During the first week of March 2016, students in the School of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Northern Colorado were gearing up for their performances in the musical “West Side Story.” Little did they know that the production would result in immediate backlash and threats regarding the lack of diversity in the casting.
The controversy over “West Side Story” made people in the program more aware of the issue of diversity. The director of the production received severe threats and many of the white actors received negative feedback for being in a predominately non-white show. Ever since then, to avoid making the same mistake, the theater program has focused on doing shows that do not require a larger cast of people of color. Despite steering clear of these types of shows, the program still lacks diversity.
Oscar Whitney Jr. is a junior musical theater major and was the only African-American student in his theater classes. He said that a lack of diversity can be seen when it comes to accepting people into the program and casting. Whitney was in the production of “Beauty and the Beast” and was only one of the two people of color to be cast.
“It makes people of color have to work 10 times harder to be represented on stage,” Whitney said. “They just got to start doing some more looking to get people into the program so that they can put more people of color into these shows.”
According to the Spring 2019 Census Enrollment Report, the undergraduate white population at UNC makes up 61.3%, while people of color make up 31.7%. Out of that 31.7%, Hispanics make up 20.8%, African-Americans make up 4.0% and Asians make up 2.1%.
Whitney said the School of Theatre Arts and Dance only admitted four people of color into the musical theater program last year. The interim director for the School of Theatre Arts and Dance, Shelly Gaza, highlighted the difficulty of getting into the program. Students must either audition or interview depending on what area of theater they want to major in. Around 1200 students audition within an eight-month span, and only about 100 get into the School of Theatre Arts and Dance every school year. That means that the program accepts less than 10% of students who apply. This makes it tough for anyone to get into the program, but it’s even harder for people of color.
Gaza is a part of the recruitment plans for the theater and dance programs. Recruiting is a highly selective process and the recruitment team travel the country looking for the most talented performers. She said they travel all over the United States to make sure they are reaching out to all different types of people. But there are still challenges when it comes to recruiting for diversity.
“The truth is that we recruit for talent and potential. We are looking for the best and brightest theatre artists of tomorrow,” Gaza said.
Whitney said he hopes that more people of color will be given a chance in the program, which would increase people of color being represented on stage. He mentioned how the lack of diversity in shows causes discouragement among young people of color. At the same time, many shows are being written where anyone can play any part no matter what they look like.
Aisha Jackson, an alumna of UNC, was cast as an understudy on Broadway as the first black Anna from “Frozen” in 2017. This was her third casting on Broadway. Young black children seeing that representation on stage is one of the many reasons why diversity is important in theater. Jackson stated in a 2019 interview for The Greeley Tribune how impactful her role is for children of color.
“I’ve always desired to be the change I wish to see in the world, and I wish to see more shows that represent our world,” Jackson told the Tribune.
Like Jackson, UNC students are working towards bringing changes to the world of theater. “Operation: Cheesecake” is a student-run theater group that attempts to increase representation in the School of Theatre Arts and Dance. Through student panels on diversity and casting people of color in their shows, “Operation: Cheesecake” is a way for every person to feel welcome, seen and heard.
“I think we are moving in the right direction, especially with Operation Cheesecake,” Whitney said. “That is a huge step for such a big cause and I think there is only so much talking you can do before you actually do something.”
While students are working to increase representation on stage, the UNC theater program is filled with an entirely white faculty. Gaza acknowledged that this isn’t the only program with an all-white faculty on campus. She said her faculty is active about recruiting people of color to join the theater program and she is hopeful to see a more diverse faculty. Until then, the program offers opportunities for guest speakers who are people of color to work with students.
Other improvements are occurring within the program to make sure that every student feels like he or she is being heard. Students have opportunities to select what plays they put on and are encouraged to be a part of the play process. Gaza said this is important because students can communicate what plays are meaningful to them and what plays make them feel represented. Students can also have a say in productions that offend them or productions that make them feel unincluded.
“Studio Season” is another example Gaza sees as improvement for diversity within the program. “Studio Season” are sets of productions produced every year. The goal is to increase resources for student-run production groups. One or more of the productions every year is focused on diversity and inclusion.
Gaza wants people of color to feel like the environment and culture at UNC is welcoming. She said that people of UNC and the School of Theatre Arts and Dance are passionate about cultivating a diverse student body. Regardless of their ethnicity, gender, religion, it is important that there is a diverse student body.
“We hope that by developing a school of theatre arts and dance that has rich offerings for a diverse student body, that we will attract people of color to us,” Gaza said.