Studio lighting, a lone electric keyboard, swishing jazz shoes, and clipboards galore.
The youth theater audition room is a place where casting directors crucify, justify, and disqualify until they can excavate a golden cast list from the phenomenon that is American youth theater. As an Indian-American kid who spent my summers in theater camp, my winters performing in professional productions, and my springs training in conservatory shows, I know firsthand how alienating that room can be for a little brown girl like myself.
I had loads of fun performing in classic children’s shows (think Annie, The Wizard of Oz, or Beauty and the Beast), but never allowed myself to question or challenge the glaring lack of diverse material available to work with. Instead, I accepted majority white cast lists as a norm, ingraining the harmful mindset that “conventional” theater was not created for me. Like many of my BIPOC colleagues, I turned to playwriting in order to bring my own stories to the forefront, and while original theater has been a great vehicle for storytelling, it is not enough. That deep feeling of exclusion has stuck with me; I still subconsciously turn on my assimilation button whenever I enter through the stage door. To my young and impressionable mind, this was simply how children’s theater worked in America, where the Western theater canon is God.
But America is a metamorphic country. Citing data from the U.S Census Bureau, Brookings recently reported that while the white population is declining, ethnic minorities in the United States comprise nearly 40% of Americans under the age of 16. By neglecting to introduce proper representational media, youth conservatories are refusing to work alongside our quickly changing demographics. If they continue down this road, another generation of young theater makers will be left resenting their passion, because they feel unwelcome by the institution behind it.
Unfortunately, the reason that some of these programs fail to include diverse media is because they don’t feel the need to– research by the American Camp Association shows that day camp enrollment in America is 70.5 percent white, leading theater instructors to disregard finding shows by and for artists of color. Theater camps are expensive (often $300-$1,000), and systemic racism that affects socioeconomic status widens the gap for BIPOC communities. This ushers in programs where there are only a handful of students of color in a majority white cast — I remember stage managing for Les Miserables, where the approximately thirty person cast had only a few people of color. While the American theater community must take on the responsibility of both diversifying and democratizing programs for children, it would require direct funding of the arts from federal, regional, state, and local agencies, as well as enthusiastic public support by generous patrons, to pull it off. Once pay-to-play theater programs can afford to budget their money towards outreach and scholarship initiatives for lower income communities, we can curb the disproportionate demographics in theater courses and change educational creativity for the better.
There is a wrong way to go about this. Some theater instructors believe that Eurocentrism can be solved by “rewriting” characters as people of color so that their BIPOC students can get bigger roles. But why can’t we also produce shows written by people of color, for people of color? Claiming that Western media was written with Brown and Black children in mind — a concept reminiscent of J.K Rowling’s Twitter tirades — is a slap in the face to BIPOC communities who have been denied access to theater camps for years. Simply shoe-horning non-white backgrounds for characters post publication violates the very grounds of diversity. Additionally, I urge youth theater programs to stop clinging only to white actors while simultaneously promoting a new, more “ethnic” season. I have seen too many summer programs, in an attempt to increase diversity, produce majority-white productions of Mulan, West Side Story, or Once on this Island.
When theater companies do begin to explore multicultural storytelling, I ask that my fellow white theater artists welcome the moment with open arms instead of meeting it with bitterness. The latter is quite damaging — I remember how, after learning of my commission by our playwriting teacher to write an adaptation of a South Asian epic, a close friend dismissed it with the classic, “He only asked you because you’re Indian.” The comment stung in the moment, and stills stings today, even as I interview with collegiate playwriting programs.
It’s worth noting that professional theater companies around the country have already begun excavating their long history of silencing BIPOC artists and creators. The We See You White American Theater (WSYWAT) movement began during the COVID-19 pandemic, and resulted in many racist theater administrators stepping down so artists of color could take the lead. However, WSYWAT must trickle up instead of down. Reforming theater at the enrichment program level with anti-racist measures will ensure equity for actors and creators in the professional world.
Elitism does not simply appear — it is fostered and taught for years on end. It is vital that theater conservatories upend their eurocentric practices. To save theater from homogeneity, to equalize the grounds, we must democratize it. The fate of American performance lies where it always has: in our open hands and hearts.
Leela Kiyawat is a seventeen year old award-winning playwright and theater artist from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been produced with Playground SF, the Ashby Stage, the Youth Uproar Theatre Company, and TheatreFirst, among others. She loves FKA Twigs, goldfish crackers, and riding the BART train.