The Class Divide in Theatre

For so long I’ve wanted the Theatre Industry machine to behave a certain way and suddenly I realized I want to take that machine apart and build a new one instead.

It’s been brewing in the back of my mind for awhile, but it really came to a head last week in a Facebook discussion about Charles Isherwood’s condescending language when writing about plays by people of color. Isherwood has enormous power to make or break the success of a play and/or playwright, and he’s not the only one using that kind of language, but he has extraordinary power because of his position with the New York Times.

But I think the problem isn’t just Isherwood personally, since we could fire him into the sun and there’d be another one right behind him to take his place. We should start thinking in terms of dismantling the power we accrue to that position rather than just calling out the person in it, and while we’re at it, let’s also start thinking in terms of dismantling the way we conflate “important” with “in New York” or “well-funded.” This last idea, which I’ve fielded a few times, has been met with a ton of resistance. And I’m not surprised– it really is a big, frightening dream to imagine that we can successfully disrupt the class-based divides in the theatre community that make New York theatre seem so much more important than theatre elsewhere (which accrues an inordinate and wholly undeserved amount of power to the tiny handful of individuals who review theatre for the New York Times) and that make well-funded theatre seem more important than everything else. But I feel like the time has come for us to try. This may not be my work to finish, but it sure as hell is mine to begin.

I think we have two challenges to face. The first is the mythology of the importance of New York, a class-based mythology that places New York above everywhere else. A large amount of wealthy and influential people have enormous personal stakes in the perpetuation of the myth that New York is the pinnacle of theatrical achievement and success, and there are even more people who have pinned all their aspirational hopes (and childhood dreams) on that as well. But as in any discussion of privilege, it’s painful for the privileged minority to allow those without privilege to rise to equality, and it’s perhaps even more painful for those who are in the middle of struggling to achieve that privilege, or who believe that privilege is potentially achieveable for them. We accord New York theatre an enormous amount of privilege that we’re denying theatre elsewhere for no reason other than that we DO, and that there are people who believe that myth with all their hearts, have sacrificed for it or profited from it, and therefore are loathe to give it up.

There’s no question that New York has a LOT of well-funded theatre that employs more theatremakers than any other single location in the country. But we accrue an inordinate amount of prestige to a show in New York for no other reason than that it’s New York, the historical heart of theatre in the US. Our language reflects that: There’s “New York” theatre and there’s “Regional” theatre– everywhere else. This is an incredibly outdated point of view. Why, in 2014, are we still perpetuating the mythology that a show in New York with a (for example) $100K budget has somehow achieved something that a show in (also for example) Minneapolis with a $100K budget has not? It massively undervalues the theatre happening all over the country. A show that starts in Chicago and then transfers to Off-Off Broadway is held up as having achieved something significant.

The second is the mythology of importance = money. The importance we accord theatres and productions is directly related to the size of the budget. This class divide impacts every single thing we’re trying to achieve, because it doesn’t just marginalize theatre below a certain level, it renders it completely invisible. When we’re discussing problems or strategizing solutions in the theatre community, we’re almost always discussing LORT and/or Broadway and/or companies with an annual budget over a certain amount. The eligibility requirements to become a TCG member theatre (a first step in “counting” as a nonprofit theatre) are primarily FINANCIAL. Out of eight eligibility requirements, just three are related to the actual theatremaking (“commitment to the rehearsal process,” “minimum of one year’s prior existence,” and “community vitality,” which, to be fair, mentions funding sources, but allows for other evidence like “awards” and “media coverage.”) There’s no such thing as a study of diversity in “theatre,” or gender parity in “theatre.” We have studies of those things in wealthy theatres, but not in “theatre” as a whole. When we talk about diversity in theatre, what we’re almost always really talking about is a glass ceiling that prevents a more diverse distribution of money and resources, not actual diversity across all types of theatre.

