The University of Minnesota’s Department of Theatre Arts and Dance is forming a task force to deal with diversity issues students have raised.
“We want it to be a student-driven organization,” said department chair Carl Flink.
The department held two listening sessions with students and faculty members last month.
Flink said the task force will continue the dialogue next fall and start considering concrete actions.
“They’re really trying to find what the student body is missing or what could be added to what’s already there,” said theatre arts senior Jared Zeigler, who works for the department as a peer mentor.
Flink said the department wants to discuss a long-standing issue that isn’t unique to theater.
In the College of Liberal Arts, about 70 percent of all undergraduate students identify as white, according to University data.
Theaters have to engage with communities to find their audience’s needs, said Jack Reuler, artistic director at Mixed Blood Theatre.
“One needs to put as much effort into finding the audience as it does into making the plays,” he said. “The experience is not just what do you see on stage, but who’s sitting next to you.”
Theatre arts senior Bijan Riahi said the task force should work on bringing students from outside the major into the discussions.
“The whole point of theater is for somebody else to see it,” he said. “They need to start going to the public, to U of M students, and asking them what they want to see.”
Flink said the department partners with outside organizations like Project SUCCESS, which encourages high school students to participate in theater in order to increase interest in the program.
But “in some ways,” he added, “we haven’t been good about making visible these really strong efforts that we’ve made.”
‘Holding the mirror’
Patrick Sims was a graduate theater student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when he noticed many people “resisted and resented” mandatory cultural competency training.
“We had individuals who literally came to the training, sat in the front row and read the paper or talked on their cellphones,” he said.
To solve the problem, Sims and a colleague began tweaking complaints filed with the university’s diversity and compliance office and turning them into plays, he said.
“Those plays became stepping stones into conversations,” he said, because people were far more willing to watch a play than sit through a presentation.
Now, as director of the Theatre for Cultural and Social Awareness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sims turns uncomfortable issues into drama for students in his classes.
“We give them a space to say whatever they want to say,” he said, letting students transition “from what are broad discussions about larger social issues to more personal experiences.”
Sims said diversity in theater is essential, but there’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.
“Students of color often don’t participate in those programs because they don’t see themselves reflected,” he said. “We can’t produce those kinds of work because students of color aren’t necessarily present.”
The problem is bigger than the University, said Lucie de Sancy, a freshman in the University’s Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program.
“I really don’t think a theater department can change until theater changes,” she said, “because we are so centered around the white race in theater.”
But initiatives like the diversity task force are a step in the right direction, de Sancy added.
Sims said good theater must reflect society in terms of the stories it tells and the audience it speaks to.
“If we’re doing our job right as theater artists,” he said, “we are holding the mirror up to society.”