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.

The Kilroys, from www.thekilroys.org. Photo by Elisabeth Caren.

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.

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Fear is not inherently separated from systemic oppression. You mentioned claims of institutional racism/sexism/etc. Any mention of institutionalized oppression is inherently going to mean that it is deeply embedded in the culture-- either of the specific theater environment, or more broadly throughout the nation, or more accurately, both.

Fear while putting together a season is completely valid, but that does not mean that logistical concerns and fear which cause "safe" selection are free from being criticized on the basis of homogeny.

Institutionalized oppression in this country largely functions on a subconscious level. The general argument against homogeny in the decisions that theaters make is not that these companies are intentionally trying to be racist or sexist-- rather, racism and sexism and homophobia are so deeply embedded into our culture, into all of our institutions, the they pervade even the most basic tacit assumptions that are made in daily life, and as such they reproduce inequity.

Institutional racism is much the same as the way that you described programming bias-- it is "the product of a subtle, interconnected web of issues". The nature of the beast means that any entity that is not positioned against said inequity (in action, not in spirit), is necessarily complicit in the continuation of, for example, the homogeny problem.

As such, every preconception of theater and the justification for season selection should be under scrutiny. For example, you mentioned canon as being safe-- which, undoubtedly, it is. However, regardless of what the justifications for choosing canon are, if it results in homogeny, the theater is still complicit, even if it was to avoid risk of loss (no matter what kind, even to stay in business). And balancing a season is not an easy task. There are many other considerations in the mix. However, this is not the type of change that can be waited on until such time as there is no longer "risk" involved. I agree that merely calling out these seasons for their lack of diversity is not going to itself create change, but what the theaters should understand is operating under fear of an unsuccessful season will not also make them free from criticism. Increasing awareness of the way that these systems of oppression creep into institutions can also help to make these decisions less risky-- granted, over a long period of time, but it is still progress. Theaters should know that they can make choices that do not ameliorate the homogeny problem, and be criticized, but still strive to be better. And also know that they are the product of a larger broken society, but are still positioned to make change.

It is also worth problematizing your use of the safe/risky dichotomy. Inherent in this terminology is an inequity in the sense that you've described above-- most of the "safe" choices are by white men. First, just think about the implications of structuring the argument in this way. Regardless of the actual risk factors (if they have/can even been quantified-- I doubt it). This positions non-white non-men through their works as "risky", whereas white men are "safe". This is and always has been true for the status quo. Why? Because is is normatively composed of white men. The bigger question, though, is whether, objectively, this schema accurately represents the risk, or whether theaters are schematizing the risk factor of a given work based on preconceptions of what would be successful or not. Granted, for at least some theaters, this may truly be the case. Also, either way, the outcome is still going to be racist/sexist/homophobic. It's just a matter of degree. If the cost/benefit analysis is not quite accurate, though, it allows the company more discretion to choose "riskier" plays because, well, in fact they weren't actually riskier.

At the same time, as the number of people sounding these alarms grows, it would seem as well that forming a diverse season would therefore be a less risky proposition. Presumably, the people sounding the alarms would be asses in the seats if the season were more diverse.

As to the canon, this is a problematic concept as well. Canon is dynamic. It is always shifting and being redefined. Perhaps not quickly, perhaps not in a readily visible way-- but it is (e.g.., how Marlowe basically vanished and Shakespeare is ever-present). Beyond which, there are numerous canons to choose from. And yes, I understand that you mean the typical canon of white men, but there are other canonical pieces in different areas (although, I grant you, fewer). So long as the same pieces are utilized canonically, the problem will stay fixed. If other pieces are frequently performed, they will become canonized. As I said, you're either making a change or you are complicit in perpetuating a flawed system.

In summary, programming bias is the result of an interconnected web of many components, which stems from fear. However, all of the above are properly categorized as perpetuating systems of institutionalized oppression. In order to escape from participating in these systems, a theater must select "risky" works rather than safe ones to begin to restructure the racialized (,etc.) components of the most basic assumptions that are made within the process of programming. If a theater has to make a value judgment which leads it away from rejecting homogeny, those decisions are valid business decisions, but are still perpetuating the problem.

Well, this is more or less EXACTLY the kind of ideas I hoped would be set down in reaction to this piece. Thank you so much for them.

My general response is that I basically agree with all of this. You use the world "problematize" here, and that's the apt word. With this piece, I was trying to complicate the kind of rote routine of "homogenous season announcement -> outrage -> no change." Like I say in the piece, institutional risk aversion is just the complicating lens, hopefully providing a more detailed view of the problem, one that (I hoped) would spur exactly the kind of analysis you're giving above.