It’s foolish to pretend that money doesn’t matter at all. Of course it does, and the conversations around who gets hired and which playwrights get the higher-paid commissions or production slots and WTF glass ceiling are valuable ones to have, but we need to stop pretending that this is a conversation about whose voice is “important.” It’s a conversation about unfair income, resources, and jobs distribution. But by refusing to call it that, and instead talking about which voices are “important,” we’re reinforcing the cultural idea that the only marker of importance is money.

When The Kilroys list came out (full disclosure: I contributed to it and I would again in a heartbeat), I saw a number of playwrights flipping out for not being included. I saw people saying they were, and I quote, “pissed” for not being chosen. The Kilroys had asked contributors to name the five best plays they’d read that year that fit the criteria (written by a self-identified woman, no more than one full production). The final list included a number of luminaries along with rising stars. Artistic Directors of smaller companies started posting on social media immediately about how they’d do readings of every play on the list, or how they were going to stage this or that play. And I had to just take a deep breath, because they would all eventually find out: Most of the 46 “winning” plays, if not ALL 46, would be denied to them. I had already asked for the production rights to two plays on the list and been shut down. And that’s FINE. The list isn’t about getting those plays produced AT ALL. It was about going Hulk Smash on the glass ceiling. I think the list’s rollout suffered for its lack of clarity on that issue– this list wasn’t meant to be comprehensive, and it wasn’t meant for the likes of me. It was for big money theatres, in direct response to Ryan Rilette’s comment that there were not enough plays by women “in the pipeline.” The Kilroys built a new pipeline of LORT-ready and Broadway-ready plays as determined by a ton of existing gatekeepers, and shoved it right in everyone’s face, an act of bravery and enormously successful activism. But it was about the distribution of money and resources, not about getting women’s work done at all. I’m willing to bet most of the 46 would have had more productions, and therefore been ineligible, if the rights had been released to the small companies who had asked. I’m not critiquing that decision in the least, and I think activism that works to dismantle the glass ceiling and create equity in the distribution of money, jobs, and resources is incredibly important. But we need to stop reinforcing the idea that money and/or location are the only kind of “important.” It’s time to build a new machine.

I’m a big fan of Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco, the only Filipino American theatre company in the nation. I’ve been to a number of their shows, and a few days ago I went to see The Guerrillas of Powell Street. Guerrillas is a play about the Filipino WW2 vets who were promised military benefits by the US and later denied. They were made to wait 70 years for any kind of compensation, and to this day some are still being denied due to poor recordkeeping during the war. The play is also a beautiful, at times heartbreaking, examination of the meaning, strength, and limits of friendship and family, as well as a celebration of Filipino culture. Guerrillas was fantastic in every way. Every show I’ve ever seen there has been packed to the rafters with eager audience members, with more on the waiting list, almost all Filipino Americans, almost all under 40– an audience we’re told repeatedly does not exist. Bindlestiff is a small theatre you’ve probably never heard of. It’s all volunteer-run, non-AEA, with tiny production budgets. This play, this theatre, this audience will never make it into a national study about “diversity in theatre.” Their productions, audience, playwrights, existence are not considered important enough to include because of the size of their budget. Their work, like the work of indie theatres all over the country, is invisible. But those audiences are having an intense, emotional, moving, unique, life-changing theatre experience. It’s not in New York, nor is it a 20 million dollar a year LORT, but the audiences and the work at Bindlestiff, and at indie theatres everywhere, are every bit as an important. The tiny, very elderly woman sitting next to us at Bindlestiff Friday night, who sang along to every song, laughed at every joke, and made comments in both English and Tagalog, completely enraptured by the show, is somehow in a less important or culturally valuable experience than a wealthy white woman who saw a Broadway show the same night unless we refuse to continue validating that point of view and conflating “importance” with money and location.

When we talk about what work is “important” in theatre, invariably we’re talking about a category that has a pricey entrance fee. You don’t get on the board unless you have the right budget and/or the right location. We ignore this class division each and every time we talk about problems in “theatre.” The majority of companies are waiting at the rope line outside while the well-heeled are inside talking about themselves. And again, I think it’s VERY valuable to discuss who gets in that door, and why we’re not seeing more women, people of color, people with disabilities, and trans* people let through the rope line. But we’re ALL, even those of us in the rope line, always in the process of either ignoring the rope line or talking about it as a lesser state a being– a place you come from, not a place worth belonging to.

