[Editor’s note: In 2015, Roberto Alcaraz was invited to speak at the National Congress of Acting Teachers in New York City on the thorny issues of identity and race, and how these issues pertain to acting training. The following article is adapted from that speech. In addition, at our request, Mr. Alcaraz provided several exercises he uses to bring race and identity into the classroom; these can be found at the end of the article.]
y experience working in areas of diversity came in 1991. Really, it was life before that, but I began actually identifying the work when I joined an organization called the National Conference for Christians and Jews, which was founded in 1927 and later became the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ). We were working on the idea of creating models based on dialogue, based on people talking to people. They liked to call it “human relations training,” but it was people talking to people, talking across difference. And talking across difference is huge. Sometimes we think it’s more narrow, the difference between us, but as we talk it gets wider and wider. And that’s a scary thing for some people and they run for the hills: “I can’t have this conversation.” We’re talking, we’re supposed to be getting closer, we’re supposed to be getting to know each other better, but you’re getting angry, you’re getting upset, and I’m getting confused and uncomfortable. So the question for us at NCCJ was: How do we continue the uncomfortable conversation that wants to shut down?
My family came from Mexico, both of my parents, from a really tiny village — you could walk across it in five minutes and still have two minutes to rest on the other side. Really small. It was a pueblo — an ejido they called it, land given to people after the Mexican revolution and it was surrounded by fields. My mother lived on one end of the town and my father lived on the other. They had known each other since they were small, and as adults got married and had my siblings and me, all of us born in the United States. In our family, which was both dysfunctional and very loving, we were taught to be polite and respectful, and, as a young adult, the idea of getting into conversations that didn’t always feel good was a challenge for me. I wanted the other person to feel okay. But when it’s a conversation about difference, it doesn’t go very far if I just keep saying, “Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
So the NCCJ and the difficult conversations it provoked were a wonderful training ground for me as a young man and my time with them has affected my life both as an actor and as a teacher of actors. The idea of work that reflected my story and my experience became very important to me. As a young actor the pieces that I would go out and audition for, that I would want to be a part of, were often ones that told my story or a story that was somehow different from the mainstream — what we call “theatre of color” or “multi-cultural theatre.” These were stories and productions that I could relate to because they existed, in some way, on the margins. They reflected not just aspects I saw in myself, but also how I was seen. I wanted these stories to be told and I wanted these characters to live truthfully. I bucked the stereotypes and one-dimensional characters in hopes of communicating a character that was alive, if one unfamiliar to mainstream America. The results of these projects varied depending on the director, writer, or producer — and on my own skills as a young actor — but what I discovered through them was my willingness to live in the uncomfortable. My desire to engage the character where they were positioned — in life, in family, in society, and often on the margins — came from my work with NCCJ.
ne of the things I do in my classroom that comes from my experience with the NCCJ is establishing guidelines for communication — for talking and doing — because I bring in questions of diversity and with them a vocabulary which the students may or may not be familiar with. I usually begin by asking the students to talk from the “I”. In Los Angeles, as I suspect in most classrooms, the students have a habit of saying, “we need to…” or “we should…” or “we know…” or “well, you know how you don’t want to do this and you….” There’s a lot of “you” and “we”. So I ask them to speak from the “I”: “I feel,” “I think,” “I believe.” And from the start, I talk about terminology, about vocabulary, about words that they might hear me say, words like: “ethnicity,” “race,” “nationality.” I talk about why I use words with “o” and “a” at the end: “Latino,” “Latina,” “Chicano,” “Chicana,” and about the meaning of “Hispanic,” “African American,” “Black,” “Asian,” “Middle Eastern,” “Muslim,” “Arab,” “White,” “Anglo,” “Caucasian,” “American,” “whiteness,” “minority,” “people of color,” “racism,” “stereotype,” “phenotype,” “prejudice,” and “civil rights.” These are words I use — not just when I’m doing a section on diversity in my class, but all the time. It’s just part of the conversation; it’s part of the reality of the world we live in.
How is it that the student comes into their creative self — this creative place, this subconscious, where all of our experiences in the world begin to come together.
