Why it’s important to create more inclusive immersive theater

I’m a unicorn, I’ve been told. I can make people feel a certain way, move a certain way and feel validated. I snuggle, negotiate and fly in rooms on and off stage. My role? Make artists, viewers and director/production teams feel like they belong. This magical work arose from my lifelong career in postmodern, physical, immersive and dance theater in Europe and the USA

My name is Stefanie Batten Bland. I am an interdisciplinary director and choreographer. An American of African and European heritage, I am a brown-toned woman with auburn bushy curly hair that has volume and takes up space uncompromisingly. I’ve lived most of my life in spaces that weren’t necessarily designed for me, and yet I’ve been successful.

To be seen for who you are – with cast, lighting and costume choices to support that – is an amazing feeling. But it’s a condition I have a complex relationship with. I grew up with the need to negotiate family spaces, so I’ve always been hired as a sort of hybrid mover, sprinkled into hybrid genres. I know how a person’s identity is connected to their reality – and how that affects their work, whether a production is thematically abstract or a fictional narrative.

Within the ballet I was a founding choreographer for ABT’s Women’s movement, for his Studio Company in 2019. I see the ballet industry starting to review its hiring practices and role allocation policies. Now, spurred on further by the theatrical justice movement during the pandemic, it is immersive theater’s turn to change patterns as we proudly move into the rest of this century.

Outside of my own work with my company SBB, I am the casting and motion director, performance and identity consultant for Emursive Productions, the producers of large-scale immersive theater in New York City and around the world. Immersive work is a form that is often concerned with being seen and not — through mysterious lighting, enticing characters, and stories that place viewers at the center and give them the freedom to hunt, follow, and choose how close they get to the cast.

However, there is a fundamental difference between immersive BIPOC performers who are not seen voluntarily and cannot be seen at all. This is where I come in. I want to make sure that directors, producers, scenographers and designers invent shows with an inclusive perspective. How can they meet different performers at auditions, introduce them in all roles, and then make sure the audience can literally see them? How does lighting, instruments, costumes, character description approaches, and all the other visual cues, from space to sound, help the performers act out their best fiction while living their truth?

Art-making is complex, controversial. I know what I do can’t fix everything or please everyone. This theatrical practice was mainly done for and by people of European descent. Not to say BIPOC cast members weren’t on those shows. But they weren’t centered around us, our tones, our skin crack. My work within Emursive is profound as it shifts what ‘public absence’ means in this proximity-based work. My weapon of choice is what great achievement is rooted in: imagination. I open up our framework of imagining people as we see them to also include how they see themselves. Our everyday prejudices are present in everything we do, so I start where I see absence.

On our new show, I’m helping to develop characters that would previously have been more supporting roles. (Just think of how BIPOC performers are often cast as exotic, magical, or humorous characters that are short-lived or only appear for a few minutes – like the black kid who dies first in horror movies.) Some of my approaches Part of the move alongside “traditional” character decks is the move to BIPOC-centric imagery in place of previous mostly white typography patterns. Then I examine the first and second degree resources (real people, living or dead, who share a character’s bio or archetype similarities) and make sure they are also BIPOC. I’m concentrating on finding the best actor for this character.

From the moment a BIPOC performer walks into a room, he/we should feel empowered. During the audition, the hiring process, and that special walk into the dressing room, we should feel normal because our space is made for everyone to succeed. My work focuses on putting into practice a cultural shift of majority versus minority in performance and identity.

On shows that are already on – and here the unicorn rears its head again – I use the same techniques to bring a production into the present/future as opposed to the past. I’ve been on those shows myself and noticed that clients saw me as an “angry black woman” rather than the character I was portraying. I saw their fear at my proximity to them – a result of their prejudice, even though they paid to be in a fictional theater space. It was humiliating to lose an audience at moments when my peers of European heritage didn’t.

I help shows rework material in a way that honors the scripts while also addressing the many complicated facets of life here in the United States. It was lonely work, but now I see immediate changes. I’m needed again for my hybrid sensibilities, and not only am I comfortable in my own skin, I can make everyone who comes after me comfortable in theirs. When I see the success of this work, it reflects in the cast, the shows, and the audience. It is exciting. Creating and re-exploring productions in collaboration with people of different skin colors creates more performance opportunities for everyone.
Race is imaginary. The representation of everyone in our performing arts should not be. says the unicorn.

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