Acting White

PTC’s Kathleen Flaherty was having one of many passionate and enlightening conversations with theatre maker (and PTC Associate 2010 -13) Lisa C. Ravensbergen when Lisa spoke briefly about asking a director whether she was to portray a character as white. Kathleen admits that the idea was so startling to her that, at first, she didn’t stop to inquire. Later, Lisa agreed to talk about what she meant and we have edited that conversation for sharing.


KF:  Last fall we were talking about a rehearsal question you had posed to the director, “Am I playing this character as white”? When I first saw that post on Facebook, I was stunned. So, I have to ask, what did you mean by that question?

LR:  Well, the character originated as a woman who is not of colour, so her words and the experiences that she journeys through in the play are framed by her reality, living in that body.  In another way, “through what political, cultural and social lens am I looking through this character’s words from?” and “how are they informing my interpretation of this character?” Who, in this instance, was based on a real person, who is alive and kicking.

KF:  Can you give me an example of what that might be like?

LR:  Well….if you have a line that says, “I will never forget what they did to my mother”, there are instantaneous frameworks that will frame certain bodies that don’t frame other bodies.  So, a white body can say, “I will never forget what they did to my mother (I’m over-generalizing now.) Without knowing anything about the character or the context of the story, or the history or what the play’s about, if a white woman says that, perhaps, at least initially, peoples’ projection on to that character might be rooted in more of a psychological kind of curiosity. Then you attach those same words into a brown or a black body, and there are very different immediate projections, assumptions, possibilities that are historical, political and ancestral, that are layered into that simple statement of “I will never forget what they did to my mother.”  Because of things like genocidal policies and assimilative laws and history that we have in ‘Canada’, for an Indigenous woman to say a sentence like that, I wonder if the ‘who’ is somebody who has more power than that Indigenous body and is it a white male body? is this woman missing and murdered? is this woman a residential school survivor? a survivor of the 60s scoop? how is she living in relationship to these very real and very present realities of Indigenous women?

KF: Yeah, I can see that.  It mostly depends, then, in this context, what you imagine the audience will perceive. I mean, maybe it’s not the perfect example because a third of women in the world suffer violence so it’s kind of a crossover problem.

LR: Yeah. In the context of this play, and I don’t feel it’s urgent to identify the play or the players…

KF: Me either.

LR: … Because I don’t think it’s unique to that particular production or process, I think it comes up in lots of places…or should come up in lots of theatre spaces. After all, most theatre audiences, from what I’ve witnessed, seem to be primarily white-presenting and that gaze influences everything from programming to performance interpretation. And as a performer, part of my work involves my relationship with an audience as an actor who is often seen as ‘Other’. So, I think that in this context, when I ask whether/if I’m playing her white, I’m asking the director “what is her specific relationship to my own body?” My external presentation is very much as brown, as a woman of colour. And because of that, my understanding of what it is to be a woman in the world begins from a different place than say, a white woman whose body is more privileged than mine in this society. I’m also really asking, “From where would you like me to situate myself in relationship to this character’s power and privilege?” A woman who is, on the page at least, very clearly white, very clearly presenting herself as white. Especially when there’s nothing in the script, nothing indicated in the table talk or free form discussions of the script, that’s indicating why there are now brown bodies in this story, on this stage. I imagine the audience wants to see themselves but then they get me. (laughs) Is that what you’re asking?

KF: Well, sort of.  I’m sort of asking because I’m curious about how you would think through the character. I’ve got two diverging questions here, so let me ask the first one, which seems to come out of this. Your question sounds like a challenge to the common assumption that ‘white’ is ‘neutral’, is that what you’re talking about?

LR:  Yes, very much so.  And you and I have talked about that briefly.  I think I was also ‘calling out’ what I perceived to be assumptions in the room. The director, in a spirit of generosity, which I did not take as anything else, invited the company to play our characters ourselves. And that was a unique note; I heard “play yourself (an indigenous woman) even though my character (laughs), was racially, my complete opposite. I didn’t understand how to embody the note. I wondered if the room understood what was being asked of me. It seemed to me there was an unexamined assumption about what “I” look like—that I look and act white. This assumption sits inside an even larger assumption about what “we” look like when examining the human condition. Which, to me, translates as “We’re actually examining the white experience. Because Whiteness is the (what I’ll call) baseline for all of humanity. This privileged position is where an audience first meets the artists and we say the story helps us understand and investigate what it means to be human… but how can it if the collective “we” of audience and artists are unconscious of the foundation of our connection? So, when I asked the director my question, I was asking what their vision was to tackle that assumption that humanity = being white, never mind the other layers we’ve talked about. (laughs)

