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Welcome back to the EXCEL Log! I hope your semester is going well. I know mine is crazy right now, with rehearsals, performing at concert after concert, working for EXCEL and the DEI office, and applying for grants for future projects. This means that I’m TIRED, so, it’s the perfect time to talk about burnout. Read on to learn more about burnout, potentially relate to my story, and consider ways to overcome it.

I initially wrote this article over the summer (in July 2022) when I was recovering from an intense wave of burnout from November 2021-June 2022. I then put it away for a while and came back to it in November 2022. I then put it away again, and after having some conversations with Paola Savvidou, program manager for the SMTD Wellness Initiative, decided to finish this piece. I write things to process. Most of the time I don’t write about topics I know everything about or problems I solved. I typically end up writing about something I’m still trying to figure out, and I try to find solutions in the process of creating. That is exactly what this article does, and the topic of burnout fits into the processing category perfectly. When I was fresh from burnout myself, I didn’t think there was any clear way to overcome or prevent it from happening. After having the opportunity to talk to Paola and read more about it my thoughts on burnout started to change. 

My therapist asked me once, “When did I start feeling (what I called) ‘The Big Sad’ or ‘Burnout’?” I had a hard time pinpointing the exact moment I felt this way because there were happy moments mixed in. But somewhere in between the COVID-19 pandemic, working 40+ hours a week, and the nagging of the future calling, I started to feel it – burnout. 

Burnout is defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources”  Freudenberger says burnout has 3 components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion- the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long.
  2. Depersonalization- the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion.
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment- the unconquerable sense of futility, feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

If you’re not sure if you’re burnt out, you can pay for the Maslach Burnout Inventory which is “recognized as the leading measure of Burnout” or you can take this free Burnout self-test. The Maslach Burnout inventory has tests for a variety of career disciplines including educators and students. It measures levels of cynicism, exhaustion, professional efficacy, and depersonalization to identify burnout. The burnout self-test offers questions for people to assess how they feel about their profession to assess their risk of burnout. 

Whether you take a test or define it for yourself, burnout can be debilitating, especially for performing artists. You may sit there practicing your instrument agonizing over each minute. Maybe, the thought of singing a song, or reading a monologue, brings immediate fatigue. It’s possible you’d rather sit in your apartment and watch tv than go to the studio to dance. 

I wasn’t sure where my burnout came from. Maybe I was burnt out because I also had (and still have) other non-creative jobs on top of my creative work, which pays my rent. Being lower or middle class, as I am, can mean that pursuing a career in the arts is especially difficult. You often must keep working at a job that pays while also working at a job that is not (not yet hopefully) paying you at all. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. Are there people out there who enjoy this? Working tirelessly so you can have a roof over your head and then only coming home to do more work that isn’t currently providing for you?

Maybe the burnout I felt came from my creative profession itself and not just the hours of working. According to “An Investigation of Burnout Assessment and Potential Job-Related Variables Among Public School Music Educators,” burnout is often associated with people in “helping professions” such as teaching, consulting, or nursing. I would argue that the performing arts can also be considered a “helping profession” given that in most cases we are expected to put on a performance that elicits some kind of emotion from others. I feel that as artists we perform for ourselves as well, we have a passion for performance that fulfills us. However, I think performing for others and the expectation to please them is a big part of it. Perhaps it’s the emotional toll of people’s expectations and opinions that can cause burnout. Maybe, the pressure to perform – and perform well – is why we get exhausted to the point where we don’t want to perform at all. After all, a study by Benjamin Hyun Stocking from the University of Kentucky found that “performance anxiety was a strong predictor of burnout” (nice to know that something as hard to control as that can cause burnout too!) 

Regardless of where the burnout came from, I deeply felt the different components of it. From November 2021- June 2022, I experienced extreme emotional exhaustion from caring so much about music and performing well for over 12 years. I felt a decreased sense of accomplishment because I could not be financially stable with music alone, and I then felt a deep sense of depersonalization due to the frustration caused by pouring so much energy into my artistic craft, only to yield what felt like little rewards. 

I didn’t feel ok in this state. It’s not that I wanted to quit playing my instrument or composing, I just wished it came easier. I saw others joyfully documenting their progress on social media and wondered why I didn’t feel the same. I decided to start looking for solutions.

After Google searching for answers on how to cure burnout among artists, I found some suggestions. For actors, blogger “upward failing actor” says to try theatre if you’re more of a film actor or join an acting class that is more interesting to you, make your own stuff, and most importantly rest. For musicians, Kate Glassman’s fiddle school suggests being gentle with yourself, playing things you enjoy, listening to music you love, and remembering that you won’t always want to practice, and guess what? Rest! Dancers: focus on the quality of training and not quantity, try other methods of movement like yoga, and most importantly Rest! All of this seemed like a good idea, but at the time it felt like no matter what I tried, the burnout wouldn’t go away.  I played the music I loved but then didn’t want to go back to practicing orchestral excerpts. I tried to compose music but wanted to just sit and watch tv instead. I rested, but then didn’t want to get out of bed. I kept judging the little work I did, despite trying to remind myself to be kind.

As I stated above, one of the things that helped me finish this article was a meeting with Paola Savvidou, where she shared information about a book on burnout that really changed my outlook on the topic. 

Amelia and Emily Nagoski, authors of “Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle” offer tips that can be used to both overcome burnout and potentially prevent it from happening. In a podcast interview with Brené Brown, Anna, and Emily describe emotions as a tunnel. Burnout happens when we get stuck in that tunnel, instead of doing what we need to do to get to the light on the other side. One reason why we get stuck in this emotional tunnel is that we do not complete the stress cycle. The stress cycle includes all the emotions we are feeling in a stressful situation. Emotions have a beginning, middle, and end, and just because we remove stressors from our lives, that does not mean the stress cycle is complete. That does not mean we processed those emotions. When you remove stressors, you still must “deal with the stress itself separately,” stress that may still reside in your body even after the stressors are gone. For example, if you have a big project due, and this work has the potential to cause burnout, there are different methods you can use to complete the stress cycle to process the tension that remains once you finish that project, and you have to find the one that works for you.

Anna and Emily say that one of the most efficient ways to complete the stress cycle is physical activity, whether that be running, yoga, or just taking a walk. Another method is breathing. Anna Nagoski says: 

“Breathing…regulates your nervous system, especially when you can take a slow breath in and a slow, long breath out, all the way to the ends of your abdominal muscles. That’s how you know you’re engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate the central nervous system. It is the gentlest way to complete the stress cycle.” 

She also points out that it’s ok if your thoughts are racing while you do this, saying the point of this is that you notice your mind racing, and you “return your attention to the breath coming into your body and the breath leaving your body. When you don’t have time to do anything else, it can also just siphon off the very worst of it, so that you’re well enough to continue through the situation.” Other methods to complete the stress cycle include positive social interaction, which could be as small as a quick compliment from someone, deep true laughter, a long hug with a loved one, or a good cry. All of these are ways to deal with stress so that it does not get stuck in your body, allowing you to overcome, or even prevent burnout. When I was dealing with burnout, I did a lot of deep breathing anytime I felt stressed. I also did a lot of yoga, it helped me relax and was a way to move my body without over-exerting myself.

I believe burnout is different for everyone. There is no “one size fits all” fix, and frankly, it’s probably not going to go away that easily. For me, burnout is like the pandemic at this moment, we must figure out how to cope, and how to live with it as it comes up. Living with COVID looks like getting vaccinated or wearing a mask and attending to your comfort levels. Hopefully, COVID will completely go away at some point, and I now know burnout eventually subsides. However, both situations require you to find what works for you. Living with burnout can look like figuring out what you want to accomplish and the deadlines you need, the rewards you need to provide yourself, and carving out the rest you specifically need to achieve your goals. 

For me, to live with burnout, I just had to accept it was happening. I spent the summer sleeping a lot, I spent too much money on a trip to New York. I carved out 3 hours a day for work (for my part-time job that paid rent – Thank God for flexible hours), one hour for practicing the oboe, one hour a day to compose, 30 min a day for physical activity, and nothing more – because that was all I could manage. This forced some sense of progress, while also giving me space to stare blankly at a wall, sleep, and feel and process the burnout.  When the semester started, I didn’t realize it, but I wasn’t burnt out anymore. I’m still not sure what exactly caused it to subside. Maybe it was the time I gave myself to rest or the fact that I stopped fighting it and just lived with it. It also could have subsided because I gave myself time to breathe, exercise a little, spend time with family, and address the stress I was feeling for so long. Perhaps through this, I was able to complete the stress cycle.

If you are dealing with burnout now, and you feel hopeless, hold on to any glimmer of hope you can find. Check out the Nagoski’s burnout book mentioned above, take advantage of some of the many resources offered by the Wellness Initiative, talk to friends and family, and rest. Don’t be afraid to take small steps and celebrate the small victories, and know that even though burnout sucks, you’re not alone and will eventually get through it.

Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL Log! I hope you find time to rest and check out the EXCEL Log for more resources and blog posts on navigating life in the performing arts! 

Resources on Burnout from Wellness Initiative Program Manager Paola Savvidou: 

Campus Mind Works “coping with stress and burnout” asynchronous presentation (you can also access it from this website if the link is not working: https://campusmindworks.org/support-resources-tools/wellness-groups/)

Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle (book by Emily & Amelia Nagoski)

Brené Brown podcast episode with Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski 

Burnout self-test 

Burning Brightly Without Burning Out by Brenda Wristen


Additional resources on mental health and the Black Experience: 

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/193749286@N04/51418722147

4 Black Arts Concepts for Decolonization

Happy Black History Month and welcome back to the EXCEL Log!  This month we’ve been celebrating Black history by featuring student artists and talking about the contributions of Black artists to music, theatre, and dance. In this vein, it’s also important that we take a moment to focus on anti-racism, which is why today’s post focuses on how Black art forms can be used to decolonize the arts. Ideas for these concepts came from conversations with School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) students and faculty, and I enjoyed spending time broadening my knowledge on these topics. Read on to learn more! 

