Anyone claiming that there is equity or equality – by gender, by race and ethnicity, by disability – in the American theatre would have to be willfully ignoring the evidence. The Dramatists Guild’s The Count showed that only one in five plays produced in the U.S. is written by a woman. The annual survey of performers on Broadway issued by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition most recently showed that only 22% of Broadway performers in 2014-15 were people of color. The executive summary of a study of leadership in LORT theatres by gender states that at no time have more than 27% of leadership roles been held by women. Define your universe, choose your metric, and it seems quite clear that whites, particularly white men, remain in the majority.
That’s why it proves so maddening to so many when efforts to right the balance meet with opposition. Last week, in Raleigh NC, an effort to advance the cause of female directors in the city’s theatres began to fray just a day after it was announced. The participating theatres had agreed to hire only female directors for open directing slots in their 2017-2018 seasons; this followed on a Women’s Theatre Festival in the area this past summer. As reported by Byron Woods of Indy Week last week, with further updates just before Thanksgiving, a pseudonymous complaint of discrimination about the plan to the signatory companies and the Raleigh Arts Council was sufficient to have one theatre immediately withdraw and for Sarah Powers, executive director of the RAC, to re-emphasize the importance of their non-discrimination granting policy, and to say that the claim would be investigated.
For those who champion equity, as well as diversity, this sort of blowback is frustrating. After all, when statistics prove inequity, why do efforts to rebalance the scales get charged as discriminatory? The fact is, while there is more than enough evidence to demonstrate a tacit pattern of discrimination favoring white men in the theatre, there is no explicit policy. But when there is a concerted, verifiable attempt to favor any subset of the population while excluding others in hiring, anti-discrimination policies and laws kick in, because they were designed to protect everyone from discrimination, not only defined populations.
It’s troubling that in the Raleigh situation, the complainants – there are now two – are pseudonymous, with Indy Week unable to verify their identities. But the press release about the Raleigh initiative on behalf of female directors is verifiable, as are the companies participating.
The situation is corollary to the one experienced by the musical Hamilton earlier this year, when a casting notice sought “non-white” men and women for its multicultural cast. While it is entirely within the purview of the production to choose actors according to the desired characteristics of the roles, the explicitly exclusive language about the actors being sought put the show at risk of violating discrimination statutes, as well as the policies of Actors Equity. It was quickly revised, even as the production made clear that its creative intent was unchanged.
Looking to the future, we are now less than four years away from the intended start of The Jubilee, an initiative begun by, per its organizing principles as stated on Howlround in October 2015, “a self-organized group of theatremakers from around the country,” asking both theatre companies and individuals to sign on to the following:
In order to address equity in the American Theatre and in my community, I pledge to support a diverse, inclusive, and intersectional vision in the 2020-2021 season:
Every theatre in the United States of America will produce only work by women, people of color, Native American artists, LBGTQIA artists, deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.
It’s impossible not to look at the Jubilee plans in light of the Hamilton and Raleigh precedents, and indeed the political and social outlook of the still-forming new federal administration. Similar initiatives could face an uphill legal battle, although The Jubilee may be protected by the fact that playwrights are not defined as employees under prevailing labor law. Public perception is another matter, especially at a time when apparently some white men perceive their primacy as being reinforced as a result of the presidential election.
However, this doesn’t mean that diversity and equity cannot be proactively addressed. In Hollywood, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is more than a year into investigating the gender imbalance among film and television directors, prompted by efforts from the American Civil Liberties Union. If the theatre field doesn’t self-police and initiate real change in the face of overwhelming statistics, it might one day find itself under comparable investigation.
The myriad circumstances, practices and excuses that have maintained the American Theatre as a majority white male domain are unjust and unfair. None of the foregoing is intended to dissuade efforts towards equity, diversity and inclusion, or to suddenly treat white men as a specifically protected and oppressed class. But as various constituencies in the arts work to correct the historic imbalances, they need to remain aware of the legal ramifications of their efforts, and the language in which they define them, even given the significant irony of those seeking to end discrimination potentially running afoul of anti-discrimination laws.