KF: mmmmmm

LR:  That really I don’t think anybody in the room was even aware of.  Because when I asked, like you, they seemed stunned (laughs) even though it seemed a perfectly natural question to me. I was just like, ‘okay I need some help unpacking what you mean by that and where you are in relationship to that, so that I can situate myself.’ and there was a lot of…silence, immediately following, and a lot of looks of, “aahhhhiiI’m not sure I understand the question”.

KF: So, how would you have approached the character differently if he had said, “No, I want you not to play it as white.” What would it require?

LR:  Well that did come up, because they genuinely hadn’t thought of it one way or the other. I was then asked, “Would you like to play her as an indigenous woman?” I said, “As an actor, I can play whoever, that’s the nature of my job.  But,” I said, “I think if I were to play her as an indigenous woman, this wouldn’t be her story.” Or, if it was, it would be very superficial telling of her story which felt counterintuitive to the show. And to be honest, I couldn’t think of any indigenous woman in my life who would have this story—and of course, it’s possible; I don’t want to reduce our narratives as Indigenous women to a singularity. It’s just that there was no mention of identity, no mention of the projection that is placed on us, regardless of how educated, grounded, intelligent, “successful” we are, that there is a whole other package that comes with this Indigenous body (laughs), a whole other story wrapped around that body. Without putting resources and time towards fleshing out an authentic voice inside this pre-existing script, I felt it would be disingenuous to play the character as something other than what she was.

KF: So this woman [character] is largely concerned with her identity as a person who does a certain kind of work or is educated in a certain way… is that what you’re….?

LR:  I guess so. And really it didn’t come up at all. It was more about… her identity was focused on her relationships to herself, to her family, and as a mother, I would say, more than anything else. Even now, we still don’t see women’s bodies celebrated on stage. We still don’t really celebrate the stories of women, never mind the story beginning at that place, at that juncture – “I’m a mom, this is who I am as a woman”. But I feel like, as an Indigenous woman and mom, there’s a whole layer of complexity around identity… that my non-Indigenous friends don’t think of in the same way at all. And if they do, they’re seeking to be allies, they’re not figuring out how to survive in that brown body. I’m trying to help my son, equipping him with cultural knowledge so he won’t lose his culture, so he won’t lose his connection to the land that we’re from, and our songs and language and stories – my friends, they aren’t thinking of raising their children as a way of cultural resurgence, as a means of survival or as a way of reclamation. The things that I share with them are around, “How do we raise decent people?” (Laughs) “People with manners. And how do we balance work and not sleeping? And how do we balance what success looks like professionally? How do we prevent becoming invisible in the ways that women become invisible. There’s a whole other part of my practice as a human being that is shared with other Indigenous moms and when I’m with them, there’s a shorthand that I have with them. Because they know what Indigenous survival looks like, they also strive in the same way.  And that part of the story—that all of my indigenous women-mother friends share— that wasn’t in this script at all. At all.

KF: That means, am I guessing correctly, that script, and maybe many other scripts, if they were actually to be performed as if you were living in your own body and not a white body, would need rewriting.

LR:  Yeah.  So, when a question like that is put into the room, it’s really easy for it to feel like a challenge or feel like there’s a confrontation, or feel like there’s judgement happening, so defensiveness can easily happen, or (white) guilt, or any of those lovely things that happen before people become allies, those bumpy parts of the conversations. In this situation, I was really fortunate to work with generous artists who did consider that a solution might be to figure out a way to say, rewrite parts of my role. But I’m the only Indigenous woman in the room, so that would mean I am suddenly writing that? And I don’t want to write it, it’s not my play and I did not feel prepared nor desirous to contravene agreements around writer and creator. Others might have no problem shifting those roles around in this instance but in the crux of the moment, it didn’t feel right, and I didn’t think it was my problem to solve, to be quite honest. So I said, “I don’t know who’s going to write that, then.” And that gets into that whole question of “is it appropriative”? for a white playwright to find language for me to play myself playing a real live white woman. (laughs) With this particular script there was an echoing, a resonance, as a woman and as a mother … it was rich enough material that the experiences translated across bodies of colour and experience. I could understand what I was playing. And, you know, I don’t want to presume that all white people have the same story, or that all Indigenous women have the same story. Even in the cast it became clear that just because you are in a body of colour, it doesn’t mean you necessarily think of yourself that way. I just happen to. And that’s how many are treated—they are not treated as just ‘a person’, they’re treated as whatever trope is attached to that coloured body, or whatever is being projecting onto that coloured body, that’s how they’re treated, right?

