Tag Archives: audience development

“Diversity” Is A Problem

In theatre and in academia, my two worlds, we talk a lot about “diversity.” In theatre, we talk about diversity in casting, we talk about diversity in programming, we talk about diversity in audiences. In academia, we talk about “attracting and retaining diverse students” and “the diversity of our faculty.” But there’s a massive elephant in the room that we continue to ignore.

Diversity is not enough.

Do not confuse “diversity” with “equity.” I have been in far too many situations where an organization hires a handful of people of color, plunks them into the lowest rung (either by title or by treatment) and then never thinks about them again. I have been in far too many situations where faculty believe they are “working to retain” students of color by designing classes with titles like “Keepin’ It Real: African American Performance,” taught by a fussy middle-aged musical theatre professor, instead of engaging the students directly to discover what support they actually need. I have been in far too many situations where highly skilled and qualified women are hired and then passed over for promotion in favor of mediocre– or even demonstrably unqualified– men. I have been in far too many situations where a white man who is new to the organization is suddenly and dramatically promoted and given plum assignments in secret, announced to the stunned women who were passed over as a fait accompli.

Diversity fails if it’s not combined with equity.

Too many white male-run orgs frame diversity as bending down to lift up women and people of color. Women dominate the indie theatre scene as artistic leaders. They’re already out there, creating art every day. People of color aren’t just creating art– they’ve created most of popular American culture.

It’s telling when you hear people say things like, “Black children in the inner cities have no access to art,” and “We need to find ways to help people of color access theatre.” When we discuss “art” or “theatre” in these contexts, we mean “white art” and “white theatre.” We mean the work white people have deemed “important.” If there’s one thing inner cities have never lacked, it’s art. Most of popular American culture originated with artists of color in inner cities. Hip hop revolutionized music across the globe. Graffiti became a global school of art. Both hip hop and graffiti are already studied and taught in universities globally alongside other important artistic movements like minimalism and abstract expressionism, both of which, I’d like to point out, were originally held in as much disdain as hip hop and graffiti have been. You don’t bend down to grant art to people of color. They’re not starved for art, waiting for a white savior to show up and grant them access. People of color are lapping white culture artistically.

The problem isn’t a lack of access to “art” for women and people of color. The problem is lack of access to funding and well-paid positions of power. The problem is equity.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing important topics like the glass ceiling– how larger theatres across the nation give almost all the positions of power to white men and show no signs of improving over the years we’ve been discussing this. How universities still give the majority of their tenure track positions to men and the majority of their poverty-level adjunct positions to women, despite that Cornell study that measured hypothetical attitudes. The hard data is clear, and those numbers widen when you add race to the mix.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how grantors and individual donors give white-run arts orgs far more funding than they do arts orgs run by people of color. We’re discussing how the study I linked above had the audacity to suggest that lower-funded orgs run by people of color should be left to “wither” and close.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how large, well-funded, white-run theatres are given massive grants to do “community outreach” programs to potential audiences of color when the theatres run by people of color, who are already doing that work, are left to fight for scraps. That’s diversity without equity– funding a wealthy white org’s diversity initiative instead of funding a smaller Black org that’s been doing that work for decades. Funding doesn’t have to be either/or. Where are the grants that fund partnerships or co-productions between those orgs? Or between women-run smaller theatres that attract diverse young audiences and the larger theatres that say they’re desperate for those audiences? I would have brought my theatre company into a larger theatre for a co-production in a heartbeat.

The problem with diversity without equity is that diversity can be accomplished in ways that entirely preserve the white male power structure. We congratulate diversity in programming and we ignore the fact that nearly every LORT AD position in the US from the institution of the 501c3 in 1954 to this very day has gone to a man, almost always a white one. We’re making calls for diversity that amount to asking white men to please hire more women and people of color while we ignore the fact that theatres run by women and people of color are literally starving for funding.

Diversity alone is not enough without actively seeking equity at all levels of our industry. We need to commit to both diversity AND equity.

UPDATE 9/8/16: Please read Jason Tseng’s excellent article about equity in arts funding: “The Kaiser Games.”

Tagged , , , , , , ,

My Book Is Out!


This image is shamelessly heisted from the TCG website. Link below.

And by “my book is out,” I mean Caridad Svich‘s book is out. The ever-brilliant (srsly) Svich has released a collection of essays for TCG entitled Audience (R)Evolution: Dispatches from the Field. In addition to one by yours truly called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement,” it contains essays by Larissa Fasthorse, Richard Montoya, Itamar MosesJules Odendahl-James, Sylvan Oswald, Bill Rauch, Lisa D’Amour, Roberto G. Varea, Callie Kimball, Carlton Turner, and Svich herself, among many others.

Order your copy here!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Please Stop Asking if Shows Are Appropriate for Children


Unless your show is called “Seven BJs for Seven Brothers,” (someone get on that), or unless you’re specifically doing TYA, people will contact your theatre and ask questions like this on the regular:

“I’d like to bring my nine-year-old to see your show. Is it appropriate for kids?”


No one likes this question. This question can strike deep anxiety into the heart of the most stalwart producer. Why?

We have no way of knowing what that means to you. All you’re really asking is, “Will I, a person you’ve never met, be uncomfortable seeing this play with my kid, who already knows much more about the topic than I am ready to confront, plunging me into a parental and emotional crisis, all of which I will blame on you for failing to psychically pinpoint my particular issue?”

I have kids, and my personal boundaries around what was or was not appropriate for them at any given age were just as arbitrary as anyone else’s, so believe me, I’m not faulting you. I just need you to recognize that your boundaries are unknowable to me unless you tell me what they are. People almost never do, and then they get angry if we don’t guess correctly.

Don’t make the hungover 23-year-old intern who answers emails going to ask@LORTtheatre.org guess what your boundaries are.

He doesn't know. Source: http://www.independent.co.uk

He doesn’t know.
Source: http://www.independent.co.uk

Instead, ask us specific questions, like:

“I’m hoping to bring my 10-year-old, but I’m not comfortable with taking her to see a play with:

graphic sex

graphic violence

any violence

onstage drug use

any drug use

adult language

adult language apart from “damn” or “hell”

full nudity

partial nudity and/or underwear

discussions of [something]

depictions of [something]

or any combination of the above,

Do you have anything like that in your play? If so, how graphically/realistically depicted is it?”

Now THAT’S a question I can answer, and it will result in information you can use.


Tagged , , , ,

Handheld Technology Has Not Ruined Today’s Youth Any More Than Dig Dug Ruined You

If there’s one thing that grinds my gears, it’s the disingenuous concern trolling over the rising generation’s “addiction” to technology, and how it has impacted their ability to [fill in the blank] the way WE DID WHEN WE WERE KIDS AS GOD INTENDED !!11!

