{ICYMI} Diversity in Theater Means Taking Chances

by Derek Villanueva

Photo by Nate Gowdy

I once auditioned for a role in a play in Los Angeles that I thought matched my profile. The breakdown read: Male (20s), Midwestern, boy-next-door-look. That could be played by me, I thought. Little did I know how horribly awkward the experience would turn out. As I was in the middle of the monologue, I saw the director and casting assistant not watching my performance, but instead having a conversation with each other about something not related to my audition. Afterwards, the casting assistant caught up with me as I was leaving the building and said, “Thank you for coming out. Your reading was great, but we’re looking for a Caucasian actor for this role. You see the story is set in the Midwest.” I pointed out, “Oh, the breakdown didn’t mention that detail.” He replied with a condescending, “Uh, Male (20s), Midwestern, boy-next-door-look?” I was dumbfounded and just nodded as I walked out. Like there aren’t any Latins living in the Midwest? Ironically, I would later go to several auditions for projects casting Latin actors, only to be told that my skin was too light, or my look was not “thuggish” or “mestizo” enough.

As a teen, I was already the lead on my own stage, with a script I really didn’t understand. I was acting my ass off. You know, playing a straight kid! But even more, a straight kid who not only practiced abstinence but also taught it to his reluctant girlfriends. Outwardly, I was every father’s dream come true! I had low self-esteem and that made it especially hard to accept myself. I just didn’t get it then. I didn’t get my theater class, I didn’t get girls, I didn’t get boys (which was quite sad), and I just didn’t get life. What I did get was a clip from Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. That was the start of my deep connection to Harvey’s work. It was the flashback scene where Arnold’s Ma (played by the inimitable Anne Bancroft) discovers him as a young boy in his mother’s closet, draped in a dress with badly applied make up. That, I got.

Prior to arriving in the Pacific Northwest, I’d done several short and feature films but hadn’t pursued live theater. By chance, I bumped into the founder of The Lesser Known Players, a Bainbridge Island theater group. We talked about my acting background and after listening to my reservations about theater she challenged me to give it another shot. I was skeptical because I saw live theater as transitory and impermanent, unlike film. And I also knew that the role of my character’s father was already cast – with a Caucasian actor. But I auditioned anyway. And to my surprise, I landed the role! One moment, I was acting for film and the next I was performing on stage, in a new city. In live theatre, your audience is right in front of you, studying your every move in real time. I wasn’t used to the immediate cauldron of reactions from the audience. But I loved that real time feedback and connection you just don’t get with film.

My first stage role was the teenage boy in The Vandal, and was a prime example of nontraditional casting. Sadly, it’s quite rare for directors to put this into practice. Most people play it safe and cater to the dominant culture. The role could easily have been cast traditionally, but they saw past that and gave me a chance.

Locally it’s very common for theater companies to recycle their seasoned actors. Yes, those people are talented and experienced, and it’s always less risky to go with a known entity. I love that these companies continue to give their actors work, but they also need to give new people a chance, give people of color (POC) a chance to play leading roles. There are times where POC are never even considered. Not only are whole segments of our society made invisible by that choice, we also don’t get access to their unique gifts and perspective. But I get it. Directors must think about their audiences, who are predominantly older white people. That’s true everywhere, but especially true in the PNW. But then again, Shakespeare strikes me as Medieval soap opera material: mistaken identity, eloping, murder, backstabbing, family rivalries, deceit, fights and star-crossed lovers. It’s like Shakespeare foreshadowed telenovelas! I would love to see a Sir Juan Falstaff one of these days.

After that first stage acting experience, I started marketing and building buzz for the company’s shows, and soon sat on their board of directors and became their Marketing Director. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the shy kid raised in Van Nuys, California would be involved with the theatre scene in Seattle and Bainbridge Island. I also started to research plays that I thought would be great for the company to produce, and was reading several plays every week, but for a long time didn’t find anything that caught my attention.

A director I had enjoyed working with once asked, “What kind of plays do you see yourself doing, if you were ever to direct? What speaks to you? Always ask yourself that and then you’ll know which one.” The first thing that came to mind was my own version of that moment in Torch Song Trilogy that I’d seen as a kid. That triggered my own memory – a flashback of my parents catching me playing dress-up in my mother’s clothes. They didn’t have a violent reaction, but just turned a blind eye and hid the dresses in areas that I couldn’t reach. But what they didn’t know is that I was a determined, clever little boy. In thinking about why this resonated so deeply for me, I realized that it was because it dealt with the foundational issues of identity & acceptance.

A friend of mine first introduced me to Fierstein’s Casa Valentina about a year ago. He had seen it on Broadway in its short (3 months), Tony-nominated 2014 run, and was hoping that someone would bring a production to Seattle. The play had an edge to it. It made me think. So, I proposed it to our board of directors as a part of our 2018 season lineup. I became an advocate for subject matter that some might think is too risqué or “out there” for Bainbridge and Seattle audiences. Who would want to see this, I thought? Will there be an audience? I presented it to my board. They noticed how lovestruck I was talking about it and approved it unanimously. I was giddy with excitement yet again. I felt I did something right, but one minor problem remained. We needed a director to helm the piece. Silence hung over the room. The newly-approved play lacked a director. I’ve directed film and TV before, but never theater. Would they take another risk again if I stepped up to the plate? “I’d like permission to direct this one if everyone agrees.” Where did this courage come from?

So, there I was on Bainbridge Island deeply involved with plays but with no formal theater education. I am the Latino product of a single parent home. When other kids were going off to college, that wasn’t even an option for me because of the cost. I knew that I had to learn the art and the business of theater on my own by immersing myself in productions, and I had to learn fast. I’m fortunate to have had a non-profit theater group embrace me and help nurture my craft. In this theatrical journey, it has helped me a lot to know that Joe Mantello moved from acting to directing because his theater group gave him that opportunity, despite no prior directing experience.

In a way the play found me. One of the things that the play does beautifully is exploring personal and social acceptance; something that really resonates for me. The play is an edgy piece about self-made women (crossdressing heterosexual men) in the 60s, and I was about to be the first director to bring it to Seattle.

So many people spend their lives seeking social acceptance only to sacrifice their own identity and principles in the process. I had done that in my high school years, and clearly remember the facade I put up in public and at home to make everyone around believe I was the person I claimed to be. Doing this for four years straight (no pun intended) was exhausting me. In the end, I realized I was trying to fool myself. I was depriving myself of the opportunity to connect with people who would have loved me for whom I really am.

Don’t just listen to me on the diversity issue in our city, pick up a program and see what the cast in your local theater looks like. Are any people of color in leading roles? If there are, that’s great. If not, then we need to continue the conversation to help shift the paradigm. Post-Hamilton, I think a lot of people are saying, “Look, diversity right there. We did it!” But we must keep the conversation going. Hamilton is one show, but what are we doing in our own backyard to improve things for all actors? We must celebrate those directors and artistic directors and theater companies who make riskier, more interesting choices. Who knows, we may just learn that diversification in theatre may be one of the most important antidotes to the systemic polarization that grips our country.

FINAL WEEKEND!! Lesser-Known Players presents the Seattle premiere of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway (1524 Harvard Ave) from Oct 19 to 28, for eight performances only. Tickets at $15-$35 in advance at casavalentina.brownpapertickets.com and at the door, if available.

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