As a writer of musicals, I am often drawn to books or written stories for inspiration. My first show Tales of Olympus was based on Greek mythology, my second show The Song of the Nightingale used a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale as its source material, and my last show was a musical adaptation of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. My next two projects also pull their inspiration from books. Books are the most appealing source material for me because, unlike visual media such as film, there isn’t already an idea of what the universe of the story should look like. Even though vivid illustrations might accompany certain written stories, for me they serve primarily as a starting point for what a theatrical adaptation of that work could look like.
Looking at the season line-ups of many non-profit TYA companies in America, it is clear that books and written stories are the source of most of the work that we produce. This makes sense because our audiences often want to see something that is familiar, even beloved, on our stages. And yet, oddly enough, this is part of the problem we face as theatres trying to embrace multiculturalism. Earlier this year, I heard a KQED Forum discussion on the topic of diversity in children’s books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that of the 3200 children’s books that were published in 2013, only 6% featured a character of color. Read that again: 6%. This does not reflect the diversity of America. This means that books from which TYA companies want to create new works skew towards the ethnic majority in our culture. If only 6% of children’s books feature characters of color, then that percentage will most likely be transferred to our stages.
This troubles me for two reasons. One: It limits the level of empathy that we can introduce to children. Two: It keeps children who don’t identify as the belonging to the majority in the realm of the “other.”
I would argue, though, that this is only as true as the diversity of stories we choose to tell. If the stories we tell in our theatres are “about-the-majorities-for-the-majorities,” we are missing opportunities for children to relate to cultures other than their own.
On the first point, theatre companies of all stripes tout empathy as one of the most important experiences we offer our audiences. I would argue, though, that this is only as true as the diversity of stories we choose to tell. If the stories we tell in our theatres are “about-the-majorities-for-the-majorities,” we are missing opportunities for children to relate to cultures other than their own. The depth of empathy we encourage them to experience will be limited to the culture they already know. If, however, we give them an opportunity to relate to characters from different cultures, it can help broaden their knowledge of the human experience. This not only teaches them the richness of cultures that exist outside their own, but that the people within those cultures experience hopes, obstacles and emotions just like any other human being.
On the second point, if our stories remain in the realms of the majorities, those who do not self-identify as part of those majorities are unintentionally sent the message that they are an outlier, an “other.” They merely get to observe the stories of the “main culture” on our stages, but are not encouraged to think of themselves as the leads in our stories. Personal example: As an Asian American, I have grappled with feeling like a career in musical theatre was not an option for me. There were (and still are) very few examples of musicals about or starring Asian American men, and musical theatre’s pantheon of writers remains overwhelmingly white. Thankfully, I have forged a career for myself despite this dearth of predecessors. But I know first-hand how a lack of seeing myself on-stage led to a profound internal struggle about what I “was allowed” to aim for and accomplish.
One thing we do to address this is to practice open casting, where characters who are white in book-form are played on-stage by actors of a different ethnicity. While I think this is a great way of getting multicultural representation in our casts, it does not get at the question of “Whose stories are we telling?” In light of this question, the idea of open casting merely becomes a short-term solution to an on-going problem.
In order to see multiculturalism more accurately reflected on our TYA stages, we need to start by supporting multicultural story-generators, namely, writers. Again, TYA organizations have already begun doing this by commissioning new works written by playwrights and composers from a variety of backgrounds (myself included). But I think we can go even one step further. TYA organizations should be actively supporting multicultural children’s book authors, since they often provide the source materials for TYA writers to adapt.
There are at least two ways TYA producers can do this.
- Support the development and promotion of diverse children’s book authors. The good news is that there is already a movement within the children’s book community toward promoting multiculturalism (check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign). We could partner with such movements knowing that supporting them will directly affect the stories that will come to our stages.
- Focus in on that 6% of stories that actually featured a character of color. Get to know these authors who are already creating multicultural stories. Find which of their stories excite us, and adapt them into new TYA works. Express to their publishers and/or agents that we are interested in seeing the future work of these authors.
I know the problem of bringing more multicultural stories to our stages can seem insurmountable. But I don’t think it’s about solving the problem in one fell swoop. It’s finding what small steps we can take to eventually find traction toward solving the problem in the long-term. And a very tangible step we can all take is supporting the creation of multicultural children’s books, the birthplace of so many of our amazing works.