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Producorial Responsibility: Artist and Audience Diversity

While artist diversity is arguably not the KEY to building audience diversity, I think it’s fair to say it’s highly unlikely for a producing organization to sustain the latter without the former.  It’s the nature of the relationship, right?  We like to see ourselves represented on stage, and meaningful or not, consciously or not, many people define their selves at least partially by what they look like, what class they represent, their physical abilities, their age.  So why don’t we see more diversity on our stages?  (And let’s just focus on racial diversity for the purpose of this blog, just so it doesn’t run to ten pages)   After all:

Racial diversity in our artists and our audiences would certainly be demographically sound.  If we wanted to have truly inclusive national conversations at the level of, say, Scandinavian countries 40 years ago, who would we have to include?  These countries had conversations that led them to collectively decide on making the necessary sacrifices to ensure cradle-to-grave security for all their citizens; to eliminate homelessness; to end the death penalty; to de-criminalize drugs and radically re-shape their criminal justice systems.  But we have challenges to having this national conversation that these countries just didn’t have then.  Our level of diversity, in terms of race/ethnicity alone, creates a daunting challenge to finding a common language for a national conversation.  When Scandinavian countries decided to adopt universal health care and pay higher taxes for it that must have been a comparatively easy conversation to have, given that there were only about 25 million people who lived there, 98% of whom were of the same ethnic origin, and 97% of whom were native-born.

On the other hand, current census figures tell us the American people are about 64% “white non-Hispanic,” 16% “Hispanic,” and 13% “African-American,” and speak approximately 311 different languages. Over 15% of Americans were born in another country (and this is low, historically; there was a time when it was closer to 50%).  In New York City in 2011, where I work, we’re 33.3% “White” (44% self-identifying as “White, non-Hispanic”), 25.5% Black, 28.6% Hispanic, and 12.7% Asian – with 36% foreign-born and 47% speaking a language other than English at home.

So how do you have a totally inclusive dialogue on civic issues across all these lines of race, class, language, geography, and all the deep-seated values that these factors help instill, codify, and sometimes calcify.  Scandinavia is utterly failing at it now that significant immigrant populations are impacting their homogeneity.  It’s daunting, certainly.  But if we’re not reaching an audience that reflects these demographics, then we’re not reaching an audience that represents America.  And then any dialogue we try to generate has little chance of reflecting or impacting a true national conversation.

Artist racial diversity can and should be a creative act.  I’ve already talked about my belief that theatre is not a conduit for simply representing the world as it is, but a way of better defining the world on the road to changing it.  The insidious reference back to Hamlet’s “mirror up to nature” ignores the fact that the character who says it is notoriously indecisive – some might even say, a coward – of course he’d want art that is a simulacrum, that does not challenge anyone’s notions or beliefs!  Doesn’t this kind of representational semblance, this photorealism on stage, come off a little boring these days?  If you’re going to do Shakespeare or Shaw or Miller, just to name a few who we can presume mostly wrote “for” white actors, take a hard look at the characters and then demand that your casting director bring in a diverse group of actors.  I’m sure you’ll be more satisfied in the end with your ability to actually match your understanding of the character with an actor.  The idea of demanding all-white productions of, say, The Crucible because it takes place in Massachusetts in the 17th century is indefensibly preposterous – the play is in no way about the Salem witch trials, just as most plays are not exclusively “about” the time or place in which they’re set, so why seek some kind of racial photorealism?

It’s easy.  Let’s once and for all debunk this nonsense that producers have to cast from a limited pool – this is scarcity-think at it’s worst!  Not having any Asian-American actors in your community is no excuse for not doing plays with Asian people in them.  Bring them in from other places!  Yeesh!  Most producers already bring people they want in from other places from time to time and so have the means to house them.  Might it require a little extra work?  Perhaps. Does it maybe cost more?  Sure.  But this goes back to that fundamental misconception of what theatre is FOR that we have to beat down whenever it comes up – you can’t define the “why” of your theatre by your economic bottom line; you can’t defend your not-for-profit preferred tax status by arguing that your productions lose less money than other producers because you don’t house actors of color who are not from your community.  And in New York, this argument simply has no credence whatsoever.  Debunked.  There.  Please stop saying this garbage.

