The New Era Is Now

In a recent op-ed, “Theater for a New Era,” Jason Wong ’10 renews his call for greater diversity in the casting of Harvard student productions and for theater that is more socially conscious. As a concerned and active student in theater—not as a representative of a group or organization—I share and admire Wong’s aspiration to develop and improve Harvard’s theater. However, I feel he ignores the truly inclusive nature of theater on our campus, and his conception of an ideal, responsible drama falls short of the stage’s full potential. Such missteps threaten to sacrifice meaningful artistic dialogue to the censorship of political correctness.

First, Wong contends that equality in casting at Harvard exists in theory alone, not in practice. In reality, the Common Casting system, enacted every semester, is constructed to be egalitarian in both theory and practice by being widely publicized and open to not only students, but also anyone who is interested. By putting all potential actors through the same process, the theater community does its best to ensure that everyone is given a level playing field. Those who are not satisfied with the roles being offered can mount their own productions, by applying for funding and space from numerous sources.

Wong ambiguously asks directors to “reevaluate what qualities they seek when they cast their actors and actresses,” defining neither what he believes directors have sought in the past nor what he thinks they should seek in the future. If he implies that “fresh faces” and minorities need added assistance to be cast, this is condescending. Every semester, dozens of students of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds find a home in Harvard’s theater, some having never appeared in a campus production before. To suggest that any person or particular group of people needs special consideration is insulting to their abilities and to the integrity of those constructing the casts.

For these reasons and more, the theater community is at its core open to all. The appearance of it being—in Wong’s words—“exclusive and relatively confined” is perhaps a result of specific students putting in extraordinary time and effort to appear in not one, but multiple shows each semester. Moreover, these supposedly too familiar faces of Harvard’s theater begin as newcomers and continue to endure rejections and disappointments every year. Such students should be commended for passionately pursuing their craft, not used as targets for unwarranted criticism.

If we truly care about making our campus’s theater as diverse as possible, we must consider that the possibilities of theatrical opportunities are in fact equal and open and that some students are simply not taking advantage of all available prospects. Perhaps some actors, directors, and technicians turn out only when a particular cultural group is putting on a show. At other times, students who are new to theater may be discouraged too easily by a difficult first audition.

Propagating the false idea that some groups face an unfair bias in casting will only discourage people from auditioning in the first place. Those who do not at first find instant success should not be disheartened by a process that is inherently competitive for everyone, regardless of race, creed, or level of experience.

Furthermore, Wong’s suggestion that Harvard’s theater is confined to “precedent” and lacks “risk-taking” is absurd. The upcoming season alone displays an incredibly creative range of productions—with many diverse casting opportunities—from an original multimedia, movement-based production about love and atomic physics to a new interpretation of an ancient Greek feminist comedy. And, while I disagree with Wong’s idealization of gender-blind and race-blind casting as a kind of theatrical cure-all, it is worth noting that several of this semester’s productions do indeed take advantage of those practices.

These criticisms of unimaginativeness stem from a definition of socially conscious theater that is didactic, narrow, and unfulfilling. Some may see theater as “education disguised as entertainment,” but this ignores the wonderful complexity available in the medium. David Mamet, the esteemed dramatist and essayist, put it best when he said, “The good drama survives because it appeals… to the problems both universal and eternal, as they are insoluble.”

In other words, great theater does not lecture, does not moralize, and does not give easy answers. It does not resolve stories into neat endings or useful platitudes. Impressive drama prods and provokes, and asks audience members to think profoundly. Relevant theater does not have to be in the style of documentary, torn from contemporary headlines. An audience may find an ancient tale or abstract parable just as resonant. Only through a relentless pursuit of truth, whether uncomfortable or uplifting, can theater inspire the kind of thought and dialogue that makes it meaningfully relevant.

Wong’s op-ed might have had the best intentions, and his desire to improve theater at Harvard is admirable. While I share his aims, I do not share his limited vision of what form they should take or how they should be achieved. I encourage Wong and those who agree with him to acknowledge that equal theatrical opportunities exist; they must only be pursued with dedication and persistence. The New Era is already here.

Benjamin K. Glaser ’09 is an English concentrator in Dunster House.