"How do institutions and artists negotiate between sincere attempts at 'bridge-building' and creating productive 'multicultural' explorations without falling into the potential traps of audience pandering or cliché?"
Singularities vs. Multiplicities: Flat vs. Dimensional Diversity
In theater we have been hungry for plays that present and propose a complex human and emotional experience. I believe that in theater we do not go from the simple, but as I saw in a quote we make the complex simple. When theaters look for artistic merit in a piece, they look for multiple themes, complex ideas and characters, and a world that is sustainable within the play. If administrators and artists see something being explained too simply and plainly, we as theater artists and subsequently audiences are not interested in said play.
I believe the same occurs with theater institutions that want to reach out to audiences in a serious way in regards to diversity. The difference between theaters that want to engage as opposed to those that simply want to pander lies in the idea of singularities vs. multiplicities. Just as theaters are looking for plays with complexities and multiple themes, people of color are looking for institutions to have multiple examples and programs that promote diversity at the theater. If audiences only see singular examples of diversity or as I call it the “black friend” syndrome, audiences will become suspect of the theater’s intentions. This is the difference between colorblind casting and color conscious casting. If there appears to be a total disregard for how the play will be read by an audience and the theater adds a person of color into a production, that would be considered pandering in my eyes. However, color conscious casting considers the full scope of the play and production. The difference is where there is a single occurrence of diversity as opposed to multiple iterations of diversity.
What theaters lack when it comes to diversity is finding ideas for multiple iterations and programs for it that do not constitute some sort of “white man’s burden” mentality. The institution cannot assume that it has some responsibility to civilize audiences to become proper theatergoers. Instead the institution must seek and implement best programs and practices for the community and are vital for the field as a response. This can be done in several ways. This most visible way is with an institution is their season. If there are only small singular occurrences of diversity such as doing Anna and the Tropics as the only option that minority actors, directors, and designers have a chance to work, this can be seen as pandering. However, if there are multiple shows with diverse casts and issues this can be seen as a sincere way to engage with a demographic of people through representation. Another instance is through staffing. There must be sincere attempts to recruit people of color for entry and senior staff level staff position. There are several fellowship programs that at least encourage and train people of color to enter arts administration. This at least serves as a platform for encouraging diversity in theater administrations and a way in which people of color may have a voice in the structure, operations, and vision of the theater. If this only occurs as a singularity, there are issues of tokenism that will occur and the staff member speaking for all people of color as their collective representative. The singularity paints a flat picture for the theater, just as a flat character and flat world of a play makes for an uninteresting and cliché play.
Multiplicities are what make the difference between pandering and a sincere attempt to diversify theaters and build bridges with communities. Singular attempts are insulting to people of color and shows the guarded nature of American theater that is supposed to be a herald of liberalism. But singularities expose the curtain of true conservatism that theater can be. Like plays, multiplicities will make theaters much more interesting and complex as they move to diversity and seek younger audiences.