Milwaukee Theatre seeks Audition Equity Through the Diversity Generals
The Diversity Generals began with Marti Gobel and Dennis Johnson through Uprooted Theatre in 2014. Uprooted, was an African-American run theatre company in Milwaukee, but as Johnson and Gobel moved away from the city, Uprooted’s time in Milwaukee, and the original Diversity Generals also came to a close.
The need for diverse people to be seen by professional companies has certainly not ended. Not only a chance to be seen, but a chance to own the identities that either go overlooked or over-scrutinized. To engage with those identities and casting authorities on our terms. I loved the idea when I first heard about it in 2018.
Around the same time, I had been brought onboard the staff at All In Productions. A small, local theatre company helmed by executive director Alex Scheurell, also a BBIPOC artist. All In’s small staff seemed to value diversity and safety and those commitments have only grown since my time with the company. In a conversation with Alex, the seed was planted about bringing the Diversity Generals back. I think the conversation went a little something like this:
“Hey, why aren’t the Diversity Generals a thing?” Asked Adam.
“Dunno. Nobody’s doing them.” Said Alex.
“Should… Should we just do it?” Responded Adam.
“Yeah.” Concluded Alex.
And we were off! We envisioned an expanded Diversity Generals for not only BBIPOC performers (which was the mission of the original DGs at Uprooted) but also Trans and Gender-Expansive folx as well. We set out to make connections in the community, help people overcome systemic barriers, and provide a safe environment for artists to present their works and identities for the professional companies in town.
Auditions have always been a source of inequality for diverse actors. Casting authorities have systemically normalized cis-het, white, able, thin, binary bodies. And the industry perpetuates that by the very nature of who is able to come to auditions. Things as simple as timing and travel can eliminate talented individuals from the process before they get a chance to show what they can do. And they can do anything! Not just the roles that are “for them,” but many roles throughout the canon could be reimagined to a new normal. Diversity Generals immerse casting authorities in a world of new possibilities and ideas to help break down the barriers of equity in our storytelling.
Professional companies answered that call and Wisconsin’s performers did too. At a table nearly spilling out of the space provided by Next Act Theatre, dozens of professional companies got to know a whole new side of Wisconsin Theatre in 2020. Community relationships have been slower to form and there are more obstacles to tear down, but the Diversity Generals are back!
One of the great things I heard from performers who participated was that they got to be themselves. Whereas, when auditioning for the Milwaukee Non-Equity General Auditions they felt pressure to present a package of materials that aligns with what Wisconsin theatre looks like now, at the Diversity Generals they felt free to present a package that was uniquely reflective of their identities.
And these auditions help companies too. Not only do they meet new artists, but for artists who aren’t visibly connected to an identity, it can serve as a chance to tell companies without them needing to ask. The Diversity Generals allow for the sharing of artist identities so that companies know who to call when seeking culturally specific performers.
We soon began talking about the conditions those performers would be working in with these companies. Being hired is one thing, but most of the companies in Wisconsin are predominantly white institutions filled with micro aggressions and, at times, downright discrimination. We knew we needed to create something to help companies gain the tools to work with diverse artists, so we created the Diversity Panels.
A diverse group of people from a wide spectrum of theatre professions gave information to and answered questions from many of the institutions that attended the Diversity Generals over the course of several sessions stretched over early summer 2020. This happened to coincide with the uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, We See You White American Theatre, and We See You Milwaukee Theatre. The response to the panels was heartening. But the commitment to financially sustain them has waned.
Due to Covid-19, we weren’t sure a 2021 Diversity Generals was on the table. But as more companies announced casting, we felt it was important to continue with our work for a more equitable theatre scene in Wisconsin. Submissions were moved digitally for 2021, which has allowed even more companies to get involved. 27 companies from around the Midwest will be reviewing the work of those who auditioned. And this year’s auditions were expanded to provide more support to artists who needed accommodations with systemic barriers. Additionally, and most excitingly, we were able to invite the Disabled community to audition as well.
Things haven’t been all been love and inspiration. There has been pushback within the theatre community from those in the majority. And, while we are able to serve the BBIPOC, Gender-Diverse, and Disabled communities, there are other areas of discrimination in theatre that we’ve not had the resources or structure to address or invite. While we want to fully diversify our stages, we have taken our resources and focused at the intersections of the groups we feel are most at risk in our community, and we will continue to work to expand our services to the marginalized communities in Wisconsin.
It is my dearest wish that the Milwaukee Diversity Generals provides a framework for additional audition opportunities to appear in Wisconsin and beyond. We are more than willing to collaborate or provide support for individuals or groups that hope to further diversity, equity, and justice in their theatrical communities. The Diversity Generals are just one of the many tools needed to diversify our stages and institutions and create a theatrical landscape that Milwaukee and Wisconsin can truly be proud of.
1. Actor Raven Dockery recording a digital audition
2. The Casting Authority Representatives attending the 2020 Diversity Generals
About the author:
Adam Qutaishat is a multiracial actor, director, designer, teacher, writer, composer, and advocate working throughout the Midwest. Area highlights include work with Next Act Theatre, Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Renaissance Theaterworks, Playwrights' Center, National Theatre for Children, and Music Theatre of Madison. Adam serves as Associate Artistic Director for Music Theatre of Madison and as an Artistic Associate for All In Productions.