Diversity: It’s More Than Just Black & White (2003)

Friday-May 30th, 2003
Atlanta, Georgia

This roundtable was held at the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia.

Kent Gash, Associate Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre Company and a Board member of NTCP, co-hosted along with Sharon Jensen.  The roundtable was off-the record; therefore, the following report is a summary highlighting the issues, ideas and themes conveyed without attribution to the participants.


Lisa Adler, Co-Artistic Producing Director, Horizon Theatre Company, Atlanta

Mitchell Anderson, actor, Atlanta

Susan Booth, Artistic Director, Alliance Theatre Company, Atlanta

Ben Cameron, Executive Director, Theatre Communications Group, NY

Pearl Cleage, playwright, Atlanta

Lisa Cremins, Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund

Richard Garner, Artistic Director, Georgia Shakespeare Festival

Kent Gash, Associate Artistic Director, Alliance Theatre Company, Atlanta

Mikio Hirata, cast of Pacific Overtures & company member, Theatre of Yugen,

San Francisco

Sharon Jensen, moderator; Executive Dir. Non-Traditional Casting Project, NY

Marshall Jones, President, Non-Traditional Casting Project, NY

Kenny Leon, True Colors Theatre Company, Atlanta

Jason Ma, cast of Pacific Overtures; actor, NY

John Miller-Stephany, Associate Artistic Director, The Guthrie Theater

Adam Moore, Program Manager, Non-Traditional Casting Project, NY

Gene-Gabriel Moore, Artistic Director, Not Merely Players, Atlanta

Anthony Rodriguez, Artistic Director, Aurora Theatre Company, Atlanta

Byron Saunders, Artistic Executive Director, New Jomandi Productions, Atlanta

Kate Warner, Managing Director & Artistic Associate, Theatrical Outfit, Atlanta

Opening Questions:
What is Diversity for each of you?

Where are we?  Where do we need to go?

How do we get there?
How do we achieve a culture and environment that includes everyone, a reality of diversity that is all-inclusive?

Comments, Themes & Issues

  • Racism is still a problem in this country.
  • It takes a long time to change habits/perceptions.
  • There are always audience challenges within artistic challenges.  Theatres have very different missions.  The largest theatres are built with large budgets and subscription audiences.  A theatre’s existing subscription base needs to be nurtured and taken care of while the theatre is attracting and building new audiences.  Theatre is political. One has to see all sides of the issue.
  • Imagine, if you can, how everyone sees the world.
  • There are differences between a white audience experience of an “African American” play and an African American audience experiencing a “white” play: the white audience distance themselves from the empathetic connection whereas the African American audience has had to “speak a white language” for so long, they have learned how to find entryways into the material.
  • Audiences think about the larger world.  The lines of what is white and what is African American have been crossed by the music industry.  There is a disjunct between where we are as artists/human beings and where the audience is — audiences of color have learned to respond/adjust because they had to.  If they were only going to respond to art that shows people that look like them, there wasn’t going to be much to experience.  We don’t know the solutions, but we keep looking for the entryways.
  • Comfort Zone issues: people oftentimes don’t remember that they can change and expand their horizon, or fear that such a change would take too much of an effort.  Especially when a piece is well known, people come with preconceived ideas of how it should be done.
  • To change, institutions need to take bigger risks.
  • It’s important to do plays that address specific events, but also important to do pieces that are not as specific and have all sorts of people on stage.  Theatre is about suspending disbelief and always has the potential to be a universal experience.  Time can lead people to change their expectations about what they’ll see on stage.
  • Audiences, once in the door, will experience the cultural experience you give them. BUT, how do you get them in the door?  Youth programming is so important – get them while they’re young.
  • Shakespeare can be a powerful vehicle for multiethnic and non-traditional approaches.
  • Older generations differ from younger generations in their reaction to the same material.
  • Race, sometimes, is at the heart of the material in the play à so although a mix of actors is wonderful for some kinds of material, sometimes it is inappropriate.
  • White audiences often see black plays as “the other”.
  • We all live with racial issues, which is why we (as theatre artists) need to “hang our hat” on this issue.
  • Since race is something we all deal with in our lives, and the best writers write from what they know, one has to write about race.
  • All stories are racially specific because all writers are racially specific.
  • Many theatre artists who are African American, Asian Pacific American, Latino, e.g., have difficulty finding work outside their own culturally specific heritage, despite being raised as Brady Bunch Americans in a multi-cultural environment.
  • When you’re on stage, you always bring how you look out there with you.
  • Although a play may be culturally/racially specific, based on the writer’s background, it doesn’t necessarily need to be cast that way. It can evolve.  Although, it’s also true that if racism is at the center of the piece, a play may need to be cast in specific ways.
  • Theatre is a realm in which you can mix the classics and new works, as well as traditional and contemporary views on the material itself.
  • In Atlanta, there are fewer actors who are Asian American and Latino.  Is there a way to attract national funds to bring in more actors from the outside? (Normally, the expense of travel and housing to most local theatres would make this prohibitive.)
  • Audiences come to the theatre looking for themselves in the work.  Perhaps they should come just looking for human beings, but most people aren’t there yet.
  • Isn’t all work culturally-specific?  “General/universal” is dangerous if the assumption is that it means “white”, if the point of reference is “white”.
  • Does practicing “non-traditional casting” always have to mean making a statement? Can’t we just tell a story with all sorts of actors?
  • Only one (audience) person at a time receives/perceives what’s on stage.  Suspended disbelief is required for many theatre elements.  Why does the suspension of disbelief stop when it comes to black actors?
  • We need to be careful as to how we solve the problem of the intolerance of difference.  We need to respect the stories people want to tell and how we want to tell them.  When it’s also based on box office, it makes it very hard.
  • As art institutions, we need to help the audience appreciate the work, e.g. marketing ideas, financial notions, etc.
  • The only issue that frightens white people is race.
  • Homosexuality frightens people across race lines.
  • Will people spend their time and money on seeing people that aren’t like them….most would say “no”?

