By Pesha Rudnick
Artistic Director, Local Theater Company
On the first day of third grade, I begged my sister to French braid my hair. I wanted so badly to impress Robin Wright, my closest friend, who always arrived at school perfectly coiffed. She was black and had beautiful hair. I was one of four white girls in my class. I loathed my unruly ash-blonde locks.
I went to school in Los Angeles. Diversity was taken for granted there. It wasn’t until my freshman seminar at University of California-Berkeley that I understood what public schools looked like outside of a major city. Most small American towns are still predominately white; I never expected to live and work in such a place.
Twenty years later, I’m in Boulder and running Local Theater Company with a fierce community of artists, all pursuing our mission to discover, develop and produce new American plays. Many of our shows require diverse casting; all of our plays benefit from avoiding the default of casting white unless specified.
A commitment to inclusion requires prioritization. When our company faced a hard economic decision last fall, I was reminded just how easy it can be to justify “close enough.”
It never is.
Currently, we are in our final week of producing the world premiere of Wisdom From Everything, a play about a Syrian refugee that takes place in the Za’atari Refugee Camp, and in Amman, Jordan. The cast includes five Middle Eastern characters and one character from the Philippines. When I began the casting process, I prioritized casting locally.
But by winter, despite tremendous outreach efforts, we had not found a local acting ensemble. Should I cancel the production? Do we admit failure and produce a different play, or cast culturally appropriate by any means necessary? Do we cast locally and choose actors that pass as Middle Eastern? I could not believe I had even considered that last question. Would I have ever considered that if I still lived in Los Angeles? I think not.
But after some lengthy discussions, I had come to my senses. We would not produce the play if we couldn’t afford to cast appropriately. Period. Fortunately, our wonderful board of directors and patrons rallied to find financial and housing support and we re-committed to producing the play.
Why does it matter? The answer is simple: to develop work with credibility the appropriate people need to be in the room. Representation on stage has a storied history and we’re all liable. It is our field, after all, that promoted minstrel theater just over a century ago. Our playwright Mia McCullough, a half-Jewish American, struggles with whether she should tell a story about a refugee’s experience in Jordan. I argue that she may not be the best person to write about Syria, but she’s also not one to stay silent. Perhaps that’s a justification as well?
In the end, our ensemble for Wisdom From Everything includes two local actors and four performers from out of town. We hired an incredible director from Arena Stage in Washington, DC, who is part Pakistani, and an Arabic language professor from Egypt to help support the development of the work. Even still, there will be people who criticize us.
Wisdom From Everything cost us more than our average show and is a risk by all means. Plays always are. But we felt the benefits of investing in this story immediately and unexpectedly. Within weeks of announcing the production, a Syrian family who owns Ali Baba Restaurant on 28th Street in Boulder offered to advise us on dialect. We learned that more than 60 students studying Arabic at University of Colorado-Boulder would be attending the play, and a Jordanian family organized a group for opening night.
Suddenly, our Boulder bubble felt a lot less homogenous and a lot more worldly.
As artistic director, I could have made a more economical choice this season. I have that right and responsibility. But every night I watch the show at Dairy Arts Center from the booth, I marvel at the richness of the stage. We have assembled artists who hail from Palestine, Syria, India, Pakistan, Iran, Jordan and all over the States. I also marvel at the richness of our audiences, people from so many different backgrounds who are choosing to see this show.
Our theater may not be in LA or New York, but it resembles a community I embrace. Our local community.
Wisdom From Everything is currently playing at the Dairy Arts Center through March 25, 2018. Tickets start at $15.