I have colleagues — predominately white — who say to me, “Whenever you bring up race in your class, you are causing problems.” And my response is: I don’t create it in the room, it walks into the room with me. It’s part of my — our — story. It’s the elephant in the room if we don’t acknowledge it and it drags down the work. But if we address it, it can be a source of creativity, of specific ways of expressing and understanding the world. And that’s what I’m interested in as an actor and as a teacher. I’m interested in: How is it that this student from India, this Korean student, this Korean American student, this Mexican American student, how is it that the student comes into their creative self — this creative place, this subconscious, where all of our experiences in the world begin to come together and create a trampoline, where experiences come in and bounce out of me, based on how I feel, how I see the world… my family, all these things that are uniquely me. My creative self, my subconscious — this is where my experience is filtered through and I have some type of impulse and that’s me. It can be based on who I am. It can be based on pride. It can be based on traumatic events. Sometimes we talk about the traumatic as the only bed that race and ethnicity can lie in. It’s not. It’s also a wonderful thing. And it can be empowering, especially if it’s acknowledged and identified.
Admittedly, it’s messy. When we’re talking about society, when we’re talking about the world we live in — and I have students from all sorts of backgrounds — when we’re telling stories, it’s messy. And when we talk about race and identity, it’s always going to be messy. Race as a social construct continues to be at the messy root of who this country is. It’s in the institutions; it’s in the philosophy of thinking; it’s in the very fibers of this country. It’s not going anywhere. It’s there. We’re always going to find it in our society and we’re going to find it in our students when they walk into the classroom. And it’s a mistake to not address it.
I’ve had a lot of students who have come in and they’re struggling with wanting to play characters that are like them in experience, in phenotype, in language, in story — wanting to, but often at the same time not wanting to. And in not wanting to, what they’re saying is, “I don’t want to play a racialized character,” a character who is in the story or specific to the story only because of their race. So they’re back and forth. And that’s when it comes down to us as faculty to be advocates for students who are on this journey. To acknowledge it and identify it. To talk about it. We need to bring the conversation to the students. We need to be advocates of an experience that students are having — all students, not just those of color — when it comes to actor training. The desire to play the great texts given to complex characters outside of the actor’s perceived-race and the desire to play characters of color that reflect the actor’s cultures, ethnicity, and lived experience with race are common experiences of the actor of color and an important reality for white actors to understand.
To advocate means to make sure that there are spaces (in the studio, clubs, rehearsals, etc.) where students can voice these kinds of experiences. It means giving all student-actors an equitable chance of working with the traditional canon, which is held up as a standard of great art, regardless of the state of “the business.” It means holding panels and inviting business professionals, including working actors of color, producers, and casting agents, for all students to understand what challenges they might face and advantages they might have. If guest speakers are encouraged to share their struggles with typecasting and stereotypes along with their creative high points, there can be an honest discussion of what those students who are looking to work professionally can expect.
I need to understand where this stereotyping comes from and why my reaction to it is what it is. And once I understand this, I can choose how I want to deal with it — I can choose to accept it, or subvert it, or fight against it.
These are the kind of things that often are left to what’s called “the business of the business.” It’s different from the craft. It’s about survival. The craft teaches me how to lower my status, gives me the tools to lower my status, but understanding why I’m required to do so and why I’m resistant — or willing — is another tool and one that’s integral to my personal and artistic well-being. And I need that other tool because the mortality rate is high in my group of friends who say, “I can’t do it. I can’t go out for a rapist again. I can’t go out for a gangbanger again.” If I’m going to work in the business, I need to have some idea of how to separate character status from my day-to-day life. I need to understand why I don’t have the opportunity to play a king, to play the hero, to play a complicated villain. If I’m going to survive this, I need to understand where this stereotyping comes from and why my reaction to it is what it is. And once I understand this, I can choose how I want to deal with it — I can choose to accept it, or subvert it, or fight against it. And if we don’t give our students that choice — if we don’t bring these conversations about race and ethnicity into the classroom, if we pretend that casting is colorblind and all options are open — we’re doing them a disservice. We’re handicapping them. And that’s not the job of a teacher.
