Diversity in GDS Theater?

In the cold winter months of 1925, caver William Floyd Collins got trapped in a tight crevice of Sand Cave in Kentucky only one hundred and fifty feet from the cave’s entrance. The ensuing media circus and tragic tale of his prolonged death inspired an eponymous Off-Broadway musical in the 1990s. Based on the original context of the event, the play features a primarily white cast and employs stereotypical gender roles. In April, Georgetown Day School’s theater program will present its own adaptation of Floyd Collins, raising concerns about diversity—or the lack thereof—in GDS theater.

In the past, the lack of racial and gender diversity in certain productions at GDS has prompted discussions concerning equal representation in GDS theater, including a company-wide discussion surrounding representation during last spring’s musical, Mary Poppins. Centered around an affluent white family in early-20th century England, Mary Poppins also came on the heels of productions of On the Town and On the Razzle, plays that GDS students criticized for accusations of racial stereotyping in the casting process.

Because Floyd Collins takes place in Kentucky during the 1920s, the characters’ races are not rigidly defined. “I think it is very possible, especially because it is a musical adaptation [of Collins’ story], to make this show racially ambiguous,” said senior Claire Lewis. Junior Cole Wright-Schaner was in agreement, saying “coming from last year and having a show that was not very racially diverse… Floyd Collins is definitely an amelioration of the race issues we’ve been having with the GDS theater program… I think we are talking about 1920s Kentucky which is definitely not a racially inclusive place, but this show is not written from a standpoint where race is the most important factor, unlike Mary Poppins which is like the white, affluent family.”

Another issue raised by the choice of Floyd Collins as the annual spring musical is the lack of principal roles for women despite the large number of female students who are active in the GDS theater program. There are only three women cast as principal characters in Floyd, one of whom is playing a role intended for a man. “I think the show itself leaves open space for more diverse casting racially but not necessarily gender,” said Lewis. Junior Sophie Warshauer agreed with Lewis, adding that “we have a lot of girls at GDS who do theater, and a lot of people who are interested in doing theater identify as female. But, some of the shows that we do, in particular, Floyd Collins, don’t have that many opportunities for female actors to take the stage.”

Beyond the limited number of roles for females, some students have raised concerns that the few female roles available often employ traditional female stereotypes. “In particular, the roles that are picked in shows tend to be very similar,” Warshauer noted. “There is the innocent younger type [of woman] and then the older kind of maternal type [of woman], and, if you don’t fit into one of those two boxes, then it’s difficult to be recognized in theater. As a result, people tend to try to fit into those distinct boxes because there aren’t that many other opportunities,” Warshauer continued. Wright-Schaner also spoke to the potentially restrictive nature of roles for women in GDS, adding that the female characters “idly stand by while the male characters are active in their community.”

So what would a solution for the lack of representation at GDS look like? Specifically with regard to gender, Warshauer suggested choosing shows that are “a bit more ambiguous with their casting [and] that…provide more opportunities overall.” She added that the theater department could also “pick shows with a gender breakdown that is proportional to the breakdown of students in theater at GDS.” Lewis explained that even if a role is confined by specific racial or gender stereotypes, “there are not specific roles that are written in as representative.” Lewis continued, saying “that begs a question about what is actual progress in theater at this school. Is it doing shows that have roles where a student of color can see themself in that role or is it just about being able to cast anyone in roles?”

By Caroline Katzive ’19 and Mica Maltzman ’20