I wish I could say, full WASP, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.” But I can’t; I’m angry, too. This conversation about diversity that we are having as an industry is too important to be lazy about it, especially on the national stage.
Growing up, my mother always held me to a really high standard. There was one time she asked me to straighten up our basement, which was full of my toys, and I did, made a strong 10-year-old effort, and when I proudly told her I was done, I for some reason also asked her to tell me what she thought of my work. She, to her credit, asked me if I was sure, and then when I said yes, she went through the basement and indicated a variety of things that I hadn’t done–treating me like an adult who had been asked to do a task and hadn’t given it my full effort rather than as the kid who naively asked for input. I might have been a bit young for that exercise, but in hindsight I take the point, and in general I feel like it’s totally acceptable to ask that people bring their A-game when I’m bringing my A-game–that people legitimately try, and try fully, and that if they don’t you call them on it, and if they do you respect that effort by making any critique from an informed and respectful place.
Which is why I am so frustrated by a piece on the play American Night that Lily Janiak wrote and published on Howlround a few days ago. Ostensibly a “newcrit” review of American Night, it is a disappointing and lazy work of journalism filled with generalities framed as facts and veiled critiques about the way an arts organization that is legitimately trying to broaden its programming and audience does business that makes no attempt to actually investigate and lay out facts and takes no account of how incremental change happens or how arts non-profits stay stable.
To give you the quick flavor: American Night is a play that emerges from some of the folks at Culture Clash and that follows the dreams and hallucinations of an immigrant on the eve of his citizenship exam. It is part of a larger concerted effort by Moscone and his staff and artists to actively shift Cal Shakes’ historically classic-driven mission toward one that explores the culture and diversity of California and that is more inclusive and engaged in the lives of all Californians. I have not seen the work, and I think that’s important to say–my frustration with Janiak’s article stems not at all from her critical response to it (about the last third of the piece) and instead emerges entirely from the first two-thirds, when she says things like:
“Looking around at the audience at any given Cal Shakes performance, you can see why the company is expanding its offerings.”
“Many theaters want their audiences to be less old and less white in order to both have a more sustainable source of ticket buyers and to better reflect their communities. But with Cal Shakes, defining community isn’t easy. The company is near “Berserkeley,” famous for its diversity and progressivism, but “near” is a relative term.”
“Of course, it’s wrong to think of a theater’s community as limited only to its town, but Cal Shakes doesn’t exactly get a lot of foot traffic.”
“And once you arrive, there are other, subtler signs that this is a theater for elites only. Groups with five-star picnics take all the picnic tables, which can actually be reserved if you are of a certain subscriber status, more than an hour before performance. Certain theater seats have blankets waiting on them, while everyone else must pay to rent them. And at the lengthy section on corporate sponsorship during the curtain speech, everyone knows just when to shout, in unison, “Peet’s Coffee & Tea!” along with the speaker.”
“In all these ways, factors both intrinsic to Cal Shakes’s location and perpetuated by its culture contradict the company’s rhetoric about audience engagement. In reality, it’s the kind of theater where, if there’s an interactive exhibit outside the theater (as there is for American Night), the company must instruct audiences to interact with it; at a recent performance, the employees tasked with this unenviable chore looked uncannily similar to bright t-shirt-wearing, clipboard-wielding Greenpeace employees.”
I should say that a while back, while I was looking to hire a position in my previous job, I had the occasion to read a variety of samples of Janiak’s writing and found her an extremely intelligent writer, thoughtful and engaged in her subject most of the time. This is, perhaps, part of the reason I am having such a strongly negative reaction to her piece on American Night–it goes for easy points, relies on a lack of knowledge, and ultimately reaches a facile and pat conclusion that does a disservice to the larger questions Janiak raises in the piece both because is under-represents the progress that Cal Shakes has made and because it does so with easy insults to Cal Shakes’ core audience and without any apparent recognition of the inherent risks of what Cal Shakes is trying to do.