Because this is a blog about theatre, I’m going to limit myself to speaking specifically to the outrageous idea that technology prevents the rising generation from appreciating art.

This picture is blowing up my various feeds right now:

Photo by Alvaro Garnero

Photo by Gijsbert van der Wal

This is one brief snapshot. We have no idea what these kids were doing just before or just after. Yet there are approximately 17 shitloads of “tsk tsk” and “This is our future” in my feed. Speaking as someone who has personally witnessed hundreds of high school and college kids blown away by art, I implore you to think more deeply about this.

We’re unthinkingly and unfairly using this picture (and the entire concept of handheld tech) to condemn an entire generation. Think for a moment: were kids enthralled to go to museums in the 1950s? Were kids enraptured by Mozart in the 1960s? Were kids stampeding Joan Didion lectures en masse in the 1970s? What pretend past are we mourning here? Sure, there have always been kids who were enthralled by classical art at an early age (and I was one of them), but the vast majority of kids– and adults– are not. Why are we condemning kids for looking at their phones instead of Rembrandt when most of you would be doing the exact same thing? How long have these kids been on this field trip? How tired are they? How many paintings of white men standing around have they been dragged past? And we dare to use this snapshot to condemn not just them, but their entire generation?

And has anyone bothered to note that this painting is hanging in a museum with an app-guided tour?

Elvis Presley was shot from the waist up when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957 to protect teenage girls watching at home from his hip-shaking and its perceived sexuality.

Elvis Presley was shot from the waist up when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957 to protect teenage girls watching at home from his hip-shaking and its perceived sexuality.

We talk a lot about wanting to engage the rising generation in theatre, and I’m seeing a lot of “what can we do about this?” commentary on this picture. Listen: If you want to engage the rising generation, the first thing you need to do is stop lying to yourself about them. You’ll fail to engage them if you don’t approach them with honesty. You can start by dropping the lie that our generation was any better in any way. Kids can smell dishonesty, and self-congratulation masked as concern is about the most dishonest approach you can take.

This is exactly why 99.999% of “audience engagement strategies” fail miserably to bring in young, diverse audiences. This is why “tweet seats” failed. We’re not looking at this generation honestly. Instead we look at studies designed from the outset to confirm our hypotheses. We make assumptions about how the rising generation thinks and feels based on how they make us think and feel. We refuse to engage them on their own terms, instead dictating the terms to them and then blaming them for boorishness when they fail to meet them.

Gorgeous young Franz Liszt, seen here in an 1839 portrait by Henri Lehmann, inspired a  frenzy in his young, usually female, fans, known at the time as

Gorgeous young Franz Liszt, seen here in an 1839 portrait by Henri Lehmann, inspired a frenzy in his young, usually female, fans, known at the time as “Lisztomania.” Women would wear vials containing his discarded coffee dregs and bracelets made of his broken piano strings. He was chased through the streets by young women attempting to grab a lock of his hair. The older generations were horrified and believed it to be a literal psychological disease.

Young people are no different now than they ever were, and the current pearl-clutching over tech is no different than the worry that comic books would ruin childrens’ minds, reading would make young women hysterical, jazz (and then rock and roll) would turn teens into sex-mad beasts, and television would “rot” children’s minds.

“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic’ magazine.” – Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, May 8, 1940

There’s no need to fight a battle we’re creating in our own minds. If we don’t look at the rising generation honestly, but instead seek to confirm our own biases about them, we are only going to speak to them in ways they know are dishonest, and get nowhere. Remember how lame older people sounded to us when we were teenagers, and how little they understood about our lives? That’s how we look to kids today when we post stuff like the museum photo above as proof of their lack of worth and how they are, essentially, a problem for older generations to solve.

The rising generation? They are wonderful. They are more politically active than your generation was at the same age. They are more supportive of equality than previous generations. They are brilliant, creative, funny, bold, and bright. And most importantly: They create and consume TONS of art. Whether or not it’s art you like is entirely irrelevant.

Are they perfect? Of course not. But approaching them as a problem to be solved is not going to create the kind of engagement we want. Give them room to speak. It gets us nowhere to tell them what they should be interested in, and then condemn them for their lack of interest. When Ms. Nelson made you read Keats in the 6th grade, and you hated it; when Ms. Sciambi made you look at all those Goya paintings, and you hated it; when Mr. Rodriguez made you listen to Wagner, and you hated it, what did that say about you? When you went home from school and read your D&D Player’s Handbook, listened to Run DMC, and played Dig Dug, what did that say about you? Right, nothing, apart from the fact that you were a normal kid who liked normal kid things.

Yes, we need to expose kids to the arts. We need much much more arts education than we have now. Art saves lives– I believe that. BUT. I was that nerd kid grooving on Keats, Goya, and Wagner in class, and everyone (apart from my nerd clique) gave me no end of shit about it. So now, while the rising generation behaves exactly as you did, you’re talking about how they need to be saved from themselves?

You were fine. They’ll be fine. Keep making art and inviting them. Keep trying– always keep trying. But appreciate them on their own terms. Do not ignore their art, or dismiss it as worthless. And please keep your judgypants in the closet or I will start publishing those pictures of you all from that middle school museum field trip where you were wearing sunglasses and Hammer pants and refusing to look at the paintings that didn’t have naked ladies in them.

Le Sommeil, Gustave Courbet, 1866. Turning middle schoolers into art lovers for 150 years.

Le Sommeil, Gustave Courbet, 1866. Turning middle schoolers into art lovers for 150 years.

Tagged , ,

The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

TCG is holding a multiyear inquiry about audiences called “Audience (R)evolution.”

The piece I wrote for it is called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement.” It’s a little . . . rabblerousy. Are you surprised?


Check it out, leave a comment, share it on twitfacetagram. I’m thrilled that I was asked to contribute!

UPDATE: Please take a look at Jonathan Mandell’s excellent response to my piece in his blog, New York Theater. He takes me to task for adding to the culture of ageism we have in the theatre industry, and he could not be more right.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Theatre’s “Broken Business Model”: An Open Letter to Dwayne Clarke, CEO

Dear Mr. Clarke:

I read the Stranger article about your play at ACT in Seattle. As a millionaire (billionaire?) CEO, it’s honestly touching that you wrote a play about your life-changing experiences in group therapy. By all accounts, it was a decent first effort. Of course, it wasn’t staged on its own merits– you paid ACT for the privilege, taking on all the financial risks yourself, and filling the house by exhorting your CEO buddies to buy blocks of tickets at twice the ticket price to support the work, then give the tickets to their employees– a very nice touch. You could easily have paid someone to make this into a film. But you chose the theatre, and that’s actually, honestly, kind of sweet. You say you see yourself as a neo-Renaissance patron of the arts, a modern Medici. Either you’ve played a lot of Assassin’s Creed, or you know a little something about history, but either way, on its surface, it’s touching.