I’m tired of trying to convince the bouncer that he needs to let more of us, and more types of us, into that club. I want to tear down that building and build a new one that includes us ALL, a building that recognizes that money is important, but that importance isn’t money.

And yes, fuck yes, I want to see more diversity on big money stages, and I think a lot will change when that finally happens, when more diverse artists and arts administrators are able to quit those day jobs and just be artists and arts administrators. (Don’t even bother telling me that arts adminstrators don’t belong in that sentence until you’ve spent a decade running a small theatre on 50K or less a year, paying everyone but yourself.) But I want us to be clear about the terms of these discussions. When we’re talking about money, let’s talk about money, where it goes and why there’s not enough diversity there. But when we’re talking about diversity of plays, theatremakers, and audience, let’s talk about diversity as such and stop requiring outdated entrance fees to that discussion. Why isn’t Bindlestiff at that table? THEY’RE THE ONLY FILIPINO THEATRE IN THE COUNTRY. And it’s like they just don’t exist. There’s nonstop talk in the club about how “theatre” needs to diversify or die, while everyone inside pretends there aren’t hundreds of diverse theatres they stopped at the rope line.

I want to make sure we continue to talk about money, but I also want to dismantle the language and the thought processes that accord “importance” only to theatres with the right location and/or the right budget. The undeserved, massive power of someone like Charles Isherwood can’t be dismantled by disrupting his personal power– it can only be dismantled by disrupting the power of the position. And I think we all benefit from doing that. Not only do we have more honest discussions about both money and diversity, but we also start according importance to work that is ACTUALLY important rather than just well-funded, using better, more realistic and inclusive criteria. Money is a KIND of importance, but it can’t be the ONLY kind of importance, especially in the nonprofit world where the entire point of our 501c3 status is supposed to be rising above the concerns of commerce, using grants and donations to make up the ticket income shortfall because nonprofit theatres are supposed to be doing risky work that furthers the art rather than sells scads of tickets.

So examine your language. Examine why you think the way you do, and why you think this company or production is more important, or worthy of your attention, than that company or production. When you talk about money, or its gendered and/or privileged allocation, be honest, because it’s an important conversation to be had. When you talk about diversity, stop shutting people out because of location or budget. Recognize that, while money is important, importance cannot be money. Otherwise, who are we?




36 thoughts on “The Class Divide in Theatre

  1. Jaz Dorsey says:

    Dear Bitter Gertrude – this is by far the best essay that I have ever read on the American theatre and so, with your permission, The Actors Reading Room would like to give you our first “Best Theatre Essay” award.

    And I’d also like to share a bit about my personal experience with this subject.

    When I got out of graduate school and went home to Atlanta and started pursing my craft, folks kept saying “If you were any good, you’d be in New York.” This infuriated me, but after a decade of that bigotry, I landed a job in NYC and lived and worked there from 1990 – 1999 – but I wasn’t selling out; I was doing research and now I am working to apply the results of that research here in Nashville.

    But here’s what I find to be the operative psychological symptom of the NYCentric paradigm of the American theatre. Classifications aside, there are two kinds of thetre – big theatre and little theatre.

    Big theatre is when one produces a show that people want to see and does everything possible to see that the show achieves it maximum potential.

    Little theatre is when your show runs for three weekends and every body pats themselves on the back and gets real “clicky”

    99% of the theatre in this country (and I’m counting LORT productions) is “little theatre” and the horror of it is that the syndrome is largely perpetuated by “theatre people”

    Personally I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.


  2. This is one of my favorite of your blogposts Melissa. I couldn’t agree more that the majority of the serious work being done in this country is marginalized by confusing size of budget with level of importance. A prime example is the National New Play Network. I applaud their mission and programs, but can only admire it from the sidelines. To become even an associate member of NNPN a company must have at least $50K in their annual budget. The company need only exist for 3 years and produce one new play. a year. The Asylum Theatre has been around since 1997, and new work by playwrights from around the country is all that we produce. There is a broken link in the chain, and it needs to be strengthened.