In addition to celebrating Black lives, and emphasizing Black joy, I believe that Black history month can also be used as a catalyst for change, especially in the arts world. Before we can even begin to think about what decolonizing the arts looks like, we must first discuss colonization. As defined by Decolonizing the Music Room, “Colonization, in the term’s most simplified use, is a system in which a central power dominates and controls another land, its people, and its resources – with land taken over being established as a colony.” When you map this term onto the arts world, this looks like hyper-focusing on western classical music, European ballet, or white-dominated theatre and deeming it superior to other forms. It looks like suppressing performance forms originating in Black, indigenous, Asian, latine, and other marginalized cultures and assigning them superficial functions within performing arts education. It can involve limiting Black artists to certain genres (e.g) hip hop or rap and then exhibiting resistance when those artists try to break free of molds assigned to them. To decolonize performing arts education, we must push back against these norms. We must amplify performing arts methods of marginalized identities that are often overlooked and understudied in our society.

Decolonization is important because it makes space for people who do not see themselves reflected in the performing arts industry as it stands now. I cannot speak enough about how isolating it is to be preached to about “the greats” in classical music making and rarely, almost never, see people who look like me on that list. My colleagues in the dance department have expressed frustration with the lack of classes focusing on dances of the African diaspora. Students in the theatre department and musical theatre departments have called for the performance of more works created by Black artists. Nationwide, there is a call among Black artists to be given the space in performing arts that they deserve. Decolonization is a path toward that aim.

To try and break down decolonization within the arts would take several blog posts, but to celebrate Black artists doing the work, here are four Black performance concepts that work to decolonize the arts by nature, and, if they are studied in arts education and more widely, can be used as a catalyst to decolonize the performing arts industry:

Yusef Lateef and Autophysiopsychic music 

I first heard of Yusef Lateef, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, when I was searching for jazz pieces for oboe. There aren’t that many out there, as the oboe is not traditionally used in jazz. However, I finally came across a piece titled Oboe Blues that Yusef Lateef performed and composed. I quickly became very interested in Lateef and his music, particularly autophysiopsychic music. He described autophysiopsychic music as  “music from the “physical, mental and spiritual self.” Incorporating autophysiopsychic music into music education allows students to learn the fundamentals of music and the spiritual aspects essential to expression and style. 

Lateef published a book titled “Method on How to Perform Autophysiopsychic Music” which entails ways for musicians to practice the art form. The book includes 12 lesson plans that articulate his musical and compositional style and give students ways to develop their memory and creativity. For example, there is a chapter on using different scales for innovative musical phrasing techniques. He also includes methods on Blues and song forms, along with various iterations of introducing different creative concepts, and providing exercises to learn those concepts.  In general, some may say that autophysiopsychic music is similar to improvisation because it involves creating music on the spot without notation. However, Lateef maintains that “the word ‘improvisation’ as it relates to music means: to present music resulting from prior practice and study; and ‘autophysiopsychic’ means: music from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self.”

Incorporating Lateef’s music into music education works toward decolonization because it not only exposes students to teachings by non-white musicians, thus welcoming those of marginalized identities more thoroughly into the music-making process, but it also goes beyond western notions of classical music teaching. It asks musicians to think of music in a spiritual way, opening the door for musicians to expand their musicianship beyond the technical. There are many instances where musicians, who may not have access to private teachers, arts intensives, or professional training learn music by ear. I’ve seen this done at the church I grew up in and some of my favorite artists learned music this way – by learning to feel music in their bodies without strictly adhering to notes or words on a page. Autophysiopsychic music is similar to this practice. Though musicians learning the genre are still encouraged to study scales, it goes beyond the methodical and brings about a language that suggests the intangible aspects of music, the ones having to do with emotions and our relationship with sound. 

Many non-western music forms, such as drumming in Congolese dance, ask musicians to feel the music, not the page, to learn the form. I experienced this in a Congolese dance class at UM, where we were asked to learn the sounds of different cues that the drums made. Drum rhythms were taught by one person mimicking another, changing rhythm without following sheet music. Incorporating autophysiopsychic music into music education emphasizes the validity of learning music in non-traditional ways, thus pushing back against the notion of a homogenous and colonial way of learning. 

Katherine Dunham and Dunham Technique

I asked some of my colleagues in the dance department about ways to work toward decolonization in dance. In that conversation, we talked about the work of Katherine Dunham. She was an anthropologist, dancer, choreographer, and founder of the first Black dance company. She developed the Dunham technique, which is a fusion of African and Caribbean dance styles with European Style Ballet. Dunham’s approach to dance is polyrhythmic in that it is often done to the beat of multiple drummers. In Dunham, you work with turnout, and barre as you would in European Ballet, but you also work with counter rhythms in your body – one body part doing a different rhythm than another. Dunham also utilizes a strong and articulate torso, unlike other dance forms. 

Check out this video of some dancers doing the Dunham technique, and see what elements you can identify:

Katherine Dunham decolonizes the arts through technique, positioning non-western European forms as equal to European dance forms. Dunham’s extensive research in “Haiti, Martinique, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Mexico, and Brazil to better understand the cultural significance of movement” allowed her to center these cultures and apply their frameworks in her teaching. Though I haven’t taken a Dunham dance class, I’ve seen the style in performance. It’s a beautiful art form, and I felt the energy and collaborative spirit among the dancers. Dr. Albirda Rose, Director of the Dunham Technique Certification Board says, the three most important things to bring to a Dunham class are an open mind, body and spirit,” and you can feel this openness in the audience as well. 

Dunham’s work decolonizes by promoting intercultural communication, not cultural destruction, as seen in many colonized histories. By incorporating Dunham and other dance forms that exist both within and outside of the African diaspora we can give space to multiple cultures, and push back against a colonial framework.

Black Theatre; Black Performance

I reached out to Andrew Otchere, a fellow EXCEL program assistant, looking for ways decolonization can manifest in theatre. He mentioned taking a class on Black theatre and its history and sent me the syllabus. I began exploring. At a basic level, Black theatre involves “the presence of black artists on the scene; a dramaturgy that addresses issues related to blackness and the social issues experienced by the black population; a black production; or the presence of a Black director” However, these characteristics alone do not make Black theatre. Black theatre is a broad concept that cannot be limited to a single definition. 

In a poem titled “New Black Math” by Suzan Lori Parks, she writes  “A Black play is angry, double-voiced but rarely confused, intellectual and deep. A Black play got a mission. A black play dreams the impossible dream.”  I think this could be said about a lot of Black artists in various disciplines. Whether we are specifically creating things based on our experience as Black people, or not, our existence in the performing arts is as Audre Lorde says, “political warfare” because we are choosing to carve space for ourselves in a tradition that did not originally welcome us. 

Though there are likely many instances of Black Theatre that were not recorded in history, the first known Black theatre group in the US was the African Company – founded in 1820 by William Alexander Brown, a free Black man from the West Indies. The company performed in a lower Manhattan theater called The African Grove. Though they performed Shakespearean dramas, what is more notable is their production of King Shotaway, written by Brown himself, which was probably the first play written and performed by Black people. The African Company closed in 1823 and the reason for its ending is unclear. This NY Times article shares more of the African theatre’s history including potential reasons for disbanding. The article says that one reason could be due to an attack on the theatre because Brown dared to present a Shakespearean drama on the same night as a white theatre presenting a rival Shakespearean production. There was also a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1822 which wiped out Brown’s audience, and the last playbill for the African Theatre is dated June 1823. 

When the company closed, most of the opportunities left for Black actors were those involving Blackface minstrelsy, a practice that perpetuated white supremacy and thus colonization by diminishing Black existence to racial caricatures. However, by the 1900s Black people began to make space for themselves within the theatre.  Angelina W. Grimké’s Rachel became a success by 1916, and many Black Theatre companies emerged during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-1930s in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C the tradition continued to grow from there, with works by Garland Anderson (creator of Appearances, the first play by a Black author to hit broadway), and Langston Hughes. After world war II, Black theatre grew more progressive.  Councils were also created to try to abolish racial stereotypes in theatre, and further integrate Black artists into the American theatre industry and works began to portray the difficulties of being Black in America. Parts of Black theatre grew revolutionary, with the emergence of the Black Arts movement. It is said to be established by Amiri Baraka but artists such as Sonia Sanchez, Askia Touré, and Ntozake Shange also contributed significantly to its growth. Artists of the Black Arts movement are often seen as working in tandem with the Black Power movement. They wanted to create works that exposed the struggles of Black people in America, emphasizing Black economic and cultural autonomy. 

Black theatre continued to thrive with widely acclaimed playwrights August Wilson and Suzan Lori Parks. August Wilson is the creator of the widely acclaimed plays “Fences” and “Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom” – both award-winning productions that eventually obtained movie adaptations. Suzan Lori Parks was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama, and like Wilson illustrates the complexities of the Black American experience in her work. 

Black theatre continues to flourish with more recent creatives like Tarell Alvin McClaney, whose unpublished play was adapted into the acclaimed film Moonlight Also, with Michael R. Jackson, creator of the Tony award-winning “A Strange Loop,” a musical illustrating the unique experience of Black queerness, and Jeremy O. Harris, who confronts the complexity that the legacy of racism in America can have on interracial relationships in “Slave play.” Black theatre traverses the stage and screen, it relates to audiences familiar with the theatre world and those outside of it, and its existence decolonizes the arts by putting the Black experience – in all of its complex forms – at the forefront.

Black theatre is not a monolith. Each element of Black theatre in each performance is distinct and should be regarded as such. However,  Black theatre in every form “encompasses the soul and spirit of Black people, and represents our whole experience of being here in this oppressive land”. While the United States is multicultural, aesthetic value is shaped by the dominant European culture. So, to further decolonization within the arts, Black theatre, like Black music, should be extensively studied, performed, and considered equal to European and white-dominant theatre. 


Afrofuturism is a genre that centers Black history and culture and incorporates science-fiction, technology, and futuristic elements into literature, music, and the visual arts. In a conversation with Prof. Antonio Cuyler, he mentioned the ways Afrofuturism works toward decolonizing the arts. The genre imagines impossible futures like science fiction but creates an aesthetic invested in the beauty of Blackness, and can also involve spirituality, an escape from reality, or an examination of real-world problems.

