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SPEAKING UP with Deanna Myers

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. Chicago actress, Deanna Myers, took the time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about her artistic process and the moment we find ourselves in Chicago Theatre...

What is color blind casting to you? Color conscious? When are either appropriate and have you been a part that process? If so, what was your experience?

Color blindness in general is a blanket term. It tends to indicate a certain well meant, but ill-advised philosophy of “not seeing color.” While I understand the intent, it’s not productive. We can’t deny that many people come from lots of different backgrounds and that those backgrounds -ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, and regional- have an influence on how someone sees the world, and how the world sees/treats them. They influence someone’s interaction with the world, the amount of opportunity they’ve been afforded, and they also allow a person to bring a unique and wonderful perspective with their work. Color-blindness tends to ignore that, while color consciousness acknowledges, celebrates and is overall cognizant of the differences in people of multiple backgrounds.

Speaking from a sheerly societal and academic standpoint, I think color-blindness was a great step along the spectrum of moving more toward social responsibility and conscientiousness, but we are now moving into a third wave of being more educated and aware. Color -consciousness is becoming the more largely accepted philosophy.

From a casting stand-point, I think the semantics of the words change a little bit. For example, casting directors and directors tend to use the term “color-blind casting” to mean that, despite a role being historically cast with a White actor, that they are open to seeing a wider variety of races in said role. Side note: I’d also love to see more things like gender identities, physical abilities, sexualities, and a variety of body types being taken into consideration, too.

I hear “color conscious casting,” as a term used by those doing the casting to indicate that a role that is written in a certain way is conscientiously and sensitively cast (i.e-no black/red/yellow/etc facing)

Working on An American Ma{u}l at UIC with Derrick Sanders and The Three Musketeers at Lifeline with Amanda Delheimer-Dimond were my first experiences working with directors who were not just aware of the issue, but who were (and are) actively working to put vastly diverse casts on stage. Seeing directors “walk the walk,” so to speak, has had a hugely positive impact on me as a person and as an artist. I think Chicago, and theatres everywhere, only stand to benefit from a model of diversity and inclusion.

Why do you think diversity in playwrights, directors and performers has been so difficult for so many theaters?

I’ve heard a lot of different reasons as to why diversity is a challenge for people. I get it. And I think that we live in a place and time where, historically, we’ve been conditioned to give priority to a certain type of voice. Systemically, when a precedent like that is set up, it can be difficult for a lot of people to challenge those deeply instilled norms and views because we tend to take them for granted without ever realizing that anything can or should be different.

In five years, what would you like to have happened on our stages?

In five years, I’d love to see more diverse faces and inclusive casting in all sorts of shows, not just shows that were written to please the “diversity gods.” I want to see a show about a person who isn’t in the majority, but who’s “other,” doesn’t have to be bandied about as though people who aren’t White, Male, Cis-gendered, Straight and Able-bodied can’t have compelling stories that aren’t just about how they don’t fit into that category. Gay, Black Women can still worry about things like where their kids are gonna go to school. An Asian Paraplegic still worries about what he’s going to have for dinner. Someone who is Gender-Queer and Muslim might still argue with their partner over who’s going to do the dishes and wonder if said partner still loves them after it turns into a ridiculous fight. You get what I mean….

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

I’d give Chicago a grade of C-. We’re talking. We’re working on it, but it still isn’t something that everyone is actively working on or aware of. Details fall through the cracks that don’t need to.

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

We’ve seen some great strides! Marie Antoinette at Steppenwolf was an awesome example of that. The Goodman Theatre does a pretty good job of inclusive programming. Personally, I think that Lifeline Theatre is constantly leading the charge, which I think is important because they are a smaller storefront, way off-loop, and they’re showing in ways big and small that they take inclusivity very seriously. It doesn’t take a ton of funding, just some effort, some education, and some mindfulness.

What are challenges we still face as a community? What would you like to see done about it?

Lots of companies and those who lead them view diversity and inclusivity as these nebulous, scary terms. They seem like these lofty, insurmountable goals and no one knows where to begin, so they tend to get stuck. I also hear a lot of people making excuses for reasons they just can’t.

I think if we could stop being afraid of the subject of inclusivity it would help. It always surprises me when a theatre becomes defensive or resistant or afraid during a conversation about it. The creative process is very much like the process of growing one’s conscientiousness. You try, maybe you make a mistake, you take notes and listen, you try again.

If there’s anything I’d like any given theatre to know, it’s that inclusivity can be achieved by doing little things in simple ways that eventually add up. It doesn’t need to be an intimidating or insurmountable task. Choose one little thing you can change each show, or each season, and you’ll find that you’re a theatre who has accomplished some incredible goals. There’s no way that making inclusivity a priority can hurt your theatre. If anything, it will make it more relevant, more exciting, and more appealing to a wider audience. How can that be bad?

I’d also love to see us stop viewing a certain archetype (White, male, middle class-ish, cis-gendered, straight, able-bodied) as the central starting point of “neutral,” and everything else as some sort varying degree of different from that.

What challenges do you face, artistically?

I often struggle with the idea of being a vocal advocate and an actor. It seems, sometimes, that the two can be mutually exclusive. By speaking up, I often risk alienating myself in ways that could keep me from getting work.

I don’t get the same opportunities that women of my age and type, but not the same race, do. Also, I have my own set of rules for auditions that I’ll accept, which reduces my opportunities by what I would guess is about 25%.

If a script or audition is sent my way, I find that I end up having to ask a lot of questions about the messages that role in that particular show sends about people who look like me. The unfortunate truth is that, because there’s so little representation of most minority groups on stage or screen, that audiences begin to view that role as a mouth piece or ambassador for all people in that group. That just isn’t a problem for a lot of people in the majority. And I have to be more careful.

Even the auditions I do get can be a challenge, as I often feel that I’m put in a position of having to speak for my minority group. When I walk into an audition for a role, and I’m the only person of color, I know that I was the person who was called in as the “wild card.” And then I feel the pressure of having to challenge what that director likely already views as the neutral starting point. I have to be on point simply to prove that I (and other people who look like me) deserve to be in that room at all. Furthermore, when a director looks at my resume, it isn’t unlikely that someone with whom I’m competing has more credits, simply because more opportunity existed for her. She appears more experienced, more seasoned, simply because the number of opportunities she’s been afforded are more numerous.

Anything else? Having been at the Jeffs last night,I feel I must say that I was really saddened to see how few people of color were nominated, and how few were recipients of awards. Diversity in all aspects of the community is important, from the committees who judge us, to the playwrights, to directors and casting people.

Deanna Myers is an actor, teaching artist, advocate, dog mom and generally busy person who has worked in the Chicago community for the past 6 years. She is a company member at Barrel of Monkeys, and has been lucky enough to work with artists like Lifeline Theatre, The Waltzing Mechanics, Steppenwolf Theatre, Pavement Group, The Goodman, Paola Coletto, Redmoon Theatre, The House Theatre, Porchlight Music Theatre and Sideshow Theatre, and has been featured in a a hand full of those moving pictures. She's pretty sure they'll catch on soon. Catch her in upcoming productions with Side Show with Porchlight Theatre (September 11th-October 17th) and New Stages Production of King of The Yees at The Goodman (November 1st-15th)

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