It’s “hip with the kids.”  And if it is true that your community is a bit, shall we say, white-washed, then just imagine the impact it’s going to have on the young audiences we all hope for when there are actual actors of color on your stage!  Survey after survey has found that in the Y Gen demographic, huge majorities of people around the ages of 22-38 support inter-racial marriage, want to see more executives of color in their own communities and on a national level, seek racial diversity in their colleges and workplaces.  I mean white people.  Put some color in your season and you’re going to see a “youth-quake,” because your organization will be sending a message that it’s a place that WELCOMES these values rather than ignores them.  If you want to quote Hamlet, then use the logic he loses with Gertrude: just ONE night, take ONE hard risk.  Just ONCE, abstain from casting all-white just because it’s who you already know, and then “Refrain tonight / And that shall lead a kind of easiness/ To the next abstinence.”

And finally, it’s an easy audience building step, even if it’s not done strategically.  It can only have positive economic consequences.  It can only build your audience, never reduce it.  New faces bring in new faces, as the saying goes.  Surely this step won’t dissuade your current audiences from coming.  Will it?

If you’re a leader of a theatre, pose a simple scenario to your heart of hearts here.  Let’s just imagine that tomorrow, out of nowhere, your theatre is besieged by a truly diverse audience – diverse in color, and age, and education, and physical abilities, and political views (some of which you might find really unsavory) and with different needs apropos of audience services, and child care, and what they can comfortably pay.  But they WANT to see your show.  Would you be incredibly excited, and set immediately about trying to solve their incredibly different and difficult barriers to participation on a one-on-one basis so that you could keep them as your new core audience?  Or would you be a little freaked out?  Maybe even slightly embarrassed for your current core audience?  Or so daunted by the resource re-allocation required to serve an actually diverse audience that you’re scared to try?  Answer from your heart.

Because if your answer is freaked or embarrassed, I don’t think you have any business being the leader of an AMERICAN theatre.  Because that’s what AMERICA is.  Sorry.  Might I suggest writing a scholarly jaunt arguing that Shakespeare was not actually named “Shakespeare.”  Or moving to Sweden.  Or, Hamlet again: “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.”

Producers and Artistic Directors who legitimately want to see change, but fear they might fit into the “daunted” category: please think for a second.  Do you have the audience YOU want, according to YOUR values?  Why do you need to consider the ethics of your audience?  Well, would you be OK with the idea that racists just love your theatre?  I wouldn’t be.  In fact, I think I can comfortably say that a racist or an anti-Semite would feel pretty uncomfortable at my theatre, and I’m more than good with that.

For those who would say that this constitutes an overtly political stance, inappropriate for a theatre, I totally disagree.  One of the big problems we’ve had for years in this country is that the inclusionary language being promoted nationally in almost every sector, oft-lumped under the derogatory heading “political correctness,” is considered a political stance.  It’s not – it’s an ethical stance.  It’s about re-imagining your worldview.  About living creatively, as opposed to remaining a prisoner to the cops in your head you were raised to pledge your allegiance to.  About how you treat other people, consciously or unconsciously.  About how to live a more authentic and engaged existence in a country with the demographics above.

Look, theatre being a public endeavor, who we are as individual organizations, and as a field, is in large part defined by who sees our work and who supports us.  Do you want to be defined by your audience’s prejudices and preconceptions?  Or by their better selves?  How could it possibly be a bad idea to take responsibility for challenging the sensibilities, or the ethics, or the worldliness, of your audience?  And how could it possibly lead to anything but a more diverse, more connected, more interesting audience for your work?

Comments

  1. It amazes me how Joe Papp started diversifying his artists and audiences over 50 years ago and that concept still has not come to fruition for the country as a whole.

    Really enjoying this blog and looking forward to the next installments in this series!

  2. Whether commercial or non-profit, I don’t think we can demand a producer be willing to lose more money just to support ethnic casting.

    • I agree with you 100% – I’m not suggesting that they should, nor am I suggesting that they will – any producer who thinks that “ethnic casting” (your term, not mine) will LOSE them money is not paying any attention to changing American attitudes and beliefs. My point is that by casting whatever play they’re producing with an eye to diversity, they will MAKE money – if not at the box office (which I think is likely), then in future donation requests, or the recruitment of that new Board member who was impressed by the inclusionary focus, or the connection to a grant maker who values diversity. We live in 2011 – the tide of every community, even those in the South, is leaning toward openness when it comes to diversity – why are theatre producers still living in the 1950’s? Hell, the 1850’s?

  3. Excellent piece and I agree with Mandee’s comment regarding Joe Papp. As a participant with a community theatre with a heavy dose of Latino and Korean population, it’s frustrating to have to argue to produce plays that reach out to these communities, and that just producing is not enough. We (theatre’s) must engage in a dialogue to ferret out a dialogue so our community theatre is, indeed, of the community.

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