Afrofuturism is prolific in music, with artists such as Sun Ra and Janelle Monae offering plenty of examples. Sun Ra, a prominent musician of Afrofuturism from the 1930s-1990s, created futuristic sounds that incorporated Egyptian mythology. He literally described himself as “a musical astronaut, sailing through galaxies through the medium of sound.” Janelle Monae is an artist I am particularly passionate about, due to her genre-bending music – which is both imaginative and socially conscious. She takes an intersectional approach to Afrofuturism by incorporating her experience as a Black queer woman into her music. For example, her album The ArchAndroid, uses androids to represent the marginalized and oppressed and tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, who is on the run for her crime of falling in love with a human. 

Check out Janelle Monae’s “emotion picture” Dirty Computer where she tells the story of another android in her Afrofuturist universe, Jane. Monae also celebrates Blackness and queerness by incorporating what seems to be her own experience in the song “Django Jane” and emphasizes the fluidity of sexuality and gender in the songs “Pynk” and “Make me feel.”

In dance, Raissa Simpson incorporated Afrofuturism in her project Mothership, a trilogy of performances that examines race and gender, speculative fiction, anti-colonialism, current events and social movements. 

Check out this clip of highlights from Mother ship 3 to get a glimpse of the performance: 

The Last Blues Song of a Lost Afronaut illustrates Afrofuturism by embodying a world in which Black people were not affected by European colonialism. The theatrical experience is set millennia into the future where Afronaut Femi travels through space in search of life on other planets. She then recreates the last survivor of a desolate world Maya, who is a white girl, a being Femi has never seen before.

The study of Afrofuturism can be used to decolonize the arts because it not only pushes back against a eurocentric way of thinking, but it has an investment in Black history and culture. It imagines worlds without the effects of colonization while taking into account the current experiences of Black people. Afrofuturism transcends genre. It embodies a space where Black people can be unapologetically themselves, without conforming to white-centric notions.

Overall, by studying these Black art concepts and others, we can give a voice to the unheard. Incorporating autophysiopsychic music, Dunham technique, Black Theatre, and Afrofuturism into arts education and our own individual learning can broaden horizons and amplify Black voices. These art forms make space for Black people in a world that often excludes them. As a Black artist in the performing arts industry, I have spent a lot of time searching for art forms that I see myself in, because I do not see myself in the traditional canon. There are so many Black art forms flourishing and it’s great to know that I am not alone in working toward decolonization. Even if we cannot fully erase the impact of white supremacy and colonialism on the arts and within society as a whole, we can take the time to learn more and celebrate Black artists and amplify their voices. I hope by reading this post you found new Black arts techniques to learn from and to influence your own artistry, which can further the effort to decolonize the arts and pave the way for a new future within the arts and beyond. 

Additional Resources: 

Learn about Afro Pessimism, another concept evident in hip hop that if studied can work toward decolonizing the arts 

Read some of Sonia Sanchez’s poetry

Learn more about Michael R. Jackson’s musical, A Strange Loop

Image Sources: 




Highlighting Black Artistry: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin

Happy Black History Month! We’re back again here on the EXCEL Log for a Black artistry feature. In case you haven’t read our previous post, this month at the EXCEL Log we’re highlighting Black music, theatre, and dance. It’s important to celebrate Black artistry every month, but during Black history month, we can intentionally broaden our horizons and focus on creating tangible efforts to amplify Black voices. This week we will be featuring Cortez Hill. He is a 3rd-year Business Administration and Theatre Arts student, an EXCEL Enterprise fund recipient, and the producer of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin, a musical by Kirsten Childs that will be performed at the Arthur Miller Theatre on February 24th and 25th.

Mattie Levy: What was the inspiration behind producing Bubbly Black Girl?

Cortez Hill: Our Music Director, Caleb Middleton (SMTD ’24), and I were introduced to this work by Musical Theatre Department Chair, Michael McElroy. We were instantly drawn to this amazing piece of work written by Kirsten Childs and wanted to bring it to the U-M community. The piece addresses serious issues but also talks about them in a hilarious way that I think really appeals to the humor of our current generation and population at the University of Michigan. Kirsten’s creative mind and unique musical talents are not like anything I have ever seen before in a production on campus, and I am excited to introduce this musical to the community.

Mattie Levy: What do you think audiences will get from the experience of watching the show?

Cortez Hill: I hope the audience will learn so much from the story about a unique experience of a Black woman that is not often represented in other works, even other works that are also written by Black artists about Black communities. Still, Bubbly Black Girl really has something for everyone – all identities – to relate to. Additionally, we have so many incredible artists from various disciplines involved in this production. Our actors, designers, and creative teams have dedicated so much time towards bringing the story to life and I’m so thrilled for our audience to see their amazing work!

Mattie Levy: Anything else you would like to share?

Cortez Hill: Starting this project involved introducing it to various students and organizations on campus. I’m so happy and grateful for the amount of support we receive from the U-M community to put this show on the stage!

Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL log! Mark your calendars and go see The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin at Arthur Miller Theatre on February 24th, 2023 at 8pm or February 25th at 2pm or 8pm. Tickets are free but can be reserved here. Check out this link to learn more about the show.

Highlighting Black Artistry: An Evening for Sarah

Happy Black History Month! This month at the EXCEL Log we are highlighting Black Artistry by featuring student projects and highlighting the contributions of Black artists to music, theatre, and dance. It’s important to always celebrate Black History, but Black History Month can be a time to intentionally reflect and educate ourselves on the ways Black people have shaped and continue to shape performance, art, and culture. We kick off this series with a brief interview with 4th-year dance major, Brooke Taylor, about her project An Evening for Sarah, a performance honoring Sarah Collins Rudolph on Friday, February 10th at 7pm. 

Mattie Levy: What was the inspiration behind creating an Evening for Sarah

Brooke Taylor: Last May, I was watching Channel 7 news and there was a story about a woman named Sarah Collins Rudolph. I quickly found out that she was the fifth little girl, who survived the 16th Street Church bombing on September 15th, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. I was so shocked because throughout my years I was only aware of the 4 little girls, who were killed due to the bomb. This news segment was not only the telling of Sarah’s story, but it was also about Oakland University honoring Sarah Collins Rudolph with an honorary nursing degree because she wasn’t able to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. As I continued to watch this story, my mind started to turn and I got the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. This feeling, which I am very accustomed to, means I have an idea to plan something. I thought to myself, I want to plan a concert at the University of Michigan to honor her through art and dance. 

Mattie Levy: Can you tell us about some of the performances we’ll see at an Evening for Sarah?

Brooke Taylor: You will see students from across the University of Michigan honoring her through song, dance, and poetry. 

Mattie Levy: Is there anything else you would like to share about the project? 

Brooke Taylor: This year will mark 60 years since the hate crime that was the 16th Street Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to remembering these impactful moments of history, we should also be honoring and learning from the ones who lived through them. 

Check out An Evening for Sarah on February 10th, 2023 at 7pm. The concert will take place at the Dance Building’s Performance Studio Theatre, 1000 Baits Dr, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109. Tickets will be available for free an hour before the show and are first come, first served. 

Additional Resources on Sarah Collins Rudolph:

“Birmingham’s 5th Girl” a Washington Post article that provides more information about the 16th St. Church Bombing

Sarah Collins Rudolph’s website 

Taking the Stress out of Social Media

Image description: An image of a laptop keyboard is shown against a black background. Logos for various social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and youtube are situated on top of the keyboard.

I’ve always been an introvert. I enjoy my time to myself, and I use alone time to recharge. As I came into myself as an artist I realized some “extroverting” was required. Some recent examples were when I gathered up the 60 seconds of confidence required to talk to a clinician in a master class, or randomly approached an instrumentalist I didn’t know to play one of my pieces. Those moments of putting myself out there took effort – lots of it – which means that posting videos of myself on Tiktok dancing or playing music, curating the perfect caption for Instagram posts, or creating content to advertise my performances is overwhelming.

This month at the EXCEL Log, I’m hoping to overcome these fears and learn more about how to navigate social media. To help with this I reached out to EXCEL Program Assistants KJ Ludwig and Lesley Sung. KJ is a singer with Anytime Band and an Instagram wizard. Lesley is a 3rd year piano performance student, helps manage EXCEL social media and graphic design, and just so happens to be a TikTok icon.

I think what makes me so nervous about social media is not that I don’t know what to post, but that I don’t know HOW to post. I feel like sometimes when I share links to my recordings, or when I want to encourage people to attend a performance, I just don’t know how to convey that information in a digestible way. I end up with awkward long captions, weird pictures at odd angles, or random videos that don’t get any views. I asked KJ and Lesley for their top tips on how to navigate these areas, and this is what they recommend:

  • Create posts before, during, and after a performance

One key tip that KJ recommended was to keep your audience engaged throughout the performance process. She says: 

“It’s your job as the digital marketer to hold guests’ hands through the experience. Before the event, post a story of where to park with an image of the parking lot. For dinner or drinks before or after, feature local restaurants. Before the event, take a picture behind the curtain. Your audience will appreciate feeling a part of the journey” 

Keeping your audience engaged throughout a performance day can make them feel like they’re a part of the whole experience. This often leads them to engage more with your content because they get a more personal connection to you and your work.

  • It’s important to follow social media trends

This tip is especially important for TikTok. Lesley says that keeping up with social media trends allows you to get multiple views on your videos and posts. Now if you’re like me, you are probably wondering: “How do I even know what a social media trend is?” 

