Does the American Theater Have the Same Problem as the GOP?

Since the polls closed on election day, the fate of the Republican Party remains front-page news. “Demographics will doom Republican Party,” the Chicago Sun-Times blared the day after the election. “The American Electorate Has Changed, and There's No Turning Back,” the National Journal warned. President Obama won reelection with his “coalition of the ascendant” a newly minted term that acknowledges the changing demographics of our nation. This coalition is made up of groups who voted heavily in favor of Obama, and whose population will continue to increase over the next generation: Millennials, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and college educated whites, particularly women.

Do we, like the GOP, have an image problem? Are we not only woefully slow to adapt to the changing face of America but also perceived as intrinsically hostile to these shifts?

President waving
President Barack Obama waving to the crowd with  the First Lady  Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia at  the presidents victory speech in 2012.  Photo by CNN.

As the Republicans somewhat haplessly try to figure out their future, I am struck by the similarity of their problems to our field’s current headaches: an inability to grow an audience past an aging population that shares our traditional values and a lack of meaningful engagement with or opportunity for artists who are Latino, Asian-American, African-American, women, or young. Do we, like the GOP, have an image problem? Are we not only woefully slow to adapt to the changing face of America but also perceived as intrinsically hostile to these shifts?

To speak broadly of the American theatre is to generalize—for every example there is likely a counterexample. What I am comparing to the GOP are our largest institutions—typically LORT theatres—whose cultural prominence, access to funding, and historic prestige widely influence the common assumptions and practices of our field. They are also institutions that have a complicated relationship to audience development and diversity. As the fascinating 2010 report by Janine Sobeck on diversity in the new play sector entitled “Defining Diversity” states, “Overall, the large LORT theatres were seen [by conference participants] as ‘white institutions who talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about [diversity]’ but, even though they receive a lot of attention and money for the discussions, they don't actually change.” The parallels between theatres and political parties are surprisingly strong. Just like politics, theatre has media-driven kingmakers, whether they are Charles Isherwood or Karl Rove. While theatres lack the explicit publication of values and goals that political platforms provide, they do have mission statements. There are limited positions of leadership—whether they are artistic or administrative—and many people vying for them. While the American theatre is a moving target, we can think critically about ourselves and our field by looking at trends, patterns, and influences.

Many have pointed to the dominance of white men at the helm of the GOP as a major reason why the party fails to identify with diverse constituencies. Much has been made of the American theatre’s similar problem of almost exclusively putting white men in power. Even a recent New York Times article profiling the rise of female directors in New York ironically underscores just how powerful the old boys’ club remains. Is what we have merely a leadership problem? Do we—like the Republicans—simply need a few more nonwhite leaders who share our values and can perpetuate our current systems? Does anyone know if Marco Rubio enjoys new play development?

It’s easy to cast blame on the leaders while excusing our own responsibility to call for action. As a millennial and a college-educated white woman, I fit squarely in Obama’s coalition of the ascendant. I volunteered for the Obama campaign in three swing states across two elections. I knocked on doors and made phone calls for many reasons—some highly personal and some because I believe that everyone deserve the rights, opportunities, and privileges that I have. Like many others, I was deeply invested in the outcome of this election and how it would shape our country. So why am I not equally as invested in the shaping of my chosen profession? Why am I not as insistent about the value of the field in which I work as I am about the country in which I live?

Like many others, I was deeply invested in the outcome of this election and how it would shape our country. So why am I not equally as invested in the shaping of my chosen profession?

What if we spoke up with the same sense of urgency and candor that we embody during an election cycle? What if we said to have a nationally prominent ensemble without Asian or Latino members is completely unacceptable? Or that the amount you pay your interns, your fellows, and your junior staff means you implicitly endorse Mitt Romney’s worldview, that we should all borrow money from our parents in order to follow our dreams? Or simply this: the rate at which you create opportunities for emerging artists and administrators is far too slow. Too many of us are marginalized by a system that is supposed to represent our voices, and so we are leaving and taking our audiences with us. Theatres are having a tough time attracting and retaining millennial audiences, and to fix the problem might require more than free beer.

