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    Posted November 6, 2007

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Diversity in Casting Report

By Christine Toy Johnson, Councillor, Co-Chair, Eastern EEO Committee

On October 13, 2007 at ActorFest, an event sponsored by Backstage, an industry panel participated in Casting Report: Top Casting Directors for NBC, ABC, and Disney Theatricals, Along with Actors, Share Their Views on Diversity in Casting. Aiming to examine the question, "How do we turn exclusion into inclusion when it comes to casting persons of color, persons with disabilities, mature actors, and women for roles in theatre, film, and television." The panel was moderated by Sharon Jensen, Executive Director of Alliance for Inclusion for the Arts (formerly the Non-Traditional Casting Project). Panelists included Christine Toy Johnson (AEA Councillor/ Eastern Regional EEO co-chair, actor/writer), Marc Hirschfeld (Executive Vice President Casting, NBC), Rosalie Joseph (Vice President Casting, ABC), Anita Hollander (AFTRA PWD chair, actor/writer), Jen Rudin Pearson (Director, Casting and Talent Development, Disney Theatrical Productions) and Christopher Roberts (actor/writer/producer Stepping Stone Theatre Company). They focused on current issues and challenges, and explored what the industry can do to more accurately reflect the populace today in the various media.

With eighty people in attendance, the tone was upbeat and positive, as each one of the panel members expressed what they are doing to look forward and promote diversity in the industry. Rosalie Joseph said, ABC has a desire to reflect the fabric of the country and great strides have been made. There is a long way to go, however, especially with actors with disabilities. Marc Hirschfeld added, "At NBC, there is a mandate to show an organically diverse world. Networks have diversity initiatives to develop show runners (writer/producers who are responsible for show content) and show writers, but it's tough to convince some producers to expand their world, to expand the boys club: as writers and producers are primarily male and Caucasian in television." Joseph mentioned the diversity initiatives that ABC has, including their talent showcases as well and directors' and writers' programs. She also posed the challenge of encouraging agents to open their doors to more actors with disabilities and actors of color.

Jen Pearson Rudin, who until recently cast for the animation department at Disney, discussed how animators tend to draw what they see as ideal "women" types, and that there are concerns about the implications of casting ethnicity in quasi-unflattering roles; for example casting a bad guy as Latino or Black. Hirschfeld added that without a balance of representations of "good" Latinos versus "bad" Latinos, there is a heightened concern of implications of stereotypes.

Anita Hollander expressed that she has been encouraged that change has been happening for disabled actors, but just two weeks ago had an audition cancelled solely based on the casting director learning about her disability, without asking questions about her abilities. She emphasized that there are 57 million disabled Americans who are not being represented in the media.

Christine Toy Johnson spoke of how "in the past, exclusion in the industry has put the onus on the actors, inferring that we're not good enough to be on TV, we're not good enough to be on stage - but I'm happy to see that this new generation of actors is not accepting that." She also stressed that "we still need to work harder than everyone else just to be taken seriously, so you've got to keep training and stay at the top of your game."

Christopher Roberts said, "everything is possible, until proven impossible but even then you can find a way." Being what he called "the three B's big, black and blind," he emphasized that "you are the first, best and last advocate of your craft." He encouraged actors "to create your own work, have the heart of an artist and the mind of a businessperson." In closing, Hirschfeld agreed, "there is an incredible opportunity to create your own content and bypass the agents. Have a website. The internet is the great equalizer."

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