The Non-Traditional Casting Project, which for two decades has pushed for more opportunities for actors of color and actors with disabilities, has changed its name to the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, to clarify its mission and broaden its reach.
"The reasons behind the organizational name change were to better reflect the scope of our organizational concerns and activities and to clearly signal our objective to work for full diversity in the entertainment industry," Sharon Jensen, the organization's executive director, said in a news release. "Our mission remains the same: to serve as an expert advocate and educational resource for full inclusion in television, film, theatre, and related media."
As part of the name change, the AIA held a panel discussion June 14 at the City University of New York: "Brownout: A Panel on Casting, Training, and Presenting Actors and Works of Diversity," whose participants debated the value of academy training and working in the mainstream and, generally speaking, posed the question, "Where do we go from here?"
Although nonwhite actors have made strides since AIA's forerunner started in 1986, the general consensus of the panelists was that there is still a long way to go, and there is evidence to support that. A UCLA study on the film and television industry last year said that white males were getting about 60 percent of the roles in those two media. Rev. Jesse Jackson and his organization, Operation PUSH, are protesting the lack of minority actors on new shows scheduled for the fall television season. (Look for the News Analysis in Back Stage, June 21.) Although Broadway is currently running The Color Purple, Radio Golf, The Lion King, and color-blind productions of 110 in the Shade, starring Audra McDonald, and Les Misérables, mainstream theatre remains largely the purview of whites.
The actor Eduardo Placer recently completed his MFA program at the University of California-San Diego, and he praised the experience, because it allowed him to play roles he might not otherwise get in the professional world outside the university. In general, however, he said, "There are too many training programs that should be abolished."
Director Stephanie Gilman took it several steps further: "Academia is horrible," she said. "They're racist, elitist...exclusive places. Who gets into these schools?" By and large, they are white, said Gilman. She added that only the actors coming from the highest echelon of university training get agents soon after graduating, which gives them an even greater advantage in the marketplace. (As she rattled off the list of what she considered the top three schools — Yale, Juilliard, and NYU — members of the audience, unprompted, recited the names along with her.)
Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, a native of Colombia and a vocal coach, bristles when he hears people in the industry telling native Spanish speakers that they have to "lose their accent." Conversely, he said, some Latino actors cannot get cast in even the most stereotypical of roles. "They are told that they look like the maid but they don't sound like the maid," Ocampo-Guzman said.
The mood wasn't all gloomy; far from it. Several of the panelists and audience members talked about the next steps: Now that they have a foot in the door, what can everyone do to make sure the industry is more inclusive? Gilman, who is white, talked about the need for individuals to have one-on-one meetings with artistic directors and posited that one person can make a difference (something that she tries to do as a teaching artist in some of the more troubled New York City schools).
Janine Carter, an audience member who is an actor-writer and has worked as a producer, said that it is important for actors of color to submit their headshots as much as possible, even for roles that the breakdowns suggest they aren't right for.
"The second you submit, you have already changed the landscape," she said, "because a director or a writer or a producer has seen your face, and you've made them think. Even if you don't get the part, you've done something."