Just to respond to a couple of points, for no other real reason except to maybe hear your response to my response:

- You make the argument that any entity not explicitly positioned against inequality is complicit in its propagation. I find that argument interesting, and for two reasons. One, it suggests that theater companies should be agents of social change. Theater companies would have an obligation to be proactively programming diverse seasons not just for the sake of producing a diversity of work, but because they have an obligation to be opponents of inequality. I'd have to do a lot of thinking about whether I think that's right and whether I think, therefore, that that binary exists, that you're either actively and consciously fighting for equality or you're contributing to its continuation. Is there a third way? A neutral gear? Could a theater company inadvertently produce a diverse season -- produce a diverse season without actively trying to produce a diverse season -- and still not be contributing to the propagation of inequality?

Further to that, the second thing that strikes me as interesting -- and I think about this often in the context of the diversity conversation -- is that ultimately, we all, of course, want NOT to be trying to program diverse seasons. We want diverse seasons just to arise organically out of an egalitarian method of choosing seasons. What you're talking about here is clearly more about the steps to be taken from the world we're currently living in to that Pollyanna-ish world somewhere out in the future, so this isn't a criticism of your argument. It just jumps out at me -- as it does when considering inequality in all its forms -- that to arrive at a place where everyone is treated the same, we have to start from a place of acting upon differences.

- I love the point you make about notions of risk being built on sort of vague, often sourceless preconceptions about what is and isn't risky. I think that's dead on right. I, for one, am not at all convinced that people would really rather sit through another Shakespeare or another Williams or another O'Neill (great writers all) than sit through a new play that speaks to their modern condition, even a play that's maybe less accomplished than those by the masters. Asking the question about what people want out of a theater experience, though, triggers a chicken-and-egg reaction, though. Because what people want in a theater is largely a function of what theater has taught them to expect from a theater, and the people who aren't interested in that thing largely stop coming to the theater. So, we've got a self-selecting group coming back to see work that affirms what they think theater should be.

I'm writing this as though there are no marketing people in the theater who have to deal with the question of how to get new audiences in every day.

Anyway, I'd love to see data on this, data on what audiences really do and don't think is risky on a stage.

- I'm all about your thoughts on canon, too. It's a little like the audience conversation: the canon just is whatever plays the culture has decided are great, which is the outcome of yet another extremely complicated latticework of factors (e.g. what has been produced, what critics have liked, what's gotten subsequent productions, what high schools do, what high schools teach, and on and on and on). It's always worth re-evaluating what does and doesn't fall within the purview of canon.

- Last but not least, thank you for putting this problem in a larger social context. Obviously, the problem that I'm talking about here is one that's playing out all over our culture at the moment. I think I shy away from thinking about that, because when I pull back to look at how so much of what goes into programming a theater is based on forces that come from outside the theater, the problem begins to look ungainly and unfixable. So, I tend to try to narrow my gaze down to the theater.

But, then, if I'm narrowing my gaze to the theater and asking for the culture of the theater to change, then I'm pretty much demanding that theater be a tool for change.

A

I think you're right-- the endgame is to no longer have to consciously diversify programming. But it is also true that because things are so inherently programmed to be homogenous, we will never arrive at the place where that happens by doing nothing. If we are to enact change, it is inherently risky, but it is also the only way to challenge the norms to prevent them from being perpetuated. It's what Viola Davis said, what many have said-- to paraphrase, diversity is held back by lack of opportunity. The many reasons people use to justify actions that perpetuate homogeny are excuses for choosing something else to prioritize. They also come across as defensive, which implies an awareness that there is a continued lack of opportunity, in this case in the form of a lack of exposure to diverse voices. I'm not implying that institutions are being intentionally dicriminatory, but that on some level there is a desire to continue down the "safe" path, which inherently continues the problem, and an accompanying guilt. This guilt increases when there is anger over homogenous programming.

I firmly believe that there is no middle ground. I think that there is a wide variety of activity that can be undertaken to begin to enact change, meaning smaller shifts and even just awareness of the ways in which cultural bias sneak into everything is a huge step forward. But positionally, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Saying that one values diversity but can't change one's business practices because of risk of loss only serves to alleviate personal guilt, but functionally changes very little (maybe even nothing).