n the work that I’ve done in human relations training and as an actor, one of the things I run into a lot is fatigue — because it’s exhausting to represent. Because this work is messy. Because bringing a conversation into class is not just about “You can play any role you want.” It’s also about having an honest conversation with ourselves. Some of us have worked long and hard as performers to find things about ourselves, who we are and what our creative blocks are, and we’ve gone to therapy and we’ve learned to meditate and we’ve studied mindfulness and we’ve been through all sorts of esoteric things to try to get in touch with ourselves. Well, understanding what role race plays in our own creative process and our chosen profession is just one more thing that we need to do. If you want to go into the classroom and do this work, and you want to bring in questions of diversity, then you’ve got to start with yourself. You’ve got to ask yourself questions. You’ve got to be honest about who you are, where you are in your own racial or ethnic identity, what things push your buttons. You’ve got to find ways to work on it. You have to understand your own implicit biases, your own cultural trauma.
Understanding cultural trauma is important for both teachers and students.A cultural trauma is not the original event (e.g., “slavery”); it is how each generation is affected by it, retells, and refashions that experience. If I look at the 1.5 million people of Mexican descent in California, citizens as well as noncitizens, who were pressured to leave the country during what’s called the Repatriation, if I look at that experience — my great-grandfather was one of those people forced out of the country — it can be an event. But how that affects me today as an artist, and as part of the Mexican American collective identity in the U.S. — this is a cultural trauma. So if I have the ability to revisit that story, to understand how it affects me, how it shapes my experience, to understand why people look at me and say, “Uh… where are you from?” — I can use it to create. I can draw from it. I can use it to power my creativity rather than just be ruled by it. I tell the story of my great-grandfather who was kicked out of the country and how that affects me today. I understand how it drives me to be an actor with dignity, who walks like this and doesn’t walk like that; I understand how it affects me today as an actor, whose interior status is high; and I understand that when I go to audition for a gardener or a farm worker, if I want to be offered the role, I have to push my status way, way down. I have to decide whether or not to take that role, or even to audition for that role. And if I want it I’d better have some tools to figure out how to lower my status and how to separate that experience from who I am day-to-day.
As acting teachers, we are doing more than just creating actors; we are in a craft that is about life. We are touching these students. Maybe they don’t go out and become actors, but they’d better take some tools out there with them regardless. And if they are going to be actors, then we need to create actors that are larger than even the roles that they are playing, more about craft, more about creating, more about pulling from deep inside and giving it to the people. That’s what I want to give to my students. That’s the student I want to walk out of my classroom.And if that’s the student I want to walk out of my classroom, I’ve got to work hard to give an equitable experience to the students of color sometimes because the opportunities aren’t always the same. It’s “equity” versus “equality”.
We must be aware that equity requires action and is not the result of simple awareness. I believe that instead of being colorblind, we teachers of the craft of acting are better served by being equity-minded.
This is my definition of equity: Two students are tasked to go to the window and draw a picture of the bird that’s outside it. They both get a pad and pencil. They both go to the window. “You’ve got equal opportunity, go!” One student is sitting in a hole and can’t see out the window. The other one is drawing. But the idea was that this was supposed to be equal. I go over and grab a bench. I put it in the hole and that student gets up on the bench. Is that equal? No, it’s not equal because one student has a bench and the other one doesn’t have a bench. Some people get upset: “Why are you giving him a bench? That’s not fair.” It may not be equal but it’s equitable because now they both have an opportunity to look out that window and draw. That’s equity.
As teachers, in our classrooms, our institutions, and our productions, we must be aware that equity requires action and is not the result of simple awareness. I believe that instead of being colorblind, we teachers of the craft of acting are better served by being equity-minded. When we do shows that are for large African American, Asian, or Latino casts, some students get upset: “I can’t be in that. It’s not fair.” It may not be equal, but it’s equitable. As educators we must create more opportunity and broaden perspectives. Our students are walking out into a world that’s not equal — not in opportunity or in casting. So if we can create an equitable environment where all students can be trained and have an opportunity to perform in the classroom or in the studio or on the stage, it’s important — and moreover, as educators, it’s our job.
