LOS ANGELES: Sometimes all you need is a push. At least, that’s the thinking behind the 51% Preparedness Plan East West Players artistic director Tim Dang released in January, which calls on Southern California theatres to lead the national charge toward greater diversity in their staff and programming.
“We’re in Southern California; we prepare for earthquakes. Are we preparing for the demographic shift that is going to happen in 2042?” posits Dang. “We should prepare now, for theatre.”
But why 2042? That’s the date, in projections by the Census Bureau, that the minority population in the United States will tip into the majority, outnumbering non-Hispanic whites. So what does that mean for theatre?
The plan calls on theatres to commit to diversity over the next five years, via one of the following criteria:
- 51 percent of your organization’s artists and production personnel (combined) will be people of color; or
- 51 percent of your organization’s artists and production personnel (combined) will be women; or
- 51 percent of your organization’s artists and production personnel (combined) will be under 35 years of age.
The plan aims, in short, to make sure the ethnic, gender and age makeup of a theatre is reflective of the audience that it serves. According to the L.A. Stage Alliance’s 2011 Arts Census Report, 75 percent of theatregoers in the region are Caucasian, while 56 percent are of the Baby Boomer generation. By contrast, ethnic minorities (included mixed-race individuals) make up 76.9 percent of the Los Angeles County population, according to the 2010 Census.
Dang, who runs the oldest Asian-American theatre company in the country, points out that even at an ethnic-specific outfit like East West Players, it’s important to do the work of self-examination.
“We have an Asian-Pacific mission, so we would seem automatically qualified for the plan—we are 83 percent people of color, definitely over 51 percent women, and our average age is 41 years of age in the artistic and technical personnel,” says Dang. “So we fulfill two of the three options. But we don’t have a board-approved diversity plan, which the 51% Plan is asking for. We’ll need to work on that.”
A report in the LA Times cited anti-affirmative action groups who opposed the plan on principle, but as Dang says, “It’s a goal; it’s not a quota. Some people have said, ‘Well, we’re a larger institution; it’s going to be an evolutionary process.’ And I said, ‘Great, at least you’re doing it. You’re looking at what stories are out there. You’re looking at what your community looks like and what your community needs.’ It’s making people think a little bit more.” The silver lining for larger mainstream theatres, he says, is that “sponsorships from corporations have increased at these theatres due to their support of diversity.”
So far, Dang reports that 21 theatres nationwide have signed on, including nearby troupes like A Noise Within, LA Women’s Shakespeare Company, Latino Theater Company, Pasadena Playhouse, Native Voices at the Autry and Playwrights’ Arena, as well as companies in other cities, including Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lark Play Development Center, Ma-Yi Theater Company, Mu Performing Arts and National Black Theatre (a complete list is offered below).
The plan follows in the footsteps of other institutional diversity initiatives. Dang cites Portland Center Stage in Oregon, Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis and, most notably, Oregon Shakespeare Festival as inspiration.
“Our mission cites twin inspirations: the work of Shakespeare and the cultural richness of the United States,” writes OSF artistic director Bill Rauch by e-mail. “We strive to reflect that cultural variety in all of our programming, staffing and audience. I am so grateful for Tim Dang’s and East West Players’ leadership with this bold call for specific measurements of progress. Whatever the results of this initiative, it will no doubt help make a big difference in our national dialogue as a field.”
The main thrust of the plan is to encourage theatres to codify diversity as a value in their institution, and take active steps to promote it. That doesn’t mean theatres with predominantly Caucasian staff need to fire their personnel. But, points out Leslie Ishii, the diversity liaison at EWP, “When there is an opening, [ask yourself], Are we making sure that we’re recruiting very deeply so that our candidate pool is very diverse?” Ishii previously worked with OSF on its diversity plan.
For any theatres looking to follow in the examples of OSF and EWP, Ishii has a number of recommendations, including looking at the present demographics of the organization and whether it’s reflective of the community’s racial makeup, and examining unconscious racial biases.
“It’s not to point a finger, but we all have things that we have a blind spot around or a bias that we haven’t identified,” she explains. “We have to look at the fact that sexism, classicism, all of these isms, are really oppressing everybody. It’s not a liability to make your organization more diverse. You start to open up and realize that talent comes from every walk of life, every strata of our society—it’s empowering and liberating for everybody involved.”
And she also encourages other theatres across the country to look at what’s happening in California as a preview of what’s to come, and to start fostering a younger, more diverse generation of theatremakers and theatregoers now. “It’s a business imperative. In California, we’re already there—we’re majority people of color! We want to give this message: For the life and health of the American theatre, begin the work now. Don’t get caught flat-footed. It will be harder later.”
East West Players will include sample diversity plans on its website to help guide theatres interested in following the 51 % Plan.
A complete list of theatres adopting the plan:
A Noise Within
African Continuum Theatre Company
Artists at Play
Ensemble Studio Theatre
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre
LA Women’s Shakespeare Company
Lark Play Development Center
Latino Theater Company
Ma-Yi Theater Company
The Movement Theatre Company
Mu Performing Arts
National Asian American Theatre Co.
National Black Theatre
Native Voices at the Autry
Pork Filled Productions
Shakespeare by the Sea/Little Fish Theatre
The Theater Offensive
Two Pence Theatre Company
Organizations who’ve endorsed the plan include:
American Indians in Film + Television
Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Los Angeles
Los Angeles LGBT Center
National Hispanic Media Coalition
OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates