(Ed. note: The following interview series builds on Seema Sueko’s report on the Diversity: Through the Director’s Eye panel, “Jump into the Gaps.” Diversity & Inclusion online curator Jacqueline E. Lawton shared a series of questions with attendees of the panel to expand and continue the conversation.)
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
ERIN QUILL: Primarily I am a Performer – I hold a BFA from Carnegie Mellon in Vocal Performance. I was in the Original Broadway Company of Avenue Q, the 50th Anniversary production of Flower Drum Song, toured as Lady Thiang in King & I, your general musical theater resume… On Los Angeles stages, I am known for my work with Lodestone Theatre Ensemble’s productions of The Mikado Project and Closer Than Ever. I have been a sketch comedy performer in New York and in LA, and have studied quite a lot of improv. I have had recurring roles on two television shows that shoot in NY – Damages and NYC 22, and appeared in the film, Man on a Ledge.
As a writer, I have a blog that I started right before my son was born, called www.fairyprincessdiaries.com where I write about Diversity in theater and anything else that tickles my fancy. In 18 months, I have over 50,000 views from all across the globe.
I have produced, worked in casting, written screenplays turn into features – I have done just about everything I could do to maintain life as a theater artist. As Sondheim wrote – Art isn’t easy…
JL: In a conversation about Diversity, identity and representation is important. How do you identify? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
EQ: Ethnically, I am Chinese, Irish & Welsh, and am a dual citizen of the United States and Australia. My Parents strived to make sure that I understood both the joys and the burdens that being multiracial encompassed – we celebrated Chinese New Year and St. Patrick’s Day with equal fervor. I studied the histories of my diverse heritages, as well as the fairy tales, the music, things that were cultural touchstones.
As my Mother is Chinese Australian, we spent a great deal of time traveling back and forth to Australia in order to maintain family relationships – so I would say that I feel I am a world citizen.
Everywhere I travel, I try to visit a museum and grab a sense of where I am in that city’s timeline. I read histories, biographies, I hang at the ‘local’s’ spot – I look for differences and similarities no matter where I go.
I think that travel and study open your mind, and in terms of being an actor, to be exposed to various accents and ways of viewing the world – it all helps. In my writing, I pull from my world view, which is perhaps the reason my blog has hit such a nerve in the international scene.
JL: Why was it important for you to attend the Diversity: Through the Director’s Eye panel discussion?
EQ: I wanted to attend the Diversity Panel, because I was the first one to write about what was going on at La Jolla Playhouse and it’s production of The Nightingale. I wrote a blog post called “Moises Kaufman can Kiss my Ass and here’s why“, and within a few weeks, it was at 25,000 views. And the resulting ‘fallout’ from that blog post caused quite a stir, and a rush to have panels to discuss diversity – none of which I was invited to. People, many many people gave interviews, based on the fervor surrounding that post, but no one asked me to speak on it, or why I wrote it – so…I wanted to attend the Diversity Panel because I wanted to see where the chips had fallen, so to speak, a year later. Did my work have any influence? Were people willing to ‘get it’ in regards to casting Asian Americans on theatrical stages?
JL: Can you share one or two moments of discovery that happened for you during the panel discussion?
EQ: The first is that East West Players theater, and its Artistic Director, Tim Dang, are ahead of the crowd. They really are – here is an ‘ethnic’ theater that decided to broaden its horizons with a multi-racial cast and do the musical, CHESS. They took a leap and the audience was there for it. They are thinking outside of their comfort zone, they are creating space for the next wave of theater goers to feel welcome. Which means, thankfully, that East West Players is going to be here for many years to come, which makes me happy.
The second is that out of the four Caucasian men on the panel – there are two that are actively embracing Diversity, one who seemed to be shamed into having Diversity, and one who does not, absolutely does not give a damn about Diversity. I think we, of the “Diversity’ camp have to look at is as a win – we have 2 out of 4 for sure, perhaps 3 – and let’s face it – you cannot win them all. 2 out of 4 is progress. They know who they are.
JL: What is your biggest take away from the panel discussion?
EQ: My biggest ‘take away’ from the panel was that people who are concerned with Diversity and with building their audience are going to practice Diversity. And then there are those that seem innately satisfied that having a’ liberal upbringing’ and proclaiming it loudly on a panel negates them from any obligation of serving the Diverse community of Los Angeles. You cannot force a horse to drink, and you cannot force people to open their minds when they have been quite comfortable with the status quo.
My biggest question coming away from the panel is ‘Why?’. WHY are we continuing to have panels? Why hasn’t everyone ‘gotten it’ yet? Because they do not want to. They do not SEE Diversity. They will NOT see Diversity and we cannot MAKE them.
