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Can Theater More Equitably Reflect the World?

The following is a conversation between La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, Producing Director Eric Keen-Louie and Artistic Programs Manager/Local Casting Director Jacole Kitchen.

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CA: Our society is more fractured, alienated and isolated than at any other point in my lifetime. COVID has, for the sake of our collective safety, kept us sequestered and separated from our friends and family. The Black Lives Matter movement — more urgent than ever after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others — is forcing a needed reckoning for our actions and inactions. One of our tasks as a society, and specifically as theater artists, is to figure out how to reemerge from this moment and rebuild our communities in a more equitable way.  

EKL: All of us believe that theater has the power not only to entertain but also impact social and personal change. The act of coming together to share a story is important and vital — especially now. I hope when we can open our doors again, we provide a space not only to celebrate our humanity together but also try to begin to process what we’ve all gone through. 

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of "Come From Away." Book, music and lyrics by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley. | Jim Carmody
The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of "Come From Away." Book, music and lyrics by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley. | Jim Carmody

JK: The past five months haven’t changed the way I view the role of art, but it doubles down on how necessary it is for us to lead the way as artists and art makers. For me, it comes down to the old saying, “life imitates art.” What we see and hear influences so much of what we think and feel. That's why we’re having so many conversations about why representation matters on our screens and on our stages. There are huge sectors of our country where the only knowledge, understanding, or even exposure to people of color is what they see on TV and in movies. And right now, and in entertainment history, the majority of those characters are horrible, myopic stereotypes that do not represent the complexity of the cultures they are supposed to represent. And since that is all they see, that's what they believe is the truth. If we can show a more accurate and complete look at the richness of the diversity of our society in our art, a more accurate view of who Black, Indigenous and people of color are will follow.  

CA: I completely agree. And during this global pause, there is a real opportunity to go back to our mission and ask, “what do we do, and who do we do it for?” I have always taken pride in our mission statement. It’s bold, it’s forward-looking. But it is silent on the subject of equality and representation. And if there are ways in which our mission statement hasn’t fully served us, are there also ways in which we haven’t fully served our mission statement? Have we been a strong enough “social, moral and political platform?” Has that platform been large enough to include everyone’s voices? In this moment, we are being granted the space to reforge our purpose.

Click through below to see more photos of La Jolla Playhouse plays.

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s co-world premiere of "Kiss My Aztec!" Book by John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone, music by Benjamin Velez, lyrics by David Kamp, Benjamin Velez and John Leguizamo, directed by Tony Taccone. | Kevin Berne
The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s co-world premiere of "Kiss My Aztec!" Book by John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone, music by Benjamin Velez, lyrics by David Kamp, Benjamin Velez and John Leguizamo, directed by Tony Taccone. | Kevin Berne
Storm Lever (center) and the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s production of "Fly." Book by Rajiv Joseph, music by Bill Sherman, lyrics by Kirsten Childs and Rajiv Joseph, directed by Jeffrey Seller. | Kevin Berne
Storm Lever (center) and the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s production of "Fly." Book by Rajiv Joseph, music by Bill Sherman, lyrics by Kirsten Childs and Rajiv Joseph, directed by Jeffrey Seller. | Kevin Berne
The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s production of "Cambodian Rock Band," by Lauren Yee, directed by Chay Yew. | Jim Carmody
The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s production of "Cambodian Rock Band," by Lauren Yee, directed by Chay Yew. | Jim Carmody
Jesse J. Perez in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of "Seize the King," by Will Power, directed by Jaime Castañeda. | Jim Carmody
Jesse J. Perez in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of "Seize the King," by Will Power, directed by Jaime Castañeda. | Jim Carmody
The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s DNA New Work Series reading of "The Coast Starlight," a Playhouse commission by Keith Bunin. | Jim Carmody
The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s DNA New Work Series reading of "The Coast Starlight," a Playhouse commission by Keith Bunin. | Jim Carmody

EKL: As a BIPOC administrator who has worked at predominately white institutions my entire career, I have struggled with the question “does theater matter enough?” — usually brought about because of an experience where I felt marginalized or alone. And while at times I fight my own frustrations that it has taken this long for the field to finally wake up to the realities that BIPOC voices have not been prioritized or included enough, I am finding a renewed passion for what I do in light of these conversations. I am heartened by how many institutions in the field are grappling with the difficult questions to respond to this moment and finally take inclusive steps. The passion of those of us who are demanding that change happens now amidst a pandemic — and at least at the Playhouse, how receptive the entire staff has been to examination and action — is a sign to me that theater does matter. 

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JK: But we also have to find an alignment between the people who are viewing/supporting the art and those who are creating it and creating pathways for more diverse voices to be included on both sides.  What good does it do to diversify the type of art that we're making if the audience doesn't change along with it? Theater has always had an issue with creating a welcoming environment for people of color on stage, behind the scenes and in the seats.  

EKL: The big question I ask myself is: “How do we help people feel safe coming to our theater?” There is much work to be done regarding health and safety issues in light of the pandemic, but just as important is the work to be done to make our organization more welcoming and inclusive. 

JK: That's always been our greatest challenge. Perhaps now folks might be willing to actually move the needle to a noticeable, equitable point.  

CA: We’ve been mentioning the many challenges we’re facing, both as an industry and as an organization. They’re all real and urgent, and I have to believe we can solve them. First, because we have to; and second, the unique power of theater comes from its ability to reflect the world — and, on its best days, to change it. 

EKL: Exactly. When we get on the other side of this — and we will — my hope is that we come out of it with a new awareness and appetite for genuine change. 

Top Image: The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s production of "Cambodian Rock Band," by Lauren Yee, directed by Chay Yew. | Jim Carmody

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