Is Diversity A Codeword for Exclusion?
My father used to quote King Lear regularly to me—“how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” This was his little joke, a prime example of his dry humor, but now that he’s long gone and I’m close to the age he was when he uttered it, I no longer find it so funny.
I can’t tell you how many times in my pursuit of one opportunity or another over the last few years I’ve been greeted with “You’re overqualified” or “We’re looking for somebody less experienced” or “more junior” or some other apparent euphemism for “You’re too old.” That there is robust discrimination against older people in employment has been well documented. The problem goes beyond job discrimination to widespread prejudice under the guise of a “youth culture.”
The irony here is that many of the people in my experience who reflect this bias see themselves as leading the charge for “diversity.”
The theatre community is not immune to this hypocrisy. The same writer who offered a sophisticated critique of the racism in a modern dance concert for an upscale cultural magazine, wrote a jokey Tweet ridiculing “deaf old people” for talking too loudly in the theatre. The theatre entrepreneur who frequently inveighs against the lack of diversity among New York theatre critics or Broadway musicians presided over a podcast in which a panelist mocked “old people” for walking out of Annie Baker’s The Flick; this prompted complaints by listeners, one of whom (a self-declared senior citizen) pointed out that she liked The Flick, and that there was no evidence that the varying views towards the play could be broken down by age.
The same writer who offered a sophisticated critique of the racism in a modern dance concert for an upscale cultural magazine, wrote a jokey Tweet ridiculing “deaf old people” for talking too loudly in the theatre.
There’s plenty of evidence that when people talk about diversity in the theatre, they are not embracing older people as part of their beautiful rainbow. The elderly are more likely to be the targets of a snarky putdown, such as this one in a review on HowlRound of a play at Cal Shakes: “It’s Telemundo on steroids for an audience on Metamucil.” The attitude is so widespread that it was satirized in the second season of the cult backstage TV series Slings and Arrows, in which the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival launches a marketing campaign that deliberately insults its elderly subscribers in order to get them to stop attending. (One billboard shows an old, ill woman in a hospital bed holding two tickets, and the tagline “Don’t Bother.”)
Type “Theatre audiences are too old” into Google, and get more than 58 million results. The central message of the many laments about “aging” theatregoers is unmistakable: “They are going to die soon, and then, how will theatre survive?” But might there be an unintended additional communication? “We would rather not have old people in our theatres.”
Does any other industry exhibit such gleeful contempt for its most loyal customers?
Recently, timed to the opening on the West End of revivals of both Miss Saigon and Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang (the playwright of the latter, and long-ago protestor against the former), wrote an essay in The Guardian about his views on diversity. It includes this paragraph:
My own opinions about race face casting have evolved over the years. Today, I see it as largely an employment, rather than an artistic, issue. On Broadway and in the major New York theatres, roughly 80% of all roles are currently cast with white actors. Social justice concerns aside, this would be a poor diversity statistic in any industry, and a bad business model. As audiences grow more diverse, the theatre continues to draw from an increasingly shrinking, aging portion of the population.
There it is again, albeit more subtle than the Metamucil crack, and a comment about actors rather than audiences—“aging.”
What Does Diversity Mean?
I bring up these dismissive attitudes toward the elderly not as advocacy for yet another protected class, but to explain how I came to question the nearly universal battle cry for “diversity” in the theatre community. The diversity movement, if you can call it that, confuses me, leaving me full of questions:
Is “diversity” a codeword for a different kind of exclusion? Is it a zero-sum game, where the current losers replace the current winners? Are some groups more worthy of inclusion than others?
How many people pushing for diversity are looking at the big picture, and how many are actually just advocating for a single demographic group, one in which they are a member? Does this make a difference?
Has “diversity” become a word like “patriotism” used to be—something you need to support, and will be attacked if you question, but something that means so many different things to so many different people that it’s in danger of losing its meaning?
What does it mean?
Is the diversity movement in the theatre focused on having more characters depicted on stage from underrepresented demographic groups (race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), and having these depictions be free from stereotype and inaccuracy? Or is diversity in the theatre world about giving jobs to more people from historically underemployed groups? Aren’t some people assuming that these are one and the same issue—that a woman can write best about women? Does this assumption denigrate the belief that artistic talent transcends one’s demographic identity?
When is it appropriate for a character to be played by an actor who does not fit the playwright’s description? Does this depend entirely on a director’s conception? Are there some characteristics (race, height, ethnicity) that are more acceptable to change than others? (such as age: Denzel Washington and Orlando Bloom were both heavily criticized for being older than the characters they played, in A Raisin in the Sun and Romeo and Juliet respectively, but I don't recall a word when Washington played Brutus in a Broadway production of Julius Caesar) Is it OK for an actor of color to play a white character, but not OK for a white actor to play a character of color?
What’s with the reliance on statistics? There are many efforts to quantify participation in the theatre, such as the regular reports commissioned by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition; the 2011/2012 report pointed out for example that African-Americans make up 23 percent of the population of New York City, but just 16 percent of the casts on Broadway and 16 leading nonprofit New York theatres, while whites make up 33 percent of the population but 77 percent of the casts. Is the aim of diversity advocates to have 1) audience members, 2) characters, 3) playwrights, 4) performers, and 5) staff of each theatre matching precisely the demographic percentages of the city that they are in?
If so, how are they suggesting this should come about?
Why all the hostility? After it was announced that the winning dramatist and all the finalists of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama were women, Michele Willens in The Atlantic took the opportunity to contrast it with the Tony nominations, and to attack “the glass curtain that separates talented female playwrights and Broadway stages.” Willens managed to work in a weird parenthetical dig at the Broadway show Beautiful, The Carole King Musical—“written by a man whose sketchy words, reviewers noted, contrast sharply with King’s moody and meaningful lyrics.” Is the author implying here that the book would have been better had they chosen to hire a woman over this unnamed man? (His name is Douglas McGrath, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, as well as an actor and director, whose book for Beautiful has been nominated for a Tony.)