I don’t mean to offend anyone. Particularly if you were planning on coming to see my show. Or giving me a job. Especially one with health benefits. It’s the fear of consequence, this fear of limiting potential opportunities before they fully emerge that keeps so many of us from saying these things loudly. But then how different can we be from a moderate Republican in the House of Representatives? Don’t we all look at the news every day and think—one of these people has to see beyond the limited opportunity of their own dwindling political influence and start speaking up or else the entire system is doomed?

Perhaps the problem is not with us nor with our leaders. After all, very few artists set out to tell stories to only certain kinds of people. The problem could lie with our audience or more accurately, with our education system that no longer teaches students to become patrons of the arts and lovers of live performance. Thus, we are left with an audience that is older and historically white and often upper class. They are our reliable ticket buyers, donors, board members, and we cannot make theatre that simply ignores them. This is true. But it’s also true that if we rest in this understanding of our audience—of our constituents—then our industry will have no more longevity than a political party based on an older, white population. We evolve, or we become extinct, as Rand Paul recently said.

It’s so easy and so satisfying to assign blame to the current state of politics and of theatre. But is that actually a catalyst for change? In the midst of writing this article, I listened to an interview with the researcher Brené Brown (whose TED Talk went viral three years ago) who spoke about the power of vulnerability. In this podcast, she mentions that one can’t shame others into behaving differently. I froze when I heard this. Aren’t I shaming the House Republicans and the rest of the GOP into changing their behavior? Aren’t I shaming what I perceive to be the old guard of theatre? With this very article aren’t I saying: be ashamed of the failure you have brought upon your theatre and our field at large? You are to blame for the decline of our audiences and you must change or suffer the consequences?

We go into theatre because we want to spend our lives imagining what is possible and trying valiantly to bring it to fruition. In that regard, we aren’t so different from politicians. Here is an uncomfortable truth for me: deep down, I know that for a democracy to truly flourish, we need more than one political party. Eventually, the Republican party will shift (or in its place something new will emerge) that accepts the reality of the America in which we now live. And even with this acceptance, they will stand for things with which I disagree with all of my being. Yet, a functioning party is needed for a functioning democracy. I must contend with the knowledge that I am responsible for those with which I disagree. We all are if we want to live in a democracy worthy of our potential. I believe in the American theatre’s capacity to change. I believe in the Republicans’ ability to render themselves obsolete. But with so many similarities aren’t the reverse fates equally as likely? What is our responsibility to see that both survive and change for the better?

If we can’t yet manage meaningful conversation in our civic life between differing opinions and conflicting interests, perhaps we can manage it in our own field. Or at least it is incumbent upon us to try. It is not an easy time to be making theatre, but when has it ever been easy to make real what we can imagine? And yet, we must speak the truths that we know out loud. So let’s begin: We—the coalition of the ascendant—are here. We are ready. We are waiting, but not for much longer. Open your doors, open them wide, and we will join you. We are not your father’s America and we have stories to tell. 

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I think that the past election is a prime example of Chicago "Thug" politics. Get out the democratic votes and suppress others. The media has been in bed with this administration from its inception. Nothing gets told unless it is favorable to the Obama administration. Nothing is known by key members of the Obama administration. One wonders how many illegal votes were cast during the month of November. With a week plus to vote. In one district in Florida 148% of the vote came out. One wonders how many cadavers voted. Many key events went unpublicized to protect the reelection of our President. The coalition that once supported Obama may realize their leader, a man of many promises, and much rhetoric has made some critical errors in economic policy, and foreign policy, His affordable medical care may further bankrupt the country. More jobs will be lost as employers can no longer pay to cover the "affordable medical" care programs. When our economy collapses, then the arts will suffer too. Without jobs, people can't support the Arts or Museums. Hopefully the pendulum will swing back from the progressive, big government folks to safer more conservative governing, I pray for that constantly. Having lost one career in 2008, I hope to regain my footing, my career, and see the middle class truly thrive. It most certainly has NOT under Obama's watch.

I wonder whether the real issue is that theatre itself isn't terribly democratic, compelling or relevant anymore. In that way, the industry really does mirror the GOP. For the GOP, diversity can't overcome an unpalatable policy platform that no longer makes sense to a majority of voters. Why would theatre be different? No one can ever take away the one thing that sets theatre apart from its entertainment industry brethren - live performance - but the stories themselves are being told elsewhere, by other means, as well as or better than theatre: at a lower price, at a choice of times, in a more convenient location.

