We’ve Named the Problem. Now what?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last week (in which case, I hope it’s been warm!), if you’re in the theatermaking world, you are likely aware of the fallout from an event Twitter dubbed #thesummit.

For the uninitiated, Brett Steven Abelman posted a nicely balanced summary of the action here, and Elissa Goetschius (she who asked the notorious final question, with many a powerful statistic to back herself up) wrote up her thoughts here. Brett followed up with some more personal observations here.

To say that The Summit opened up a conversation is to say that the ocean is “a bit damp.”
There have been incendiary write-ups, more than a few misquotations (and the usual amount of Twitter and Facebook reductivism), as well as some truly thought-provoking conversations and think pieces written about what this all means for our profession.

To give credit where it is due, I’m truly grateful to Peter Marks and the panelists that we are, indeed, having this conversation. Thanks to The Summit, we’re now talking about the elephant in the room: the lack of equity regarding gender and racial representation in season selection within the regional theater world has now been laid very bare, very publicly.

Our regional theater seasons are too homogeneous. They look too much alike, and they don’t look enough like our communities.

Now that we’ve named the problem, the takeaways are coming fast and furious.

1. People are angry with the status quo. (Rightfully so).

2. Many theaters are trying to do better, but aren’t sure how to begin, or they feel trapped in the cycle of how they’ve always done things. (Easy to dismiss–if you’ve never had to answer to a board of directors before.)

3. There’s a lot being written on how people think theater in America should be, but little practical advice on actionable things theaters can do to get there.

In response to the plethora of “10 Things One Dude Thinks All Theaters Must Do To Blah Blah Blah” lists making the rounds, I want to take a different approach. I want to fight against the usual ennui that comes from feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of changing the status quo.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what’s working. There are theaters out there already fighting this fight–and winning. Let’s look at how they’re doing it.

What tactics have worked at YOUR theater to diversify the voices presented? Or, what tactics have you seen work at a theater you love?

I can start you off with an example from my work. I’m fortunate to direct for a company called New York Madness, which presents themed evenings of 7-minute-or-less plays, written in just one week, performed in rapid-fire succession, fully staged but on-book, so the focus is on the playwright’s unique voice and their take on the week’s theme. Each event’s theme is chosen by a mentor playwright (“Featured Guest”), who also writes a piece alongside 7 or 8 other writers from the New York indie theater community. Artistic Director Cecilia Copeland made a commitment from the start to ensure that NYMadness presents a 50/50 split of men and women writers in their season, and that there’s always a mix of writers from many different backgrounds. Building out from the Featured Guest, Cecilia selects a complimentary and varied slate of writers for each event, ensuring that no one voice is dominant over the evening. Thanks to Cecilia’s careful curation, each Madness becomes a kaleidoscope of reflections of a moment in time, all tied to the Featured Guest’s theme. It’s a hell of a night of theater, and a great example of how the commitment of an Artistic Director can ensure that more voices get heard.

Lest we think all the heavy lifting is being done by the new play community–it’s also possible to strive for parity and inclusion in classically-focused theaters. Oregon Shakespeare Festival codified their efforts in a brilliant manifesto regarding audience diversification, and even better, a list of the actions they have taken to realize their vision.

One significant first step that all theaters can take to diversify the voices on their stages–a step that works for both new works and classical works–is to hire more women directors and more directors of color (of any gender expression), and ask them to pitch you the stories they want to tell. [Kudos to anyone already doing this]. Let directors bring you scripts you never would have thought of; in the case of new plays especially, many directors (myself included) can bring you as-yet unsung voices who just might blow the lid off your season, if you’re brave enough to take the risk.

So, let’s talk. Tell us what you’re doing that is working. Tell us the practical, the nitty-gritty:

If you’re looking for fresh writers, where and for whom are you looking?

If you’re cultivating fresh audiences, how are you getting them in the room?

If you’ve committed to 50/50 representation, what steps have you taken so far to make it happen?

If you know a company whose season is vibrant and diverse: how did they get there?

Let’s copy the ideas that work with wild abandon, and brainstorm how any hurdles can be cleared. If anything, The Summit told us that there’s a great groundswell of energy across our nation to create a new regional theater that looks and sounds more like the world in which we live.

Let’s turn this comments section into a How-To Manual for Reshaping American Theater. Comment here and on Twitter with the #2amt and #TheSummit tags.

Hit me, 2amt: What’s working? What are you trying?

  • February 26, 2014
  • 9