Cal Shakes is, like all theatres, an imperfect one. Some of their shows I have liked, some of them I haven’t. Critics are going to criticize because that’s what critics do, and all of that is just fine. But–and this is so, so crucial to remember–they deserve informed criticism, in particular because they are making an effort, bringing their A-game, trying hard. Jon Moscone, in a panel I was on with him, told the story of doing Spunk, their first big foray into culturally diverse work, and it being such a success for them–most popular show on record, critical success, highly diverse–and feelings great about it. And then he did what I did with my mother–he went and spoke to diverse artists in his circle, and he said, “didn’t we do a great thing?” and they said, “do you want me to be honest?” and to his credit, Moscone said yes, and they asked what the next step was, and he said he was considering doing Ain’t Misbehavin’ and they told him all about how terrible an idea that was–that that wasn’t representing culture and diversity of California, that was pandering to a new audience–that he needed to try harder, think harder, do more to make change that was real, systemic, incremental and permanent. Moscone and his team are listening, and trying, and trying hard–and to have someone half-assedly snark about it because in two years Cal Shakes hasn’t flipped audience percentages, hasn’t done away with Peet’s Coffee as a sponsor, hasn’t whatever, well, it just sets the whole damn conversation back.
And so, to some of Janiak’s points:
- Cal Shakes’ audience is very white and old and wealthy. Okay, sure. How old? How white? Is it getting less white? And at what rate? Are the folks that are coming in, if there are any, equally wealthy and generous–if not, how are they dealing with that financial disparity? What is the general rate of turnover in audiences for companies like Cal Shakes? What expectation can we have? Assuming Cal Shakes wants to expand their audience rather than drive their wealthy white older patrons out of the fold (never a good business strategy, and also I imagine they like having them and speaking to them), then what is the rate of increase Cal Shakes can expect in audience attendance year-to-year? How quickly, not to be morbid, will the older guard who might be resistant to a complete shift die off, and what is the plan for replacing the money that old guard provides in order to maintain the organization’s stability? Per the folks at Cal Shakes (it’s amazing the information you can get if you ask for it), between 2011 and 2012, Cal Shakes’ overall audience went from 87% white to 86% white. Between 2011 and 2012, they saw an overall 2% increase in their African-American attendance in the course of 1 year from 3% to 5%. While it is unclear whether these shifts are permanent, they are incrementally positive. What is frustrating is that, when I was given these numbers, it was with the pessimistic caveat that “we’re not going to win any debates” with them–which is a huge part of the problem. When a company can essentially double their African-American audience in a year, they should be celebrated and encouraged to try and do it again in another year. Not dismissed. Change takes time, and comes in small increments.
- Cal Shakes is isolated (even though it is very close to that bastion of liberalism “Berserkeley”) and folks that don’t have a car need to take a train or bus, which makes it elitist. Cal Shakes is pretty isolated, true. But it also has a rather larger budget, advertises incessantly, and provides all sorts of options for easing the transportation hurdles that it has. It sits in a county (much of which is closer than Berkeley, which is also incidentally not super diverse, just super liberal) that is 53% non-white, has an average age of 46 years old, is politically diverse and has an extreme mix of economic status from poor to ultra-wealthy. And it draws, per the folks at Cal Shakes, 94% (!) of its total audience from farther away than Orinda. Seems like a lot of foot traffic to me. Again, I know this because I asked and they told me. Cal Shakes’ diversity profile, from what I remember from the Bay Area Arts & Culture Census data, is actually remarkably similar to theatre companies that are performing in Berkeley. All of which is to say, as I have said before, that being a good liberal is not the same thing as being diverse, and that caring about diversity is not the same as doing something about it, and that if you’re going to talk about a theatre company being demographically challenged because it is isolated, then maybe do the research on whether that is true, whether it had changed, whether they’re making the effort. Because otherwise most people are just going to assume you know what you’re talking about, and then you’re poisoning an important conversation that is just beginning.
