ABC and AFTRA seek diversity with national talent search here

The ABC Talent Showcase in conjuction with National AFTRA is coming to Chicago in search of diversity among actors for national television shows.

Local SAG, AFTRA and Actors Equity members have until March 15 to get their headshots in for this first-time opportunity. The Showcase will held in June.

The goal of the AFTRA-initiated showcase “is to help produce programming that reflects what we see out in the landscape of America, in terms of gender, disability, ethnicity and age,” said Ray Bradford, AFTRA’s national director for equal employment opportunities.

ABC Entertainment Television Group plans to audition 700 to 900 actors selected from headshot submissions. Performers chosen from the first round of auditions in April will be invited to executive callback sessions. From those sessions, ABC casting staff will pick 14 to 20 local actors to perform in the Showcase.

Those attending the Showcase will be representatives from other networks, agents, managers, theater directors, and other local and national industry professionals.

Bradford emphasized that audition tapes of actors not selected for the Showcase will be circulated through the networks, providing talent with otherwise unavailable exposure.

Director Bennett Guillory will lead the actors who were tapped for the audition through a week of identifying vignettes for the Showcase and rehearsals prior to the performance. Guillory is the artistic director of the Robie Theater Company in Los Angeles, which he co-founded with screen star Danny Glover.

Carmen Smith, ABC VP/talent development, and Keli Lee, VP/casting, have organized 13 showcases in Los Angeles since 2000.

“The entertainment industry has embraced the showcases as an opportunity to check out new talent,” Smith said. “Because of those successes we realized that we should take the Showcases out into the rest of the country.”

Smith and Lee were in Chicago March 3 scouting venues. They’re talking to Second City and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts as possibilities, Smith said.

According to AFTRA, of 166 actors who have performed in ABC showcases, 121 have been called in to read for ABC productions; 30 have been cast in ABC or Disney productions; 58 have been cast by other networks, and 11 actors have found new representation.

Smith cited the example of Donia Ramirez, a New York actress who, since her September showcase performance, played a lead role in a pilot that is slated to air on ABC later this year.

“Diversity is not reflected enough in television,” said Lee. “Where are the talented actors of diverse backgrounds? The answer we’re always given is that they don’t exist.”

“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to unearth this talent,” Smith picked up where Lee left off, “and give them a platform to be discovered, or rediscovered.”

Casting director David O’Connor said he was pleased to see television opening up to more diversification as they expand into larger markets. “They should be opening up to everybody in Chicago a lot more. L.A. doesn’t have everything.”

“AFTRA’s relationship with the networks is usually sitting on opposite sides of the bargaining table,” noted Bradford, a former Chicago actor and local AFTRA president, “but this is an opportunity to work together on behalf of the networks and the talent.”

Bradford helped organize ABC’s first talent showcase outside Los Angeles, at New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater last September. “We want to make sure that the networks see the wealth of talent that also exists in Chicago,” said Bradford.

“Having been a performer in Chicago, I know the talent that exists there,” Bradford continued, “but not everybody can afford to fly to L.A. for pilot season.

“My primary purpose in bringing ABC to Chicago is so they can avail themselves of the diverse talent, the performers of color, seniors, and performers with disabilities that often go under-represented.”

The League of Chicago Theaters and Ch. 7 are also collaborating on the Chicago showcase. Bradford is working with ABC to bring future showcases to other talent centers in Atlanta, Dallas and Miami.

Headshots and resumes should be sent to AFTRA, 1 E. Erie, Chicago, 60611, attention ABC. Applicants must be at least 18 years old.

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