by 99 Seats
All right. L'Affaire Loughlin, as Isaac has so aptly dubbed it, continues apace, with the comment thread approaching 60 comments. Some are thoughtful, some are angry, some are prideful, some are downright obnoxious. Needless to say, there does seem to be fair amount to discuss here. My own anger and frustration has largely subsided and I'm seeing things a bit cooler. I feel like, okay, if we want to engage in an actual discussion here, about actual things, let's do so. Can we? I hope we can.
The essential heart of this conversation is this, The Broadway League's report on Attendance Statistics. We're all working from the same thing: the excerpts from the Executive Summary posted on the Broadway League's site (the full report is available for $25, but so far, no one appears to have purchased it and read it, including myself). The excerpts published list this statistic:
Eighty-three percent of all tickets were purchased by Caucasian theatregoers.
That's all we're ALL going on. There's little to no context to that, no indications of which shows were attended by whom (a season that included two plays by a writer of color, but several shows - The Motherfucker With The Hat, A Free Man of Color, The Scottsboro Boys and Sister Act - with people of color in significant, leading roles). All we know is that 83% of the Broadway tickets were purchased by Caucasian buyers.
Well, we do know a couple of other things, though. 62% were purchased by tourists, NOT NYC natives (though with no information about where they were from), 65% were female, 78% held at least a college degree. These give us a better picture of the Broadway audience. If we're going to say that theatre is meant for the main Broadway audience, that leaves men and the non-college-educated out of it, too. But, because Tom sets aside any of that context, let's set it aside as well. And let's focus on the single assumption that Tom draws from the one statistic:
Given all the demographics we know about theatre in the US and westernized countries today, I think it’s safe to make the following conclusion: Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.
He then provides a little more context and offers a definition for "theatre:"
But then the question came to me – is it so bad to admit that theatre is for white people? White western culture has, for better or worse, risen to a dominant position in this multicultural, heterogeneous society that has evolved in this country, and because of that fact alone it is subject to criticism and the push of upward mobility from cultural forces below (at times rightfully so). But perhaps it’s just worth the few seconds it takes to stop and consider the idea that white people, like any other culture or race, deserve to have a culture and forms of art that they enjoy and that is reflective of their values and history. Theatre, as it has evolved from the Greeks, seems to be one of those cultural art forms that people of white European descent have enjoyed for a long time (and the majority of them enjoyed it until the advent of mass media). And that, in and of itself, is OK. Isn’t it?
This is not to say that other races or ethnic groups do not have theatre or do not enjoy it. But the particular form of the scripted written work as interpreted by actors in a linear story-telling fashion seems to be one that has interested western Caucasians for a long time, and apparently continues to do so for a certain demographic slice of white people as a whole.
Emphasis added. And, once he's given this context to this assumption, he asks these questions:
The thing about having a passion for something like theatre is that you really, really want to share that passion. It is difficult to accept that statistically many people out there simply don’t share your passion for or interest in theatre. They have other things they enjoy doing more. When we talk about audience development, isn’t that what we are trying to do? Get people who are fundamentally uninterested in our passion to share it with us? Statistically that doesn’t seem to be working so well, particularly among the young. Perhaps the time has come to say that theatre is what it is – an art form for older, well-off, educated white people. Nobody else is truly interested in it at the moment, because the numbers do not indicate any support for the art form beyond this small slice of the American demographic profile.
(Again, emphasis added)
So. It largely boils down to, "Since theatre is only enjoyed by older, educated white people, why do we bother trying to get other people interested?" Which is a question we can discuss, in some ways. But we can't discuss it without dealing with some contexts, history, and clarifying some terms.
What most of the reaction has been focused around is the statement that "Theatre is primarily for white people." Even if you want to say that "scripted, written work interpreted by actors in a linear story" is a defnition of "theatre" or even accurately represents what appears on Broadway, the only theatre truly under discussion here, can anyone really make the argument that this holds true? Even if you want to say that Noh theatre or Bunraku puppetry aren't what Tom is talking about, how, besides origin, do they not fit?
