Fostering Inclusive Practices in Musical Theater Programs

Fostering Inclusive Practices in Musical Theater Programs

Embracing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Performing Arts

As a lifelong lover of musical theater, I’ve always been captivated by the magic that happens when talented performers come together to tell a story through song and dance. The energy, the emotion, the sheer artistry – it’s truly awe-inspiring. But as I’ve grown and evolved, I’ve also become increasingly aware of the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that often plagues the musical theater world.

Too often, the stages are dominated by a narrow representation of identities, perspectives, and experiences. Marginalized communities – whether based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, or any other factor – have long been underrepresented, undervalued, and even outright excluded. And that’s simply not acceptable.

As the Manhattan School of Music’s Cultural Inclusion Initiative so eloquently states, “the mission of the CII is to foster diversity equity and inclusive practices throughout the School.” This sentiment should be echoed and amplified across every single musical theater program and institution. Because the truth is, we’re missing out on so much richness, so much vibrancy, so much potential when we fail to create truly inclusive spaces.

So, how do we go about fostering those inclusive practices? It’s a complex and multifaceted challenge, but one that I believe we’re more than capable of tackling. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Diversifying the Curriculum and Repertoire

One of the most fundamental ways to promote inclusion in musical theater is by diversifying the curriculum and repertoire. For far too long, the canon has been dominated by white, cisgender, able-bodied creators and performers. While these artists have undoubtedly made invaluable contributions to the art form, it’s crucial that we expand our horizons and shine a spotlight on the incredible work being done by marginalized communities.

Ithaca College’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance serves as a shining example of this kind of proactive approach. Their musical theater curriculum “emphasizes diversity, inclusion, and equity,” and they strive to “reflect the diversity of humanity in the stories we tell and the artists we celebrate.”

This might mean incorporating more plays, musicals, and musical styles from non-Western traditions. It could involve commissioning new works from underrepresented composers, lyricists, and book writers. Or it might simply mean ensuring that the classic repertoire is presented through a lens that celebrates and uplifts diverse perspectives.

The key is to constantly challenge the status quo, to seek out new and exciting voices, and to ensure that the stories and artistry being showcased on our stages are as rich and multifaceted as the world we live in.

Fostering Inclusive Casting Practices

Of course, diversifying the curriculum and repertoire is only the first step. We also need to ensure that our casting practices are truly inclusive and equitable. Far too often, marginalized performers are overlooked, undervalued, or pigeonholed into limited roles that reinforce harmful stereotypes.

As Time Spinosa, the Director of Leadership at the Sphinx Organization, eloquently states, “Diversity in the arts is not just about who is on stage, it’s about who is in the room, who is in the leadership, who is in the boardroom, who is making the decisions.” In other words, inclusion needs to be woven into every aspect of the production process, from the initial auditions to the final casting decisions.

This might mean implementing blind auditions to mitigate unconscious biases. It could involve actively seeking out and recruiting performers from underrepresented communities. Or it might simply mean being intentional about the types of roles and characters that are being written and cast.

Ultimately, the goal should be to create a level playing field where all performers, regardless of their background or identity, have an equal opportunity to showcase their talents and bring their unique perspectives to the stage.

Cultivating Inclusive Rehearsal and Production Environments

But the work doesn’t stop there. Even once the casting is complete, we need to ensure that the rehearsal and production environments themselves are truly inclusive and welcoming. This means creating spaces where all participants feel safe, respected, and empowered to bring their full selves to the creative process.

At the Musical Theater Center, we’ve made it a priority to foster these kinds of inclusive environments. We start by providing comprehensive training on topics like unconscious bias, microaggressions, and allyship. We also encourage open and honest dialogue, where everyone feels empowered to share their thoughts, concerns, and experiences without fear of judgment or retaliation.

Additionally, we’ve implemented a range of practical measures to support and uplift our diverse cast and crew. This might include things like ensuring that rehearsal and performance spaces are fully accessible, providing gender-neutral restrooms, or offering mental health resources and support services.

The key is to continuously assess and refine our practices, always striving to create an environment where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued. Because when we do that, the magic of musical theater truly has the power to transform and inspire.

Elevating Diverse Voices and Perspectives

Of course, fostering inclusive practices in musical theater programs is about more than just the internal workings of our institutions. It’s also about elevating diverse voices and perspectives, both on and off the stage.

This might mean partnering with community organizations and outreach programs to engage underrepresented populations and provide them with access to high-quality musical theater training and performance opportunities. It could involve hosting panels, workshops, and masterclasses featuring a diverse array of industry professionals, from composers and choreographers to directors and designers.

As the Manhattan School of Music’s Cultural Inclusion Initiative has demonstrated, these kinds of initiatives can have a profound impact. By bringing together a wide range of voices and perspectives, we not only enrich the creative process, but we also inspire and empower the next generation of musical theater artists and leaders.

But the work doesn’t stop there. We also need to ensure that these diverse voices and perspectives are amplified and celebrated, both within our institutions and in the broader cultural discourse. This might mean actively promoting the work of marginalized artists, or using our platforms to shine a spotlight on the unique challenges and experiences of underrepresented communities.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a musical theater landscape that is truly reflective of the world we live in – one that celebrates and uplifts the full spectrum of human diversity and creativity.

Staying Accountable and Committed to Progress

Of course, fostering inclusive practices in musical theater programs is not a one-time event or a box to be checked. It’s an ongoing, ever-evolving process that requires continuous self-reflection, learning, and growth.

That’s why it’s so important for us to stay accountable and committed to making progress, even in the face of challenges and setbacks. We need to be willing to have difficult conversations, to confront our own biases and blindspots, and to continuously evaluate and refine our practices.

And crucially, we need to be transparent about our successes and failures, sharing our learnings and best practices with the broader community. Because by doing so, we can inspire and empower others to join us in this important work.

After all, the stakes are high. When we fail to create truly inclusive spaces in the musical theater world, we don’t just exclude and marginalize certain communities – we also deprive ourselves and our audiences of the full richness and vibrancy that diversity brings to the art form.

But when we do get it right, the results can be truly transformative. By fostering inclusive practices, we create spaces where all artists can thrive, where all stories can be told, and where the full power of musical theater to inspire, uplift, and transform can be fully unleashed.

So, let’s commit to this work, together. Let’s be bold, be brave, and be relentless in our pursuit of a more inclusive, equitable, and just musical theater landscape. Because the future of this art form – and the world it reflects – depends on it.

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