The first thing to say about this “Quick Start” manual is that I’m a dummy myself. In all the years I’ve grappled with diversity, the one constant has been recalibration. What was diverse ten years ago is privileged today, and today’s diversity models will become obsolete in the coming years. Historically disenfranchised groups are just now finding their voices after decades, even centuries, of silence. Diversity requires periodic check-ins, assessment, and retuning.
I think it’s fair to say that the theatre community is committed to the ideals of diversity. This guide will focus on implementation, which can be trickier. And while every exercise in diversity must include gender, physical abilities, and age (to name just a few), this guide will focus on ethnic diversity.
Here are a few ways you can check on your theatre’s diversity smarts.
It’s not really about numbers—but look at them anyway
Diversity is not a numbers game, but a quick look at your digits can be telling. How many people of color work in your back office? How many artists of color perform on your stages? Divide those numbers by your total employees, and the total number of artists you employed for the season. What number do you get?
Compare that number to your community’s demographics. Don’t use your ticket subscriber base, use the population of the geographic area in which you operate. Don’t gerrymander or re-district your sample area. Is your diversity percentage a close approximation of your area’s ethnic diversity? If not, why not?
Here’s a sample comparison between New York City’s 2010 ethnic demographics and a hypothetical theatre company’s organizational and season programming numbers. The total columns at the bottom and the far right have a story to tell. It may not be the full story, but it deserves close investigation.
If your theatre has been around ten or twenty years, take a look back and see how your organization and programming lines up with the demographic changes in your community over time. That may tell another story.
Don’t lump all peoples of color into one category. One ethnic group is not a surrogate for the other. In other words, just because you hired four black actors for the season, you’re not off the hook from hiring performers of other ethnicities.
Here’s a link to the US Census Bureau, where you can look up your city’s data.
Who’s in charge?
Let’s look at agency, and the power to make decisions.
Look at your organization’s hierarchy. Who are the top decision-makers? Who has the power to advance a play into production? For many theatre organizations, one person holds this power.
Who are the other gatekeepers in your organization? This includes your literary managers, casting directors, and associate producers. Oftentimes, they are the sentries that give or deny access to your theatre. Is diversity a part of their operational objectives? Are they empowered to open your theatre’s doors to artists of color?
Putting managers of color in these positions is important—as important as providing them with the training and work environment to succeed.
White men run a majority of theatres in the US, and that needs to change. Not because white men are incapable of empathy or because they don’t have a sense for what’s right or wrong—we need diverse leaders because it drives innovation, adaptability, and organizational smarts. Diverse thinking is crucial in navigating a world in flux, and ultimately, in how the theatre responds to its changing environs.
Who’s on stage?
I have heard Artistic Directors and Managing Directors boast of how diverse their organization is. “Our back office is a veritable Rainbow Coalition!”
But wait. Aren’t you running a theatre? How diverse are the faces you put on stage? What opportunities are there to diversity your casting practices?
Are you color conscious when you choose a play? How white is Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corner? What about Shakespeare’s Elsinore? How about Tobias and Agnes’s household in A Delicate Balance? Is ethnicity a marker of historical accuracy? There are many arguments for and against “authenticity,” which we won’t parse here. What’s important is that you’re aware of the implications of your decisions and how they affect who gets on stage.
This might be a good time to touch on the implicit canard in the term “colorblind casting.” It is not meant to provide cover for casting white actors in roles written for performers or color. It is not meant to allow a theatre to cast a white actor as Martin Luther King, Jr., by invoking the what’s good for the goose argument, or the “if we’re truly after equality, then any actor can play any role.” Why not? Because colorblind casting is intended to correct a gross inequity in American theatre, where more than 75 percent of all roles go to white actors. Calling on the goose/gander equation doesn’t work because inequality is the current norm. A tit for tat proposal only works when all parties are on equal footing, so that for every tit, the corresponding tat is intended to rebalance the equation.
Do you have a subscriber base? How does it break down ethnically? Why? Does your pricing exclude certain communities? How about your marketing outreach? What has shaped your audience make-up over time?
Here’s a big hurdle for some theatres. When the audience watching is overwhelmingly white, why should a theatre care about choosing plays that are not? For the majority of theatres that find themselves in this position, there’s a good chance they’ve already proven to themselves that their audiences are delighted by diverse programming. Theatre audiences are voyeurs at heart, and relish being able to look into lives other than their own.
But there’s a more important and compelling reason to present a multiplicity of perspectives to our audiences: empathy. Forces that underscore differences and divisions shape our world today. Theatre can propose a compelling alternative by putting a human face on “the other,” and stressing the truism that we are more alike than we are different. If we do this often enough, theatre can be an agent for change.
Note that I inserted a caveat in that last sentence. “If we do this often enough…” One-offs won’t do it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this refrain, “We did an Asian play, but Asian audiences didn’t come.” You can’t expect to mobilize a community that you’ve ignored in the past. You have to engage, and engage again, and again. And again. You have to earn its trust.
This is true for audiences and communities of all colors.
It’s going to cost you.
Diversity requires dedicated resources. You have to invest in it.
As a business proposition, it’s a no-brainer. According to the US Census, just “over half—50.2 percent—of US babies younger than one year old were racial or ethnic minorities. In sheer numbers, there were 1,995,102 minority babies compared with 1,982,936 non-Hispanic white infants.”
This is what drove Google to increase its workforce diversity initiative budget from $115 million in 2014, to $150 million in 2015.
No theatre has $150 million to spend on a diversity initiative, but a close and honest look at your organization will likely reveal practices that should be made more inclusive. But let’s talk about the scary stuff: Box office/Earned Revenue.
Theatres are terrified of losing income because they took a chance on a play their audiences are not familiar with, or “can’t relate to.” A sea of empty seats is a scary sight, but as I said previously, you can’t expect them to come if you’ve never put in the work. It’s also wrongheaded to put up a play featuring Asian American actors and assume the Asian American community will come rushing to your doors. Don’t blame the community if they don’t know you.
This is where the investment opportunities come in.
Put more muscle in your outreach programs. Consider going to communities of color and presenting work there. Not everyone can come to you. Make the first move, and keep making moves. Earning trust takes time and tenacity.
Prepare for the possibility of reduced box office revenue. This may not happen. In some cases, the opposite could be true—a box office bonanza. But there are risks in choosing unknown artists—that is, artists not familiar to your theatre patrons. These are the risks you have to take, not once, but multiple times until your audiences no longer think of diversity as a concession, and begin to accept it as the norm.
Cast a wider net. Diversity is not low-hanging fruit that you can pick and enjoy without much effort. You have to work at it. Sometimes you won’t get enough actors of color to respond to you casting call. Maybe no plays by writers of color crossed your desk for consideration this season. Don’t give up. Go out and get them. Call your colleagues and ask for referrals. Partner with community organizations to get the word out. Make noise and let the world know you want it.
This guide is meant to stop theatres from paying lip service to diversity. Giving a playwright of color five workshops without ever producing the play may earn you the heterogeneity badge, but it falls way short of making your theatre an exemplar of diversity.
You have to try harder than that.