As theaters scramble to survive amid a pandemic, the need to honor inclusion within an art form that often casts roles based on stereotypes offers thespians an additional challenge.
The Players Guild of Dearborn, which is developing options to downsize its season and expenses during a time of uncertain opening nights is taking on an additional challenge: How to end the marginalization of minority actors who may not mirror the traditional ethnicity with which roles were cast.
The Guild, which is contemplating a four-show season instead of its traditional slate of six, is forgoing a season ticket and proposing individual show admissions, with a November show free of royalties, written by a member playwright, followed by a small cast comedy in January. March would host a classic straight show, while May could see the curtain rise on the musical “Anything Goes” a year after its original scheduled run.
Mike Moseley of the Scenario Planning committee said the timeline of restrictions being limited is still a fluid unknown.
“With all of those possibilities up in the air, we knew we had to come up with a plan that was flexible,” he said. “The Players Guild will stay dark until Labor Day, returning with a possible four-show season, with the idea to choose shows that grow in complexity, from the very simple to a full-cast musical.”
Each show would stand alone, and the Guild would be able to respond to the evolving circumstances of the COVID-19 virus and its accompanying safety restrictions. If there is a spike in cases in the fall, the first royalty-free show would allow the theater to pull out without taking a financial hit.
The Guild also is considering the implications of staggering seating to accomplish the need to pursue safe social distancing, which in turn would create the need for a diminished show budget.
Health and safety protocols are being developed for actors, for both rehearsals and show nights, and limiting member access to areas of the building which have been disinfected in anticipation of audience presence. The way that usher seat guests will change, as well.
“The idea is to create something for 2020-21 that we can work on, but at the same time see what is happening in the world and being able to pull back,” Moseley said. “We are hopeful we are going to keep moving together, safely, while hanging on to the sense of hope that we all want.”
Outgoing Guild president Chris Boudreau said that with the protests and social awareness that are coming to the forefront, the Guild has decided, as a community theater, to form a committee to discover how the group can become more inclusive and diverse.
“I think that we do pretty well at that, but in light of where we are socially nowadays, it is time to do a check,” he said, adding that member Kenyada Davis, who is black, will chair the committee.
Davis, an actor, admitted to being nervous.
“I don’t have anyone else’s lines to say,” he said with a laugh. “But I am going to start with a little bit of mine that I have written.”
Davis said shows like “Hairspray,” “Rent,” “A Chorus Line,” “In the Heights” and “The Color Purple” are all shows that speak to the voices of the unheard.
“There is success in relating to the voices of those who surround you, and displaying those cultural experiences,” he said. “Representation matters.”
Davis said he hopes to convey to other members how the Guild’s future can include diversity, inclusion and equality.
“How do we help and change the community for the better, beyond the occasional play or musical?” he said. “I hope to provide a refuge for those who feel as though they have been outcast, due to things about themselves they cannot change or help.”
Davis said people come to the Guild to feed their love for theater, to provide help where it is needed and to provide entertainment for the community.
“We do that by telling enriching stories that we relate to,” he said. “But what we fail to realize is that our community does not look one way and fit into one mold.”
Davis said people’s uniqueness help them become successful members of the Guild.
“There are times when I wonder, did I get that part because I am black, and the competition is slim in that category, or am I truly talented enough to snag that spot?” he said. “It may not be a thought that crosses your mind, but understand that the thought is valid, and occurs too many times than not.”
Davis said we live in a society that tells us to better ourselves by fitting in, so sometimes it helps to hear from other voices which do not conform to mainstream norms.
“The prejudices of this world are OK to be spoken about, and a place of solace helps air out those frustrations,” he said. “It will provide support to those who are afraid to share their voices and experiences.”
Davis said he would like to see the Guild encourage young people to share their voices and create plays, instead of continuing to performing someone else’s words.
“The moments that mean the most to me onstage are when I can play a character that I relate to beyond the page,” he said. “One whose story I can understand, and feel as though the playwright gets me.”
Davis said plays which represent minorities and the LBGTQIA community are not being written as often as they could, and he hopes to unlock the flow of words of those who feel they have no voice.
He said he hopes to work with the Guild’s script committee, to help ensure that the stories that are told represent all of the Guild’s members, as well as the community which comes to see the shows.
Davis acknowledged the difficulty in getting people of color to audition for shows at the Guild.
“Those are excuses to not take risks,” he said. “We never know unless we try.”
Davis said the Guild must move beyond a verbal commitment to change, otherwise it will never move beyond the status quo.
Incoming Guild president John Sczomak said creating inclusion and diversity needs to be ongoing.
Davis added that the Guild is missing revenue by not appealing to a more diverse audience base.
“We have a lot of empty seats at some of our shows,” he said. “I believe that is because we are missing some markets.”
To read that Players Guild of Dearborn’s statement of inclusion and diversity, go to playersguildofdearborn.org/about-us/inclusion-diversity.