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Is Your Theatre Only “Diverse and Inclusive” Twice a Year?

Why do we see communities of color as targets of 'outreach' instead of our customer base? —Emily Goulding-Oliveira

audience in a theater
Community college students attending our outreach panel discussion and talkback with the playwright entitled: "MOVEMENTS: Examining the Movements of the Past and How We Activate and Participate in Movements Today.” Photo courtesy of Malesha Taylor.

I am not known for throwing around “the race card.” But every now and then, it’s thrown on me, especially in the arts. And, when I took a position in building new audiences, but only for the black plays, things really hit home. After this experience, I would like to help devise the best practices in new audience development, and suggest beginning with genuine community engagement. But it took working this job I describe below, to get me here.

I was given a ten-week, remote position with a regional theatre company that was funded through a major foundation that seeks to provide models for new and diverse audience development. My job was to get people of color in the seats and mingle with the community and promote plays. To start, I was in a mindset of “audience development,” but soon discovered my best approach would be to be in a mindset of genuine community engagement. I gave people the impression that my position was permanent. I met people at the door who were coming to the theatre for the first time. I hosted events at the nearby bar and represented the theatre at civic events to demonstrate genuine reciprocity. But I was also conflicted. Was my job ultimately about sales and meeting diversity numbers? Once this temporary position ended, I was worried about how the arts sector would really handle this shift from audiences of historical white-privilege, to audiences for everyone. I would like to help solve this problem by sharing my personal takeaways from this job.

  1. Why do so many theatre companies and foundations launch these temporary “diversity initiatives” and then expect to activate long-term systematic change? Relationships take time to build, and my relationship with the community was cut off within a matter of weeks. The 100 business cards I passed out in that temporary position, were already null and void. What kind of message does that send to potential subscribers, the theatre’s diversity council, and the community? If the arts sector is really serious about developing relationships with communities of color specifically, then it has to be a sustained and genuine relationship—not just at moments when tickets can be sold to target specific communities.
  2. Diversity can’t just be about numbers. After working in that position, I began to further realize that the urgent call for diversity seems to primarily be about data and revenue. In an article in the LA Daily Times, an arts leader states: “it is an economic imperative for the performing arts to diversify…What is onstage, in the audience, backstage and in the board rooms should look like America…It’s extremely important for the arts to be relevant…If we don’t look like America, we can’t expect to have ticket buyers and patrons in the future.” The keywords here for me are, “economic imperative,” “ticket buyers,” and “patrons.” And I understand money keeps theatres open. But I think there is something huge missing here. I would suggest we return to making art about the human condition, about human experiences, and simply strive to move human beings. We are already a diverse society with millions of diverse stories. It just looks like we aren’t comfortable hearing from everyone for some reason. And now that demographics are shifting, many are worried about keeping their jobs. I suggest we evaluate motives more closely.
  3. I believe that revenue (an audience) is a result of genuine community engagement. According to Wikipedia: “Community engagement refers to the process by which community benefit organizations (which most theatres are) and individuals build ongoing, permanent relationships for the purpose of applying a collective vision for the benefit of a community.” Can the theatre see itself as a benefit to the community and not the other way around? If the community is to be reflected in the theatre, and the community is in fact diverse, why not simply engage in an organic relationship with the community and let the diversity in the audience be a result of that engagement?

When doing productions about communities of color, instead of looking for ways to separate ourselves into categories based on race and class, why not use stories to show what we all have in common and address the community-at-large? 

I had this conversation with my friend Emily Goulding-Oliveira, strategist, essayist, and Founder of Girasol Consulting. She posed this question:

Why do we see communities of color as targets of “outreach” instead of our customer base? African Americans consumers command a total of 1 trillion dollars of spending power. Companies that build these relationships are benefitting, in both the short and long-term.

When doing productions about communities of color, instead of looking for ways to separate ourselves into categories based on race and class, why not use stories to show what we all have in common and address the community-at-large? The theatre provides the perfect space for dialogue and community building, drawing upon art as the universal language. Why produce racially biased productions with predetermined target markets (often times during commercial moments like Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo), which separates us as people even more? It is in moments like this that we see why there is a lack of consistent diversity in the first place.

To me, diversity is a result of an integrated ecosystem, all elements of a system talking and listening to each other. How does an ecosystem last over years and lifetimes? When multiple forms of nutrients are active, cultivated and nurtured in the space working in an integrated rhythm. The same can apply to the theatre. My hope is that we evolve and expand the conversation on how we approach diversity and audiences, not only in the arts, but also in all areas of society.