What’s less touching is your opinion that theatre is a “broken business model.” You see, Mr. Clarke, there are two basic kinds of theatre. Commercial theatre makes scads of money by staging splashy, fluffy shows, charging a mint for tickets, and selling tons of related merch. Think Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway, or the touring company of Book of Mormon. These would be the people operating on the for-profit business model with which you’re familiar, and they’re doing, for the most part, quite well.

The nonprofit theatre, however, works under the 501c3, meaning the model it works under is expected to make less in ticket sales, and is allowed to make up the difference in grants and donations, tax free. “Why would we do this,” you ask? Because the kind of new, risky work we want to do rarely sells scads of tickets. Sure, every so often you have a hit, but most of the time, risky new work doesn’t pack the house. It’s necessary, however, for the development of the art.

This is usually where patronage comes in. You see, we already have that as part of our model. It’s called “donating.” Millions of people make individual donations each year to nonprofit theatres, ranging from a buck tossed in a hat on the way out the door to a $100,000 major donation that underwrites a show to a multi-million dollar endowment. We could not do what we do without them, because you see, Mr. Clarke, the patronage model is the business model all nonprofit theatres already work under.

The difference between most donors and you, however, is that most donors don’t overtly dictate the plays the theatre they patronize chooses to produce. Donors are making an investment in a theatre they love– it’s a gift to ensure that the theatre can continue to do the work it already does. It’s an act of faith in the theatre and its leaders, and the art they produce. And it’s already an enormous part of our nonprofit business model, by design.

Most new playwrights, and a significant percentage of new plays, come up through the small theatre world– either smaller AEA theatres (what we used to call “midsize theatres”) or indie theatres working without AEA contracts. There are thriving indie scenes all over the country. The playwright who would have been slotted at ACT had you not purchased the slot and put your own play there, would most likely have begun their career toiling in obscurity for years in the indie scene, developing their work, and trying to break into the level you bought your way into.

You see yourself as a modern Medici, but the Medici didn’t make the art themselves. They paid artists to create art. Sure, they paid for art that flattered them, or that they wanted made for other reasons, but the artists they patronized were free to create in their own voices, in their own styles. You would have been a modern Medici if you have commissioned a play about your experiences, underwriting the playwright while s/he was working on it. You would have been a modern Medici if you had made a major donation to the theatre and gotten your name above the title of a hot new play as the producer. You’re not a modern Medici, sir, by displacing a playwright with your donation. It’s wonderful that you made money for the theatre. It’s wonderful that you wrote a play (and engaged a local writer to help you). It’s wonderful that you want to help the theatre. But it’s not wonderful that you co-opted that theatre’s voice as a condition of your patronage.

You see, we already struggle with this issue. Unfortunately, many large theatres have something akin to that in place called “Don’t upset the subscribers,” or a skittish, conservative board of directors, and those theatres’ work has suffered for it. Groundbreaking new work is passed over for something less risky, less groundbreaking, less likely to result in Mr. and Mrs. Cecil Moneybags pulling their annual $10K because never! in our lives! have we been so offended!

And here’s something else you might not know: We’ve long been in a national conversation about how to get more work by women and people of color onto our stages. Because the experiences of wealthy, straight, white men, while just as valid and important as anyone else’s, have dominated western theatre for a very, very, very long time. If you had gone to ACT, said, Give me the top ten plays you’re considering for next season by women and people of color, chosen one, and underwritten it, sold out the house, put your name above the title as producer, and called yourself a “modern Medici”– you would have been a fucking hero. Instead, you made replacing the theatre’s artistic voice with your own a condition of your patronage.

Mr. Clarke, I think you’re probably an awesome person, and that’s not at all sarcastic. Believe me, it’s not lost on me that you chose theatre as your vehicle of choice, nor is it lost on me that you took on the financial risk. I know you treat your employees well, and that goes a long way with me. But we don’t have a “broken business model”– we have a model that already incorporates patronage. You didn’t create anything new, you just used an old model and made creative control a condition of your patronage.

I hope you keep writing plays. I really do. But I hope you don’t continue to buy season slots for your work. I hope you get out to the small theatres in your area and the places you travel (there are so many), to see what the up-and-coming playwrights are doing. Find a playwright or theatre whose work you like. Sponsor the ever-living fuck out of them. Seriously– go drop a 50K donation on a small theatre and you will be a lifelong hero to those people, and, by proxy, us all. Create a grant for playwrights. Underwrite a season slot somewhere where you get to be part of the season selection process, rather than sole dictator of content. Because this is already what we do. Why do we do it, you ask? We love it. Come love it with us. We welcome you with open arms. Just . . . don’t buy any more LORT slots, OK?



UPDATE: (Or should that be PS?):

I’m getting a lot of feedback like this: “It’s important to point out that this was not part of ACT’s Mainstage season, but was part of their ACTLab program; no playwrights were displaced in staging this show.” The ACTLab program is something like a co-production program, allowing smaller companies and self-producing artists to use ACT resources such as space, marketing, and ticketing to which they otherwise would not have access.

I’m not sure that makes a difference here. In ACT’s own words, it’s a “curated partnership program.” ACTLab’s own application states, “Due to the high number of applications received, ACT will only contact those applicants whose proposals are selected as candidates for the ACTLab.” They’re turning so many people away, they don’t have the resources to contact them all. Surely someone– many someones– were turned away while ACT resources were devoted to this project.

My intention with this post was never to fault ACT for their actions. If someone came to me with such a Faustian bargain, would I be able to say no? I don’t know. But I do find it difficult to believe, given the available information, that no playwrights were passed over in favor of this project.

The point here is not to scold another company for taking an offer that would be very, very difficult to refuse in this economy. It’s to discuss Mr. Clarke’s misunderstanding of patronage, and the widespread, completely untrue belief that the nonprofit business model is “broken” because it performs exactly as it was designed– it doesn’t cover its expenses through earned income. What’s “broken” is the amount of support vs the number of companies needing support. But that, imzadi, is a blog post for another day.

Tagged , , ,

The Most Important Thing in Theatre You’re Not Talking About

There’s a massive disconnect between theatre intelligentsia– bloggers like me– and what’s actually happening on the ground.