Does diversity serve art? Is diversity a legitimate aim in and of itself, no matter what the consequences of making it the number one priority, or is its implementation making things better for the audience? For the artists? For the art? Is a better experience for the audience/artists/art of secondary importance to the effort to provide fair employment? Should the arts be considered no differently than any other industry—the theatre on a par with the post office—when it comes to hiring decisions?
Is there a possibility of discussing these issues with any nuance, and in a spirit of collaborative inquiry? Or is this a civil rights struggle, pitting the oppressed against the oppressor (or at least against the unenlightened and/or ineffectual), and thus evoking the old Union song: “Which Side Are You On?”
Shortly after David Henry Hwang’s essay was published in The Guardian, I shot some of these questions at him on Twitter. He Tweeted back politely, but pointed out it is a subject not ideally suited for social media. He invited me to discuss it in person.
We met at Cupcake Café—a good choice, since then at least something about the encounter would be sure to be sweet.
A Career Shaped By Angry Protest
When David Henry Hwang began writing plays in college, “I didn’t think I’d be writing about Asian characters.” He was working on “an intellectual vaudeville about the existence of God, inspired by Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers” when he took a course with the playwrights Sam Shepard and María Irene Fornés. “They taught us to write more from our subconscious—from a place we didn’t understand.” Out of this instruction emerged FOB, a play that focuses on three Asian-American characters, one “fresh off the boat,” the second a first-generation immigrant, the third like Hwang an ABC (American-born Chinese.) Some fifteen months after he had written it in his college dormitory, FOB opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater.
It was as unusual then as it is now for a college student to get such a high-profile New York production. It happened, Hwang says, as the direct result of a protest at the Public a year earlier. The theatre had put on a play by Len Jenkin entitled New Jerusalem, in which a non-Asian actor played an Asian character. A group of Asian Americans led a public protest against this casting, which they labeled an unacceptable example of “yellow face.” The savvy Joseph Papp, the founding artistic director of the Public who was seen as being especially committed to what was then called multiculturalism, hired one of the protestors, David Oyama, to be on the Public’s staff. It was Oyama who picked Hwang’s play to produce.
“I’m a beneficiary of affirmative action; I owe a debt to those theatre people who protested yellow face,” Hwang says. As a result, “I feel some obligation to address these issues.”
He had an opportunity to meet this obligation in a big way eight years and five plays later, after his Broadway debut, M. Butterfly, won three Tonys including Best Play, ran for two years, and turned Hwang into something of a celebrity. In 1990, he and M. Butterfly actor BD Wong became the public faces of a protest against the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian, as the Eurasian lead in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh dismissed the protest as “a storm in an Oriental teacup,” and the protestors’ efforts were unsuccessful; Pryce performed on Broadway to great acclaim. But Mackintosh has since apologized for his flippancy, and an Asian actor has reportedly played the role in every major production of the musical since then.
“What I found during the Miss Saigon thing, was that everybody was angry,” Hwang says now. “Minorities were angry: ‘Why should we continue to be excluded?’ The white people were angry: ‘Why should we have to sacrifice our artistic freedom to satisfy some political agenda?’ We’ve only seen that anger continue to intensify: ‘Why are we still discussing race? I’m not racist.’”
Hwang has pondered the reasons for this escalating intensity. “We’re in a society that’s in transition. As society begins to redefine itself, what was once normative is simply one option. The legalization of gay marriage, for example, suggests that not just heterosexuality is normative. The concept of normality is changing.”
If emotions run high, Hwang doesn’t see any enemies in this struggle in the theatre—no equivalent of Bull Connor siccing the dogs on the civil rights demonstrators. “There’s a lot of desire, a lot of consensus. We’d like the field to be more diverse. The disagreement comes over how you implement that.
“Who do you let audition for Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Do you throw it open?
How does one feel about a production with a black Jamie and an Asian Mary Tyrone? The theatre doesn’t know how to move forward.”
As in much of his work, including the one for which he is still best known, Hwang gets us thinking about the fluidity and contradictions of identity in a changing world—the public face as a mask.
Yes to Nuance
In the meantime, yes, “this is something that can be discussed with some nuance,” Hwang says. “Yellow Face was my effort.”
Written in 2007, the play was actually his second to address the issues surrounding the Miss Saigon controversy. The first, Face Value, which was intended to be his next Broadway play after M. Butterfly, closed in previews. Yellow Face, featuring “David Henry Hwang” as one of the characters, tells the story of Hwang’s involvement in the Miss Saigon protest, and the failure of Face Value, and several other events (including a few that are fabricated) in order to explore the issues that surround identity politics in an amusing, pointed and, yes, nuanced way. As in much of his work, including the one for which he is still best known, Hwang gets us thinking about the fluidity and contradictions of identity in a changing world—the public face as a mask.
Hwang’s definition of diversity is also nuanced, or at least broad. “Not all the criteria relate to race and ethnicity and gender. There’s economic diversity, and philosophical diversity.” When he serves on award or fellowship selection committees, “you try for geographic diversity too.”
And, yes, “ageism is a valid concern. I believe diversity includes older people; I’m not that young myself.” That audiences “tend to be older is not a bad thing. But we have to find a way to replenish the audience. There’s some evidence that when people start having families they stop going to the theatre; when their kids grow up, they come back.” The trick, then, he says, is to interest young people in the theatre before they have families; “one study compared the habit of theatregoing to that of churchgoing” (best developed when young.)
