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Theatre department addresses diversity concerns

The Annie Russell Theatre enters its 89th season.
Photo by Francisco Wang Yu

As the Annie Russell Theatre enters its 89th season, diversity policies in the Department of Theatre & Dance are evolving after students criticized its diversity policies last year.

The diversity concerns were brought to light by a student, who criticized the Annie Russell Theatre for its exclusive policies regarding show choices and casting. For the sake of privacy, the student requested to remain anonymous. 

The faculty took these criticisms to account and, in November 2020, created a five-page document titled “Rollins College Department of Theater & Dance and Annie Russell Theatre Anti-Racism Action Plan.” 

As outlined in the document, faculty and staff “established three working groups (Production, Academic, and External Relations) and worked alongside current BIPOC students and BIPOC alumni during the summer of 2020 to craft this document.” 

The three groups were led respectively by Annie Russell Theatre Director Thomas Ouellette, Department of Theatre & Dance Chair Kevin Griffin, and Marketing & Box Office Manager Chelsea Hilend.

Each working group was responsible for creating recommendations for action items at two priority levels: immediate adoption and expeditious adoption. Suggestions included policy changes such as examining “the diversity-conscious casting practices of professional theatres and similar best practices from Rollins’ peer and aspirant institutions and work to bring these practices to Rollins.”

In the current theatre season, the issue of not casting diversely has been noted again in the Rollins Town Hall on Sep. 10. Students from the Rollins Theatre Students & Alumni of Color Action Group attended and expressed their concerns for casting decisions for The Cake that did not appear to live up to the commitments for diversity made by the department. 

Ouellette sent an email to the department in response to the criticisms made during the Town Hall. In the email, he acknowledged the issues for which the department had been criticized and outlined additional policy changes to try and rectify the situation. 

“I will not get it right every time; I can’t fix everything,” said Ouellette in his email. “But I see you, I hear you, and I’m 100 percent committed to getting it right.” 

One notable action included in the email was the hiring of Felichia Chivaughn as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultant. Chiavaughn is a co-organizer of Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy as well as the director of Sweat, another production being put on at the Annie Russell Theatre this season. 

Within her role, Chiavaughn will be working to find and prepare black actors for the new round of callbacks as well as providing “safe spaces where students can continue to process and heal.”

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