‘Poor Clare’ shines light on the complications of diversity in theater

While the play's recent world premiere featured mostly people of color, the cast in the theater department’s adaptation is predominantly white.

by Jessica Li | 11/9/21 2:10am

11-9-21-poorclare-courtesy
Source: Courtesy of Rob Strong Photography

Diversity in theater has long been a topic of controversy, confusion and complications — and the Dartmouth theater department is no exception. As a college, Dartmouth has come a long way in terms of diversity, but — as the recent staged reading of the play “Poor Clare” demonstrates — what diversity looks like and how to achieve it is no simple task. 

“Poor Clare,” written by Chiara Atik, is a satirical retelling of the story of Saint Clare and Saint Francis. An allegory for modern-day socioeconomic class divides, Clare — a privileged and wealthy teenage girl — is inspired to take radical action after hearing Francis make a statement about how the poor are neglected. 

“I think, in a modern context, we have a lot of guilt surrounding poverty, but also, the whole play is about how everybody has this guilt but doesn’t really do anything about it,” said Jacqui Byrne ’22, who played the lead role of Clare. 

In the Echo Theater Company world premiere of the play on Oct. 19, the character of Clare — and many of the main cast members, for that matter — were played by people of color. In contrast, Dartmouth’s version only included two people of color out of the seven cast members: One plays Clare’s mother, and the other plays a beggar. 

Atik doesn’t specify the races of the characters in her script. In fact, she writes that “every character can be played by any ethnicity” and the play “should be cast in a diverse and color-conscious manner.”

Color-conscious casting is often considered in contrast to colorblind casting. Colorblind casting attempts to cast without considering an actor’s race, ethnicity and body type, among other factors. 

Women’s, gender and sexuality studies lecturer and former theater performer Misty De Berry disapproves of this practice of colorblind casting.

“I also think ‘color-blind’ as a term is rather absurd, or not ideal,” said De Berry. “We cannot, nor should not, ‘not see’ — or take into account one’s visible markers of identity — as such markers shape both social and aesthetic narratives.”

Color-conscious casting, on the other hand, explicitly considers these factors and their implications. De Berry said that, though she is skeptical of the concept, color-conscious casting does have value. 

“I can hear the pivot in ‘consciousness’ that rebukes the notion that one’s race or body is something that is invisible,” De Berry said.

“Poor Clare” was cast at the same time as “Ridgeway” and “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” — two other staged readings this term. Theater professor Peter Hackett, who directed “Poor Clare” and ran the auditions, said that students could only be cast in one of the three staged readings because they all rehearsed at the same time. 

Hacket said that he believes the group of people who auditioned for these three productions was very diverse. However, he noted that oftentimes, the vision for a play has to be adapted based on the audition pool. 

One factor that may have influenced the racial breakdown of “Poor Clare,” was the specifications for the casts of “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” and “Ridgway.” The former required an all-Black cast, while the latter had specific gender and racial requirements for roles, according to the cast breakdown on the audition website, which is no longer available. This context may explain why white actors gravitated towards “Poor Clare.”

Byrne says that it’s widely understood within the department that most people can theoretically take on any role, race and gender notwithstanding. 

“We’ve definitely discussed colorblind casting, color-conscious casting,” said Byrne. “I think [color-conscious casting] was definitely a newer term that we didn’t talk about as much. I feel like, universally, in all of the shows, anyone can play anyone — except for the roles that are assigned to a person of color.”

For example, when Hackett directed and cast “1984” a few years ago, he casted a woman as the villain — rather than the typical male — because she had the best audition for the role. 

Hackett also explained that each student actor could choose which of the three plays they wanted to be in the most, effectively giving them a level of choice in their role. 

“There were cases where my first choices [for certain characters] I didn’t get because… they were more valuable or playing a bigger role in one of the other plays that they said they wanted to do,” said Hackett. “So it was entirely up to the students — and always is, actually — in terms of what roles they accept.”

Even if color-conscious casting were properly implemented, De Berry said that it merely scratches the surface of what true diversity would look like. Beyond skin tone, there are other identity markers to consider, such as sexual orientation and able-bodiedness. 

“It’s not just about what bodies you put in parts. It’s about why particular plays are chosen… and who gets to make decisions well before we even get to auditions,” said De Berry. “Race, class, gender and even access to cultural expression doesn’t transgress the utopian promise of theater.”

The theater department has already taken some steps to expand diversity, according to Hackett. Students are invited to propose plays for the department to put on each year, and there has been discussion about involving students in the play selection committee. Additionally, the theater department recently removed the interview requirement to take THEA 30, “Acting I” in the hopes of lowering entry barriers and encouraging more students to get involved in theater. 

Given the department’s majority-white faculty, De Berry encouraged a student-led discussion about diversity, so that students feel safe and comfortable enough to speak up, without fear of retribution later on in their careers. 

The Dartmouth contacted multiple students of color involved with the theater department for this article. All declined to comment on the record or if granted anonymity, and two expressed concerns about potential repercussions for their trajectory in the department if they gave an interview.

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