Michael Weber is the artistic director of Porchlight Music Theatre.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s IN THE HEIGHTS cast at a recent rehearsal. Photo by Michelle Leatherby
In this 4-part feature, PerformInk continues its INSIDE series and takes you behind the scenes of Porchlight’s production of IN THE HEIGHTS through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.
By Michael Weber
Porchlight Music Theatre has been asked by PerformInk to provide four blogs on our upcoming production of IN THE HEIGHTS, running September 9 – October 16 at Stage 773. We are grateful for the opportunity from PeformInk, a long-standing advocate for the theatre community in sharing information about not only what is happening on stage, but also backstage. In this first blog, we would like to share our recent response to conversations about the casting of the production that was previously available on our social outlets, and to further provide a formal statement.
We posted the following response to continue the conversation on Facebook:
“To our colleagues in the Chicago theatre community, please know that we at Porchlight Music Theatre have been intently listening to and have clearly received the messages of concern regarding our upcoming production of IN THE HEIGHTS.
The thoughts that have been expressed are accepted with great seriousness and consideration, and we humbly wish to contribute to this needed conversation.
In the casting of IN THE HEIGHTS, as with all productions at Porchlight, we did not invite nor require potential employees to state their racial self-identification as part of our casting and hiring process. All actors who attended were considered based solely on the content of their audition.
Our continual objective is to create and encourage an environment of inclusion in all our work here at Porchlight Music Theatre.
Moving forward, we are committed to expanding our efforts in regard to inclusion and representation as well as furthering our relationships with the diverse talent and institutions that make up the Chicago theatre community.”
We wish to elaborate on the above response with this expanded statement.
We at Porchlight Music Theatre, as a company and as individuals, are deeply committed to being inclusive in all aspects of the organization. We acknowledge and apologize to the Chicago theatre community and the Latinx community as a whole for disappointment in the hiring of our IN THE HEIGHTS cast and production team, and for frustration that has been caused by the slowness of our fuller public response. We agree that we could have done a better job in making a public statement more quickly. We have been carefully paying attention to the conversations and assimilating them with the utmost consideration. During this time we have also been actively implementing many of the constructive ideas and suggestions that have been offered to us through social media and by email.
From the beginning, our casting approach was to hire an acting company that genuinely represented the community of characters as described in the play. We advertised in a transparent way with the intention of especially inviting actors who identify as Latinx to audition. There was an extremely large turnout, including many actors who had never auditioned at Porchlight before.
As is common knowledge, in the casting process we found ourselves at the heart of the challenge of how to hire a potential employee without crossing legal or privacy boundaries that would result in someone being denied employment based solely on their race. We found ourselves at the epicenter of the debate, “how can you know for sure when you cannot ask?”
There has been much conversation around the suggestion to do research and “ask around.” Prior to auditions, we did reach out to several noted Latinx artistic leaders in the community for guidance. All suggestions on avenues to post our casting notices were implemented. All suggested actors were invited to attend auditions. And during the audition process, we did ask around regarding actors we were interested in casting, but whose ethnicity we were unsure of, in order to gain as much insight as we could. However, that information often proved inconsistent and thus unreliable, with the only definitive means being to ask the actor directly as a condition of employment.
So, at the moment of decision, when an actor is in front of you, giving an excellent audition, and of whose ethnicity you are just not precisely sure, what do you do? From the information we were able to gather we moved forward with the actors who gave the best auditions, believing we couldn’t absolutely know their definite ethnic heritage without violating a boundary. We know now we could have done better.
Only post hiring did we learn conclusively that not all cast members self-identify as Latinx and that the fine actor playing “Usnavi,” Jack DeCesare, is actually of Italian descent. We want to be very clear that the responsibility for hiring Jack is wholly ours, not his. This excellent young actor merely showed up for an audition. And he did his job well. Our job was to assemble a company for a work that has unique casting responsibilities. We fell short.
Our job was to assemble a company for a work that has unique casting responsibilities. We fell short.
We absolutely stand by the cast and creative team that has been hired for this production, but we recognize that more must be done to assure a truthful dramatic representation of this work, as well as how we at Porchlight approach diverse and representative casting in the future.
To this end we have reached out again to diversity and cultural leaders, including The Chicago Inclusion Project, The Latina and Latino Studies department of Northwestern University, The Latin American and Latino Studies Department at DePaul University, Latinx theatre professionals in our community, and others to obtain suggestions of cultural consultants that we can add to the creative team to assure the best representation of the nuances of the work and the community being represented in it.
Further, we plan to expand our already planned post-performance discussion series by inviting many of the voices who have expressed themselves on social media or to us directly to join in a prominent way in this needed and continuing national conversation. And we welcome this production being a point of example and learning for not only Porchlight but for other arts organizations who, like us, may face the same challenges. We look forward to creating forums where we can move forward, and closer, together.
IN THE HEIGHTS is not only a play about community and gentrification, it is a catalyst for conversation about the way things are and ways they can be better. This production has become a source of valid controversy and conversation in our community and an important source of increased understanding and growth for Porchlight Music Theatre. We acknowledge and accept the response our decisions have caused. We deeply regret that our actions have caused offense to our friends and colleagues in the Chicago theatre community, and beyond. We truly are embracing this as an opportunity to improve our artistic processes and we sincerely hope that we can once again earn your trust and respect as the inclusive organization that we have always striven to be.
We welcome further conversation both in public forums and directly via email.
Porchlight Music Theatre
Michael Weber, Artistic Director
Editor’s note: The controversy over the casting of this production is furthering an important and necessary conversation on the issues of inclusion and representation on our stages. We post the above response from Porchlight for your consideration. As with all INSIDE series guest blogs, the opinions expressed in it are not necessarily the opinions of PerformInk or its editors. We chose IN THE HEIGHTS well in advance because of the importance of this issue in particular. Ultimately, Porchlight and PerformInk mutually decided not to continue the series.