Theatre writers have been doing an excellent job drawing attention to issues of inclusion and diversity, issues of copyright and contract law and copyright/contract violation, issues of audience demographics, issues of access to arts education, issues of season selection, issues of censorship, especially in schools. Those are crucial, vital, important issues about which we need to continue to write. I have no plans to stop writing about any of those, nor do I expect (or want) anyone else to stop.

But we’re all avoiding the elephant in the room, probably because it’s simple, and boring, and all too painfully obvious.


Nonprofit theatres all over the country are in trouble. While larger theatres are doing better than they were during the recession, a jaw-dropping amount of small, indie theatres and even midsize theatres are in trouble. Small theatres like mine actually did pretty well during the recession. People who wanted to get their theatre on in an economic fashion were packing our houses. But the past few seasons have been rough all over for us.

Sure, when a theatre closes, we can pretend it was mismanagement once or twice, but when it’s over and over and over and over? We have a problem. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with key people in several companies across the country who have all told me that their small theatres are in immediate danger of going under. While not LORTs, these theatres are still important contributers to the national theatre landscape. Small companies create the playwrights, directors, actors, designers, tech, and adminstrators who populate large companies. Their contributions are important. They are the research and development wing of American theatre. And they are in trouble.

It was always difficult to be a theatre company, especially a small one. Most grants for “small companies” require a minimum of $100K annual budget, for example. But now there are fewer grants for the arts, both foundation and corporate, and those that exist are often giving lower amounts. Additionally, almost all grants support specific projects, or specific initiatives (like “audience engagement”), not a company’s general operating costs. The amount of work involved in applying for grants is enormous. Not every small theatre has the resources to meet those enormous demands routinely– grants all ask for different types of documentation and writing, all of which require many hours of work. After devoting many hours of work PER GRANT, most grant applications are declined. Musician Meeranai Shim calculates that the odds of winning a grant are the same as winning at roulette. The conventional wisdom in smaller theatres is that the development person is the first person a company puts on payroll. Everything else, including the artistic director, is negotiable.

While larger companies have the option of laying off staff (and overworking the few who remain), in most small and midsize companies, upper level admin are the last to get paid and the first to take a pay cut when times are tough. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about all those facebook memes that say: “I’m an artist. I don’t work for free.” No, you don’t, because many of us in small theatre admin stopped paying ourselves so we can pay you. I’ve heard it over and over in the past couple of seasons– “I’ve stopped taking a salary.” “I’m taking a 30% pay cut.” “We gave ourselves a 50% pay cut.” “We reduced our admin to just two people, and we both took a 25% pay cut.”

What I’m hearing from small companies all over is that individual donations are down, and the people who give are giving lower amounts. I’m hearing that subscriptions and ticket sales are down. I have to say “what I’m hearing” because the evidence is all anecdotal. Any data you reach for to “prove” me wrong (or right, for that matter) will automatically be inaccurate because small and indie companies are routinely shut out of studies. There are no comprehensive studies of small and/or indie theatre, and no studies of theatre in general that include small or indie companies in any meaningful way. We just have no data about this. So the anecdotal evidence I’m hearing over and over will have to do. Sure, there are small, indie companies who are doing great. And there are small, indie companies who *appear* to be doing great. But the stories I’m hearing– even before I started looking for them– paint a different picture. I have to believe what I hear and see.

Even if you sell out, you can’t make budget with ticket sales in most cases, certainly not if you’re paying all your show personnel a competitive stipend. You can only charge so much for a theatre ticket before people start expecting lavish production values. Commercial theatre, that can’t get grants or donations, charges a scrotillion dollars a ticket and sells tons of merch in order to make a profit. This is why commercial theatre tends to be either fluffy, splashy musicals with impressive tech or small cast plays driven by Hollywood stars. Spectacle sells. People will pay $250 a seat to gawk at Hugh Jackman’s biceps or Daniel Radcliffe’s no-no square. People willl pay $250 a seat to see a gigantic Disney spectacle with amazing tech and 50 people in sparkly costumes dancing in unison onstage. And I’m not criticizing that. I like sparkly things and biceps as much as the next human. But it’s just different than what we do in the world of small theatre. We can’t charge enough for tickets to meet our expenses if we’re going to pay people, rent, and other production costs. People won’t pay $250– or even $50– for small, indie theatre. Not to mention that it’s impossible to predict which shows will sell out and which will tank, so ticket income is just unpredictable. I’ve seen beautiful shows with glowing reviews that the theatre couldn’t sell.

Everyone who doesn’t run a theatre thinks they have the answer. “I did a fringe play that sold out, and it had cats in it, so I know plays about cats sell.” I was literally told this once, and many things like it. The real answer is: we don’t know what will sell. It’s easy to say “sex sells,” but that’s not always the case. Shows with glowing reviews don’t always sell. Shows with naked people don’t always sell. Shakespeare doesn’t always sell. New, exciting plays with diverse casts don’t always sell. New, exciting plays by women with gender-balanced casts don’t always sell. New plays in general are an extremely tough sell to audiences. And while I truly believe moving in more diverse and gender-balanced directions is crucial for the health of the theatre community in the long term and overall, and are goals we should work towards for their own sakes, we need to look at the acute financial problems we’re having as such– small, diverse theatres are in as much trouble as anyone else. We need to keep pushing for diversity WHILE looking at theatre’s financial problems from more comprehensive angles.

You never know what’s going to hit and what’s going to fail to find its audience. Some of the best plays I’ve ever seen were at small and midsize theatres who lost money because the show never found its audience. My guess is that the work was too quirky or unusual or complex to wrap up in a simple description, buzz was low, and audiences stayed away. But I don’t know, and neither do you. No one can accurately predict what will sell and what won’t. And almost no one in the nonprofit world, regardless of strength of sales, is making budget on ticket sales alone unless they’re not paying rent or personnel.

While income lowers, expenses continue to rise.

AEA contracts are non-negotiable for individual companies, and demand higher and higher salaries as a company ages. I’ve spoken with several companies who are going nonunion next season because they can no longer afford AEA salaries, and I know a bunch who have stayed nonunion for years because they can’t afford the contract they’d have to use with their seat count or budget, or because of that contract’s quotas. Rents in many markets continue to rise. Insurance continues to rise. The cost of almost everything continues to rise– lumber, hardware, costumes, props, paint, equipment.

So. Income is down. Expenses are up. And we’re not discussing that in any real way. We’re always complaining about the lack of support for theatre, we talk about how to create “public value,” we invite representatives from granting orgs to our meetings and conventions to try to shake out of them what, exactly, they want from us, and how we can be one of the few lucky recipients of the money they have to give, and make it to the next season. The theatre next door closes and we comfort ourselves by claiming “mismanagement,” either financial or programming, while we know– everyone running a theatre knows– one bad season and that could be us. We’re not having the real, hard discussions we need to be having as a community about this.

