Diversity Works Best From The Top Down

Last week I wrote a post urging improv theaters to rethink their casting. In a nutshell, I think most people take a bottom up approach to diversity. If they care about diversity at all, they concentrate on getting more diversity in their classes, and think that over time things will even out. Outreach programs are great. I fully endorse diversity scholarships and other attempts to attract a diverse student base and a diverse audience. But I think there is something really special about having a diverse cast on stage for your shows.

For prospective students, it lets them know that they are welcome and that when they are ready, they will have a fair shot at becoming an ensemble member. Sure you can make them feel welcome by being nice and being encouraging, but actually seeing people like themselves on stage speaks volumes.

Last year, when we held our first auditions for our ensemble, I remember wanting to have a diverse cast. I hoped we would get people from a lot of different backgrounds. I especially hoped that we would have lots of great women in the ensemble. I think it’s common for ensembles to be 20-30% female. And I wanted to do better. And I figured it would be the easiest part of the problem to fix.

I hope that if I had been doing the casting on my own, I would have cast an ensemble that was about half women and half men. But if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have. Maybe I would have fallen short and cast 2/3rd male like most theaters seem to do. The reason I didn’t? Because I wasn’t doing it alone. My business partner ran the auditions with me. I think this had four effects:

  1. I think people who auditioned for us knew that the company was co-owned by a woman. And I think that may have nudged many women (consciously or unconsciously) to audition.
  2. I think she probably reached out to some women to audition, particularly women she had taught or directed at Second City or whom she had known from other projects.
  3. When we were making decisions, I think her sensibilities may have nudged me to value the talent of some people more than I would have if I were judging them on my own.
  4. And most importantly, she walked into that audition assuming we would cast an equal number of men and women. And when she pointed that out to me, I knew she was right.

It wouldn’t be enough to do better than most. I wanted a cast that was just as likely to have more women on stage as more men. And the best way to do that would be to just cast an equal number of men and women. So that’s what we did. We’ve had two auditions and at the end of each audition, we’ve had an equal number of men and women in our ensemble.

Despite my desire to see more women in comedy and improv, it just would not have happened if it was only me making the decision, or if my business partner were another man. So yeah, get more diversity on your stage, but first, get more diversity in your casting room.

One other thing, these posts are not just meant to nudge people in other theaters to do better, but also to nudge my future self to do better as well. I can already see areas in our own business where we need to better. And if I keep talking about this in public, it will be that much harder to overlook this at our own theater.

I’ve heard of so many good ideas from the conversations spawned by my first post, and I’m eager to try them. So I’d love to hear your stories about this. What are your theaters doing to address this? What is your experience in improv been like? Has your journey been harder because of your gender, your culture, your age, your sexual identity? What kept you going?

1 thought on “Diversity Works Best From The Top Down”

  1. I think the more diverse the cast (and the crowd) the better and I believe that’s the point of the email I received. I often imagine how beautiful and magical a truly diverse comedy scene would be with everybody encouraging everybody — we clearly are not there yet. You and Anglea are both amazing people and really funny, but I don’t appreciate the email tag line that got me to this article “Hope more straight white guys audition…” If your discouraging about bad, insensitive, and plain not funny people I agree, but I think sarcastically discouraging a whole “group” of people isn’t too helpful.. Who exactly are these”straight white guys” anyway? My ancestors came from Italy, and I prefer females sexually, am I just a straight white guy? I think mine and many “males” sexuality and gender are more fluid and cannot be simply labeled like this email..or maybe I’m crazy and this email does not apply to me. Anyways, your theatre is awesome and this is an interesting topic.

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