The theater should be a tool for change. All types of institutions should be. The overarching cultural norms will never shift unless it starts within smaller microcosms. Enacting change just within theater will make a difference-- and if many small shifts occur throughout diverse fora, these noxious forces throughout society will begin to abate. As well, society and the arts are mutually reinforcing entities. And I think any of us who are deeply invested in the arts feel that there is great power there (albeit less far-reaching than other media, but nonetheless). As a result of that, any arts institution (I think) should do what it can to combat social inequities because over time these ideas can aid in shifting norms. Further, art often depicts and grapples with ideals and cultural deficiencies and as such ought as well to strive to model what is possible, or even merely the closest approximation to an ideal that we can render-- because we believe there is strength in the theater, because we know that it is valuable. Art is supposed to be heart wrenching and devastating as well as hopeful and beautiful-- to show us the worst of what we are as well as the best that we can be. This is why I believe theater should be a tool for change. Of course commercial theater will be but it will be but I think that artistic values are something many of us want present no matter what theatrical forum, and which can still be at least present in the most commercialized and sanitized of shows. If not, what is compelling about the show? Why bother with theater if it doesn't make you think or feel something?

That being said, as I said before, it is a choice for each institution to choose what they value and what is an appropriate course of action. Ideally, all would choose to take the plunge, but given that there are other business considerations, that is an unlikely proposition. I'm also not suggesting that being complicit in systemic oppression is inherently evil-- but choosing not to change is implicitly choosing to perpetuate the status quo. There are probably many good reasons to be unable to enact change in this way at this moment, but the hope is that this is at least an ideal for institutions to strive towards. Even beginning by making minute changes is progress. Further, if all similarly situated theaters were to collectively take a stand, it would seem to me that the thought of diversifying would become less terrifying. Collective action to redefine a norm may not be a bad idea.

Fear is a major driver of human behavior but fear of not having a successful season is not an excuse for a lack of programming diversity. Too many plays by women and those of non-white ancestry have been successful financially for that excuse to carry weight in 2015. If a theatre ONLY performs the Shakespeare canon then women and minorities are out of luck but it's really time to stop blaming what is a fundamental unwillingness on fear.

I agree with the spirit of what you're saying, Anna. Namely: if we just let this problem keep playing itself out, then women and people of color will be increasingly ostracized from our stages. To my mind, though, identifying the problem is the first step to fixing it. And, in my experience, unwillingness isn't the problem. In my experience, theaters would be perfectly WILLING to do a play by a woman or person of color, provided they could find one that was deemed sufficiently safe to do.

You do raise any interesting subquestion in the argument, though. How do plays by women and people of color continue to be seen as risky when there are clearly plays by women and people of color that have been huge successes? What is the relationship between the success of those specific plays and the programming conversation in general?

I'd also love to see some kind of statistical analysis, some data about the relative "success" (and we'd have to figure out what that word means...) of plays by women and minorities vs. the success of plays by white men. It would be interesting to see if this amorphous sense of risk that seems to be in the atmosphere has any actual, real world analogue.

Not to say that any correlations such an analysis would turn up would be evidence that plays by any one demographic are BETTER than plays from another demographic, but it might help us dig deeper into figuring out why certain plays are viewed as risky and others aren't.

Alex- the elephant in your assessment, is that aside from the theater for the 1%, the fabulous invalid, which Broadway represents, the rest of us "regionals" are mostly, with some fine exceptions, doing re-runs of anything in the public domain, mostly in black boxes or store fronts that seat less than fifty, with cutesie names like Pocket Theatre; sometimes featuring only one-person plays. The elephant is survival for any humanities activities during the current theft of the economy by the vulture capitalists of said 1%. Who needs art when they are hoarding all the money? It sounds awkward to call theater ART. But that's what it is at its best. There's a social revolution brewing, Alex, as well as a possible "nuclear" war in the middle east. If we survive as a species, I would suggest we claim theater art as essential to any society and demand that our nation pays for it, proudly and handsomely. Franklin Roosevelt set up the Federal Theater Project to employ theater artists in hard times. Well here we are again. Let's agree that democracy means diversity, and inclusiveness, equality, respect for all colors and an attitude of sharing. Land of the free to be you and me. That's what I'd call a great nation.

Whew, Jose, there are about twelve different ideas here that deserve entire posts (and articles and theses and books and symposia) of their own. But in this particular comment section, I'll just say that I DO claim theater art as essential to our society! And I agree that democracy demands diversity, inclusiveness, equality and respect! And I agree that many of our theaters have gotten caught up in a capitalist model that -- I think -- they were set up in opposition to and that system has a lot to do with feeding the anxieties I'm talking about here.

