It’s easy to ‘accidentally’ be racist, sexist, and/or ableist when playing a character in a play. When portraying a character, actors can mistakenly (and harmfully) misrepresent marginalized peoples. We all have a responsibility to counteract oppression in its many forms; of course, in the world of theatre we are no exception.
Despite anyone’s good intentions. In relation to the ethics of representation, falling back into realism can potentially lead to problematic portrayals when there are so many other ways of telling a story.
No matter how big or small the venue, no matter how educated or trained the artists, so much well-intentioned theatre and performance in Canada is marked by patriarchal depictions of women and men; of racist depictions of black, indigenous, and POC bodies; and by ableist depictions of characters’ bodies and minds. Ageism, transphobia, and many other bigotries are part of our collective Western socialization, and it is our duty to counteract them as artists and in all aspects of our lives.
Talking about this makes many people in the theatre uncomfortable. Are we being too sensitive? Are we being too much ‘in our heads’? Are we just being ‘politically correct’?
In short: no.
We like going to the theatre—making theatre—because it can be a powerful and moving medium of expression. It only makes sense that how people are depicted in the theatre makes a significant impact as well. If we show women to be lesser than men, BIPOC bodies to be lesser than white bodies, gay to be lesser than straight, trans to be lesser than cis, disabled bodies to be lesser than able bodies — even if the playwright tells us to — then we’re just promoting stereotypes our societies have inherited from long histories of injustice and exclusion. This representation perpetuates the harm of oppression and stereotyping.
Why acting training? Because the actor is frequently the ground-zero of meaning-making in theatre and performance. Because we affirm the actor to be a potent creative and political force in theatre and performance, and want actors to claim that power. Because bringing diversities into the actor’s training is to go right to the heart of the matter.
So: this video series focuses on how unjust ways of storytelling can be changed in part by approaching acting training with an awareness of diversities. We pluralize the term ‘diversities’ because there are so many types of difference (in fact everything is difference … but that’s a longer conversation). We’ve focussed on a few key diversities. We’ve stressed how diversities intersect.
Gathered here are a wide range of voices, each one of them an artist and a thinker. In their videos they share histories of why our stages and performances carry the freight of unjust histories of representation, and suggest strategies of how to intervene into acting training to continue to revolutionize theatre and performance moving forward.
We also focus heavily on aesthetic diversities and non-text-based forms of creation because so often realism itself can trap us in inherited and unimaginative depictions of ‘otherness’. Make no mistake: everyone here agrees on the need to pursue rigour, beauty, and intensity in the studio, however you may define those terms. But to ignore the reality that apparently ‘innocent’ stagings of classic and contemporary texts are often full of lazy and negative stereotypes—and that as artists we need to move beyond these—is to indulge in privilege and forsake a central responsibility of the artist: to vitalize life by imagining the world differently.
Department of Dramatic Arts, Brock University