Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Transformation and the Future of Theater By Beverly Creasey

Digital marketing pioneer and author Seth Godin offered a provocative approach to the one thousand TCG annual conference attendees in Boston last month. Instead of using up resources to reach new audiences and trying to interest the uninterested in theater, we ought to focus on the people who are already engaged and work from there. Just about everyone who signed up for the Theatre Communications Group annual event called “Model the Movement” was anxious to hear from the successful theaters just how they “modeled” it.
The subtitle “to transform a field into a movement, one new model at a time” shakes out to finding new ways to finance theater, new ways to perform, new ways to run a company, in other words, new ways to think about theater. Boston co-chair Kate Warner best summed up the strength that comes from putting people in the same place to share ideas. “There is something palpable, significant and unique about being in the same room with each other and talking about what’s relevant and important to us and our audiences.”
Wide ranging sessions offered marketing ideas, on line resources, new venue ideas and new programs, like playwright fellowships, a hot button issue among the many writers in attendance. Theaters across the country like the Huntington Theatre Company of Boston and The American Repertory Theatre here in Cambridge are giving access to local playwrights with new play series and apprenticeships. Business cards were exchanged by the pocketful.
Two of the most powerful sessions to my mind centered on inclusion…or as someone in the session sardonically quipped, “You mean exclusion.” In the frank “Open Conversation on Diversity and Inclusion,” the sadness and frustration in the room was clear. “I don’t want to be talking about this,” one man lamented. “I want to be talking about Henry V.”
Yet here it was: a session to articulate the lack of real involvement in managerial decisions, the absence of design and other technical opportunities for people of color, the lack of roles available and the dearth of chances to direct. One panelist called our present day theater “the malignant microcosm of the country as a whole.” Yet all throughout the conference, you heard repeated mention of commitment to diversity.
There seems to be agreement (in the abstract) that theater can only thrive in the years ahead when everyone is represented. So why the reluctance to do so now? One reason, it was suggested, is the distribution of resources. According to the NEA, 2% of the theaters in this country get 55% of the philanthropy. Another is that racism is institutionalized within organizations (for instance with glass ceilings for employees of color)…which brings me to the second meaningful session I attended, called “Allies Eliminating Racism in Theater.”
This session lifted up everyone in the room. Here was a model for change right in front of us. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival came to Boston with a blueprint and handouts. When you think of Oregon and Shakespeare, well, you’re apt to think “white.” The Oregon Theater decided that since their commitment to Shakespeare was because the plays speak to the human condition…then why not to all humans? Executive director Paul Nicholson made one thing absolutely clear. They did it because it was the right thing to do.
So simple a reason that you wonder why this hasn’t occurred to everyone: After all, theater has historically striven for social justice. Think the Greeks, Moliere, Ibsen, Shaw, all those “dead white guys” concerned about moral obligation.
So with the help of L.A. community organizer, Carmen Morgan, the Oregon folks set out to transform their organization, which, they point out, was not easy. Morgan comes from the “real world” where statistics are important. “You have to interrupt the structured system of white privilege,” she said. “You have to know your optics (i.e. stats)” For example, the leading birth rate in the U.S. right now has Asian-American births surpassing the Hispanic birth rate. “The demographic is changing,” she affirmed. “It’s not theoretical. It’s an eventuality.”
Executive director Nicholson added that the first thing you have to do is admit that barriers exist. “Inclusion has to be created,” added Freda Casillas. As the new audience development manager, she has the extremely difficult task of diversifying Oregon’s audience. She’s locked horns, for example, with the business staff over reduced price tickets which she offers to inner city residents, tickets which could be sold for three or four times as much at the box-office.
Casillas stressed the importance of face to face dialogue within the institution. Before they established a space for the old staff to meet and share concerns with the new staff, the tensions went underground. Resistance became subtle and covert. “People go on Facebook because they don’t have a way to [air their concerns where it matters],” Casillas cautioned. But once they included the former staff and gave them a place to be heard, they saw progress. Actors of color were sought out and multicultural staff was hired.
Oregon walked the walk and talked the talk, literally putting their money where their mouth is. You could feel the astonishment in the room when the presenters finished and asked for questions. Hand after hand shot up to express gratitude for the first hope out there in a long time: Hope for people who had given up hope for change in their individual theaters and hope on the grand scale for an enduring theater.
It’s the first ray of hope this reviewer has had in a while, after seeing, of late, example after example of roles designated for people of color (like the Brother role in Songs for a New World or the Asian-American part of Connie in A Chorus Line) inexplicably go to white actors. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised in a climate where a national mortgage lender like Wells Fargo is still discriminating against people of color (This week’s news announced heavy fines for the bank.). Maybe the Oregon Shakespeare Festival people should be running the nation’s banking system!