I pitched the column Arts Reach with the intention to help make a difference in amplifying the important work of activism occurring in the field of Entertainment. My goal is to create a space for artists and administrators alike to dive deep into the social issues surrounding the Industry, highlight exceptional community engagement and social innovation, explore Industry inequities and examine how they are being addressed, and to share insider insights on socio-economical shifts.
In my now almost two-year tenure at Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC) in Salt Lake City, Utah, I have been fortunate to work with many wonderful humans who are owning the notion that if we’re going to make positive change, we must do it together. We must listen. We must hear. We must act.
Over the past year, more than ever, people are finally speaking up against injustices, taking a stand, naming names— particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion, or rather lack-there-of. These important conversations are making movement, but it’s going to take the Industry as a whole to #ExposeInequality, and then commit to enacting the work vital in ensuring that composition and culture is not just recognized and reflected on our stages and sets, but embraced and celebrated as the strength it is.
I thought it not only fitting, but necessary to start with a conversation on the local front. So, I approached two incredible individuals, with who I’ve had the privilege to get to know through my work in the Theatre. They have important stories to tell, and urgent messages to convey.
Latoya Cameron and Tito Smeath-Livas are eclectically impressive performers, not to mention wonderful people. Each day, they live on frontline, enduring what it is to be a BIPOC artist in today’s world. I’m fortunate to be sharing some of their accounts, hopes, and dreams for a better tomorrow.
Chris: Toya, Tito: you're both remarkable artists. What was the moment you knew this Industry is where you wanted to be?
Tito: For me, I was really shy growing up. I'm sure Latoya was the same way. You'll find that typically people who get involved in theatre do so because it creates a space to express themselves. I was very shy. People were like, “do you speak?” In my Sophomore year of high school, I joined choir, and having heard me sing, the choir director asked, “Tito, can you please audition for Grease (which was the school’s musical)?" And I was like…"no…nope, not doing to do it!” He pushed back and said, “please, we know you can sing. We want you to be part of this.” So, I agreed, so long as I was in the background. I didn’t want to sing. I didn’t want people look at me. Do you want to know what happened? I ended up being cast in a leading role. And as soon as I stepped on stage, it occurred to me that I have an option to be up here. I was talented. And I could express emotion. I realized that I can be somebody else on stage, and that was such a cathartic feeling. I was hooked. To this day, I’m an introvert with extrovert tendencies. I know how to turn it on. But, as soon as I’m done, I’m exhausted because putting myself out there takes a lot of effort.
Latoya: I can relate to that. I am still a very shy person—very introverted, with extroverted tendencies—depending on whom I'm around. If I feel comfortable with people, I'll start to open up as if I was an extrovert. But, actually, I'm not. Once I trust people, I start to feel like I can open up. As a young girl, two films caught my eye: Forrest Gump and Baz Luhemann’s Romeo + Juliet. It was the contrast of simple honesty in the former, and the bold choices of the latter. Romeo +Juliet made me fall in love with Shakespeare, like hardcore. I finally understood Shakespeare and I didn’t before.
I was 14 and in math class when I first decided to give acting a try. The math teacher, oddly enough, was also the drama teacher. I told her I wanted to be in her drama class and, she was so confused because I was so shy. I never talked. I told her that she said no I would cry, and/or I’d even fake cry, right there in front of her to prove how much I wanted to be in that class. It was the boldest move I’d ever made because I wanted to give acting a try so badly. Eventually, she let me take the drama class. Fast forward to next year, and I was in a different drama class with a different drama teacher. It was really a very different league. The teacher assigned us intense scene work like Tom’s monologue from The Glass Menagerie and St. Joan’s monologue from Shaw’s Joan of Arc. I remember being so scared out of my mind, shaking and sweating. I thought “what did I get myself into? I don't know what this is.” I felt foolish and didn’t even notice that when she asked who wanted to go next, my hand had already shot up! I got on stage and I remember performing my first monologue, and that was the very first time that I heard what my voice sounds like. Before that moment, I didn't feel empowered to speak. Connecting with the character gave me the power to be unapologetic in my own voice for the first time. That was the exact moment I knww this is what I wanted to do with my life. It’s also the moment I realized that "the place" theatre took me would be somewhere that would continue to shape me in being more connected with my own power and my humaneness to the world.