As for the tendency of advocates to reduce the complexities of diversity to statistics, “numbers may not prove anything, but they certainly suggest something,” Hwang says. “The best, most talented actor should get the part. But almost 80 percent white hiring suggests that theatre casting is not yet a level playing field—that nonwhite actors are not given equal opportunity to audition for roles, let alone be cast.
“I would not personally support anything that feels like quotas,” Hwang says, but he believes they won’t be necessary. “Ultimately, the field will move in the direction of greater diversity. There’s a demographic imperative: People want to see themselves on stage.”
What, then, will diversity mean?
“The most utopian outcome is that everybody will feel comfortable, and everybody, regardless of who they are and what their personal choices, will have opportunities.”
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
It's so interesting that you opened your piece with a quote from King Lear, a play about a man whose inability to appreciate his daughter's love, and his demand for greater and greater displays of affection from her, leads to tragedy for himself and his kingdom. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child" are his words once he's rejected Cordelia's plain-speaking, truthful affections. Perhaps we might do better to recognize and appreciate the respect older audiences are already granted in many if not most areas of American theater, rather than demand obliquely for undefined privileges we vaguely fear might already have been granted to--less deserving?--others.
Unless this was an essay about something else. Perhaps I misunderstood. I am, after all, very young.
I find the first half of your comment erudite and fascinating. As to the second half - I don't quite understand the point you're making, but it reminds me of the things people say who are against LGBT rights -- that gay people should not get "special privileges" or "special rights." The elderly (as every other group) have the right to be treated with respect; this is not an "undefined privilege," and this is all I'm asking for. Please find for me where in my essay I say anything against "young people" as a class.
Candidly, the main idea of your essay is almost entirely opaque to me. I don't know if the focus is meant to be ageism with regards to how welcoming theaters are to older audiences, or whether you are concerned about a tendency to avoid hiring older people as theater administrators, or whether you see older actors less represented on stages. Those are all separate arenas in which ageism operates along very different lines. For instance, the American theater is very successful at attracting older audiences, which is why many theaters have implemented special programs to attract younger audiences, especially nonprofit theaters, who operate with particular tax privileges reflective of their mission to serve the community as a whole. Many venues in the classical music world, like the Metropolitan Opera, have implemented similar programs so that they can reach a wider range of audience - if anything, the classical music world is even more aggressive about reaching younger audiences.
Also, I don't think you intended this, but to suggest that efforts to promote diversity necessarily work at odds with efforts to include people of diverse ages suggests that you are not including people of diverse races in the group of older (audience members? theater workers?) people whom you are concerned are excluded by current theater practices. Efforts to promote diversity presumably include older people of color. This imprecision, I believe, is a large part of why I had trouble tracking your ideas.
Similarly, theatre workers face different forms of age discrimination depending on their roles. Older actresses certainly bear the brunt of a larger cultural fetish for younger faces and bodies, but those who work in positions less objectified face more complex but nevertheless insidious issues. Many theaters cannot afford the larger salaries commanded by workers with more experience, workers whose salary expectations are shaped by pre-recession resumes. Conversely, most young people my age cannot afford to participate in the numerous unpaid internships required to qualify them for paid positions with more responsibility and stability. Theater administration is experiencing its own middle-class crunch; it refuses to afford many of the people qualified for mid-level positions and it has already excluded many younger people who might have otherwise worked their way up from entry-level positions that no longer exist.
Finally, you write at a time and place when American society has sharply divided itself along class lines that approximate generational lines. In New York theater, for instance, programs to attract younger audiences most frequently feature ticket discounts because theaters have determined, and not incorrectly, that cost is a major deterrent to younger theater-goers. Conversely, many theaters feature benefits and perks for subscribers and donors, who are most frequently older and more financially established. Perhaps you meant to draw attention to the plight of older theater-goers who are not wealthy enough to be subscribers or donors but do not qualify for younger theater-goers' discounts? Many theaters have programs that offer discounts to senior citizens, but certainly not all.
However, as I have not personally encountered a situation in which a theater presented an experience disrespectful to older patrons, I am not in the best position to understand the point that you may be making - I am not sure - about disrespect towards older audiences. The off-Broadway and Broadway venues I have attended (though rarely) seem to be very respectful to their older patrons - I have often noticed myself to be the youngest person or among the youngest in attendance. I attended a matinee performance of "The Flick" at which I was genuinely appalled by the rude behavior of several older audience members, who voiced their distaste for the play during the performance so loudly that the entire audience could hear them. The Playwrights Horizons staff did not remove them or ask them to be quiet. This was very distressing to me, as you can imagine, as the price of my ticket represented almost an entire month's grocery budget. I did however very much enjoy the play.
I regret that I had so much trouble understanding this essay, as the issues it touches on are very interesting. HowlRound seems to be a very valuable compendium of writing on these issues, so I look forward to hearing perspectives from other writers.
You bring up some issues worth exploring. What I intended to do was introduce a subject -- that some advocates of "diversity" seem to treat the elderly as the enemy, or at least as not worthy of inclusion, which brings into question their dedication to the common sense definition of diversity. My aim was not to write all there is to say about this subject.
I never said that efforts to work for diversity "necessarily work at odds" with efforts to include people of all ages. I don't believe that at all. And thank you for making a point for me -- "older people" does not just mean "older, white people."
Here's a question that observation prompts: How often do outreach efforts to disenfranchised/underserved groups explicitly and strategically include the elderly of that demographic group? (Like my other questions, this is not a rhetorical question. I am curious what the answer is.)
