Training in Predominantly White Institutions as a Non-White Artist
This year’s pandemic experience challenged me to take serious note on the things that are most important to me, both as an artist and as a citizen. So during the stay at home orders, I decided to start working towards one of them: earning my California Teaching Credential. Early on in my acting training I understood that a quality theatre teacher who had a sincere love and understanding of the craft could drastically change a young artist’s life for the better. The graduate program application process gave me the space to once again reflect on what I felt were the intrinsic values offered in quality theatre education, as well as my own experience of spending 8 years in conservatory training programs in both Los Angeles and New York as a Chicana identifying artist. So here are some of my notes on what’s it’s like to be a non-white artist training in predominantly white conservatory institutions.
Growing up, my cultural and religious centered academic education never gave me the proper tools to use my voice without fear/ shame or feel comfortable in my body as a woman. In stark contrast, an empowered voice, body, and imagination are some of the main focuses of quality conservatory acting training. Training in the theatre arts was my first introduction to a deepened sense of pride in discovering the power that my voice could carry, how to unapologetically take control of my physical autonomy, and how to challenge myself to engage with artistic/ academic material critically. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing a deep sense of liberation and self-love thanks to this art form and the tools it provided me. My love for the theatre is pretty undying but, like most institutions, the closer I got and the deeper I immersed myself in that world – the more I saw that there were clear limitations to those initial promises of empathetic emotional intelligence and a quest for a sincere truth within storytelling at all costs.
The more I grew into my awareness, the more I noticed that I was trapped in cycles of trying to perform binary and patriarchal ideas of race, gender, and class. I began to notice that the majority of narratives in the plays and texts we would study defaulted to centering on either masculinity or whiteness and it’s cultural dominance. I was constantly trying to fit into a shrunken and limiting idea of who and what a non-white and non-male identifying person could be in a currently white and masculine narrative centered art form.
Underplaying the contributions and greatness of non-white critical thinkers and artists within artistic training programs leaves it’s non-white students with a false sense of not “being enough”. Their talents, narratives, and physical appearance are somehow proven “less than” by virtue of being so absent from the space and conversation. When people who do not look like you and narratives that don’t center experiences like yours are never ending and propped up on an unchallenged pedestal – you can waste a lot of extra time trying to figure out ways to make up for it by doing things like figuring out how to perform your idea of whiteness better, obsessing over standard americanizing your speech, or giving in to incorporating inappropriate directions like, “Can you read that again but this time with some more fire/ spice? Can you make it sound more urban? Can you just ooze sexuality and coyness?”
Non-white artists in the theatre education space are not only statistical minorities, but have also been intentionally minoritized. Our playwrights and critical thinkers are intentionally kept off the syllabus, our narratives are intentionally kept off the stage, and our people are intentionally shut out of critical leadership positions within powerful artistic institutions. I continue to find that this is not a result of the lack of talent or number of non-white artists (because we are talented, and there are a lot of us out here), or for lack of people trying to de-colonize the American theatrical cannon and professional performance space (because there is long history of artists who have done that work – and have then been silenced or blacklisted in the industry). Neither is it due to it being a recent discovery that there is so much representational inequality within artistic training programs and the American theatrical landscape at large (because this is VERY old news); but instead, I find it is because of the stubborn persistence of white comfortability that we find ourselves in this seemingly never ending predicament. Othering minorities and their narratives is comforting to white audiences, theatre makers, and educators because that is what they have been conditioned to consume and produce. It allows them to stay safe from being challenged, from doing the uncomfortable yet necessary work of stepping into a foreign worldview and practicing sincere empathy and humility, which is everything that a quality theatre consumption experience requires of its performers and audience anyway.
Earlier in the quarantine, I re-read one of my favorite early college reading assignments: Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith. In it, she describes how brave artists go “beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious…visions that allow people to engage in heroic actions….[i]t’s the allowing that art makes possible…[t]he artist gives us the allowance to imagine things another way.” This spoke to what made me fall in love with storytelling in the first place: a brave space that would have the possibility to allow for healing, emotional intellectual growth, and a challenge to engage critically with the world around me. This also spoke to the new promise I made to myself: that I would continue to work towards bravely creating new possibilities based on visions that become contagious, even when the artistic and educational institutions I first fell in love with are too lazy and stubborn to do so.
So I’m committing to inspiring those who enter my classroom to engage in heroic actions. I will work to strengthen their voices, bodies, and imaginations. I will fight to decolonize my syllabus and the textbooks that I am teaching my curriculum out of. I will bring critical thought, historical context, and politics to the forefront. I will create a classroom culture where students feel seen and heard, empowered to trust, ask questions, and be vulnerable – a place where they can do the challenging work of growing into their best selves. I will continue to learn and be inspired by the artists having conversations on platforms like (but not limited to) We See You WAT, Black Girls Do Theatre, Black Theatre Commons, Latinx Theatre Commons; and within more recent groundbreaking institutions Black Acting Methods and the Casa 0101 community centered artist training model and production season. I’m committing to working towards a more just and equitable culture of theatrical conservatory training, and I can’t wait to get started and (of course) continue to take note 😉
Victoria Tamez is an actor, singer, dancer, and theatre educator. Her previous artistic teaching positions have been with organizations such as TheatreWorkers Project, People’s Theatre Project, Shakespeare Re-mixed, and Trinity Theatre Project. She’s also worked as a production intern with Ensemble Studio Theatre LA through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. She believes that quality theatre education should be accessible to everyone and that the arts have the ability to be an agent for positive social change. Victoria is a graduate of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts; she also holds both a BFA in Dramatic Arts and an MA in Arts Management & Entrepreneurship from The College of Performing Arts at The New School in New York City.