KF: Right.

LR: There are people in my circle, friends and colleagues, who very much present as a body of colour and do not think of themselves that way, don’t want to be thought of that way and don’t want to get lumped in with, you know, with me, when I’m talking about identity struggles or contentious political realities. And they’ve said that to me. “I don’t want you to speak for me” or “I don’t want to be included. I just don’t want it to be assumed that that’s how I think or that’s what I’ve experienced, too.” They feel that it’s a different kind of pigeonhole, perhaps. I can’t say, really.

KF: Or it’s not something that they feel they have to deal with, for whatever reason. I could ask the question of how questions of ethnicity and roots intersect with questions of culture and class.

LR: Oh yeah, and power and permission. And it’s (laughs) always, regardless of what your body is, there’s always intersecting layers happening, whether we realize it or not, there’s the layer of how we situate ourselves within ourselves and there’s the reality of how society situates us, in relationship to it. And I’m speaking in very general, very broad terms, where it seems those two intersections just are. And they manifest in any given moment in a multitude of ways because they all go through us. They go through our hearts, they go through our minds, they go through our physical selves. They resonate through bodies. That’s what living does.


LR: It resonates. We resonate with living and living resonates through us, our bodies acting as a kind of mirror to those looking at us. So…

KF: And I think there’s a relationship to what the audience… as you implied, the audience has a different reaction depending on who they are.

LR: We did talkbacks. The few Indigenous people that did come to see the show, they generally didn’t come up to me and say anything. I know what that feels like, as an Indigenous person, to see another Indigenous body onstage and it’s like “Oh thank goodness, you exist. I see you.” Generally. The white or the white-presenting audience members would come up to me, though. After every talkback. audience members expressed surprised that I was “really good and even better than…” (and yes, I heard this one more than once). I also heard from white presenting audience members that they felt it was refreshing to see ‘me’ onstage, that it was special or unique. They would say, “Oh, that’s so great that you were up there.” “Oh really, me? Why me over anybody else?” (laughs) When I asked the other cast members, I was the only one who heard this kind of feedback. But I knew what the audiences were saying and sometimes I would get into it and sometimes I wouldn’t, “Oh, I just don’t have the energy to deal with that tonight” and I would just say “thank you”. I would swallow it and say “thank you”. And let them off the hook.

KF: Because they were essentially…?

LR: Because they were noticing the colour of my skin. Because they were noticing that there was an Indigenous woman onstage.

KF: Yes.

LR: And they were noticing that that doesn’t happen very often. Or the plays they see, it doesn’t happen very often. And, how fun, I got to play just as many fun roles as everybody else and I was just as good as everyone else.

KF: Oh, I see.

LR: Ultimately, the director decided to play my character white with the agreement that if it got sticky in any way that I had his production staff’s support to work through that. And if it needed to be shifted, we would work it out in that moment, rather than trying to anticipate it now. I needed some mindfulness. I needed there to be an awareness in the room they were asking something of me that the others weren’t being asked. I needed to not be the only one who was thinking about it and being aware of it on some level.

KF:  So would that have changed the design?

LR: Well, there’s a scene where the women are… they’re sort of giving away some clothing that they loved from some particular time in their past. And for various reasons now, in the present, realize, “I’m never going to wear this ever again.” Right?

KF: umhmmmm

LR:  So, everybody had their own story of whatever piece of clothing they were going to get rid of and my character … had a dress that she sewed herself and it’s very 90s. So the idea is that all the once-special clothes are getting tossed, literally, tossed into this box, the Sally Ann box, the Value Village box or whatever.