I don't believe the intent behind this post has anything to do with elderly concern. If it was, then it would have focused entirely on discussing the elderly within the institution of American theater. If it is indeed about the elderly, then perhaps the writer should have avoided bashing the legitimacy of cultural and racial diversity in an effort to highlight his alleged concern about the old, but I come back to that later. As many have pointed out, the 60 and over demographic play a significant part in ticket sales and subscriber base for most theaters. Many theaters plan their seasons around the needs, interests, anxieties and curiosities of their 60 and over demographic. Tradition? Perhaps. Safety? Definitely. Rethinking the formula? Many are. Like Mr. Mandell, I have heard dismissive and insensitive blanket remarks about the 60 and over crowd. In my observation, there is a fear and a frustration that a large portion of that demographic is disinterested in younger, African-American, LGBT, Latino, women and/or Asian theater practitioners. Substantiated or not, (I'm sure Mandell has his opinion) it is how many feel and what they believe about the power of the elderly in American theater. So, yes, perhaps a genuine conversation about the future of theater and the upside and downside of the 60 and over demographic is paramount. My bigger concern is the writer's questioning of cultural and racial diversity. Maybe concern is too invested of a word. Perhaps "frustration" is more applicable. It is frustrating that some people within the institution of theater must be convinced many people of color and women have experienced unprecedented exploitation, marginalization and institutional exclusion (and worse) in this country. Even when some peoples have been able to evolve from the exploited to the privileged, many have not due to institutional laws that remain in place under different names and brands and targets just them. It's frustrating that some people must be convinced the world has NEVER looked like it did in 1950s TV. It's frustrating that some people must be convinced that white male privilege is institutional and rewards white males, first and foremost, but the flipside isn't always as resourceful for EVERYONE ELSE. It's frustrating to read a post that spends three-fourths of the post throwing daggers at what appears (to them) blindspots among the diversity crowd. The GREAT thing is that despite the allegations of insensitivity SO MANY women and people of color and LGBT theater practitioners are building stronger communities and SO MANY others are supporting this growing need for theater to reflect and support and HIRE the people of the world we all share.
First of all, I want to acknowledge my admiration of your work both as a playwright and as the creative force behind The New Black Fest. I was blown away by "Facing Our Truth."
My intent was not to question the importance of having many voices in the theater. And I don't know how you got from my essay that I need to be convinced of our country's sad track record towards its own citizens.
What got my goat and launched me into an essay that wins me few friends was my sense that some of the people who hold aloft the flag of "diversity" the highest seem to be using it to bop old people on the head. This has only been confirmed for me by some of the reactions to this piece. One blogger wrote in nearly the same breath both that the elderly had "dominance and power" and that they were, like children, the most likely to disrupt a performance because of their "inappropriate behavior." Pretty shocking stuff to me.
I take heart that you too see there's a problem. You're in a better position than I am to hold some literal conversations about it.
I appreciate your support of The New Black Fest, but I must admit blending cultural and racial concerns with ageism is bit problematic. Ageism is an issue across the board, cultural and racial disparity in theater is another conversation altogether. Your posts takes jabs at those who wave the cultural/racial diversity flag yet ignore the ageist flag. It appears you're saying if you can be an advocate for racial diversity why can't you be an advocate for the aging. It got somewhat confusing in regards what you wanted me to focus on in your post. Not to say your writing was confusing, just the points.
A point of clarification: There's a difference between simply not advocating for the aging and showing the elderly disrespect.
ANOTHER ANGLE ON AGEBehind most of what Mr. Mandell brands as ageism, I think I see -- and understand -- a nearly universal fear of death and its anteroom, old age. I don't think that cultural imperative is going away any time soon. The only way we humans get over the fear of aging is by outgrowing it. (And even that doesn't always work.)
But there are some things worth discussing here.
For starters -- Old people are the only demographic I can think of that's under-represented on stage, yet over-represented in the seats.Partly, that's audience economics. Not many young people can drop $300 for a theatre seat, and another couple hundred for dinner, drinks and transportation. Partly, it's audience habit. I've watched contemporaries spend that much on rock concerts and drugs as kids -- and continue doing so into their 50s and 60s. Partly, too, it's about who's writing and producing plays. Like digital films, plays are an easy-entrymedium -- and the vast majority of new ones are thus by and about 20-somethings. There are even fewer good parts for old folks than for women or ethnic actors.
Partly, too, it's about cultural poverty.Thanks to the baby boom after World War II, we have a rapidly growing supply of people who have survived into their 70s, 80s and beyond.But we seem to have very few wise old women and wise old men. Too many of our greyhairs are hiding behind dye and botox, trying to stay in the race and even more scared than they were when they belonged there. We don't have many images -- on stage or anywhere else in our collective imagination -- of people who have improved with age, gained wisdom and humor and spiritual power. We don't have enough real live people who've accomplished that, either. So no surprise few plays get written and produced about truly meeting age and death.We're impoverished, and it's hard to find your way out of poverty.
Every play is not for every audience. And every artistic leader or company can (and should) have a different specific set of values that impact their choices about play selection, artistic interpretation, and yes, about diversity-related decisions.
When all plays, everywhere, get lumped together, the conversation fails. And if we continue to fall in the trap of 'artistic integrity' trumping all other values, while simultaneously conceiving that every human in America should want to see and experience every show, we're going to keep fighting one another.
Artistic leaders need to be clear about what they are primarily trying to accomplish, what they value and what they don't value (with no judgement) and what specific audiences, partners, or funders they think will be interested in that kind of work/product/experience/collaboration.
It's fine for a theatre to just do classic light comedies, or have an entirely white/black/asian/old/young/etc set of artists, or play exclusively to a house full of AARP members - if that is what they are deliberately CHOOSING to do. What is not acceptable is the laziness or hypocrisy of pronouncing one set of values and not following through on them.
A non-white friend of mine does not object to all-white casts of plays, but he requests that the producer and director refer to the production as 'The All-White Production of XXXX', which reminds them that it is a CHOICE to cast that way, and should have values and artistic reasons behind it - not just default laziness.