Chris: I love that. Let's talk a little about cultural diversity. The silent barrier is giving some way towards being broken through and there's now quite a bit of work that needs to be done. You both have been active and vocal in the community about that. You both have stories to share. Will you each share one of those stories on inequality that you've lived through here, locally?
Tito: It's hard to pinpoint one incident because it's been a lifelong battle. I can’t speak for Toya, but whenever I go into an audition, regardless of what the role is, I go in fully prepared. I do my research to create the character and by the time I audition, I feel like I really know that character. Unfortunately, most of the time that preparation doesn't matter because I don't look like what the casting directors and artistic teams consider “the lead role.” And this is totally separated from how well I actually do in the audition. For instance, even when I feel I did really well…actually I take that back, even when I know I did really well I’m often overlooked because of the color of my skin. Chris, I cannot tell you how much I prepare, because I feel like as a person of color, I have to over-prepare to show people I can play the role. Yet in the end, it doesn’t even matter because I don’t look the part. Here’s an example. I was at a show audition with a whole bunch of other people auditioning in the room.
Chris: Are you saying there were a group of other performers in the room with you as you were auditioning?
Tito: Yeah. Crazy, right? And we all watched each other's audition, which was very odd. I was very last. I finished my song. I felt great about it. All the other performers applauded me, and the people behind the table were like, "that was amazing!" Guess what? Nothing came of it, and the character that, or rather the person that they ended up casting was a white guy who had deep connections with that theatre.
Chris: Was this for a union call?
Tito: It sure was. This was indeed for an Equity role. And the reality is, for that particular Theatre, what they did was just a “normal thing” that happens, specifically, here. It happens almost always here, in Utah. I mean, it's happened to me all over the United States, but here it happens far more often, specifically if it's a traditional show. Many of the local theatres want to replicate what’s been done before. So they go “ let's do that show the same way it was done on Broadway!” There’s such a lack of vision from some of these theatres in exploring what can be done differently. So many of our local theatres want the person to look exactly like the person that has always been cast in the role. In many cases that’s "white," because that’s how these musicals and plays were cast. And this is just life for us. As a result, I will always go in audition for a role that I am not right for to hopefully try to change people's minds. To date, I have not ever been cast in a role that wasn't specifically for a person of color, if that makes sense.
Chris: It does, and it shouldn’t.
Tito: Even when the character description doesn’t describe the character as a white person, these local theatres cast the roles white—and of course there are exceptions in race-related shows where certain casting is done intentionally to make a social point. But, when the story has nothing to do with characters having a certain cultural background, it doesn’t make any sense. My entire career has kind of been that way: I am a person of color and therefore that is the lane I need to be in.
Chris: How have you felt that impact?
Tito: Obviously, it's a frustrating feeling to be constantly told that you're good at what you do, but you “just don't fit.” I don't know if you know this, Chris, but as Toya knows, and as Karen (Azenberg) knows, I'm not shy about voicing things. Especially these days, I'll say to the casting and artistic team, “so, what didn't fit? What was wrong?” I already know the answer. In this industry, particularly as person of color, if you want to succeed, you tell yourself that you need to just have a thick skin and a ridiculous amount of confidence in yourself and your abilities. Though the truth is, we know that it has nothing to do with whether or not we're talented. We know we can bring something new, and Lord forbid, different, to the role. What it comes down to is how you look. So, when I don't get cast in a role, it does nothing to my confidence. All it does is to reiterate the fact that this industry is still based on appearance.
Chris: How about your experiences, Toya?
Latoya: I can 100% agree with Tito because going into rooms that don't want you is, well, an interesting experience. It’s almost like you being there is a revolutionary act. I go in and think, oh, no, you're going to see me. Today I don't care if you want me here or not, there's a reason why it's called an open call. I'm going to show up for the call.
Chris: What do you do to mentally prepare?
