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Diversity and the theater world

2 Robert Levine

Tom Loughlin, who is chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at SUNY Fredonia and has considerable performing experience in professional theater, takes on the diversity issue in his world and comes to some conclusions that could fairly be called politically incorrect:

According to The Broadway League 2010-11 Demographic Report, the Great White Way is whiter than ever. And then some.

…Given all the demographics we know about theatre in the US and westernized countries today, I think it’s safe to make the following conclusion: Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.

When I first saw these statistics, I got those old familiar feelings of guilt and anguish, that it’s a “bad thing” that theatre isn’t shared or enjoyed by large numbers of non-whites. I would like it to be – I would like everyone to like and enjoy theatre. I would like more white people to enjoy theatre (those numbers, although large, represent only a small fraction of the population as a whole, maybe 2% according to the NEA research on arts participation). I would like to see audiences grow, witness theatre houses full with a diverse crowd of theatre-goers. Clearly, it ain’t happening.

But then the question came to me – is it so bad to admit that theatre is for white people? White western culture has, for better or worse, risen to a dominant position in this multicultural, heterogeneous society that has evolved in this country, and because of that fact alone it is subject to criticism and the push of upward mobility from cultural forces below (at times rightfully so). But perhaps it’s just worth the few seconds it takes to stop and  consider the idea that white people, like any other culture or race, deserve to have a culture and forms of art that they enjoy and that is reflective of their values and history. Theatre, as it has evolved from the Greeks, seems to be one of those cultural art forms that people of white European descent have enjoyed for a long time (and the majority of them enjoyed it until the advent of mass media). And that, in and of itself, is OK. Isn’t it?

This is not to say that other races or ethnic groups do not have theatre or do not enjoy it. But the particular form of the scripted written work as interpreted by actors in a linear story-telling fashion seems to be one that has interested western Caucasians for a long time, and apparently continues to do so for a certain demographic slice of white people as a whole.

What’s interesting is that the statistics on which he bases this conclusion show that 83% of Broadway ticket buyers are white. I don’t know the statistics for our business, but I know that’s a lot more diverse audience that the ones I’ve been playing for the last few decades.

I don’t think what we do is “for white people.” But it’s beyond dispute that our audience, both nationally and for most orchestras, is overwhelmingly white. I wonder what a more detailed breakdown would like like in terms of ethnicity, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that showed that large chunks of our audience were descended from immigrants from places where our core repertoire (including opera) was deeply embedded in the popular culture.

It’s not a good thing that our audiences are so monochromatic, especially as our society becomes more and more truly diverse. But I’ve heard no proposed solutions that do more than tinker around the edges of the problem.

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  1. Comment by Jon Silpayamanant
    March 24, 2019 at 8:53 PM

    The Portland Initiative is the most recent (and somewhat contentious) attempt by a city to promote more diversity in its arts scene. I have no idea where that will lead or if the Oregon Symphony is planning on buying into it but I was reminded of Tom Loughlin’s piece when I read about it.

    I’ve actually been exploring the idea that the NEA (2009) report on the SPPA charting the supposed decline of classical music is simply charting how closely tied classical music audiences are to the White population, which is “declining” relative to the population as a whole (though oviously actually increasing in absolute numbers) in the U.S.

    The one organization that has successfully bridged the ethnic divide is probably the Chicago Sinfonietta. A book from 2008 (Entering Cultural Communities) states that fully 55% of its audience are ethnic minorities. The ensemble itself (in 2006) included 21 African Americans, 4 Latinos, 2 Asians, and one Native American. 50 percent of the board is comprised of African Americans (as is the Conductor) and four to five works per year are written by composers of color and performed by guest artists of color.

