Still in a COLOR BIND?
In 2006 Novid Parsi and Christopher Piatt of Timeout Chicago published an article asking "why this community lacks diversity, and find out what it will take to change." Ten years later, Kris Vire published a follow up article asking a new generation of artists the same questions, since as a community we seem to be a bit stuck. We were curious to find out what the artists originally interviewed in 2006 were up to and their thoughts on our industry now...
Lisa Tejero is a regular of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company, and Steppenwolf Theatre Company. as well as prestigious regional theaters around the
Midwest. She has just completed a beautiful run as the Vivian in Wit with The Hypocrites.
Anish Jethmalani has been a staple in Chicago's theater scene for over twenty years, acting and directing in various productions around the city from Timeline's current production of A Disappearing Number to ten seasons of Dickens' A Christmas Carol at The Goodman Theatre. In 2003, Anish co-founded the Rasaka Theatre Company in Chicago, the Midwest's first South Asian American ensemble and was the artistic director of Eclipse Theatre at the time of the original article.
Ivan Vega is an actor, co-founder and Executive Director of Urban Theater Company, currently residing in Humbodlt Park. In 2005, Vega led the company as its first Artistic Director. UTC's recent production of La Gringa sold out every performance in in their initial run and three week extension.
What have you been up to since that article?
IVAN VEGA: The ‘Color Blind’ article was written in 2006, a year after UrbanTheater Company (UTC) was formed. Now, we’re halfway through our eleventh year with a company of nine including myself. On May 25, we turn twelve, which I can’t believe. We’ve had many ups and downs since our inception and have learned many lessons along the way. UTC has been my home for trial and error. It’s where I’ve grown as an actor, administrator, and producer. I began as the artistic director and now I’m the executive director. UTC is housed at Batey Urbano on Paseo Boricua in Humboldt Park. I’m married and have two boys, Eliot turns three in Feb and Ethan just turned one. My biggest challenge is juggling family and art. Times are busier than ever but worth every moment.
LISA TEJERO: 10 years of working, 10 years of aging, so a decade of doing theatre while daily growing older.
ANISH JETHMALANI: I’ve continued to work in Chicago Theatre primarily as an actor and director. I stepped down as Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre 10 years ago, but still have directed a few shows with them since. I’ve also continued to assist in producing a few shows for Rasaka Theatre as well.
What contributed, do you think, to your being one of the few minority actors regularly working at that time?
IVAN: I’m determined and resilient. After (and during) college, I was fortunate to have been able to work steadily. I also saw a lot of theater and knew who I wanted to work with. I value my relationships and have always been good and maintaining them. If I wanted to work with someone, I made it a point to reach out to them so they knew who I was.
Ivan Vega as Speedy in First Class with The Urban Theater Company
I remember the artistic director of Aguijón Theater, Rosario Vargas calling me ‘picaflor (hummingbird)’ because I hand my hand in everything. With UTC, I was able to work on larger and more complex roles more consistently. It’s where I’ve been able to showcase some of my best work as an actor.
LISA: I don't identify myself as just one thing, since I find that too limiting as well as often inaccurate. Instead, I find that by focusing outside of myself & on the work, that tends to keep my creativity at the forefront of what I get involved in. Which draw certain projects or collaborators into my path. At the same time being multi-cultural is part of who I am & has influenced what that path has been for me, none of which is outside my experience. It informs what I do & how I do it. So maybe why I work so much is because while not denying my "ethnic flavor"- I tend to be expansive & inclusive & am always trying to make the most truthful & interesting choices in all that I do to reflect that broader sense of self, which is larger than that narrow niche. It is that philosophy that has kept me in the flow of things.I also think, since that quote, that "niche" has widened & is also filled w/ an exponentially deep & a diversely beautiful spectrum of local talent (& Producers,companies & initiators).
ANISH: Years ago, an actor I greatly admire once told me that if you can achieve a few basic principles in this business, you can pretty much continue to work. That included knowing your lines and blocking, making bold choices, always improving yourself, showing up on time, being generous and most importantly respecting everyone your working with all the time. He said that you can't imagine how difficult it is for people to achieve all of this - just be easy to work with. I'd like to ultimately hope that it was about this and not just about how I looked - trying to stay true to these principals and about my work as an artist to reflect the human condition.
