Fear and the Representation Problem
There’s a theory about online discourse called Godwin’s Law. It states that the longer an online conversation goes on the more likely it becomes that someone will compare someone else to Hitler. Online debates, Godwin correctly recognizes, are more often the domain of broad and passionate pronouncement than subtle and incisive commentary.
Which isn’t to say the Internet has no role to play in issues debates. Social media is an excellent venue to rally a group to a cause. It allows the discontented an avenue to address the sources of their discontent. And, maybe most usefully, it acts as a sort of crowd-sourced alarm system, calling attention to injustices that might have gone unconsidered in a pre-Internet age.
This summer, that alarm has been repeatedly sounded over the issue of the endemic lack of diversity on our stages. It’s comforting to know that no major institutional theatre will ever again announce a predominantly white, predominantly male season without fear of someone taking notice—someone, maybe, with the power to make a lot of other someones take notice. And when they take notice, the response is often—to borrow a cliché—fast and furious. Blunt accusations of institutional racism and sexism are not uncommon in my Facebook feed these days.
I always read these controversial season announcements when they’re flagged. And when I read them, I find I have a fairly uniform experience. I don’t immediately think, “These companies are despicably sexist and racist.” I immediately think, “These companies are despicably fearful.”
That thought is based, in part, on personal experience. I’ve spent a healthy portion of my professional life in the company of people who read and program plays. I can testify that they are, in general, a liberal-minded lot. The tenacious advocacy of groups like The Kilroys and The Lilly Awards Foundation has ensured that no engaged artistic leader can be wholly unaware of theatre’s diversity problem. And even the most cynical-minded among us must remember that inexorable truth: all-white, all-male seasons look lousy on grant applications.
That the compulsion to mitigate risk is understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. After all, the American non-profit theatre was established in the name of taking risks; of producing the most worthy work without concern for profit.
What those programmers of plays more commonly are is afraid. I find fear to be the most persistent drain on the programming conversation. It’s not baseless fear. Even the most art-forward of theatre’s institutional leaders are beholden to demanding boards, disapproving patrons, an often hostile press, and a dwindling pool of single ticket buyers. We live in a tough moment to produce theatre—a moment which has maybe lasted about four hundred years, but still. The desire to produce a bulletproof season is, in that context, understandable. And the fear of doing otherwise is significant.
To my mind, these homogenous seasons are a function of that fear. If one looks at programming only as the process of finding plays that a theatre can do (and that’s a narrow view of programming, I know), there are a couple of tactics theatres tend to employ to find the least risky projects. One is to revive a play from the canon. The canon is, of course, dominated by white men. Another strategy is to produce a play by a writer who has a reputation with your company—a reputation perhaps established in a time before 95 percent of the people in our industry were even talking about the homogeny problem. You might look for a star for your play, which will often lead you back to a canonical revival or a play by an established playwright. Or if you’re working at a regional theatre, you may look for a play that was a hit in New York, in which case you’re choosing from a roster of plays that was already limited by the forces above.
That the compulsion to mitigate risk is understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. After all, the American non-profit theatre was established in the name of taking risks; of producing the most worthy work without concern for profit. The whys and wherefores of the diminishment of that mission have been and will continue to be written about. But the fact remains that these all white, all male seasons are the product of a system that presents the most worthy work only if it can assume the least possible risk in doing so.
To say that risk-aversion is the governing force in programming, though, is not to refute or even discount the power of race and gender bias. What it is, is a lens through which to view the problem. If theatres are risk-averse and theatres aren’t proportionately programming plays by non-men or people of color, the obvious question is: why do these theatres think plays by non-men or people of color are risky to produce? If we find that the canon is insufficiently stocked with the work of non-white, non-men, then there’s cause to consider what “the canon” is and how we use it. And, taking a step back, it’s worth asking the question of where the question of what is and isn’t risky comes from, and whether the generally-agreed-upon theory of what constitutes “a risky show” is a useful one today.
To look at the homogeny issue through the lens of risk-aversion is also not to say that the problem shouldn’t be looked at through other lenses. I could just as easily have focused this piece on the way we develop work in the theatre or the way we educate young theatre artists or the quality of life the theatre supports, and how those ideas contribute to the lack of diversity on our stages. The point is not to cast programming bias as a symptom of risk aversion, but to cast programming bias as the net effect of a subtle, interconnected web of issues within our industry. It’s by addressing and correcting each of them that we will make inroads into solving this pernicious disease of homogeny on our stages.
Alarms are excellent for compelling action. But they are less well suited to creating change. For that task, we’ll need more delicate instruments.