We all need to be realistic about the fact that there just is not enough money to go around. Small and midsize theatres in particular are struggling, and are dramatically under-supported in every single way. Everyone talks about how they should be paid more, how there should be more money for their production budget, how paying more for AEA actors is justified. Well, there is no more. Despite the fact that all those are true– we SHOULD be paying more for all our personnel, not just the AEA actors, and we SHOULD be able to give our designers more workable budgets, and we SHOULD be able to pay our admin people even half what they’d get in the professional world, or, in some cases, at ALL. But THERE IS NO MORE MONEY. There is no more money. There is. No. More. Money.

So now what?

We need to support our small and midsize theatres– support them ourselves and create support for them– if we want small and midsize theatres to survive. I’m not even saying “flourish.” Just survive. We’ll talk about “flourish” later.

That small theatre that gave you your first break. That midsize theatre that gave you your first big design gig. The new theatre dedicated to diverse work. These theatres are in jeopardy if we do not put some serious work into supporting them.

I’ve been teased for the amount of support I give other companies on social media. I’ve been called a “cheerleader.” Hell yes, I’m a cheerleader for theatre! For one thing, there’s no competition in theatre. I often say: a person who sees a show at the theatre down the street is MORE likely to see one at mine, not less. For another, this is no time to be precious about our work. Theatres are closing. We need to get our asses in gear.

The first few steps are easy:

Go see a show. Pay for your ticket. If you ask for a comp, be cognizant of what you’re asking for, and offer to come on an off night while making it clear that you’re fine with being told no. Talk about that show on social media. Check in at the theatre. Tell your friends. BRING your friends.

Find a small or midsize theatre near you. I don’t care which one. Go to their website. Make a donation. I don’t care how small. Do it today.

Yes, we all already contribute to the theatre community through our underpaid work as artists (and I include tech and bloggers and everyone in that). But if you want the theatres you love to be there next season, now is the time to do a little bit more. Because it’s not “mismanagement.” It’s the reality of making small nonprofit theatre in this economy.

If your theatre is doing well: Congratulations. Not sarcastic. Totally genuine. Now look to your left and look to your right. Help those guys, because chances are they are not doing as well as you are. Look to your left and look to your right. Those are the people you want to be there for you when YOU reach out for help.

The next step is harder: Rethinking how theatre is made, what a “theatre” is, and how we can reinvent ourselves to face a changing economy. There are more nonprofit theatres than there is money to support them. Period. What do we do about that? Can we do anything about that? Should we? These are the hard questions. These are discussions we need to be having.

Until then: Send your favorite theatre company a few bucks today. Or one you hate; I don’t care. Any small, indie theatre would see your $25 as the best news they’ve had all day. Buy a ticket, see a show, and talk about it on social media. Let’s all pull on the rope together and see how many small companies we can pull out of the ditch. And then let’s sit down together and talk. Maybe together we can solve these problems. Let’s stop putting on our Brave Faces and tell the truth to each other, instead of whispering it in hallways or in “EAT THIS EMAIL” communications. Theatre, that beautiful bitch goddess, is hurting. And we need to figure out what to do about it.

Tagged ,

Why I Don’t Watch the Tonys



Tony winner and all-around excellent human James Iglehart as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Photo by Cilla von Tiedemann.

Before anyone starts calling me out, Yes, I did watch part of the Tonys for the first time this year. My husband and I went to undergrad with James Iglehart, who may actually be the sweetest man in the world (or a strong contender), and we watched his number and his acceptance speech. It was a moment of pure joy, especially when he thanked Celestine Ranney-Howes, one of our lecturers. It’s always wonderful to see someone you know deserves recognition get it, doubly wonderful to see them thank a teacher, and triply wonderful to see a teacher you KNOW is fantastic get thanked. He sent my husband a beautiful note thanking him as well. It was lovely all around.

But I don’t watch the Tonys.

I don’t care about the Tonys and people give me a surprising amount of shit for it.

Broadway is, for the most part, commercial theatre that exists as a business enterprise to return profits to investors, and, as such, is entirely risk-averse. That’s not even remotely controversial– we all know Broadway is big business where some of the biggest players (like Disney) have set up shop. That doesn’t mean Broadway is “bad,” but it does create some specific outcomes. Broadway has massively high production values with incredible technical innovation, but shies away from anything even a little risky. Broadway is the Harlem Globetrotters of theatre– flashy, fun, technically marvelous, an amazing spectacle, an ambassador for the art, but not where the meat of the American Theatre lies. The risk is too high to do any kind of experimentation apart from tech, so the choices must be safe, tried-and-true. When the risk is 10 million dollars (or more), you’re going to choose a revival starring Hollywood celebrities or a splashy, safe musical almost every time because you have a reasonable assurance they’ll sell tickets and merch by the wagonload. You’re going to take on a new show only when it’s already proven to be a smash hit elsewhere. There are currently 45 Broadway productions with tickets on sale. 70% are musicals, and 42% feature a Hollywood star– and I didn’t count Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster. If I had, the count would have gone up to 50%. This is the model for Broadway today. It wasn’t always. But it is now.


While Walter Lee’s exact age isn’t given, his sister, Beneatha, is 20 and a college student. Denzel Washington’s daughters are 27 and 23. For producers, his star status overrides the fact that he is far too old for the character. His characterization is far less important than his ability to sell tickets. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays Walter Lee’s mother, Lena, is just five years older than Denzel Washington.

Broadway is a tiny percentage of the theatre that happens in this country, yet we talk about it as if it’s the most important theatre in the country– or the ONLY theatre in the country. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an article about “theatre” only to find that it’s just about Broadway, ignoring 99% of American theatre. Audience trends that apply to an industry where ticket prices are $200 each are not applicable to, for example, the thousands of indie theatres across the nation charging $20 a ticket, where the supposedly non-existent under-40 audience is thriving, or gospel musicals, where the supposedly non-existent African American audience is thriving. I run one of those indie theatres, and my theatre would have to close its doors were it not for the under-40 audience I’m told repeatedly do not exist.


One of my favorite moments in the entire history of my theatre company. This group of high school students brought spoons to Titus Andronicus, and held them up when the pie came out. I snagged them for this picture after the show.

