Rethinking the Conversation Around “Diverse Audiences”

There’s a lot of handwringing over the dismal stats released on a regular basis about audience diversity in the theatre. I’m not going to retrieve the stats for you– you’re already on the internet and can find the eleventy brazillion articles about it on your own– but suffice it to say, they are dismal, even in ethnically diverse communities like the Bay Area.

Scholars are insistent that theatre will “die” if the industry can’t diversify its audiences. Because the country’s ethnic makeup is getting more and more diverse, so the thinking goes,  theatre will eventually die unless it can make its audiences more diverse.

It’s true that people of color do not attend THE THEATRES THAT WE MEASURE in numbers representative of their percentage of the population. But we only measure certain types of theatre. We measure Broadway. We measure large nonprofit theatres. We measure theatres that exist within the models we deem relevant.

We do not measure small theatres, indie theatres, or any theatremaking that exists outside of the mainstream models. For example, despite the fact that it’s a multimillion dollar industry, we do not measure gospel musicals.

I think what directs that thinking is that traditionally white-dominated artistic endeavors are labeled “high culture” and everything else is “popular culture.” Then, from there, we worry about why people of color aren’t participating in the art forms and styles we’ve decided are “best” or “important.” We laud the Latino who plays the violin in an orchestra and discount the Latino who plays the violin in a mariachi band. We see this within theatre all the time– what’s “serious” theatre “counts” and everything else exists in semi-visible strata beneath that.

My classes are extremely diverse, and you’d be surprised how many of my students have participated in performance-based activities. Those activities don’t always conform to what white America thinks they should. Many people have lives that are inundated with art, but mainstream culture very often believes that that art just doesn’t “count.” We put ballet dancers in a class above Polynesian or flamenco dancers. When I tell people I used to sing opera, they react as if I’d done  something remarkable and worthy of respect. Tell someone you rap, and the reaction is completely different. I could be the worst opera singer in history standing next to the best rapper who ever lived, and I would still be accorded a measure of respect the rapper will not get. Someone who’s been to 20 church plays is not considered a theatre-goer.

We need to stop discounting performance forms that don’t conform to our expectations of “importance” or “high culture.” People of color are participating in enormous numbers in arts of all kinds, but we’re upset because not “enough” are attending the arts events we want them to attend.

In addition to opening our eyes to other theatre forms, we need to check ourselves, all of us. More than one person of color has mentioned to me that this desperation to get people of color into “our” theatres smacks of paternalism- that we’ve decided what people of color “should” be doing and we’re handwringing over the fact that they’re not choosing what we have to offer them in the numbers we want. (WE DID FENCES, WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?)

Personally, I’ve become deeply uncomfortable with the fetishization of people of color in our audiences. It’s uncomfortable to me to hear people bragging about or complaining about their audience diversity, like people of color are pogs. And I get, deeply, that much of this anxiety comes from funders who are demanding to see an increase in the number of people of color in all theatre audiences, which is a whole different discussion.

My audience is diverse because we market to young people in the Bay Area, and that demo is diverse. I don’t feel like it’s some particular achievement that we staged world premieres by Enrique Urueta or Prince Gomolvilas. But I’m as susceptible as anyone else to this conversation, and I DO talk about these things as if they’re achievements, all the time. And it’s starting to make me feel awful.

I’m getting more and more uncomfortable with the way this dialogue goes. It always ends up with talking about people of color like they’re collectible lunch boxes. We need to start examining our underlying assumptions, starting with this idea that people of color “should” be attending “our” theatres.

I’m not saying we should ignore issues of diversity. Theatremakers of the future will be more diverse and include more women in part because we insist that it be so. We need to be vigilant about creating equal opportunity for people of color and for women at all levels of theatre. When theatremakers are more diverse, theatre audiences will be more diverse, partly because of the programming they will create and partly because the entire population will be more diverse.

What I’m saying is: Theatre’s never going to die. The multimillion dollar nonprofit model might die (and it might not), but there will always be people doing theatre, always. There always has been and there always will be. We need to step away from claiming so much definitional authority over its terms and processes. We need to step away from this desperation to “save theatre” by enticing more people of color into certain doors while ignoring other doors, and realize there’s more theatre in heaven and earth than in our philosophy.

UPDATE:

The brilliant Cindy Im, former Impact resident actor and current AEA actor whom you should hire for ALL THE SHOWS, had this to say:

“After my mostly white school took me to see a play, my parents told me I couldn’t be an actor because theatre was for white people. This was not because they had other cultural outlets, but because they felt excluded. Once I dragged them to the theatre so I could see plays, they felt more comfortable and started attending on their own. Who knows how many thousands of people there are who would love to attend the theatre but don’t feel comfortable or don’t know anything about it, who might love it if they had the exposure?”

I think the issues around access and diversity are incredibly complex. While it’s true that we’re just not measuring the cultural outlets that are dominated by people of color in the same way that we measure traditionally white-dominated activities, and while it’s true that we accord traditionally white-dominated activities a level of respect that we do not accord activities traditionally dominated by people of color, the fact remains that creating avenues of access for diverse audiences is still a crucial consideration for the theatre community.

Open dialogue about these issues is the key, I think. We need to listen to each other and find a way forward, together.

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8 thoughts on “Rethinking the Conversation Around “Diverse Audiences”

  1. You’re right. And as more and more of the digital entertainment needs less actual people, theater will become, once again, the place to see “real” people. Just saw an AMAZING show put on by The Rogue Artists Ensemble down here in L.A. called The Songs of Bilitis. Woman, it was AMAZING theater. And the audience was wide-ranging (all 50+ people in the 99-seat theater. Unfortunately it closes tonight. But, man. What an experience.