Trend is a very broad word that generally means “a prevailing tendency or inclination” or “general movement” but TikTok uses it to “describe the creative formats, ideas, and behaviors that get a lot of attention and in turn influence what people do on the platform.” When you open the TikTok app, you’re able to see numerous examples of what is currently trending. You can also explore various trends on TikTok’s creative center which allows you to get a detailed view of trending hashtags, creators, and songs. You can even browse what is trending in different countries, figure out what age range content is trending, see for how long a topic may be trending, and more. Lesley shared with me an example of one of her videos that blew up in 2021 she said: 

 “Back in 2021, there was a massive trend that was going around where people would utilize the Siri voice effect to make funny videos. I decided to hop on this trend using my actual personal experience to engage with my audience” 


✨My thoughts on stage when I’m about to perform✨ #fyp #foryoupage #pianist #performance #umich

♬ original sound – Lesley Sung
Image description: An embedded video from Lesley’s Tiktok. She is seen walking toward a piano and the caption “My thoughts on stage when I’m about to perform” is written under the image.

Social media trends aren’t only found on TikTok, though they tend to hit TikTok first and then migrate to other platforms. However, if you don’t have TikTok, you can still follow other creators in your niche, see what’s trending on Twitter, Youtube, Instagram or google, or join Facebook groups that reflect your audience to keep up with current trends.

  • Pay attention to how you frame your caption

Captions are a small detail that I never thought mattered, but it turns out the perfect caption can go a long way. KJ and Lesley say to try to keep your captions concise and to try to use captions that engage your audience. Social Media Today says to use captions that encourage conversations. This can be done by posting open-ended questions, so your audience is invited to share their opinions and connect with you. You can also use social media captions to add value to your audience’s day. Perhaps you can include a funny/satisfying pun, or share some inspirational advice, “giving a little something can encourage your audience to give a little back. They may thank you, or share their own take on your post.” 

Here’s an example of a great caption from KJ (notice the wonderful Mr. Roger’s neighborhood pun): 

Image description: an Instagram screenshot of KJ’s post. A crowd stands at the diag watching KJ perform with her band “Anytime band” A caption is written under the image that says “It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood

And if all else fails and you can’t think of one, you can always look up engaging captions online.

  • Utilize Planning and Graphic Design Software

KJ and Lesley both agree that posting frequently will help you build your social media presence. However, you also need to be careful about posting too much, as that would overwhelm your audience and cause them to unfollow you. Christine Galbatto, a travel influencer and business educator for creatives, says that Instagram recommends posting “A reel 4 to 7 times per week, an in-feed photo 3 to 5 times per week, a set of stories 8 to 10 times per week, an IGTV and go live at least once per week.” However, if you don’t have the time for this kind of schedule that’s ok. Ultimately you need to set your post schedule and be consistent with it. Social media planning software allows you to set up your posts in advance. You can schedule when each post goes live to strike a balance between posting too little and posting too much, and be consistent with your posting schedule. KJ recommended a variety of resources for setting a posting schedule in the EXCEL Creative Marketing 101 Toolbox. 

In addition to knowing when to post, you should also make sure what you’re posting looks great. This is where graphic design software comes in handy. There are plenty of resources like Canva, Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe Express, and Google Doc templates that can make your posts more engaging to viewers. It’s important to pay attention to the appearance of your posts because “94% of first impressions of a brand or company are design-related and 75% of people judge how credible a brand is based on its website.” This probably means that people will do the same thing for your posts on Instagram, or your videos on TikTok which definitely makes me nervous. However, I think using the software above could ease some of that stress. 

  • Post Consistently

This is probably the hardest and most important thing about social media. The key to building social media presence is consistency. This is especially difficult for me because as I said above, I’m an introvert, so posting on social media always takes a lot of energy. I am also always running around, and never have the energy to try to take the perfect video of my composing process, or pose for a photo before a concert.

As mentioned above,  KJ and Lesley both agree that posting regularly is key for building your social media presence. “If you go weeks between posts, it’s unlikely that your audience is seeing your message frequently enough for it to be memorable and make an impact.”  However, thankfully KJ says “If you don’t have the capacity to use all social media platforms, using one platform pretty consistently is a good thing.”

My to-do list for my social media future

After talking to KJ and Lesley, I’m still freaking out about social media (and how much work is involved), but I feel better because I have a clearer idea of how to approach it. I’m going to use this post for some personal accountability and set a few goals for social media this month. I’m going to:

  • Download a TikTok (nervous laughter) and plan my first video 
  • Schedule out posts on Instagram and Facebook using some of the social media planning software recommended above
  • Be more consistent about posting and set a dedicated time each week to schedule my social media posts. 

Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL Log. I hope by reading this you feel a little better about social media and think of ways to use it that work for you. Visit the EXCEL Log next month to find out if I stuck with my social media goals, and hear about more topics regarding life in the performing arts, arts entrepreneurship, and more. 


For keeping up with trends: 

8 Tips for Finding New and Emerging Trends on Social Media

For creating a social media marketing plan

The Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Social Media Marketing Plan From Scratch

Scheduling software and calendar templates 


Hootsuite Post Schedule App

For graphic design/content creation

How to Canva tutorial by Lesley

Creating YouTube videos

Learn more about KJ 

KJ stands on a bridge with trees in the background. Her hands are raised and she is smiling. She is wearing a blue jacket, a bright orange shirt and some jeans.

Karen Jane “KJ” Ludwig, [she/her] a curious Yooper, born and raised in Marquette, MI, is actively questioning the world-at-large, through a lens of painted color and song. KJ is dreaming BIG as she enters her Senior year at the University of Michigan, where she studies voice performance with Professor Stanford Olsen. KJ is working toward a multidisciplinary degree within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, which allows the freedom to concentrate in music composition and performing arts technology, as well as minors in arts administration and entrepreneurship. There’s a world of pure imagination in KJ’s brain, and while creating, KJ feels the most at peace and present with the world at large. Learn more about KJ here: karenjaneludwig.com

Learn more and Lesley

Lesley Sung is currently a junior studying Piano Performance and Film, Television, and Media studies at the University of Michigan. Although her passion for music plays a huge role in her career path, her passion for creating content has grown in recent years due to the influence of Tiktok trends and viral videos. She has been managing multiple social media platforms such as those for clubs, Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity, and her parents’ donut shop Instagram/Facebook accounts. With these experiences, she was recently recruited to work with EXCEL as a Program Assistant that solely focuses on social media. Her role in EXCEL consists of creating graphic designs for newsletters, planning content for Facebook and Instagram, organizing events, and attending weekly meetings to discuss and plan for future projects.

The Legal Side of the Performing Arts: Trick…or Treat?

Image Description: A banner with white string and orange flags spells out the words “Happy Halloween” in black font. Jack-o-lanterns are also hanging from the banner, which is pictured in front of a black background.

I’m walking into a dark room, unable to see or hear anything around me. My stomach curls inward, trembling with fear as I open my laptop, and take in the details of…ENTERTAINMENT LAW. *DUN DUN DAAAA* 

Happy Spooky Season! This month at the EXCEL Log, we’re taking a look at entertainment law which I think is one of the scariest things about being a performing artist. What is it? How does it work? What’s an LLC? What are contracts? Copyright?? AHhhh. 

To help defeat the entertainment law demons, I talked to Schuyler Donahoe. He’s a 4th-year student in percussion performance with a minor in performing arts management. He also works as a program assistant for EXCEL, and we spoke about his career journey, and his decision to work specifically within the legal side of the performing arts.

After the isolation and canceled concerts due to the pandemic, Schuyler – like many of us may have – says he “lost his drive for performing a little bit.” It led him to wonder, “What else is there?” 

In his sophomore year, Schuyler got an internship with Just a Theory Press, a music publishing company that works to publish music in a fair and equitable manner. Working with Josh Devries, an EXCEL prize winner, at Just a Theory Press ignited the “legal spark” within him. 

“I was just doing a bunch of random stuff for him where he needed extra help: emails, taking notes, phone calls, those kinds of areas, but then he asked me to help with contracts,” says Schuyler. He thought he was going to hate it at first. But then, “​​I got more into it, and I was like oh, I really like this.” Soon, Schuyler realized that he wanted to help musicians with legal issues and started to actively pursue entertainment law by looking into law schools and talking to people who went to law school but had a music background.

Entertainment law is basically “a broad legal area that encompasses a wide variety of issues, (including intellectual property protection, endorsements, licensing and personal service agreements)” that performing artists may encounter. It involves business structures of organizations (e.g.: starting a non-profit music organization or arts collective), copyright (e.g.: obtaining rights to music compositions or sound recordings), or contract and labor laws (e.g.: a contract between two collaborators or labor unions respectively). 

Schuyler took classes in arts administration and the business side of the performing arts and did his own research to learn more about these issues and other legal situations artists were facing. Soon he came to EXCEL with his thoughts, he said, “ ‘Hey, I saw you have Grant writing modules. What do you think about having something like this for entertainment law? Is that something you’re interested in? Do you want some legal stuff?’ And EXCEL being EXCEL was like ‘yes, absolutely.’” 

EXCEL is always looking for new ideas and does everything possible to help bring student initiatives to life. The EXCEL Lab works to “explore students’ individual visions and goals, and then connect them with the resources they need to thrive.” Schuyler’s initial meeting with EXCEL served as a catalyst for the development of a much-needed resource for performing artists. 

He started off working as a contractor for EXCEL, slowly developing a document to present entertainment law to the SMTD community. Pretty soon, he was working for EXCEL in a program assistant capacity and developed “The EXCEL Lab Legal Resource, Module 1: Business Structures and Incorporation” the first in what will become a series of modules that demystify the “legal jargon” of entertainment law.

Many student artists within SMTD (myself included) want to express their discipline in innovative ways but have a hard time jumping through the many legal hoops involved. For example, I’m hoping to register my music as a composer, but I’m not sure of the steps I need to take. My friend is starting a non-profit to diversify flute performance repertoire but is overwhelmed by the process of establishing an LLC.

Schuyler said, “[I] thought of what people in the school were having issues with, and sort of narrowed it down to 3 different categories. The first module talks about how to start a non-profit, or how to start an LLC. for an organization. What do all these different business structures mean? What do I even do to start these?” This module is already available online. After reading it myself, I can say that it delivers on its promise of being accessible to the public. It explains different types of business structures, the definition of some of the common legal terms associated with them, and provides resources for further reading. 