  3. This blog kicks ass and you kick ass and that is my reasoned, dispassionate conclusion.

  4. chasbelov says:

    I too loved the Guerilla play at Bindlestiff. And I spent this afternoon seeing an intense, brilliant African-American play Sweet Maladies by Zakiyyah Alexander at a postage-stamp sized theatre by a shoestring theatre company Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience who nevertheless employed three Equity actors out of four actors.

    I’ll note that Marin Theatre Company (LORT) is running four of six plays next season by playwrights of color (three of six by African Americans).

    All of these are worthy of our attention.

  5. chasbelov says:

    There’s also the MFA issue in that playwrights are not considered worthy of notice in the bigger theatres without an MFA.

  6. You’re the best, Melissa. That’s all I have to add.

  7. erainbowd says:

    It would seem that this summer, so many of us are all finally ready to just dive in and talk about class. It does really seem like the moment. (I’ve been thinking about it, too- lots and lots. Here first:
    Which led me to think about education:

    What you’ve done here is really strike the whole thing just so squarely on the head. And it is important and much appreciated.

    Maybe it’s because I make work in New York, but for those of us without money here (i.e. most of us) I wonder if the class distinction is perhaps even more acute. From my point of view, because my company’s work is not “well-funded” (as you put it), our New York-centric-ness, makes not one jot of difference. Certainly no one anywhere else is calling for us to come running to their open arms. (We had some people thank us for coming to their city one time, but I’m pretty sure they’d have thanked anyone, New Yorkers or not.) In fact, it feels to me that New York is much more enamored of work that was created away from here, and rarely recognizes (un-moneyed) work that was created here.

    Is the New York work you’re seeing in other places made in well-funded theatres? Certainly the “pipeline” is a handful of very specific New York-based stuff created in those well-funded theatres. Are you seeing lots of stories about rich folks in fancy NYC apartments? Yeah – I quit going to those shows a while ago.

    In the Independent Theatre scene here in NYC – there’s a growing conversation about class and acknowledging that we’re working class and how to truly advocate for ourselves and the people around us. From the Brooklyn Commune to the League of Independent Theatre, there are several organizations that are in the trenches. And as this conversation continues, if somehow our New York-ness can be a privilege somewhere somehow, there are many of us here who would like to use it for the greater good.

  8. Robert Neblett says:

    One addition: The theatre company in NYC that produces a show with a $100K budget would be completely outmatched by the Minneapolis version in every single way. The technical aspects would be MILES beyond the NYC version, especially. And not only that, it would be more likely to recoup those costs without charging $150-300 a ticket. Why? Because the Minneapolis theatre is not paying 50% of its budget on bloated real estate costs, for one. I have seen regional productions wipe the floor with their versions of the NYC hit that has finally been released to them because of better economy of resources. Often, those regional productions also find something in the show that was missing in NYC because there are not 100 individual producers attached to the project, all demanding their say and insisting on SUCCESS at any cost! Ironically, these retooled versions find their way back to Broadway, and Manhattan claims all the credit, like you mention in your post (the condescending way Chicago was lauded as a “tryout” for New York – as if Chicago has no vibrant arts scene all its own – last year was lamentable and infuriating).

  9. gwangung says:

    Musing here….

    Ultimately, are we talking about getting work done? That we want to see work from places like Bindlestiff (who I’ve adored for a long time, for obvious reasons) passed around and start permeating our collective consciousness?

    And that there’s barriers in place, slowing passage of these plays, not only up the financial scale, but across geographic boundaries (because as a tiny theatre myself, getting a hold of and hearing about good work can be difficult).

