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(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program arc

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

HANNAH CRANTON: As a theatre artist I am primarily a performer, but I have also worked as a director and musician.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

HC: In terms of race culture and heritage I would identify myself, as a Caucasian, American with a mixed European heritage and as a direct descendent of John Howland, a passenger on the Mayflower. This identity has never been a conscious influence on my work in the theatre, but I am sure the ways in which it has influenced my life have inevitably seeped into work I have done.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?

HC: Finding a play that requires a twenty to thirty something year old female is not often difficult to find. The only time it has felt as a though a door has been closed because of my racial and cultural background, have been instances where a play or a theatre was looking to specifically cast an African American, Hispanic or Asian female. There have been projects I have wanted to work on and have not been able to do because I am a white woman, but I can count those projects on one hand.

JL: When we met at Boston Center for the Arts and Company One’s XX Playlab Festival, you shared that you had spent the past year actively engaging in conversations about Diversity and Inclusion. What inspired this desire to be a part of this conversation?

HC: When you and I met I had spent the past year processing a lot about my own personal heritage and cultural background privately and through conversation. Throughout the year my ninety-nine year old grandmother had been very sick. I started visiting with her about once a week to sit, drink tea and talk. The topics she loved to dwell on were the economy, politics, stories about our family and our pilgrim heritage. I have been told my whole life how proud I should be of my background, which I have always balanced with stories about land stolen from Native Americans and the likely possibility that my ancestors may have supported slavery. I have been feeling conflicted about my heritage and the idea of pride for years. One evening at the 2012 Massachusetts Poetry festival I started questioning that pride in a way I never had before. A young woman had shared a poem about her Native American heritage. It was beautifully written, using a farmers market as a metaphor for a woman’s body and then using the woman’s body as a metaphor for the land that was taken from her ancestors by the first European settlers. When she was finished I immediately felt a rush of ugly, embarrassing emotions. I felt guilty that my ancestors had done something so awful to hers, I felt angry that her poem was making me embarrassed of where I come from, I felt heart-broken that there is no way to set things right and I felt offended that it seemed like she was talking about a whole group of people in a generalized way. These are all feelings I felt incredibly embarrassed to admit that I was having. I thought if I expressed them I would be considered racist and ignorant. I had been at the poetry festival with one of my closest friends who I trust and when we got in the car to go home I decided to get over my fear and have “this conversation” It was long, drawn out, emotional and tense. It was the first of several long, drawn out, emotional and tense conversations we had through-out the year on the topic of pride, race, diversity and guilt.

JL: You also mentioned meeting with resistance. Please share more about this. Where was the resistance coming from? Was it that people were unwilling to engage with you or that they didn’t think the issues concerned you?

HC: A lot of the resistance seemed to come from an idea that racial issues don’t concern white Americans. I remember telling you that I didn’t feel like I had a story to tell because a white American opinion seems very well represented in our culture, but by having that mentality it was like putting a hand over my own mouth making me an inactive part of this very necessary conversation. The only way to grow as a community and to expand our cultural vocabulary is through talking about it. These issues concern everyone.

JL: Where are you now in your journey?

HC: When you and I met after the panel on “Where We Stand: Race and Gender in the New Play Sector Round Table Discussion” at the Boston Center for the Arts and Company One’s XX Playlab Festival, I felt as though I had finally come to the end of the journey I had been on, processing how I felt about my cultural background and heritage. There were so many things that were said at that panel and so many themes that were explored during that festival that left me feeling empowered. Ilana Brownstein, Company One’s dramaturge and all around wonderful person said it best that all you can do is be “transparent” with “who” you are. I have kept that thought in the front of my mind and it has enriched the conversations I have continued to have “with love and respect” about diversity and inclusion.

JL: What advice do you have for others trying to engage in conversations about Diversity and Inclusion?

HC: Advice I would have to others trying to engage in conversations about a topic that can be intimidating and sensitive like diversity and Inclusion would be to never invalidate your own opinions. Accept the fact that these discussions can be uncomfortable and scary, but that they are necessary for us to have in order to grow together as a community.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community? How can they engage their audiences in a deeper, richer and more effective dialogue?

HC: The theatre is made up of story tellers, giving voice to those who do not have one. I think in order to serve a larger and more inclusive community we need to make the theatre more accessible to those people financially (with programs like “no empty seats”) and with the content it chooses to produce. I love what the playwright, Chuck Mee said about casting,

“In my plays, as in life itself, the female romantic lead can be played by a woman in a wheelchair. The male romantic lead can be played by an Indian man. And that is not the subject of the play. There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person. And directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live…”

I think reaching out to non-theatre goers and producing plays that help expand cultural vocabulary, will engage audiences in deeper, richer and more effective dialogue.

Hannah Cranton is currently a New York based actor hailing from the North Shore of Massachusetts. She recieved a B.F.A. in theater performance from Salem State University. Past credits include: REGIONAL: Colleen in Splendor Lit Beneath Their Bones, Chloe in Hookman (Company One/ XX PlayLab) Young Woman/Whore in Spurt of Blood, Maria in The Misunderstanding, Jolie in There is Another Court (Boston Experimental Theatre Company) Angela in U.S. Drag, Actress/Cadet/Nun in Cyrano de Bergerac (Apollinaire Theatre Company) Cybil in The Altruists(Boston Actors Theatre) June in Measuring Matthew (SLAM Boston; Another Country Productions) Chicklet in Psycho Beach Party, Popilius in Julius Ceasar (Counter-Productions Theatre Company) Laura in Claire de Lune, Woman in Planting the Music (Salem Theatre Company) UNIVERSITY: Mindy in Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, Miranda in The Tempest, Woman in The Pink Bedroom, Nora in A Doll’s House, Susan in Company, Tess in Six Degrees of Separation and the Second Old Woman in The Black and White(Salem State University) FILM: Emily in Citadel, Katie in Short Cut (Concord Academy) Liz in Liz (RotN Productions) Hilary in Just Fall (Center for the Digital Arts at BU) Pretty Library Girl in Plastic (Emerson College) Church Member in Absent Father(Sparta Productions LLC) DIRECTING: The Body Washer (Salem Theatre Company) The Shape of Things and Dirty Laundry (Salem State University)

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.