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Teach-In on Race: Telling Authentic Stories in Film and Theatre

image of black man on film camera viewing panel

A panel of faculty members and artists discussed how race and identity impact artists’ work on film and theatre as part of the Fall 2021 Teach-In on Race.

Race on Stage and Screen, held Thursday, October 28, featured Visual and Media Arts (VMA) assistant professors and filmmakers Rae Shaw and Ougie Pak and Keith Mascoll, a Boston-based actor. It was moderated by Jessica Chance ’00, associate director in Emerson’s Career Development Center.

Watch: Teach-In on Race Playlist

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The discussion kicked off with the question of how inequities have affected work in film and theatre, especially in recent years, and what that means for artists of color in an industry where they can at times feel unappreciated, or feel that their stories aren’t being told.

“I would say for inequalities, I think about how few times we’ve seen people of color in charge of their own narratives,” said Shaw, creator of the transmedia web series Black Kung Fu Chick. “I think we’re starting to see more of that, but that not only is there a story with a diverse character but that it’s told by a diverse writer or writer-director, or producer who’s really seeing the production through the way to make sure that it’s authentic.”

Pak described the differences between films, movies, and TV series being told today compared to previous years in terms of representation and diversity of stories.

“I think there’s a lot of progress being made, and that’s great, especially in the past 10 to 15 years, some really remarkable things, but I just think it’s not close to good yet,” said Pak, whose most recent film, Clytaemnestra, about the dynamics within a Korean theatre troupe performing Agamemnon, was released earlier this year

Left to right, Jessica Chance, Rae Shaw, Ougie Pak, and Keith Mascoll on zoom screen

Mascoll added that being able to see the value within artists’ work and artists having control of their own narratives, how it is told, and by whom, should be the standard.

“I think we have a hard time as artists understanding what success is and understanding that we need to have our own expectation in terms of our work, because if we allow it to be in the hands of others, it will be mediocre and below,” said Mascoll, a 2020 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Luminary and creator of The Triggered Project, which aims to end the stigma around mental health and sexual abuse of Black and Brown men through theatre and other media. 

Faculty members shared the importance of encouraging students to be open-minded and exposing them to a wide range of content, which can lead to them acknowledging and recognizing the work they can do to advance equity and diversity. 

“We have a responsibility, I think, to just to be the best artist possible,” Pak said. “You just want to expose [students] to everything because we can study the same movies you watch, but why not expose them to other foods, flavors that I think you would be open to.”

Chance added thoughts from her time at Emerson and her hopes for how the College and faculty can ready students for the real world.

“We’re preparing students for the world outside of Emerson, we are a very creative liberal arts bubble, but how are we preparing them, not just for the world as it is or should be?” said Chance. 

The conversation turned to the importance of artists of color not just controlling their own narratives and projects, but crucially, supporting others whose stories need to be seen.     

“I think definitely I agree, making content, making our own content, controlling our own narratives, but supporting other artists that are doing the same. We’ve got to support everybody… we have to encourage young folks that are coming up to the power that they have… and how they need to make authentic content,” said Mascoll. 

Moving forward, the panelists said they hope conversations like the one they had generate new dialogue and exchanges about hearing from more voices, as well as understanding stories from a diversity of perspectives and how it can impact communities.

“I think it does take a lot of courage to tell your own story and to tell it from your own perspective,” Shaw said. “I think that’s something that we help our students with, to believe in themselves and to believe that their voice, their perspective is unique and it’s powerful and that it’s important, but I also want to say that when I think about this idea of telling stories that are authentic that we want our students to also think about the social responsibility and the privileges that go along with that.”

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