I am not known for throwing around “the race card.” But every now and then, it’s thrown on me, especially in the arts. And, when I took a position in building new audiences, but only for the black plays, things really hit home. After this experience, I would like to help devise the best practices in new audience development, and suggest beginning with genuine community engagement. But it took working this job I describe below, to get me here.
I was given a ten-week, remote position with a regional theatre company that was funded through a major foundation that seeks to provide models for new and diverse audience development. My job was to get people of color in the seats and mingle with the community and promote plays. To start, I was in a mindset of “audience development,” but soon discovered my best approach would be to be in a mindset of genuine community engagement. I gave people the impression that my position was permanent. I met people at the door who were coming to the theatre for the first time. I hosted events at the nearby bar and represented the theatre at civic events to demonstrate genuine reciprocity. But I was also conflicted. Was my job ultimately about sales and meeting diversity numbers? Once this temporary position ended, I was worried about how the arts sector would really handle this shift from audiences of historical white-privilege, to audiences for everyone. I would like to help solve this problem by sharing my personal takeaways from this job.
- Why do so many theatre companies and foundations launch these temporary “diversity initiatives” and then expect to activate long-term systematic change? Relationships take time to build, and my relationship with the community was cut off within a matter of weeks. The 100 business cards I passed out in that temporary position, were already null and void. What kind of message does that send to potential subscribers, the theatre’s diversity council, and the community? If the arts sector is really serious about developing relationships with communities of color specifically, then it has to be a sustained and genuine relationship—not just at moments when tickets can be sold to target specific communities.
- Diversity can’t just be about numbers. After working in that position, I began to further realize that the urgent call for diversity seems to primarily be about data and revenue. In an article in the LA Daily Times, an arts leader states: “it is an economic imperative for the performing arts to diversify…What is onstage, in the audience, backstage and in the board rooms should look like America…It’s extremely important for the arts to be relevant…If we don’t look like America, we can’t expect to have ticket buyers and patrons in the future.” The keywords here for me are, “economic imperative,” “ticket buyers,” and “patrons.” And I understand money keeps theatres open. But I think there is something huge missing here. I would suggest we return to making art about the human condition, about human experiences, and simply strive to move human beings. We are already a diverse society with millions of diverse stories. It just looks like we aren’t comfortable hearing from everyone for some reason. And now that demographics are shifting, many are worried about keeping their jobs. I suggest we evaluate motives more closely.
- I believe that revenue (an audience) is a result of genuine community engagement. According to Wikipedia: “Community engagement refers to the process by which community benefit organizations (which most theatres are) and individuals build ongoing, permanent relationships for the purpose of applying a collective vision for the benefit of a community.” Can the theatre see itself as a benefit to the community and not the other way around? If the community is to be reflected in the theatre, and the community is in fact diverse, why not simply engage in an organic relationship with the community and let the diversity in the audience be a result of that engagement?
I had this conversation with my friend Emily Goulding-Oliveira, strategist, essayist, and Founder of Girasol Consulting. She posed this question:
Why do we see communities of color as targets of “outreach” instead of our customer base? African Americans consumers command a total of 1 trillion dollars of spending power. Companies that build these relationships are benefitting, in both the short and long-term.
When doing productions about communities of color, instead of looking for ways to separate ourselves into categories based on race and class, why not use stories to show what we all have in common and address the community-at-large? The theatre provides the perfect space for dialogue and community building, drawing upon art as the universal language. Why produce racially biased productions with predetermined target markets (often times during commercial moments like Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo), which separates us as people even more? It is in moments like this that we see why there is a lack of consistent diversity in the first place.
To me, diversity is a result of an integrated ecosystem, all elements of a system talking and listening to each other. How does an ecosystem last over years and lifetimes? When multiple forms of nutrients are active, cultivated and nurtured in the space working in an integrated rhythm. The same can apply to the theatre. My hope is that we evolve and expand the conversation on how we approach diversity and audiences, not only in the arts, but also in all areas of society.