Was being part of an ensemble or an artistic associate a help? Hindrance? What was your experience?
ANISH: I would say yes, it was certainly helpful to have an artistic home to pave the path for the start of my career and allow me to step into roles I wouldn't have had the chance to play elsewhere. But I also haven't acted there for several years due to my being part of the union, so I've had to work at finding those opportunities elsewhere. I think certainly having an artistic home can allow an artist to rise above their own perceived limitations, breaking the mold of being pigeonholed into just one thing. That being said, it seems the ensemble model in general is not what it once was. I think ensembles today are challenged by trying keep their collective artists showcased at the forefront of their seasons, thus those artists being shuffled in and out working on a project without the company really being seen as a whole entity of individual artists working cohesively together on a series of projects. Practically speaking though, it's awfully difficult to achieve that for various reasons. Nevertheless, it certainly has the pitfall of keeping ideas and talent locked up, becoming much too insular and stagnant at times.Specifically for minority actors though, I've seen some ensembles fall into the trap of tokenism. I think the best organizations are those that allow themselves to be open to a continued flow of new ideas and new talent. I just wonder if there is a better model out there. I have to believe there is.
LISA: I think that it's always good to have a place to call an artistic home & I have been blessed w/ having been an "official" past ensemble member of the now defunct Absolute Theatre Company & a current artistic associate of Lookingglass Theatre & in an "unofficial" capacity w/ other theaters & directors just by the sheer fact of consistently being cast w/ their organization or working w/ the same director or group of artists. I feel that if a room already has trust & a shared "vocabulary" or a basic understanding of how to work together all that extra energy naturally shorthands into making the piece at hand a more dynamic work of shared truth. Which is one of the strong suits of theatre ensembles and what I always strive for.
Lisa Tejero as Enone in Fedra at Lookingglass Theatre
I consider myself very lucky, that all those experiences have been extremely positive for me, because the downside of that is: if a group becomes too insular the ability to grow as artists & for the work to transcend, eventually becomes stymied. So while it's great to have a place to "hang your artistic hat" it's equally important to keep "lifting the lid," to keep in the constant flux & flow of the artistic world (& otherwise).
I also think that I am a stronger artist because my awareness has been expanded beyond the perspective of just thinking as an actor but being aware of & appreciating all the other endeavors of what is logistically involved in choosing, producing, creating & running a play. All things that you become exposed to more in smaller or storefront theatre companies. As part of my conservatory training, through the course of the program we had to "crew" in all the disciplines involved backstage, which has proved to be invaluable to me ultimately in knowing how to be onstage, so again strength through diversification ( and all diverse aspects of that as a definition).
IVAN: This topic came up at our recent company meeting. UTC has been working as an ensemble since the beginning but I want us to assess what model will work best moving forward. Ensemble models can work but they have their challenges. I could only speak from my experience with UTC. When we started in 2005, we were a group of Latinx actors and artists who wanted to create opportunities for ourselves and showcase our work. We approached everything as artists. Artistically, we were solid. Administratively, we needed help. The challenge became making decisions amongst ensemble members and without egos getting in the way. Differentiating decisions made by and with the ensemble and by the company's leadership is key. My personal challenge has been trying to balance being an actor and an administrator. They don't teach you that in school and I've had to figure out how to best balance the two. Now that we've surpassed our first decade, what is needed to successfully continue pushing forward is a staff of non-actors working and making the day-to-day decisions and an ensemble who is present to contribute how we move forward artistically. That's where we're headed. There has to be a separation between the two. I love the idea of ensemble building but it takes a large commitment to nurture and maintain an ensemble with a strong rapport. At the end whether you work as an ensemble or not, the art show never suffer.
What do you think of the state of Chicago theater now?