    How this has translated into audience figures–as well as the racial demographic composition of the audiences, these are some of the other numbers given:

    * Its subscriber base of eleven hundred has been augmented by five thousand to ten thousand single-ticket sales annually, a number that is likely to increase dramatically as the organization expands its repertoire to reach a broader audience
    * Its subscriber base has grown 24 percent from 2004-2006, and the goal is to keep that base growing by 8 to 12 percent every year.
    * Creative collaborations like the one with Chicago-based Rock group in 2005 in original and remixed performances of Dvorak’s new world symphony attracted a significantly younger audience of rock fans or the collaborative performance with Fareed Haque and Zakir Hussein which melded Jazz, Classical Indian Music, and Classical music which brought in a new audience of South Asians, “99 percent [of whom] had never been to a Sinfionetta concert before” (Hirsh interview 2005)

    Executive Director, Jim Hirsh, says their goal has been:

    to stretch how people perceive orchestral [music]: what orchestra music is and [what it] can be, and trying, hopefully, to open some doors so it becomes relevant for a broader range of people…We have one foot in the traditional orchestral world–we did Tchaikovsky’s Fifth [but we had] the first half of the concert with [Chicago’s Mexican folk band] Sones de Mexico and this young, African American cellist, Patrice Jackson, who kind of blew the doors off the place….We just want to explore [new musical combinations]. (Hirsh interview 2005)

    And ironically, given the recent NY Phil incident with the nokia ring tone, the Chicago Sinfonietta commissioned a Concertino for Cell Phone and Orchestra for the 2007 season–which required audience cello phone participation!

    I think they’ve earned their self-description as “The nation’s most diverse symphony orchestra [that] shatters traditional boundaries through its collaborations, creating synergies between classical, dance, theater and other musical styles including jazz, rock, and world music.”

    The problem is, obviously, how far do you go in creating these innovative collaborations before you can no longer consider the organization a classical music ensemble?

    The other route, as I mentioned in my second blog post link is to just stop worrying about attracting a more diverse audience since there are already Traditional Chinese Orchestras, Arabic Orchestras, and art ensembles modeled after many non-European groups that are becoming much more prevalent in the U.S. that will more easily take up the slack. This might be a bit defeatist, but I don’t think we can continue to believe in the universality of European/Western Classical Music institutions as being the only ones that can claim the title of “high art” above and beyond the dozens of art music ensembles and genres that have, in some case, existed for a longer period of time.

  2. Comment by Phillip Ayling
    January 6, 2019 at 10:32 PM

    Robert,
    Much interesting info in the bullet points, though I haven’t read all of nor do I have the 2010-2011 Demographic Report. It also talks about other demos as well. Only 35% of Broadway goers are male. The most dedicated theatregoers seem to attend more plays than musicals.
    Even within that distinction,I can imagine that the demographics of the audience that attends OUR TOWN, or CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, might be different from the audience for LION KING, though the portion of the report I saw doesn’t break that out, if indeed it is broken out more completely.
    When one talks about diverse audiences on Broadway (or lack of same)I am reminded of the 2011 Tony Awards. The host of the show, Neil Patrick Harris, opened the show with a tongue in cheek celebration about all the different kinds of shows currently on Broadway by doing a production number that I believe was called:
    “Broadway: It’s Not Just For Gays Anymore”
    In 2009, West Side Story was revived on Broadway, with significant elements of the show in Spanish. It was decried as gimmicky by some, but others in the audience found it more honest and easier to relate to.
    I don’t know what this all means for classical music, as I am no expert on that or audience building, but I have a couple of observations.
    I live in Los Angeles and while I am not a subscriber to any organizations, I attend a diverse range of orchestra concerts, opera, ballet, musicals, jazz concerts, pop singers and other events.
    Gustavo Dudamel’s arrival at the LA Phil has been widely celebrated. LA is the de facto North American home of El Sistema, yet if you go to the LA Phil website, the amount of information available in Spanish is so small as to be embarrasing; even though there are more people who speak Spanish in LA than in most cities in Latin America. The LA Lakers by contrast,have an entire website in Spanish.
    If you go to a concert at Disney Hall or at the Music Center or the Hollywood Bowl,there will be program books attached to a wide range of performing organizations explaining the evening’s music, the performers and the organization… generally all in English. In LA there are also other significant cultutral/linguistic groups as well who should be courted. If music is a universal language,spending big amounts of money creating websites that are self-limiting in terms of who can read that message is not so good.