Diversity is always a touchy subject for a discussion, but it’s something that I’ve noticed is currently on the minds of many in the theatre community, and (I believe) with good reason.
It all began a few months ago when the Guthrie Theater, located in Minneapolis, announced its production line-up for the 2012-2013 season. Almost immediately, individuals from all over the country responded in outrage, because every single play in their season was written by a man, only one of whom was non-white. Additionally, every play is slated to be directed by a man as well. Because the Guthrie is known as being one of America’s premier regional playhouses, this received a lot of attention and media coverage, the result of which is that many American theatre artists are taking a closer look on the way theatre is produced in this country.
Theatre, to me, has always been one of the most progressive mediums, particularly in the United States in the past several decades. Playwrights and performers were unafraid to tackle subjects such as war, political corruption, and the AIDS epidemic when many audiences preferred that they keep their mouths shut. While this is certainly an aspect of the art form that I find worth of celebration, the fact of the matter is that while the ideas of the theatre are often very forward thinking, the execution has been consistently lacking. The drive to sell tickets leaves many companies hesitant to tackle challenging subject matter, hence audiences are much more likely to be offered Legally Blonde over Chinglish.
However, not only is there a notable lack of diversity on the part of the producers, but it’s seen in audiences as well. A report published this week christens the 2011-2012 Broadway Season as being the most financially successful season ever. However, examining the fine print shows that the number of tickets sold didn’t increase at all, meaning that theatres are making up for a lack of audience by charging higher ticket prices. It’s nearly impossible to get tickets for a Broadway show for less than $30, and that’s for the back of the auditorium. Any seat with a good view is going to run at least $80; some productions charge as much as $100 to sit in the mezzanine. The simple result of this is that there is a whole potential audience who doesn’t attend the theatre simply because they cannot afford to. Unless we make quality theatre more accessible, it will remain in its current position as an elitist art form, produced not for the public but for the select few who can afford to go (namely, rich white people).
If the American theatre is to survive and continue to grow, we need to produce work and invite audiences that accurately reflect the mixed bag that this country truly is. Companies need to broaden the pool of voices that they choose to reflect in their productions, and make those productions affordable. It will take some time, no doubt, to change the perception of whom the theatre is for. And, it is comforting to witness the public conversation about the need for a more assorted production buffet. But everything I’ve read and observed leaves me to wonder how many companies will indeed walk the diverse walk.
Two companies in particular have put their money where their mouths are: the notable Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan, and Arena Stage in Washington DC. Playwrights Horizons is producing six productions next year, and of those six projects, four are written by women (not all of them white), and three are being directed by women as well. Their subject matter and casting needs also reflect many different cultures and age ranges. Arena Stage, one of the few leading national companies with a female Artistic Director, is producing ten productions. Four are written by women, and four are being directed by women; additionally, the racial diversity both in artists as well as in content is similar to that of Playwrights Horizons. The fact that both of these major companies shows a dedication to presenting many different voices is inspiring, and I hope that other companies soon follow suit.
I’m already seeing other positive signs as well. The other day, I ventured to the Signature Theatre Company’s new space here in NYC. It’s a nifty brand-new building, with three performance spaces, a public café, and a bookstore. As I sipped my coffee and read, I couldn’t help notice the audience there for the three different productions that were in performance that evening. I noticed people of all ages, races, and financial backgrounds. Students were intermingling with the elderly, and I overheard one couple talk about their train home to Brooklyn while another couple described their apartment in Harlem. It makes sense—Signature maintains a strict $25-per-ticket policy for every single one of its seats. Additionally, their offerings that evening had something for everyone: South African playwright Athol Fugard’s drama My Children! My Africa!, the new comedy Medieval Play, and a new one-man play entitled Title and Deed. Diversity in content and creators combined with affordable prices, all under one roof. It was pretty awesome, if I say so myself.
To apply this personally, I am a white male hoping to make a career in a field run by white males. I am painfully aware of this, and I certainly feel some guilt about my aspirations given the current abundance of individuals like me currently in the theatre community. However, given the inspiring and necessary progression towards a more diverse group of people, I am more than willing to step aside if it will help ensure that everyone’s voice is accurately represented. I plan on seeing and being a part of as many different types of theatre projects as possible, written by as many different playwrights and produced by as many different people as I can find. Awareness is the first step to improvement, and the recent conversations have left me more aware than ever. I think we would all benefit from sharing the wealth; at least, I certainly would. After all, just because the American theatre of the past was written mostly by white guys doesn’t mean that it still has to be.