Students come forth after witnessing and experiencing racial typecasting within Humboldt State’s Theater Department.
While COVID-19 leaves the world silent, Humboldt State University theater students are trying to raise their voices and create change. Reports of racial typecasting and the wrong types of inclusivity began to surface and the students decided to work together to create a better program for future students.
“We’ve definitely had issues in terms of racial casting,” said senior theatre major Jaiden Clark. Clark is President of Alpha Psi Omega, a theater based fraternity at HSU.
“The higher ups in the department and the faculty try to be inclusive in the wrong ways,” said Clark.
Part of the issue was the selection of shows. According to Clark, there is a volunteer committee where students and faculty pick which shows will be done. Although it is voluntary, Clark mentioned in a few cases of shows being catered to people who are in the committee.
“Anyone needs to be able to have a say,” said Clark. “I think it would cool to have a more democratic system.”
HSU senior AJ Hempstead, a double major in theatre and religious studies, has faced discrimination when accepting roles for shows.
“People are trying to be more inclusive, especially at HSU, I get more roles,” said Hempstead. “I was offered a role because of my acting level but also because they needed someone with a specific skin color.”
“I would really like to see shows where it doesn’t matter the race or gender of the actor playing the role,” said Clark.
Clark and Hempstead both agreed they wanted to see more shows being chosen that had characters that could be played by anyone, so the audience is sent a more equal message.
“What are they doing, what messages are being sent here and where are those messages coming from,” said Hempstead.
Hempstead wants the audience to look at what was represented onstage and think about the decisions that were made with casting, rather than produce shows that had to have a certain type of person.
“Colorblind casting is not actually a thing, there’s no such thing as colorblind anything because people are going to see,” said Clark. He noted the faculty needs to be more color-conscious instead.
Hempstead’s idea for improvement involved wanting to see a more active teacher assistants program where higher level students could help teach other students along with professors.
“Teachers aren’t the enemy in any of this that’s happening,” Hempstead said. “We want to work with them as much as possible. We empowered our students, we empowered our community and that didn’t mean taking power from them. I see that power struggle.”
Clark agrees with Hempstead, believing that open discussion can alleviate feeling uncomfortably and create progress.
“It’s a really important time for people to talk about what worked and what they liked and what made them uncomfortable and what shouldn’t be done again,” said Clark. “When change is needed in the theatre industry, you have to start in universities. If we are behind Broadway, then we have to catch up because our people are just the people who aren’t there yet.”
Associate Professor and Theatre Program Leader Troy Lescher responded to the rumored racial typecasting in an email. He asked for clarification if it were about racial representation onstage.
“These processes are imperfect and are very prone to mistakes. Theatre is also a living art that relies on human storytellers,” Lescher said in an email. “Race, gender, age, physical attributes and vocal qualities are among dozens of casting considerations that impact representation onstage.”
In response to what HSU is doing to ensure racial typecasting will not continue, Lescher said he would listen to a student if they felt racially typecast and would try to find an alternative learning opportunity for them with the director.
“Afterward, I would bring this matter to the Season Selection Committee (which is composed of faculty, staff, and students) so that we could collectively work to strengthen our process,” Lescher said in an email.
Lescher acknowledged the challenge of racial representation in casting and believes the program is guilty of not following through.
“I believe there have been instances when our program has not exercised the cultural competence necessary to best support our students and their learning,” Lescher said in an email. “Critical awareness of and cultural sensitivity to matters of representation are important to our program and we continue to learn and to strengthen.”
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