The second module will be all about copyright, exploring topics like how to avoid copyright infringement, and what to do if someone infringes on your copyright. I can’t wait for this one to come out. As an oboist and composer, I’m often confused about the process of performing arrangements of other’s songs or how to protect my work from theft. Module 2 will be available later this semester. 

“The third module, which is a work in progress, is going to be all about contracts. It will answer questions like: What should I be looking for in a contract? What if I’m writing one, what do I need to make sure is in there? The modules just have a lot of different things that will make sure that musicians are well protected” explained Schuyler. 

The modules provide an accessible starting point for musicians to tackle the mysteries of entertainment law in an understandable and efficient way. Schuyler says that: “One motivation for this project comes from the fact that musicians don’t have time to do anything. Time is a valuable resource that we have.” 

As a performer-composer getting 2 degrees, working 3 jobs, and gigging I completely agreed with this sentiment. Every minute is valuable. I appreciate how Schuyler uses his music background to inform how he approaches entertainment law. There are many resources on legal issues out there, but I feel like this one is special because it really approaches entertainment law from the lens of a performing artist. Schuyler pointed out that: “If someone said: ‘Here are some of the things that you need to know in one document.’ That would save you from a lot of random Google searching.” The modules aren’t exhaustive, but Schuyler hopes that they can give musicians a starting point so that when they go to a colleague, to EXCEL, or to an attorney for help they have a “grounded foundation” to build upon. 

After learning about Schuyler’s journey and the canvas modules, I asked him to offer up his top three tips for navigating the legal side of the performing arts: 

1.) Know the basics of copyright and be careful of copyright infringement. 

Schuyler points out that “there are three aspects of copyright that I wish everyone was aware of: The first is Protection is present at the creation of the work.” 

Schuyler says that this means “If you make something it is automatically protected under copyright.” If you write a song and it’s on some staff paper in your house, it’s protected. Did you write a script in a notebook and throw it under your bed? That’s protected too. The second thing Schuyler wants everyone to know about copyright is that “If someone steals your work that’s illegal. However, you do have to register your work with the copyright office to enforce the copyright.” 

Registering your work with the copyright office involves going to copyright.gov and following the procedures listed for your respective discipline. For the performing arts, this involves filling out a form, and submitting the work that you wish to be registered in a certain medium- either printed or electronic- depending on the circumstances. You will then have to pay a registration fee. Click here for more information

Schuyler says, “The 3rd thing to be careful about is sampling or using other people’s work, even if it falls under fair use. If someone says, ‘you stole my thing!’ they can sue you and dealing with lawsuits can be very expensive” Just as copyright can be beneficial to creatives, it also can get uncomfortable and spooky if you use someone’s work without their permission, so be careful everyone! 

2.) Don’t be afraid of uncomfortable conversations during collaboration.

It’s important to discuss ownership in formal collaboration at the beginning to avoid personal and legal consequences. 

An example Schuyler shared is, “let’s say two people are in a duo, and one person composes a piece for their instruments. Person A could be under the impression that [the two musicians] would share the copyright and Person B could think that they would own the copyright for the whole thing. If this project starts to make money, it can get dicey if these parameters weren’t discussed beforehand.” 

Schuyler and I agreed that performers and creatives are very particular about their work, and the credit that is due when it is created. Artists put a lot of time and effort into their craft, and everyone wants proper recognition for that work. You don’t want to lose important relationships with colleagues over disagreements in ownership or end up dealing with an expensive lawsuit due to a miscommunication between two parties. 

3.) Take your time. 

This one is simple. Schuyler says “The legal stuff is really complicated. There are so many moving parts, and it’s okay to ask for help, it’s ok to google stuff, ask colleagues, or set up a meeting with EXCEL. Don’t fall into this ‘musician trap’ where you need to like, know everything. Take the time to get the legal stuff right the first time.”

After talking to Schuyler, the legal side of the performing arts seems less scary. This conversation was just a starting point, and I’m sure I have plenty to learn when it comes to entertainment law, but I feel like I learned some of the basics. To the artists in the SMTD community: I hope this article made legal stuff less spooky, but if you’re still scared, check out the EXCEL Legal resource. I promise it will be a treat, not a trick ;). 

Thanks for tuning into the Excel Log! Check below for some more resources and to learn more about Schuyler, and I hope hearing about our conversation allows you to think of new ways to enhance your artistic career! 

Sources/Additional Resources: 

Entertainment Law Overview – an overview of the basics of Entertainment law

All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman – Schuyler calls this the music industry bible

All You Need to Know About the Music Business  -A link to check out “All You Need to Know About the Music Business” from the UM library 

Student Legal Services– A legal resource for University of Michigan Students

Featured image source

Schuyler Donahoe is pictured smiling. He is wearing glasses and a blue shirt and are standing in front of a brown and white background.
Image Description: Schuyler Donahoe is pictured smiling. He is wearing glasses and a blue shirt and is standing in front of a brown and white background.

Schuyler Donahoe (he/him) is a senior majoring in Percussion Performance and minoring in Performing Arts Management and Entrepreneurship. In the EXCEL Lab, his primary work is to expand SMTD legal resources by creating a series of modules called the “EXCEL Legal Resource” as well as curate events around legal topics.

Birth of a Nation: Marginalized Representation in Casting (Pt 4)

Today we’re going to talk about the Birth of a Nation, not the 2016 version about Nat Turner, the 1915 OG in all of its black and white. For those who aren’t familiar, Birth of a Nation, originally called The Clansman, is a silent film from 1915 that is seen as the first example of a feature motion picture.1 Prior to this film, movies were 15-30 minutes long and much closer to what we would consider “shorts.” This 3-hour long epic forever changed the world of American Cinema and used countless innovative film techniques that we take for granted today. 

As someone who is obsessed with shades of gray, who thinks that things rarely fit into absolutes, who is a massive proponent for radical empathy (unless, of course, someone ate the last of my Swedish Fish), I can unequivocally say that Birth of a Nation is the most harmful and the most racist movie ever made.2 It is a picture-perfect example of what should be avoided at all costs. A small production team of three racist white men told a racist story filled with propaganda and fear tactics and helped to usher in a new era of hatred and violence against Black Americans.

It tells the history* of the American South from the Civil War through Reconstruction from a southern sympathetic perspective and is largely credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (I think I’ve been saying this wrong my whole life, I could have SWORN it was klu). It uses white actors and actresses in blackface to portray black characters in the story who are all immoral, criminals, sexual deviants, animalistic, and power-hungry.

*Please note that the word history is used here VERY loosely.

Why am I talking about Birth of a Nation in this series on nuanced representation of marginalized identities? Because it’s an epic example of the power of representation in a horrifying way. This is an example of why this conversation matters and a basic guide in what NOT to do. Spoiler alert Birth of a Nation fails the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™(pending) (I know, I know, you’re shocked). While there are countless examples of problematic marginalized representation in the arts throughout history, the treatment of marginalized identities in this movie and its long-term effects on our society today sets the stakes. It sets the stakes for how important it is for all of us, art creators and art consumers alike, to be EXTRA vigilant for nuanced and intentional representation of marginalized identities in film. And also it gives me a perfect opportunity to wax poetically about Bertolt Brecht and Art as propaganda, so there’s that. Let’s dive in.

  1. Does it have a diverse production team

Umm no. The writer, director, and producer were all southern white men. Thomas Dixon Jr, the author of the book and play, “The Clansmen,” the text Birth of A Nation is based on, wrote this story with the intent to “set the record straight” when it came to the portrayal of Reconstruction.3 And by “set the record straight,” he meant to deliberately use propaganda as history to “win sympathy to the southern cause.4” Cool, cool, cool, cool, we love to see it.

A disgruntled white man, born in 1864, Dixon was committed to finding a historical backing to support his own prejudices and social attitudes (A healthy dose of “righteous” indignation is the catalyst for the best and worst parts of humanity). To create social change, Dixon sought to use the power of story to write a narrative moving enough to shape public opinion on a national scale. Frustrated by the limitations in reaching a national audience through books and plays, he decided to turn his epic story into a motion picture. Dixon teamed up with D.W. Griffith’s startup movie company, and H.E. Aitken served as the producer.5

Williams Intentionality Rating: Unacceptable
  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?

No…. In fact, there was an incredible amount of outrage and feedback from the Black community at the time. Other than the Mammy and faithful servant character, all other Black characters in the movie are depicted as “impudent, vengeful, or malicious in their conduct toward whites.6” Furthermore, Black Americans were NEVER in control of state government in South Carolina, though that’s the driving plot of the movie’s second half and the reasoning for the need for the Ku Klux Klan.7 Countless Black cultural leaders pointed out how harmful the fictitious and malicious portrayals of Black people in this story were. My favorite quote came from Kelly Miller, the Negro Dean of Howard University, who wrote to Dixon, “Your teachings subvert the foundations of law and established order. You are the high priest of lawlessness, the prophet of anarchy.8” (tell ’em sis).

But just like a colonizer, Dixon’s response was,” My books are hard reading for a Negro, and yet the Negroes, in denouncing them, are unwittingly denouncing one of their greatest friends…9” Essentially I know you and the needs of your community better than you do… Yikes.

Rating:  Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars.
  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
Pop Tv Truth GIF by Schitt's Creek - Find & Share on GIPHY

Birth of a Nation chose to use white actors in blackface to portray the roles of each Black character with a major role (some Black people were used as extras in certain scenes). To be fair, Griffith did have a public statement on the issue. Griffith “defended” his decision to use black face by saying, “on careful weighing of every detail concerned, the decision was to have no black blood among the principles…10” I guess technically, this is an intentional, transparent, and accessible explanation. Though, to be fair, I just assumed that morality and a baseline desire to not be racist was a give in… I won’t do that again.

Williams Intentionality Rating: Steaming pile of trash
  1. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance, not as irresponsible caricatures?

