Recently I was a part of a panel of teachers and theater administrators at an improv camp. One of the questions was about how we can make our improv shows and teams more diverse. Many of the responses were about how to get people interested and involved, how to reach out to communities that are underrepresented and try to recruit people for classes or even just to get them to shows.
These weren’t bad ideas, but honestly there is a really simple answer. When you are making casting decisions, just decide that diversity is a priority and cast the most diverse ensemble that you can. Cast LGBT folks, cast black people and latinos, cast women. Just cast them. Do it. Stop making excuses about talent or quotas. Just cast them already.
It’s really a simple principle, if you want black people to be a part of your theater, ask them to be a part of your theater. I’m not being glib. If your audience comes to a show and they only see young, straight, white males on stage, and they aren’t a young, straight, white male, they are less likely to sign up for classes or sign up for auditions. Hell, they are less likely to come back to see another show.
If you are an improv group that has just started, it’s understandable if your cast is a lopsided. If you are pulling from a very small pool of talent, you may not get close to a cast that is half female. You might hold an audition and get no people of color to show up. It can happen. But if your theater has been around for 5 years or 10 years or 25 years and you are still creating teams with no people of color and only a couple of women, something is systematically wrong and it’s something you should fight to fix.
If you are a white male, you might be getting defensive right now. I know I have in the past when confronting this issue. We think that all we have to do is be fair. We think if we have open auditions and cast “the best people” then eventually our ensembles will get more diverse. We think if we recruit people of color to be in our classes that eventually they will become a part of shows. And maybe they will. But it’s not enough. If your performers are mostly young, white, straight men, I bet that in 10 years, they will still mostly be white, straight men, only the median age will have changed.
If you really want change, you have to do more. It’s not enough to be fair or nice. You have to be proactive. Recruit women and people of color and LGBT folks to help cast your performers, to teach your classes and to work at your theater. But most of all, recruit them to be on your stage, not just your classes. Stop making excuses and do it.
When it becomes commonplace at your theater to see just as many women on stage as men, your shows will be better. When it’s commonplace for your ensembles to feature multiple people of color, your shows will be better. Diversity makes comedy and improv stronger. And if you make an effort to be the theater in your city that welcomes everyone, the best performers will flock to you.
Photo by Aimee Custis.