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Former St. Louis theater head examines 'tricky' question of race and casting in 2018

Kathleen Sitzer plays Mom, Sarajane Alverson plays Rossi and Erin Renee Roberts plays Skillit in New Jewish Theatre's production of "Raging Skillet" in October 2018.
Eric Woolsey
Kathleen Sitzer plays Mom, Sarajane Alverson plays Rossi and Erin Renee Roberts plays Skillit in New Jewish Theatre's production of "Raging Skillet" in October 2018.

In June, theatergoers in St. Louis for a national conference booed a white actor playing an Asian character in The Muny’s production of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” 

For local theater professionals, including recently retired New Jewish Theatre company director Kathleen Sitzer, it was a watershed moment of a sometimes-frustrating year. In theater circles, the year ends with local decision-makers also talking about the dearth of women and people of color in leadership roles, and the impact of emerging theater companies.

The issues raised by Muny demonstrators will reverberate into the coming year and beyond. The protests have many theater professionals trying to figure out how to be fair and ethical when thinking about the ethnicity of characters and the actors who play them, Sitzer said.

“It’s a very tricky subject,” said Sitzer, who led New Jewish for 22 years.

More than a dozen theater artists decried the portrayal of a character from Burma — now Myanmar — in a segment from “The King and I.” They also said other aspects of the musical at The Muny amounted to cultural appropriation.

Theater companies should try to match the race of the actor with that of the character, Sitzer said. Reaching out to specific communities is key, but she said companies don’t always get the response they’re hoping for.

“If no one walks through the door, what are you going to do — not do the show?” Sitzer said. “You have to go with who's the best actor for the role.”

Who’s at the helm?

Members of St. Louis theater organizations are also discussing a lack of diversity at the top of most major companies.

Four major theater organizations in St. Louis chose new top executives in 2018, including The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The Rep named Hana Sharif, an African-American woman, as its new artistic director. But the others are white men.

In May, Shakespeare Festival named Tom Ridgely, who is white, as its new executive producer. On social media, local theater professionals grumbled about the position not going to Jennifer Wintzer, who served as interim director after Rick Dildine’s departure as festival head.

“I think Tom Ridgely is a great choice,” Sitzer said. “But there was also a tremendous groundswell, at least within the theater community, for Jenny Wintzer to get that job.”

In October, the festival did promote Wintzer to the post of associate artistic director and Linda Schulte to another leadership position, director of external affairs.

Edward Coffield, who is white, took the reins at New Jewish Theatre this year after Kathleen Sitzer retired.  Sitzer is happy with her successor, with whom she worked for many years. Still, the overall picture of local arts leadership needs to better reflect the community, she said.

“Sort of like the #MeToo movement. It was time for that to happen, and it's time for the arts community to get on board with more women and more people of color,” Sitzer said.

‘Vying for the same people’

Another issue of importance this year to the theater community is an increasing number of new companies, according to Sitzer. An enlarging theater scene is healthy but also produces growing pains, she said.

“There’s a finite number of people going to theater,” Sitzer said. “So we’re all vying for the same people, whether it’s audience — or staff.”

Actors are also in greater demand, Sitzer said. But increased opportunity can make a city more appealing.

“When I look at a cast, there are often a lot of people I've never heard of,” Sitzer said. “So, it could mean we're attracting new people into the arts community in St. Louis, so that's good, too.”

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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