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Casting Call For Diversity

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, June 21, 2005, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Minority, disabled actors catalogued

For the benefit of casting agents and others, ACTRA Toronto's catalogue has compiled 423 actors of colour and physical disability

Goal to land more roles in TV, film

The Toronto branch of the ACTRA performers union has published a new catalogue of actors who are ethnically diverse and physically disabled in order to promote diversity in Canadian film and television.

Call it a comeback

The Mainstream Now! catalogue picks up where Into the Mainstream left off eight years ago.

The earlier guide first came out in 1990 with actress Sandi Ross, then chair of ACTRA's national equal opportunities committee, at the helm. It had 125 men, women and children of varying cultural and racial backgrounds from across Canada. In two subsequent editions, the book grew to include 600 actors. But the numbers fell when actors were asked to pay $25 for inclusion in the 1996-97 edition. Then the project lost steam.

"There was a lack of will and I was a lone ranger," said Ross. "You get burned out."

But, at the behest of ACTRA's brain trust, she's back as founding editor and project coordinator of the new catalogue, funded by the union's Toronto branch and featuring 423 local performers.

"There wasn't a national mandate to produce it," Ross said. "In Vancouver, for example, the few (minority actors) there are working a lot. So they don't think they need it."

Everyday people

Leesa Levinson is among the actors with a bio and photo in the handbook. After she began experiencing symptoms of multiple sclerosis in the late 1990s, she went from running to auditions to being an out-of-work actor in a wheelchair.

"In this city, known for its diversity, roughly 12 to 15 percent of Torontonians live with a disability," said Levinson, an ACTRA diversity advocate who appeared in the play That Takes Ovaries last December in the Distillery District.

"Representation of this skilled, intelligent culture is virtually non-existent on our screens and in the media. There is a vast untapped market ready and willing to fulfill casting needs. We can keep the reels and the wheels rolling."

How does it work?

About 400 copies of the directory will be distributed to casting agents, directors and producers in Canada and U.S. Some 100 are on their way to the L.A. offices of the Ontario Media Development Corporation, which contributed to the $20,000 project cost.

The new catalogue is in the form of a binder, making it easier to update: just add pages instead of having to reprint entirely, said ACTRA manager Eda Zimler.

Despite a recent report by a CRTC task force on cultural diversity that there's still a lack of minority and aboriginal representation in TV shows, Zimler thinks things are slowly getting better for traditionally marginalized actors.

"There are improvements, particularly in commercials. American producers used to import ethnically diverse performers, because they didn't think we had any; now they're asking to see them. And independent Canadian productions like Metropia, This is Wonderland and (recently cancelled) Train 48 showcase diverse local talent in major roles."

But it's too early to celebrate, said Ross.

"There are still too many Canadian shows that lack people of colour. Many times, they have just one who'll be playing a lab technician and has no life."

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