If I may be selfish, I want to see a diversity of stories on stage because it makes for a more interesting theatre ecology. If I'm seeing the same stories, or seeing stories told the same way all the time, why go to theatre? So yes I want to see stories from different races, ethnicities, cultures, genders, and attractional orientations because it's more exciting. (That said, I do recognize and support the social justice argument; I just don't have anything new to say about it.)
I do feel it is strongly offensive for white actors to play roles of color in a way that it is not offensive for an actor of color to play white. I would hope actors of color doing so incorporate their ethnicity into their character's subtext. By way of example, for an all-African-American Death of a Salesman, what if Willie Loman's boss has strong assimilation needs or is trying to impress a white company owner?
Interestingly, as a gay [white] male, I'm not particularly bothered by the idea of straight actors playing gay characters, as long as they embody the character and don't turn the character into a cartoon. I look forward to the day -- perhaps we are already there -- when it's offensive for a non-transgender actor to play a transgender role because there are many out transgender actors.
I must admin I find random-race stage families distracting, although these certainly occur in real life due to adoption. That said, I consider it my distraction and not the director's to solve.
I also find it just as distracting to have a white actor play a role of color.
There was a recent study that shows racism increases during times of economic hardship. It's time for theatre to figure out how to bake a bigger pie.
In part this has to deal with the outsized role that naturalism and realism continue to play on American stages. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Joe Papp and his directors had no problems with casting Shakespearean plays (and the families that appear in them) with actors and actresses from a variety of backgrounds, and audiences really didn't have any problem with it. Nor would most people have a problem I think with a multi-ethnic Tyrone family these days (if this hasn't already been done).
Interestingly, last year the Asian American Theatre Project produced Death of a Salesman with a "largely Asian ensemble," according to this story in the Stanford Daily: http://www.stanforddaily.co.... The Always Love Lucy theatre company will mount a similar production here in New York starting next week: http://www.newyorktheatregu....
"…how are they suggesting this should come about?"
And yet on Howlround alone:
· Clayton Lord advocates building diversity into the theater’s mission.· Carla Stillwell advocates choosing plays that both serve a theater’s mission but contain diverse stories already, rather than focusing on whether or not we can cast actors of color in traditionally white roles.· christopher oscar peña supports writers and artists actively creating work with diversity in mind. On the question of why he wrote a play populated primarily by Asian characters, peña responds that one reason is “because there are incredible Asian actors who I want to see on stage!"· Ariel Baker Gibbs discusses the ways in which the Boston theater community interacts with deaf audiences.· Rebecca Stevens, among other insightful thoughts, suggests examining and revising the ways in which our very organizations reinforce homogeneity.
So those are good places to start. A broad variety of artists are pushing for a broad variety of approaches to the problem of diversity, and none of these approaches are mutually exclusive. One just has to take the question seriously enough to look for the answers, rather than pretend there are none. Not to do so displays a contempt for the issue and for its advocates.
'Is there a possibility of discussing these issues with any nuance, and in a spirit of collaborative inquiry? Or is this a civil rights struggle, pitting the oppressed against the oppressor (or at leastagainst the unenlightened and/or ineffectual), and thus evoking the old Union song: “Which Side Are You On?”'
I went to the top of this very page and typed “diversity” into the search bar. Predictably, I received a slew of results. 21 pages worth, actually. Does Mr. Mandell believe that 21 pages worth of Howlround articles – just Howlround! Just the site on which “Is Diversity A Codeword for Exclusion” is published! – are all written without nuance or a spirit of collaborative inquiry? What of the 50+ search results that come up for “diversity” on TCG Circle?
Did Mr. Mandell legitimately search for ways to dispel his stated confusion?
Or is this article perhaps a dismissal disguised as a question?
Do you see how questions can actually be accusations?
The first question that you are answering was specifically whether the demographics of theater employment should statistically match the demographics of the general population, and how could you get to such a precise statistical match. Instead, you provide examples (terrific examples) of the smart ways in which particular theater artists are working towards various goals of greater diversity. I don't know that any of the people you cite mention specific statistical goals.
You repeat my question about whether it's possible to talk about these issues in a spirit of collaborative inquiry, and hint through your tone that, no, it's not really possible -- at least not in a collaboration between you and me, because you apparently feel I'm making ignorant accusations.
I'm sorry you feel this way. This is not how I see it. Yes, there has been a lot written about diversity, and I just wrote another piece about it. It sounds as if it's not to your liking. So, I hope we can move on, because I have enjoyed seeing you perform and attending your plays, and I'm planning to continue to do so.
Of course we can move on - we've been talking for years, ever since I first joined Twitter and started reaching out to members of the New York theater community. I remember fondly the day you came to see These Seven Sicknesses. We haven't always agreed, and unfortunately this is an example of a time we don't.
I think questions are a good place to start, of course. You ask in your article "Why the hostility?" but not everyone has the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from this problem - I'm a playwright and an actor and a Puerto Rican from New York, so this problem is very much *my problem.* One has to wonder how many times diversity advocates can retread the same ground. I reject the notion, then, that my frustration with this piece represents a lack of "a spirit of collaborative inquiry." Perhaps my spirit is just jazzed up.
Instead, I submit that sincere collaborative inquiry would include using questions as a starting point to engage with ideas. A litany of rhetorical questions reinforces an attitude that diversity initiatives are wishy washy, pie-in-the-sky idealistic crusades, full of holes and with no concrete aims; the "hostility" you mention comes from being faced with this attitude.
If one is confused and "full of questions" on the "diversity movement, if you can call it that," there are many, many, many people out there inquisitively collaborating on ways to improve things, and their answers, their opinions, their frustrations and their successes, are usually just a Tweet/Email/Google search away. I'm glad, for example, that Mr. Hwang was able to answer some of your questions face to face, but it's not as if Mr. Hwang's opinions on the matter have been elusive or guarded.