Whenever I talk about the issue of overvaluing Broadway (and the attendant undervaluing of everything else), I get inundated with OUTRAGE!!11! I think, first and foremost, a lot of people grow up with Broadway as their Big Dream, and, as it’s inextricably tied to their personal dreams and identities, they can’t bear to see it discussed as anything other than the Holy Pinnacle of Theatrical Achievement. But what it really is (let’s be honest) is the Pinnacle of Theatrical Employment, which is a very different thing. It’s truly fantastic that there’s a theatre industry that employs so many people. I’m 100% behind that. But let’s not go off the rails and confuse money with quality. Money imparts a certain kind of quality– the kind that comes with technical achievement and jaw-droppingly gorgeous spectacle– but no amount of money can purchase genius, emotional impact, or transformative experience. They’re not mutually exclusive, but neither are they mutually dependent. Money does not automatically equal quality, nor does it automatically eliminate it. Let’s not go off the rails in the other direction and get pissy about corporate theatre. But money is a completely separate consideration from quality.  To equate the most money with the highest quality and the most importance dosn’t make sense. Although Amy Herzog is one of the most produced playwrights in the country, she’s never been produced on Broadway. The legendary Maria Irene Fornes has never been produced on Broadway. Likewise Lynn Nottage, Ping Chong, Tarell McCraney. Paula Vogel has never been produced on Broadway.


Yes, THAT Paula Vogel.

Another point of outrage I’ve encountered about my opinion that Broadway is not the Mothership of All American Theatre is that many people hold Broadway up as one of the most important ways kids get interested in theatre, creating the theatremakers of the future. I deeply question this. First of all, sure, it gets the kids whose parents can afford to drop $600 on tickets for ONE SHOW for the family. And those kids are going to be the actors whose families can support them for several years after they graduate with their MFAs 67K in debt and can only find work at tiny indie theatres paying just enough to cover transportation– if they’re lucky. We know that far too many theatremakers are drawn from those relatively privileged classes, and more open accessibility for people not from the middle and upper classes is a conversation we’ve just begun as a community. But for now, most of Broadway is a closed ecosystem for the privileged. It’s expensive to get there, it’s expensive to stay there, and it’s expensive to see the shows. Sure, there are ways to game it to make it less expensive, but you have to be really driven to find those, and the people we’re talking about here are the NOT driven– the ones who aren’t theatre families, whose kids are potentially about to be awakened for the first time to the magic of live theatre and the possibility of making that magic central to their lives.


Sarah Ford, Lisa Kass, and me in our college production of Dracula: A Musical Nightmare. I ran around taking pictures in black and white because ART. I can’t remember who I asked to take this one.

Most kids– like me– got into theatre because there were theatre programs at school. There are plenty of kids falling in love with theatre because of a lively theatre program, or a great teacher, or a local youth show that came to their school– many, many more than there are who’ve seen a Broadway show, even on tour. So while I’m not denying Broadway’s ability to excite people, especially kids who are suckers for spectacle, I don’t think it’s anywhere near the primary place this happens. Again: This is one tiny geographical area most people will never step foot in. If you see Broadway as the center of the theatrical universe and the reason you started in theatre: great. I support that. And I could really do without the shock that I do not.


Broadway’s relationship to the rest of the theatre in this country is complicated. We make what they need. We create the playwrights, actors, designers, and techs that they need to survive. They won’t touch a play or an artist unless that play or person has been field tested extensively by the rest of us. They repackage what we make, pump a shitload of money into it, put it in a beautiful dress, and then charge us all a week’s salary to see it. But they take a tiny percentage of us and allow us to make a (often temporary, but still) living at what we do, an elusive dream for most of us. They make it possible for theatremakers to create and play in beautiful, beautiful worlds. They’re theatre ambassadors for a certain segment of the population, and that segment of the population are the same demographic from which donors and subscribers come, and boy do we need those. Their technical innovations are undeniably marvelous. Their corporate backers’ influence that creates so much aggressively inoffensive material and reliance on Hollywood stars is maddening. Their over-reliance on revivals and lack of interest in plays by women and people of color are maddening. Their nonstop repackaging of Hollywood films as slick, bland musicals is maddening. The fact that people go to see these slick, bland musicals and think “this is theatre” is maddening. But everyone connected to that slick, bland musical is EMPLOYED. The tech is spectacular. A sizable percentage of the people in that audience are thinking, “This is theatre AND I LOVE IT.” And the amount of press and public attention these shows get do continue to keep theatre’s existence on the radar. Like any longterm relationship . . . it’s complicated.

The Tonys are an awards show that celebrates the achievements of this one little corner of the world, a tiny percentage of the national theatre community. Most people in the national theatre community have not seen those shows. Most people in the national theatre community are so completely removed from what happens on Broadway that it could fall into the Atlantic and, without any connection to the internet, they wouldn’t find out for months, if ever.

That’s not to say that I begrudge your enjoyment of the Tonys, or of Broadway, or even of a Disney musical. I’m a human. Humans like spectacle. I get it. I actually love Disney. I was married in Disneyland (not even joking). I would happily watch a Disney musical or a star-studded revival of an old chestnut if I didn’t have to blow my entire month’s grocery budget on it. But this insistence that Broadway should be the center of my universe as a theatremaker– of all our universes as theatremakers– is nonsense. This insistence that what happens on Broadway happens to “Theatre”– that Broadway and the American Theatre are equivalent– is now laughably untrue. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS “AMERICAN THEATRE.” We have many theatres, divided by class, with small indie theatres at the bottom and Broadway at the top– divided by one thing and one thing only: Money. I’ve seen great theatre in tiny houses and I’ve seen great theatre in big houses. We need to stop pretending that those with the most money are the ones producing the most important work.

And that’s why I don’t watch the Tonys unless I know someone nominated. A local awards show, not in my market, has nothing to do with me, and to pretend it does, and express shock at my lack of interest, is nuts. I don’t mind that you take an interest. I don’t mind that you care who wins an award at a regional award show not in your region. Live it up! Have your parties! Post your statuses celebrating the awardees you love and vilifying the awardees you hate! Complain away about the show itself! I support you 100% and will make cupcakes for your party. I will help you with your Antoinette Perry cosplay.


I recommend pin curls.

But likewise allow me my opinion that the Tonys are no more important to me and my work than the Jeffs, Oscars, or VMAs. I have a passing curiosity, and it’s always wonderful to see a worthy friend, colleague, or former student recognized, but it’s not directly applicable to my work.

So let’s hug it out, Tony lovers and Broadway worshippers. There’s room for all of us.