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You can't force feed theatre to people. With people of all races some like to go to theatre, others don't. Others have other entertainment choices - movies, opera, ballet, jazz, etc, etc. A theatre needs to have a strong artistic vision and stick to it. Once a theatre tries to determine what the public/audience wants and attempts to give it to them just to get butts on seats, disaster will ultimately prevail.

Your number 1 point (critique?) is because of your number 2 point. It's romantic to want theater to be about the human condition, but without a focus on those words like "economic imperative" and "ticket buyers" there will be absolutely no way for commercial theater to even begin to mimic the artistic focus you crave. As you acknowledge, not enough money means no theater, and since so many non-profit venues are struggling just to keep their doors open, how can we ever hope for permanent paid relationships (like you describe in your first point) to exist? I truly understand what you want and what you're saying, but I think we can all sit back and make a list of problems with commercial theater, but finding the solutions is much more difficult.

Hi Alex, Thank you for this comment. You made valid points.I do not think it is romantic for theater to be about the human condition. I'd be interested to know what your definition of theater is? You use the word "commercial" to describe the theater. Commercial implies a "for-profit" business model that I don't think fits the non-profit, community-based theater model I am describing in this article.Starting with the theater companies' mission and intent changes the conversation and affects the results. It sounds like the company you are describing doesn't seek to produce stories about human-beings but somehow wants human-beings to attend on a regular basis. I agree, that is a challenge.

Thanks Malesha for taking the time to write this. It was an invigorating read for me on a morning I really needed to know there was another person out there asking the same questions you posed in your last paragraph. I echo your hope.

Thank you. A critical discussion and your points are right on. I'd love to dialogue about all of your points, but one in particular sticks out for me. Your words point to a major economic challenge of people working in "outreach" being seen as temporary, on stipends or short-term salaries that are a fraction of those who are on full-time staff. These same people are in "education", getting a fraction of the salary those who are doing the "real" artistic work. So, people of color are relegated to education and outreach in most of these historically white institutions who say they are diversifying their staff. Those who "serve" marginalized populations-- children, people of color, etc-- are also marginalized in these spaces and are frankly often USED to bring in audiences, receive a stipend for a one-time artistic venture as a playwright, actor, director... So, yes yes yes! Thank you for bringing this to the forefront and sharing your story, Malesha! I hope the dialogue continues and encourages people to think about what's happening in their institutions. It's a national trend indeed. Ugh.

I appreciate this article and its many insights, and think every manager and artistic director should read and think about point #1. I'm a little confused, however, by how the author is using certain words or terms. What are "racially biased productions with predetermined target markets" and why is Black History Month "a commercial moment"? Separate from the question about terminology, I wonder how actually productive (artistically or otherwise) it is to focus on work with stories that "show what we all have in common and address the community-at-large." Could the theater also be a productive place to assert, define, or explore differences, unbridgable gaps, schisms, etc? Is any work that doesn't meet that criterion working against the notions of audiences that the author wants to engender and articulate?

Hey David: in *no way* trying to answer for Malesha but to express what I assume is a similar perspective about Black History Month being a "commercial moment".... It is not atypical for theatres to produce the "Black play" during the month of February because it is Black History Month. So not atypical that it is, I believe, become accepted, common practice almost to the point of unconscious, gut-reaction. These productions in particularly might be target-marketed to "Black people," and all the special "outreach" efforts to bring "them" in are focused on this production; there doesn't tend to be extensive strategic thinking and doing the rest of the year on how to authentically welcome, connect with, and bridge those audiences with the theatre's base audience (and vice versa... so the base grows, diversifies). (FWIW, IMHO (and the HO of many others out there) you cannot actually target to a group of people based on a social construct grounded in skin color.)As to your second set of questioning, I'd recommend taking a look at Lisa Kron's keynote at the 2015 TCG conference (begins around 10min in https://www.youtube.com/wat.... This quote from Kron in particular stands out to me as interesting to ponder: “Actually, what we really want is people from all backgrounds telling the story of the world, and not to assume that story of world gets told by the usual people who’ve always told it.”

Thank you for doing this piece Malesha. Thank you for putting your words out there. Your job in audience development sounds a lot like one a colleague of mine was recruited to do. I remember her saying she didn't feel right doing it and then quit. It's good to hear that both of you were not alone, but sad and bad that a theatre would think this is an "easy fix" for something that takes time to systematically overhaul and change and its not just for the numbers. You're trying to build community and develop relationships like you said and that takes time and consistent one on one interaction in person.