The poster for the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s (AUTS) most recent production, RENT, might have unsettled those who know the original musical well. Their first question would likely be: “Wait, why is everybody white?”
RENT is a musical that centres on the lives of poor artists in 1980s New York dealing with love and loss in the time of the AIDS epidemic. While it’s focus on queer people of colour living with a highly stigmatized illness is a little heavier than Wicked, RENT is as beloved as it is critically acclaimed. The popular image of RENT is based in part on its original 1993 cast as well as on its 2005 movie adaptation. Both renditions depict a majority non-white group of bohemian artists, with specifically Latino and black characters in leading roles. RENT is singular as a Broadway show with diverse and non-tokenized roles for ethnic minorities. In the AUTS version, there was only one person of colour in the main cast, Tiger Xu, a student of Chinese descent who was also the only main character in an antagonistic role.
“Of course [being the only person of colour] went through my head,” Xu explained. “It does play a role; I play an evil character, maybe it’s easier for an audience member to identify someone who looks different.”
In terms of casting, the director of AUTS’ RENT Daniel Austin-Boyd admitted that many of the same actors are cast in AUTS productions season after season, and this community of performers is, in majority, white. Though that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been conversation about looking into selecting more performers of colour.
“It’s kind of insulting to a person to say you only got in because of your ethnic background; that’s not exactly the most respectful thing either,” Boyd claimed. “But I feel like [having more performers of colour] a good goal. Ultimately, I think the most important thing is that you get people who are good at what they do.”
Like other theatre companies, the first step of AUTS’ process is selecting the actual show. Austin-Boyd emphasized the popularity of RENT as a central reason behind his choice to put it on.
“Firstly, it’s just a very popular musical, and AUTS needs to get audiences to cover the cost of renting Moyse Hall,” Austin-Boyd explained. “I also liked that the characters were roughly the same age as McGill students. Finally, it is a rock musical, so it was a nice contrast to the kind of shows we usually put on.”
Austin-Boyd acknowledged that the McGill context is very far removed from the original context of the musical.
“I’m not going to say it didn’t cross our minds,” Austin-Boyd said of the largely-white cast. “A lot of the original cast was very ethnically diverse. That being said we are at McGill and McGill’s a university so we don’t have the same pool as all of New York City. Our primary consideration was, do they fit the characters?”
Beyond RENT and the AUTS, the issue remains that the pool of actors within McGill theatre is small, and quite homogenous. Shanti Gonzales is a student director working on a production of Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned to Drive, as a part of the McGill
Director’s Projects Festival (going on in Moyse Hall March 30 to April 9, 2016). Gonzales, concerned with diversity in her production, opened her call for auditions to those outside McGill.
“When race comes up in a casting discussion, the most common excuse is ‘We did what we could with who showed up,’” Gonzales explained. “My response to that is ‘Extend your audition call to a more diverse array of people.’ Without that extension, the same bodies are put on stage time and time again, and those bodies are almost always white.”
She pointed out the irony of McGill theatre’s consistent whiteness, as it so contrasts Montreal’s diversity, mentioning that organizations such as The Black Theatre Workshop and The Centre for Intercultural Arts are only blocks away from campus. On the topic of choosing RENT, Gonzales believes that the AUTS was more attracted to the big name of RENT and did not think enough about the social logistics of what they were putting on. She reiterated that RENT is very different than other big-name musicals, as it places marginalized bodies at the centre of the story; by failing to deliver diverse representation, Gonzales stated that the mission of the original show is ignored. However, Gonzales takes an optimistic approach to the situation, viewing it as a way to open up a conversation on diversity and representation in casting.
“The student directors are students—they’re not going to have all the right answers the minute they assume the director position,” Gonzales sympathized. “However, what they put onstage matters. A lot. Representation matters at all levels.”
Nathaniel Hanula-James, the publicity manager of McGill’s Tuesday Night Café Theatre Company (TNC), has also starred in numerous productions during his time at McGill. Every year, new directors apply to work with TNC for the season, and it’s up to the board of the TNC to consider new directors within their mandate for inclusivity.
“If we have the same director who comes to us multiple times with a wonderful vision, we don’t want to keep privileging that director and have them do multiple seasons,” Hanula-James said. “Instead, we’re trying to pay more attention to first-time directors, who will maybe not produce as good of a play, but who we would want to give more of a chance to. Similarly, if you cast an actor of colour because there is a mandate for that, and they are not as good of a performer, well then train them!”
Gonzales explained that often racial dynamics are at play when assessing auditions.
“The white face is the face that we’re used to reading, so that one becomes the most legible to us,” Gonzales said. “Then in casting, I’ve seen directors consider someone white against someone of colour, and conclude that the white person is better—genuinely believing that it was a matter of talent. The fact is, both actors were just as talented, but the white body was easier to read.”
On a similar vein, Xu added that he understood audiences might subconsciously relate his racial appearance to his character.
“It’s harder to picture myself as being in one of the main couples,” Xu said. “The casting was predominantly white and I think that factors into it. The reality is that it’s easier to have me as an outsider.”
Xu also stated that the creative team of RENT did put in effort to cast fairly, and that casting him in such a way was more of a subconscious choice, when working with what they had. Xu asserted that as more people of colour are cast in shows, regardless of their roles, the community gradually becomes more inclusive.
“Looking on stage at performers, you can’t avoid seeing colour, it’s about getting used to that,” Xu stated. “We need to get used to the idea that people of colour can be in these roles too. I think representation is one of the least volatile and most powerful ways to do that.”
In a student-run atmosphere like McGill’s theatre community, companies such as the AUTS will continue to grow and flourish. Hopefully, this growth will come in part due to an understanding that diversity is not just for inclusion purposes; it makes for more interesting theatre.
Hanula-James emphasized that a student theatre community should have more training opportunities. Not making it into a show, or not getting into a very small theatre class, should not mean the end of the road for developing new talent. In the spirit of learning, RENT should not be looked upon as a failure on the part of anyone involved, but as a point of reflection and the beginning of an active conversation.
“McGill theatre, in general, should be more about training people and growing people, not about assembling a line of stars to keep performing in McGill theatre,” Hanula-James stressed.
Gonzales echoed Hanula-James statements, noting that there are numerous ways to find performers and interact with new people, all of which can increase a production’s overall presentation.
“Cast the architecture student at Concordia who wants to give it a go,” Gonzales said. “Find an underground clown class that meets in a gallery basement every Tuesday and see what they have to offer you. Just because we pay tuition doesn’t make us the only people who have something to offer and something to learn. McGill has taught me that I have the most to learn from my peers. And my peers don’t have to just be McGill students.”