Latoya: I always try to see the bigger picture. I have to keep visualizing that picture, which is “I showed up for something bigger than myself.” It helps to know that I’m not going to be the only person fighting the battle. Through my example, I hope it will inspire others to do the same.
Chris: Has it?
Latoya: It has. Students will come up to me, and they know who I am. It kind of freaks me out, actually. And these students will tell me they’ve heard me discuss what I’m trying to do by leading as an example. They’re following that example. These young people of color are showing up for auditions, even when the breakdown is typed, they show up.
It’s kind of ridiculous that we need to spoon-feed people to see us, and to “see us.” And yet, that's kind of what we're (society's) at: we can't walk without figuring out how to crawl. If a role resonates with me and I want to play that part to be in that story, I’m going to show up for the audition. Now understand that not a lot of people feel like they can do that because of the nature of those rooms, where the doors are shut on people of color, over and over. But, as people of color, we have to show up anyway.
Chris: Will you share with us an example of something that occurred in your professional life made you want to change careers?
Latoya: There was a production of a musical, here in Utah, which had a casting call for a role was specific to a Black actor, and the role happened to be female. And would you believe it, despite the amazing talent of so many black female artists who auditioned, they cast someone who is white. And this particular Theatre had double casts for each show they produce, and in neither of those casts was the role given to a Black artist. Chris, it made no sense. And with that unfortunate "casting standard" here, where minority roles are essentially, for the most part, what we have a chance at booking, that previously mentioned experience was unreal. And there are many, many, many experiences where I've walked into a room where I was like, “okay, I really want to do this show and yes, this role is being type cast Black, but it’s a role that says something, I want to give the role a voice from me perspective.” Then fine. But, I’m not joking when I say that some of these local theatres will specifically call you up and ask if you can come in for an audition for a role because it is blatantly being typecast. Those auditions I won’t show up for anymore. That audition I'd just talked about was exactly the kind of audition where I was called in by the Theatre because I “looked the part.” And then they cast the role white! That's not only disrespectful of my time, it’s insulting to all of the Black women who auditioned for the role. There’s a lot of hypocrisy for doing something like that and yet not seeing women of color for Sally from Cabaret or Cathy from The Last 5 Years, where neither of those roles are specific to race.
Chris: I’ll actually take that a step further to say that regarding Cabaret, in Europe during that time, a person of color as Sally would totally make sense. Europe was light years ahead of the US, and interestingly that casting choice would expand the very sad reality of the breath of genocide that occurred under Nazi Germany.
Tito: Right? It's always interesting to me the defense people will create when it favors their opinion. So, like they'll say, “well, traditionally this role is cast is Black but it doesn't say that anywhere in the script.” And yet they’ll then cast the role white. However, when a traditionally white-cast role is inquired by someone who is BIPOC, the answer is “oh no, that role has to be cast this way.” One contradicts the other, and there’s no acknowledgment of it!
Latoya: It’s traumatic. And sure, we get to appear in Big River, Hairspray, and Mockingbird. But, we’re just amplifying those stories of struggle versus celebrating the culture, celebrating what it is to be human, or celebrating what it is to be a person of color in America. We always have to go back to “the struggle.” I don’t want to do that anymore.
Tito: We got into acting so that we could leave that struggle behind. We struggle every day in this country. We want to feel other things on the stage. Sure, there are times when we want to have an emotional and cathartic feeling on stage. But, a lot of the time we just want to get up and sing and dance and be happy—just like everybody else on the stage. We're not given those opportunities.
Chris: We’re going to get very vulnerable. What I’m hearing is in far too many instances people of color within this community are looked at as “specialty acts,” essentially because of the color of skin. Let’s take that narrative out of the local and bring it to the national stage and the world theatre. Does it change?
Tito: Not at all. There’s a BIPOC Facebook Toya and I are part of that really proves this unfortunate reality. Daily, there are posts about our experiences from going to a theatre, listening to a director talk and paying lip service to representation and then…nothing. A lot of theatres are claiming that they’re "doing the work," and because they claim it, people are taking it at face value. Are some theatres doing the work. Yes. Are enough? No. Are the theatres doing the work following though? Some. But, some isn’t good enough when you’ve committed to change.