IVAN: I feel companies, especially larger institutions are realizing change is good and change is needed. I see more of a responsibility from companies and accountability regarding play selection, direction, and casting. Our community is also much more vocal now than before. What I’d like to see are critics of color and much diversity on the jeff committee. It's time.
LISA: I think that it's important to note that I am writing this in January 2017 and that our national political landscape is in the midst of a drastic paradigm shift, which makes everything we do even more Important as to why & how we do it . I also have been in & out of town more than usual these last 5 years & it's amazing to me how drastically some things have changed & how comfortingly familiar some things have remained the same, much of that is just the natural ebb & flow of things, and 3 decades of witnessing confirms that. I feel like that in particular the last decade there has been great leaps & bounds in not only opportunity for diversity but that it isn't even a separate category as much as it is just a representation of what the community is. But what has become a "given" will be something that we have to be vigilant in maintaining as we shift and move further into this upcoming administration.
ANISH: I’ve been asked often has anything changed since the article came out in 2006 and my answer has been...well yes and no. I think a great amount of progress has definitely been made in the overall hiring of minority artists, but it can be also be argued that much is still the same. Far too many arts organizations in Chicago and across the country are still too homogeneous in their overall programming, casting and staffing, particularly at the storefront level. Organizations that think they’re being diverse are still not often resorting to the fallback of tokenism as a non intended consequence of their actions. The challenges and the proposed solutions presented in the article are still there, but the opportunities to create change are far greater. I would say that our classical and musical theatres in particular around the city and country need to step up to bridge the wide gap between minority artists and opportunities to be far more visible in larger roles on main stages, not just in school outreach programs. See, the biggest difference between now and then is social media. Back then no one really knew how much social media would grow to become a powerful tool of change. Now, it’s been used to such effect to keep people aware of what is going on in our arts community and communities around the country. More importantly, it’s creating accountability and action. Awareness and Accountability is key. In addition, artistic minority focused organizations like The Chicago Inclusion Project, ALTA, AAPAC and others have had a tremendous impact on the conversation and have offered a much needed alternative point of view on widening the imagination of theatre creators and calling out unfair practices. I also think the "Hamilton" effect also has helped. The commercial success of that show has opened up the eyes of creators and patrons to see stories through a new and powerful lens. The other major difference is that there is a whole new generation of young artists that are absolutely not tolerating what they see on our stages and behind the scenes. They are empowering themselves with their voice and demand change. They are much more vocal about it online and in person then we were back then. I believe tremendous progress is being made, but it can be argued that we still have quite a ways to go. I'm very optimistic though for the future.
Since you have also traveled for amazing regional work, how does it compare here?
LISA: One of the uniquely wonderful things about Chicago theatre is that it is a place where the artists still have relative autonomy to the work & theatre is primarily created & produced w/ artistic standards & expression in mind. In New York the latitude of that is somewhat curtailed because it's so cost-prohibitive to live or produce work there.Theatre in L.A. is primarily always secondary to the movie industry & as a way for the individuals to be seen so they can be cast for T.V. or Film. Chicago actors can still have a relatively high quality of life & still can make a living in the arts & not delegate theatre in their life to just a hobby they do on the side, but as a main focus of their life that they are fully committed to.
There are some very vibrant theatre enclaves in small unexpected areas that are not the big 3 acting cities, but the lushness of new work & the sheer quality & quantity & (again) diversity Chicago reigns supreme. (But on this topic- full disclosure- I am highly biased.)
From your perspective, how did that article change, if at all, our community? Did you feel any risks being interviewed for it?
ANISH: When the article was released, it caused a large discussion within the Chicago Theatre Community about diversity on our stages, behind the scenes and within our artistic organizations. From my view, the article had a significant impact and caused many artistic leaders and creators to look within their own organizations to at least recognize the issue. I think the article continues to reverberate today and I’ve had young several minority artists tell me how much it influenced their own outlook on Chicago Theatre. They were looking to work towards implementing change at theatres they were associated with. You’ll also notice that soon after the article came out, both Ora Jones and Lisa Tejero who were interviewed in the magazine went on to join Steppewolf and Lookingglass respectively. Programming also started to slightly change (although it has been very slow) at various theatres around the city focusing on works of playwrights of color. There were theatres that started to incorporate far more diverse voices in their season, which was encouraging to see. So all in all, I think it helped greatly in changing the conversation and helping to push the envelope.
