Is the Lack of Diversity on Broadway a Trickle Up Effect? Or Is it a Circular Problem?

Jane North

I started to wonder why in 2017, it is still such a struggle for performers of color (POC) to be cast on major stages. With the high profile shows of Hamilton casting the majority of their actors specifically and intentionally with POC, and with large Asian casts in the formerly running The King and I and currently running Miss Saigon, it appears as if the general landscape of casts on the stage has changed. This is misleading.  This is not to say that Hamilton has not opened doors for actors and audiences as well, but the casting of Hamilton has not changed how other shows are cast. In addition, the roles for predominantly Asian casts often perpetuate negative stereotypes. In short, the numbers for POC in Broadway shows have gone up in the last couple of years, but mainly due to The King and I and Miss Saigon. The problem of real diversity on stage still exists.

I personally know a handful of actors who defy the odds and are making their mark on the Great White Way in a great big way. There are always exceptions and trailblazers, but wouldn’t it be so much better for it to be the norm to have diverse casts, rather than the exception?

I have poured over articles and statistics and see where there is a lot of finger pointing at casting directors, agents, audiences, and of course the powers that be at the highest level. One group that has yet to be mentioned, are the folks at the front lines. The individuals working at the high schools, colleges, and universities that train the young people for the stage. I started my research after being incensed at casting decisions made at Laguardia High School this year. 

This school is supposedly the premiere training ground for students in NYC for the performing and visual arts. Once a year they do only one all school musical where the students may audition. This year, the audition process was held and carried out. Of the entire 40 students cast, only three POC's will be performing in the show, a traditionally white show, 42nd Street, where ethnicity really has no part in the storyline. What does this say about a school where the student body is extremely diverse? If this happens in NYC, I am pretty certain it happens elsewhere as well.  It just so happens that Laguardia High School, in the extremely diverse city of New York, has ZERO faculty who are POC in their drama department. How does this happen?  I am not making any assumptions nor implying anything beyond the facts of the numbers: 3 POC in a show where the student body is made up of 55% POC, and 0 drama faculty who are POC

I am not sure what this means exactly, but I know it certainly raises more questions.  This led me to start looking at the makeup of full-time faculty in college and university programs for musical theater specifically.  I was wondering if musical theater programs are also predominantly taught by Caucasians.  I randomly selected from the top musical theater programs at colleges and universities in the U.S. I chose to look at full-time faculty make-up of Elon University, The University of Michigan, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music/Boston Conservatory, Webster University, Pace University, NYU Tisch, Baldwin Wallace, Wagner College, and Manhattan School of Music. (Keep in mind, this is just a sample to test my question. This is not an in-depth analysis.) Of these programs, five of them have ZERO representation of POC on their full-time faculty roster; one has one person out of twenty who is a POC in the design department; another has one out of twenty; one has two out of seventeen, and Berklee/BOCO and NYU Tisch have the most diversity in their full-time faculty, coming in near 15-20% of POC in the faculty representation in each school. Interestingly, the lowest population of people of color working as faculty in these specific programs overall is Asian.  The number was less than 3 percent of full-time faculty within these programs are Asian. 

In short, without singling out each school for lack of faculty diversity, it is fairly evident that there is just that, an overall lack of diversity on the front lines as well, the very people who have initial contact with many of these budding performing artists. ( You can easily go to each school’s website and view their faculty.) But what does all of this mean? 

Is the colorblind casting conundrum a problem that runs so deep and so wide that we can’t say which came first, the chicken or the egg? I am not sure. Do we need POC  in all facets of theater including teaching, casting, designing, writing, directing, acting, producing…? Of course!  So how do we get more faculty members in these top programs? Is it that fewer POC's get significant roles and therefore their resumes cannot compete with their Caucasian counterparts applying for these university positions? It is definitely not for lack of a talent pool.  Do the faculty in these programs somehow affect the future careers or professional connections or even personal “takeaways” for their students?  I am guessing yes. And again, I am not implying that there is some sort of causal link, but it raises more questions. Would having more teachers on the front lines who better represent the diversity of our society have a positive impact on the amount of POCs being cast, or would a greater number of POCs getting significant roles open up more faculty positions for these POC in top musical theater programs, or both?

I know this is one tiny piece of the lack of diversity issue on stage. The lack of diversity in university program faculty just hasn’t been discussed much as a piece of this puzzle. There is also a lack of ethnic diversity within the realm of casting directors, in agents and managers, and in producers.  The business of the stage is predominantly white- from teachers to agents, to casting directors, all the way up… It’s not just happening on the stage, but off as well, with the very people who help to place casts on the stage.  I don’t claim to have all the answers nor the solutions, but I do strongly believe that when all facets of the industry better represent the world we live in, it will only make the stories being told better. 

Having diversity in the very teachers, agents, and casting directors who help control the actors’ destinies may very well be a solution to help widen the lens of casting in general. And in the end, the bottom line is, audiences will come see these casts because they will identify with the stories and the diverse people telling them.