  10. gda4362 says:

    In your post you mentioned your concerns about American theater “…really came to a head last week in a Facebook discussion about Charles Isherwood’s condescending language when writing about plays by people of color.” I was intrigued by your topic and clicked on the link you provided to an article Isherwood did on the closing of “Holler If You Hear Me.” I kept reading until the end of Mr. Isherwood’s article to find the ‘person of color’ your blogpost suggested but found none. Todd Kreidler is a white, Jewish man who was responsible for the creation and quality of the script. This is not a play by a person of color. Could you suggest another article that supports your original premise? This one doesn’t cut it. Thank you.

    • The link I provided is the New York Times search page for Charles Isherwood and returns a list of every article he’s written. It’s not a link to a specific article.

      • gda4362 says:

        My apologies. Still the first article you cite is not a support of your main argument because it is not a play written by a person of color. Isherwood might be racially insensitive, but your first example does nothing to help your case.

      • I’m not citing an article. I’m simply providing a link to Isherwood’s body of work for those who don’t know who he is. When you search for a writer in a newspaper or magazine, the website will compile a list of all articles in chronological order, and that list will of course change over time. If you click on the link now (Tuesday, 8/5 as I’m typing this), you’ll see the article to which you’re referring is now the eighth one down instead of at the top. The list will continue to change as Isherwood posts more articles.

        At any rate, believing that Isherwood is or is not racially insensitive is quite clearly beside the point of my article. As I said, it’s much more important to examine the power of the position itself, not the man in it.

  11. We have nationally lauded independent film festivals, ca ne figure out a way to do that for theatre?

  12. sjarevalo says:

    Really enjoying your blogs! This is spot on! (btw…I think I saw your box near mine at BRT School of Theatre…)… So glad you are writing about all the things close to my heart.

  13. Julie says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog. As an actor and a woman of Japanese descent I’ve found it’s difficult to find companies who are interested in “diversity” casting or producing a story of a minority group’s experience. I’ve always admired companies who cast a bigger net and go against “traditional casting” but it’s so few and far between. I also don’t understand why some “big” theaters get “patted” on the back for producing “ethnic” stories, it’s their one play within their whole year lineup. I feel it marginalizes the whole issue of “diversity”. Do we need to celebrate the “token” ethnic story! I just love it when a theatre can produce a great story with good solid actors (Union or Non-Union) regardless of race and/or gender.

  14. When I was writing the Theatre Ideas blog, I made similar points for years, and received the usual pushback. I came to the same conclusion as you did: create a new model. I’m trying to do so at my new blog, Creative Insubordination ( A rich, centralized theater is a 19th century invention. We need to look to the past to look to the future, and understand what models used to exist that allowed theater to thrive everywhere in this country. Then we need to invent our own version. Great post!

    • Matt Slaybaugh says:

      Scott, I was hoping you’d comment here. If you hadn’t I’d have done it for you. Love the new blog, by the way.

      • I would also note that the criticism I received often took the form of the comments below from Nancy: instead of addressing the central idea, the elephant in the room, critics would choose some detail and argue its accuracy. That derails the real argument, hijacks the discussion, and allows the real issue to be ignored. Melissa is kinder than I was, which is to her credit.

  15. I’ve been grappling with the “regionalist” put-down since an art student in the 1970s As a writer on the arts, I’ve taken the approach that the simplest thing to do here in central NC where there is an abundance of important theatre with little money, is to write about it with the attention and respect it deserves. We have a fine LORT theater that is breaking out of the confining traditions you describe–and the feisty small theaters are helping them do it.
    Re-blogging and sharing.

  16. Nancy says:

    Lucky for you your readers are completely credulous and don’t bother to fact check your bullshit claims – like about Bindlestiff being the only Fillipino-American theater in the nation.

    • Ma-Yi expanded to a general Asian American theatre company in 1998 and is no longer Filipino-specific. Ma-Yi are awesome! If you’re in New York, you should check them out! Anyone who produces the amazing Qui Nguyen is all right in my book. Also check out Qui’s New York company of amazing amazingness, Vampire Cowboys!

      • Nancy says:

        So what are you saying? Ma-Yi doesn’t count because it’s too diverse? Points off for not adhering to rigid ethnic identitarianism as demanded by Social Justice Warriors?

