by Brianna Rae & Claire Miller
American Players Theatre (APT) is known and respected both locally and nationally for its high-caliber performances of classical plays. It draws audiences from across the country to an outdoor theater nestled in the woods of the quaint little town of Spring Green, Wisconsin.
While APT boasts undisputed success as a classic theatre venue, routinely sells out shows and enchants both new and veteran guests each season, they still strive for more. Under the vision of newly promoted artistic director Brenda DeVita, APT has recently committed itself to creating a more diverse, accessible, and inclusive environment, both on the stage and in the audience.
The genre of classical theatre has historically and generally been associated with whites of a higher class background. DeVita, her staff, and her actors are seeking to disrupt the historical and perceived ‘whiteness’ of theatre, and working to send the message that classical theatre is for everybody. They are taking the first step by changing the faces of their own actors.
Within APT are three groups of actors. Fist, the core company, which consists of people that have dedicated three or more years to APT and who now live in the local area yearround. Members of the core company help decide which plays will be done, and they often get first pick of the roles for plays. There are currently no people of color within the core company.
Then, there is the acting company, which changes every year. These actors fill in all of the other roles required for the plays and sometimes are given leading roles. Finally, there are the apprentices. Each summer over 400 people across the country audition to fill the highly-coveted four spots available in APT’s five-month apprenticeship program. This year, all four apprentices are actors of color.
The apprentices – young, full of energy, and very passionate about their work – each bring to the table a rich diversity of experience. Peerzada, a Washington, D.C. native and 2013 graduate of Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, has studied in Bulgaria and Pakistan, and has also worked as an actress in New York before she came to APT. Diaz and Bullock both recently graduated with a BFA from the acting program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and have both acted in numerous plays there. Martinez is a Chicago native with a degree from Columbia College and several years experience in performance art through various acting companies, including Jackalope Theatre Company and Second City Chicago, and has also appeared on television.
The apprentices expressed immense appreciation and praise for the work that DeVita has undertaken. “Brenda, as an artistic director, is doing the thing that’s going to make the world a better place,” said Peerzada. “The fact that she is taking it upon herself to do this means that she understands how the world works, and it makes me want to be here.
She doesn’t expect change to happen through osmosis, and she doesn’t pretend that we’re a ‘post-racial’ society. Major networks can’t even handle the level of agency that she is bringing [to the task of diversifying],” she added.
Speaking to DeVita’s active commitment to diversifying is the fact that she had to make a point of seeking out young actors of color in cities across the country to explain the kind of work APT does and encourage them to try auditioning. Three our of the four apprentices first met her while they were studying theater at various universities.
“Ideally, in a perfect world you would hold an audition for ‘Romeo’ and the pick the best candidate for that role, whether he’s Black, White, Asian or purple, he’s gonna play that role,” said Martinez, “but because of all these boundaries, [Brenda] has to actively seek it out, like ‘I need an actor of color here for this role.’”
Though it’s unfortunate that DeVita had to personally make it a point to seek out actors of color, it’s not without reason. There still remain many barriers – social, economic, and historical – for people of color in accessing and feeling welcome and a part of classical theatre. Part of the struggle is the historical lack of representation, both in the written plays and on the stage, of people of color.
“When it comes to these plays, they’re historic, they’ve become a part of our history, and we’ve written people of color out of history as much as we can,” said Peerzada. On a production level, solving this problem starts with casting. “Directors have to be willing to imagine that this character could be Black, or this character could be Hispanic, or this character could be Asian,” she added.
“There’s a system of discouragement,” explained Martinez, “That we can’t be a part of it because we haven’t been a part of it. So what we have to do is find our Black plays or our Latino plays or something like that. And that, in part, is why it’s so difficult to find actors of color to be in these plays. We’re told over and over again, that anybody can play anybody in Shakespeare, or classical theater in general… So why isn’t that actually the case?”
The problem of historical representation is just one of the obstacles for actors of color. Theatre, and the arts in general, require money to pursue, and often don’t pay a regular salary. “It’s a hard profession. It’s not like a normal 9-5 job, it’s juggling things every three to four months,” said Bullock. “With how expensive college is these days, it’s very discouraging to want to study the arts,” Diaz added, remarking on how familial pressure to be financially secure made the decision to pursue acting even more difficult.
In addition to financial concerns, there is of course, the frustration of encountering racism. “I was described as ‘non-threateningly ethnic’. I had this little TV career back in Chicago and that was one of my markers – ‘non-threateningly ethnic’ – like it was a legitimate thing, and that’s the kind of thing we have to go through as actors,” said Martinez.
Martinez and Bullock both articulated the struggle of being the first in any group to spearhead diversifying. “For me, if there were like five or six other people of color who were in the core company or part of the acting company, I think a lot more people [of color] would be willing to stay,” said Bullock. “It’s hard to be that person to trudge through it all, to be the person who’s like ‘I’m gonna be there!’ even if I don’t identify with anyone there,” said Martinez.
Despite her best efforts, DeVita’s plan to diversify hasn’t gone without push-back or criticism. Many people, of all backgrounds, have told her that classical theatre is simply ‘not relatable’ to people of color and that trying to diversify is a waste of time. The apprentices felt differently.
“We live in a world that was built on boundaries, and now we have to break the boundaries if we want a better world,” said Peerzada. “I personally wonder how much our society takes in racial issues as something that are classic, because something that’s ‘classic’ is something that we believe to be a constant throughout life. We don’t want racism to be a constant. We don’t want prejudice to be a constant,” she continued.
Martinez emphasized that “Shakespeare is relevant, almost 500 years later, because he speaks of humanity. He talks about love, hate, jealousy— all these things that we deal with in our conscious period here on Earth.” DeVita feels that it’s the cast and crew’s responsibility to convey the themes clearly, and if the audience doesn’t ‘get it,’ or it doesn’t resonate with them, then the cast or crew is doing something wrong.
She stresses that part of what makes classical theater great, is that everyone involved can bring something new, or bring a fresh and unique perspective to a character or scene. She explained how Derrick Sanders, a Black director currently working on The Island written by Athol Fugard, John Kani,Winston Ntshona, is ‘eye-opening’ to see at work, because the lens through which he views the world is so different from hers, that he is able to bring something to The Island that she could never do.
That’s why she and everyone involved is so excited about having so many different opinions and ideas together in one room. “I know we have economic diversity, I’m really pleased with the way we reach out across the human spectrum in that way… I’d just like that human spectrum be a little broader in other ways,” said DeVita.
Diversifying is a challenge, and its going to require time and patience to carefully execute. But, even in a short amount of time, DeVita has been able to make impressive progress. This year, the actors in Othello are mostly people of color, and The Island is the first ‘Black’ play that the theatre has performed.
“Once kids in Madison or Milwaukee come out here and identify, not just because it’s Othello, but because there’s a young person of color playing a role that they too could also someday play […] When you see something like that that you can actually connect to, it’ll just start to fill itself in automatically.”
“I don’t expect the problem to be fixed, but I hope to have made some waves and open the conversation up to a wider community to say, ‘Hey this is a possibility,’” said DeVita.