Chris: There's been a long-standing narrative, a nasty and growing narrative of hostility towards the BIPOC community in this country. For the first time in modern history the victimization is really reaching the masses through the advent of social media. What’s video-captured is there for the whole globe to see. Those who are brave enough to speak out on behalf of the injustices are becoming targets themselves. It's a scary time, and it's particularly a scary time, if you're living it. What does that look like for you on a daily basis?
Tito: It's this juxtaposition of emotion. Before it became so public, I knew I wasn't the only one experiencing this, but I still feel alone in it. So, to hear and see all of these other people experiencing the same thing, it is both comforting and also that much more distressing. No one wants to be alone in something like this. It’s also fills me with rage because why in this century are we still doing this to each other? As far as our work as artists goes, we want to heal! Not all people understand that. Yes, we have an agenda. The agenda is Equality. As far as agendas go, I think that’s an okay one to have.
Latoya: This reminds me of when Tonya Pickins spoke out about her experience in Mother Courage. She has worked in the theatre for as long as I can remember, and it was so unsettling to see something like that happen to someone who is so brilliant. She was so disrespected. And what did she do? She told the truth. She exposed bad behavior. She exposed racist behavior. And she put it all on the line in a statement to reveal that behavior, so that it could be corrected. Was it? Not one bit, and instead the Industry basically added her name to a “do not hire” list. She was willing to stake it all for the bigger picture. For her that choice was bigger than her career, and bigger than her on the stage. Because she made that choice, she was labeled a threat.
I’ve definitely been targeted. This year, I hit moment of being like, "I cannot be in spaces like that anymore, and watch other people of color be treated like that, too." The moment that our Industry made marginalization a part of its business, is the moment that it lost its soul.
Chris: That’s a great segue to what’s next. We’ve talked a lot about experiences. Now let’s talk about actions. We’ve skimmed the surface regarding theatres, that over this past in this past year in particular, have started to wise up and take a stance on inclusion and providing better access. Of course, as we also touched on, are the efforts genuine or presented solely at face value? In general, many people are scared of change. Change takes people out of their comfort zone. We're in the middle of a pandemic. There's fear of uncertainty. What I truly believe we're (society's) missing is there's an opportunity we may never had again in our living history. That opportunity is to really pause and rethink the pathway forward. What does the authentic change look like? What do you want to see theatre organizations, arts institutions, and arts leaders do more of in the future? What do you think it's going to take to get there?
Tito: I'm going to go backwards. What it's going to take? What it's going to take from theatre organizations to make the right changes is the realization that they have to do the work themselves. They have been leaving it to us, the people of color, to show up to do the work to prove that we deserve to be there; to show them that we are made for the role. But in their mindset, “we're not right.” And yet, they're saying it's our job to make them change their minds. No, it's the theatres job to open that door and accept the change. Theatre organizations need to take on that responsibility and understand that the work needs to be intentional. The authentic change comes from doing the work and minding the intention that goes with the work. And what does that change look like? In the end, it shouldn’t look like anything, because there would be a true commitment to diversity on the stage. That would be the new normal. And it would eventually be so common standard practice that eventually nobody would notice at all. Inequality wouldn’t be a thing anymore. That’s the day I live for.
Latoya: I have to sit on the authentic change part of the question because honestly, Chris, I feel the thing is, this is this kind of work is forever. Like, it's forever and I think being we need to be honest with that. I don’t think there’s one answer for how we start or specifically what happens first, because it’s going to take trial and error. I always say "when you make a mistake, take the note and do better next time." This needs to be done while keeping consciously aware of what powerful position you may be in and making the efforts to implement those changes based on the change you can help cultivate. You have to know that you are going to mess up, and then when you get the feedback, take the feedback. Don’t push back. Don’t make excuses. Arts organizations and leaders just need to take the feedback, then reassess, and do something better.
Another issue that also corresponds with cultural inequity, is pay inequity. Too many arts organizations and their leaders do not pay livable wages to their artists. There are no shows without artists. It’s a crime. That work needs to happen simultaneously.