    Cheers!

  2. Paul Mendenhall says:

    This is exactly why I despise “color blind casting.” What could be more condescending and paternalistic? Not to mention the falsification and whitewashing of history it involves. If we want more people of color in theatre, write good roles for them! When theatre honestly reflects the experience of diverse populations, it will attract them. I don’t know any black people who are aching to see a black Carrie Pipperidge or Romeo, or Latinos who would turn out in droves for a Spanish-language Charley’s Aunt. As for all the cultural expressions we shrug off as not “art,” well, no doubt some of it is comparatively primitive, but that does not make it unimportant. All art forms start out that way, but they are the seeds from which great art grows. We dismiss them at our peril.

    • cindyim says:

      Paul- I have to respectfully disagree with you. The practice of casting people of color in Shakespeare is actually widely used, and has been reasoned away as acceptable because the Shakespeare cannon is “universal.” The more we demonstrate various races in a thoughtful, intentional way, the more we show that stories are ultimately about people, not races. Unless of course you’re doing Clyborne Park or Raisin in the Sun, which are about race and should be cast accordingly.

      If people of color were to wait to participate in stories written for us alone, not only would we have to wait a loooooonnng time for the canon to grow, but we’d have to be relegated to telling stories of oppression (or alternately, fable-like stories) until it becomes normative in our society to tell more subtle, pedestrian ones. Hence all “Fences” all the time.

      And as an American-born, American-raised person, I find it so fascinating that people have no problem with me telling stories about Chinese people who live on the other side of the world who have life experiences that are vastly different than mine (I’m not even Chinese), but it’s not ok for me to tell a story about a girl with a glass menagerie, even though I’ve been raised in the same country as her, and can completely identify with her life experience.

      It’s the theatre. There is suspension of disbelief. The flat you see in the set represents a wall in a room. We make that leap. Audiences for the most part get over sister of different colors in the first five minutes. Why can’t we get over it? Why can’t we demonstrate to the world that separate but equal is not important?

  3. Let me make a suggestion for the next time you get stuck in one of these arguments. Keep a list of five “diversity” type theatre companies that are not among the maintream (whether they be Theatre Rhinoceros, the Asian-American Theatre Company) or anything else you’re familiar with. When the (largely Caucasian) data seekers start moaning about why there aren’t more diverse audiences attending their shows, ask them to articulate their feelings about nontraditional casting. Ask them if they’ve been to any productions by these small theatre companies. And ask them: If not, why not?

    It’s a two-way street.

    George Heymont
    http://myculturallandscape.blogspot.com/2007/11/about-author.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-heymont

  4. Valerie Weak says:

    I have a story similar to Cindy’s – one of my closest friends from college, the roommate who moved to the Bay Area with me after we graduated, is Latina. I had discovered Octavio Solis’s Santos y Santos through the script’s publication in American Theater, then noticed that a production was happening locally ( by the then brand new company Campo Santo). Julie came with me, and afterwards was amazed to have seen people like her telling stories like hers in a play in a theater. She didn’t know that was possible. We talked about her previous experiences of attending plays, mostly on school field trips. Though she no longer lives in the Bay Area, for the time that she did, Julie followed the work of Campo Santo and attended shows there regularly.
    There is so much complexity in these ideas and issues of access and diversity. Thanks for continuing the conversation.

  5. SBehrend says:

    Just my two cents:

    The argument about diversity can never be framed around high art vs. not. The conversation should not be about the idea that these folks “should” be at our theaters, just because we provide live theatre. Not to sound too geocentrist – but you practice your art in a hugely diverse, hugely progressive city. I’m not sure you truly recognize the impact that bringing different people together can really mean – because you see all those people together all the time….

    The argument that my theater company is engaged in is framed around bringing “everyone” in our community together to experience a piece of live theatre that is important to “everyone” and in turn affects our community.

    I live in Buffalo, NY, one of the most segregated communities in the northeast. My theater believes that one of the jobs of theatre is to bring “everyone” into a room together to experience something together and learn about themselves, each other, and maybe even start a conversation with one another.

    • I agree that we don’t pay enough attention to regional differences in all aspects of theatremaking and theatre scholarship. I’ve never even been to Buffalo, so it stands to reason that my point of view might not have practical applicability there.

      But this also proves my point that we need to step away from needing to have definitional authority over these issues: what they mean, and how they “should” be approached. We’ll only move forward on these issues if we encourage and support open dialogue about them that honors difference– and regional difference should certainly be a part of that.

      Yes, I am so lucky, and so grateful, to be here in the Bay Area. I’m the fifth generation of my family to live in the East Bay! My son makes six generations. We’ve been here since 1900!

  6. Zambonesman says:

    About a decade ago I frequented a soul food joint in Hunters Point, sf, and made acqaiuntances with the chef, Wedrell James. Wedrell learned I was an actor and handed me a postcard of a show he was, directing, “God don’t Like Ugly” in Oakland. How quaint I thought, the chef does some community theatre.
    I went. It was at the Paramount. It was packed. the place seats over 3,000.
    99% African American audience. Extremely high production values with certifiable gospel stars in the main roles. It definitely opened my eyes to what you’re saying.
    Now will Berkeley Rep ever do a show like that? No, because it’s overt religious bent would offend its subscriber base. Should it? There’s the rub.

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