Monday, December 7, 2009

Diverse Cities

The Arena Stage convened their conference on Diversity in Theatre this weekend and, contra Adam at Mission Paradox, I wasn't there. I was supposed to be, but it fell through at the last minute. Which was quite a bummer and quite disappointing and one of the things that led me to shut down a bit last week. The chance to go to D.C. and mix it up with the big kids for a couple of days was worth exposing my identity and I didn't get to do it. So, yeah, I sulked for a while. But sulking doesn't move the ball forward. So I'm shaking it off, rubbing some dirt on it, and getting back in the game. Like Ronnie Lott.

I just barely Twitter, but the #newplays thing was intriguing. Check it out. Isaac also posted a bunch of quotes at his place. Also worth a look.

I posted some brief thoughts in some comments at Isaac's here. After reading over how the discussion developed, it does seem that there are several axes that need to be looked at. I'm thinking there are three vectors of diversity:

- Artistic diversity: the diversity of artistic projects, styles, subject matters, forms

- Programming diversity: programming works that attract and interest diverse groups and cover a range of cultural voices (separate from artistic styles)

- Institutional diversity: creating and building institutions that are diverse in terms of staff and audience

What I think is rarely talked about in these discussions is the idea of time frames. Can all diversities be achieved in the same time frames? Are some more urgent than others? Do some take longer to develop than others? Are some more important? And at what levels? Using the word "diversity" to cover a number of different aspects of a diverse theatre can elide these questions and also provide an easy out: fitting all of that under the rubric of "diversity" makes "diversity" hard. And hard things rarely get done in an industry that's often underfunded, overworked and behind schedule. There just isn't time. How can we break the big "diversity" into smaller components? Is that an optimal strategy?

The Prof often talks about how one size doesn't fit all and I think diversity is one of those areas. As Ian did in the comment thread at Isaac's, I think the default is to think that every theatre should be representative of the U.S. as a whole. But if we're trying to build connection to our local communities, does that make sense? If a theatre in Lewiston, Maine conforms to fit a standard of diversity that matches the U.S., it won't really look like Lewiston. Same goes for East St. Louis, IL (I mistakenly tagged it as being in MO). This is one of those places where the overwhelmingly urban bias in how our theatres are distributed shows up. Building diversity is a problem when you're a majority-white theatre in a majority-minority town. But then you have to break it down further and ask what communities are being served, as well. It's a slippery slope into a thorn bush.

I don't have any easy answers for this and I think anyone does. But I'm glad we're continuing to ask the questions. Even though I couldn't make it, I applaud the folks at the Arena for the convening. It sounds like it was a really successful event.


Tony Adams said...

Good points.

Diversity in rural Michigan or Iowa might be a completely different than Chicago. But most of the theatres in that group alongside Arena are in urban areas.

I think that's one area that the geographic diversity Scott Walters talks about frequently and cultural diversity that is more prominently discussed as 'diversity' dovetail and headbutt each other.

side note: Lewiston has had a huge influx of Somali immigrants, so it's not quite what the census shows--wife's family is from Maine. And the rapid change is something a lot of people find challenging. Adam Thurman has a great post up today about that end of it.

99 said...

Good point, Tony, on the Lewiston, ME. And geographic diversity, in terms of the greater landscape, is massively important. There's got to be a good place of balance where these diversities meet and overlap, some kind of sweet spot. Smaller institutions would help with that, I think.

Adam said...


Arena is doing a gathering of Black playwrights in January. Since they bumped you from the Dec. gathering you should see if you can get in to what they are doing in Jan.

99 said...

That is very good to know and I definitely will want to get in on that. I better start making calls...and readying my bribes.

Scott Walters said...

Excellent points. Diversity is contextual. Down the road from my university in Asheville is NC A & T, a historically black college. They give diversity scholarships to white people!

Take a look at this article to see whether there REALLY isn't any difference between the urban areas and the rest of the States:

As Tony notes, I'll say it again: one size doesn't fit all, even when we're talking about diversity.

Ian David Moss said...