Absolutely NOT. Every representation of a black person is done in terms of a racist and harmful stereotype that portrays Black people as animalistic and evil.11 We see the Mandingo in Gus– the renegade negro, the Jezebel in Lydia Brown– Stoneman’s lascivious mulatto housekeeper and mistress, the Mammy in the character of the Mammy (’nuff said that’s literally what they named her), the Uncle Tom in the unnamed male faithful servant to the Cameron’s; and the Black Brute in Silas Lynch– the conniving politician.12

The very first representation of black people in the movie portrays the caricature of the pickaninny. Two Black children fall off the back of a wagon and lay there in the ground until they are picked up comically like sacks of potatoes and thrown back onto the wagon. The pickaninny caricature, like all of the others, was used to dehumanize Black people and make their lives and safety seem inconsequential.

Rating:  F with a note to see the professor after class

But Wait There’s More:

I have to make one more point before I give the final rating for Birth of a Nation. Film, and its ability to impact culture, is fundamentally different from other performing art mediums. Music videos, visual art, live theater, musicals, concerts are all mediums that lend themselves to critical analysis. They have aspects built into their very structure that serve to remind the audience that this is not reality; this is an artist’s interpretation of reality. It’s fantasy, it’s creation. Whether that comes in the form of a curtain opening and closing around a performance, an intermission, a set being moved, or performers bursting into song (I realize this is a normal facet of life for my roommates, but from what I’ve heard from others people randomly singing their inner thoughts is not a normal occurrence in day to day life), all other forms of performing arts remind us that we are entering into a space of suspended disbelief to experience art. 

Bertolt Brecht talked about the importance of these reminders, these invitations, to think critically in his writings about the “alienation effect.” As someone who was uber concerned with art as propaganda and how it could subconsciously influence masses, he was particularly critical of film as a medium. Film’s more realistic immersion increases the potential for influence on public opinion without the normal level of critical analysis. Dixon used all of this to his advantage as he purposefully told a fictitious narrative through film that he hoped would be viewed and shared as fact.

While Dixon may not have invented the Southern sympathist view of Reconstruction, he perfected it and accelerated its spread. Birth of a Nation tells a story where Blacks and Whites in the South were content with their lot before the war. It claims that Southern white women were left at the mercy of rogue bands of Black Northern regiments during the war, who invaded cities and pillaged and raped the southern belle’s left behind. It paints Reconstruction as a time of lawlessness where Black Americans vengefully repressed their White Southern neighbors. This fictitious retelling of American History began displacing the truth. And while this version of events is about as real as Kylie Jenner’s lips, the film’s use of “facsimile’s” like the one below was used to blur the line of truth and propaganda.

President Woodrow Wilson, a friend of Dixon and a supporter of the KKK, was quoted sharing his Southern Sympathetic views throughout the film.

Many people who saw this film, the first feature motion picture, thought of it as a documentary. “… using a new and increasingly influential medium of communication, and as an instrument that deliberately and successfully undertook to use propaganda as history, the influence of Birth of a Nation on the current view of Reconstruction has been greater than any other single force..13

Because of film’s unique ability to portray fiction as truth and the far-reaching effects of such, harmful and untrue representations of marginalized identities in film should receive even more scrutiny than in other art forms.

Bonus Rating for Film: Minus 50 additional points


No. No. No. Birth of a Nation does NOT pass the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (pending). But, if you’re ever super bored and looking to learn about your country at it’s worst… if you like to lightly trigger yourself… and if you want another reason to feel deeply uncomfortable whenever you listen to Wagner… by all means check it out.

If you’re new to the series, make sure to check out my previous posts on Fires in the Mirror and Hamilton as well! Stay tuned for new content this Fall!

Fires in The Mirror: Marginalized Representation in Casting (Pt 3)

When I was 8, I spent two months trying to convince my mother I was allergic to water. That has nothing to do with anything, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to open today’s blog post. Welcome back! I hope everyone is having a great summer! I know I, for one, have spent my summer pondering deep existential questions like how many cats can I get before I’m officially labeled a crazy cat lady, and why are the Backyardigans TikToks so darn catchy??? If you have answers to either of these questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments section. Or of course, if you read this post and want to tell me your thoughts, you can comment as well! Today I’m looking at Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror. We’ll have to start with a brief history lesson before jumping–

In the summer of 1991, long-simmering racial tensions between the Hasidic Jewish Chabad community and the Black community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, came to a head and resulted in a 3-day race riot that decimated the community. When a car driven by an Orthodox Jewish driver ran a red light and hit two Black children on the sidewalk– killing one and seriously injuring the other– many Black residents of Crown Heights were infuriated to find that the police at the scene seemed more concerned with the safety of the Jewish driver than the lives of the two Black children.1 Communal frustrations with a perceived system of preferential treatment afforded to the Jews in Crown Heights through double standards in law enforcement, government funding, and housing opportunities exploded into a particularly violent riot that left 152 police officers injured, numerous homes and stores looted, 122 Black Americans arrested, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Jewish graduate student, stabbed to death by a group of Black rioters.2 

In turn, many Hasidic Jewish residents of Crown Heights were enraged at law enforcement’s response to alarming anti-semitism in response to the accident. Signs saying “Death to Jews” were carried at protests, Jewish stores and homes were targeted for looting, an Israeli flag was burned, and the suspect in the Yankel Rosenbaum killing was acquitted at trial.3 They perceived the murder and the riots as anti-semitic hate crimes and felt that the government didn’t go far enough to protect them simply because the perpetrators of this anti-semitism were Black.4 

Enter Anna Deavere Smith. My new role model (Sorry Audra McDonald, we had a great run, but you’ve been replaced). Smith saw everything on the news and, like any of us, immediately wondered how she could turn this crisis into great art. Healing the world through art and making a literal difference, metaphorically.

Bo Burnham’s Inside Netflix Special is an entire mood if you haven’t peeped it yet.

Smith traveled to Crown Heights right after the riots and spent 8 days interviewing over 100 community members and civil rights leaders on both sides, from Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother to Angela Davis. Smith then created the play Fires in the Mirror, about the incident, in which she curated monologues out of the transcripts of 20 interviews. In each monologue, Smith “becomes” the interviewee speaking to an invisible interviewer.

Fires in the Mirror is hands down the most profound and inspirational piece of art that I’ve ever seen. Smith is masterfully gifted at embodying each character and staying true to each unique perspective in a way that feels more vulnerable/intimate than a documentary. The dialectical curation of diverse perspectives creates a patchwork storytelling of the event and the community’s feelings about it. But it is rife with complex questions about marginalized representation and casting. The play is performed as a one-woman show, meaning Smith portrays every person she interviewed, man and woman, Jewish and Black. Anna Deavere Smith is a Black woman (did I forget to mention that?).

This is Anna Deavere Smith. Extremely light-skinned and racially ambiguous to my eye, I assumed she must be half Jewish and half Black when I first watched the play. I was able to simply focus on her storytelling and didn’t initially grapple with any existential questions about her credibility to tell these stories. 

Luckily, these were precisely the questions that Smith was interested in tackling in her work. Smith implemented a rather groundbreaking approach to verbatim theater that had rippling effects on the genre for long after. In each monologue, Smith chose a section from the original interview transcript where she felt that a person “revealed” their character. She made no alterations to the transcript outside of choosing which segment to use.5 She kept every umm, like, and err, no cutting, no pasting, no paraphrasing, no omissions, as she felt that that was integral to the integrity of each person’s perspective.

Character, or identity, lies not in a pre-existing essence but in the process of self-authorship: …everyone, in a given amount of time, will say something that is like poetry. The process of getting to that poetic moment is where “character” lives…. The pursuit is frequently filled with uhs and ums and, in fact, the wrong words.6

-Anna Deavere Smith

A version of Fires in the Mirror was produced for Television and aired on PBS. This version is accessible on Youtube in 4 parts, feel free to watch the play. There are significant changes to the way this production was staged and produced from the original screenplay but it is a good way to get the essence of Smith’s work. Watch the clip below and see Anna “become” the “Anonymous Lubavitch Woman” interviewee by masterfully mimicking the unique speech pattern, gait, bodily posture, and accent.

All four parts of the PBS special of Fires in The Mirror are on Youtube. Check it out for yourself!!

“With my own work, I’m just trying to create possibilities for dialogue, to decentralize the race discussion, to try to bring more voices to it that don’t get heard. I believe we haven’t found the language for discussing difference yet, and the only way we find that language is by talking in it–not about it–and talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties are so big that we can barely speak.7

-Anna Deavere Smith

This show was a wild success! She was nominated for a Pulitzer and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. She expanded her methodology for Fires in the Mirror and went on to cover the Rodney King Riots in her play Twilight, which was also an award-winning success. She is kind of a big deal. But will she pass the Samantha Williams Marginalized Representation in Casting Test (™ pending)? Let’s find out! 

Series Overview

Welcome back to the EXCEL Log’s series on Marginalized Representation and Casting, where I advocate for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! If you’re new to the series, check out the first post [link] where I explain why using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive. Last time I wrote about  how Hamilton handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.” 

This week I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how Fires in the Mirror Fares! Let’s Dive in!

  1. Does it have a diverse production(Creative) team?

Ultimately no. As a one-woman show, there’s a singular lens in terms of whose vision is realized. In its premiere with the New York Public Theater, Anna Deavere Smith was the producer, director, interviewer, transcriber, curator, actor, and costume designer for Fires in the Mirror.  And while the libretto is “authored” by a diverse group of individuals from various marginalized identities, Smith served as the arranger, curator, interviewer, and editor, giving her the power to frame, guide, and contextualize each character’s story. Anyone who’s taken a stats course knows interviews are RIFE with opportunities to bias and shape results. Furthermore, while the words within sections are kept verbatim, the act of curation in selecting which interviews and which segment of interviews to use in the production creates space for bias. 

Her focus on allowing each character to “reveal themself,” to not judge any character, to represent but not criticize the perspectives she shares is a noble one. It’s inarguable that Smith worked hard to center an equitable representation of the perspectives of both sides in her work, but is that enough to mitigate her own biases? I don’t know! This is a hard one. I’m open to everyone’s suggestions.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: 🧐😕🤷🏿‍♀️

  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized communities in question?