Tagged , , , ,

Stop Complaining that Young People Don’t Like Shakespeare

Janette Penley and Will Hand in Lauren Gunderson's Toil and Trouble. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Jeanette Penley and Will Hand in Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Once upon a time, I was ALL ABOUT the new plays. I wrote my dissertation on appropriating and subverting canonical narratives around gender, sexuality, and race in theatre by young artists.  I helped found a theatre, the one I head today, whose initial stated goals were all about new plays for an under-40 audience. New plays by emerging playwrights were going to be my life, and, for the most part, they are. I’m hip deep in the new plays community, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alyssa Bostwick in the PR shot for Impact's 2002 production of Scab, by Sheila Callaghan. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Alyssa Bostwick in the PR shot for Impact’s 2002 production of Scab, by Sheila Callaghan. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Even though we were focused primarily on new plays, early on at Impact we started talking about what an Impact Shakespeare would look like. We all loved Shakespeare and we wanted to be able to convey that to our audience, who we believed felt alienated from his work solely due to how it was framed and staged. Founding Artistic Director Josh Costello was very focused on the story of Prince Hal as being analogous to the stories of many young people– working very hard to live up to the scorn and underestimation of the older generation, but able to throw down when the need arose. We began to develop a script that took a little of Richard 2, a lot of Henry 4 Part 1, and a little of Henry 4 Part 2. I was slotted to direct, and we went forward with our first Impact Shakespeare: Henry IV: The Impact Remix. This was 2002.

Falstaff and the tavern dwellers surround Prince Hal in our production of Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Falstaff and the tavern dwellers surround Prince Hal in our production of Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It was how we always did things back then, and still do now: We did something we thought *we* would want to see. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how people would take it. I have a theory about Shakespeare: Because there were no period costumes or period sets as such in the Renaissance, making Shakespeare’s mise en scene essentially contemporary, and because no matter where or when the plays are set, they’re riddled with contemporary references, the plays are written to be staged in a manner contemporaneous to the audience viewing them, and are at their most effective in that staging. I’m not saying that your 1887 staging of Merchant is crap– I’m saying that a period setting adds an additional roadblock to the audience finding a point of entry into the play, and I believe the plays are at their most effective when as many roadblocks as possible are removed.

Our Hamlet PR shot by Cheshire Isaacs. That's Patrick Alparone, Cole Alexander Smith, and me. That shutter speed was crazy slow, so my back was killing me holding this pose. Cheshire said I bitched more than anyone he's ever shot except Olympia Dukakis. 2005.

Our Hamlet PR shot by Cheshire Isaacs. That’s Patrick Alparone, Cole Alexander Smith, and me. 2005.

Whenever I talk about this, there are always plenty of angry remarks from people who consider themselves “purists” and believe the plays need to be staged in some kind of period. But I maintain that I’m a purist– I’m preserving Shakespeare’s intent. He staged his work with contemporary sets, costumes, props, music, acting style and conventions. I’m doing precisely the same thing. I’d also like to point out that almost none of these “purists” are staging these plays anything like they were originally staged– in Renaissance dress, with Renaissance accents, Renaissance acting styles (as far as we can reconstruct them), all-male casts with ingenues played by underage boys, Renaissance set and props, Renaissance music played live. Such an experience, while historically exciting and thoroughly badass, is prohibitively expensive, not to mention problematic for other reasons– staging lark and nightingale with a young man and an underage boy in drag could get you arrested now.

In my experience, most “purists” are pleased enough when a play is set in any period of the past, as long as it isn’t contemporary. However, a production set in 1887 is no different than one set in 2013 as far as difference from Renaissance norms goes. In fact, in many ways, we’re closer to the earthy Renaissance in taste and customs than the (at least publicly) prudish Victorians. A production of Lear set in 768 BCE makes very little sense within the context of the play’s narrative (for one thing, the play assumes the main characters can read and write), references, and language, even though the play is ostensibly set then, in Britain’s pagan prehistoric past. Lear is set in 8th century BCE Britain in name only, and the culture of 2013 is much closer to the English Renaissance, where the play’s social structure, references, and narratives were originally located, than prehistoric Britain’s is. So unless they’re advocating for a full-on Renaissance reconstruction, “purists” have no leg whatsoever on which to stand when bitching about modern-dress productions. Let’s leave them aside to work on their production of Coriolanus in Napoleonic dress and move on.

Macbeth. Harold Reid, Skyler Cooper, Pete Caslavka, and Casey Jackson. Photo by Kevin Berne. 2003.

Macbeth. Harold Reid, Skyler Cooper, Pete Caslavka, and Casey Jackson. Photo by Kevin Berne. 2003.

Henry IV: The Impact Remix was an enormous success for us, and was a life-changing event for me personally. I had approached this play with respect, love, and admiration, but without reverence. I believed that my main duty was to tell this story in a way my audience would find exciting and emotionally powerful. It was life-changing for me because it was the first time someone said this to me:

“I hated Shakespeare until I saw this play.”

Jonah McClellan in what will eventually be our Troilus and Cressida poster image. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonah McClellan in what will eventually be our Troilus and Cressida poster image. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I’m in the middle of rehearsals for Troilus and Cressida, so, counting that and Henry, I’ve directed 10 plays by Shakespeare at Impact, along with one other classic play (Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford). Every single time we’ve done one of these, at least one person, usually many people, and almost all under 40, say the same thing: “I hated Shakespeare until I saw this play.”

Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Am I just a genius director who wields my personal genius to create once-in-a-lifetime Shakespeare experiences? Hahaha no. Not at all. I’m a solid director, but I’m no standout genius. I don’t have LORTs scrambling to fly me out to lay down some King Lear on them. I don’t have some kind of cult following. I’m just a regular director.

The heart of my point here is that ANYONE can do what I do.

It’s exhausting to listen to person after person after person bemoan how few young people like Shakespeare. They blame it on their lack of culture and general boorishness. They blame it on the language. They blame it on the internet, iphones, and video games. They blame it on hip hop. They lay the blame everywhere but where it lies: In boring, lifeless productions.

All of these off-base theories result in “solutions” that are ultimately, of course, unsuccessful. They result in things like that abomination, No Fear Shakespeare. They result in a massively unpopular Romeo and Juliet with “updated” language that was provided as a “translation” of the Shakespeare by Julian Fellowes. “I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge,” says Fellowes. They result in poorly conceptualized productions that cram popular markers of “youth” such as hip hop or live feed cameras into the production without any regard to the storytelling or any attention paid to the acting style.

But here’s the thing: You don’t need ANY OF THAT to get young people to like your Shakespeare production. A stiff, formal production that doesn’t know what it’s about and privileges poetry over storytelling is not going to be compelling just because you used a hip hop soundtrack or “multimedia” or let people tweet during the show.

I get asked all the time how I get so many young people into our Shakespeares. And again, I want to reiterate that I’m no genius by a longshot, which I think is key to my point that ANYONE can do what I do. The trick is wanting to.