Right on. I think what might be called the "responsibility of diversity" varies greatly from organization to organization, depending on factors such as geography, constituency, and what the organization is there to do. I see no reason why a traditional Native American performance ensemble, for example, should feel any pressure to incorporate non-Native individuals into its company, so by the same token I'm hard-pressed in a way to see the case for why a symphony orchestra needs to freak out about not having enough black people on its board.* Now, obviously that equivalence ignores a lot of important factors, principally the fact that orchestras and other "white" art forms have traditionally drawn a lot more philanthropic support and benefited from other institutional advantages. But in a way, that's not the orchestra's fault; they're just there to play the music of dead white dudes from France and Germany, and what's really wrong with that? Getting back to the philanthropic support, though, I absolutely do think it's critical for organizations like foundations or national service organizations to reflect the diversity of their constituencies. As organizations in or aspiring to positions of leadership in the arts community, they wield a lot of power relative to individual performing ensembles or companies, and there's a moral imperative for people of all races to have equal and fair access to that power and what it represents.

* Note that this is different from saying that classical music wouldn't be smart to seek greater diversity in its musicians, staff, and board. It would be smart, for a variety of reasons but most dramatically because of the country's changing demographics and the threat of becoming marginalized as a result of them (basically what Adam Thurman talks about in his "Gravity" post). But a smart business move is different than a moral imperative.

99 said...

I definitely agree that encouraging diversity, especially in a country that's becoming more diverse day by day, is good business and a smart move. The question becomes what's the best way to encourage diversity: top down, bottom up or some hybrid? Does simply adding more diverse staff do it? Does changing the community you serve mean changing your staff? It's a thorny problem, particularly for long-standing institutions. As much as it does pain me to say it, I think that Michael Kaiser and Adam at Mission Paradox have a point when they say, "Give it up. The old, big ships aren't going to be able to turn quickly enough. Make new ones."

But, ideally, the marketplace should be big enough to support a number of kinds of arts organizations, serving different communities. Amazingly, this is something other arts-based businesses do well. Just look at the film industry or TV. There, single companies produce different works for different communities. Granted, there still isn't full integration, but there is a fair amount of diversity. And that's being driven by market concerns. Maybe there's something to that.

Ian Thal said...

When we aim for diversity should it be theatre company by theatre company or local scene by local scene?

Yes, it might be desirable for the major institutions to diversify their programming (and you make a valid point that there are at least three axes of diversity.) But chances are, a given city or town's major institutions are only going to present the most accessible and well known work that satisfies their diversity mandate.

So while integrated stages and audiences are desirable, we still probably need to see more smaller companies that specialize in particular repertoires (and hopefully represent a level of quality that movement beyond any theatrical ghettos is a real possibility.) And this may demand coalitions of small theatres whose only common denominator will be that they are all small.

Scott Walters said...

I think Ian asks an excellent question. In my opinion, focusing on individual institutions isn't very helpful -- the city or region might be better. However, if we shift to that focus, we also need to shift the focus on funders as well. Instead of the NEA or Doris Duke giving money to individual institutions, it should be given to a city or region to be divided evenly among the area theatres. Right now, 40% of the NEA money, for instance, goes to state arts agencies, which moves the money to the regions. But then what happens? The state arts agencies give the money to individual institutions, and usually much more to the big institutions. So: focus on a larger artistic eco-system, and then fund the eco-system, not the individual parts.

Ian Thal said...

Scott also makes a good point about collective grants.

I'd argue that having the city apply for the grant might not be so good because the larger institutions are simply going to have too much political power at city hall-- but coalitions of small theatres that might represent a multiplicity of theatrical approaches and might collectively produce dozens of shows on a year might be able to apply for a collective grant.

Still, this will require groups that oft think of themselves as serving a particular community forming coalitions with across community lines-- it might bring people beyond their comfort zones initially, but it might better serve the purpose of integration in the long run.

Scott Walters said...

I agree -- the city wouldn't apply. I think there needs to be a coalition, one that is exclusive, so that if a major institution decides to opt out, then they are not funded individually on the side. What is most important is that the grant money be distributed equally -- that's how the smaller theatres are strengthened.