-Which is why cross-fertilizing the audience is so important.

-And audience development – creating a strategy, following up, creating and sustaining meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with communities, such as an auxiliary community events around plays to connect people to the work.

  • There has to be a long-term commitment to the community so they feel a part of the whole theatre. It doesn’t work if the community is only contacted when the theatre wants something or when there’s a play being performed where they will see their specific culture being represented… while marketing to specific groups is good, it is not nearly enough.
  • Theatres must engage in ongoing dialogues with their communities regarding questions of diversity and inclusion — intention, choice of material, choice in casting, etc.  Post show discussions help this.  Also, a lot of information can be included in the program.  There is an acknowledgement that audience members are at very different points with respect to their understanding and expectations which suggests a range of approaches.

At the same time, some people in theatre who have spent a lifetime “explaining,” are tired of having to explain.  Is there ever a point when we can expect that the audience should be further along?

  • If people don’t know about other cultures/races or why it is important to know – they have made a decision not to care.  We drive ourselves to understand all humans.  If some audience members make the choice not to care, we can’t save them.  The group we need to target are the ones that don’t have blinders on.
  • On the other hand, we have to have hope for the fence-sitters and the power of live performance that can change people.  We have to hold onto hope.
  • If the issue were just generational, it would take care of itself.  But it’s more complicated.  An important component is how an audience is trained to hear a story.  As families become increasingly multiracial, people will open up more.  Realism is a filter; we’re trained to want it.  We must also understand how audiences are trained to hear stories outside the theatre.  The challenge is how to help people navigate the territory.
  • It takes time and resources to subsidize the learning curve of the audience…we will make our money back in time if we make a commitment to the long-term.
  • School programs are important.  It develops a younger audience that appreciates plays with all types of actors. Public funds are imperative to continue this type of work.
  • The younger generations, having grown up on the Cosby Show, are closer than many might think to being open to change; race issues for them are not as strong on their radar screen in the sense that they’re not “issues”.  Their power and enthusiasm are very exciting – the question is how to attract them to and invite them into the theatre.
  • We need to find more plays where cultures intersect, e.g. Rent.
  • Maybe we’re looking in the wrong places.  Perhaps “theatre” in the play sense is boring to younger audiences.  We have to be able to reach and “speak” to younger audiences and not be bound by traditional structures.
  • Women well understand that the introduction of a new voice doesn’t dampen one’s own.  A new form doesn’t need to supplant another one.  They can rub together.
  • All that has been said today applies to artists with disabilities as well.
  • There are no tools to go to for help with diversity.  We need to develop tools to think about diversity and ways to share information with one another throughout the field.
  • Regarding case studies, it’s difficult to find people/institutions willing to share experiences that don’t work. It’s the kind of information not easily obtainable on a form.  There needs to be a dialogue to discuss not only the successes but also when things don’t work, when mistakes are made.  Publicly people don’t want to admit they messed up.
  • It could be helpful to connect with each other when we have a problem or issue, via email or otherwise, for help and support.
  • As we go forward toward achieving greater diversity and inclusion a way to delineate these issues are in terms of moving  1.  the work,  2. institutions, and  3. the audience

Parting thoughts:

  • It’s possible to change one person at a time.
  • Communicate with the audience about what to expect.  Some won’t want to see what you’re offering, but if they do come and happen to be on the fence – if the work is good, it’s possible to touch those people.
  • Do we care who’s in the seats?  As a producer, ultimately, yes.  If you care, they may be there longer.  Expectations are there before they get to the theatre.  It’s the theatre’s job to broker the relationship between a given play and the audience.    The playwright’s job, however, is not to be concerned with the audience or its response and instead, to write from the heart.  The producer/director and the writer have very different relationships with the audience.
  • Actors with disabilities are consistently left out – there are few opportunities to be considered or seen and most facilities aren’t accessible so that even training is not available.
  • “I don’t know how to make people change.  I only want to talk to people who already know I’m human.”

·       Actors need to find the best in all of the characters they play.  They have to find the human in everyone.

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