So many people have now accused me of asking "rhetorical questions" that I looked up the phrase again in the dictionary:"A question asked solely to produce an effect or to make an assertion and not to elicit a reply, as 'What is so rare as a day in June?'” (a timely example.)
But my questions weren't posed just to produce an effect or make an assertion. They WERE meant as a starting point to engage with ideas. (And look at this comments section to see people who took my questions literally as questions, and have been answering them.) It's true some of the questions are expressions of my bafflement; I genuinely do NOT understand the hostility towards the elderly. (I'm not sure that's a rhetorical question, just because there's no satisfactory answer.)I do see your point that it feels to you as if I'm starting back at zero, wiping away all the work that people have been doing to create a more diverse theater (and world.) That wasn't my intention. Many people are doing good work. But some people seem to be using "diversity" as a cudgel. I've read (most of) the same articles you have about diversity. These didn't answer my questions; some prompted them.
This writing is problematic. The elderly are not an underserved population in the audience. They are also not an underserved population in terms of theater leadership. The majority of the power fiscally and well as creatively skews towards serving the desires of our aging population. This essay seems to equalize all populations as if the needs of historically excluded groups are exactly the same as our elderly population which is an inaccurate way to look at the art, the audience, and the staff of theaters. The essay asks the question is this a zero sum game while acting as if this is true in the rhetoric it uses. The title is link bait and the question mark is disingenuous.
I’m grateful for this response, which demonstrates first-handthe kind of reasoning that inspired my essay inthe first place – a cold (chilling!), bureaucratic attitude towards the elderlyas an Orwellian way of championing “underservedpopulations” and “historically excluded groups.” (Doesn't nearly every historically excluded group have its own elderly?)
"How can people be so heartless?
How can people be so cruel?
Easy to be hard, easy to be cold"…
"Especially people who care about strangers
Who say they care about evil and social injustice"
I don't think that because Claudia is pointing out that the elderly have a particular privilege in theater that she is attaching the elderly and embittered by them. If the simple answer to challenging diversity is "you're attacking me" that's a reflection of privilege from the the challenged. Diversity is about eliminating structural boundaries that benefit a specific group. Not trying to attack others and determine who deserves more.
The elderly have a special privilege in theater? Please see George Hunka's response to that, below.
That argument doesn't hold in regional theaters. That is one statistic for a New York and tourist based ecology of theater (I would want a deeper dive into those numbers which the link does not provide because it is broken). The donor and subscription bases in regional theaters tend to skew older. There is a large outcry from regional theaters trying to have younger people come to see theater. A statistic is not an argument but a snapshot in time (ie show multiple statistics over various years). The privilege of the elderly is seen in the socioeconomic structure of theater and the audiences that are marketed to. Privilege manifests itself in various ways. The theater tends to serve a whiter, older audience base. Claudia is pointing out the privilege. But privilege is being reinforced if she is dismissed as simply attacking others.
Accurate figures for regional theatres are hard to come by; the Broadway League measures national figures only for touring Broadway productions, and TCG doesn't collect these figures, saying that the resources necessary to do so are scarce -- http://www.boston.com/ae/th...
Another finding in the boston.com article is similarly interesting, breaking down the Broadway League's numbers; the average audience for straight plays is 53, the average for musicals 43. You can prove or disprove anything you want with statistics; it's the prejudice that matters. Is that age really "elderly"? And does it justify misleading characterizations of older audiences? Those offering misleading characterizations of other groups would be drawn and quartered in this atmosphere.
I'm not sure I understand what you want to conclude. That's a single number that represents on piece of a very large puzzle. I would not consider that elderly, but does that mean because people question what discrimination of the elderly looks like that they are being misleading? This being coupled by diversity as a whole conflates everything and leaves nothing to answer. Diversity should try to address all these issues of stereotypes and ridicule. But to move from ageism to diversity being exclusionary are very different arguments. Diversity does not question who is to have the most pity and rectify accordingly. Diversity is about the freedom of oppression from all forms of isms.
Thank you for explaining what diversity is. Now please paintfor me a jargon-free picture of “elderly privilege” – how specifically andconcretely the elderly are as a class privileged in a way that makes themacceptable targets for your Fight the Power approach. Then please explain why you are willing to dismiss with such contempt all the individuals of an entire demographic (including your grandmother?) because of your perceptions of the general group’s “privilege.”
I don't have a fight the power approach. I think you are taking a conversation about privilege to be a negative conversation when that's not what I am trying to do at all. I don't dismiss the elderly. I love the history and wisdom that the elderly bring to the theater. We all come with certain forms of privilege. I admit my own privilege a lot and sometimes I'm even unconscious of it.
Sometimes privilege is in the smallest forms. For instance at the theater I am at, most of our patrons and subscribers are elderly. So in thinking about our audience we tend to think about an older white patron. This can include from how loud it is in the theater to the temperature in the theater. We are less likely to consider a younger Asian American patron because the majority of the sales and donor base is older and white. That's not bad, but it also does not let other voices and stakeholders into the theater. But I don't have contempt for the elderly and I don't propose that they suddenly do not have access to the theater. But do they have a form of privilege to affect the operations of a theater in comparison to a young Asian American female that is largely underrepresented on the stage. That answer is yes.
I actually have a clearer understanding of what you're saying, thanks to this last response. So thanks for that.
It seems to me that our stumblingblock is largely a question of semantics – the meaning of the word “privilege.”