Chris: I completely agree. There’s often great disparity in Theatre. I’ll go so far to say that the Industry’s greatest claim no capital is human capital. It’s a terrible practice. That's a major driving factor for burn out across the board from performers to directors to designers to administrators to musicians.
Latoya: Musicians need to be also be reassessed. They really get it bad.
Chris: Oh, I know. In my last job, I worked with the musicians’ union ensure they were represented and protected on contract. It was one of my last official acts. It’s extraordinary how often the Industry will trim all the wrong corners.
Latoya: Cutting off the nose to spite the face.
Chris: That’s exactly right. And that never benefits any party. Well, not in the longrun at least. And it’s really only the longrun that counts when you’re trying to build towards something.
Latoya: I don’t buy theatres’ excuse to blame the problems on money. It’s like an excuse to allow the intention for change to get lost.
Chris: Right. If you build it, they will come.
Latoya: Intentions only really ever mean something when they’re measurable. If there’s no follow through the intentions are useless. But, here’s the thing: identifying what you want the impact to be first will help inform how you can make those intentions measurable. Then that’s consciously in the forefront of your thinking: “I want to create these roles. I want to create the leadership space for the BIPOC community. I want to go into my community to actually get to know my community— and to actually know the vibe of the community, not just the artists in the community.” Next, we need to reevaluate the educational system, and all of the abuse that Theatre has implemented on all of us to participate in abusive behaviors and allowing them to happen…over and over. As an Industry, we are so trained to say “thank you” and take the abuse, again. That needs to stop immediately. I’ve not only experienced that abuse, but have also been in rooms where I’ve seen it happen. I want to call upon everybody in the Industry to stop that, and if it starts to happen to stand up against it. It happens across the board, and it needs to stop.
Chris: It’s madness, and the other part of this is the abuse that we’ve talked about is almost made into a badge of honor for taking it. For an Industry that talks an awful lot about making the space for change, and prides itself for being so socially conscious, there’s a long ways to still go. The Theatre Industry usually the first to vocalize support for any socially-relevant agenda of the moment. However, in the case of actions speaking louder than words, if Theatre was a politician it would be elected to the office of President in a landslide, and promptly overpromise and under deliver.
Tito: And for people of color, Chris, it’s 20 times worse. We, as people of color, don’t even have the choice. We feel so trapped in taking the abuse because we don’t feel like we are allowed to speak out.
Chris: Like forced to be complicit because otherwise you’re in fear of losing the work?
Tito and Latoya: Yes!
Latoya: I can expand on that. For instance, when a person of color sees a BIPOC-specific unpaid arts internship, we feel forced to take it. To the theatres, it’s them doing us a favor— like indentured servitude is a privilege. But, we take on those type of internships because if we do, we hope our chances to be seen are greater. It makes me sick. Like, if an internship is going to be more than two weeks, please create those opportunities, and pay us. Pay people for the work. Most of the BIPOC people who take these internships have already proven their talent. And guess what? By doing that, what Theatres are really doing is showing they can be more diverse and equitable, and the business is actually going to be more innovative by adding those voices and treating them fairly. The impact would be huge.
Chris: And of course, creating those opportunities pay for themselves. And the dividends are not just financial, but seasoned with the real promise of chang— a promise that’s then being lived. That’s critical.
Tito: It needs to happen. Toya reminded me of something. Something I never shared before, and it upsets me so much that I’m going to share it now. I did two tours with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Knowing that, they asked me if I wanted to be part of this internship program for new actors. I have a BFA in theatre. And remember, I already played two of their tours. The head of the Festival at that time, who, thank goodness, is no longer there, said: “I hear you, but do you want to be part of this program? It's going to be amazing. You're going to work behind the scenes! You're going to teach classes! And you're going to be in small parts on the main stage!” So there was this list of things that they wanted me to do. The program would go from April until September. Do you know what they wanted to pay me? $1,000. Now, Chris, that's not even the worst part. They, who offered me this internship— me, a college graduate, from a good university, with a BFA in Theatre— also offered this internship to six other white college freshmen. Can you imagine my response? I wasn’t going to let that slide. And when I confronted the issue, they responded “okay, we’ll hire you as an actor for the season, instead of the internship.” Great, right? Wrong. Guess how I was treated the entire summer?
