Sharon Jensen
Daryl "Chill" Mitchell and Michael Strahan in FOX-TV's "Brothers"

Alliance Takes a Much-Deserved Bow
Alumna Sharon Jensen Wins Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater

by Betsy Goolian

 

When the Tony Awards ceremony was held in June, Sharon Jensen (BA ’69, MA ’71, theatre & drama) was there. She and the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, of which she is executive director, were presented with a 2011 Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre.

 

“So much of our work is under the radar,” Jensen said after the ceremony. “That’s why we’re over the moon about this Tony. The best part is that it belongs to so many. This is such a collaborative field and its success is due to the thousands of artists of color and artists with disabilities in our profession as well as the many decision-makers committed to a fully inclusive theatre, television, and film industry.”

 

The work of the Alliance, whether it’s race, culture, ethnicity, or disability, is all about issues of exclusion or discrimination in the acting profession. “Rarely is it outright discrimination,” Jensen says, “but rather practices that have stayed in place for decades and haven’t been challenged.” The Alliance was recognized by its hometown in June 2009 when Mayor Bloomberg presented Ms. Jensen with a “Made in NY” award for significant contributions to the city’s entertainment industry.

 

Jensen has been at the helm of the Alliance for 22 of its 25 years. After finishing her master’s in theatre & drama at Michigan, she left for New York for a job, first as a casting assistant, then as a casting director with the Theatre Communications Group. She then worked as administrator and then as executive director for the League of Professional Theatre Training, a consortium of the major actor training programs in the country at that time.

 

When the League closed its doors thirteen years later, Jensen was left to ponder her next move. Of one thing she was sure:  it would be in theatre. Through a series of serendipitous twists and turns, she found herself taking the lead of what was then the Non Traditional Casting Project, now the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.

 

“To me, it was the perfect coming together of my non-profit background in the theatre with my core interests,” she says. “I knew right away, this is what I want to do. Having been a casting director has helped me; I understand actors, I have respect for the process.”

 

One key impetus for the establishment of the Alliance was a four-year study by Actors Equity, released in 1986, that showed that of every professional production in the country, over 90% of the actors were white. “It was a huge wake-up call to the industry,” Jensen says. “And if you discounted culturally specific productions like Dreamgirls, that number became much higher.”

 

Catch 22? “Casting directors were saying actors of color aren’t coming in to audition for roles. Actors of color were saying why should we bother when we’re not being cast? At the same time casting directors were saying we want to consider hiring more actors of color, but we’re not familiar with a wide-ranging talent pool.”

 

Enter the Alliance. The newly established office set to work assembling what would become the most extensive national talent bank, with photos and resumes of 3,500 actors of color. Along with making this information available 24/7, the Alliance also served—and continues to serve—as a consultant, engaging, interacting, and working with the leaders and decision makers in the theatre, film, and television industries toward more inclusive standards, policies, and practices.

 

Great strides were made. The office soon expanded its work into the area of disability, a seriously under-represented minority in American arts and entertainment. “We’ve done more in disability in recent years because the need is so huge,” Jensen says, “and because there have been opportunities to make a difference.”

 

“Historically, disability has been primarily written about by people who are not disabled and don’t have a lived experience of disability,” Jensen says. “It’s often an idealized or sentimental script. It’s usually about the cure:  making the blind person see or the person in the wheelchair walk. People with disabilities have been seen as having limitations that can’t be gotten beyond.”

 

That’s where the Alliance comes in. “It’s still common for people who are non-disabled to play roles that are disability specific,” she says. But in so doing, the losses are threefold—for the disabled actor, who has the same training and background and has worked just as hard; for the ensemble, to be exposed to what the lived experience of disability is; and for the audience, to see a portrayal of what the authentic experience of disability is.

 

Now the Alliance has files of some 400-450 actors with disabilities and a disability advocate and disability associate on the staff. “So, say, if Law & Order calls,” Jensen says, “Christine or David finds out the specifications for the role and refers actors who are a good fit. Then they call and says how’s it going, do you need anything more, how did it work out?”

 

In a recent interview, an actor said, “There’s still the belief that a disabled actor will slow down the production and cost the producers money and that they will have to make all kinds of accommodations.”

 

It’s really quite the opposite, Jensen says. “A lot of wrong assumptions are made. If someone is blind, for example, there’s a fear that he or she is going to fall off the stage. But they probably know it better than you or I; they have walked it. They make sure they know exactly where things are. I have a friend who uses a motorized chair—I couldn’t begin to keep up with her.”

 

Take the case of Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell, former rapper turned actor, who was, as he puts it, “briefly sidelined” by a motorcycle accident in 2001 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Since then, he has appeared as a regular in the NBC series Ed and in Fox TV’s Brothers. “Daryl is an amazing guy,” says Jensen. “As he himself says about auditions, ‘just get me in the room and I’ll get the job.’ He shows that a person with a disability doesn’t have to be a sainted or tragic figure, but rather a complex, multi-dimensional—and very funny!—guy.”

 

Even after 25 years, the work of the Alliance is not done. “These issues are fluid,” Jensen says, “and they will always change. Where people are now is not where they were five years ago, or ten years ago, or even twenty years ago. We’ve made progress, but there are still a lot of issues that need to be resolved.”

 

Bottom line? “It’s important to us, on an artistic and human level, that we have an understanding of the full spectrum and dimension of our humanity,” Jensen says. “That means all of us. We’re all welcome at the table.”