- Cal Shakes has both picnic tables that can be reserved by people who give donations of a certain level (and covered, apparently, in lavish spreads of the kind only available to a certain class) and a sponsor, in Peet’s Coffee & Tea, that is so loyal that everyone knows them, says their name when they’re thanked at the top of each show–and both of those things indicate a strong elitist reality that pushes against what Cal Shakes says they’re trying to do in terms of diversification. I don’t know where to begin here. The idea that, because Cal Shakes hasn’t completely abandoned the fundraising model in which you get perks for supporting the organization at a higher level, they aren’t serious about diversification drives me up a wall. The implication that lavish and delicious-looking spreads wouldn’t still exist on the picnic tables if those tables were more available to people who weren’t white and rich (which, incidentally, I believe they are, pending a donation) is an insult to the culinary aptitude of over 50% of the Bay Area population, and also seems sort of racist in itself. The idea that because Cal Shakes has a loyal and fruitful long-term relationship with a sponsor–a sponsor who has allowed all sorts of things to blossom because it has provided money and service that keeps the organization, you know, stable enough to try new things–the idea that having that sponsor means they aren’t living up to their end of the bargain when it comes to diversifying is insane (and, again, the implication that that sponsor being Peet’s somehow makes it worse also smacks to me as sort of racist, as it seems to indicate that people who aren’t rich and white won’t connect with that brand). Come on, people. Is there progress to be made? Absolutely. Does it involve figuring out other ways to recognize the generosity of high-end donors? Maybe. When we find a model that will allow a non-profit arts institution of Cal Shakes’ size to continue to be stable and to have the ability to take risks like, say, shifting from being a classical Shakespearean theatre to one that creates and performs contemporary work about the culture and diversity of California, then perhaps we can get critical of a program that gives people who pay for the privilege the opportunity to reserve a picnic table. But for now, I say turn your focus back to the art, or do the research to understand what getting rid of those programs would do to the organization, and insert some reality around how incremental change is paid for and achieved back into the conversation
- Because there are people in brightly colored shirts (that make them look like they’re from Greenpeace?) trying to engage folks in an interactive activity about the themes of the show–because such a thing isn’t just left there for people to do without help–Cal Shakes is failing at diversification. So, two points here: (1) I wonder how many of the shows that Janiak reviews have any supplemental interactive exercise associated with them, and how often she notes that such things don’t exist at all, and that in not existing at all, those companies are far behind companies that are making such an effort. (2) As it happens, I have had conversations in the past with both Alli Houseworth of Method 121 and Rachel Grossman of dog&pony dc, two of the people really pushing forward interactive exercises like the one created for American Night, and both of them actually strongly advocate for helpers wherever possible, not because people can’t figure things out (at least not always–and where that is the case, rarely because the people are old and white), but because people are disinclined to try unless they’re engaged. People engage at a higher rate when someone opens the door for them–which has exactly nothing to do with the age or race of the people in the house. I think that the idea that Cal Shakes–a theatre that 5 years ago was producing straight-up Shakespeare with traditional talk backs and pre-show conversations etc–is now experimenting with asking people to contribute their own stories, and is putting sufficient energy behind it to have a core of volunteers (who might actually enjoy the “unenviable chore” of helping someone deepen their experience of a piece of art) and 400 or so people who actually take part, is something that should be applauded loudly, not made fun of as a tool to fudge a point.
Ultimately, my frustration with Janiak’s piece is that, in it’s very laziness and it’s placement on a very popular community website, I think it has the potential to really damage a powerful and ongoing conversation about diversity. In hiding behind the “critique” nature of the piece (“I do,” Janiak says, “see my work here as primarily critical (reviews) rather than journalistic (features and interviews)…”), Janiak seems to have decided that her personal impressions can take the place of facts, and that’s problematic. Whether she meant to or not, Janiak chose as a punching bag one of the few examples in the entire country of a LORT-level theatre truly making an effort, and then proceeded to punch away without acknowledging the facts of, and then from there thoughtfully critiquing, those efforts to change. And then Howlround published it. What sort of warning shot does that send? “If you try, you’re a target, and you get no credit for taking early steps.”
In a comment on Janiak’s piece, Rebecca Novick, who runs the Triangle Lab for Cal Shakes and who is responsible for developing a lot of the improved engagement stuff for the company, starts by saying, basically, that she believes we should absolutely be calling out companies who aren’t trying to make headway on this work–and I agree. And even with the companies that are–companies like Cal Shakes–I think we should be able to critique from a place of improving things, while also respecting progress made. But…sigh.
This conversation can’t be had this way. You can’t make stuff up and have this conversation work. You can’t casually and uninformedly knock down progress because your impression is that it isn’t working. This is a conversation that is fraught enough without also attempting to engage in it without bringing your A-game, without doing your research, and without understanding the potential impact that your half-informed words might have on the conversation itself.