Carlos Martinez and Vince Rodriguez in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Carlos Martinez and Vince Rodriguez in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Here’s what I do. Use it or ignore it as you will, but this is the answer to “How do you get so many young people to see Shakespeare?”

I refuse to allow my actors to put on fake British accents or use RP. If you’re actually British, fine. My point is: use the accent you use everywhere else in your life. I don’t scan in rehearsal unless I absolutely have to, and you’d be amazed at how little that is. Unless your actors have deep experience with scansion, it results in stiff, formal dialogue that becomes rote recitation of poetry and loses all sense of storytelling, especially if you make your actors scan all their lines on the first day. I love codes as much as the next nerd, but it’s just not productive if what you’re trying to produce is relevant, passionate, narrative-based storytelling in a six week rehearsal period.

“Talk like you talk; act like you act” is what I tell my actors. “You’re modern people with access to heightened language. Approach this in the same way you’d approach Sarah Ruhl.” When I edit, I privilege narrative over poetry. I find contemporary analogues for every character and situation and stage to that. Staging and costuming provide context that takes care of the language barrier. I approach the  plays as if they’re living, relevant stories that tell all the secrets of the human heart in glorious, heart-stopping language instead of historical artifacts or holy writ. Most importantly, I approach the plays as if they’re both FOR and ABOUT the people sitting in my audience.

One of my favorite moments as a director. This group of high school students came to see my Titus. They all brought spoons with them and held them up when the pie came out. I collared them after the show for this picture.

One of my favorite moments as a director. This group of high school students came to see my Titus Andronicus. They all brought spoons with them and held them up when the pie came out. I collared them after the show for this picture.

It’s not difficult. In fact, it seems to me to be a lot easier than forcing actors into some kind of separate “SHAKESPEARE” space instead of allowing them to just fucking act like they would in any other play. This is part of the reason why I’m mystified by classes in “Acting Shakespeare.” There’s no such thing, or there shouldn’t be. It’s all just ACTING. There’s no need to get precious about it. Shakespeare’s just about the least precious playwright who ever wrote in English. Are these plays the best things ever written in the English language? YES. Do any of the characters know that? NO. Othello has no idea he’s one of the most important characters ever written. All he knows is that his heart is breaking.

If we’re going to go out of our way to teach “Acting Shakespeare,” then what we should be teaching is how to step away from the idea that it’s any different than any other play that uses heightened language. It should be a detox class more than anything else. You’re discovering the language as you say it; it’s the only way you can express what you need to say, focus on your objectives rather than the poetry or states, make your characters real, complex people. Make sure you know the meaning of every single thing that comes out of your mouth, and why you’re saying it. You know: acting.

Marissa Keltie as Desemona and Skyler Cooper as Othello. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2004.

Marissa Keltie as Desdemona and Skyler Cooper as Othello. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2004.

If you get out of the way, you can give young people the opportunity to love Shakespeare. You have to allow them, though, to love it on their own terms. You’re never going to force someone to love something exactly the same way that you do. Once you hook someone on Shakespeare, it’s a lifelong addiction, and the plays will change for them as they progress through their various life stages. When I first read R&J at 14, I identified strongly with Juliet and was crushing hard on Mercutio– my very first literary crush. Now, as a mother of two teenage sons, the character who resonates the most for me is the nurse, the only person in the entire play who truly loves Juliet for who she is, and therefore the person with the most to lose.

Jon Nagel as Lord Capulet, Bernadette Quattrone as the Nurse, and Luisa Frasconi as Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Jon Nagel as Lord Capulet, Bernadette Quattrone as the Nurse, and Luisa Frasconi as Juliet. Ara Glenn-Johanson in the background as Lady Cap. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

I don’t think I have the one definitive answer to what under-40 audiences will like in their Shakespeare. This modern, story-focused approach has worked really well for us, and I’ve seen stiff, scansion-focused, stand-and-declaim productions fail with younger audiences time after time. That’s really all I’ve got for you. I have no doubt that there are directors out there who are working on genius approaches that will excite younger audiences in ways I’ve only dreamed about, approaches that are neither of the two above. All I can say is what I’ve seen fail, and what has worked for me.

If your taste differs, that’s fine. If you want a very poetry-focused, static Shakespeare set in some distant period, that’s great. But don’t bemoan the fact that younger people aren’t flocking to something made to YOUR TASTE.

Tim Redmond as Oberon and Pete Caslavka as Puck. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2009.

Tim Redmond as Oberon and Pete Caslavka as Puck. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2009.

I want to address one last thing before I head off to the grocery store while the I WILL MURDER YOU WITH MY RIVERSIDE comments roll in (probs not going to approve those, guys). We get a sizable chunk of OVER-40 people in our audiences as well. Modern stagings won’t push your subscribers out the door. Some of my favorite audience members are retirees. We used to have a group from a local retirement community that regularly came to see our shows and loved what we did. I adored them. They all had a deep knowledge of Shakespeare and honored me with the best discussions after the show. Older people are given the shaft as audience members these days. Everyone complains about them and no one seems to value them. I *LOVE* having them in our space. They’re smart, sophisticated viewers who have been seeing shows since before we were born, and have insights and opinions well worth listening to. People who look down on older audience members don’t know what they’re missing. And bear in mind that 75 isn’t what it used to be– that 75-year-old woman in your front row was in her 20s, naked, at Dionysus in 69. So don’t judge.

Marilet Martinez as Mercutio with Miyuki Bierlein as Balthasar underneath. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Marilet Martinez as Mercutio with Miyuki Bierlein as Balthasar underneath. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

But honestly, I don’t think younger people like Shakespeare or hate Shakespeare or are indifferent to Shakespeare in any sizably different proportions than any other demographic. The issue is that we believe that young people SHOULD like Shakespeare, because it’s “good for them,” but we are much more likely to leave older people and their tastes alone. There’s no question that the average American middle-aged man would rather watch football or porn (especially in Utah— high five, Mormons) than Shakespeare. However, we don’t, by and large, bemoan the fact that that football-loving, porn-watching BYU facilities manager doesn’t like Shakespeare in the same way that we bemoan the fact that those football-loving, porn-watching BYU students don’t. For some reason, their disinterest is posited by the culture as dire, while the facilities manager’s disinterest is seen as his due– just his taste.

Dennis Yen as Adam and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2013.

Dennis Yen as Adam and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2013.

I wouldn’t worry about young people not loving Shakespeare. Shakespeare is unstoppable. Those stories and that language contain an irrepressible power and beauty, and there are plenty of young people who will find them, especially if you don’t hide them behind a screen of fake accents and stiff delivery. Let them breathe. They will reward you.

Tagged , , ,

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.


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.

Tagged , , , ,