I’m going to try to explain what I mean carefully, since thisis even more of an explosive word than “diversity.” People (such as yourself, Isuspect) use the word privilege to mean “things I have because of my race (orother demographic trait) that other people don’t have because of theirs.” So when a police officer stops a black teenageron the street for no reason, but doesn’t stop a middle-aged white man on thesame street at the same time, people say the white man has “white privilege.”But this construction has always irritated me, because it isn’t a privilege notto be harassed by police – it’s a right. The middle-aged guy has his rights;the teenager is being denied *his* rights.
So what you’re saying is that the elderly are privileged inyour theater because the theater pays attention to their needs. You mention the volume and the temperature of the theater as examples. What I don’t get is what your hypothetical younger Asian American woman (if she is hypothetical) is being deprived of as a result. And why efforts to turn her into a patron have to be in any way at the expense of the current theatergoers.
I would agree. It is everyone right to not be harassed by the police. However, the teenager is being denied a privilege that the white man has. The white man does not have to worry about walking down the street and people being afraid of him because of history.
The Young Asian woman does not have to take away from an elderly person in order to be served. However, the theater tends to largely ignore the needs of voice and story of minorities in various categories are not paid attention because they do not affect the bottom line of a theater. The needs of the young Asian American woman may not be met by the theater because she is not in a super majority within that theater in order to affect its practices. However, if an elderly person considers a show too loud and others hear about this it could deeply affect how a show sells. But it is not about taking from one cup and placing it in another. Diversity is about how do you reach as many people as possible to have people sit side by side with each other. But where many people misconstrue diversity is that something has to be taken away in order for another group to be satisfied. But instead it is about how do you take a focus that has largely been on one group and allow those groups to sit side by side with each other. It's not who is going to get the upper hand, but instead how do engage everyone.
We're going to have to disagree about the "privilege" semantics, but what you say about diversity strikes me as both reasonable and attractive -- and very different from the tone of dismissal and contempt that some self-declared advocates of diversity exhibit towards the elderly (and other groups they don't deem worthy of inclusion.)
Please forgive me. I forget to check back in on conversations in these digital spaces. I find the exchange quite fascinating.
Busted! My initial headline was "Justin Bieber on Sex and Nine Ways to Win The Lottery" but my editors thought it would be much more misleading, and therefore attract way more traffic, to give the current title to a piece that asks such questions as (verbatim) "Is 'diversity' a codeword for a different kind of exclusion?"
(This was in response to a "guest' who accused the headline of being "offensive click bait." The commenter has since removed the comment.)
A couple of readers have asked me to clarify what I was saying about Denzel Washington's roles. Washington was knocked widely for playing Walter Younger Jr. in the current production of "A Raisin In The Sun" because the actor is some 20 years older than the character as conceived by playwright Lorraine Hansberry. In 2005, Washington portrayed Brutus on Broadway in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", a role that is most often portrayed by a white actor. As far as I know, nobody knocked Washington for playing that role because he is African-American.I am not saying anybody should have knocked Washington because of his race. I'm glad nobody did. But I also don't think he should have been knocked because of his age in Raisin.That's my personal opinion. More interesting to me than my opinion are the questions raised by these differing reactions.
In the criticisms of the casting of Washington and Bloom, the actors’ age is considered problematic for the story being told, or at least for the audience’s experience of that story; whereas an African American actor playing Brutus in a modernized, post-apocalyptic Julius Caesar (in which Marc Antony was also black) not only didn’t affect anything, but wasn’t even the biggest liberty taken.
You make good points for these particular productions, whichhelp elucidate the question I asked: "When is it appropriate for acharacter to be played by an actor who does not fit the playwright’sdescription?"
You astutely point out that the resistance to thenon-traditional age casting could be because it would affect "theaudience's experience of that story." But couldn't the audience'sexperience of that story be shaped by general societal attitudes towards, inthis case, age?
There is another aspect of the Romeo and Juliet productionthat I had forgotten until now. Director David Leveaux re-cast the tragedyas one based on race: The Capulets were played by African-American performers;the Montagues by white performers. I can't remember anybody complaining aboutthis in advance the way they complained in advance about Bloom's age. (Butplenty of people were unimpressed afterwards...by the Bloom/Rashad agedifference, by the racial casting, by the whole production.)
"But couldn't the audience's experience of that story be shaped by general societal attitudes towards, in this case, age?"
Perhaps. That said, the characters' ages affect, to some extent, the actual story being told. What's more, it may just be a case of the actors' age making the suspension of disbelief difficult - the characters' ages weren't changed along with the actors playing them. No one would bat an eye if Denzel Washington played, say, Joe Turner.
"There is another aspect of the Romeo and Juliet productionthat I had forgotten until now. Director David Leveaux re-cast the tragedyas one based on race."
Yeah, I heard this production wasn't great (never got to see it myself) but the race element here seems to have been intended to elucidate the feud/difference between the Capulets and the Montagues. Sometimes concepts are unsuccessful.
The seemingly widespread idea that older audiences can't engage with "edgy" material is one that bugs me. It may well be that "older" audiences (many of whom were young people during the Woodstock era -- not that all of them were there!) have seen what passes for "edgy" so many times that it simply bores them at this point. (To quote a Steve Martin retort to a heckler -- 'Yeah, I remember my first beer, too.")
I would add that there is an element of sexism to the ageism as well -- when one talks about "bluehairs," one is usually sneering about women. And of course, as Hollywood reminds us over and over again, old women are basically invisible. Strange that a demographic that is so important in the ticket-buying public is so resented at the same time.
If we're talking diversity and older people, we also need to bring up accessibility in venues. I review at a lot of theaters that are not comfortable for people with physical disabilities (not all of whom are older, of course). I am hugely sympathetic to the problems of finding decent and accessible spaces that won't break the bank for a smaller company, but if older audiences aren't showing up, it may have less to do with your material and more to do with your location.
