Students and faculty address lack of racial diversity in Northwestern theatre, discuss potential solutions to challenges


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Some students and faculty address the overwhelmingly white makeup of Northwestern theatre, and the challenges this can present for nonwhite artists both on and off the stage.

Pavan Acharya, Assistant Campus Editor

Communication junior Alondra Rios was worried about the audition process for Arts Alliance at Northwestern University’s production of “In the Heights.”

As the production’s director, she feared the cast might not reflect the diverse perspectives required for the show, which explores the lives of multiple characters residing in the primarily Latine New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. 

“One of the biggest drawbacks for putting on ‘In the Heights’ was this question of, ‘Do we have the people to actually put it on?’” Rios said. 

The production staff ended up being very pleased with the audition results and casted a diverse group of students, Rios said. But her initial worries reflect the thoughts of many NU theatre members who feel the department does not adequately support students of color due to its overwhelmingly white racial makeup.  

Of the 98 students who graduated from NU with a Bachelor’s Degree in Drama and Theatre arts in 2021, about 75% were white.

Undergraduate Admissions, not the Department of Theatre itself, is in charge of acceptance for theatre majors, according to School of Communication Assistant Dean and Executive Artistic Director Tanya Palmer. She said the theatre department wants to work with admissions to help address and increase diversity in the major. 

However, about one-third of students who earned  a Master’s of Fine Arts in Acting from 2017 to 2022 were nonwhite. Palmer said one reason the makeup of theatre graduate students is more diverse than that of undergraduates is because the department admits applicants to the Master’s program. 

However, Palmer said theatre being overwhelmingly white is not exclusive to the University. 

“Theatre as a whole has not been particularly inclusive, and people of color don’t necessarily see a future in the field,” Palmer said. “I think that’s changing. There’s a lot more diversity in professional theaters, as well as within universities.”

She said School of Communication Dean E. Patrick Johnson has made multiple hires in recent years to increase faculty and staff diversity within the department.

Palmer also said the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts has increased efforts to feature more projects from nonwhite artists, such as “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” by playwright Rajiv Joseph and “Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes.

However, Communication senior and co-Chair of The Waa-Mu Show Madeline Oberle said some of Wirtz’s casting policies make it difficult for student-run productions to cast nonwhite performers, especially considering the theatre department’s overwhelmingly white makeup.

Oberle said last year’s entirely student-produced and written Waa-Mu Show, “A Peculiar Inheritance,” had to compete with Wirtz’s productions of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and “Water by the Spoonful” during the casting process. Some roles in the Wirtz’ shows required students of color to play them, and Oberle said some students were cast in these roles despite ranking The Waa-Mu Show higher in their preference sheets. 

“That was a real learning experience for me, like ‘Wow, this was remarkably sh—y,’” Oberle said. “In all my best efforts, the show ended up way more predominantly white than I wanted it to be because of who came in and auditioned and because of who we were able to get in the casting room.”

Oberle said the production hopes to cast more nonwhite actors in its upcoming production.

Vibrant Colors Collective, or VC2, the University’s only multicultural theatre board, was founded earlier this year. Communication sophomore Nathan Hiykel, the board’s co-founder and co-artistic director, said there is currently no major push within NU theatre to produce stories reflective of the experiences of people of color or other marginalized communities — something VC2 is trying to correct.

However, Hiykel said it can be a challenge for VC2 to produce plays featuring nonwhite stories because of the predominantly white nature of NU theatre.

“We don’t have enough (people of color) to put on these plays, and it becomes kind of a mess,” Hiykel said.

VC2 will also have a general member section to encourage people of any major to attend meetings and learn about theatre in an affinity space for people of color, Hiykel said. 

Hiykel said other theatre boards can increase their outreach to nonwhite students outside the major by reaching out to non-theatre affinity spaces for students of color, such as For Members Only, NU’s premier Black student alliance.

“Our exclusivity and our lacking trust of other people that aren’t specifically in theatre is kind of the downfall of the theatre community at the moment,” Hiykel said. 

Hiykel said VC2 plans to communicate more with theatre department heads to discuss gaps in diversity. He also said one of the best ways the school can support people of color and address systemic problems is by donating to nonwhite theatre organizations. These efforts help lower-income and nonwhite students feel more confident about pursuing careers in theatre, Hiykel said.

Similarly, Palmer said the School of Communication can encourage more people of diverse backgrounds to apply by better explaining the value of a theatre education. 

“Theatre majors come out with skills that can really launch them into a wide range of careers in various fields, of certainly communication and the arts, but also the skills of being able to speak in public or being able to be good, strong communicators and storytellers,” Palmer said.

She said another one of Johnson’s goals is to break down barriers between the School of Communication’s departments to increase collaboration between students and faculty. As part of this goal, the school wants non-theatre students to know they can participate in performances on campus.

For “In the Heights,” Rios put this idea into practice by reaching out to multiple Latine organizations via GroupMe.

She said the production held an open call audition for individuals who may not be familiar with the process. An open call audition is available to anyone who wants to audition for a role in a production, rather than a callback, which is only open to selected individuals. As a result, many non-theatre majors and nonwhite individuals auditioned for the show, Rios said. 

“I’m really hoping that in the future, more performances will start incorporating (open calls) and doing that outreach because we do have the people in the school to put on stories like these,” Rios said. “It’s just whether or not we’re going to take the time and effort to reach out.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @PavanAcharya02

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