Chris: And that only happened—being brought on as a seasonal actor— because you spoke up about it?
Tito: Oh, if only it was that easy. We went back and forth about it. I had to spell it out how what they were doing was wrong. And when they finally agreed to hire me as a legit actor, I was on their blacklist. They didn’t engage with me. And they told other staff members and creative team members not to only engage with me when necessary for the productions. I felt isolated. I felt gaslit. I was hurt. I’m still very much hurt. And angry.
Chris: This is a prime example of you "doing the work" for a theatre, and then that theatre not taking on the accountability to just see the situation as it was really; to put themselves in your shoes. Instead, "Tito’s a threat" because he questioned the very questionable nature of the internship.
Tito: Yeah, that's it exactly. “We hired Tito because we need to save face.” It was the worst experience of my life. I’ll never forget how they treated me and what it felt like to be such an outsider just for voicing my truth.
Chris: I’m so sorry, Tito. That’s inexcusable, and I’m glad the Festival’s Director is no longer with them. I’m with Toya, that kind of behavior has no place in the world.
Latoya: And to build on that, it’s just not necessary. Who’s it helping? Nobody. It’s just creating more problems.
Chris: As we conclude, is there something you’d each like to leave our readers with as a takeaway from our conversation?
Latoya: Stand up, show up, and speak out, and be damned for your career, because at the end of the day, why would you want to be fighting for something that isn't going to be ensuring everybody can be at the table. And if you don't want to be at the table, then assist those who need help to create their own table to sit at. Why not? There’s enough space in this world for everybody to create, to be a part of it, and to participate in it. Help create the space, and bring others along for the journey.
Tito: I would say, don't be a patron of institutions that aren't committing themselves to the work of inclusion and equality. The goal is equality on stage. Don't be part of the problem. Be part of the solution.
ABOUT LATOYA CAMERON (she/her/hers): Latoya Cameron is an actress/singer/writer. Growing up painfully shy, she found her voice and presence through acting and hasn't looked back. Now she has been performing professionally for more than 15 years and is a member of Actors Equity. She has performed at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC), Plan-B Theatre Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, to name a few. She made her New York debut at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2012 and has performed at the Denver Center of the Performing Arts. She has always hoped that Theatre would be a place that could unite and cause positive change; however, the horrific traumatic experiences in America toward black and brown people and bodies have widen her perspective once again. She has refocused her attention on making theatre a place for us ALL. Along with performing, she is currently working on making theatre spaces more equitable for historically excluded communities who have been violently silenced, on multiple levels, by systemic oppression and racism. She has joined the Salt Lake Acting Company staff as their EDI Dramaturg and is already diving in at the deep. She knows it's past time for this work and will continuously hold those who need to be held accountable to do better. She is committed to evolving, asking questions, and to learn so she can best serve her community.
ABOUT TITO SMEATH-LIVAS (he/him/his): To begin with Tito is a fierce advocate for inclusion in the theatre and film community- even when, and especially if, those people perpetuating a history of a lack of inclusion are a person of color...because yes, it happens, and yes, we should absolutely call it out. If we cannot hold ourselves accountable to the standard which we hold those not of color, how can we ever expect to be taken seriously by those that continue to exclude us? Let us lead by example. Beyond that, Tito has been acting in theatre for over 20 years and film/tv/commercial for over a decade. He is a member of Actors Equity and has been lucky enough to perform with such companies as Walt Disney World, Holland America, Princess Cruises, The Public, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC), Plan-B, Salt Lake Acting Company, Utah Opera, and the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, just to highlight a few. He’s also been lead and guest star in a few Hallmark and Lifetime films, as well as guest appeared on Andy Mack and Yellowstone, not to mention a plethora of social media commercials as well as television commercials, the most recent being two nationals for Credit Repair. He’s also a father, a husband, and very close to being a pet hoarder. Is a dog, two cats, two rabbits, five chickens, two geese, a salt water tank, and two ponds of goldfish and koi too much? Kidding, that was rhetorical.