In the comments, it's brought a couple of times why we can't call theatre a "white" art form, when rap and hip-hop are "black" art forms. I think that's an imprecise comparison at best, given the history of both most Broadway entertainments and most rap. Actually, I'd say given anything in this country. The main entertainment on Broadway is the musical and that owes quite a lot to both white and black artists and audiences over its history, not to mention Jewish artists and Latino artists and Asian artists. The same can be said for rap. I, for one, have never and do not think of rap or hip-hop as a "black" art form, only created and enjoyed by black people. Its history owes too much to artists of all colors and anyone who knows a single thing about hip-hop would agree. It's equally reductive and incorrect to say the same thing about Broadway.
You can argue that "dialogue" theatre comes out of a European tradition and that's not far off. But, like many things that came from a European tradition, when it hit our shores and our patchwork country, it was filtered through a thousand lenses and experiences and came out different. I simply don't see how, in good conscience, you can say that, as an art form, theatre is only for white people. History and reality would completely refute that. That is why I get angry about this. Because if you take a second and actually think, and not just act on your own biases and prejudices, this would be apparent. It should have been apparent to Tom.
You can have any opinion you want, obviously. If you're of the opinion that theatre is for white people, go right ahead and have that opinion. I won't stop you. No one can. You can write all you want, think it, say it to your friends. It's your opinion. If you want to have that opinion and say that's born out by facts in evidence, and it's not, you can't expect people not to note that. And if you want to have that opinion and not have people say that it's racist, well, that's another matter. It is. It's not stifling conversation to call a spade a spade.
Anyway. To the actual question at hand, which is, why is Broadway so white? Tom does throw a bit of a sucker punch in the mix, in his attempt to prove that the lack of attendance for Broadway has a racial origin, and talks about the "lack" of black theatres, based on two lists he could find. So why is Broadway so white and why are there so few African-American theatres. (I will stop for one second to note that, apparently, other minorities don't rate or count here; theatre is FOR white people, therefore it's NOT for black people, but other minorities...who knows? Tom doesn't seem to care.)
Again, context matters. And the work matters. As I noted above, the 2010-2011 Broadway season, the season under discussion, featured two writers of color, neither of them African-American. It featured two high profile productions of plays that centered around African-Americans, both created by white artists and both carrying some controversy (A Free Man of Color and The Scottsboro Boys) and one play with a prominent role played by a well-known African-American actor (The Motherfucker With The Hat). If I were an African-American ticket buyer (let's just imagine that I am), and I wanted to see something that reflected my life, would I look to Broadway?
Also, let's deal a bit with expectations. In 2010, white Americans represented 63% of the population. African-Americans represented 12%. Should our expectation for what is largely considered a "national" theatre be that far off from the expectations of the populace? We can't really use the NYC stats, because the majority of the Broadway audience is not from NY. What should the goal be? Absolute parity? To be honest, I'm not sure what the answer is there. I'm in the camp that wants greater participation of minorities in the arts, but I'm also trying to be realistic about the ultimate results. What results would convince Tom that minorities are interested in theatre? What did he expect?
In this kind of discussion, it's very easy to rely on anecdote and "observation." "I was here and I saw this." "I run a theatre and I saw this." Without context, without knowing the work and the communities, we start talking past each other pretty quickly. The old saw is true: anecdote is not the same as data. But data also means nothing without context.
As to the "lack" of African-American theatres, there are a number of factors leading to that reality. Oregon Shakespeare's Claudia Alick raises many of them in her comment here. A smaller, poorer donor base, competition from larger institutions that have poached talent, in addition to having longer histories, begun, largely in an age where, in many parts of the country, creating an African-American company would have been difficult, to say the least, programming that's considered "niche" and only of interest to your minority group are just a few. And yes, historic discrimination, under-education and a lack of exposure to the arts also all factor in, when you look beyond simply who goes to theatre and who doesn't. Theatre attendance doesn't happen in a vacuum.
The ultimate question is why. The answer is, for me, and for a lot of people, obvious: because it's important. Because we do love theatre and want it to reach as many people as possible. Because, ultimately, we believe passionately in the power of theatre to change the world for the better, if only more people were exposed to it. Because we do a disservice to our country, to the whole of the human race, by folding our arms and saying, "Well, those people over there, they're just not going to get it and they never will." What's the purpose in that? What's the endgame?
I'll be very, very curious to revisit this conversation next year, when prominent productions by three African-American women have been produced on Broadway (plays that very much fit the definition of "dialogue" theater). If the demographics are the same, well, maybe we do have something to discuss. If they've changed...will Tom change his tune? We shall see...