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How conversations about diversity can change our theatre program

Taylor Wallace, and the cast of “Men on Boats” at Westminster College. Wallace said that even though some of the roles were written to be played specifically by people of color, she did not feel like she was ‘typecast’ into those roles. (Photo Courtesy: Max Rutherford)

The Westminster College theatre program has made many attempts to be more inclusive and involve diversity, but it could be better, according to Nina Vought, an associate professor in the theatre program.

The attempts that have been made have not been as well thought out or intentional as they need to be to actually create change, according to Melissa Salguero, a theatre performance major.

“Specifically because I think that when we look at theatre in general it is largely dominated by [cisgender heterosexual] straight white men who are middle class,” said Salguero. “So you have an extremely privileged group in an art form that, if we’re going to be honest, is supposed to be a platform for marginalized voices.”

Although the Westminster program could be better, it is inclusive to some groups like women. 

Maggie Minshew performing the lead for a practice run of “Girl in the Red Corner” which opens Oct. 10th. Minshew was able to play two originally written male characters at Westminster and hopes to have more opportunities to play characters outside of her gender after graduating. (Lewis Figun Westbrook)

The Westminster program has always been around 60% women whereas nationally a typical show is 80% men, according to Vought.

Vought said she is personally working to try to include more diverse stories in her classes.

“It isn’t the same old story,” Vought said. “It isn’t the white male cisgender story that inspires [my students] and drives them for the most part.” 

Vought said because of conversations with her students she was able to learn how important it was to include other stories.

“If I would not have had that feedback, that really direct feedback loop, then I would make poor choices,” Vought said. “I would make standard choices which are poor choices.”

Theatre is about telling stories and many students said they believe it’s time for those stories to be diverse. 

“It’s just a really weird feeling of being very different from everyone,” said Taylor Wallace, a junior theatre major. “So I think it really matters to tell everyone’s story no matter their race, gender, age. It really matters to people.”

The Westminster theatre program could still be more inclusive to people of color, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ people, according to students.

People of Color

Taylor Wallace, said that she never feels tokenized at the Westminster theatre program, but there are still struggles she faces as the only black woman currently in the program. 

“Recently I was talking about my struggles as a black woman and not feeling heard,” said Wallace.

Wallace had a white friend respond by apologizing and acknowledging that he could not relate.

“For him to say I see you and I appreciate you and I’m sorry that happened went a lot farther than I think he meant it too, but it really meant a lot to me,” Wallace said.

According to Wallace, a lot of the faculty in the theatre program have a 90s view of equality which doesn’t always fit in 2019 and feels dated.

“It’s really hard to convince a liberal that what they’re doing isn’t right,” Wallace said. “Because they’re like, ‘No I like black people, I have a black friend’ and like yes that matters, but you shouldn’t be bringing up them in order to justify yourself.”

Wallace participated in the play “Men on Boats” which she said taught her to not apologizing for existing.

Maggie Minshew playing Roderiga in “Othello” in April. Minshew was able to play two originally written male characters at Westminster and hopes to have more opportunities to play characters outside of her gender after graduating.  
(Photo Courtesy: Doug Carter)

“We had four women of color in [“Men on Boats”] and there was only 10 people cast,” Wallace said. “Almost half of the cast was people of color.”

The play is about the John Wesley Powell expedition of the grand canyon and is written to be performed by actors who are not straight white men. 

“If it was played by straight white men it would be just boring,” Wallace said. “It dives into the fact of why is male behavior this way.”

“Men on Boats” helped Wallace learn more about the privileges men have.

“Something I really noticed with men afterward is they don’t apologize to each other,” Wallace said. 

The director of the play, Mark Foster, helped teach the actors that they don’t have to apologize either. 

“You don’t have to apologize for existing in the space because that’s something that we all did a lot,” Wallace said. “And then towards the end we were very okay with it and being like ‘oh okay I can just exist and be and not have to apologize for it.’”

Diversity is something that Wallace said she hopes to see more of in both the casting and  writing of plays.

“I want to see a middle eastern MacBeth,” Wallace said. “Our presets are white so let’s make them not white, but I do think it’s important that their individual stories are told […] Like I am a black women, but that’s not the only thing I am.”

Disabled People

Melissa Salguero, a senior theatre performance major who uses a wheelchair, said she had to learn how to have conversations about what her performances will look like the hard way.

“I am the only disabled actor in most spaces and so walking into a space and claiming that unapologetically is hard and being able to navigate that is harder,” Salguero said. “I’ll walk into dance callbacks and have to be like, ‘I can do this job’ and have to essentially prove myself because people already have that bias against me whether they know that or not.”

