Most Twin Cities acting jobs go to men. White people get more jobs than people of color.
Neither of these is much of a revelation. The surprise in a recent study is that the situation isn’t getting better faster.
For years, Actors Equity, the union for stage actors and stage managers, has worked to increase hiring diversity. To get numbers, the organization commissioned a first-of-its-kind study of union contracts from 2013 through 2015. The figures don’t look good nationally or locally, as revealed in Twin Cities data shared with the Star Tribune.
“Our contracts have lots of sentences, with lots of words, that are aspirational in nature,” said Mary McColl, president of Actors Equity and former general manager of St. Paul’s Ordway Center. “We have things like nondiscrimination clauses, obviously. But that was not moving the dime.”
That’s why the union is making public its data about its member contracts. Some numbers:
• Male actors received 55 percent of the Equity principal roles (meaning characters with names) in Twin Cities stage plays during that period, and 59 percent of those roles in musicals, even though Equity membership is split roughly 50-50 by gender.
• Bucking a national trend, men and women here were paid the same average amount: $727-$750 per week. (Union actors are guaranteed minimum salaries, but can negotiate for more.)
The figures are starker when it comes to race. Six percent of the Twin Cities population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the Census Bureau, but those actors earned just 2 percent of the roles. The American Indian population is less than 1 percent, but its presence onstage was so small it barely registered — two of a total of 1,324 contracts in the three-year period.
Asian-Americans make up 6 percent of the local population, but were cast at half that rate in plays and less than a quarter in musicals. On the other hand, African-Americans, 8 percent of the population, accounted for 13.4 percent of contracts in plays and 8.7 in musicals.
The numbers include large theaters such as the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre Company and smaller companies that employ union and nonunion actors, such as the Asian-American-centered Theater Mu. Touring shows are not included.
“If you look at how our country is changing, if people of color do not see stories on stage that reflect their experience, why would they keep coming?” asked Brandon Lorenz, communications director of Actors Equity.
That’s why outgoing Ten Thousand Things artistic director Michelle Hensley adopted color-conscious casting when she founded the company in the late 1980s.
“We had Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans, African-Americans and white people, all mixed together” in the inaugural show, Hensley said. “It was an instinct that was very important because I knew that was what our audience would be.”
She said there were setbacks when Ten Thousand Things moved from Los Angeles to the less diverse Twin Cities to produce its first show in 1994.
“For a while, the only actors showing up at our auditions tended to be white actors,” she said. “It just takes time to build up relations of trust with actors of color so they understand you’re there for the right reasons.”
Holding up a mirror
The study confirmed what Christine Toy Johnson already believed about casting inequities. An Asian-American playwright/actor who was in “South Pacific” and “Sunday in the Park With George” at the Guthrie, Johnson chairs the union’s equal employment opportunity committee.
“I and my colleagues can now look at these numbers and say, ‘At least we know we’re not crazy,’ ” she said. “They show there is a lack of parity.”
It should be noted that the study ends in 2015, so, for instance, it doesn’t reflect the impact of the Guthrie’s hiring of Joseph Haj in the middle of that year, which has brought more diversity to the largest local Equity employer. The Guthrie’s website now announces that its auditions “strongly encourage people of underrepresented groups and diverse backgrounds.”
Numbers assembled by the Star Tribune suggest that policy is working, at least when it comes to actors of color. They’ve played about 40 percent of the roles at the Guthrie since Haj’s arrival. But the hiring of male and female actors roughly matches the numbers in the study. (Equity is conducting a follow-up study that will update its figures.)
In general, Johnson said, the frustrating thing is that casting inclusion doesn’t seem to be improving much, even though seemingly everyone wants it to.
“I have run across very few people who don’t believe the same thing I do, about theater reflecting the world as it is,” she said. “But these numbers put up a mirror and make people think, ‘How can I contribute?’ ”
Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theater Latté Da, has held up that mirror. He recalled a Kennedy Center performance of the musical drama “All Is Calm” in Washington, D.C., after the production’s lone black actor had to drop out.
“I went backstage afterward, and my friend Virginia Rogers, who ran their education program for 40 years, was crying. She said, ‘I’ve never seen this audience so moved,’ ” recalled Rothstein.
He had a different reaction.
“I sat there the whole time thinking, ‘Shame on me. We talk about wanting to have a diverse audience in the theater and here I am in an audience that is 95 percent African-American and there is not one person up there on that stage who looks like them. Not one. I’m not doing that ever again.’ ”
The Mixed Blood model
Mixed Blood, one of the most diverse theaters in the Twin Cities area, is a trailblazer, Equity President McColl said: “Small companies can lead by example, so their success can be templates for other organizations to follow.”
Inclusion is built into the Mixed Blood system, said artistic director Jack Reuler. The theater has community advisory boards representing the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, trans people, the Latino community and people with disabilities. Instead of selecting plays and then casting them, Reuler said, Mixed Blood chooses artists to work with and then finds projects to collaborate on.
That’s how Mixed Blood ended up doing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” this season. Reuler read the book when it came out and began casting about for actors with disabilities to work with, some appearing as characters whose disabilities are specified in the story and some not. (Actor Regan Linton, who uses a wheelchair, played a key role.)
Reuler recalled exactly when he realized that Mixed Blood needed to work harder at telling stories involving disabled people.
“In 2000, I went to Interact [Center for Visual and Performing Arts] for the first time, and I saw a better Mixed Blood than Mixed Blood was,” said Reuler of the St. Paul company. “There were 50 actors on stage, many of them with disabilities, and I was envious. That’s when disability became a big part of our mission.”
The process of increasing representation hasn’t always been smooth, said Reuler, recalling the casting of cisgender actor Don Cheadle as a trans person in a 1986 play and a 1991 production in which nontraditional casting did not serve the play.
Joking that “being the white guy who runs this institution is my cross to bear,” Reuler cited Theater Mu co-founder Rick Shiomi as an example of someone who’s building diversity from the ground up. “There was no Asian-American theater talent here when he started Mu and said, ‘I’m going to create it.’ And he reached out and, within a period of time, there developed this awesome talent pool we have now. He said, ‘There’s a void in this community and I’m going to fill it by playing the long game.’ ”
Numbers underline the challenge
Equity also represents a job that’s offstage: stage managers. A whopping 68.5 percent of union stage management contracts go to women locally — but they’re paid slightly less than their male counterparts.
Regardless of gender, local Equity stage managers are overwhelmingly white (82 percent), and white managers earn more (as much as $135 per week) than those from other ethnic groups.
Numbers such as these can be frustrating, say arts leaders, but they also reveal what must be accomplished.
“The thing that occurs to me is that my entire career is a miracle,” said playwright/actor Johnson. “I’ve been fortunate to be a working actor my entire life, and I don’t know how. So this study doesn’t change the way I do business, but I do feel reinforced and supported in the work we’re doing — Mary McColl, especially — to fight for something that we believe is essential to the well-being of the American theater.”
There’s common ground there for practically everyone with skin in the game. Actors, stage managers and other employees may not always agree about what constitutes fair pay, but they all can agree that an art form created by a small percentage of the population, and seen only by a small percentage of the population, is doomed.