Is the American theater suffering from the same issues as the Democratic Party?

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Is the American theater suffering from the same issues as the Democratic Party?

That’s the question that swirled through my head constantly several weeks ago at the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) National Conference in Portland Oregon. The conference is the annual convention for professional non-profit theaters in America.

Without even attending the conference, you could tell from the schedule that a key issue was equity, diversity and inclusion in the field. This theme animated and inspired all of the plenary session speakers. It was clear, at least programmatically, that this is what people want to talk about.

It’s also clear that this is a conversation, both at the conference and in the field, that’s been difficult and ongoing. You get the feeling that you’re walking into act three or four of a play that’s been a little bit ugly in earlier scenes or like going to someone else’s home for the holidays a couple of years after they had what they refer to cautiously as “the conversation.” You sense that the language and discourse wasn’t always this welcoming, that the terms and spaces have been agreed to (or perhaps, conceded to) after tension.

This conversation, that once happened outside of the conference “under the trees,” was finally welcomed indoors. Organizers not only learned that “affinity spaces” are necessary, but that it’s also necessary to let everyone know that they shouldn’t be threatened by “affinity spaces.”

However, there’s a problem.

At the same time that the conference was filled with tough conversations and celebrating emerging leaders of color, it was filled with mostly white, mostly older conferees (myself included). At the same time that a tough conversation about institutional racism was taking place in one breakout session, business as usual was taking place in another. At the same time one room debated the politics of color blind casting, in another a consultant proudly presented half-baked data analysis that included a breakdown of one theater’s artistic programming that unashamedly identified the slot for a “black play.”

The right hand and the left hand were not in agreement.

The real issue wasn’t the disconnection between the two conference tracts or the ideas that are filling one room and being ignored in another, but the conversations that weren’t being had.

Here’s where the conversation inside the American theater begins to echo the national political conversation. In politics, you’d talk about  demographics and incumbency. Oddly, these two terms might be just as fitting for the theater.

It’s easy to see how the power of incumbent controls the conversation in politics. It’s easier to control the levers of power if you’ve literally got a seat at the table, especially if that table isn’t going to get any bigger.  Whatever happens in 2018, there won’t be any more seats added to the Senate. There will always be 100 senators so it makes a difference who those people are.

It may seem cynical to think of the American theater in the same terms (and possibly hopelessly shortsighted) but it’s apt. Remember all those older, white conferees? Many of them are the people who hold the seats in the American theater, and like our political incumbents many of them have held these seats for a long, long time. Artistic leaders and managing directors hold on to the positions they’ve worked so hard to attain. So where are all these young leaders of color going to go? What jobs are they going to get as they hopefully climb this ladder? Where are the emerging and mid-career leaders going to find their next gig if the seats at the top of the hierarchy are filled and will likely only be vacated at retirement (which, let’s be honest, will be as late as possible given non-profit salaries in a for profit world).

This is a conversation that was not scheduled for the conference.

Then there is demographics – not only at the conference but where it matters most – in our audiences.

The “ground game” in the American theater is in trouble. Audiences, like the produced playwrights and directors, are predominantly white and, frankly, old. You can embrace diversity and champion equity and inclusion among the ranks and at conferences, but until there’s a sustainable, diverse audience, theater is counting on campaign slogans rather than actually winning elections. Perhaps a leader of color will pick diverse plays, but if the audience isn’t turning out or those plays, change won’t come.

Of course, there is great value in a conversation that used to happen on the periphery happening inside the conference (even if it’s on a separate track), but at the TCG conference it was like watching a play with characters who weren’t having the difficult conversations even though that was the pretense. It felt like I was part of a group articulating the world they wanted to live in without a clear plan of how to get there.

Maybe articulating the dream is enough, but I worry that without a plan that motivates people to show up, theater is in trouble.