THESPIANS: Make your voice heard.

That was a common theme throughout the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Crash Course workshop at Thespian Nation Live, the International Thespian Society’s first multistate virtual chapter festival.

Hosted by the 2020-21 International Thespian Officers (ITO), the workshop provided a safe space for students of different races, abilities, and backgrounds to share their experiences and desire to improve representation and access in school theatre — and the theatre world at large. With ITO chair Isabelle Snyder and ITO Maura Toole as workshop moderators, a panel of students and educators discussed why inclusion matters, and what students can do to drive positive change. The students:

  • Nazarene Campodonico, Troupe 5120, Salem High School in Georgia
  • Lena Dougherty, Troupe 8938, Wildwood Catholic High School in New Jersey
  • Rosanna Gao, Troupe 7486, Great Neck South High School in New York
  • Paris Manzanares, Troupe 3183, Hanford High School in Washington
  • Hannah Sasek, Troupe 632, Canby Union High School in Oregon
  • Mara Sims, Troupe 6944, Columbus School for Girls in Ohio

Here’s what they had to say about representation and affecting change.

Why representation matters

Inclusion starts with representation. When you see yourself represented onstage or offstage, it opens your mind to those possibilities for yourself. And seeing diversity helps you understand others’ experiences.

“Not seeing characters who have disabilities in theatre makes it harder to relate to [disabled people],” said Hannah Sasek, who has physical disabilities and identifies as non-cisgender. “People need to realize that other people exist.”

“There have been a lot of times when resources aren’t available you have to take it into your own hands,” said ITO Lena Dougherty, who wrote about her experience as a hard-of-hearing actor in her winning Democracyworks essay in 2020. “But that gets tiring.”

How different races and abilities are represented in theatre matters, too. The students discussed the frustration that comes when theatre elevates stereotypes, includes token characters, and focuses on a single dimension of a race.

“There’s so much more to being Black than slavery and the Civil Rights movement. The whole story doesn’t need to be about the minority identity,” said Mara Sims, who’s Black. “Representation is important. Good representation is even more important.”

ITO Paris Manzanares talked about her recent experience in a school play where the school received permission to portray her role as a transgender female — like her — instead of a male. When that news was greeted with applause, she noted that no one would think to cheer if a traditional male role was changed to female or vice versa. “When we tokenize [diverse characters], it kind of ruins it,” she said.

“As children, we need more representation. It starts right here with those of us on this call. We can become the change we wish to see,” said Nazarene Campodonico, who’s Latina.

What you can do

So how do you become that change? The student panelists advise standing up and speaking up.

“The first step is to talk about it and see what we can change. I began a nonprofit called Music for Change to spread positivity,” said Rosanna Gao, who advocates for Asian representation on Broadway. “Write to our Senators. If we are making noise about this issue, change will occur.”

“Change is not going to happen overnight, but you have to have those hard conversations that you wouldn’t usually put yourselves into,” said Dougherty. “Speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves is important.”

And get comfortable with discomfort. “Please know that stuff is going to be hard,” said Sasek. “People in this community are here to support you and we will continue to do this kind of work.”

Sims talked about the unintentional hurt that can come from white people skirting around sensitive questions. “Don’t be afraid to ask,” she said. “If you’re aiming for representation, it’s so much better to ask and pre-empt the damage and harm.”

Finally, don’t stop fighting for change. “Stay mad. Stay passionate. Stay engaged,” said Manzanares.

Want to get involved with ITS diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts? Reach out to the ITO on Instagram. You also can help support underrepresented student leaders by asking friends and family to donate to Broadway Licensing’s Send-A-Leader Diversity Grant program.

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