For myself, I'm interested in trying to tease out how to get at the roots of these issues as they currently present themselves, roots which are extremely dense and tangled. And if and when we find ourselves in a different system with a different set of issues, I'll be back on Howlround to talk about those issues, too.

The 'easy' solution is to point out that women and non-white business leaders who join theatre boards have the power to influence season choices, through both moral support and the willingness to provide financial support via sponsorship and donations that can turn what would otherwise seem a risky choice into one that is a guaranteed win. Safe season choices only become necessary because the loss of ticket sales can result in lost jobs or closing a company completely.

No one picks safe seasons because they are afraid of what people will think of them if they pick the wrong edgy show... they do it because even a safe season is better than another company closing its doors permanently. This used to be prevented by having patronage that supported you whether a show sold to capacity or flopped before it opened. Now, even just underselling on one show can result in tightening the budgets on the rest of a season to the extent that design or performance aesthetics can be compromised (how many companies have reduced their rehearsal period in the last five years). Is it any wonder that so many companies choose safe and let the big companies with money take the risks on new or diverse work?

I think you make some good points but I do want to push back on a couple of them.

One is this idea, widely promoted and accepted in all of the arts, not just theater, that "even a safe season is better than no season." Not in today's world. Safe seasons are consuming resources that are limited and sustaining aesthetics that are rapidly losing their relevance to the contemporary world. "Safe" seasons are, sooner or later, a pathway to oblivion. Start changing before it's too late.

The second is this idea that "big companies take the risks on new and diverse work." My, admittedly nonscientific, observation is that small companies take the risks. not the big ones. The more you have the more protective you become and the more risk averse.

Finally, as the article notes, it is imperative to question the very notion that "diverse" - when the word is used to mean work that represents the experience of anyone other than white people - is de facto risky and we need to find "strategies" to mitigate the risk. if it's worth doing, all art is risky, so this idea is an absurdity that we continue to "wrestle" with in our search for "safety."

You are talking about about two types of risk there, Kenneth. One is artistic in nature, the vulnerability and intimate revelation of the human condition. Yes, ALL artists should strive to produce work that is risky from that perspective. The other is the one I'm pointing out... and is where the fear talked about in this article comes into play. That is the risk of having a company with established financial obligations and employees who rely upon the success of your theatrical season.

I think, when you speak of small companies taking the most risk; you really mean the new theatres created by enthusiastic artists right out of college/grad school that have no staff to pay wages and taxes, who have no subscriber audience to lose. Those companies can create a completely new mission and commit to performing whatever plays they want... that's not risk. They have built up nothing to lose. In order to talk about a company taking risks, there has to be the potential for loss... putting their staff out of work, losing half a subscriber audience and having to continue a season with hundreds of thousands of dollars less than planned. That's what drives the fear that makes taking risks with season choices something that is difficult to achieve.

It's very interesting reading all of this. I'll admit that smaller theaters -- the ones for whom producing one show their audience doesn't take to could be the difference between being able to pay the electricity bill in a given month -- weren't in the forefront of my mind in writing this piece. Obviously, a theater in that position would be under MORE pressure to produce a bulletproof season. Still, I think that pressure is of a piece with the pressure that all companies feel to produce a bulletproof season. I think those pressures come from the same places and have the same net effects.

That said, it's obviously easier to feel sympathy for a company that truly needs a hit to one that won't fold one way or another (at least not on the basis of one ill-received play in a season) and chooses to do the safest possible work anyway.

I'm also happy that Jaesic pointed out that there are different kinds of risk. Anyone who's ever heard an artistic director pat him or herself on the back for taking a "risk" by programming a show without a star in the cast knows that that distinction is an important one.

I am with Kenneth though that, my experience has also been that it's the smaller companies that do the more innovative work. Maybe not the company with the looming lighting bill that I mentioned above. But between that company and, say, Lincoln Center, there's a whole world of small(er) companies (that still have staffs and subscribers and reputations to uphold) that are doing the more adventurous plays that bigger regional theaters are staying away from.

I'm also broadly behind Kenneth's notion that, if theater is going to be a vibrant artform, it needs a healthy pool of people taking risks in all their forms.

Oh absolutely. The critical thing being that we need boards and board members who advise and support goals that aren't necessarily measured on the budget sheet. Who are willing to do a little extra fundraising or financially support a project that isn't necessarily a 'safe' sale. Instead of advising safe choices and recommending a remount of that play that sold really well eight years ago.