The Stage: “It’s Time U.S. Theatre Reflected Its Society”

May 13th, 2012 § 0 comments

Gender and racial diversity in the arts has been a topic of discussion for as long as I can remember. But the ongoing inequities in the American theatre have been simmering for a long time. Intermittent signs of progress – Garry Hynes and Julie Taymor winning Tonys in 1997, dual firsts for women; the rich cycle of plays by August Wilson that brought a black voice to Broadway and stages across the country; the current Broadway season which featured two new plays by black female writers – are received with attention and even acclaim. Yet overall, there is general consensus that these constituencies are profoundly underrepresented.

While dissatisfaction can be directed at the commercial theatre, it is decentralized; each production is its own corporate entity and producers do not consult with all of the other producers. When it comes to new plays, as it happens, a majority of the work seen on Broadway (if not from England) has emerged from not-for-profit companies. Consequently, the publicly-funded resident theatres have become the locus of attention on these issues and, accelerated by social media, the continuing lack of meaningful process may be coming to a head.

The underrepresentation of women and racially-diverse authors on our stages has come into sharp relief recently as a result of the season announcement by The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, one of our oldest and largest companies. In announcing a season of 11 productions thus far, there are no plays by female playwrights (although a Goldoni adaptation is by Constance Congdon), no plays by any writers of color, and only one project with a female director (more accurately, a co-director, with Mark Rylance). In the outcry that ensued, it was noted that almost 10 years ago, while rallying support and funding for The Guthrie’s new home, Dowling had specifically said the new venue would allow for a greater variety of voices; responding to current criticism, he stoked the flames by invoking and decrying “tokenism.”

This prominent example generated press coverage beyond the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, let alone an ongoing rumble of dismay across blogs and Twitter. Perhaps it was Dowling’s defensiveness that made The Guthrie situation so volatile. After all, this past season, Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre mainstage season featured plays only by men (one an African American), and this from a theatre with a female artistic director; I don’t remember comparable outcry. Was this tempered by the season including several female directors? Or has the Guthrie flap made it easier to raise these issues?

Now each new season announcement is being held up to an accounting, not necessarily in its own board room, staff meeting or local press, but by activists seeking to lay bare this congenital issue. In 2012-13? Arizona Theatre Company: Six plays, all by white males. Seattle Rep: Eight plays, two by women, one of them African American. Alley Theatre in Houston: 11 productions, 2 by women (one of them Agatha Christie) and one by an Asian American man. Kansas City Rep: seven shows, six by men and one developed by an ensemble. Obviously I cannot go theatre by theatre, and I think more detailed data will be gathered, but underrepresentation of works by women and writers of color (of any gender) prevails. What of Steppenwolf? Their next five play season includes plays by one woman and one African-American man.

Is it fair to apply what some might call a quota system in assessing the diversity work on American stages? I would have to say, as so many of our resident theatres are on the verge of celebrating their 50th anniversaries in the next few years, that a public declaration of these figures is not only fair, but necessary. Theatres have been asked by foundations, by corporations, by government funders to break down their staffs and boards by gender and race for years, and knowing that they were under scrutiny may have caused many companies to diversify internally more, or more quickly, than they might have otherwise. Actors Equity has conducted surveys of seasonal hiring, broken down for gender and race, for a number of years – another watchful eye. Now the focus must shift to the writers of the work on our stages if progress is to be made.

It is ironic that the civil rights movement in America is perhaps most associated with the 1960s, followed closely by the feminist movement — the very same period that coincidentally also saw the bourgeoning of the American resident theatre movement. How unfortunate that some of the language associated, for good or ill, with the first two efforts (tokenism, quotas) are even relevant in discussion of artistic breadth of the latter half a century later.


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