I went for my costume fitting and this is our first time meeting, the designer and I, and she is lovely and generous and open about her process, inviting me to tell her how I see my character’s style. She obviously knows I’m …uh…Indigenous, so the designer says, “So this scene, where you’re throwing away the dress.” I’m like, “yes”.  She’s super excited …and my heart starts breaking and I think, “Oh, no, we’re not going to go in this direction…” but sure enough, she says, “I’ve been thinking about..” and she didn’t know the right word for it, so I said, “regalia?”, and she says, “yeah, your traditional costuming”. “It’s called regalia.” and she’s like, “yes”.  So she had been hoping and thinking that whatever the thing is that I’m going to be tossing out would be reflective of my Indigenous, like Lisa, Indigenous self.

KF:  Oh dear.

LR:  (big laugh) And for her, this could be a really great way to kind of celebrate this aspect. She said, “There’s nowhere else really in the show that acknowledges that” and I said, “You’re right, it doesn’t acknowledge it anywhere.”  And so, she says, “I thought this could be a really, you know, it’s important, then. It’s important that that get acknowledged and so I think this is a really good organic place for that acknowledgement. To really be celebrated and present.” It was so awkward.

KF: You had to say, “Well….nnnoo.

LR: (laughing) I had to break her heart. I’m being facetious, I’m sure her heart wasn’t broken, and maybe it was only awkward for me in this-could-go-really-badly moment where I recognized the onus was unconsciously put upon me to not only educate, but then to manage the fallout of my colleague’s response, whatever that may be, to manage the moment. Which was fascinating on all kinds of levels for me. Luckily I’ve been in this position many times before, that’s why I recognized it before she even got through the first two words. The director hadn’t had a chance to update her about the decision to play my character white and I can tell the designer is confused and doesn’t know what I’m talking about. And it becomes extra awkward, because then we’re talking about vision and concept. That isn’t my place to speak to and yet the moment had arrived so I thought, “I guess it’s up to me”. Which was disappointing. Because I was put into this position. When I updated her, there was a pause, a pregnant pause. As the paradigms shifted, in the silence, I then said, “And I’m not sure how much you know or understand, but traditionally regalia is sacred and it doesn’t just hang in your closet. It’s usually tucked away, packed up, carefully wrapped up and it comes out for certain special events. And times. And that’s its only use. And usually that’s only for… I wear it for ceremony. I wear it for powwow. And that’s it. And I would never throw it away. I would either give it away and then there’s a process for giving it away, or I would burn it. That’s what happens, what I’ve been taught, obviously there are other teachings and I’m not trying to represent every nation on Turtle Island, but that’s how I would treat it. I would never in a million years, pull it out, wave it around, and chuck it in a box. Or make fun of it. I wouldn’t joke about it. I finished with, “So, I think, if we’re going to keep the scene the way it is, we need something closer to the original design.”

KF: A party dress.

LR:  I didn’t say this to her but I wanted to say, “We’re not gonna redface this moment. We’re actually gonna honour the whiteness of it.” And so I said, in a way, to appease my trickster self, I suggested something red which is a powerful colour with teachings attached to it… like a red shirt. “We’d know that it’s speaking to something else, you know, but it’s not overtly a cultural reference.” And I suggested the Indian Motorcycle Company.

KF: (laughs)

KF: Thank you for having this conversation.

LR:  Collectively, as a theatre community we still don’t really know. We’re still in the liminal space between sleeping and woke. So some peoples’ reaction is to just avoid the complexity of this kind of quandary altogether because it makes us really uncomfortable and some sort of want to defend the way it’s been. “We don’t need to talk about that. I don’t know why people make a big deal.” But we don’t know how to really talk deeply about it yet that’s what I’m finding, even for myself… for instance, lately I’ve been seeing a lot of the phrase “colour blind casting”.  Because I think people are pulling language out that used to be useful rather than inventing language that might helps us now.

KF: Yeah, that language is from the 80s.

LR:  Yeah. As a theatre community, we’re in this really messy uncertain phase where we’re not accepting… we’re in a space where nobody’s asking directors the question I asked in the room which also means they are unpracticed with their answers. Without acknowledging it, it falls then to the most woke/Indigenous and/or person of colour to manage things like notes that don’t apply to bodies of colour onstage or things that probably would be better left unsaid in a room of mixed race people.

KF: What kind of phrases are you talking about?

LR:  I’m trying to remember. I just remember having moments like, they “did not just say that, did they?”

KF: I’m sure that happens all the time. I’m going to do one of those right now. I’m gonna say, “What you’re talking about right now is a time when most white people, who do not identify themselves by their ethnicity, are surprised that it’s such an important thing to people of colour.”

