“Is it worth it?”: Discussing representation in theater

Adam Frommer, Staff Writer

Acting is a process of occupying another individual’s world, and actors often have to assume roles that have identities which contrast with their own. When performing works that ask difficult or provocative questions of the audience, there is a risk of misrepresenting culture. The first question that Theatre Teacher Ben Posner asks before choosing a piece is: “should we be doing this?” he said. “Is it worth it?”
One of the reasons that Posner directs productions is to teach empathy. “The more I can put my students into other people’s perspectives,” he said, “the wider their perspectives become and the more inclusive and understanding they become.”
The role of theatre is to make the audience think, co-President of the Horace Mann Theatre Company (HMTC) Dylan Chin (12) said. ”If it makes you have a conversation about the material, all the better. That means it’s doing its job and provoking thought.”
When creating a production, it is important to do justice to the work, “without mocking or stereotyping,” VanHentenryck said. Additionally, it is important that everyone involved with the production is on the same page about addressing any piece’s difficult issues, co-President of the HMTC Henry Owens (11) said.
Still, theatre should not necessarily be a ‘safe space’ where everyone agrees because actors should question societal norms, VanHentenryck said. Nonetheless, “everyone on the production team should be comfortable taking the risks together and having the conversation together,” she said.
Oftentimes, there isn’t time in rehearsal space to put the energy towards making sure that the topics are handled as appropriately as possible, Owens said. “So, our strategy has generally been to avoid controversial topics so that we don’t risk misrepresenting anything or communicating the message poorly,” he said. For example, after controversy about performing The Good Person of Szechwan this fall with a mostly white cast, the school changed the show to the lighthearted comedy Comic Potential. “We would have spent more time arguing about that then working on the play, so it seemed like a good decision,” Theatre Teacher Joseph Timko, director of the play, said.
Performing plays about serious or light subjects can have positive impacts on the audience, Owens said. “However, doing a play on a serious subject and butchering it or somehow not portraying it well, that can actually have a negative impact,” he said.
Avoiding controversial topics altogether might not be the best solution, Posner said. A ‘cancel culture’ that vetoes all sensitive work significantly narrows the breadth of plays that a school can do, Posner said.
In a school setting, a main goal is to educate, Posner said. For example, Shakespeare is hard to perform and it takes skills from the actors physically and vocally, so education stems from the work itself, he said. On the other hand, learning may come allowing students the chance to step into somebody else’s shoes, he said. This may manifest itself in playing a character who identifies very differently from one’s actual self.
There always needs to be intention behind any show, Posner said. “Are we being provocative just to be provocative or are we trying to ask questions and look for answers?”
Provocative theatre can be potentially detrimental if what is happening on stage unintentionally makes the audience uncomfortable, Publicity Officer of the HMTC Jordan Ferdman (11) said. ”There’s a difference between making the audience uncomfortable with the questions that the text is posing and the audience being uncomfortable by how that question is being asked onstage.”
All theatre is make-believe, which is why it collides with cultural appropriation, Timko said. Actors learn about other kinds of people, cultures, and characters of people by playing them. “If we’re only allowed to play people who we are [exactly like], then that’s not theatre,” he said. “So the extreme cultural appropriation message would make theatre impossible.”
Acting at its core is about transforming into another person, Owens said. “So theoretically, there should be no limits.” Meanwhile, in modern society, there are certain lines that actors shouldn’t cross, he said. For example, a white person definitely cannot portray someone of another race, he said.
It is not necessarily productive to deem any show that does not match one’s lived experience cultural appropriation, VanHentenryck said, “but it’s inappropriate to put white actors that don’t have access to those experiences [into those roles].”
“In a totally free, guilt free situation, anybody could play anything,” Timko said. But if people feel underrepresented or misrepresented, then you have to draw the line, he said. “If the issue is too hot, then maybe it’s just best not to provoke it.”
Nevertheless, striking possible shows because of cultural appropriation might not be the most productive response, VanHentenryck said. “I think we should be having a conversation about why we can’t do a show, because that’s where the learning happens.”
In addition to the educational opportunity of challenging pieces, Timko said that misrepresentation of culture might be better than no representation. “If whatever power structure exists doesn’t want to represent you, you’re not there at all.” Over time, misrepresentation could lead to something more authentic, he said.
With greater representation on stage, the audience may see the world through the lens of someone in that culture, Posner said. “And I don’t know really anywhere else where they might get that kind of experience,” he said. “If we start canceling that and making it so that that doesn’t happen, I think it’s a loss.”
The HMTC has sometimes cut out inappropriate language from plays if the text is too offensive. However, Chin doesn’t believe that theatre should be censored in any form. “I don’t think that changing the original writers work is good for the material,” he said. “I don’t think it provides the same message. If it’s good art, there’s a reason for everything.”
To understand hurtful language in theatre, actors have to ask questions, VanHentenryck said. “Why do we think the playwright wrote it? What time period is the playwright writing from? What is the playwright trying to get across by putting these things in here?” By investigating, performers can see where the playwrights were coming from, he said.
Moving forward, Ferdman said the HMTC could find a middle ground since producing shows is not the only way to extract lessons from them. For example, HMTC meetings could discuss a show’s effect on something like the greater theatre community, she said. “There are different ways to honor a show besides actually staging a production of it. And I think that gets lost sometimes.”
There are also shows that confront race from a white perspective, Ferdman said. “If we want to have discussions about racism here, those are worth looking into,” she said. “We can only do what we can with the predominantly white demographic that we have here.”
Sometimes though, audiences don’t need to be faced with tough questions, Timko said. While Comic Potential this fall dealt with large themes, it was a comedy at heart. “In our world at this point, I think we’re so tired of the dissonance in the American culture that several people have thanked me for the fact that we did a comedy that it helped the mood of things to get away from the polarization,” he said.
VanHentenryck quoted a line from German playwright Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” For VanHentenryck, musicals and plays do not serve as an accurate representation of the world but rather a tool to change it. “That can be really powerful when done right,” she said. “But to do that, you have got to do the hard work and talk about it.”