Anish Jethmalani as Mr. Kidd in The Room at A Red Orchid Theatre
Well, I felt so strongly about this issue that I didn’t really think about "risks." I continue to feel the same way today. For me the only risk was to just sit there and not say or do anything. I needed the community to understand that this was a large problem and that it needed to be addressed. The article was indeed a long time coming. The entire community needed a wake up call. I think what frustrated me the most that here we had all this terrific talent in this city and they were being wasted not only because of the lack of opportunities at these companies, but also because they were being pigeonholed into exotic or minor roles. It made no sense to me.
What are ways artists (or patrons) who don't have their own theater company do to help the state of things?
IVAN: With social media, it’s a lot easier to engage and be a part of the conversation. Anyone can get involved and be present at meetings and town halls. The key is to be present at these discussions and to be ready to take action and incorporate change.
ANISH: Freelance artists have a challenge because we’re in a profession where by its very nature the opportunities are just very limited, which makes it economically difficult to turn down work. But I think artists may have to be bold about the choices they make when accepting an audition or interviewing for a position. Actors have to determine if reading for a role makes sense to them to help the community at large move forward. I know of a few actors who just turned down work because they knew that either the role or production were being culturally appropriated or in some cases, they simply were not right for that role. All I can say is don’t make the mistake Joseph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and Emma Stone made. I’m hoping that directors will continue to expand their imagination and the sense of possibility much more when it comes to diverse and inclusive casting. We’ve recently seen how productions of The Matchmaker at Goodman and The Hairy Ape at Oracle can still work very well without having a traditionally white cast. I’m hoping we can see more of these types of choices at other theatres and of course more often. I think stage managers, designers, and all types of theatre employees should ask the theatres they are interviewing for what is their policy on diversity and how diverse is their staff. Finally, patrons and donors should start to demand it from the theatres they go to. If it’s important to them, they can find a way to express themselves by contacting the theatres directly or communicating with them through social media. We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable if we really want to see progress.
Any wishes for our community?
LISA: To continue to be the unique breeding ground for original work & exciting artists , but not to take anything about our community for granted. To continue to expand while at the same time being inclusive to all aspects of our society. If something is extraordinary, then it is important that we must constantly put in the work to keeping it so. Anything of value must be vigilantly attended to & protected.
IVAN: Let's continue to work together. I wish diversity and inclusion will be something that happens naturally and not a goal that has to be met.
Anything else you'd like to say?
LISA: In addition to Chicago & theatre I feel like there has been a great advance of opportunity in casting & work being produced also on big & small screen & big stage as well. Since I left the Windy to go on the road Jan 1st 2012 the work being shot here has exploded, which I think can be helpful. Let all of this be just the beginning.I think it's important to say: I'd like to think we're finally beginning to get past a point of looking at anything or anyone too narrowly and that it is by merit, positive intent & talent and an openness to all of that. Because empathy is valuable not only to how we perceive others but ourselves as well. This allows us to all participate in not just the fellowship of artistic communication & fellowship, but citizenry as well. That makes us democratic. It's important, we need it.
IVAN: UTC is midway through its eleventh season and is the only company serving the community of Humboldt Park producing plays by Latinx playwright, primarily Puerto Rican playwrights and consistently with actors of color. We are a theater for the community. To get to know more about UTC and our work visit: UrbanTheaterChicago.org or contact executive director, Ivan Vega at email@example.com or (312) 767-UTC1.
ANISH: We really are so fortunate to have such a wonderful and supportive community. A community that is constantly looking to challenge itself. We’ve made tremendous strides over this last decade and I certainly hope we can go further. I will say that there are more organizations out there like The Chicago Inclusion Group that can help and several databases that have been created online to also help. They did not exist in 2006. Artistic Leaders should take advantage of them. There really is no excuse not to. I’m looking forward to seeing where we will be in the next ten years.