by Emily Abbott
I recently read an article written by Rick Lester entitled, “Audience Engagement’s No Man’s Land” where he discusses the need for more diverse plays to be produced as a way to get more diverse audiences. It got me thinking about theatre I have seen, and the professional world I am about to enter. With older white people making up the majority of audiences, theatres are working hard to include wider demographics. But theatre doesn’t seem as appealing when you don’t identify with the character, in his opinion. Lester argues that theatres need to produce more diverse pieces, I couldn’t agree more, but Lester only addresses the tip of the iceberg. First, let me say that what Lester speaks to is audience “development” more than “engagement”. And along those lines, he speaks to theatres trying to increase the racial/ethnic diversity of their audiences. What he doesn’t address is the root cause of the lack of diversity in theatre production. To really invite a diverse audience, theatres need to make a systemic change to have both multiracial productions and administrative staffs. This movement starts with education with the goal of expanding diversity backstage with audience development growing organically from there. A change like this would lead to an environment where diversity (in every definition) becomes a natural routine and not the exception.
Personally, I don’t know a life without theatre. I was fortunate to have parents who valued and could afford tickets to plays and musicals. My first musical was “Cats” when I was three at the Shubert, and my love for theatre grew from there (I had a bizarre ability to sit still as a child). I went to private schools in Los Angeles with great drama programs and acted there till I got to college and chose theatre as one of my majors. Entering my last year of undergrad, I would like to pursue a career in dramaturgy. As a white woman, I might seem like a hypocrite to call out the theatre scene for its lack of diversity, but coming from a biracial blended family has made progressing racial equality a passion of mine.
As a new comer who wants to be a part of the LA theatre world, I see a lot of work that needs to be done. From what I’ve noticed the LA theatre scene has a tendency to use racial diversity as a box to check. I believe people are well intentioned, but there is still farther to go. The root of the problem, in my opinion, is the lack of arts education in schools – mostly public. Although the county is getting an increase in arts funding, schools are still suffering. And in theatres themselves there is a continued majority of white people in administration positions. Abe Flores in his article “A Diversity Problem In Arts Administration: The 2013 Salary Survey Reaction” sights The Local Arts Agencies Salaries 2013 research report where 86% of the administrators participating identified as white. In the same way that the NBA is criticized for having a majority of black players but mostly white coaches, it can appear disingenuous to promote diversity without representing diversity at all levels. And as it is human nature to gravitate towards characters you relate to, perhaps this is why many theatres use a kind of “token” system where one of two things happen. Either a non-white show is produced once a season, or a play with nontraditional casting has only one nonwhite cast member. Director, playwright and actor, Carla Stillwell refers to the latter as, “the third black girl from the right.” These are steps in the right direction, but we can do better. I would like to see an environment of constant racial diversity, rather than every once in a while.
Educating the youth of LA is the best investment in the future of LA theatre, especially kids from diverse backgrounds. Although inviting all schools would be good, it’s especially important that some programs are geared towards students of schools without theatre departments. If kids like their experience they remember, they might choose to become a theatre professional, or a future audience member. They also have parents/guardians that now know about the theatre as well. The best way to increase theatre education is for theatres to take on the responsibility. This includes professional mentorship and shadowing programs as well as discussion groups. The 24th Street Theatre already has a great education program where they not only teach children, but teachers as well. This kind of education will enable those without prior theatre experience to gain exposure to the art and be more inclined to see a performance themselves. I had the pleasure of seeing Rodger Guenvuer Smith’s one man show Rodney King almost a year ago. I loved it, but the non-theatre friends I went with did not enjoy it because it was outside their realm of exposure. I have been coached as a theatre major to analyze performances with a specific vocabulary allowing me to appreciate some of the more avant-garde, but those without the exposure have not. With expanded education within the theatre more people would be exposed that vocabulary.
My hope is that with a higher percentage of the population gaining exposure to live theatre, more people would choose to work in every aspect of the theatre. I started out as an actor in college, and it wasn’t until I got to Occidental that I realized there was this whole world of administration that I didn’t know about. I always felt like I wasn’t creative and expressive enough to be successful as an actor, but I still cared about theatre. I want more kids to discover what I did at 20 when they are 16. Too many kids, including myself, don’t do well in school because they don’t know what they want. Of course not every child wants to be a theatre kid, but some will. And we can help them. These programs should also have the goal of drawing in kids from a wide range of socio-economic background and racial demographics. Television studios already have writing mentorship programs geared towards diversity, so why not theatre.
These giant changes I’d like to see won’t happen over night, they are investments and a standard to set. The knowledge I have can be acquired by anyone who has access to it as long as it can actually be accessed. The theatre world at large is making small steps, but I hold theatre to a high standard because we are the societal niche of dreamers and trend setters. We are the cutting edge, what the rest of society will accept years from now. It is time we show the rest of the population what the future will look like. Lead by example. These systemic changes will make diversity so ingrained in the system that diversity doesn’t even really need to be pointed out. It’s time theatres followed the golden rule of playwriting – don’t tell, but show!