How could we sit for 90 or so minutes and hear NY’s Public Theater lauded for Diversity and Art and choose not to see what makes The Public Theater so great? It is the theater of New York City – and it reflects New York City. In Los Angeles, it is equally, if not MORE Diverse than New York – and yet, when we look on our stages, you would think it was 1950′s America. It’s embarrassing. No wonder Los Angeles does not have a National reputation for theater – how can we? We do not reflect the Nation.
Do you know what happened after the panel?
A Director in the crowd, who sat through an entire 90 minutes of talking about diversity approached Chil Kong, and demanded that he give her the ‘go ahead’ to do a show about Chinese history. She was very angry – which both I and Terence McFarland can vouch for – were ‘we’ (and by that I assume she meant ‘we Asians”) going to stand in the way of the play she was intent on producing just because it was a play about China that was going to be performed entirely by Caucasians in Chinese dress and manner?
Because you see, as she told it, this play is ‘allowed’ to be performed by Caucasians in Chinese dress, because this play she is doing, was written by a Caucasian man who adopted his daughter from China and wrote it for her – to help his Chinese born daughter learn the history of China. As performed by Caucasians in Los Angeles.
We had JUST exited the Diversity panel. We were at the reception. In the courtyard of The Pasadena Playhouse!
So my ‘take away’ is that Diversity is only going to happen when Artistic Directors ‘get it’ – it is not going to happen otherwise – what will happen, is that there will be a division of theater in Los Angeles – there will be the ‘white’ houses that will only play to Caucasian audiences, and there will be “ethnic theater’ which will appeal to everyone else. And eventually, one type will die out – and we will then, and ONLY then, know the winner.
May the odds be ever in our favor.
JL: What areas still need to be addressed in your community? What conversations still need to be hand?
EQ: There have been enough conversations to sink a battleship. There needs to be less conversation. There needs to be action – who cares if people are talking if they are not doing? Actions, as every actor knows, speak louder than words.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of Diversity and Inclusion?
EQ: Begin with your Boards – Diversify your Board of Trustees. Those are the people that raise money for your theater. Oddly, money tends to influence what shows are produced – if your Board is diverse, the theater company tends to incorporate Diversity.
Theater Staff – if your staff is multi-racial, they are going to think in a different way – they are going to suggest different types of plays – because their background will make them open to different kinds of playwrights, directors, actors. Listen to your staff.
If you have a larger theater, then you have to start your own casting files – have ‘meet and greet’ auditions or open calls specifically targeting one group at a time. Look at your season – look at where the play is set, which city, which time period – who would be there? Then go out AHEAD of time and LOOK for those people. Call companies known for having Diversity and ask for recommendations – both for Actors and Directors. Share. Grow. Act.
If you are an Artistic Director, then plot the direction you want your company to travel in. You cannot sit back and say “I’m the AD, the Director I hired is in full charge of this play” – you, as the AD are ultimately responsible for your theater company and every show that you produce. If you, as the AD are not helping guide your guest Director, as to the whys and wherefores of your company – then you are not an AD, you are Human Resources.
Finally – stop being lazy. You know why your company is not Diverse in it’s material or staff or board or casting? Because of laziness. It takes effort to change. You have to want it – you have to want it just as much as when you wanted to be an Artistic Director, or an Actor, or a Set Designer, or a Choreographer. If you want something, you act upon it. If you want change, you make it happen.
Stop “having conversations about diversity every day” – just practice it. Stop talking. Start doing.
If you don’t do anything, I know you are not serious – don’t waste my time. Excuses are so 2013.
ERIN QUILL holds a BFA from Carnegie Mellon. She was on Broadway in the Original Company of AVENUE Q, as Madame Rita Liang in the 50th Anniversary Production of FLOWER DRUM SONG at AMTSJ, toured opposite Debby Boone as Lady Thiang in KING & I, other productions include THE MIKADO PROJECT, CLOSER THAN EVER, ANYTHING GOES and so on. TV Credits: Damages, NYC 22, NYPD Blue, Movie Club w/John Ridley, Bravo pilot DISHIN’, Screening Party, Feature films: Man on a Ledge, The Mikado Project. Her blog www.fairyprincessdiaries.com has had over 50,000 views since it’s ‘birth’ 18 months ago – she has spoken about Diversity at LA Stage Day, on Speak UP with Jimmy, appeared in Network Diversity showcases, and most recently, was a Finalist in the Writer’s Program at NBC for the Diversity Showcase. She has written 2 screenplays that went to feature production, and is exhausted about talking about Diversity. She also has a sense of humor and a toddler.
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. jacquelinelawton.com