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.
“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.