Artistic leadership: how we change the game

Q&A with Professor/Playwright Paula Cizmar

Paula Cizmar

Paula Cizmar

Paula Cizmar, assistant professor of theatre practice for the USC School of Dramatic Arts, participated in a Q& A with Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) National Conference: Game Change. This post originally appeared on the TCG website.

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

PAULA CIZMAR: I couldn’t possibly narrow this down to one production – I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen many! But I can describe the type of production that changes the game for me: Something like a performance I saw by Cornerstone Theatre that roamed through various sections of a dilapidated church in downtown Los Angeles, when I got chills as I started to feel the presence of all the thousands of people who had come and gone from this place in the past, because there was so much communal spirit and so much attention to ritual present in the piece; or something like a group of community members I saw performing a documentary play in a small mountain town in Arizona when the need and desire of people who aren’t typical theatre folk to merge with the lives of the people whose stories they were telling was so clear. I could see them, right in front of me, making the leap to other minds, other thoughts outside their own. Game-changing moments in theatre, for me, are times when someone dares to make little shifts in the foundation and goes beyond the expected conventional characters to find the untold stories; times when language starts to lift out of its everyday reality and creates images and associations that take me somewhere that is hard to describe, creating little epiphanies. I love being transported by the rhythm and melody of words, and I love when theatre has the nerve to demand that I, as audience member, fill in the blanks rather than spoon-feeding me familiar stories and providing me with all the bells and whistles of expensive, realistic set pieces.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity – or challenge – facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

PC: To become truly diverse – and therefore to embody what is truly American – is the most significant opportunity for theatre today, and it is also the most significant challenge.

I see diversity as something that is not only necessary if we are to create art that has any meaning, but also if we are to truly be valuable as individual artists. Diversity matters in so many different aspects of theatre, not the least of which is money, which, of course, has an effect on everything else that we do. For example: year after year we hear the lament, “our audience is aging; how are we going to get a newer, younger audience?” Well, a big help would be to offer a season of plays that reflects the makeup of the community – not just the makeup of the typical subscriber base.

Is it really necessary for the larger-budget theatres, in particular, to exclude a major portion of the world onstage? Is it really necessary that the cast of every play be white? Must the classics really be done with only white people? Our audiences have huge imaginations – they’re in the theatre! They expect to use them! So why are we so reluctant to veer outside so-called “reality” and give them a Hamlet who is Asian while Gertrude is black? Making non-diverse decisions is not reality anyway: it’s convention. It’s just familiar. The same old, same old. If we lead, our audiences will willingly follow. We live in a country where not everyone is white, and in places like California where I live, the majority of people are often not white – so why must every play selected for production be about white people, or played by white people? I know that often the majority of the audience is white – but maybe the reason that there are few people of color in many audiences is that there are few people of color onstage? Of course, we all have imaginations, and of course, as a female, I can watch a play with a male protagonist and extrapolate a universal message from it and see my life reflected in the male characters’ struggles. But why should that be my only choice? Why should the white male protagonist be the fallback position? Why should that be Story Neutral – with all of the rest of us busily gathering our own personal insights from this one selected source? It would be nice to be invited to the party – rather than to stand outside the door and wonder if it’s okay to go in.

“Game-changing moments in theatre, for me, are times when someone dares to make little shifts in the foundation and goes beyond the expected conventional characters to find the untold stories; times when language starts to lift out of its everyday reality and creates images and associations that take me somewhere that is hard to describe, creating little epiphanies.” — Paula Cizmar

I have a few solutions that can at least open the doors a bit:
• Casting Claimer: As a playwright, and as a playwriting professor, I can take a small action. On each of my plays, I write something like the following: “This play takes place in the 21st century. In our wonderfully evolving America, a great many – if not a majority – of our people are not white; they are Asian American, African American, Latina/o, mixed race. When casting this play, please take that into consideration. I expect the casting of the roles in this play to resemble the face of a 21st-century America.” Or sometimes I mention that I expect the casting to resemble the face of our families – being part of a mixed race family, that’s an easy one. And, of course, I encourage – strongly, if not really, really firmly – that my students include a similar disclaimer. (And they do! The future is in good hands!) Directors, producers, and even everyday readers have imaginations – but sometimes the familiar gets the best of them. So why not plant the diverse casting seed early on in the script, so that anyone who starts to enter into the world of the play on the page starts picturing it with a multicultural cast?
• The Disclaimer for the Disclaimer. And btw, when, as theatre professionals, we confront a play with the casting disclaimer and we decide to give it a try, please let us take it into our heads that people of color or people with disabilities don’t have to be the supporting cast member. They can play the lead!
• Live In a Truly Diverse World. This one is really easy and really quite fun, because it’s all about going out there and meeting some new people, making some new friends, operating with an open heart and love. Really, it’s just that simple: We all need to expand our circles, to truly make friends and come to love people who are different from us. We need to hang out with people who are not the same race, the same ethnicity, same religion, same background, same anything; hang out with people who are mixed race, who have different gender identities, who are still figuring things out, etc. We need to hang out with folks until we come to love them and see a world that is eclectic and wonderful and then ensure that such a world is portrayed onstage. If Cameron Crowe (or just about anyone else in Hollywood) truly hung out in a diverse world, if Cameron Crowe truly had friends that embodied diversity, then he never would have thought to cast a blonde white woman as hapa in his movie set in Hawaii, where white people are a minority. What was he thinking? But similarly, what are the rest of us thinking, when we cast plays representing only one part of our world? Are we giving ourselves away? i.e., diversity is a great idea, but not if it means I have to go to the inconvenience of meeting new people, trying new food, going to a different neighborhood, or casting someone other than the most obvious choice?
• Fund Indie Theatre. I realize that most of what I’m talking about fits better in the indie theatre world than it does in commercial or big-budget nonprofits. And I’ve come to realize that I am probably confined to the indie world. At first, that seemed lesser than, especially when there are miniscule (or no) royalty checks. But I somehow always knew that writing for me was like blood and bones, and that living off writing was going to be iffy. So now I’m wearing Indie like a proud banner; if that’s my label, so be it….just wish there was money for that world, too. So, note to foundations and corporate sponsors: You don’t always have to fund the biggest theatre in town. You can spread the wealth around.

JL: What is the most significant challenge – or opportunity – facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

PC: The divisiveness. The polarity. The fundamentalist notion that there is only one way, one deity, one set of values, one goal, which results in Us-Them, which results in The Haves and The Have Nots. This polarity is at the foundation of every global problem we have as humans on a fragile planet, from the environment to war to violence toward women to trafficking. I think stories about the dangers of being polarized, believing in one way (the old way) of doing things offer us a huge opportunity to begin conversations about how we can change and become truly sociologically and spiritually evolved humans. We need to be telling stories of people who don’t often get to be seen onstage, and of course not as issue-of-the-week diatribes, but rather as powerful personal explorations of how an individual or a family is affected at the local level by all this global, divisive chaos. How does a natural disaster wreak havoc on the life of a single religious mother? How does a mistake lead to a violent action that tears apart the future of a group of urban teens? How does a survivor of trafficking, now far from home, create a new way of being in the world? We can illuminate all of this onstage and start the talking, start the movement toward seeing a different world.