Saturday, June 11, 2011

Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, advocate for performers with disabilities, artists of color, will be given Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre

From the Tony Awards. Sharon Jensen is pictured with the actor Daryl "Chill" Mitchell.

The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, the primary advocate for full inclusion of artists of color and performers with disabilities throughout the entertainment industry, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season. And what better way than to accept a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre for its years of groundbreaking work? The Honor also goes to Sharon Jensen, who has been executive director of the Alliance for 22 of those years. She shares some of the organization's history and its goals for the future.

Up until several years ago, your organization was known as the Non-Traditional Casting Project. Explain the name change.

You can't really look at one part of the theatre without looking at all the parts. It's not only about casting, but also about the stories that are being told, whose stories are being told, and how they're being told. Also, the organization first used the word "project" because the original hope was that, once it got rolling, there would be a natural snowball effect and we would become obsolete. Which is still what we aspire to. But we realized that the more you get into these things the more sophisticated and complex the issues become.

What spurred the creation of the Project in the first place?

One of the things was that Actors' Equity had done a four-year study that I think was concluded in 1985. What it showed was that, of every professional production in the country, over 90 percent of the actors hired were Caucasian. And if you didn't count culturally specific shows like Dreamgirls, that number became much higher. That was a huge wakeup call to the industry.

And whose idea had it been to put together that study?

Our three founders. Joanna Merlin, who has been on our Board of Directors since square one, is one of those rare people who was an actor and, at the same time, a major casting director.

Right, she was the original Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof.

Yes. And Hal Prince loved her work and said, "Do you know, I think you'd make a good casting director." Our other two founders are Clinton Turner Davis, who's been a director, casting director, and Equity stage manager--he did a lot with the Negro Ensemble Company and was the head of what was then Equity's Ethnic Minorities Committee--and Harry Newman, a writer who was involved with Circle Rep. Joanna was at Equity as a kind of liaison between actors and casting directors. And what she was hearing from casting directors--who have historically been primarily Caucasian--was that they wanted to consider more actors of color but actors of color weren't coming to auditions. Meanwhile, actors of color were saying, "Why should we? We're never hired." There was a real lack of faith in the auditioning process.

By both sides.

Yeah. We have come leaps and bounds since then, but I'm not sure we've completely gone beyond that central problem. Anyway, there was a meeting in January 1986. [Former Shubert Organization Chairman] Bernie Jacobs was there. The Shuberts have been critical supporters from the beginning. Bernie once said, "The world that I want my children and grandchildren to inherit is one where everyone has the same shot." The Alliance lives by that.

You joined in 1989, and just one year later, the Miss Saigon controversy hit, when Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian actor, was hired, over some protest, to play a Eurasian role in the Broadway premiere. What was your group's role in that incident?

We took a complicated position. David Henry Hwang and B. D. Wong had been the lightning rods. And the initial issues that they raised in protest, they raised them for exactly the right reasons. But our tactic was slightly different. Miss Saigon had already won an Olivier Award [for its London production]. Jonathan Pryce was already recognized as an actor of national and international celebrity. The role had been conceived for him. We knew that there was no way the unions could prevent him from coming over. So what we decided to do instead was to focus on what could be done. We worked with the production to commit to any understudy or replacement in that role being Asian Pacific American, all 28 Asian-specific roles being cast with Asian Pacific American actors, and every effort being made to open up the rest of the company to actors of color. All of this was done, incidentally.

What are some new directions for the Alliance?

Our focus has been primarily on issues of race, culture, ethnicity, but we have become very active in the area of disabilities as well. You're now more likely to see someone who's Asian Pacific American in a role that is culturally specific to that particular identification. Whereas, with respect to disability, it is not routine at all. A lot of major celebrities want those roles and end up getting Academy Awards for their efforts. So there's such a long way to go. The bottom line is, it's about exclusion and discrimination. We live in the 21st century now. And unless there's a good reason not to have an inclusive company it doesn't make sense not to. You go out in the street and see every color, shape, size, every kind of couple. Why shouldn't that be reflected on our stage and screen? The world we live in is much more diverse and complex than we're seeing up there.

The American Theatre Wing's 65th Annual Tony Awards, presented by The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, will be telecast on CBS on June 12, 2011, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.