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LOOKING BACK, GOING FORWARD: Reflections on 2016 and Hopes for 2017

Stephanie Diaz, The Chicago Inclusion Project casting associate discusses this past year's brightest moments and her wishes for the new year.

Listen, kids, there’s no doubt that 2016 was a world-class shitshow. But even I can admit there were some real bright spots, and here are some of mine, in the order in which they occurred to me:

1. Casting for Will Davis at ATC. My God, what a gratifying process for any casting director who champions inclusivity. The experience of having a gifted, accomplished director so willing to truly consider each and every actor you bring before them is, sadly, all-too-uncommon (or has been in my experience). The result of this collaboration is two tremendous, exciting casts that I simply can’t wait to see in action, not only for their collective talent, but for the impact they will make on the Chicago theatre landscape. Welcome, Will!

2. Sitting around the table with Sean Graney as he laid out his vision for The Hypocrites moving forward, and how The Chicago Inclusion Project would figure into these plans. Discussing the dismantling of the still-prevailing, white-by-default model of season selection and the casting thereof with a bona-fide, white cis-het man leading the charge was thrilling, and an excellent example of using one’s privilege for the greater good. With this in mind, I know The Hypocrites will re-emerge, fortified, and resume their position at the vanguard of Chicago storefront theatre. ¡Adelante!

3. The brilliant casting (featuring a lot of Chicago talent!) on my favorite new network show of the season, FOX’s The Exorcist: diverse and packed with top-notch artists, from producer Charise Castro-Smith to Mexican lead Alfonso Herrera to guest stars like Michael Patrick Thornton, James Meredith, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Mouzam Makkar. If you weren’t watching this show, you can still catch it online (and I will try not to hate you if it doesn’t get a second season, but I can’t promise).

4. Speaking of Michael Patrick Thornton… participating as an actor in The Gift Theatre’s annual anthology of new plays, TEN. Performing a solo piece by Jacqueline Lawton, gorgeously and simply detailing one refugee’s experience, in a cast of more than thirty performers of all stripes, was, to put it plainly-- a gift. TEN is one of the best things going in Chicago, and lucky for us they do it every year!

5. The day a well-known, respected Chicago AEA actress came into my audition room and announced to us that despite how she’d been classified in the past, and despite her somewhat-ethnic-sounding name, she was not a POC and would not feel comfortable letting us believe she was (for the record, I knew, but deeply appreciated her refusal to participate in whitewashing and brownface). In fact, I can think of several such actors who have begun declining auditions for which they are not suited, because they understand that accepting these audition slots can often result in someone actually qualified for the role not being seen, simply because they don’t yet have the same kind of name recognition these fine actors may have (and for many other reasons too numerous to list here-- look for a whole ‘nother blog post on that!). I am proud to call them friends and applaud them in all their endeavors, and look forward to more of our colleagues following suit because of their example.

Now, looking forward to 2017, I’ve got a few wishes.

It’s always been my practice, on New Year’s Eve, to make a list of things I dearly wish for myself in the coming year rather than draft a resolution. I read about this practice one year in one of my mom’s nightstand magazines (Better Homes? Good Housekeeping? One of those) and it has served me well ever since-- going back at least a decade! So in that spirit, here are my wishes for Chicago theatre in 2017:

1. White actors-- for the love of little green apples, I wish for you to PLEASE stop trying to pass for brown. Just stop it. I know for a fact that there are white actors, working right now, in some of the biggest houses in town, who are being repeatedly cast with the understanding that they are POC --and are classified as such in casting files-- because they have allowed casting personnel to believe as much in a bid to remain employed. These actors are benefitting from creative teams trying to do the right thing by diversifying their casting, while simultaneously undermining that goal. (Please note that this is different from a creative team knowingly hiring a white actor, who has not actually misrepresented themselves, to assume a role intended for a POC. That is not what I’m talking about here, and it’s been discussed at length elsewhere, so don’t even try to come for me with that discussion in relation to this item. Just don’t.) Also-- if I have to sit through another round of auditions with white actors coming in to read for, say, Latinx roles, assuming cartoonish accents and adding Speedy Gonzalez ad libs --yes, this really happened this year-- I will lose my everloving mind. Y’all, it’s about to be 2017. Let’s put the minstrel show to bed, shall we? And then let’s just go right ahead and burn the bed.

2. Another one for actors-- I wish for as many of you as possible to get in on the casting process in any way you can. This might mean volunteering to be a reader in auditions, or being an intern at a casting agency, or offering to assist the CD at your favorite storefront theatre. If you’ve never participated in the casting process from the other side of the table, I GUARANTEE (as an actor myself) that doing so will provide you with a sense of perspective and insight that can only boost your skills the next time you get in front of a casting team. Even if you’re “just” helping out with scheduling generals, managing those spreadsheets will give you an appreciation of what actually goes into organizing auditions-- and this will help you to understand your place, as an actor, in that ecosystem. Being in the room and watching other people audition from a hiring perspective can be nothing short of a revelation. The result of taking the time to give yourself a glimpse into how your profession works from another angle is the demystification of a process to which you’re not ordinarily privy-- and that demystification will help you to prepare better, perform better and possibly even feel less fear/anxiety. Give it a try-- you miiiiight even find yourself drawn to a second career!

3. Directors-- I wish for you to give the people that we, your faithful Casting Directors, suggest to you, a chance to audition. You don’t have to hire them! Just SEE them, even if you think you already know them. Let us bring them into the room. After all, you’ve invited us to your table because you want our input, yes? So please let us provide it! Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised. We get to be surprised all the time; it’s one of the perks of the job, and I promise-- it’s fun! And who knows? Your show may be all the better for it!

4. Casting directors-- I wish for us ALL to get out there and see more shows. I am no longer willing to be the go-to person for Latinx talent (and diverse talent in general), providing the same list over and over again, simply because we can’t be bothered to get out of our comfort zones. I know! Seeing a bunch of plays can be hard, especially when you are a working artist yourself! I totally get it, because if you ask me to call in a bunch of young white folks… I will look at you like you just asked me something related to calculus (which I never took because I was careful to avoid it). We all have our blind spots! So how about we identify what those are, and then choose what shows to attend accordingly? I’m down if you are!

5. ALL OF US -- I wish for us to try and receive the art we’re so blessed to witness here in this great city with a spirit of wonder and acceptance, with eyes primed to appreciate. I firmly believe there is something to love in every show. I wish for us to find that something to love, not only in the shows we see, but in the art we create. Let’s find the joy. The joy will keep us alive and kicking in the coming storm.

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