These are big issues that aren't going away, and it's only going to get harder to find our niche as audiences age, and younger people flee. But look at the crowds outside SLEEP NO MORE here in NYC day after day after day. The audience is there; are the theatre-makers interested?

If we want a bigger, more diverse audience we have to more diverse types of work....and more diverse types of work can only come from having more diverse types of people making theatre.

But this isn't just about race. It's also about content.

Sometimes I think the American theatre is suffocating under its own intellectual elitism. Go watch a play at most regional theatres and what you get is often either a costumed lecture about a political topic or a pretentious, talky modern-day melodrama about internal family strife.

Simply put, too much theatre is not fun or particularly entertaining (unless you fit into a narrow demographic of the American public). And I'll be the first to admit that have both made and attended plenty of this kind of theatre myself.

Consider this: A big reason people go watch movies (or rent them) MORE than they go to the theatre (aside from cost) is because the movie industry offers something for everyone.

If you don't like the indie art-house flicks, you can go watch Transformers or a Disney movie, for example.

In theatre, you basically get to choose between 3 choices: the art-house flicks, musicals/farces, or old stuff. And that's about it. (I realize this is over simplifying, but hopefully you get my point).

The point is that there has to be room for a wider variety of material...including more fun stuff and more stuff that represents different cultural attitudes, not just white, liberal, college-educated attitudes.

Perhaps it is because the theater world you speak of has lost its roots. You allude to this, but miss the point. The funding should go to street theater and community theater projects of small scope, which was a wonderful aspect of Chicago, for instance, in the late 1960s & 1970s. That local theater movement was vibrant to say the least, multicultural, inter-generational, and influenced all theater & media institutions (Steppenwolf & Second City, for instance, grew up from the Chicago street theater movement). That will be your "catalyst for change." If all the funding goes towards established theater institutions, though, nothing will change.

Absolutely right....but how do you convince large-dollar funders to give money to an organization that may be gone next week?

I'm not defending the current system....but the desire of many donors to leave a legacy or to support something permanent is very real.

We have to find ways to convince donors and foundations to support more cutting edge work

The issue is that theater is about inclusivity and digital mediums are about niche and exclusivity.

I think we need to have this particular question seared into our souls: "[Does] the amount you pay your interns, your fellows, and your junior staff mean you implicitly endorse Mitt Romney’s worldview, that we should all borrow money from our parents in order to follow our dreams?" I may not have phrased it so starkly, but I think this is one of the core problems with how theatres acquire administrative talent, and therefore how they think about and plan for the future. How can you possibly convince the marginalized or underrepresented of society to become a part of theatre when the first rungs of the ladder are economically out of their reach?

It is a thorny problem since relying on the work of un(der)paid interns and apprentices extends the abilities of a theatre; it also cuts off a lot of underrepresented people, who simply cannot afford to work for so little for so many months. If we can't expand our payrolls (and I know that we really can't), we should really be working on creative ways to make internships more accessible (shorter term, better funded, etc), especially to people who have not followed a traditional path to theatre. We might also look harder at who on the staff already can contribute in ways that we haven't had our eyes opened to yet. Many theatres are seeking deeper integration with universities, but this can entrench the problem even more, since higher education is becoming more expensive and is less effective at being an opportunity equalizer than in the past.

I think many of the best solutions to the representation problem will be found when we solve the entry level position problem.

Yes. But there is also the money problem. Most theatres want to pay people more....but then how do you do that without raising ticket prices beyond the reach of many of the people we're seeking to serve?

Sure, you can try to fundraise around this issue, but that's always easier said than done.

There has to be a connection and dialogue. For the connection to be made, we have to learn to use the tools that are at our disposal. Every theatre company should have a youtube channel. We are too worried about what people would think to make that initial connection. That's what the Demos did that the Repubs didn't. They are not all bad, but the repubs have a severe image problem that was ransacked by social media and spin doctors. If a new theatre wanted to, they could do the same thing. The blueprints are there from everything that they did.

My opinion. Realize that your primary goal as a producing institution is to connect with your audience. That's pretty much it. And connection comes from listening, not screaming in room of 20k and hoping that someone will hear you. If you don't have at least 1-5 interns as Facebook moderators, then you're not doing it right. They should be answering questions and connecting with your organization as you.

