years has been in the growth of the Latina/o community of theatre artists working here in Chicago. I thought Chicago was little more than storefront theaters and large ensemble companies with film stars. Now, there are companies that embrace more perspectives cross-culturally, devising groups with multi-ethnic ensembles, etc. It’s all really encouraging and exciting. We have to support those companies that are not only committed to it, but doing it right, like Victory Gardens, Teatro Vista, Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare, Court Theatre and a few others.
I’ve freelanced in a lot of different cities, and by far Chicago has been more open to dynamic opportunities for actors, directors, designers, etc. of color than anywhere else – especially if you’re new and hungry. You’re welcomed if you actually want to DO the work. In comparison, New York City has become the land of trust-funded artists who can afford to NOT work. And even if you create work there, no one goes to see it because everyone is too busy, too broke, too tired, or don't care. I lived in NYC for five years and directed ten productions with great success (http://www.indietheaterhalloffame.com/Person/tlaloc-rivas). The number of artistic directors who came: ZERO. I’ve already broken that record with one production in Chicago. So, you can do the math.
So my advice: Go where the love is. Work where people will actually make the effort to see your work. Seek out friends, places, and people who are willing to embrace you as a potential colleague. And maintain a healthy work/life balance - family, friends, faith (perhaps) and really good food.
What are challenges we still face as a community?
I think we’re still figuring out those challenges, even within our own artistic circles. I can speak to what the Latina/o Theatre Commons has accomplished: leading laterally and circumventing dependency on any one institution; promoting, instead, collaboration across the many. There are still many who believe in the “one-leader” or “top-down” model – which still has a capitalistic and scarcity mindset (ie. if an artist of color gets an opportunity it means someone else from the dominant culture lost out). On the flip side there are still people of color (whom I consider colleagues) who are unwilling or unable to send the ladder back down once they’ve reached a certain level of success. They seem to believe that they will be pulled back down, when in fact, they have been held up by the very community that helped them get there. These mindsets are toxic. You have to embrace humility and charity - leaving the doors you’ve passed through open for others to follow.
And although I have seen my white peers continue to receive opportunities, I know many of them are supportive of diversity initiatives. I'm still a fan of some of my white peers who are produced with consistency, but unless things change, I will always be fighting for theatre-makers of color who will be afforded that same kind of opportunities for success. If those in a decision-making authority can see diversity as a win (which it is - just ask the producers of HAMILTON) then we absolutely can have more room at the table for artists of color.
What would you like to see done about it?
Systemic change is always hard. Any resistance to change is rooted in fear. Fear of giving up or losing something personally in exchange for social progress. This is, of course, usually untrue. I believe that the tides of inclusion, diversity, or whatever you want to call it, can raise all boats. That there can be more intersections between theatres and the underrepresented communities they serve. I’m trying to stay optimistic. You should as well. I don’t pretend to know all the answers – but I know how to ask the right questions. We need to be able to share our thoughts, concerns, opinions and hopes for the future without the fear immediately slamming them down. We’re artist-citizens and we have to embrace that responsibility. So let’s get to work.
In Love and Warcraft plays now through September 20 at 3253 W. Wilson Ave., Chicago, IL 60625 where Halcyon Theatre is in residence. Halcyon holds a significant number of seats for no-cost admission on a first come, first served basis for each performance. To access these seats, provide your contact information at our box office. (The box office opens one hour prior to the show). Seating begins 30 minutes before show time and is open. There are no assigned seats. Find tickets at http://halcyontheatre.org/showsandevents.
Tlaloc Rivas is the writer and director Johanna: Facing Forward, which premiered at the Cleveland Public Theatre in Spring 2015 to critical acclaim. His recent productions include: In Love and Warcraft (Chicago Premiere, Halcyon Theatre); Mariela en el Desierto (Aurora Theater Company & Los Angeles Theatre Center); The New World (Shakespeare Festival St. Louis); Luck of the Irishand Water by the Spoonful (UIowa). Tlaloc is a co-founder of the Latina/o Theatre Commons, an Associate Member of Stage Directors & Choreographers, a recipient of the Sir John Gielgud Fellowship in Classical Directing, and Assistant Professor of Directing at The University of Iowa. Upcoming projects include: Johanna: Facing Forward (The University of Kansas); Wit (Aurora Theatre Company); and Baltimore (Darwin Turner Action Theatre @ UIowa). www.TlalocRivas.com