Yellow face, black face, red face, white face. If we think of these as design elements in a production rather than measures of "diversity," we may be able to think with more clarity and nuance - at least so far as the issue of casting a play is concerned.
Let's take LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT as an example. As an autobiographical play written by a white playwright about his white family, what artistic purpose would be served by designing the characters as any color other than white? That is not a rhetorical question. What artistic purpose would be served? When that question is answered by the production team, casting choices will be made. A similar design question can be asked for a production of, say, A RAISIN IN THE SUN. And when the production teams decide whether yellow, or black, or red, or white faces best answer the question, there is a large, talented, "diverse" pool of actors in this country from which to cast.
"Colorblind" casting has been a feature of American theater for decades, and rightfully so. But race relations have been a divisive feature of America itself for centuries. So - for artistic purposes - sometimes the color/ethnicity of a character in a play must be very specific.
A recent article in HowlRound illustrated further un-nuanced thinking about this issue of "diversity" when it described a theater's selection process for new play workshops as choosing "the best plays in the country," but then found fault because "non-white playwrights were underrepresented." It begs the question: Are the best plays in the country written primarily, then, by white playwrights? Does it matter? Are scenic-designers-of-color underrepresented? Are non-white sound designers underrepresented? Are male stage managers underrepresented? And who gets to decide the answers?
Bill, your pairing of JOURNEY and RAISIN brings up a distinction I haven't seen offered (and hadn't thought of until the recent Directors Lab West).I suspect that in American culture, part of our art will deal with universal themes (e.g., love, family, death, spirituality) -- and part will always be struggling with the poisonous fantasy of race and the peculiar, cruel heritage it has given us, distorting our attitudes and institutions.Plays of the former sort, of which JOURNEY may be taken as example, are meaningful no matter who plays the roles. Trust and betrayal, pain and addiction, love and loss come to us all.But plays of the latter sort, such as RAISIN, can be turned into nonsense by casting as if they were not about the peculiar racial fantasies and cruelties of American life. What do you think?
I saw a similar case in the Atlanta area of people walking out on a play and the theater people ridiculing them as being too old to deal with "edgy" work, which I guess was preferable to admitting it was a lousy play (I would've walked out, myself, but my seat was far too comfortable). It's easier to slam those who walk out as small-minded geezers than to be self-critical about production qualities. If a play runs 3+ hours and almost nothing happens, and it's boring, why blame the audience for not liking it? Because it's easier than saying maybe you made a mistake. I agree that ageism is rampant in theater -- it's especially blatant in acting, particularly for females. There are fascinating conflicting dynamics at work; the life's blood of most theaters are subscribers/donors over 40, perhaps even over 50. Theaters need us geezers to survive, but they're afraid that age correlates with conservatism, and, naturally, they want to do innovative, exciting work. There's an undercurrent of anxiety about older audience members, about no longer appealing to the young, which means no longer being relevant. Another reason older people are less accepted in theater and find it harder to get any breaks is profoundly shallow; young people are prettier. You want a younger cast on stage because everybody prefers looking at attractive faces, and you want younger playwrights because not only are they prettier but they're assumed to be more relevant, more interesting, more innovative than older playwrights (I don't know what impact ageism has on directors). I call this "The Hollywood Effect." We may distain Hollywood movies as youth-obsessed, shallow, formulaic, and lacking true artistry, but man, do they know how to get an audience, including us! It's also easier to write and market plays about the problems of youth -- love, lust, job opportunities, first-time ethical dilemmas -- than it is to write and market about the issues arising with age -- infirmity, loss, death, grief, one's personal culpability in accommodating with a less-than-ideal world, regret over missed opportunities or poor choices. These issues are thematically more difficult to present dramatically. They are also less attractive to theaters because they're less likely to offer the sex and violence that help attract that elusive younger audience.
The paradox is that theaters NEED older audience members in order to survive, but without gaining younger subscribers they'll still die, just more slowly. I don't understand why attracting both young and old audience members is considered mutually exclusive. But then, I don't understand why many theaters assume older audience members are less tolerant and less risk-taking than are younger audience members. One would think that, as experienced theatergoers, older audience would be more avid to see something fresh. I know I am. Anyway, thank you for your provocative and thoughtful article.
Worthwhile essay. I offer a few other points here:
George, thanks for expanding on my focus on the hostility towards older audience members to similar attitudes towards older artists, critics, and administrators.Is the hostility also directed towards older characters? This isn't the theater, but I was struck by an article a few days ago about Norman Lear, the ground-breaking television producer (All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons), who said he cannot interest any network in his latest show, a comedy set in a retirement village. “They don’t want to touch the demographic."
I imagine that networks don't want to touch the demographic because of its value to advertisers, which is really quite low. In addition, it reflects a naive and simplistic assumption by marketers and advertisers that specific audiences only want to see stories about their own experiences and people from their own socioeconomic background -- an assumption that just isn't true, as even a few comments here demonstrate.
What I find perhaps most interesting here is the assumption that older audience members wield some kind of enormous power over what is presented on the American stage. I'm not sure in what that power is supposed to inhere. Broadway League figures from the 2012-2013 season note that the average age of a Broadway audience member was 42.5 years old that season -- see http://www.broadwayleague.c... -- and watching the Tonys the other night I noted that very few of the producers of the Best Play and Best Musical awards seemed to be bussed in from a local nursing home -- they looked pretty young to me, though none were just out of high school. Which just makes this ageism and these prejudiced characterizations of the older population unjustified and insulting -- well, more unjustified and insulting anyway.
Unless it has to do with where you start calling people members of an "older audience." When they're 60? 50 (in which case I qualify)? 42.5?
I appreciated your question: are some group more deserving of inclusion than others? I agree that there is rampant ageism in the theater but think it also extends to diversity of body type and a wider range of ethnicities among other topics.