        And don’t you think you are obliged to provide citations for your scurrilous claim that Charles Isherwood is a big old racist?

      • Nancy McClernan, Ma-Yi is an Asian American company, doing a wide array of Asian American work, not solely Filipino work, which is why it isn’t a Filipino-specific company. There are many wonderful Asian American companies all over the country, and they all do Filipino American work from time to time. I have a special place in my heart for Mu Performing Arts in Minneapolis and East West Players in Los Angeles in particular, but there are many excellent ones.

        Bindlestiff is (as far as I, or they, know) the only Filipino-specific theatre in the country. If there’s another one, I’m sure both Bindlestiff and I would be thrilled to meet them!

        You are welcome to form your own opinions about Isherwood. I merely mentioned a facebook discussion of which I was part.

    • gwangung says:

      Actually, I’d also be interested of more Filipino American theaters, for my website, the Asian American Theatre Revue ( (Kultura in Seattle has some readings, but no full length shows and Ma-Yi specifically has said they expanded to an Asian American theatre in 1999).

      • gwangung says:

        Actually, now that I think about it, CIRCA-Pintig in Chicago is immigration/Filipino based, but they’re nowhere near as active as Bindlestiff…..

      • Oh, awesome! I’ll have to tell Bindlestiff about them. How cool! Thanks so much for the heads up!

  17. Luis Alfaro says:

    Great article! Super spot on.

  18. jrzgrl1 says:

    Thank you for an incredible article. I live in Charleston, SC and our theater scene has exploded in the last 5 years. I would put the actors and productions here up against anything that NYC has to offer.

  19. Diane says:

    A wonderful, well-reasoned essay! I live and write in Chicago, and our theatre community is second to none–especially New York’s.

  20. Jordan Dann says:

    Thank you for this incredibly thought provoking piece. You have articulated so much of what I have been feeling for the past several years as a theatre artist living in New York City. I very much hope that your astute articulation of these issues will inspired dialogue that will eventually offer a dismantling to the machine.

  21. Thank you for writing such an intelligent and thought-provoking article.

    I live in Toronto, Canada. This issue has come up again and again (on a different scale), and it’s fascinating to see the parallels. Keep doing the valuable analytical work you’re doing. Your voice is urgent.


  22. Cusa says:

    Just to take a very cold, economic perspective, the point of the 501c3 status would mean that subsidizing theatre is for the good of the taxpayers and should therefore be used in their best interests. I would say that would mean that the amount dedicated towards overall theatre is an inherently scarce resource and that a competitive funding environment would be appropriate.

    I would also suggest that the NYC-centrism is not so evilly concocted but that would be what happens when people interested in certain trades gather where their are both resources and likeminded people (similar to why silicon valley is a hub of tech or Geneva is a hub of international organizations) – there is a higher density of privileged people who are more likely to be theatre goers as well as wealth leading to cultural institutions and foundations that offer funding – and then talented people who want to create theatre would go there. So why wouldn’t there be a strong chance that there is higher quality theatre in NYC then another city with less of those characteristics?

    I’m not suggesting there ISN’T a problem with the fact that this inherently creates less diversity in theatre but I don’t know how you would easily circumvent these forces.

    • Cusa — There are several assumptions I need to address. First, historically NY-Centrism did not occur as some sort of natural migration of “people interested in certain trades” to NYC. This centralization happened as a result of the birth of a monopoly called the Theatrical Syndicate around the turn of the 20th century. The partners in that Syndicate bought up the theatres across the country that were along the major rail lines, and then prohibited any but their own productions from playing there. They then cast their production in their home base of NYC and put the production on the road. In other words, the centralization of theaters in NYC is the result of a monopolistic business move that remains in effect today. Second, why is theater for “privileged people” alone? This assumes that the economics and business models currently employed are eternal and universal, rather than the result of very specific choices endorsed and supported by artists. Historically, theater was for the masses, and could be because of a production model that kept prices low enough to allow all classes in. In other words, you are treating as “natural” what is, in fact, highly artificial and supported by a system that continues to privilege certain places over others.

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