LR:  It’s a quick, it’s a very… I think the default to erase colour in the room is very easy to do when you are never erasable.

KF: Yeah.

LR:  I most often hear my fellow artistic community members reckoning their relationship to two ideas: I don’t even know how to recognize the problem – vs – I understand that there’s a problem, I have a good will, a good mind about it, but I don’t even know why it’s a problem, really. Added to that, is the reality that we’re still in a time and space where people of colour, bodies of colour, and women of colour in particular, are expected to manage this transition time we’re in of “I don’t know what the new answer is yet.” Bodies of colour are expected to create a framework and language around something that in lots of ways they have no power to dismantle. Because they never built it. It’s not my job to fix the Eiffel Tower. Whoever built that thing needs to fix it because they have the tools. They just need to think about it differently and use those tools differently so that it’s not just benefitting them. And I’m one of those people brown bodies that asks awkward-making questions that causes a director to reply with an embarrassed admission that they “just never thought of it.” I may says, “That’s fine. That’s why I’m asking the question. Because I recognize that it’s not being asked, otherwise it would have been offered.” I say it’s fine but really it’s not because I’m still in a space where I have to ask to be seen. I still have to request to be invisible-ized by powers that have built structures that reconstruct my identity to suit their comfort around an artistic ‘norm of humanity’ which is a white-bodied norm.

So for me to say to a director, “Your answer, your vision around bodies of colour and whiteness norms, creates a specific kind of complexity. You have to choose. And understand whatever you choose impacts me and my brown body. Because it’s either going to invisible–ize me, Lisa, and it’s going to ask me to basically whitewash myself or it’s not (and I’m oversimplifying to make a point), with implications that I may or may not want to deal with. Or we can NOT invisible-ize me but then it’s going to resources like money, time, and new processes to fix the structure or system of how we do theatre that we’ve all been complicit in somehow. Literally.

So, looking at a script: You have to change what’s in that play. So, what’s it gonna be? Oh, it’s easier to ask me to change. Okay, I can do that. And because that’s my job as an actor, to immerse myself in another body, I can do that. And because I’m a woman of colour, I’ve been doing that my whole life, so, sure, I doubly know how to do that. But then what is really changing? I mean in a meta/ systemic way?

Another example of this that is perhaps more apt for Vancouver is when an artistic director admitted to me that they “I understand land acknowledgements on a certain level and the people in the office think it’s important to do it… but why? “I still don’t understand why we have to. I’m not going to stop, we still will, as a company, but I don’t really understand why it matters, why it’s important.”

KF: Mmmmm.

LR:  So that’s a space that I’m occupying, that I think we’re all occupying, but only some of us are able and willing to see it every day and to address it from their unique position of privilege/ whiteness/ Indigenous culture/ colour, etc. wherever that can be. I’m addressing it from where I can, from my unique position. And I’m doing my best to learn and absorb the white way of the world so I’m able to go in and out, so I’m able to understand who I am in relationship to when I go in and out of those expectations. And I can still hold onto myself. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s happening on the other side. It doesn’t necessarily mean that directors and producers and writers of gender or whiteness are actually initiating a reciprocal journey on their own. They will respond to it, perhaps when they’re called on it. They will respond to it when they feel guilt. They will react to it when they are confronted. And it seem like we’re still figuring out how not to default to white(ness) in our theatrical processes and outcomes.

KF: Or perhaps, and this is beyond the scope of this conversation at this moment, but it’s partly about being able to differentiate what is race and what isn’t race. I mean, some parts of what is defined as white is just neo-liberal capitalist patriarchy. Which I absolutely loathe. So it makes me really frustrated to be identified with that. (laughs)

LR:  But we all perpetuate it in our own way. We all do. Even me.

KF: Yes we do.

LR:  I think the trick is that I actually own that. As much as I can. And I can ask the director, “Do you want me to perpetuate that overtly? Or do you want me to perpetuate a new thing?”

KF: Good point.

LR:  I can do either. And in some shows I am not going to take the job. And in other shows like this one I was, “Yeah, I can do that.” And part of it, in that moment, was I’ve done a ton of new play readings and I’ve played many ages, many genders, many cultures. But I’ve never been on a mainstage and not played an Indigenous body. So for me that was, “I’m happy to have the opportunity, because I literally don’t know what that’s like.”

KF: And now you do.

LR:  Now I do. And it’s complicated.

KF: Thank you.

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