This year has posed some monumental challenges for artists worldwide. The challenges have been so great that considering our careers has almost become a luxury–to be examined after the more essential business of surviving and caring for those we love. It is normal to feel a little lost in your art right now. I know I am. But the trap is to become overwhelmed by the very natural grief that losing projects and artistic homes indefinitely brings. It’s easy for that grief to morph into feelings of “what does any of this matter?”
I don’t know how to navigate this any better than the next person. But I know that in times like these, humanity needs the arts more than ever. And I suspect this time might be a good opportunity to reassess how we as artists want to interact with our world. What stories do we want to tell? What changes need to be made on an individual and an industry level? How can we adapt, not just to survive, but to become more storytellers who are more effective, equitable, progressive?
America has a lot of stories that need to be told right now. If you’ve been following the news at all recently, you’ve seen some of them. I’ve seen a lot of artists who want to help, but get paralyzed, not knowing where to start. So here are some ways we can turn our art into activism.
Educate Yourself First.
Look at your collection of plays, screenplays, books on technique. How many of them were written by POC, women, LGBTQ authors? How many of them tell stories led by voices that aren’t white? To become a well rounded artist, we must be active about the kind of art we consume. Expand your bookshelf, and then take it further. Educate yourself about the experience of actors and industry professionals who don’t look like you. Get involved in movements that advocate for underrepresented voices. If you’re going to be an effective storyteller, remember that you should be well versed in stories that represent the full scope of humanity.
Use Privilege to Advocate.
Learning to recognize what privilege you have can be powerful. Practice advocating for others, and make sure to listen and learn how best to do so. Listen to the experiences of POC actors. Communicate with other actors to identify wage gaps. Notice what stories are being told with casting, costuming, treatment on set. Start insisting on equitable treatment of actors who may have less privilege than you. This can be scary, especially in an industry where actors are often made to feel disposable. But practice makes perfect, and remember, if you are a white actor, or a male actor, or a cisgender actor, there are those who are made to feel more disposable than you.
Wield Leadership Intentionally.
Especially now, when so many theatres and studios are shut down, artists are taking projects into their own hands. As we are writing, plotting, gathering strength and resources for new projects, examine where you can make a difference. Can you partner with social causes? Hire and promote POC voices? Do you have a hand in choosing the kinds of stories you’re telling? Responsibility attends leadership.
Don’t Support Institutions that Don’t Support Diverse Voices.
This is a very tricky one, especially for struggling freelance artists. Not everyone has the luxury to walk away from a gig, any gig. But I bet most of us are able to be more intentional than we have been (myself included). Take a hard look at the theatres and industry professionals you work with. What stories are they promoting? Who are they employing? Are they whitewashing their casts? Define for yourself what professional behavior you are unwilling to support. Use your presence, your work and your dollars to support institutions dedicated to featuring stories told by POC, LGBTQ and women artists. Choices that you make, small and big, will begin to build a career in the direction that feels right.
Tell Important Stories and Support Them.
“Safe” stories make money. Safe stories keep theatres afloat. Safe stories are often white stories. Heteronormative stories. Stories that do not lift the voices of the queer community. White actors and filmmakers, use your voice, your means and your body to fight for the production and promotion of scripts and works written by and featuring POC artists. And be sure to show up as an audience member as well.
Remember as an actor, artist and storyteller, you have a set of skills that make you a valuable activist. Be generous. Makes signs. March. Write. Use music and entertainment to raise awareness and funds. Involve yourself in your community.
The bonus is, when you get used to promoting and advocating for diverse stories you will become a better storyteller and a stronger actor.