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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why Big Non Profit Theaters Will Never Diversify

The movers and shakers of the theater world are very big on diversity.  They talk about it a lot, they hold symposiums and festivals and talk backs.  Diversity is minutely dissected, and viewed as an important goal by almost all theater artists.  I have yet to meet an “anti-diversity” artistic director.  However, notwithstanding this unanimity within the art form, real diversity in American theater remains illusive.  I am hard pressed to think of another industry where so many people, with so much power, are incapable of bringing about a result they all agree upon.  I would suggest that this failure  is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what “diversity” in theater means.  In his blog post “The Weight of White People in the World” in Arts Journal, Clayton Lord, asks “Should an arts organization that finds itself located in a more diverse community be expected to to serve a more diverse audience?”  Not surprisingly, his answer is yes.  But his point is that as white artists and producers, we are blissfully unaware of our privileged position in a cultural hegemony of whiteness.  It may be a valid point, but it doesn’t lead to me to ask whether today’s arts organizations “should” serve a more diverse audience, it leads to me ask whether they could, even if they wanted to.  

Lord, who has been studying patterns in theater in the Bay area, shows that 80% of theater audiences are white.  Even where the overall population in their locations are much more diverse.  The typical answer to address this imbalance is subject matter and casting.  If you do more plays about minorities and cast minority actors you will attract more diverse audiences, a kind of “if you build it they will come” approach.  As anyone involved in theater over the last 15 years knows, this has been tried, at least to some degree.  It has not been a glowing success.  Perhaps the “weight of whiteness” in theater has less to do with subject matter and more to do with basic infrastructure and funding models.  The one assumption shared by the theateratti who push diversity is that it can be achieved without fundamentally transforming the means by which theater is created.  I find this difficult to accept.

We can see an interesting parallel in religion.  Christian sects differ in their theology, or subject matter, but they also differ greatly in their forms of worship and church membership.  If the Catholic church suddenly adopted the theology of Quakerism or Pentecostalism, but expressed that theology within the structure of the Mass, and the social systems of the Catholic parish, I’m not sure it would attract a whole lot of converts.  Theater is more than subject matter, it is the building, the lobby, the social interaction, the food and drink, the neighborhood, the dress codes.  Most of these factors are already baked into the experience of going to a big budget NFP theater.

Fancy theater people mourn that minorities aren’t getting any theater in their lives, and its just not true, what they aren’t doing is partaking in the non profit palaces of noblesse oblige.  And it is these palaces that contain the hegemonic “weight of whiteness” (if you care to call it that, could also be class, or education level, etc.)  As I have pointed out before in the pages of this blog Tyler Perry sold millions in theater tickets in the black community (as a for profit company), but is systematically ignored by his artistic betters.   People of different cultures, means and interests interact with theater in different ways, and trying to force all of them into the “high theater” box of the “serious” theaters is never going to work.  When we take that approach we ask everybody else to accept the dominance of the style of theater preferred and created by wealthy, well educated, white people.  To make matters worse, the very existence of high profile, moneyed 501(c)3 theaters has a chilling effect on other theater producers who struggle to overcome the hurdles of NFP tax status and a lack of wealthy friends and relatives.  

If we want more diversity, if we want more blacks and asians and women and hispanics to write, produce and attend plays, we need a more level playing field, not an attitude shift among wealthy donors and artistic directors.  The 501(c)3 funding model, as currently constituted, is an institutional guarantee that the elite will control theater.  If it is not changed, we may be sure that our “great” theaters will continue to hire far more poor and minority people to clean their facilities and serve at their Galas then they ever will to make their art.  


At February 15, 2013 at 8:46 AM , Blogger Innocent When You Dream said...

I remember during the 1980s, the Artistic Director of a regional theater in a part of the country that has a significant Asian population, asked me bluntly during a time when diversity in theater was considered the next big step: "Who among my staff is just going to step aside so that we have a more diverse staff?" I think I told him that's why non-discrimination laws should apply to theater like it does to other industries because otherwise, things will never change. Nearly 30 years later, things have NOT changed.


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