Salguero has conversation that sometimes include making sure her costumes have snaps on the back so she can do quick changes. Other times it means adapting classes so she can participate in physical exercises.

Maggie Minshew with one of her co-stars for a practice run of “Girl in the Red Corner” which opens Oct. 10. Minshew said she believes that you shouldn’t let gender decide what roles you can play in theatre and you shouldn’t limit yourself.
(Lewis Figun Westbrook)

“I have been in classes beforehand and in trainings too where we’ll get to anything physical and people will be like ‘well sit this one out’ or ‘just watch,’” Salguero said. “They’re afraid of the conversation of what can you do or what can’t you do.”

One of Salguero’s teachers met with people who have worked with actors with disabilities before so they could learn how to best teach Salguero.

Salguero also participated in the musical “Spring Awakening”  her sophomore year, which brought up many questions of how someone who uses a wheelchair can be in a musical.

“You adapt it,” Salguero said. 

Salguero said she was able to work with the choreographer so she could lead the conversation on what her choreography would look like and to explore how movement can be different.

“I’ve been in productions where they’ve tried to tell me whether or not I’m gonna be in my chair and have made that decision for me, without checking with me,” Salguero said. “Thankfully the [Westminster] department hasn’t done that and they’ve included me in any conversation that’s what is best for you.”

Salguero said she was able to get dance credits for the hours she put in discussing choreography for the musical.

Salguero also said these conversations are hard to have, but it is important to make things intentional and be able to articulate ideas in a way that someone else can understand.

“I have learned how to have those conversations because I have been in situations where I was not able to articulate myself and have honestly gotten hurt,” Salguero said. “I have been dropped, I have been harassed, I have been violently attacked because of not being able to communicate these things.”

LGBTQ+ People

Evan Leeds, a junior theatre major, hopes after they graduate they can create a safe space as a nonbinary director.

“Specifically in theatre I have noticed that it is a very male dominated director space,” Leeds said. “Directors have so much authority and carry so much authority that it’s really nice when a director is a person I feel like I can relate to.”

In the past Leeds said they had struggled to relate to their directors and had often been told to be more mascline and fit into a male role.

“I just didn’t feel like any role that I had in theatre was fitting,” Leeds said. “And I always felt like I was stretching myself so much to become any role.”

Leeds said they had only ever been given gendered roles and now after coming out they hope to explore what acting is like for them when playing nonbinary characters, but currently they are more interested in directoring and stage managing.

“I would want to choose shows that are from diverse backgrounds,” said Leeds of their plans for directing. “So that we are actually telling those stories.”

Evan Leeds plays Joseph Surface in The School for Scandal. Leeds said they felt pushed into masculine roles and they hope to have the opportunity to play a nonbinary character since coming out.
(Photo Courtesy: Gaven Nelson)

Maggie Minshew, a sophomore theatre performance major, had the opportunity to play two originally-written male characters in Westminster’s theatre program.

“In ‘Next to Normal’ I was cast as a male character,” Minshew said. “And they did a really nice job of not really putting an exact label on my character and kind of letting it just be open to whatever which was really cool to experience.”

Minshew said that the director of “Othello” knew that he wanted the one character Roderigo to be played by a female identifying person.

“You can get away with those things and you can get away with doing that in anything really, but you don’t see it a lot in Shakespeare,” Minshew said. “He wanted to give the opportunity to try something different.”

Minshew said that she technically identifies as a cisgender female, but that does not stay in the lines of that label.

“I think that gender is such a weird concept that we face and so I’m like why does it matter?” Minshew said. “Especially in theatre because you have the opportunity to become other people, why limit yourself?”

How Conversations are Changing the Story

Diversity has to be something that affects you or else it is difficult to see as a problem, according to Nina Vought. 

Having diverse actors in the program encourages these conversations to happen, but now there is a need to look at what is considered standard or default choices that are actually flawed in nature, according to Salguero.

“If you want to break the norm in theatre you have to do it intentionally,” said Melissa Salguero. “In our training we are constantly asked, ‘Why did you make that choice?’ Like you make a choice, you commit to it and then you have to justify it, right? That’s the process that I think is missing in the department.”

In the eyes of some students like Taylor Wallace, the fight for diversity means showing up.

“If I’m gonna be here we’re gonna make sure my story is told.”

*Melissa Salguero requested the use the term “disabled people” in reference to her.

Edit: Evan Leeds’ status was changed from senior to junior.


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Lewis Figun Westbrook is a transfer student majoring in communication and minoring in psychology. In their free time they enjoy reading, writing and most importantly binging Netflix. They hope to one day write queer YA novels and be a graphic designer.

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