"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?"
Make Room, Make Way: Diversity Onstage and Behind-the-Scenes
1. Diversify the decision makers.
How does a theatre bring in diverse* audiences? Do work by diverse artists. How does a theatre consistently find/commit to/produce work by diverse artists? Hire diverse people in leadership positions where they hold the power to make decisions about what plays are developed and produced. This not only applies to artistic and literary staff positions, but also any position that serves as a gatekeeper to the work pursued by the organization: script readers (including interns), board members, prize committees, casting directors, and grant panels.
Theatres that want to create meaningful, long-term relationships with specific demographic communities should have people in positions of real artistic power on staff that share those demographics. Now, I’m not suggesting that people (of all demographic descriptors) are only capable of championing work by people who share those descriptors – that would be ridiculous – but I do believe that our cultural experience, gender, age, heritage and so on is part of what shapes each of our interests, aesthetics, and storytelling vocabularies. And that matters when it comes to choosing the work that is produced on our stages.
*Choose your favorite descriptor to stand in where I’ve used the word diverse, and I think it still holds true: young, black, bilingual, middle-aged, white, middle-eastern, economically disadvantaged, local, etc.
2. Sometimes you have to move over to make room.
I guess this one is primarily directed at my fellow white people (whether they identify as artists or as administrators in institutions) but it can be applied to folks with any kind of privilege – male, straight, US-born, able-bodied, older/established in the field, etc.
Sometimes, it’s possible to add projects or programs to your season that feature artists and themes from a cultural context different than your own without letting go of any other projects or programs. And that’s great. But more often, in a world of limited and often shrinking resources, something’s got to give. And if you really care about “productive multicultural explorations,” they can’t be the last thing added and the first thing cut. Sometimes, the exciting new play by a Latina writer about her family’s South American heritage will have to replace the Arthur Miller revival. Institutions have to make way for this work, not graft it on to an otherwise homogenous season
And sometimes (oh boy, here goes...) the exciting new play by an emerging Latina writer will have to replace the exciting new play by an emerging white writer. No one can argue that being a playwright in this country is a privileged position, but systemic suppression of voices of color, women’s voices, queer people’s voices is real and pervasive. And white/straight/able-bodied/etc. artists who care that the theatrical landscape is populated by a multiplicity of voices and cultural experiences have to be okay with the fact that sometimes their work will have to move over to make room.
3. Never shut up about it.
Talking about race, access, and privilege is uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s downright scary. Sometimes, you might feel like you’re always the one bringing up questions of diversity in hiring or casting or season planning. Sometimes, your friends might tell you you’re over-reacting to the gender politics of the movie you’ve just seen, or the racist undertones of political news coverage. Sometimes you might feel like maybe you should just not write that blog post because it’s safer to be silent than to potentially say the wrong thing. Sometimes, you feel like the world is telling you to just shut up about it. But we can’t. The only way to move the conversation forward is to keep having the conversation. It’s for people to proudly and publicly identify as advocates for themselves and allies for others. It’s for blogs like this one to offer a safe and stimulating space for those of us that care about issues of power and privilege to hash out what we think and why we think it. Even if we don’t have the solutions to these questions right now, we have to keep pressing ourselves to articulate why the conversation matters. We have to speak up, even (and maybe especially) when the world is telling us to shut up.