 “I want to know what ethos and credibility this creative team has to tell this story about a marginalized community. And since no marginalized community is a monolith, establishing ethos requires more than interviewing one person or reading one book and feeling qualified to portray that experience.”-Marginalized Representation in Casting Pt 1

Yes Ma’am!  Anna literally sat down with hundreds of Crown Heights community members, asked them for their thoughts, perspectives, and stories, and then shared them as truthfully as she could. I asked for creators to show me their works cited pages, and Anna delivered.

 Her commitment to dialogue and collaboration also came through in her practice of post-show talkbacks that she often paired with her performances. Talkbacks are a theater practice in which the creators and performers of a show have an open discussion with the audience who just watched it. This is an incredible way to show a commitment to continued collaboration and feedback. This practice gives audiences more agency in the art-making process and allows for an even deeper level of communal engagement. This is particularly noteworthy in the current climate of DEI and community outreach in arts administration that often views the community as a group to be “cultured” instead of as an influential part of the art-making and season curation process.

In one such post-show talkback, Smith was asked by an audience member whether a white male could do what she was doing?

“That’s a fabulous question!” Smith enthuses. “I would like to see somebody else do my show, somebody from a different race, maybe a Jewish woman or Jewish man. Would it be considered a stereotype? A caricature? Which one of us could get away with more? Is there in fact a kind of license that I have, a kind of permission that I have, because I’m black? This question about who can say what, who can enact which culture, is like ‘The Question.8’”

-Anna Deavere Smith

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: Exceeds Expectations

  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?

YES! Anna Deavere Smith gets a Shiny Golden Star for having many accessible, transparent, and intentional explanations for her choice to cast herself as every character in the show across gender and racial discrepancies. This non-traditional casting choice was integral to the project’s vision; this was not an example of a casting director not wanting to deal with any extra work to find actors from marginalized identities. 

From the get go Smith described her intention to “capture the personality of a place by attempting to embody its varied population and varied points of view in one person-myself.9“In an interview with the New York Times, she described her disappointment when a Black man came up to her and said that he wished a male actor had been cast.

“I thought, ‘Oh, for him, if he doesn’t see the black male body, he’s not seeing himself.’ And so I don’t count either. There is this feeling that only a black man could be a black man. That’s not philosophically where I live.10

-Anna Deavere Smith

Excuse me while I fangirl for a moment, but part of why I’m so obsessed with this work is that Smith is flirting with the very question of authentic representation in her work. What is the yardstick for authentic representation? Smith’s performance uses her individual black female body to show the human connectedness between us all while portraying that boundaries of difference such as race and ethnicity are “active negotiations,” not static immutable characteristics. Just as race is more of a social construct than a phenotype, Anna wants to bring attention to how our differences are socially constructed and performed.11 And that’s so flipping cool!  

Furthermore, Smith goes on to press against the assumption that simply putting a body of color onstage is a political statement. She was criticized by a white reviewer who wrote that shewas doing a critique of white women. She said that the presence of my blackness, my black body, was evidence of my criticism. I thought if I was fully dutiful to speech rhythms, the color of my skin wouldn’t matter. I was wrong… It was very hurtful, and I feel I’m living it out to this day.12

It seems reductive and short-sighted to say that the “presence of her blackness” makes her performance a criticism of an alternate identity. Smith’s work embodies the line in the sand that mimicking/representing an identity other than one’s own is not inherently mocking or disrespectful. That being said, performances of BIPOC characters that are based on mocking caricatures are often harmful to those communities in real life.” This brings us to our next question.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: The Shiniest Golden Star

  1. Does it present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance, not as irresponsible caricatures?

There is undoubtedly great intentionality and nuance put into the performance and text of each character who speaks in Fires in the Mirror. Anna’s process for learning each monologue involved listening to the recording of the interview repeatedly, for hours, memorizing the unique speech patterns, effects, and characteristics, and then doing her best to present them accurately. That being said, the most common critique of her work that I came across was a concern that some of her representations bordered on caricature. 

“At certain moments your portrayal was close enough to caricature to make spectators uncomfortable- close to but not really caricature. In displaying ethnicity in a slightly magnified way you underscored the humanity of the people you interviewed. Instead of trying to make a cohesive picture, you revealed different landscapes of emotions and histories. I connect this approach to feminist ideas about open-ended narratives, about the refusal of ultimate authority- even though there’s an authority operating.13

– Debby Thompson “Is Race a Trope” an interview with Anna Deavere Smith

Dictionary.com defines caricature as a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. Due to Anna’s Verbatim theater methodology, it seems that any exaggeration to comic or grotesque effect would be a question of a viewer’s individual interpretation of her intent and/or acting skills. I personally am willing to believe Anna had the best of intentions because she revolutionized an entire art form to be as accurate in her representations as possible (and as high maintenance as I am, that’s enough for me). I mean she put her time, energy, and resources where her mouth was. But even with the best of intentions, who can say the effect that art will have on someone? 

We all know that intention and impact don’t always align. But I personally think that this is an example where the amount of effort that accompanied the good intent deserves acknowledgement even from the most staunch critic.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: Snaps


When delving into this type of art, it seems inevitable that there will be moments where the line between caricature and realistic representation(intent vs. impact) is thinner and thornier than others. What does it mean to represent a real person with aspects of their personality that overlap with harmful stereotypes made about their ethnicity? What does it mean to assume an accent, a race, a history other than our own? 

I think that this method of verbatim theater, paired with sustained input from the marginalized identities whose stories are being told, is a compelling formula/rubric for artists interested in marginalized representation. Ask the people whose stories you’d like to tell, have a good reason as to why you want to tell this story, make sure you have a clear answer as to why you feel that you need to tell it instead of supporting someone in telling their own story, and then be as transparent, intentional, and committed to seeking feedback as possible. 

For me, this is a prime example of an intentional art creator who seeks accountability for the choices they make in telling marginalized stories and also has earned the space to acknowledge differences in opinion and intent vs. impact. After careful conversions and tabulations, it appears that Fires in the Mirror does pass the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (Pending).

Session 1: Disrupting Traditional Organizational Practice

This month the EXCEL Lab is THRILLED to be partnering with the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research on a three-part online symposium entitled Disruption Action Change! This week our featured guests, Ashleigh Gordon (Castle of Our Skins) and Margaret Lioi (Chamber Music America), discuss their experiences disrupting traditional organizational practice! Register below to see their live Q&A this Thursday, March 11th at 4:30pm EDT.

Register Here

Meet Ashleigh Gordon

​Ashleigh is co-founder, Artistic/Executive Director and violist of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series devoted to celebrating Black Artistry through music. In recognition of her work, she has presented at IDEAS UMass Boston Conference and 180 Degrees Festival in Bulgaria; has been featured in the International Musician and Improper Bostonian magazines as well as the Boston Globe; and was awarded the 2016 Charles Walton Diversity Advocate Award from the American Federation of Musicians. Described as a “charismatic and captivating performer,” Ashleigh Gordon has recorded with Switzerland’s Ensemble Proton and Germany’s Ensemble Modern; performed with Grammy-award winning BMOP and Grammy-nominated A Far Cry string ensemble; and appeared at the prestigious BBC Proms Festival with the Chineke! Orchestra. 

From Ashleigh

As a classically-trained musician, I fought for years against the external pressure to pursue an orchestral career when I knew the intimacy of chamber music spoke deeper to my heart. As an educator, I wrestled with how I could effectively reach a child in a classroom setting when I found one-on-one, mentor-mentee relationships more natural and impactful. I knew I was creative and found excitement bringing a daydream into a tangible reality. I enjoyed research, history, storytelling, having autonomy in my work, and connecting with my cultural roots. I grew to love my identity as a Black woman violist.

I share these as realizations about myself that took years to fully own and whole-heartedly embrace. These understandings – which now serve as the bedrock for how I authentically engage with the world – shape my work as Artistic and Executive Director of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. 

For the past eight years (and counting), I have presented the works of African diasporic composers alongside spoken word, dance, visual arts and other mediums, flooding classrooms and concert stages with centuries worth of artistic excellence. Through performances, residencies, commissions, workshops, and more, I have made it a common mission for both myself and the organization to showcase a wide breadth of Black artistry that spans genres, generations, genders, and geographies. I have done – and continue to do – this from a place of authenticity, genuine passion, and deep-seeded purpose. Representation continues to be foundational in my work. Black voices continue to be centered on stage and off. Cultural exploration remains a constant reason to both celebrate and normalize diversity and is not conditional to an anniversary, date on a calendar, response to yet another example of injustice, or matter of convenience.

To encourage artists/arts organizations to join in this continual and intentional centering of the underrepresented, I would like to offer three simple thoughts:

  1. Know your motivations; name your intentions: As this is not the work of a 100-meter dash but a marathon spanning generations, it is crucial to know what is driving your work and why. Keep those answers top of mind all the time as honesty and authenticity are the fuel that will drive your well-meaning efforts beyond the limits of pure passion and a reaction to the times. 
  2. Strength is in community: Collaboration not competition will make for more sustainable efforts as strength lies in numbers. Collectively, we have the ability to challenge, push, support, and inspire a movement that lasts beyond a headline or topical trend.
  3. Share resources: Knowledge is power as we know and have heard countless times. Sharing what you know, have learned, have tried and failed, and tried and succeeded is essential to our collective understanding in how we can build a healthy arts ecosystem devoid of the inequities that continue to plague it (and us).

As said by writer, choreographer, activist and author Andrew Simonet in his Making Your Life as an Artist: “Culture needs you to do it (your art) and do it well.” We each, as cultural influencers, have an awesome and unique responsibility to fulfill. At the same time, it is imperative that we each remain steadfast and truly elevate the marginalized in all of our work if we are to disrupt a centuries old system of inequity. Our collective and creative future quite literally depends on it.

Meet Margaret Lioi

Margaret M. Lioi has been Chamber Music America’s Chief Executive Officer since 2000, serving as the longest-tenured executive in CMA’s 43-year history. During this time, CMA incorporated jazz into its small ensemble portfolio, increased its grant-making to more than $1.3 million annually, established May as National Chamber Music Month, and ratified the organization’s Commitment to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, solidifying its dedication to equitable practices in every area of its operations.

