Texas State University’s theatre department has embraced diversity and increased inclusivity over the past decade to create ample opportunities for its current and incoming students.
According to the department’s 2017 enrollment records, a total of 627 students were enrolled in the theatre department out of the total 38,666 students enrolled at the university. While the department does not entirely reflect the overall demographics for students at the university, the enrollment rate for both Hispanic and black students has increased dramatically since the 2014 academic year.
Artist-in-Residence Eugene Lee, who also serves as the artistic director for the Black and Latino Playwrights Celebration (BLPC), said he has observed the number of minority students who choose to study theatre at the university-level is increasing.
Theatre student Jonathan Acosta came to Texas State because of the unique opportunities offered on campus. He said the original draw to the school was the BLPC and the effort being made by the department to be more inclusive.
“It was nice to see that [diversity] was valued,” Acosta said. “That was something that was so appealing to me.”
Acosta participated in the 2019 BLPC and worked closely
with Lee. The BLPC is an annual event in which black and Latino playwrights from across the country submit their plays for the chance to be workshopped on the Texas State campus. Participants include professional guest directors, guest artists and student actors. Over the course of three to five days, staged readings are put together and put on for the campus and the surrounding San Marcos community.
“You feel pride to be who you are,” Acosta said, reflecting on his experience with the BLPC. “Even if you haven’t thought about it in a while, you gain this appreciation again for your people, your culture, your family, all of it. It’s not even that we talk about it the entire time, it is just that you look around the room and everyone looks like you and it is nice.”
During the summer months, Acosta worked on a bilingual production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors directed by theatre faculty member Jerry Ruiz. The script was an adaption written by Joseph Falocco, an associate professor in the department of English, and David Navarro, an assistant professor in the department of world languages and literature.
The play is a story of two sets of identical twins who are separated at birth. After living in separate cities their whole lives, they are reunited in a confounding yet amusing turn of events. The adaption was set in Cuba, with groups of characters either speaking English or Spanish.
“Even if we do a show written in, like, Shakespeare’s time,” Acosta said, “theatre always finds a way to morph and adapt into our circumstances.”
Where does the issue of underrepresentation lie? In the writing or in the casting?
The answer appears to be both.
There are movements towards color-blind casting and color-conscious casting as potential resolves. Directors often preference one of the two routes when casting a production. Color-blind casting implies that actors are cast purely on a basis of talent, while color-conscious casting is the decision to change the race of a character for some impact.
“As a black playwright I can’t help but wonder if color-blind casting is in reality an excuse to continue to overlook the storytelling in plays written by, for and about people of color,” Lee said.
“If an actor sees a script and reads it and knows that they won’t be cast in it—to me, that is an issue. No matter who you are.“
Acosta, branching out from his acting roots, began to write plays himself. He said his approach is to write a show with no definite or set casting requirements so that anyone can play the roles he creates. He said that while more and more playwrights are creating similar opportunities for minority actors, there is still room for growth.
Currently, in rehearsals for “Lydia”, Acosta said he is lucky to be cast in the show. The play is about an undocumented maid who is working in a home in El Paso, Texas, in the ‘70s. Acosta said that the fact that the department pushed for a show like this to be part of the theatrical season is amazing.
“The season has had some diverse and inclusive casting and play selection that have challenged the students to step outside their comfort zones culturally,” Lee said. “That’s a good thing.”
Preparing for its opening on Oct. 29, the “Survivors” tells the story of women, slaves and children who survived the battle of the Alamo. Playwright Katie Bender said that the play was five years in the making. Bender said she was originally inspired by Susanna Dickinson and the contradictions of the bourgeoning democracy of Mexico. After years of research and revisions, the show will be in full production at Texas State.
“I discovered Susanna Dickinson while at graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin,” Bender said. “I became a docent at the Susanna Dickinson Museum so that I could access all the material I wanted to research. I’ve interviewed historians, re-enactors, professors. I’ve read direct accounts of the events surrounding the play including the diaries of José Enrique de la Peña and José Antonio Navarro, poured through artifacts, traveled to Mexico, San Antonio, Gonzales, read slave narratives, historical fiction, poetry from the era, news clippings and met with descendants.”
Bender said that many plays have paved the way for the story of the “Survivors”. She said that about 20 years ago the Oregon Shakespeare Festival started to give commissions to playwrights with the goal of creating stories about moments that changed history in America.
“Lynn Nottages’ “Sweat” came out of that commission, as did Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way”,” Bender said, “preparing the way for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”, all plays that inspired me in the writing of the “Survivors”.”
The public relations specialist for the department of theatre Jessica Graham said that Texas State stands apart from other theatre departments not just in the state of Texas but also nationally. The resources, shows and diverse faculty offer students unique experiences.
“I think Texas State does a really great job of listening,” Graham said. “We have such a strong population here and we have really great performers and actors who want to be in these shows and have their voice heard, and I think we really do a great job of providing that to them.”
Photos and graphic by Lauren Jurgemeyer.