Exercise #1: History of Your Name (A)
his activity is useful early in the semester. It encourages listening and speaking skills, and it gives permission to make mistakes. Students break up into dyads and introduce themselves. Partners take turns discussing their first and last names, and any history they know associated with them. They also answer this question: If they could change their name, what name would they choose and why? Students then take turns introducing their partner’s name and history to the class.
N.B.: Students, depending on their culture or country of origin, can have names that are challenging to pronounce in English or sound unfamiliar compared to more traditional Anglo names. Some immigrant or international students may use “American” names instead of the way their name appears on the class roster. I recommend empowering students to say their name the way they would like it pronounced, while giving the class permission to make mistakes with their pronunciation. This gives students permission to try, make mistakes, and try again.
Exercise #2: History of Your Name (B)
ave students walk around the room, stopping to introduce themselves to each other, just first names to begin with:
“Hi, I’m Roberto.”
“Hi, I’m Zenon.”
Hold eye contact for a moment and then move on to the next person.
Next, students walk around the room. At some point have them stop and pick a partner. This time they will introduce themselves and their ancestors.
“I am Roberto, the son of Celida and Roberto, grandchild of…”
Students can say “grandchild of,” or “great-grandchild of,” etc, while they go back as far as they can. Just first names and whatever else they can remember, even if it’s just a story. “They would call her Mimi” or, “I have a shawl from my grandmother, but I don’t remember her name.” As one student is sharing, the other student is as attentive and receptive as they can be to what they are hearing.
When everyone has completed this activity, the class takes a seat and the teacher leads a conversation where each person shares their experience with their partner. Questions might include:
- What was the sense you got when they were speaking about their names or their ancestors or about those people on whose shoulders they stand?
- What was your experience sharing your name and ancestors? It doesn’t have to be positive, beautiful, and terrific. It might be confusing or disappointing.
Exercise #3: The Unbroken Chain of Ancestors, Guided Imagery
use this exercise early in the semester to set a tone of creativity and potential. I talk about how we are kinetic energy, which is energy that is coming up from behind us and is pushing us forward. This is the result of previous generations and manifested physically in what we inherited from our families, and also the hopes and dreams of past generations. We are also potential energy, stored up in our individuality and unique creativity. We are past, present, and potential.
Standing in a relaxed, neutral position, close your eyes. Imagine your parents or your primary caregivers standing behind you. Behind them, imagine your grandparents or other relatives; behind them, imagine your great-grandparents, and so forth. When you can no longer imagine a family member or ancestor, you can imagine any symbol or talisman that represents your ancestry or heritage. This can be an imagined object, symbol, image, color, or feeling. Take a moment and include any other person or talisman that is important to who you are in the line stretching behind you.
When you are ready, turn around. Continue to visualize the line of ancestry that now stretches out before you. Open your eyes. When you are ready, step forward: embody the figures and symbols. Be specific with as many people and images as possible. Take them into yourself as part of a legacy left to you.
Participants might imagine themselves stepping into the imaginary body of an ancestor, taking on their shape from a photograph or memory, identifying things that are similar or different. Participants might also imagine a taking-in of an imagined talisman (image, memory, color, or feeling) into themselves. For example, a grandfather’s hat might settle onto the actor’s head, a grandmother’s locket might make its way symbolically onto or into the actor’s chest. A color might pour over the actor. When participants have finished embodying their past, invite them to pause and close their eyes.
“You are the result of a myriad number of lives. You are the accumulation of knowledge and traditions. You are accumulated ancestral potential. Your body, the language(s) you speak, the traditions and practices you may follow are in some way connected to the past. And yet you are unique. Never before has a life existed like yours. At this moment you are past, present, and potential. What will you pass on? What will you share? What will you create? How will the elements that come together in you, ancestors, heritage, tradition, body, language, ability, talent, be used to create and transform?”
- Eyerman, Ron. Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. Quoted in Venus Opal Reese. “Keeping It Real Without Selling Out: Toward Confronting and Triumphing Over Racially-Specific Barriers in American Actor Training.” The Politics of American Actor Training. Ed. Ellen Margolis and Lissa T. Renaud. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.