She holds a Masters in Piano Performance from New England Conservatory and an MBA in Arts Management from Binghamton University/SUNY. Prior to CMA, Lioi was the Director of Development at Spoleto U.S.A., Executive Director of The Eleanor Naylor Dana Charitable Trust, and Senior Director of External Affairs at The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. She serves on the Advisory Board of The Sphinx Organization, is a member of the Board of The Performing Arts Alliance, and is an adjunct faculty member in the MA in Arts Management Entrepreneurship program at The New School.

From Margaret: A Reflection on Disruption

I do not think of myself as a disrupter. For women of my background and generation, disrupting anything does not carry with it a positive connotation. Women are selfless peacemakers who bring people together, not break things apart—or so say the influential voices of my past. 

When I arrived at Chamber Music America in 2000, CMA had accepted an initial grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to fund new works for composer-led jazz ensembles. This made complete sense to me; it fit perfectly into CMA’s definition of chamber music: music for small ensembles between two and ten musicians, one musician per part, generally without a conductor. But I wasn’t prepared for the pushback, negative emails, and overall controversy the program created.

To an already marginalized field that was perennially under-resourced, it was a signal that funding would be siphoned from our classical grant programs and redirected to what was perceived as an interloping discipline. It didn’t matter that Doris Duke’s Will mandated that the Foundation’s funding in music be dedicated to jazz. None of CMA’s funding for its classical programs was in jeopardy because of the jazz grants, and further, the Duke Foundation would not fund classical music as it was not one of Doris Duke’s interests.

Unbelievably, this debate continued for nearly a decade. I often reflect on these early years in my tenure and wonder what I could have/should have done to make the inclusion of jazz into CMA’s portfolio easier for everyone to accept. Some CMA members were so outraged at the idea that jazz was becoming a permanent part of CMA that they signed a petition against its inclusion. I remember that it arrived in my In Box the evening before our national conference and took center stage as we attempted to finalize our strategic plan in 2007. 

The organization, the Board, and I came under fire for “abandoning CMA’s core constituency,” “forcing jazz down presenters’ throats,” and “disregarding CMA’s founding mission”—all untrue. Despite the negative reactions, we persevered. Our jazz funding and number of programs continued to grow. Jazz artists began to see Chamber Music America as a home, and most rewarding of all, jazz and classical musicians began to learn from each other and collaborate on artistic projects. Was this disruption or bringing people together? One of my colleagues often reminds me that more than one thing can be true at the same time. 

In my first ten years at CMA I learned to listen. The jazz musicians were happy to have a new funding source but wanted to make sure that CMA was not inviting them into the classical construct and expecting them to conform. And it was equally important to recognize and understand the anxieties and misgivings of our classical constituents, who felt that resources were being taken away from them.

This journey, arduous and exhausting, will never come to a complete conclusion, but the resulting jazz programs and participation continue to contribute to CMA’s success as a vibrant and relevant 21st-Century organization.

It was with the successes and missteps of this experience that we approached our racial equity work. We continue to disrupt and bring people together.

Want to hear more?

Join us this Thursday, March 11th from 4:30-6:00pm EDT via Zoom for a Q&A with Ashleigh and Margaret. They will delve into their posts in greater depth and explore questions like, “How do we design and support organizations that connect genuinely with their communities, enabling audiences to be ‘co-creators’?” We hope to see you there as we expand this conversation around disrupting traditional organizational practice and taking risks to advance ADEI/anti-racism policies in the arts. Participation is free, but registration is required via the link below.

Coloring Outside the Lines: A Look Into Color-Conscious, Colorblind, and For Us By Us Casting Practices

“A not so fair My Fair Lady.” That was the title of the review that I most remember from my first experience in professional theater. As a sophomore in college, I had been tapped to star in my first professional theater gig and I was a bundle of nerves. At 20 I was beyond thrilled to be given the role of Eliza Doolittle in a real regional theater’s production of My Fair Lady. In the same breath, I was filled with imposter syndrome as I was the youngest in the cast, had no experience with accent work, and had to juggle all these rehearsals on top of a busy course load. Queue the Disney movie montage of HOURS spent practicing ballroom dance choreo in a corset, biking 5 miles daily for extra accent coachings, and pulling all nighters to finish stats psets. So when I read my first review, to see what the world thought of my hard work I didn’t know how to process this first review which seemed solely concerned with my race rather than my performance. “A not so fair My Fair Lady.” The reviewer went on to write how my casting as a black female in the lead role was distracting to the cohesion of the show because the issue of race wasn’t properly addressed in our production, because the show had never been meant to address a black female transformation story. My director and mentor at the time, an amazingly gifted POC artist told me that I would have to get used to this, that anytime you put a body of color on a stage you were making a political statement.

As a black artist I’ve spent much of my career wrestling with what it means to put a body of color on stage. What does it mean to say that bodies of color on stage are inherently political statements? Is that something we should accept? What if I don’t want to be a political statement? Sometimes I might simply want to be the shallowly developed ingenue character whose arc is to be pretty, find love, and live happily ever after. Sometimes I don’t want to be a source of controversy just for existing. Do I get any say in that? Is that even possible? I’ve spent much of my early career looking for opportunities where I had the freedom to simply perform; to be seen as an artist first and a political statement second. I’ve explored the differences in opera, theater, music, and dance’s approaches to race and casting and it has become clear to me that everyone is stuck on the first question.

How SHOULD we deal with race?

In the performing arts, how race should factor into casting is a controversial, complicated, and contradictory debate. The main approaches can be divided into three schools of thought.

Colorblind casting

Have y’all seen the Brandy Cinderella movie from 1997 cause how a Black queen and a White king make a Filipino prince is still one of the biggest genetic mysteries of our world but production was everything??? The ONLY Cinderella as far as I’m concerned.

Colorblind casting or “non-traditional casting” is when directors cast a performance without regard to race, gender, etc. Springing to prominence in the 1980’s, color-blind casting is an idealistic attempt to create more opportunities for performers of color. 


We DON’T live in a post-racial society. It can be problematic because it assumes that because a casting director has decided to ignore race, that an audience will also ignore the race of the characters. Some critics have gone as to call it erasure wrapped up as benevolence. If you cast a show where just by happenstance all of the black artists portray villains that is sending a message to the audience whether you intentionally meant that or not. Regardless of how it happens creative teams often aren’t prepared to address the racial implications created by colorblind casting.

Additional critiques of colorblind casting include that it can be used as an excuse for directors refusing to look for diverse artists of color to work with and excuse casting white actors as BIPOC characters and that it doesn’t pressure the arts industry to tell stories centered on BIPOC lives.

Color conscious casting

Color conscious casting is open to casting people in roles that they may not have traditionally been written for, but also understand and think about the way that their race, now affect this role and affects the story. It asks creative teams to be willing to engage with the racial stereotypes and the deepness that comes with putting POC actors into these traditionally white spaces.


Color conscious casting seems to put a lot of pressure, stress, and responsibility on directors who choose to work with actors of color. When putting BIPOC artists in roles that weren’t originally written for them, even the most imaginative creative team has some limitations in what they can do to make space for inclusivity in a pre-written work. In our current culture of calling out and canceling this puts an unfair burden on actors of color and directors who want to do this work when they’re going to be critiqued based off of things that are sometimes outside of their control.

“For us by us”/ as written casting

The third school of thought is “for us by us” or as written casting. As written casting practices advocate for casting performers in roles that are written for their specified race, and advocate for the creation of new art portraying more diverse stories and more identities. August Wilson, a hugely influential black playwright in the 80’s and 90’s, was an early advocate for a “for us by us” approach. He felt that putting black actors in any play that was “conceived for white people” was an assault on black history and an insult to black artists worldwide. He very strongly advocated for an end to color-blind casting and more resources towards black theatres and the creation of new black drama. Even Hamilton has been critiqued for the ways in which placing people of color in the roles of America’s founding fathers perpetuates erasure of black culture (I almost didn’t include this because I’m half convinced critiquing Hamilton is heretical but apparently objectivity is important…).


So while creating a bunch of new BIPOC centered plays sounds AMAZING (hint hint wink wink BIPOC playwrights/ composers slide in my dms please) is it that practical a solution? Right now the canon, the set of commonly performed shows by arts organizations, consists mainly of pieces that were written for white bodies. If “for us by us” casting calls for BIPOC artists being placed in works written for them, then that essentially forces all artists of color to find sustainable careers solely in new work outside of the standard canon.

What if you’re an Audra McDonald, a black singer with a voice perfect for golden age musicals? No more Sound of Music for you missy you better learn to screlt along to the Color Purple like everybody else.

An additional critique with “as written” casting is that it assumes that race is the most defining characteristic of one’s identity when that is far from a universal truth. Every single person is a conglomeration of a bunch of different identities. Stryker’s theory of social identity salience says that we have multiple identities and which aspects of our identity we feel most strongly shift depending on our environments. Who’s to say which identity is the most salient to the integrity of a character when we’re all a combination of many different identities.

A perfect example of this is the recent controversy over the voice actor for the biracial character Missy in the Netflix show Big Mouth. In the show the cartoon character of Missy is half Jewish and half Black. The original voice actress, Jenny Slate, was Jewish and left the show stating that characters of color should be played by actors of color, but genetically she shared just as much of Missy’s identity as Ayo Edebiri, the black voice actress who replaced her. Who’s to say that the black part of Missy’s personality is more salient than her Jewish identity?

More Questions

What about identities that aren’t visible? Does that mean we can never have an actor play a sexuality that they are not, a gender that they are not (mezzos can kiss half of their rep goodbye), a body type, an age? At that point what is the measure of a good performance? The word performance implies that one is putting on a form other than of their natural state and the art of casting reflects the limits or the extents of our imagination. Should race be a deciding factor just because it’s visible, while other marginalized identifiers may have more bearing but are less easy to see?

Even when we aren’t acting, identity is complex and sometimes nebulous. How do we allow artists enough room to wrestle with their own interpretations? Stay Tuned!