Indiana Daily Student

Theater department aims to diversify roles

Theatre and drama major Ian Martin poses for a portrait on Wednesday. "I want the conversation to not be as black and white," he said about diversity in the theatre department.
Theatre and drama major Ian Martin poses for a portrait on Wednesday. "I want the conversation to not be as black and white," he said about diversity in the theatre department.

At the end of the premiere of her newest play, “Trigger Warning,” Iris Dauterman wasn’t sure how the crowd was going to react.

The play featured an all-female cast and portrayed a narrative about ending rape and sexual violence on the Bloomington campus — something Dauterman thought few people would want to see.

Dauterman wondered whether the men in the audience would be able to connect, what they would think and whether they would be bored.

A man approached Dauterman a few days after the premiere and told her, “You know, I didn’t really know what to think about it. I sort of felt that I wasn’t really allowed to think anything about it, but then I went home and my girlfriend and I talked about these issues for like an hour and a half. So I think your play was successful.”

Dauterman wrote the play as part of an effort to provide more opportunities to women in the theater department. Despite making up 60 percent of the department, females are only given 46 percent of the roles in the main stage season.

Fewer roles for a greater number of students means increased competition for female drama students in the department.

The department has very little racial diversity, with fewer than 10 African American or Latino students in each degree program.

These problems are a part of nearly every campus and theater department in the country, theater department director Jonathan Michaelsen said.

The problems lie not only with the play selection committee at the department but the lack of diversity in the theater world as a whole, Dauterman said.

Dauterman is an example of this lack of diversity, being the only female playwright student in the MFA program.

“The playwriting field right now is not a very hospitable place for female playwrights,” Dauterman said. “They just aren’t getting produced. I didn’t know that when I came into this program.”

After graduating from IU, Dauterman worries about the fate of her plays. Unlike at IU, which is committed to producing students’ plays, her success after college is not guaranteed.

“I’ll have to just put my stuff out there and watch it go through the ringer and watch it not get picked up by theaters and wonder why,” she said.

The reason many people give her for the problem is that works written by females or works featuring strong female leads are not as likely to sell at the box office.

“I think if you tell a good story, people will come,” she said. “What you care about is the story in front of you, not the person behind it. I don’t think people care that I’m a woman when they see my work. I hope that is how it is in the real world, but I fear that it is not.”

When “Trigger Warning” was showing at the department’s studio theater the first week of April, it sold out every performance, and both men and women were in the audience.
Dauterman received feedback from males in the audience telling her that it was nice to be included in a conversation they wouldn’t have been part of otherwise.

“Trigger Warning” tells the story of five female college students who come together to build an anti-rape device.

Two years ago, Dauterman began writing the play with a new mission in mind. Her previous two plays had failed the Bechdel Test, a short test used to analyze whether a work of fiction is gender-biased.

The Bechdel Test requires that the work feature two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

“That’s not the be-all and end-all for feminism in theater, but it is a pretty low bar to set, and I wasn’t reaching that bar,” she said. “It sort of made me pause and really made me think what stories I am telling.”

Dauterman made sure her play passed the Bechdel Test the third time around, but it didn’t come without hardship.

Dauterman constantly worried about the reactions from the audience and whether the men in the audience would like it.

For advice, she sought the help of drama professor Amy Cook.

Cook passionately told her that her story wasn’t about women and women’s issues as much as it was a story about human beings and encouraged her to go through with the production.

“She really gave me the confidence I needed to push through the writing process and whenever I got scared to just say to myself, ‘I don’t fucking care if they like it. I’m going to tell my story or die trying,’” Dauterman said. “It’s hard, but it’s important, and it’s worth doing in the way you want to tell it.”

“Trigger Warning” was part of that reach for comprehension while also creating a dialogue about the role women play in the theater world, Cook said.

She said students and faculty are getting better at understanding the meaning behind the shows the department puts on and how they represent women.

This holds true in the same way for race and other minority representations, Cook said.

“We feel a pretty important mission of ours is to pay attention to diversity,” Michaelsen said. “Are we always able to do it well? Not as well as I’d like to.”

Theatre and drama major Ian Martin said diversity is about creating a culturally diverse community in the department by bringing in students and faculty of different races and backgrounds.

“I want it to be more representational as opposed to presentational,” Martin said.

“There’s a difference between just doing ‘black’ shows and just being diverse.”

Martin began attending IU two years ago after coming from a diverse performing arts high school in Cincinnati. His high school practiced color-blind casting.

Color-blind casting means the director casts characters without considering race, regardless of how the character has traditionally been performed.

“I experienced that all through high school, so coming here I expected it to be a lot different,” Martin said. “And it was.”

Martin said that, being an educational institution, the theater department has a unique opportunity to cast students regardless of race.

But because they haven’t, Martin has begun questioning the opportunities he’s been given with the main stage productions.

So far, Martin has performed three times during the main stage season, but each role has been an African-American character.

“It makes you think, ‘Is it because I’m talented? Or just the best of a small pool?’” Martin said.

However, this summer he’s been offered the lead role in the Indiana Festival Theatre’s show “Twelfth Night.”

Martin will portray Duke Orsino, a powerful 16th-century nobleman traditionally played by a white actor.

However, Michaelsen, who is directing the production, decided to take Martin on as the lead role.

“He’ll be fantastic,” Michaelsen said. “We are after giving those opportunities to our students.”

That opportunity has changed Martin’s view of his own acting experience, working to increase his confidence that he is talented enough for his parts, both present and past.

Although the department is making strides, Martin said there is still a long way to go.
“I want the conversation to not be as black and white,” he said. “It’s not just about doing a ‘black’ show. That’s the easy way out. It’s about doing shows that foster diversity.”

The theater department also hired two new African-American faculty members that will join the staff in the fall of 2014.

“In dealing with diversity, to have faculty that are diverse makes a difference to students, without a doubt,” Michaelsen said. “This is a major step for us to have this faculty. It’s an outstanding way to start things.”

The Department of Theatre and Drama is not only taking strides to help create more racial diversity but is also working with gender bias and diversity in their shows as well.

Michaelsen and the other theatre department directors from Big 10 schools have partnered to commission a new play every year for five years.

It is required that the play be written by a female playwright and include a set number of male and female roles.

Next year’s play will be the first production from this partnership. It was written by playwright Naomi Iizuka. The play is titled “Good Kids” and features eight female roles and four male roles.

The play will be included as part of the main stage season and will be made available to other college campuses across the country after next year, Michaelsen said.

“It’s a tricky issue because we have to balance the needs of our students to be represented on stage and our need to present different kinds of plays to give them varied experience,” Cook said. “I think our department has really done that to a varying degree of success.”

Choosing a season comes with many considerations, but it still comes down to whether the department can sell the season to their audience.

“The department financially lives off the box office and has to carefully select a balance of shows they know are going to sell,” Michaelsen said.  “I can’t ignore the economic sense in things.”

Although students are finding other opportunities to gain experience, the department continues to work on fixing the problem.

“I don’t want actors to come here and be told from the beginning that ‘There’s not a place for you on stage,’” Dauterman said. “That’s not something you want an actor to learn. Theater is where everybody goes to feel like they’re a part of something.”

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