This revolution will not be televised. We need it though. Kick the theatre companies out of the 70's. They were a great time, but they will never come again. Live in the moment. There's my two cents.

Good piece and good comments! For my part, I feel we have to stop letting the conversation about the American theatre be essentially limited to the 25 largest institutions. By doing so, we continue to reinforce their status as more important, when they are, for the most part, not leading the field anywhere but toward safety and conformity. Let us start talking about all the mission-driven midsize and smaller theatres that make up the vast majority of this country's producing organizations; the theatres that ARE attentive to diversity and to artistic risk. If we keep harping on how the largest regional theatres are driven by predominantly white, middle-class, bland, commercially-driven work, and somehow expect them to embrace a dramatic change of course, we are going to go down with the ship eventually. Just as we don't want our nation's politics to be determined by the largest corporations, but instead by the representative diversity of its people, we want give greater voice to the legions of theatres that DO represent the diversity of our field.

Hey, Seth. I agree with you that the theatre of tomorrow (and today exists in the small to mid-sized world) but, using the analogy you used, the fortune 500 companies that "define" American business recognize diversity is an issue in their organizations and dedicate millions of dollars and resources to effecting change. I know that Target here in Minneapolis, as well as General Mills, dedicate a lot of resources to increase diversity and move those diverse members of their company into leadership positions. Again, I see your point, but I do hope you see mine. We do have to continue to push the larger organizations, who have the resources, to do better.

Jamil. Of course I agree that the larger organizations can and should do better. But, as a field of literally hundreds of theatres and thousands of theatre makers, we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on a small handful of the largest theaters. Imagine if all that time and energy was focused on strengthening the midsize and smaller theaters that ARE embracing diversity and artistic risk; we might be able to advance the conversation, instead of constantly banging our heads against this same wall.

Very interesting piece, Rebecca! I'll be laughing about Marco Rubio the Developmental Dramaturg all day. But I'll also be thinking about all the generative questions and challenges you pose.

Thanks for a wonderful post. I think you’re right, the theatre, like the GOP, will inevitably change to better reflect the larger world we're living in. In an election cycle where 92% of African Americans, 70% of Latinos, 73% of Asian Americans and 55% of women went for Obama, the GOP will have to. (We’re already seeing the seeds of this as Rubio threads the needle on immigration and Jeb Bush (even if he doesn’t end up running) continues his on-again off-again dance with the tea party).

I couldn’t help but wonder – after going back and re-reading Howlround’s lively November 2012 discussion about conservative voices in the theatre – whether the theatre, AFTER its inevitable shift, will be equally welcoming to views of a less liberal nature, be them religious, social or political.

Because let’s face it, just as we have a way to go toward seeing more women and theater artists of all ethnicities and sexual orientations running theatres, getting their plays produced, directing and designing -- politically we could more open too.

And I say this as someone from the political center with no ax to grind. I simply value learning things from all points of view, especially those not my own.

I think you nailed it when you said, “for a democracy to truly flourish, we need more than one political party.” If we’re really being honest with ourselves,the same is true for theatre, no?

I agree with you, Mark, in several respects, except one: While I take your point that it's true that it's worth having a conversation about the space for conservatism in theatre, I don't think the need for that is anywhere near comparable to the urgency of what's at stake when it comes to the need to actively reframe our artistic systems such that historically marginalized peoples not only to perform but take on rightful positions of leadership, not just in the occasional position here and there but in a way that is more systemically grounded. Making space for that kind of restructuring is, to my mind, an urgent moral good. In other words, there is no moral downside for me. In contrast, while I certainly won't make the overarching claim that conservative perspectives are not morally "good," we CAN say that very often conservative perspectives are--in both their policies and their rhetoric--by their very nature diametrically opposed to genuine equality for historically marginalized peoples. After all, having to reframe systems to achieve that equality would disrupt the status quo that conservatism, well, conserves. I was just a little nervous about your comparison there. Conservatism is not a historically marginalized position in the power structures of this country, even if it is perhaps a set of values under-articulated on our stages, so I wanted to speak to how I think about that distinction.

It's a good clarification, Kelly. I'm certainly not arguing for us to champion those who aim to marginalize others. I was thinking more along the lines of people who are open to a wide range of other people and their views but choose, in their own lives, to live in a more conservative way, relative to others.